I maintain a blog in which I talk unapologetically about the trips I take, places I visit, restaurants I try, and food I consume. While it has a small following, I keep the blog as a sort of diary – to remember how I’ve spent my time and what I’ve done so far. But the lifestyle reflected in my blog is nowhere near the kind of lifestyle depicted in one particular blog that has been gaining notoriety these past weeks – that of Jeane Napoles.
There are thousands of these kinds of blogs online. Jeane Napoles is not the only one who displays unbridled wealth for all to see. Browse the net for fashion and lifestyle blogs and you get a plethora of young, upper class Filipinos showcasing their LVs, Jimmy Choos, Chanels, and whatever else. But before you lash out and say that Jeane Napoles is different because her parents are implicated in a multi-million dollar scam that involves tax-payer money, let me tell you that I am not writing to defend her, or her parents.
Sociologists and anthropologists go beyond questions of whether an act is right or wrong, or good or bad, or whether someone is guilty or not, by looking at how the entire situation reflects on us as a society. When issues arise, people often fall back on common sense to make judgements on behaviour. It is so easy to think normatively and say that what Jeane did was wrong because her parents, particularly her mom, have illegally acquired large sums of money from tax payers. Jeane therefore, has no right to possess such wealth, much less flaunt it, out of delicadeza. But many politicians are engaged in worse atrocities. In fact, Janet Napoles would not have gotten away with her actions had the congressmen not agreed to the scam. Many of our government folk also boast lavish lifestyles supported by tax-payer money. What makes us focus on Jeane?
Perhaps one way of understanding the situation is through an analysis of deviance and values. More than a violation of norms, deviance involves judgement and condemnation by people. An act is considered deviant if it goes against mainstream Filipino norms. But with a variety of subcultures and contradictory values within the Philippines, how can one tell which actions go against what norms and values? Even violations of laws are pardoned if nobody deems the violation bad – think EDSA revolution and piracy in the Philippines. Deviance therefore, entails some kind of judgement and punishment – whether informally through gossip, ridicule, or humiliation, or formally, through official bodies – to the person seen as deviant.
Jeane Napoles obviously did something many Filipinos considered bad. She breached a norm that cuts across subcultures, and has earned the ire of people sufficient enough to inflict punishment by degrading her, swearing against her family, and making her blog, and thus, her “crime,” go viral. The fact that she had to take down most of her personal sites is a testament to this knowledge of doing something wrong. Taking into account similar lifestyle blogs that go unnoticed and barring her parents’ illegal activities, this person has desecrated a value that many Filipinos, regardless of subculture, hold dear. Perhaps it was the blatant flaunting of wealth in a time when many are suffering. Perhaps it was because her actions indicate values that go against our regard for hard work and humility. Perhaps she is faulted for having been socialized into a different set of standards, as someone who has recently come into money. Perhaps it was because she is new money.
Read the blog of someone who is equally ostentatious of his/her wealth, but who, unlike Jeane, comes from an old rich family, or from a family known to have struggled to acquire what it has today, and reactions will most likely be different. This tells you a bit more about deviance and perceptions. The old rich, regardless of how corrupt they were and may continue to be, are rarely sanctioned for buying extravagant homes, expensive cars, and for living the high life. Their pedigree, or breeding, or what Pierre Bourdieu calls, cultural capital, somehow restrains people from passing too harsh a judgement on them. It is much easier for people in general to speak ill of the nouveau riche, to use the terms ‘palengkera,’ ‘jologs,’ or what have you against them – simply because they have yet to acquire the cultural capital that cushions the old rich from such blows.
Being new rich, however, is often enough to spare one from formal punishment for crimes. It is one thing to be informally sanctioned by the masses; it is another to be formally brought to court and put to jail. Indeed, power, and not merely consensus, defines who and what is deviant. In the Philippines, the system of justice (and practically everything else) is controlled by the elites. If, as some say, we should just leave the parents’ case to the judiciary, will guilt be proven? Will the parents get punished? They may not be as entrenched as the old rich or the traditional politicians – thus the inability to escape accusations – but they are connected.
What can be gleaned as well from the entire scam – how Janet Napoles was able to amass all that pork barrel money – is the relevance of George Ritzer’s theory on the irrationality of rationality. Much of modern life is organized according to rational systems, which include the bureaucracy. Rational systems are created for efficiency and predictability, but the irrationality lies in how open these same systems are to loopholes. For instance, lawmakers in congress are given a certain amount of money to be spent on projects for their constituents. This sum requires an audit, so they need to prove that the amount has been used. What happens then, when both lawmaker and project implementor hired by lawmaker conspire to acquire the money for themselves? The bureaucracy cannot control for such corruption because much of the bureaucracy is run by humans. The bureaucracy thus becomes irrational because it is open to humans who can work the system to their advantage at the expense of the law and of everyone else.
Whether Jeane’s parents will incur the penalty or not is anybody’s guess. This perhaps gives greater impetus to punish the child for presenting a kind of self that is an affront to the values of many. What Jeane has done as well, is to utilize social media as part of what Michel Foucault calls “technologies of the self,” or what you do to yourself to attain a certain state of perfection. Her blog, as well as other forms of online presence, have become spaces for her to transform herself into the girl with the perfect life. And this very medium turned on her precisely because it is a medium accessible to the many who might be incapable of acquiring as much wealth, but who are definitely capable of passing judgement and making these judgements felt.