Pacquiao: the trade in images

The word “pakyaw” appears in many of our languages.  It means “wholesale”, though it’s rarely used as a family name.  The family of Manny, our boxing champion, spells it “Pacquiao”, the Latin/Italian form in which the 16th century voyager Pigafetta rendered the words he first heard in our islands.  The word itself could have originated from the early Chinese traders.

As trade on our shores began to flourish, some people became known as wholesalers.  These traders bought entire lots from a source and sold to retailers.  In time, the word acquired secondary meanings.  “Pakyaw” today also refers to a contract to do a whole project for a fixed price within a specified period.  The forbears of

Pacquiao’s may have been among the first handymen who combined personal skill with a dash of entrepreneurship. His performance at Las Vegas last week would have delighted his ancestors.  It was a clean job, done with precision, and completed before the specified time.  It made every Filipino proud.

The same word, however, kept ringing in my mind last Friday evening as I watched the country’s biggest politician, Gloria MacapagalArroyo, sing and dance on stage with a crop of achievers that included Manny Pacquiao, Miss International Precious Lara Quigaman, medalists from the recent SEA Games, and exemplars of honesty — Grade 6 pupil Cristina Bugayong and Police Senior Inspector Dominador Arevalo.  It was as if a clever merchant had put on display a harvest of talent, achievement, and virtue.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the head of state personally congratulating citizens who bring honor to the nation. It is to be expected even more in a society that has gone through relentless demoralization.  Ms Arroyo did what was right by phoning Pacquiao and Quigaman minutes after they were declared winners.  On their return, she welcomed them into Malacanang and personally feted them.  These are appropriate official celebrations of individual prowess.

Only a thin line, however, separates celebration from exploitation.  Ms Arroyo, the political entrepreneur, has made it a habit to wrap herself in the medals and crowns of the individuals she applauds.  What she lacks she seeks to acquire by association.  She basks in the brilliance of Manny Pacquiao’s decisive victory, as if that would dispel the darkness that surrounds her presidency. She draws from the clarity of young Cristina Bugayong’s basic honesty, as if, by some magic of association, that would erase all doubts about her own integrity.

The more her legitimacy is challenged, the more she resorts to riding on other people’s positive images.  No other president of this country, in my recollection, has, for example, been more publicly “prayed over” by all kinds of religious leaders than Ms Arroyo.  I am told that most of these are solicited benedictions, received fulsomely by her for the benefit of the cameras.  It is disgusting. In this manner are many innocent events used as messages in political communication.

We cannot fault Manny Pacquiao or Precious Lara Quigaman for the way Malacanang exploits them.  They may always refuse to mouth lines that sound faintly political, but they are not responsible for the manner in which the state celebrates their achievements.  Perhaps, even the bishops don’t have much of a choice when faced with a request to bless someone who seeks grace.

But other people do.  Two friends I respect and admire – former University of the Philippines President Jose V. Abueva and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr. – had a choice, but both opted to lend their names and reputations to a politician who has done the greatest damage to the nation’s institutions and who continues to govern on the basis of a questionable mandate.  Dr. Abueva did so by accepting an appointment as Chairman of the

Consultative Commission to draft amendments to the Constitution. And Justice Davide did so by accepting an assignment as Presidential Adviser for Electoral Reforms.

I have tried to understand Dr. Abueva’s decision as something that perhaps transcends the political issues of any given moment.  His intentions are no doubt pure.  He has been an advocate of federalism, and he may have seen in his appointment the perfect opportunity to place the federal idea on the national agenda.  But in so doing, he has found himself shepherding a project that is clearly intended to solve the short-term political problems of the incumbent president.  I cringe each time I see Dr. Abueva beside Ms Arroyo in a photo.  This is not how I imagine a distinguished academic career to end: as a prop to a moribund presidency.

I feel the same way about CJ Davide’s acceptance of his new role as presidential adviser.  It breaks my heart.  Of the many noninstitutional offices invented by past administrations, that of the presidential adviser is the most dubious.  At best, it is a usurpation of existing institutional functions.  At worst, it serves as a mechanism for political payback, a way station for favored individuals on their way to better destinations. Justice Davide has taken on a job worth doing but impossible to do while Ms Arroyo is president.  Can something be more difficult to imagine than electoral reforms under a president who has single-handedly wrecked what remains of the Commission on Elections?  He must know that Ms Arroyo wants him not so much for what he can do, but for what he represents in the minds of those who admire him.

He and Manny Pacquiao are but the latest acquisitions of a politician who has mastered the trade in images.

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