The Things We Think We Know: Finding the Truth in Manila

The Things We Think We Know: Finding the Truth in Manila

“So, where do you stand. Yes Duterte? No Duterte?”


     “Yes Duterte. Big yes Duterte.”


     Our taxi stops and starts through midday Manila traffic. Five miles can take an hour. The city is huge, but far too small. Traffic moves like a tight hourglass. The metro trains are wall to wall packed with body contact levels in the realm of dance floor, 1 AM. People seem to live wherever they find enough space to lie flat. Naked children tap car windows and hold out their hands. Puddles abound. A shirtless, shoeless adolescent girl stands on her sleeping, pregnant mother’s hip so that she can crawl into a garbage bin.



     “So, that’s a yes on Duterte.”


     Rodrigo Duterte is the current president of the Philippines—internationally famous for encouraging summary executions of criminals and drug dealers and drug users. Stories on him generally feature words like monster and authoritarian. In the West he is—not unfairly—portrayed as crass and slightly unhinged. In the Philippines, he won the presidency by 16 points.


     “Yes. I show you.”    


The cab driver rolls up the sleeve on his left arm and reveals an alarming, barbed-wiry scar ringing his bicep and tricep.


“I am a victim. I am a victim of holdupers. Bad guys. Tried to steal my car. The car is my life, my livelihood.” He rolls down his sleeve and heaves his livelihood forward a few feet.




“I was born and raised in this city. I have three children. I don’t want this for them.” He taps his arm.


“It used to be better, then? When you were younger?”


“No. Never better. Maybe a little worse now, with drugs. But never so much better. I feel, now with Duterte, I feel it is better. It is better. It will be better.”


Knowledge is power. Power is responsibility. Knowledge and responsibility, then, are natural companions. Human beings—who say things and do things and know things in the real world—are responsible for their knowledge. We are responsible for making sure the things we think we know are true. Opinions and convictions, ideas and beliefs are at their most poisonous when they are taken as absolute certainties. A person who cannot or will not change their mind is wasting their humanity.


I was traveling in the Philippines last week, but I live in China. Living in China has fundamentally shaken many of my fundamental convictions. The conversation with the Filipino cabdriver/citizen/father shook me again.


I am a liberal—politically and personally. I like to believe that this term refers to someone with a worldview that skews toward compassion and empathy. I am also a rationalist. These two traits do not always meet each other in the middle. One is an opinion—a feeling. The other isn’t.


People like me in liberal Western countries do this thing when we analyze and talk about the developing world. We use our knowledge irresponsibly. We do it in two major ways: 1). We apply our context—the context of the richest and freest countries in the history of the world—to theirs. 2). We forget how we became the richest and freest countries in the history of the world.


If 10 things are falling, you must decide which two to catch. If three or four things are falling, you have a much easier, happier decision to make.



For starters, if you have roads, if you have healthcare, a reliable education system, if you don’t worry about getting stabbed at your job, if you push a faucet and consumable liquid comes out and you have a choice of whether that liquid is hot, cold, or varying levels of lukewarm, it is only natural that issues like democratic fairness and social justice will be next on the list. However, I can assure you that you would care significantly less about the quality of the education system if you were starving and the forecast called for drought. If you aren’t starving, you are right to care about the education system. And you are also lucky.


And second, we forget what it took for our own nations to industrialize and develop. If the settlers hadn’t wiped out 90% of the Indians and herded the rest onto tiny patches of shitty land, would the interstate highway system and McDonald’s and the Golden Gate Bridge exist today? Maybe—maybe we would have developed together, peacefully—but, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not how it went down. We can’t casually apply developed-country values to developing countries when we have little idea, historically, whether those values work in a developing context.  


“Sweatshops.” A constant source of sympathetic Western armchair rage. Sweatshops would have been a step up for the Africans who developed our economy. They worked pro bono. And sweatshops—hate to say it—are quite possibly the number one reason China is where it is today. Hardcore, low pay factory work sucks. But it’s generally regarded as an improvement to subsistence farming. Disagree? Ask a subsistence farmer. If you can find one in your area.

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Human rights? In 2016, we almost elected our first female president. In 1916, she wouldn’t even have been allowed to vote for herself. Justice? Once upon a time, the queen of France may or may not have recommended that her starving subjects might instead consider dessert. When we compare countries and systems and societies, using dates and times just doesn’t cut it. Sure, it is 2018 in New York and it is 2018 in Kabul and it is 2018 in Beijing. But, those mean wildly different things. We need to look at stages of development. Is it possible to rapidly develop into a comfortable, well-functioning society via a pure democracy with flawless human rights  without a shot being fired? Maybe. But, the American example, for example, is not a viable example.


Are you free if the most tenable option in your neighborhood is to become a drug addict? Are you free if there is no road from your home to the nearest hospital? Are you free if the nearest hospital is a six-day journey? Are you free if you can’t go to work without wondering whether you’ll get through the day unstabbed?


China now has roads and hospitals. Ninety-nine percent of the people can read. It’s safe here. Sure, someday the citizens will hopefully be able to choose who tells them what to do and freely call for their leaders to go fuck themselves. But. Priorities.



Politics are inherently imperfect. Development is a complicated omelet and eggs tend to get cracked. You don’t go from semi-anarchic chaos to wealthy, fair, library-card-having democracy without a little elbow grease. Do I agree that the best way to fight crime is to just kill everyone that may be doing crimes? Fuck no I don’t. It sucks. But, where are the other solutions? Why haven’t they worked? I don’t agree with it, but I can at least sympathize with it after seeing it up close. Until the happy, painless solutions that we’d like to see prove themselves to be legit, I’m trusting the Filipino father of three with a stab wound before I’m trusting the guy next to me at a dinner party in New York. One of them actually knows what he’s talking about.

Past, Future, and Everything In Between: New Year's Deep in the Heart of China

Past, Future, and Everything In Between: New Year's Deep in the Heart of China

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