The world knows of the Philippines by now, for reasons other than a senator who refuses to admit to plagiarism, being the setting for the bustling Asian city in “Bourne Legacy,” and a cybercrime law that might be the worst piece of legislation against freedom of expression since the world wide web.
There was a time when we could call out the Western eye for gazing at us exotic: the ones who eat duck fetuses, the pretty brown-skinned girls with wide smiles and a fascination for, who fascinate the, white man. In these times of transnationalism and globalized cultures though, these assessments might be closer to being correct.
Yes, we cannot handle being called out on our mistakes, and we get pissed and defensive the moment we’re faced with criticism. We also do not know to lighten up when we’re the butt of jokes.
So when we lose in the Ms. Universe pageant, we scream “homecourt advantage!” We don’t want to hear that Ms. USA’s story included socio-civic work, and Ms. Philippines’ didn’t. Beliebers have been lost in Manila, after Justin Bieber poked fun at Manny Pacquiao’s last knock out loss. Members of congress want to declare Justin persona non grata.
I hang my head in shame, as the world shakes its head in laughter.
It’s about as funny as our claim on every person who has a wee bit of Filipino blood, no matter that they were born and grew up elsewhere, no matter that their passports are a different color, or that they almost won a contest called “American Idol.” As far as we’re concerned: your great grandmother is Filipina? You’ve got a career in Manila. We will not question your loyalties, and we will give you a billboard on EDSA.
Yes, that historic highway of the 1986 Revolution is now but a row of billboards selling every imaginable beauty product, with some fake boobies and liposuction to boot. Elsewhere in the First World, women are challenging this industry of fakery; here, celebrities take pride in selling manufactured beauty to a sea of brown-skinned young girls.
Only in the Philippines: a highway notorious for its traffic, reinvented into advertising opportunity. And we celebrate because we think billboards prove urbanity and development, our own propaganda helping us deal with the notoriety. How did we handle having the worst airport in the world? We fired the world-renowned team of Cobonpue-Layug-Pineda that volunteered to redesign it. The President had a man with a new team for the job. A year hence, what has changed?
Not much. In the airport and government, both.
But government spin tells us otherwise, never mind that the numbers they have don’t jibe with the real conditions of nation. Poverty and hunger statistics are low, but government expects a family of five to eat decently on P172.00 pesos (approximately $4.17 dollars) a day. Employment is up, but that can only be true in a country with a large sector of low-income earners and an underground economy, and with middle-income earners absorbed into the business-processing-outsourcing sector that has an expiration date. Minimum wage has always been below what a family needs to live decently, currently at P426 pesos (more than Vietnam and Thailand! we celebrate) to the needed P993 pesos. Now with a two-tiered system, a wage hike is in the hands of the employer, rendering unionism toothless.
This is the way of this government: it delegates responsibility. It washes its hands of mishaps.
Yet the President goes all tunnel vision on his pet projects: jailing the president before him for one, impeaching the Chief Justice on the other. Count the number of times he came out on TV to talk about what peeves him; look at the zero times he spoke to nation in the midst of a major tragedy or the hostage taking of foreigners. You realize there are three communications offices (count that!) for a reason. The President is the first to show irritation at criticism, responding to questions with the maturity of a teenager. His spokespersons don’t do any better than him, responding to criticism with defensiveness and denial.
What is sadder? These spokespersons were media practitioners and intellectuals from the recent past, critics of the previous government. Then, they were part of critical discourse. Now, as part of the highest office in the land, they can only be quiet about what ails governance. The smartest strategy of this government was to engage these intellectuals and critics, effectively silencing them.
As such government can thoughtlessly drop lines about critics being Leftists, and they can celebrate approval ratings and government-created numbers with barely anyone raising an eyebrow. We can speak of the Philippines as the rising Asian tiger with no sense of irony, as these ex-members of media, these intellectuals, become complicit in government spin. No one speaks of our ill-planned cities and its impoverished bowels, the lack of working public toilets and efficient public transport. No one wants to talk about how that tiger is but emaciated kitten.
In the happy world that this government sells, critics are those who don’t help government with their negativity. Crab mentality is invoked against critics, if not against anyone who has an opinion different from the status quo. Democracy, we say, allows us to speak. But if few are listening, and the more intelligent among us deny their complicity in freedom’s oppressiveness, how valuable is articulation?
Certainly it has yet to force government to drop the cybercrime law, or to decriminalize libel; it has yet to stop the privatization of basic public services, or demand that the Freedom of Information bill be given another chance. Democracy only gets us televised Senate deliberations when it’s an issue close to the President’s heart, i.e., impeaching his enemies, taxing the poor for wanting to smoke or drink away their lot in life.
Is it as bad as I make it sound? It’s worse. Much of media is wont to repeat government rhetoric. The Church has government by the balls half the time. The creation of a Reproductive Health Law (yes, welcome our women to the 21st century!) is only fantastic until you begin to wonder what kinds of deals were made for it to happen. Ask those from the alternative media outlets and purportedly “new media,” ask those non-government organizations well-entrenched in the power structure, ask them who funds their exposés. Ask where their loyalties lie. Brace for the answer you don’t want to hear.
It’s as bad as it sounds when the local franchise of Esquire magazine ended 2012 by doing meta-criticism that dismisses contentious writing and celebrates the nuanced middle ground. Right here is how government has had our intellectuals and creative sectors, our mainstream media and magazines, wrapped around its little finger. What government believes of criticism is exactly what they echo.
Meanwhile, the ones who remain critical are called crabs or communist, just too negative, and we are growing fewer by the day. In the provinces journalists critical of local and national politics are killed with impunity.
In the Philippines, it’s the worst time to be a critic. And it is the most important time.
*Published in RadikalChick opinion column in The Manila Times, 21 February 2013.