Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Virtual Power: The Brian Gorrell Saga

Brian Gorrell picture taken by himself

Power is of different forms. The most obvious is the coercive one based on the threat of violence or the use of money to be able to threaten reprisals. However, there are five other forms of power including: (1) the power to reward for complying a.k.a incentive, (2) the power of legitimacy, which enables one to make a request or order, (3) the power of expertise or knowledge that enables one to get something done especially during a crisis situation, (4) "referent" power, which attracts would-be followers to a perceived leader, and lastly, (5) informational power, which is unique and desired information that is held by someone (French and Raven 1959, Raven 1965, Yukl and Falbe 1991).

In countries of high inequality such as the Philippines, the elite control these varied forms of power stemming from early access to material resources such as land and other natural resources and the largesse from holding public office for generations. Today, the elite, organized around family and extended through clans that share the same thinking and culture are in business, in politics, and control the flow of information, the means of communication, and the construction of social and political meaning. This hegemonic power may look impregnable, but as they say social theory must conform to social reality (Balicasan and Hill 2003).

And the reality is that the powerless may not really be powerless at all. They have options, they have agency, meaning they can think, reflect on their situation, and act. Banding together or accessing resources or groups willing to help can provide them with even more latitude to change their situation and gain more independence from the powerful. It is a struggle, maybe even a long and painful one, but the powerless can enter the realm of the possible. A political scientist and ethnographer, James C. Scott wrote a book entitled Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. In the book, he documents the relations between the rich and powerful and the poor and seemingly powerless peasants in a Malaysian town. He notes how the rich continually seek to control and manipulate the poor, including trying to escape from their moral and economic obligations to the latter. It reminds me of the 1991 work of Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, entitled Everyday Politics in the Philippine. Both authors illustrate how the poor resist and struggle for equality with tactics ranging from appeals, negotiation, protest, sabotage, or even violence. Some of these may be open, but often secretive, "furtive, and below the surface" (Yee 1992). It is a two way street, this contesting relationship of rich and poor; it is busy, in flux, and dynamic.

Keep this in mind as you look at what's happening on-line vis-à-vis the Philippines' powerful. Marshalling the millions to demand the ouster of President ERAP Estrada in 2001 was mostly done digitally through text messaging. Last year, a society columnist wrote about her unease flying and interacting with OFWs in the cities she visited. Unfortunately for her, she forgot there are now more than 8 million Filipinos abroad, working hard, earning decently, growing and learning from travel, exposure to other cultures, and ways of doing things. Because of personal growth and more earning power, they are becoming more assertive. And they are online.

Thus, immediately, Filipino bloggers and OFWs worldwide bombarded her and her newspaper with scorching remarks, which led to the newspaper suspending her. Today she is more circumspect in her comments. Unfortunately, again for her, her tacky remarks will exist forever online. The virtual storm that Teri Hatcher's line in Desperate Housewives generated forced ABC officers to apologize and commit to be more sensitive and proactive on Filipino-American issues.

The attempted power grab by Senator Trillanes and General Lim in November 2007 was followed on-line and supported by a website posting information on their political platform. The NBN-ZTE scandal and other charges of corruption by officials and family members of the GMA administration were exposed online and morphed from reporting to commentary and even YouTube videos. Not only are these effective, these forms of “information” are also embarrassing to the personalities involved. Their effectiveness will only and eventually be undermined if opportunistic politicians with no credibility, vested interests, and incompetent civil society folks usurp the movement for accountability.

The latest online spectacle is the Brian Gorrell saga wherein a socialite member of the infamous Gucci Gang of Manila allegedly swindled this Australian of his life savings of $70,000 during and after their stormy love affair. With no recourse to Philippine justice, having been harassed, and receiving death threats, he writes that he needed to fight back. Afterall, he is HIV positive and needs the money for his treatments and to rebuild his life in Australia and Canada. While he initially thought he was powerless, he isn’t. He has informational power- inside information on the goings on of Manila’s, rhetorically and literally, high society. He claims to have and writes about his first hand knowledge of the sex, drugs, alcohol, shenanigans, and dirty secrets of the Gucci Gang and their party mates.

Through strip-tease blogging, he captured the attention and imagination, not only of Filipinos worldwide, but the worldwide online audience as well. His informational power is now possibly becoming referent power and legitimate. His blog has also led to unintended consequences. The blogging format enables anonymous readers to pile in more “dirty” information about those in power. What was in the pre-blogging era a blind item in newspaper columns (neither subject nor news source were identified), are now openly detailed by unidentifiable sources; in essence, virtual and multiple "Deep Throats."

Thus, you can spend hours reading through Gorrell's blog's comments section on a Senator allegedly using taxpayers money for his entourage’s shopping in Europe, society newspaper columnists who actually don’t write their columns, drugged out celebrity endorsers, secret homosexuals and lesbians, despicable treatment of household help, socialites on the verge of bankruptcy, who stole what, sex and drug orgies, and so on.

How this will continue will be hard to tell. Both sides are not passive. The Gucci Gang and those that have something to hide and their names to protect are allegedly mobilizing to either settle with Gorrell or shut him down. It may be quite difficult now that he is out of the country and his ex-lover who is in the center of all this is incommunicado.

Gorrell’s blog, on the other hand, is another venue where middle class Filipinos, OFWs and others disgusted with the crassness of this group and what they represent politically, economically, and socially, can and do show their contempt and anger. They are supporting him even to the point of offering him monetary support.

The conflict is good in my opinion. It shows the best and worst of the Filipino, which is social reality. It shakes up Manila society and may force the producers of meaning- the mass media, celebrity endorsers, businessmen, and even the public to reflect on what they are doing and consuming. Does the Gucci Gang reflect what urban Filipinos are all about (since most of them are product endorsers, event organizers, and society columnists)? How do we want to promote tourism and recreation, including nightlife, in the Philippines? What, paraphrasing Lozada’s term, is the permissible zone of indiscretion that we allow the rich and powerful? What are the obligations of the rich and powerful to individuals and to society?

There is conflict, seething conflict, albeit under the surface, between the classes and sectors of Philippine society. Inequality is significant and the benefits of economic progress are skewed to a minority elite class. This cannot go on forever. These online sagas reflect these conflicts. The powerful should heed the signs of the times.

Lastly, I am a firm believer of the potentialities of the virtual world in addressing corruption in the Philippines. As I've written before, information and communication technologies are very effective and efficient in exposing and shaming the corrupt and pressuring authorities to act. Do note there are allegations of illegal drugs dealing, estafa, fraud, death threats, false accusations, and even corruption. If online communities come together, support and protect one another in this pursuit, then the movement for transparency and accountability becomes even stronger.

The events of the past year bear this out.