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Rant #69
(published Early, 2002)
On Cheese: A Filipino Restaurateur Reflects on Law and Order
by Clinton Palanca

"Cheese," the quote goes, "is the corpse of milk." In which case, we can add to the list of unflattering epithets used to describe me, as a dairy necrophiliac. I'm not a cheese connoisseur, though, those madmen who are to be found lurking in cheese shops with a bulge in their pants, or who go to great lengths to smuggle unpasteurized cheese across the customs border into America, which has a typically nannyish it's-for-your-own-good law against cheese made from unpasteurized milk. I will eat my fill while I'm traveling in France, but I once took a wheel of Muenster home, and its smell insidiously permeated everything else in the suitcase, from my clothes to my my books, and even added its extra note to the bouquet of scents in the bottle of Eau d'Hadrian I'd meant to give as a present.

But even when I'm not carrying cheese, pornography, or incendiary devices with blinking lights and a countdown timer, I always have a knot of fear whenever I approach the row of customs officials at our airport, all of them crouching with a predatory air while I try to choose the most benevolent-looking among them. Scenes from Midnight Express involuntarily flash through my mind. While I've never been dragged away into a windowless room, they are almost always insufferably rude, especially the men. I think that having one's possessions searched is already a humiliating experience, albeit admittedly necessary; the least that people who are employed to carry out this task can do is be polite. Meanwhile, passport control officials in the Philippines are almost always polite and indifferent; although everyone has their favorite horror stories about Immigrations officers in other countries.

The passport, incidentally, is a relatively recent invention, stemming from a 1915 law passed by the British government to deter spies and informants during the war. The law was never repealed after the war, and instead became an international fad. After the passport came the visa, which has turned into a valuable technique by which countries can exert their international dominance in a smug and bureaucratic manner. The lines outside the US Embassy on Roxas Boulevard must give any republican civil servant looking out his window a warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction to see the desperation with which Filipinos clamor for a chance to experience the American way of life, be it for a short stay, or for permanent emigration. I've stopped traveling to the United States altogether; but my European trips always begin with a bleary 8 a.m. visit to the various embassies. The French Embassy has one particularly cantankerous consul who delights in humiliating the applicants over a very clear and powerful public address system that reverberates through the packed waiting-room; she should apply to host The Weakest Link: "You have one supporting document missing. Goodbye!" (To their credit, though, they surprisingly granted my request for a long-term visa; very much like Parisian restaurants, where the waiters are rude, but the food is worth it.) India, not surprisingly, not only requires a visa, but gives you a hard time attaining it; heaven forbid that any Filipino overstay and add to their population of 1.1 billion.

In general, my experiences with authority have almost always been negative. This, more than any documentary about infanticide and rubbish-heap dwellers, is why I firmly place my political affiliations left of center. I have never in my life been aided by a policeman, but I have been detained, falsely accused, extorted and threatened by them. As a jelly-legged individual who can't lie with a straight face, I try to live as a good citizen: I pay all my employees salaries that shock other restaurant proprietors; I am meticulous with my tax declarations, and I comply with the seat-belt law (yet another nannyish bit of legislation that intrudes on my decision to be reckless with my life or not), even when I'm wearing a linen shirt.

Having said that, I do admit that when it's three o' clock in the morning on a Sunday night, and I'm waiting at a stop light with a full bladder and a mysterious hooded figure bearing down on me, I will run the light. This sort of "innocent crime" is one of the staple cliches of political law debates, but it's also one which most of us have encountered on a regular personal basis (as opposed to the other classic dilemma, which involves a terrorist holding a gun to your head and asking you to shoot a defenseless woman (pregnant, recently divorced, and terrified). I've seen people in Scandinavia patiently waiting at a red light in the dead of the night; but then these people, aside from their love for pickled herring which makes them strange to begin with, have socialized governments with extensive unemployment and health benefits, which allow them to grow old in security and comfort, eating pickled herring, open-faced sandwiches, and adding arbitrary diacritical marks over the letter "O".

The failure of the government to keep up their side of the social contract is a fairly common and often abused excuse for lawlessness, anarchy, or downright criminal behavior. But in the Philippines, the "system" (by which I mean the mechanisms of power that are the circuitry of our society) is a highly complex one, in which the letter of the law plays a very small part. It can be invoked, but it is merely one of the tools employed by not only the power brokers, but practically anyone. In other words, the legislation passed by yawning congressmen (of which a large part would appear to consist of changing street names) has only a vague connection with the actual processes by which a certain order (not to be equated with justice) manages to fall into place.

As a citizen of this country, one who carries his nationality and battered green passport with pride, I am obliged to carry out my day-to-day routines within the present system, even when the laws verge on the ridiculous or inane. On Fridays, for instance, my car is not allowed on the streets; nevertheless, like any other day, I have errands to run and must get around. So I simply go out, inevitably get stopped, and have my license confiscated and must pay a fine of P150. My friends are urging me to get a second car. A battered used car us at least P150,000; that would be equivalent to 1,000 traffic violation tickets, or 19 years' worth. Thus I find it more expedient to compute P600 a month into my living expenses which, compared to my latest Meralco bill, is almost insignificant. In 19 years, I could be run over by one of those drivers who enjoy charging at pedestrian lanes. I might win a car a lottery. The world might be hit by a meteorite. Or (least likely of all) this ludicrous law might be repealed.

So I do run the occasional red light, I have a bottle of absinthe (illegal at 70% alcohol), and used to own a rusted antique unregistered revolver, which they haven't made bullets for since 1887 ("used to", because I tried firing it the other day, and the barrel fell off). The other day, on EDSA, a barrier suddenly materialized in front of me; I was stumped until I saw, far ahead, barely visible, a tiny sign that said "Airport Express lane". I moved to the next lane and was promptly stopped and charged with "swerving". The officer was rude and intransigent and, as he told me, "ignorance is no excuse of the law". I attribute this to malapropism, but his statement may have been more profound than he realized. The law in this country, its legislators and officials, are ignorant in many, many ways; and, indeed, there is no excuse.

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