I'm not really all that mysterious

corruption and the developing world

There is this punk on the Alibata Yahoo Group that I find myself arguing with whenever I participate in a discussion. Calling himself Malachi, he uses tactics that are reminiscent of the average troll. But for some reason, people never call him out for it.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s all about kasamasama, a trait that I despise which is ascribed to the stereotypical Filipino.

Kasamasama, if interpreted benignly, translates roughly to keeping harmony within a group. The stereotype of a Filipino is that he/she will never disagree with you to your face, and will never bring conflict out in the open. Of course, what this means is that every argument becomes passive-aggressive, hidden behind an infuriating protocol of smiles and kind words.

This behavior is not something that is confined to the colonized realm of the Philippines. It casts its pall upon Filipino Americans as well, and many people who attended college and participated in Filipino cultural groups are probably pretty damn familiar with the bullshit that I’m talking about.

One day, I just got fed up, called Malachi an asshole, and put him on my blacklist. With all the bullshit going on in the world, I didn’t need yet another source of aggravation. And yet I haven’t unsubscribed because sometimes someone actually posts something worthy of intelligent discussion. (Although, I have to say, it’s been a while.)

But the reason I bring Malachi up is because we once got embroiled in this discussion about how developing countries are riddled with corruption, and qualitatively speaking, developed countries aren’t. Or, realistically, they aren’t as corrupt, but it spells the difference between a prosperous, nominally democratic, capitalistic society and a semi-feudal state of oppression.

Now corruption isn’t limited to the Philippines. Look at any developing nation that was once a colony of a European power. You don’t really have to look that far—just 15 miles from where I sit is Mexico, which isn’t exactly known for being free of corruption.

While both Mexico and the Philippines were former colonies of Spain, you could just as well look at former British possessions and former French possessions. And it may look like I’m riding on nations that are run by people-of-color, but from my perspective, the only thing these disparate nations and cultures have are the fact that they were invaded and occupied by white people once upon a time. It can’t be a coincidence that this is the thing that all these countries have in common.

I have nebulous theories about why this would be, even after the imperial power has been driven out, and even after the nation has been taken over by Communists or fundamentalist Muslims.

You figure the folks who managed to survive the imperial invasion were people who either (1) had reasons for laying real low anyway during the invasion—like maybe they were murderers or thieves or slave traffickers or something else unsavory like that, or (2) they kissed the white man’s ass as hard as they could.

You figure anyone who resisted either ended up exiled or killed. (And suddenly I remember that it is Che Guevara’s death anniversary, but that is neither here nor there.)

I remember being dismayed when I realized why a huge number of 1st generation Filipino Americans are politically conservative, and in fact, why many of them backed Marcos’ fascist regime. It’s not just the fact that many Filipinos were able to immigrate because of the US Armed Forces, which tends to foster a conservative mind-set. Rather, we have a lot in common with the Cuban Americans who were decry Castro while they live out their exile in Florida: people left the Philippines in the ‘60’s because it was being destabilized by a lot of grassroots and proletariat forces, and it may have easily gone the way of Cuba or Vietnam if not for the interference of the CIA and their support of Marcos’ power grab. The folks who left the fastest were those who were afraid the Communists were going to win.

This divide is pretty stark whenever I go back to the Philippines. In some ways, Filipinos who were reasonably educated in the Philippines are far more progressive than Filipinos who fled to the U.S. It struck me that even mainstream Filipinos generally refer to the aftermath of the Spanish-American war as the Filipino-American war, something which even to this day, American textbooks call the Philippine Insurrection. Signs that proclaim “End U.S. Imperialism Now!” lined the streets of Manila long before W proved to the world that the U.S. is intent on world domination.

Uncle Sam Eating the World: Try and Stop Us!

Filipinos knew what was up. Meanwhile, my relatives still can’t understand why the Americans got kicked out of Subic Bay.

So basically my point is that the survivors of imperial invasions are either criminals or Quislings, and many times they are both. This goes a long way to explain why developing nations are riddled with corruption.

The other factor is the fact that developing nations are poor. This is not to say that rich developing nations (I think of the oil-replete Middle East) are not corrupt, only that when there’s so little to fight over in the first place, you tend to play a lot dirtier. Oscar Zeta Acosta has a poetic description of this phenomenon in his book <p>Brown Buffalo</p> . White people have always been good at the whole divide-and-conquer thing, and this dirty tactic seem successful in continuing to keep developing nations from prospering.

The flip side of this is the assertion that developed nations are typically far less corrupt than their developing counterparts. I’m not ascribing some magical virtue to people of developed nations. For one thing, a lot of it has to do with prosperity. If it’s relatively easy to make some money without doing anything dirty, then people will make money above the table instead of under it. It’s just the laws of thermodynamics. Why risk going to jail when it’s almost just as easy to just pay your taxes.

I mean, clearly, there is some corruption going on in these nations. I mean, it’s not like the Mafia is a legitimate family-oriented organizatoin entirely dedicated to purely legal pursuits. But I guess it’s the whole rule of law thing. Americans may decry the fact that we’re a litigious society, but the fact that you can make a few million bucks by suing the crap out of a wealthy corporation helps keep even the big and powerful in check. No one is above the law (or at least no one was above the law until W pissed on the Constitution, but that’s another rant entirely.) The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they put in checks and balances, and I’m not entirely sure that their intent wasn’t to have the legislative and executive branches always at loggerheads and making sure that gridlock was the rule of the day.

This is the reason why the Roman Republic and early Empire was able to prosper so much. I remember reading how only trustworthy generals were sent to rule provinces, and this ensured that collected taxes actually came back to Rome instead of lining the pockets of the general and his cronies. Obviously, there’s no way the Senators or the Emperor could ensure that they weren’t getting screwed, but again, when it’s relatively easy to make bank, you might as well do it the right way rather than risk getting executed.

It’s only when the gold started to thin out and they couldn’t pay their mercenaries when the Western Empire started going to hell. (Mercenaries. Hmmm. Looks like America fails to learn yet another lesson from the fall of Rome a millenium and a half ago.)

So yeah, without throwing off the yoke of corruption, your little banana republic ain’t going nowhere. It’s going to take a lot of bloodshed to get your people in line, but sometimes a dictator’s gotta do what a dictator’s gotta do.

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