Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An essay on age

Joker Arroyo seemed livid with disgust at colleagues who voted for the right to reply bill of Nene Pimentel when it was presented for third reading July of last year, only to announce that they were withdrawing their signatures when media of late took notice.

In the first place, the rules of Congress do not allow someone who votes for proposed legislation to withdraw his signature after the chamber had voted for it on third reading. And certainly not on the basis of a press statement or media interview.

The senators who made noises in media about “changing their mind” ought to know that. Just as all of them ought to have read the fine print in Pimentel’s bill before they went along with his magnum opus. Those who wish to withdraw their approval after having been chastised by media should have manifested their change of mind and change of heart on the floor of the Senate in plenary session, not through some radio broadcast, not through some press release written by staff. And thereby make a double fool of themselves before their peers, all of whom foolishly approved a bill without looking at its impracticality, never mind its pregnant possibilities as bludgeon upon freedom of speech.

Truth is, while the Senate has passed its version, the House yet has to approve its own counterpart bill. Now that media has raised a ruckus, and rightly so, the House version will likely be different from the Senate version. Assuming the House acts approvingly, this time not with the unanimity an unthinking Senate did earlier, then there is a bicameral conference committee to thresh out the differences. That is where the now “enlightened” senators should act to rectify their mistakes. Not through press release.

But Philippine politics is theatre of the absurd, with unthinking (or paid if thinking) media often the purveyor of absurdities. And Joker Arroyo merely stresses this long held realization of the thinking class. “They are all just buttering to the media”, he observed.

Arroyo was particularly miffed at young Francis Escudero, about half his age, young enough to be a grandson had Joker married in his late teens, and had his offspring married early likewise. Escudero after all was one of the authors of the right to reply bill. And his announced withdrawal was useless because the Senate had already passed the measure. Escudero knows that. As senator for a year and a half and a congressman for nine years, three of which as minority floor leader, surely Escudero knows the rules. Ten and a half years is as long as the number of years in grade school and high school combined, with three years as president of the class to boot. At age 39, Escudero ought to be well-schooled enough, at the very least.

But then, Arroyo digresses: “So that’s what will happen if one wants to be president or you’re a president (this time referring to Gloria Arroyo, who announced that she would in any case veto the bill, again stated without reading). If media complain, he or she runs for cover. It’s like running for cover at the first drop of rain”.

At his young age, Escudero shouldn’t be afraid of the rain. Older men like Joker and Nene ought take immediate cover from rain, as they are more susceptible to the sniffles. But clearly they do not, as Joker and Nene hold their ground. And clearly, Joker’s fellow “oragon”, Francis Escudero, two generations younger at that, isn’t “oragon” enough. (Did I spell that right? Joker’s friend and Escudero’s fellow Sorsogueno, former PCSO GM Ric Golpeo could not give me a distinct Bikolano translation for kababayan. Kahimanwa sounds like the Ilonggo kasimanwa, so oragon, though not quite literal, conveys Joker’s metaphor of the rain better).

But that is precisely what Joker Arroyo likely tries to convey --- his distaste for fair-weather “friends”, for “urong-sulong”, for what we Tagalogs in elegant language call “walang paninindigan” and inelegantly, “wa-bols”. “Friends” who vote without reading (but Escudero is co-author to Nene, right?), but when upbraided by the “powerful” media, run for cover by pompous announcements of withdrawal, even if withdrawal is no longer possible.

“Buttering up to the media” is a hallmark of most politicians’ character (rather, lack of it), but what if you also fool the media, and the public, by claiming something that you know you cannot do, simply to butter-up, to pander to the call of the moment? How do you call such a character? “Trapo”? And what therfore is older and wiser Joker saying? So young, so brilliant, so trapo? Then again, Joker Arroyo is not likely to paraphrase Manila’s best mayor, Arsenio H. Lacson, who sixty years ago said something similar of a good-smelling Manila councilor.

Yet Escudero is unfazed --- “That’s the difference between the young and the old. The young still know how to listen, understand and learn”.

Ouch! Ano ang ibig sabihin nitong si Escudero? Walang pinagkatandaan si Arroyo? At si Nene? At si Juan Ponce Enrile? And every other senator who, caught in a vise of instant public opinion, would not just so easily withdraw what they know they can no longer withdraw, even if indeed, a mistake may have been made, mistake which in its own time and under the right procedures, or rules, can yet be rectified?

Escudero runs on the singular platform of age. As if youth is its own reward for being. He likens himself to America’s Obama, and like Gloria Arroyo, hoped to have a picture taken with the new and young American Caesar.

In a recent forum at the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) of the University of the Philippines which schooled Francis Escudero from grade school to law school, Prof. Prospero de Vera said that he had come across focused group discussions (FGD’s) where young discussants chose “Chiz” as their would-be president, but could advance no reason, other than age, to reason out their choice. They do not know their favourite “Chiz” for having sponsored vital legislation, or championing genuine advocacies, or taking firm positions, according to Professor Popoy. Just “kilig to the bones” --- so young, so cute, so cuddly.

Obama would bristle at the parallelism. When he admitted that he had made a mistake at nominating Tom Daschle without his staff vetting the latter’s tax records, the public forgave him easily, and Daschle promptly withdrew his nomination as Secretary of Health. (So unlike Gloria Arroyo, who keeps appointing and re-appointing misfits, and to hell with the Commission on Appointments). But that is not how the Senate, in the Philippines or in the United States works, when it comes to passing legislation. You can say you are sorry, you can say you made a mistake, but you cannot just withdraw your signature after the measure has been passed.

Tagalogs have a metaphor describing ambitious men who trifle with their written or spoken word, and who parlay glib verbosity as competence, and call such men in a hurry as “hinog sa pilit”. Those of us who know our mangoes well can spot what the Bisaya call “gui-karburo” at first taste.

But young Escudero, I am certain, can in glibness riposte that there also are older and supposed-to-be wiser men, like Joker Arroyo, who are like “burong mangga”, fermented in youth to preserve their sourness.

Still and all, burong mangga is perfect side dish for fried and grilled food, whether meat or fish, but “hinog sa pilit”, whether as dessert or siding, simply does not please.

It’s not a matter of age. It’s competence. And above all, it is character that matters.