Life without ghosts

Her name continues to flash like an unwanted reflex each time the word “president” is uttered. She has left the stage yet she haunts our collective psyche.  It may take a while before we can completely purge her out of our system.  More than nine years of intense “presidential branding,” as her image-makers termed this shameless conditioning, produced this ghost.  Her transfer to the legislative branch right after the end of her presidency is a troubling reminder that we have not heard the last of her.

The force of habit this has created is an annoyance for writers, and a nightmare for broadcasters.  Observe carefully how reporters must now pause for a millisecond after saying “president” lest the name they’re precisely avoiding starts prancing on their lips. Still, many are bound to trip, spitting out the bitter after-taste of a lingering presidency.  It’s okay; but, for now, it’s probably safer to say “Noynoy” than “President Aquino.”

It is an unfortunate coincidence that the surnames “Arroyo” and “Aquino” have the same number of syllables, and begin and end with the same vowels.  This only compounds the task of forgetting.  But, as Nietzsche would tell us — some forgetting, like selective remembering, is good for life. We must make an effort to remember the damage she inflicted on the nation, while forgetting that she’s still president.

George W. Bush left pretty much the same toxic effect on American politics.  After reading my column last week, Tom Leto, a Californiabased Filipino with whom I have corresponded for many years, thought of sending me a column written by Mark Morford for SFGate. It bore the title: “Life without Bush: What’s a liberal critic to do without his most beloved target?”

Of those poisonous years, Morford writes: “There was simply too much material, too many stories deserving of attention and indignation.  Outrage Fatigue became a national pastime, Bush Burnout a common lament.  Turns out a glorious glut of the same kind of material is often just as bad as a dearth.  The relentless negativity made everyone – including me – quite frequently sick indeed.”   After Bush, Morford continues, “It now feels a bit like the journalistic equivalent of completing a rough tour of duty in a land of acrimony and intolerance…. God knows I don’t ever want to go back.”

It felt more or less like that with the past president.  Because of her haughty manner and cozy relationship with politicians and generals, she was an easy target.  But if one cares for the country enough, one never feels good writing regularly about its corrupt presidency.  We are a free people; she was not imposed on us by some foreign power.  We cannot criticize her without recognizing that her presidency mirrors the basic weakness of our own society as well. The point is how to avoid carrying cynicism forward.  A writer struggles against being blinded by anger so that he can see better — how we got here, how we can get out of this rut, and how we may avoid being here in the future.  I tried to do this by writing alternately about sources of hope, and by looking at the existing order of things as an evolutionary achievement that is bound to change with time.

The entry into the scene of a new president like Noynoy has produced an electrifying effect on the nation’s psyche mainly because of the kind of presence he projects.  In lieu of a smirk, we are treated to the promise of a smile.  He walks without the swagger of power. He talks plainly and common-sensically, rather than in the soaring style that is falsely equated with gravitas.  He’d rather connect with the man on the street than with political leaders, diplomats, and the learned folks of academe.  His English is good and rich, but he seems more comfortable in Filipino.  He is casual rather than pompous, approachable rather than aloof.  He seems allergic to prepared speeches, sometimes stumbling on words and phrases that obviously are not his.  In contrast, he seems relaxed and fluent when he’s on his own, and, listening to him, you begin to realize that this is Ninoy Aquino’s son.

Nothing perhaps epitomizes this new presidential style better than the “wang-wang” inaugural speech.  Foreigners may be wondering why the speech’s seemingly marginal reference to the use of sirens and blinkers became the touchstone of its authenticity.  The answer is simple.  These emblems of arrogance proliferated especially under the last administration. They accentuated even more the great disparities in wealth and power that have characterized Philippine society.  Ordinary Filipinos resolutely keep away from the path of these incessantly blinking and wailing heavily-tinted muscular SUVs because they identify these with the untouchable elite. A hierarchical society need not always be oppressive, but those who are new to power typically waste no time displaying their self-importance.  A whole culture of political excess can quickly engulf a regime.  This is what happened in the administration that has just come to an end.

Noynoy has hit a raw nerve, triggering emancipatory impulses usually associated with revolutions.  A president is stuck in rush-hour traffic, staunchly refusing to let his security escorts barrel their way through the clogged highway with their blinkers and sirens.  That sight sends eloquent signals of the dawn of democratic rule that no populist program can possibly equal.

The contrasts between the past president and the new one continue to surprise and inspire us.  Soon we should be able to leave behind the ghosts that have haunted the nation’s life.