There’s the Rub: Lying in state

Philippine Daily Inquirer
Conrado de Quiros

The state of the nation wasn’t to be found in the words, it was to be found in the images.

The opening of the ceremonies set the tone for it: same scene, slight change of characters. There was Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo flanked by the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, except that last year it was Manuel Villar and Jose de Venecia while this year it was Villar and Prospero Nograles. What a difference a year makes! Which is why, despite De Venecia’s carping against government and threats to expose Arroyo today, I have little love for him. Only last year, he was the one inveigling the audience to clap loudly while introducing the speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the Republic of the Philippines.” This time around it was Nograles who did the honors, or dishonors.

Villar, now as then, remained stolid, refusing to applaud. I don’t know whether that was because he objected to Arroyo being called president or to the kiss of death that being seen applauding her threatened. But it was, and is, a brilliant pre-election campaign tack, one that could win him tons of votes in 2010—assuming there would be elections then. The image drove home the point of a house divided, which reminded the nation again of something the person about to speak predicted would happen if she ran for president in 2004, which was to cause never-ending divisiveness to befall the land.

The image also gave me insights into the Zen riddle, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But that’s another story.

The true state of the nation was to be found as well in the interminableness of the speech. Malacañang had earlier told the press that Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) would be brief this time, only around 15 pages, full of humility and chastisement. After last year’s deadening enumeration of government’s presumed accomplishments—a roll-on, roll-off speech full of rah-rah for Number One—I thought Arroyo had finally discovered that the best way to appease an enraged public was to give it some respite.

I should have known better than to believe any of Malacañang’s promises, political or oratorical. The speech turned out to be longer than last year’s, as Arroyo trotted out more Exhibit A’s to convince the nation that “ramdam na ramdam na ang kaunlaran” [the prosperity is really felt], this time pointing to ordinary citizens in lieu of extraordinary local officials. The only break in the interminability was the introduction of Nagtipuan town’s Mayor Rosario Camma, who attended the SONA in formal tribal wear, which gave whole new dimensions into the meanings of transparency and (semi-)naked truth. Alas for him, with the naked truth about him being known, which is that he is a Arroyo protégé, he might not be mayor for long.

It was close to an hour when Arroyo finished, reminding the nation of two things. One is how long she has been there. This was her eighth SONA, the most number by any ruler of this country, and the only unelected one, since Ferdinand Marcos. One is tempted to say that at the rate she’s going, one dreads to think what her swan song next year would be. But that presumes it will be her swan song, which is a monumental presumption. What particularly scared me was the part where she said she was doing everything to make life easier for her successor, “the next president whoever it might be.” She said exactly the same thing before: “If we achieve these [reforms], my successor as president will be in a good position to lead the Philippines through the next decisive steps for the strong and modern society.” That was in the speech where she said she would not run in 2004. As it turned out, by successor, she meant herself.

Two is how unrelentingly oppressive her being there has been. During her speech, the cameras caught people yawning, snoring and fuming silently you could almost see the smoke rising from their heads. The only thing that comforted me was the thought that finally the congressmen were being given a taste, if only for an hour, of what the citizenry has had to endure all these years. But I felt badly for everybody else, including those who were sent to hospitals for various ailments from the sight (and shriek) of the modern-day Medusa. For one brief moment, I wished I didn’t have to write a column and wasn’t forced to watch that spectacle. But I realized almost immediately that if I didn’t have a column, I would count among the bedraggled horde bursting our hospitals at the seams.

In the end, the SONA brought back an image from not so long ago, which gave me the sensation of being caught in a time warp. That was the twilight of martial law, when Marcos, buffeted by lupus, and Cory Aquino went to the Batasan legislative building to try to persuade the nation to know an entirely different state. There are differences between then and now. Congress then was unicameral (today there’s the House and Senate), there were no surveys and a free press to show Marcos’ horrendous unpopularity (he could continue to claim he spoke for the silent majority), and there were no protest rallies and alternative SONAs to apprise the nation of its true state.

But the same aura was there, the aura of death and decay. It evoked a world or state so far removed from this one, never mind from this nation, it might as well have been located in the darker corners of the afterlife. The same air of remoteness was there, the same air of isolation was there, the same air of a phantasmagoric reality was there. Even the faces were the same, faces ravaged by physical and spiritual disease, by the lupus of moral bankruptcy and corruption, by the cancer of greed and selfishness, by the miasma of a living death or a dead life like the grotesquely beatific masks worn by the embalmed.

That was what the SONA was last Monday, a lot of lying in state—in more ways than one.

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