Distaste of the nation

The following appears as an op-ed column at the Manila Standard Today, July 24, 2006.

IN THE last few days, media people have been tripping all over themselves in a futile effort to rouse public attention to today’s main event, the President’s State of the Nation Address to Congress. Thus, we have been treated to a continuing coverage of the transformation of the Batasan into a veritable fortress, updates on the crafting of the speech and its content, and everybody else’s opinion on it.

It is a telling commentary of the real state of the nation that for most Filipinos, the buzz last week was on a rather inconsequential issue of whether or not today was going to be a holiday. Malacañang even had to go out on a limb to announce that it had no plans of declaring a public holiday like it did last year. I have this nagging suspicion that a holiday declaration would have been received more favorably than whatever good news the President is set to announce this afternoon. But the nondeclaration of a holiday also sends an important message. Today, it will be business as usual for most Filipinos. Of course, business as usual means different things to different people regardless of the state of the nation and their distaste for what has been happening in the country lately.

In one of the e-mail groups that I subscribe to, someone valiantly tried to get a discussion going about the significance of the Sona. His attempt was met by deafening silence. His subsequent attempts to explain the relevance and importance of the Sona were met by heckling. I also tried to get a pulse of what my students thought about the event. Talking to a wall might have been a more productive endeavor.

So depending on which side of the political fence you are perched on, this afternoon’s main event is simply either of the following: a) another pointless attempt to do a major snow job by the powers-that-be; b) a fashion and media circus; c) a showcase of the obsequiousness of our politicians beholden to a leader with dictatorial tendencies; or d) a nonevent whose dubious value is being milked no end by certain sectors perpetually in need of a platform to ventilate their own political agenda.

In short, the Sona is another exercise of democracy, Philippine style. If anyone out there wants to get a good grasp of what exactly is the real state of this country, there is no need to wait until the President mounts that lectern at Congress today. A simple analysis of the events leading to the Sona already offers a lot of portentous insights.

The buzz is that the President will focus on the creation of “super regions” that may be good news to local governments who seem to continue to comprise the core of the President’s support base at the moment. I will not be surprised if the gallery at Congress will once again be filled by a cheering mob of local executives. But most of our politicians have already weighed in with their own insights about the real state of the nation anyway, and Malacañang has already leaked to the press the major talking points of the President’s Sona. These have consequently been either distastefully shot down or praised. Again, a telling commentary; the speech has not been delivered but the motor mouths have already worked the media circuit.

Other sectors will be presenting their own respective Sonas. Effigies will be burned. Commonwealth Avenue will be a war zone between the pros and antis. The military will assert its authority and will make some arrests and media will be there to record every push and pull. Politicians will be all over the place, conveniently within reach of any available microphone to assault us with their own acclamation or condemnation of the President’s speech as if we needed further explaining. And media will do cartwheels to turn the whole thing into a major production that will justify the mad attention they have given it. This is the state of the nation.

Despite my natural aversion to the whole circus, I do hope, however, that the President will do away with the cheap soap operatic antics that used to characterize some of her previous Sonas. Whoever conceived of that paper boat metaphor involving those boys from Payatas deserve to be crucified not only for condemning those boys to a lifetime of cruel media attention, but most especially for sheer awful scriptwriting (paper boats on Pasig? Hello!). And I am actually glad that for once, media has taken a break from the usual perverted attention to what the President’s outfit will be. It is a Sona for crying out loud, not a fashion event despite the fact that there will probably be more fashion victims today than in our neighborhood Santacruzan.

And so unless the widespread paranoia of the military is proven to have bases after all (and I hasten to add that I do not necessarily wish for any untoward incident to happen), I think that today’s Sona will be more of the same—all “pomp and pageantry signifying nothing.” It will be another spectacle that will showcase just how fragmented we are as a nation. It will confirm once again just how childish our leaders are or can be. Why we bother with the Sona is a question that begs an answer.

Sadly, the Sona is a constitutional requirement. The President is obligated under law to apprise Congress about the state of the nation. It is one of the ceremonial functions under a democracy —the very system that most everyone says needs to be adhered to regardless of one’s political affiliation. This is why, despite my natural distaste for the hypocrisy of it all, I rue the fact that the famous “Batasan 5” and some opposition senators and congressmen have already announced that they are boycotting the event.

