5/06/2016
Doom and gloom

It's getting much harder to avoid.

It was easier when the noise was still online. I could always just close the tab or scroll down quickly. It's not to dismiss what they were saying. I get it. I get where they were coming from, and I get why they were doing what they're doing. I could have been doing the same if things turned out differently.

But then it felt like they were judging me - judging me for not seeing things the same way as them, judging me for not agreeing with what they believe in, judging me for being selfish, for putting myself above everybody else. Or maybe it was the stress talking. It's been stressful, the past few months, the sort of stress that breaks spirits and drives people to do what was previously the unthinkable. I did not want any of that, I thought - and then I'd end up breaking anyway.

As I recovered, it started appearing everywhere else. There are stickers in cars, small circles in dashboards growing bigger, until you have rectangles a couple of square feet big, or more. I find myself at a stop light, and as I slow down the car, I see a fist in front of me, a fist so big it looks like it's punching me in the face.

I buy my mother some cigarettes - she needs it to do number two - and on the way I see streamers much bigger than the ones I see in cars - streamers, one after another. Every house has one. The neighborhood clinic has one. Well, three. The neighborhood clinic has enough space for three.

I go home with the cigarettes, and find that, on the sofa, there are baller IDs in a plastic bag, and stickers in an envelope, and a poster, rolled up.

That fist, again.

It's getting much harder to avoid.

I've long decided I won't be voting for Rodrigo Duterte. This was before the rape jokes and the incendiary remarks and the suggestions of an authoritarian regime. This was back when he said he wouldn't run, only to renege on that weeks later. He couldn't even justify his flip-flop properly. He's running because he doesn't want an American as president of the Philippines? That, apparently, is just one of the reasons. It's one thing to change your mind; it's another thing to change your mind on a whim.

Yet I haven't decided on who to vote. There are three days to the election and I haven't decided on who to vote. I have arguments and counterarguments in my head but nothing quite satisfies my standards. I don't want to vote for a lesser evil either. I don't want to settle.

That, and the stress. It's been stressful, the past few months, the sort of stress that breaks spirits and drives people to do what was previously the unthinkable. It's not the politics. I must make that clear. But politics - following it, writing about it - gave me a rush, even if it meant angrily bashing at a keyboard, writing long essays about what Noynoy Aquino is complaining about. This time, however, I couldn't juggle it with everything else. How could I? I could see myself change. Frequent anxiety attacks. Frequent crying. Occasional suicidal thoughts. The realization that I do need the radio - that I need some sort of noise in the background before I could sleep, because I cannot be alone with my thoughts.

There are more important things that who becomes president, I thought to myself. Or I must have, at some point, because I do not remember thinking those exact words together.

Many months ago I planned an essay about the values we Filipinos hold dear. The plan was to write it closer to election day, preferably in the middle of the campaign period. The question: if these candidates claim to uphold the values we Filipinos hold dear, then what exactly are these values?

We Filipinos go for the bare minimum. That is good enough. There is no reason to go the extra mile, especially if it means we get maximum returns. Think of the cashier who is content with rattling off a memorized script as he takes your order. Think of the manager who cuts every cost possible just so he could sell more and get himself a bigger bonus. Think of how the tunnel at the intersection of EDSA and Ayala was suddenly painted and filled with very bright lights in the days leading to the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting. Special treatment for foreign dignitaries? You bet. You're stuck in heavy traffic - something I somehow managed to avoid because of a spectacularly-timed Hong Kong trip - and you see these vehicles with strange flags just cruising. Well, at least you get a brighter tunnel. Not really. The lights went off, one by one, in the weeks following the meeting. Now, all the new lights are off again. It's as dark now as it was six months ago.

That was the only thought I really developed. I had a few more bullet points in mind, about how Filipinos yearn to be recognized, about how Filipinos are concerned about helping themselves than helping others, but many other things got in the way, and that, along with a bunch of other essays, had to be put in the back burner. The campaign is winding down and I still haven't written it. It's one of those things I will have to give up. It's a shame. I wanted it to be one of those essays that I pour a lot of effort into because I believe in it greatly. Now, I don't know if it's even worth the effort.

As the campaign rolled along, things just got a bit more confusing. The noise online wasn't dying down, of course. And, again, it all went offline. Everything was questioned for what I thought was the wrong reasons. Conventional knowledge seemed to be against the law.

Well, some things remained the same. I remained cynical. I always remember what my journalism professor said. "Always be skeptical, but don't be cynical." But I can't help it. You try to weigh the options; you try to consider everything. There are good things. There are bad things. They all coexist. Yes. I can be rational. But then you remember something and you're back to square one. Why can't I make a decision without letting what I feel get the better of me?

Because that's what we're ought to do, that's what.

People started to get really passionate, and, I think, mostly for the wrong reasons - or, at least, the wrong means. The arrogance became a stench you can't block out. I didn't just feel that they were judging me - I knew they were. Maybe it is the stress talking, but the chatter is no longer just words flashed on screens.

