Images of the nation

I had a hard time following Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s recent State of the Nation Address.  It wasn’t just because the indiscriminate applause that punctuated nearly every sentence was interfering with the flow of her hour-long speech.  It was more because the whole speech was making no sense to me until I began to pay more attention to what Ms Arroyo was doing rather than to what she was saying.

Compared to her previous Sonas, this was by far the most political. There were many moments when it sounded like a speech for a “miting de avance.”  She was not at all describing an economic road map, contrary to what she said she was doing.  She was, in fact, astutely using the map of the country to indicate to her listeners the path of the gravy train.  Ms Arroyo performed like a consummate politician, so different from the image of the economic technocrat she has tried to cultivate. Aware that all politics is ultimately local, she addressed herself mainly to the country’s local politicians, catering like a demagogue to unexamined resentments against an “imperial Manila.”

As the speech proper unfolded, the customary introductions began to stretch into an endless litany of celebratory greetings.  One by one, the personalities in Ms Arroyo’s honor list, mostly local politicians, stood up and waved to be recognized, with the TV cameras moving methodically in knowing anticipation of the names that were being called.  At that point, it became clear that this was not going to be a discussion of the state of the nation, but an exhibition of the state of the administration’s bandwagon.  There was hardly any reference to the challenge of skyrocketing oil prices and the looming disaster of a massive repatriation of Filipino workers being displaced by the resumption of war in the Middle East.  There was no mention at all of the 11 million jobless Filipinos, and of the homelessness and hunger that continue to grip nearly one half of our population.

Ms Arroyo spiced her speech with a PowerPoint and video presentation of roads and bridges to be interconnected, of airports and seaports to be built, of railway systems to be linked, of regions to be clustered, of industrial zones and cyber corridors to be established.  But there was not a single mention of what needed to be done urgently to save the country’s deteriorating educational system, or to rescue a dying health system and make it responsive to the needs of the most underprivileged and underserved communities. She kept saying “we now have the money” for all the projects she was lavishly describing, but one waited in vain for any rational account of her priorities, or where she was going to get the funds. She totally skirted the issue of government indebtedness (which in 2006 stood at nearly 4 trillion pesos), and the real constraints that this placed upon our capacity to improve the lives of our people.

Instead of confronting the issue of legitimacy that has hounded her presidency for more than a year, she elided the topic and maintained a triumphalist tone throughout her delivery.  She urged the nation to move forward, completely ignoring the surveys that paint her as the president with the longest sustained negative approval ratings in the nation’s history.

She pictured herself not just as a survivor, but as a winner in the mold of the human props she had carefully assembled in the gallery – Ms Universe Precious Lara Quigaman, the boxer Manny Pacquiao, the Pinoy mountaineers who scaled Mt. Everest, etc.  One is struck by her choice of figures of excellence.  There was not a single musician or scientist or filmmaker or writer or civic volunteer or, indeed, any government employee, in her honor roll of achievers — a lapse that perhaps speaks eloquently about the state of our values.

But the most insensitive gesture of all, I felt, was Ms Arroyo’s unqualified endorsement of General Jovito Palparan’s achievements. After saying she condemned all political killings, she quickly caught her breath and proceeded to heap fulsome praise on this controversial military officer whose name has come to be associated with the summary execution of social activists in the countryside. One after the other, she called the names of the generals who had been most instrumental in defending her regime.  In no other Sona do I recall seeing such a highly visible representation from the armed forces as the one on display last Monday.

Compared to words, impressions are more difficult to manage.  They can easily boomerang, as they did a number of times in Ms Arroyo’s 2006 Sona.  In trying to show how much support she enjoyed from the local governments, she succeeded in projecting herself as a traditional politician who has a firm grip not on the art of governance but on the game of political patronage.  In praising the military for their loyalty and their resolute war against communist dissidents, she managed to convey the image of a ruler who sits uneasily on a throne of bayonets.

The jarring images were actually epitomized by Ms Arroyo’s choice of jewelry – a humongous gold necklace that made her look like an overdressed heiress weighed down by enormous wealth. Inside the Batasan session hall, the gathering of legislators and other public officials in formal attire provided a stark contrast to the drenched and shivering crowd of demonstrators outside.  All in all, it was a stunning spectacle of a sharply divided nation.

It was also a nation that for one awkward moment was figuratively forgotten when Ms Arroyo stood up to read her speech before the national anthem could be sung.

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