Democracy’s flaws. Could they be fatal?
A most desperate need for good leadership

Lies have power in age of political fiction

A FrankBruni
Frank Bruni

| The New York Times

DURHAM, USA - Imelda Marcos’s sandals lived better than I did. I just discovered that.

I was reacquainting myself with that whole sordid history — with the unfathomable extravagance that she and her dictator husband, Ferdinand, indulged in before they were run out of the Philippines in 1986 — and found an article on Medium that said that her hundreds upon hundreds of shoes occupied a closet of 1,500 square feet.

That’s larger than the Manhattan apartment that I called home until last July. I should have been an espadrille, a simple but stylish shoe made of jute.

Imelda personified greed. Ferdinand, who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades, epitomised authoritarianism and kleptocracy.

The couple pilfered an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion(K17-35 billion) from the country.

And now their son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, better known as Bongbong, is poised to become its next president. In the Philippines election on Monday he won in a landslide.

He and his supporters made that happen not by renouncing his parents’ legacy. They instead embraced it.

Or, rather, they reimagined the Marcos reign as some misunderstood and underappreciated Golden Age. They used social media to disseminate and amplify that gaudy lie. And the strategy worked.

To the most shameless fabulists go the spoils. It’s Vladimir Putin’s credo. Donald Trump’s too.

Mendacity is as old as time. Propaganda is as old as language. But things feel different — more dangerous — now.

The mendacity has a faster metabolism. The propaganda has more outlets, with fewer filters.

And for all our inventions, all our advancements, we humans seem more partial than ever to convenient fantasy over thorny truth.

That wasn’t the only dynamic at play in the Philippines. Bongbong Marcos fashioned himself — and was perceived by many — as a pragmatist focused on quality-of-life issues. He talked about jobs, infrastructure, prosperity.

But the apple nonetheless had to flatter and redeem the tree, so some selective storytelling was in order.

One of his campaign slogans, ‘Together we will rise again’, suggested that a return to the Philippines’ past was in order.

In the Philippines, a Flourishing Ecosystem for Political Lies’, read the headline over an article in The New York Times just before the election that explained the forces propelling Marcos toward victory.

According to the article, Bongbong’s supporters spread YouTube videos that lied about where his family’s wealth had come from and they “flooded Facebook with false news about his opponents”,.

The Philippines is hardly some outlier.

Putin’s successful (so far) plan for maintaining adequate domestic support for the invasion of Ukraine is the relentless peddling of a spectacularly false narrative in which godless Western nations and Ukrainian Nazis plot to smother Mother Russia.

And the same day the Philippines election was held, the Times published an essay about Charles Herbster, a Trump-endorsed candidate for Nebraska governor with a take on current events that went something like this:

The coronavirus was manufactured in a lab in China and released into the United States in early 2020 by ‘illegals’ from Mexico who were also smuggling Chinese-made fentanyl across the border.

One of the smugglers had enough fentanyl in a single backpack to kill the entire population of Nebraska and South Dakota.

The goal of this two-pronged attack was to create a panic, stoked by Facebook and $400 million (K1.4 billion) of Mark Zuckerberg’s money, to justify allowing voting by mail.

Then, through unspecified means, the Chinese government used those mail-in ballots to steal the election.

The head spins. The heart sinks.

Perhaps there’s hope to be wrung from the fact that Herbster lost the Republican primary in Nebraska on Tuesday.

Then again, he came within four percentage points of the winner, Jim Pillen, despite the fact that eight women had accused Herbster of groping them.

Herbster disputed the truth of those accusations, but then his relationship with truth is tenuous.

Which is perhaps just another way of saying that he’s a man of his times.


A bruniOn Sunday morning I had the honour of delivering the commencement speech at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The previous afternoon, I dropped by the stadium in which the event would take place so I could size up the lectern and the teleprompters.

Given my compromised eyesight, I wanted to be sure that I could see the scrolling text and that the lectern’s surface was big enough to hold a printed copy of the speech, just in case.

It was a quick chore, tucked into a chaotic day, and I approached it in a businesslike fashion. But as I stood on the stage, gazing out at the seats and at various insignia evocative of my college years, I had to set my jaw and close my eyes to hold back tears.

I was suddenly a dam on the verge of breaking. And I indeed broke, 10 minutes later, back in my car. That’s also when I understood the surge of emotion.

I was something of a mess in college. Not on the outside, and not by the usual yardsticks, which are crude ones: I got excellent grades.

I wrote frequently for Carolina’s principal student newspaper and was one of its top editors for a while. I landed good summer internships. I was on a path.

But I was often terrified that it would lead nowhere. Or, rather, that I’d stumble badly before I got much further along.

My insides were always roiling, and my brain was frequently on fire with doubts about my ability, worries about my stability and a puerile anger about the lack of any assurances in this life.

How was I supposed to stay calm in the face of so much uncertainty? I didn’t stride, lope or sprint into my future. I tiptoed toward it, not trusting it for a second.

All of that came back to me in the empty stadium. I remembered it keenly.

And when I put that state of mind next to where I was standing, and why I was standing there, and what that meant about how the years had in fact played out — well, I was overwhelmed.

I felt foolish for having been such a pessimist. I felt ashamed about the narcissistic component of my dark self-obsession at the time.

But my tears, I soon realised, reflected something else: a mixture of profound gratitude and enormous relief.

My nerve-frazzling future was now, three and a half decades later, my richly satisfying past.

While there’d been rough patches in my journey from there to here, they’d proved survivable, and the disappointments had paled beside the delights.

While I still wasn’t striding — that’s just not in my nature — I also wasn’t tiptoeing, nor was I trembling.

To all the young people who are just finishing one chapter and beginning the next one, I would say:

The unpredictability of what happens next is no curse or taunt. It’s just life, ever maddening, ever mysterious.

If you’re frightened, you’re not alone, and a shortfall of confidence is no harbinger of doom. Shoulders back. Chin forward.

You’ll be tripped up by unforeseen obstacles and setbacks. But you’ll also trip across unanticipated bounty and blessings.

You’ll quite possibly find yourself someday in a place and role you never expected. You’ll be moved by that.

And you’ll realise that the journey to that point was all the more interesting for its refusal to be scripted, and for its absence of any firm guarantees.

Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) is a professor of public policy at Duke University, a New York Times columnist and the author of, ‘The Beauty of Dusk’


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Lindsay F Bond

Humanity, imperfect any day, deplete the vexed?
Avow possibles. Initiative is not only of the JFK era.

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