Thursday, February 25, 2010

A turn for the worse

This was my column yesterday.

Elections in this country have been described as one mad giant circus. That’s because politicians and their supporters engage in unbelievably crazy stunts in an effort to endear themselves to the electorate.

The stunts include relatively harmless antics such as performing song and dance routines regardless of the fact that they cannot carry a tune or do a simple shuffle even if their very lives depended on it. Some engage in really cheap gimmickry such as shedding copious tears in public or fabricating gossip just to gain media mileage or public attention. Others magnify whatever little achievements they have attained in their lives and gloss over their imperfections, pretty much the way magicians do their smoke-and-mirror tricks. Most of it is phony and tawdry and reduces elections to the level of entertainment but we have all learned to take these in stride as just one more indication of our joie de vivre as a people.

Unfortunately, the circus often makes a turn for the worse. The good-natured ribbing turns into mudslinging, the singing and dancing turn into death duels, the public relations campaigns into black propaganda. In the past, these usually happen at the last leg of the campaign season as a last-ditch effort of the desperate. We’ve noted that the 2010 elections have started to enter this dark territory very early in the campaign season.

Of course we all knew that things would soon get personal, that it was just a matter of time before our candidates started trading personal insults or attacking each other viciously. The images of smiling presidential candidates linked kapit-bisig or engaged in friendly banter at the start of the debate series were temporary— we knew they would soon be after each other’s throats. The animosity was bound to happen. It was just a matter of time.

The vicious war started in the Internet. It started with seemingly innocuous exchange of commentaries that soon turned into hostile flaming and baiting in some blogs, Web sites, and social networking sites. The exchange of accusations and counter-accusations between and among the various political camps are dizzying. Some of the charges are truly licentious and libelous such as accusations of sexual proclivities and supposed felonies and misdemeanors.

The thing with verbal commentaries though is that people can argue, debate, fight acrimoniously—as many bloggers do every day—but they only engage those who are passionate enough to care or make their voices heard. But as they say, pictures speak louder than words. Pictures, unlike essays, generally don’t require high-level thinking skills to comprehend. With the advent of Photoshop and other photo editing software, anybody can now alter images and post them in the net. And so we now have all kinds of photos flooding the Net—from the amusing to the sordid, from the shocking to the damaging.

There’s that picture of Baby James Yap showing a dirty finger (I agree that whoever “edited” that picture has a sick idea of what is funny but I am not really sure how that picture is supposed to be black propaganda against the Aquino campaign although they’ve managed to turn the whole thing into their favor by precisely capitalizing on how their competitors would stoop so low). There’s those series of supposedly homoerotic pictures showing the various male candidates in various intimate poses. There’s that morphed picture of Senator Manuel Villar and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo with the damning caption “Villarroyo.” The thing with pictures is that they are easily shared and forwarded. In Facebook, for example, all one has to do is to “tag” the picture to share it with anyone and everyone.

It seems the war has been taken out of the blogs, Web sites and the social networking sites. An email that is currently circulating in the net has the curious subject: “Who owns a house like this?” The email whets reader’s curiosity further by asking a series of questions: “Who would have such taste and live in such opulence (sic)? An American billionaire? A Saudi Prince? Louis XVI of France? Savour the pictures then scroll to the bottom of the page to see who owns this work of art.”

What follows are more than a dozen pictures of the house in question. It’s a stately house indeed, with a huge swimming pool, priceless paintings, grand chandeliers, gilded furniture, ornate columns, etc. At the end of the email, the big reveal: This mansion is in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA and belongs to Senator Manuel Villar of the Philippines. And then the damning commentary, unedited to preserve the flavor: “While Filipinos starve, and die because of abject poverty… and while Senator Villar brags that he had poor beginnings and he had helped his poor countrymen over and over again… but look now… he and his family live like this……his GREED kills his poverty stricken fellow Filipinos. Please send this to everyone you know. They can send it to everyone they know. Soon Filipinos around the world will know what this man is doing to the people he wishes to serve if elected President.”

I want to make clear that I am not campaigning nor voting for Senator Villar but I find this email objectionable not only because it makes conclusions without a clear and factual basis but because of its malicious intent. There is no offered proof that the house in question belongs to Senator Villar. And granted that the house does belong to him, the automatic presumption that he acquired the house through illegal and nefarious means is quite a stretch. Besides, the man does not make excuses for his wealth—in fact, in his latest ad, he is capitalizing on the fact that he is obscenely rich that he cannot be a thief anymore. I know. The logic stinks but it works at some level.

I have come across emails questioning the competence and qualifications of Senator Aquino as well, but they are generally well-argued critiques and not open-faced attacks such as this current email about Villar’ supposed profligacy.

The election campaign has also started to invade erstwhile private domains such as cellular phones. In the last three weeks, I have been receiving campaign messages from local government candidates on my cellular phone. The funny thing is that I am getting campaign messages from politicians who, even in the very remote chance that I could be swayed by the idiotic drivel that they try to pass off as campaign message, won’t still be getting my vote for the simple reason that I am not a voter in their respective areas. It’s very suspicious though how politicians have been able to get hold of the cellular phone numbers of voters.a

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