Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Legacy of the Shoes


"I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty."
Imelda Marcos (The number was officially placed at 2,700.)

History is, or used to be, based on something called objective truth - an implicit belief that what is written down is a fairly accurate account of what actually happened. But it's been said that if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth. This would appear to be the case with Imelda Marcos and her children, Ferdinand Jr. (nicknamed "Bongbong") and Imee. The fact that they have been living, despite attempts to divest them of some of their wealth, in palaces for the last forty-odd years may have had the effect of reinforcing their own delusions. Bongbong was elected a senator and Imelda elected a representative to the Philippine Congress. Imee is now governor of Ilocos Norte.

These uncommonly wealthy but quite mediocre people no longer have any reason to lie. Ferdinand's children could have simply said "I am not my father" and let themselves off the hook. Instead they go on repeating the same scabrous song and dance that Imelda has performed for twenty years - that Ferdinand Marcos left the Philippines a safer, richer, and prouder nation than he found it. What they can't seem to grasp is the simple fact that it doesn't even matter if a man acts like a saint 364 days out of a year if he acts like a demon on the last. Ferdinand Marcos didn't have to be a saint or a demon. He simply needed to be a good president.

Current Philippine president Benigno Aquino III was asked in a recent conference with the foreign press if he would consider granting a request from the Marcos family that he be given a state funeral. Aquino, whose father was assassinated either by direct order of Marcos or by Marcos supporters in 1983, and whose mother beat Marcos in a now-famous "snap election" and subsequent People Power Revolution, replied unequivocally "not on my watch".

That means the Marcos family will have to wait until 2016 when Aquino leaves office and another president, perhaps more sympathetic, may give them a hearing. Or they will have to bury the body of their patriarch, dead since 1989 and lying in a state of perfect preservation in a glass case, in his native province of Ilocos Norte.

Henry Sy, the wealthiest man in the Philippines, had a dream when he opened his first shoe mart in 1948, that one day every Filipino would own a pair of shoes. Sixty-three years and 41 SM Malls later, I can say from experience that Mr. Sy's dream hasn't yet been realized. When I got married in Balibago, Pampanga in 1995, I had to buy my bride's father a pair of shoes so he could attend the wedding.

When the Marcos family was whisked away by the U.S. military in February 1986,* when it looked like the presidential MalacaƱang Palace would be overrun. President Reagan himself offered the Marcoses asylum in the U.S. Witnesses claimed they saw diaper bags filled with gold objects and pallets of freshly printed Philippine Pesos loaded onto the C-141. But most of the money that Marcos stole from the Philippine treasury and in various scams was already safely hidden in overseas banks accounts and in real estate investments. The city of New York seized the Marcos properties. According to one account, Imelda considered buying the Empire State Building, but thought it would be too ostentatious even for her.

When MalacaƱang was finally searched, the stashes of artworks, nick-nacks and doodads that were found there included 2,700 pairs of shoes belonging to Imelda. A month after the Marcoses fled the Philippines, Lance Morrow wrote an essay, "
The Shoes of Imelda Marcos" for Time.

"The parable of Imelda's shoes has something to teach. She could never wear them all. Nor could the Marcos family, one suspects, manage to spend the billions of dollars they plundered from the Philippines. . . . The Marcos plundering seems ultimately a cheerless affair, covert though sometimes ostentatious, avaricious though often prodigal. Christ said, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.' Marcos did not wish to wait. He turned Christianity upside down. He took nourishment from the mouths of the poor and transformed it into his treasure on earth. Such venality is not a matter of either Freud or metaphysics. It is just a brutal habit, the crocodile reflex of a man too long in power. It is a subdivision of the banality of evil."

What makes the image of those 5,400 shoes especially obscene for Filipinos is that owning one pair is a status symbol when so many will either never own them or will never have a life in which shoes would be practical. Instead, the majority of Filipinos wear flip-flops, or "tsinelas" (a word, like so many others in Tagalog, borrowed from the Spanish).

But in a world that rewards excessive greed, that allows a tiny handful of people to own almost everything and that can impoverish everyone else in the world by impetuously trying to increase their wealth, Imelda is perfectly at home. If those shoes could walk, they'd be marching over the bodies of the protesters who are trying to "occupy" Wall Street.


*Ferdinand was carried aboard a C-9 on a stretcher, while his family and their belongings, along with some 49 "supporters" were loaded aboard a C-141.

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