"Wala namang ginawa si Noynoy," a colleague said to me. "Bakit mo pa iboboto si Mar? 'Di ba? Wala rin naman siyang gagawin! Kung gusto mong umunlad ang Pilipinas, kay Duterte ka na!"

"Maraming ginawa si Noynoy," another colleague said to me. "Kay Mar lang matutuloy lahat ng 'yun. 'Pag iba binoto mo, mawawala 'yan lahat. Isa lang talaga choice mo - si Mar lang!"

It's easy to blame it on social media, how the campaign became more toxic than anything that came before it. There were more ways to show your support, and more often, and with less effort. Similarly, there were more opportunities to attempt, at least, to convert people. You know, FOMO in marketing speak. It's how they package music festivals and soft-serve ice cream. If you don't give in, you'll live with a sense of guilt that will linger for as long as they let it fester. The only difference is, it's extra loud this time.

And we do have this pathological urge to show off. Weeks ago I decided that I would not reveal who I voted for. Associating yourself with one candidate or the other is getting too heavy - a matter of showing off what principles you supposedly have and what the rest supposedly don't; it's just another layer of unnecessary judging. Of course, I had to make a post saying just that online.

"Duterte as president is scary," I overheard someone say at one of the industry events I'm in. "Look, the stock market is crashing. The peso is going down. Investors are pulling their money out. They say they're moving to Hong Kong, or Singapore. They say they'll watch the situation here in the Philippines. But if Duterte becomes president, they will not come back."

These are the people I've been meeting with for the past few months, or years, even. These are the people who run things, or at least are perched high enough in those things to know enough. These are the people who seem to have more insight solely because they can speak English convincingly, can articulate the more arcane of terms into a perfectly accessible metaphor. These are the people most wary of a Duterte presidency, because they have everything to lose. Their jobs will be worth less, if not worthless; everything they say they invested in will wither away.

I don't come from a well-off family. Sure, we are well-off now, but we were not well-off before. I remember Saturday mornings spent walking to the jeepney terminal to go to my grandmother's house - a commute that took one hour, three transfers, and a lingering smell of roast peanuts from the market stalls we walked through.

Now, we're well-off - just enough to be able to afford things, but not the outrageous kind, the sort where your options are either "family business" or "some artsy, non-earning niche passion". But the values of the past remain. You don't always feel that everything will go your way. You still have to rely on someone from the inside, and you don't always have that someone from the inside. You feel a little more vulnerable nonetheless. You can't just get away with it.

I long figured out why Duterte did not just appeal to the masses, but also to the middle class. We - I say we because I am part of it - are the disgruntled ones. We did our best to get better, and, sure, we did, but we can't get further up. Someone out there is always screwing us over. Someone out there is making sure we stay down while they go further up. Bare minimum. Maximum return.

"Whoever wins, it's okay," I overheard someone say at a coffee shop. "My parents are close with all the candidates. Whoever wins, we benefit."

Noynoy insisted everything is getting better. Noynoy believed everything is getting better. What he should have done - what he refused to do - is to see it two ways. Some things are working. Some things aren't. Some changes will be felt quickly. Some changes will not come around fast enough.

Sure, we Filipinos are impatient. We want this change we often speak of, and we want it now. But Noynoy himself is impatient. A credit to him means political points for his gang - for Mar Roxas, the man who yielded in 2010, the man who has to win in 2016. At the expense of being truthful, he continued to be overtly political, by sticking to his talking points from the campaign, by insisting that him being in power is behind all the change we see.

Most of the change we saw, or perhaps all of the change we saw, is, essentially, a clusterfuck.

"If Duterte becomes president, we're doomed," a friend told me. "The masses need to understand that the stock market will crash once he wins."

I decided to channel the views of the masses, a decision we somehow mutually consented to.

"Whatever. We want to feel comfortable!"

"You won't get shit if the stock market goes down."

"Kayo lang naman kumikita diyan, eh."

"Oo, kami lang kumikita, pero lahat tayo maghihirap! Pagtatawanan pa tayo ng buong mundo! Tignan mo. Ang ganda na ng progress natin. Oo, hindi nakinabang lahat, pero ang ganda na, eh."

"Mas marami pa sanang ginawa para maramdaman namin 'yung ginhawa."

"Tapos na 'yun. What's important is what's happening now. Oo, hindi perpekto si Noynoy, but at least it got us somewhere. Kapag si Duterte naging presidente, I swear, maghihirap tayong lahat. Tapos, in the end, maaalis si Duterte somehow. O si Grace, o si Binay, tapos ang presidente natin, si Bongbong."

"I don't want to feel panic anymore." That was me talking as me. "Not doing me any good."

"I just don't want to live in a country run by vigilante wannabes and dictators. Imagine, what if I get into a traffic violation? I might be shot dead then and there!"

"I don't want to panic!"

"You know, you should panic a little. You should know what to do when this shit goes down."

