Yesterday, the United States State Department named Pasig mayor Vico Sotto as one of twelve "anti-corruption champions" around the world. Citing his efforts to promote transparency in his city, they called him "a fresh voice with a new, more transparent approach to governance" and "a standard-bearer for a new generation of Philippine politicians".
In response, the mayor sought to, as always, deflect attention away from himself. "I hope this helps raise awareness," he said in a tweet. "If we want better long-term governance, we need to fight corruption. We have to denormalize it, get it out of our culture."
Well, that's going to be hard, of course.
One does not have to look very far - although, of course, corruption in the highest levels of government continues to be a shadow lurking in almost every conversation that can be had about how things are in the Philippines. One just has to look at their social media feeds. Check out the media outlets. Look at how they give prominence to one person, to what he does and says, no matter how trivial it is. Just see how they make attention-grabbing graphics out of whatever off-hand quip Sotto makes on Twitter. Or Isko Moreno. Or Bong Go. Or Leni Robredo. Or Rodrigo Duterte, although, yes, he is president, and no matter how much we don't like it, whatever he says is truly newsworthy.
The media outlets will say they're just giving the public what they want, or more specifically, updating the public on the personalities they closely follow. Of course, there is something in it for them; the more likes and shares they get, the more they can tell potential advertisers that there is an audience to take advantage of. But the other result is the continued perpetuating of the idea that the hopes and fears of our country, of our society, lie in the hands of a handful of individuals, and nobody else.
I mean, yes, what Vico's doing in Pasig, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our way of life, is newsworthy. I say this as a resident of a city right next to it, a resident who can see his office from my flat's window, a resident whose only indication of the local government's action is a half-baked contact tracing app with the mayor's initials forced in the name, and congratulatory banners for said mayor's husband. But, one, national news outlets constantly talking about a local government's actions for its citizens means nothing for the rest of the population, and two, it ends up just promoting the person in charge rather than the sensible ideas being put in place. Vico's made a fuss about not promoting himself every chance he gets, but the media does it for him. Either that's political savvy - I'm sure some are calling for him to run for president now - or pure irony.
We still have the urge to assign personalities to our beliefs, a figurehead to pave the path, to lead the way, to bring us to our ideal version of utopia, or whatever. It's why we have banners saying "Run Sara Run" in cities across the country. It's why the opposition can't mount a strong, convincing face for the 2022 elections. It's why, whenever we talk about the first EDSA Revolution - which concluded 35 years ago today - we still end up reducing it to a boss battle between a dictator and a housewife.
Of course, it's much more than that. It was a response to rampant corruption, to wrecking numerous lives just to boost the profits of a select few. It was a response to continuous repression, to the denial of basic human rights just to keep a façade based on lies intact. It was a response to the many lives lost in the process. It was a response to twenty years of anger kept inside until it would no longer do so. And yet, it became not so much about addressing the issues that enabled it, and the issues that sprang from it. Instead, it became about deposing a man who did everything he can to stay in power. It became about putting in place a woman who we believed represented the values we hold dear. We put them on a pedestal, and continue to do so to this day, at the expense of actually figuring out what went wrong, and how we can fix it.
It explains why we botched it when we tried to remove a corrupt president a second time, in the same process. It explains why that resulted in a third uprising that led to a bloody riot on the streets surrounding Malacañang. It explains why, 35 years in, our politics is still defined by the idea of Marcos ruining everything, and Cory saving us from it all, or the idea of Marcos making things better, and Cory stomping all over it for her benefit. It's why we still talk in the terms of "Marcos did all of this", as if a government, bureaucracy and all, is defined solely by who's in charge. (I will admit that sentence is also oversimplifying it, considering how our leaders set the tone - but it does not mean everybody at the bottom is corrupt just because the one on top is.) It's why we talk as if either side needs vindication, as if either side needs us to fight for said vindication.
It's pretty much why, 35 years in, we haven't really addressed any of the issues that spurred us to action in the first place. There's still rampant corruption; the select few may change, but the system remains. There's still continuous repression; some just do it more subtly than others. Many lives are still lost, perhaps more so today, and yet, we insist that this existential battle for what we truly value as a society is really just between a septuagenarian from Davao with an authoritarian disposition, and a widow from Naga who, frankly, is really out of her depth in her current position, more so considering what many want her to do. It's all boiled down to Digong versus Leni, to Noynoy versus Gloria, to Marcos versus Cory, all over again.
And we will continue to make the same lapses for as long as we continue to frame our battles this way. Sara versus Vico? Versus Isko? Versus Pacman? Versus who else? The sad thing is, Vico - who was born three years after the first EDSA Revolution - could just fall into the same cycle, despite his wishes to beat it, to go past it. But then again, revolutions, by definition, ends with us being in the same place where we began.