6/24/2021
Lingering still

I don't remember who said it, or where I read it, but it's been said that we, as a country, woefully lack an academic, objective retelling of the Marcos years. It's why, whenever the topic comes up - and it always comes up - we can't seem to agree on what really happened. One side says one thing. Another side says another. Nobody trusts the intentions of the other side. (Yes, I know there are more than two sides to this, but it's a convenient narrative tool, splitting everything down the middle.) It leads to a lot of loopholes, particularly of how key players can revise and rearrange the narrative to suit their interests, to make themselves look better, to make us question what we've long held as true.

I remembered all this when I heard of the sudden death of Noynoy Aquino this morning. He just had to die less than a year before the next presidential elections, one that he still manages to shape the contours of, even if he has kept mostly quiet in the five years since he stepped down from the presidency. Apparently his silence is because all this time he was very sick. That must explain all the breathlessness, all the coughing. I'll admit I forgot about all that. They were minor details compared to the accomplishments and atrocities he managed in his six years as president, but still, for someone who wrote so passionately about him so often, these details should stick with me.

Now is not the time to dryly assess the things he did. Everybody's got to pay respects somehow, begrudgingly or otherwise. Even his harshest of critics, his fiercest of political opponents, will have to make face and prove that underneath all the vitriol they are human, too, and can sympathize with a loss like this. In the words of satirist Andrew Hansen, "even arseholes turn into top blokes after death." Yes, I stand by using that quote, and you'll just have to look at what his supporters are saying now. Suddenly Noynoy's this great leader who had nothing but the country's interests at heart. Sure, he's flawed, but nobody's perfect. But compared to the president we have now?

But we will have to go beyond polite tributes and impassioned platitudes. Governments do not exist in a vacuum, and you cannot cherry-pick what's convenient to click into your preferred narrative. That most definitely applies to Noynoy, a president whose decisions have arguably tipped all of us in this direction we are in. I mean, Rodrigo Duterte would not be president if not for him, specifically his perceived shortcomings, his pettiness, his selective sense of justice, his corruption. We are where we are as a reaction to what he did, or didn't do, depending on who you're talking to.

It will take us a while - perhaps never? - to agree on what he exactly did. I doubt we won't have that academic, objective retelling of Noynoy's six years as president. One group will say he ran as president solely for the sake of the country - that he didn't have to, but still did - and that he did lengths to bring the Philippines out of the mirth of the previous years, and into a more respected position across the world. (Take the arbitration ruling against China's territorial claims, one that our current president has virtually succeeded in disregarding.) True enough, his presence itself inspired the country's best and brightest to give up their lofty positions in the private sector to work to move us forward. During his watch, the Philippine economy accelerated its growth - and sustained it for most of his six years, slowing down only because the government, fearing perceptions of corruption, was reluctant to spend the money it has saved.

If you ask me, Noynoy's time as president did two good things for the country. One, the government weighed heavily on planning for the long term. While it meant there were no political points to be gained from tangible projects and accomplishments, it set the stage for the advances the Duterte administration is claiming as its own, particularly the bulk of its infrastructure projects. Two, he attempted a culture change in government, turning the bureaucracy into units that are more collaborative and consultative. However I will admit that my view on this is flawed, as I started working with (not for) the government during his last years in power.

Another group, however, will say that Noynoy is a spoiled elitist who took advantage of the goodwill bestowed upon him when his mother, Cory Aquino, passed away - and who used the presidency to enrich himself and his allies. There's always that specter of "what could have been" when you think about it. He paid a lot of lip service to fighting corruption, and it was during his watch when abuses of the pork barrel system came to light - but it suspiciously only involved senators from outside his political alliances. And then there's the Disbursement Acceleration Program, packaged as a means to boost government spending, but had the stench of providing favors to acolytes and allies. He defended that program miserably.

One thing that I believe people don't attribute to (or blame) Noynoy enough is how his pronouncements have greatly impacted the state of political discourse in the country. Yes, it wasn't always civil, and yes, social media had an equally great role as well. But, arguably, him simplifying everything to those who are with him and those who aren't has been incredibly successful. Duterte wouldn't talk in the same fashion if not for what his predecessor set. The difference is, the masses agree more with a no-nonsense, frank guy than a sheltered, arrogant one. Why trust the guy who denied Nora Aunor a National Artist Award solely because of her past illegal drug use? Why trust the guy who botched the response to the biggest typhoon in the country's history? Why trust the guy who sent 44 of our finest to their deaths for his own glory?

Yes, now perhaps is not the right time to think about that, but sooner or later we will have to. We are where we are now partly as a reaction to what Noynoy did, or didn't do, in his six years as president. For better or worse, we will go to the polls in under eleven months to decide not just on the legacy of the current president, but of his predecessor's as well. The opposition, for better or worse, is still living under the shadow of Noynoy's accomplishments and atrocities. They've been hesitant to play with it then, and they sure as hell can't play with it now. But those six years do seem so much better than the five that followed it - and it's not just rose-tinted glasses at work here. The best alternative vision they have is something close to what Noynoy did, but better - a concession that things weren't as good as they want us to believe.

But will we ever? Definitely not, I think. Already we're seeing the political machines on all sides grappling with Noynoy's legacy, fashioning it into a narrative that they can use to advance their interests next year. They're doing so whether they like it or not, whether they admit to it or not. It's just how it is. As for us, well, we will end up being strung along in this game, and the poison is just so irresistible we will take part anyway, with our JPEGs of yellow ribbons and our paragraphs filled with intelligent-sounding phrases. We will stubbornly stay where we are, and as a result, this country will reluctantly stay where it is.

At least in his final years Noynoy resisted the urge, in almost all cases, to speak up about this administration, or even about his illness. He knew it would distract from whatever progress was actually made, whether by his cohorts or by his successor's. That counts for something.

And your responses...

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