I think that these exactly are the actions that alienate the opposition further from ordinary Filipinos instead of gaining their admiration. Despite the seeming indifference, I think people do have certain expectations from elected representatives. Fulfilling ceremonial functions is one of them even if it means sitting there at the hall of Congress with a constipated demeanor and putting up with yet another political gimmick such as wearing a tacky plastic peach fruit on one’s lapel, or trying to get a good vantage view beyond whatever foliage will be planted on their desks (last year it was calamansi saplings courtesy of the irrepressible Way Kurat).

In other words, we expect our politicians to be the embodiment of professionalism. We expect them to smile at the cameras and shake hands with the President even if we suspect that they are secretly wishing that the ground the other person is standing on opens up and swallows that person. We expect them to parade in their designer outfits even if we laugh behind their backs and speculate on which stylist or fashion designer deserves to be burned at the stakes. We expect them to display gallantry and breeding even if we know that these are words that are difficult to use in the same sentence as politicians. We expect them to go through the motions even if we know that everything is all for show.

The State of the Nation Address is a ceremonial function that defines our maturity as a democratic country. It is validation that despite all the blood and gore, despite the hilarity and the hypocrisy, despite the sorry state of the nation, despite the general distaste for our political situation, there is hope, no matter how fleeting that we are still a nation that values civility, that we are still a nation with leaders that deserve some measure of respect.

If we come down to it, that is all there is to it. The whole thing may be a circus, but it should hopefully give us reason to hope. And today, hope is all we have left in great quantities.


almabien said…
It's amusing to see how an overblown media-enhanced circus can be built around a summary annual report by the country's Chief Executive. Everybody will want to have his sixty cents' take on the SONA, moreso the usual crowd of congenital PGMA-haters who will hoot down anything and everything she says. On the other hand, the usual fawning bunch of flatterers will come up with a predictable chorus of hossannahs. Someone without an ax to grind or favors to seek should sit down once and for all and make a dispassionate analysis of what these SONAs have been promising and what has actually been delivered. Show us, to a reasonable extent possible, a politically and ideologically-neutral scorecard that would contrast plans and peformance. I think we've had enough of the shallow fanfare and contrived tension that accompanies a SONA. Let's get down to the real facts and figures.
Ymir said…
i grew weary of watching SONAs. yesterday i just listened to good music while the rain was pouring.
Taga-Iyam said…
I did watch the SONA 3AM Denver time. The report and the plans are impressive....but....I had some doubts about a few of them. I waited for the time when she would elaborate on the basic education of our kids.....I do not know if she did not feel secure about discussing this issue, or it is just because she might not need to put this part in priority.

PGMA can surely deliver a well planned report. She sure looked confident of what she was talking about. She surely looks determined to make this country get out of the economic instability. I like her closure.....and like always...I wish her well! There is hope for the Philippines!
Anthony Scalia said…
I am really amazed why people are giving so much attention on the SONA. Past SONA's of Marcos, Cory, FVR, and Erap never had the spotlight of GMA's SONAs.

It has become the focus of fishing expeditions of anti-GMA forces. It would seem that the unusual attention given to GMA's SONAs is a systematic attempt to magnify her faults and shortcomings.

Before GMA, nobody gives a hoot on the SONA. I never took the SONAs of past presidents seriously. Before GMA, the SONA IS JUST A MERE ANNUAL EXERCISE THAT WE HAD TO GO THROUGH. SOMETHING TO ENDURE. Are you done Mr/Mrs President? Great, let normal TV and radio programming resume. GMA's SONA IS AND SHOULD BE NO DIFFERENT. THE SONA NEVER CUTS DOWN OIL PRICES, NEVER RAISES WAGES, etc.

(though admittedly GMA did not give the state of the country, but a wish for the country)

Mita said…
Hope is not a bad thing. Every reality started out as a dream or thought in someone's mind...let's dream on, keep working and maybe we'll get somewhere. All I can say is, I think we're better today than we were a year ago. Ang gulo last year...it was distracting.

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