SONA 2021

[OPINION] Glitter vs Gold: What happened on SONA day

Tony La Viña

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[OPINION] Glitter vs Gold: What happened on SONA day

Graphic by Raffy de Guzman

'[I]n three minutes Diaz achieved what Duterte’s three hours could not'

That President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address was expected to last an hour, rehearsed four times (according to spokesperson Harry Roque), and turned out to be his longest at over three hours, says volumes about it. Not only that it was par for the course — the usual Duterte formula of meandering, rambling, off-script tangents — but also that for a lot of those three hours, it probably was far better not to have said anything at all. Too much of the man, in all his vices, and not enough of the President, in all the office’s virtues.

Vices of this presidency

There’s the vice of contradiction, when the President says we cannot afford lockdowns, but warns of one in the face of the Delta variant (this is understandable, we grant that, but more on this later). When the President says, “We will assert what is rightfully ours,” then…what did he say about the West Philippine Sea again? When he says the Philippines will remain a responsible member of the international community, and then, inexplicably, practically handing the International Criminal Court yet another barefaced admission to justify an investigation. 

There’s the vice of haunting grudges, when the President once more brings up or slyly alludes to conflicts, critics, and banggaans of long-ago, thought to have already been in the rear-view mirror. ABS-CBN, with those false charges of tax evasion; the water concessions, after praising the same tycoons, rightly, of helping out in the pandemic; and Vice President Leni Robredo’s absence in the plenary (due to not being fully vaccinated; she attended virtually) with his “I love Bicolanos” jab. He even brought up the Balangiga Bells! How easy it must be for him to be a nationalist with America, a most aggregable enemy! (What did he say about the West Philippine Sea again?)

There’s the vice of window-dressing. Yes, there are notable achievements, no doubt more than window-dressing; for instance, enacting universal tertiary education and healthcare access can rightfully be attributable to his administration. But elsewhere? His Build, Build, Build campaign, even where it was necessary, appealed more to his vanity for a literal concrete legacy, with the Dolomite Beach in Manila Bay as the ultimate monument. Then there’s his claiming that the plight of urban commuters has improved, which is a hypothesis still to be tested. 

There’s the vice of shortcomings being swept under the rug. For one, Task Force Bangon Marawi has been in place since June 2017, and still there lie Marawons under roofs not their own. For another, there’s the President’s claim that the government could not do more fiscally against COVID-19, lest it puts the economy at risk — never mind the global policy consensus that COVID is the first-line risk to the economy. Then there’s that statement that we cannot afford another lockdown when we are precisely heading toward that.

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And his obsessions to the point of inhumanity. Till the end, he just could not let go of his beloved drug war. He could not let go of his addiction to killing, instead of reaching out to actual working solutions. Shoot drug users, drug pushers, and communists (because “you’re only charged in the ICC together with me,” eh). Shoot everyone he does not like — except for Beijing, because they are his friends, or because they will shoot back. (Seems only Beijing gets away with nanlaban.)

Uncreative repetition

What is a good SONA? It gives direction to mobilize the nation, it provides hope in the face of the struggle ahead. Duterte’s penchant for ad libs and off-tangents, of contradictory statements and personal obsessions, misdirects more than they direct. Duterte’s penchant for violence and bullying cannot inspire true hope; they only serve to divide and dismay the nation, energizing only brownshirts spoiling for a street war — nowadays trolls and their online psychological terrorism. And even the true achievements that any other President would have rightfully boasted of feel, in this context, more like fig leaves covering shortcomings elsewhere, or like a Marie Antoinette-like indifference: “Let them eat cake.”

Shakespeare famously said: “All that glitters is not gold.” Take away the glitter, and all that is left is a tired presidency. Duterte is trapped in a bunker/trench war mentality, either Cold War or medieval, while in the 21st century with all its dynamic challenges. In my philosophy classes, I describe this as uncreative repetition – same old, same old, with no dawn in sight, only suffering and darkness. 

A friend describes the experience of the SONA last Monday as “tatlong oras na walang Diyos” (three hours without God), alluding to the Mario O’Hara movie Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, released in 1976 and starring Nora Aunor, Christopher De Leon, and Bembol Roco, about the terrible years of the Japanese Occupation). Thankfully, as I posted in social media, less than three hours later God was resurrected.

A golden surprise

Speaking of gold, where the SONA failed to inspire, Hidilyn Diaz achieved it. She truly is the box of lead that hides within the true reward: perseverance, diligence, duty, sacrifice, faith (in God and/or at least in the good of others): qualities one wants to ascribe to a leader. From a humble start in the 2008 Olympics, to silver in Rio 2016, and now our first Olympic gold, ever and setting the Olympic record in her weightlifting category. 

Much has and will be written about her classically heroic journey from Zamboanga to Tokyo. But it is also notable how some outlets even abroad have picked up on the story in which the Palace claimed her among the “matrix” ouster co-conspirators. To this day, her parents admit they are afraid, even after a lame retraction of the accusation. That’s what red-tagging does, as I have seen with many of my youth activist and Lumad school clients (mostly young women, too). They try to scare and harass you so that you will give up. Thankfully Hidilyn did not buckle, nor have the young people and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders I know.

The country’s story, is it not? From the powers-that-be, more often than not, we get only fear, inadequacies, and non-apologies. Yet we still push on, hoping against hope, here and abroad, even when others would tell us to be practical, to not rock the boat, to just believe in some glittering “messiah” when the actual messiahs, the actual Messiah, wasn’t one that glittered so basely. To persevere long enough (and hopefully not be shot in the process), to see, according to Seamus Heaney, the “once in a lifetime…[where] hope and history rhyme.”

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As many have observed, in three minutes Diaz achieved what Duterte’s three hours could not: give the Philippines a moment when hope and history rhymed, and get the people (and not just brownshirts now hiding their posts harassing her as a conspirator) cheering on their feet. 

Hidilyn Diaz gave much to honor the country she believes in, enough to serve in the Air Force, enough to plead the trolls to just let her compete in peace. She, her fellow Olympians, and many other Filipinos who do not glitter and yet are gold besides, are energetic, energizing, and ironically being shot at online or even literally.

The country is served better when the leaders bow to the led. Acknowledging Diaz’ rank, a good commander knows to listen to his sergeants. 

Diaz carried the nation on her shoulders on her record-setting day. We pray for the return of a SONA that would do the same. –

Tony La Viña is the Executive Director of Manila Observatory. He also teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

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