"No, seriously, please, can you stop? I think I'm having a panic attack right now. Fuck the scaremongering. Fuck the doom and gloom. I just want to have peace."

"You know, you need to talk to someone about it."

Most of the campaign acted as an ultimatum of Noynoy Aquino's term. Not many spoke about it in those terms, but that's what was happening. The candidates talked about how the purported "Daang Matuwid" failed to benefit everyone, and each had different approaches to it. One talked about a style of government that's more centered on the people. One talked about amending the constitution so those in the provinces can benefit more. One talked of expanding services so the poor could feel comfortable, for once.

But then, somewhere along the way, the dynamic changed. Rodrigo Duterte was already popular at the beginning of the campaign, but somehow his dominance of the news cycle avalanched into something not many have seen before. He proved unstoppable despite his very ill-informed remarks; his supporters cheered him on and attacked the media for misrepresenting him. Duterte spoke of a revolution, and people nodded. Yes, we need a revolution. Shoot the criminals dead; dissolve congress if needed be; and absolve himself of his sins before he steps down. The revolution is coming!

There it was. A loud consensus. Noynoy Aquino failed. We can't continue what he is doing. We need a revolution!

The feelings of disillusionment swelled. The disgruntled decided to use the tools available to them to get their way. Every screen became a window to a bloody battleground. Noooo, you're wrong and I'm right! I can understand the entitlement - anybody who feels put down all his life would have that - but its expression has gotten so poisonous. And somehow that leads to more disgruntled people. We fight. We hide. We try to be rational but get overpowered anyway. Those at the top will just screw us over. Look at how they support the establishment! Bias! Bias! We're all screwed. See? We're all screwed!

We Filipinos love symbolism. The images of Ninoy Aquino's bloodied body, face down, arms spread, on the tarmac at the Manila International Airport - those images fueled a three-year resistance that led to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. Religion, superstition, a championship belt awarded somewhere in Las Vegas - it's something easy to latch on to. It's something easy to believe in.

It's also something easy to manipulate. Sensing a surge in favor of the fist, the other candidates felt energized. They can't engage people on facts alone. They can engage people on symbols, though - a rallying cry for one thing, or against another. Duterte is a bully. Duterte is a despot. Duterte is a Communist. (Since when was being a Communist a bad thing?) Let's make it simpler: Duterte is corrupt, with ill-gotten wealth stashed in some bank in the middle of one of Metro Manila's business district.

Suddenly, everything you've seen clicks into place. Everything makes sense. We're in the middle of a civil war, one that has yet to break out into violence, but a civil war nonetheless. On one side, the establishment, the ones benefiting the most from the status quo. On the other, the commoners, those who tried their best to succeed but feel thwarted at every try. The factory worker who was fired by his rich boss. The banker who was forced to shut up after seeing impropriety. The driver who always has to part with his earnings so he can drop off and pick up passengers outside the designated places.

My final report for that journalism class was a report into why drivers of colorum shuttle vans do what they do. I could have done better; I have more questions now than I did nine years ago. But I remember one of the drivers - I hid him under the name Rommel - tell me that, if given the chance, he would apple for a franchise and do this legally. He couldn't, however - many hoops, many barriers - so he has to do this whole thing under the table. A portion of his earnings saved up for an "intelligence" fund, to tip off fellow drivers, to pay off traffic enforcers.

"Nagtatrabaho lang ako para sa pamilya ko," he told me.

In the nine years since, the authorities have loosened the system, but I still ride one of those colorum shuttles to work. Why travel for two, maybe three, hours to work? Why transfer five times?

Duterte, they say, is a bully, a despot, a crook. His values don't match our values. We love democracy, don't we? Our freedoms? Our hard-earned freedoms? Not so easy to say.

"Saan kami nadala ng demokrasya mo?" a cousin ranted.

Somewhere along the way people wished this would all be over. Can we all be friends again after Monday? I doubt it. Shots have been fired, and this will never end. Whoever becomes president will follow a script and call for unity and healing, but our antagonizing has gone so far we cannot turn back. I'm an establishment stooge intent on protecting myself. No, I'm a revolutionary coward letting my stupidity rule my actions. There will be no unity. We will all continue to fight each other.

"Always be skeptical, but don't be cynical."

This is difficult.

This evening Mar Roxas, supposedly experiencing a surge in public opinion - but those are sponsored posts I see - held a "major" press conference. I did not expect him to drop out of the race, despite echoes earlier today of either him or Grace Poe dropping out. I did not expect him, however, to do what he actually did. He asked Grace for a meeting, for the sake of unity, for the sake of thwarting what, by his actions, was suddenly inevitable: a Duterte presidency.

Was he doing it for the country? I doubt it. I thought he did it so he could look good, especially when Grace, with only three days left before election, inevitably refuses.

But, you know, drama. Symbols. We love symbols. They're easy to latch on. They're easy to deploy. They're easy to distract, to obscure the real battle that's going on, and will continue to go on: whose status quo are we supposed to upend?

And your responses...

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