Saturday, October 24, 2009

After The Floods (Part 1)

Amid the deaths, devastation and human suffering caused by the great floods from the two back-to-back tropical storms that recently hit Metro Manila, its environs and northern Luzon, at least three things stand out.

First, the government’s complete unpreparedness for a major emergency. Second, a real capacity for human goodness, heroism and courage on the part of so many Filipinos. Third, a savage bursting of the political bubble which the propaganda pollsters and political publicists had been trying to hype since Cory Aquino died from colon cancer and thousands joined her funeral cortege.

There was no sign of government anywhere in the first few hours of the floods. But that did not dampen anybody’s will to survive. The radio-tv anchors took over with labored calm as the flood victims fought for their lives, and every good Samaritan did what they could without cursing the rain, the dams or the rubber boats and helicopters that were not there. The tragedy brought out the best in everyone. “Where I’m from, everyone’s a hero,” says one T-shirt that went around after the floods.

The disaster also washed away all the political debris that had clogged the symbolic waterway to Malacanang since Senator Noynoy Aquino boldly jackknifed into it wrapped in the yellow ribbons that had rained around his mother’s casket. Providence has strange ways of undoing men’s follies.

This, however, is only a respite at best. As soon as the rescue and rehabilitation work stabilizes, the pollsters and propagandists will be back at their old game, trying to condition everyone’s mind to create a bandwagon for or against certain presidential and senatorial wannabes.

To its credit, Lakas-Kampi, the administration party, despite its known and inherent liabilities, has chosen its presidential bet on the basis of his qualifications rather than his “survey ratings.” This is as it should be. In mature polities, the party chooses someone who deserves to win, then works hard to make him win. In our case, however, the parties choose someone whom the “survey” says is “winnable” (pardon this terrible usage), even though he may be a non compos mentis or a rake.
The choosing process has been thoroughly debased. Not even our political pundits have been able to avoid this derangement. They have no problem citing unverified and unverifiable “surveys” to say who is “popular” and who is not; they show no interest in finding out whether the survey is real or rigged, or completely fabricated, and whether their supposedly popular rock star is covered in silk or totally naked.

Even in a real survey, the questions could be so framed as to elicit a pre-determined response. The pollsters could be polling “samples” (respondents) who know nothing or next to nothing about the personalities they are asked to rate. We saw this in the surveys that tried to show enormous support for the “reproductive health” bill in Congress, which none of the “samples” had obviously read.

We saw this too when a new military bases agreement was being negotiated with the US. At that time, one survey outfit tried to show overwhelming support for the bases by polling people who did not know before that the bases existed. In the end, the Senate rejected the treaty, despite Cory Aquino’s support for it, and those who who voted against it became instant “heroes.”

In the present political “surveys, only the pollsters know whether the “samples” are real, and whether (assuming real) they know anything about the requirements of the presidency and the real capability and competence of their choices. One problem I have is that I have yet to meet someone who has met anyone who has been interviewed by anybody in connection with an opinion poll in the last 20 years.

What Disraeli, Churchill and somebody else before them had said endures---“there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” In our case, there are lies, damn lies, and opinion surveys. This is not to say we should ban surveys altogether. Like companies before launching a new product, politicians need to test the market before they plunge in. But we should reject all surveys meant for sheer mind-conditioning, to create a bandwagon for or against certain personalities.

What can we do? First, insist on the objectivity and impartiality of the process and those running it. No pollster should at the same time be an opinion writer or broadcaster or an advocate of anything that becomes the subject of their surveys. They should refrain from claiming that the opinion of 1,200 to 2,000 “samples” represents the opinion of the entire country. They should simply say that out of 1,200 or 2,000 respondents, a certain number or percentage expressed preference for A, B, C, D, instead of claiming that, say, 30 percent of 1,200 to 2000 respondents means 30 percent of the entire country.

There are always serious consequences when a political survey is rigged, or suspected of having been rigged to create a bandwagon for or against certain personalities, or worse, to create a template for the cheating that attends every flawed election in the country. For years I have tried to rid myself of such suspicions, but sadly without any success.


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