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Fretfulness, fatalism and piety

What can we do? If it’s your time, it’s your time.” President Duterte recently expressed that fatalistic sentiment, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, after North Korea’s last missile launch was reported. Lorenzana himself said he, too, was alarmed as a missile “could hit the wrong targets.” Whining that “they keep sending those missiles out without any reason except maybe to scare us here, the neighboring countries,” he seemed to be urging us all to panic.

And then he fell back on the customary religiosity that he knows his countrymen display during difficult times, saying: “It’s too late to start building air raid shelters. Maybe we will just pray and hope the missiles would drop somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.”

News reports that the new missile travelled 3,700 kilometers, putting Guam in its range, reminded everyone that the Philippines is a mere 3,100 km away. Those statistics are apparently what made the President and his defense secretary feel fretful and fatalistic.

So do we ordinary Filipinos also worry? Do we ponder on that old saying about the grass getting trampled when elephants fight? In the hurly-burly of daily life, do any of us worry that the shadow of nuclear annihilation looms as large over the Philippines as it does over South Korea and Japan? Does the chance of a rogue missile hitting our shores give us pause in these uncertain times when things can go awry between governments run by megalomaniacs like Kim Jung-un and narcissists like Donald Trump?

With Trump and Kim exchanging insults earlier, the image that sprang to mind was of two boys brawling. Today, with Trump’s foreign policy akin to the old TV game “Jeopardy,” the two are in a virtual state of war.

This kind of brinkmanship brings to mind the Cuban crisis of October 1962 when Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev faced off with US President John F. Kennedy over the Soviet missiles in the Bay of Pigs. The confrontation ended when the two leaders realized that nuclear war wasn’t worth it. The Russians pulled out their missiles from Cuba and the Americans likewise agreed to withdraw theirs from Turkey.

Prior to that, underground nuclear shelters were set up in some American cities, showing that Lorenzana has a long memory (if nothing else) in citing the impossibility of building such bunkers here.

To cope with the uncertainty, are we Filipinos fixating on our own type of escapism? Do we avidly watch entertainment, like a local celebrity’s tacky wedding abroad, and other extravaganzas? Do we follow movie stars’ latest hi-jinks, and smile at mestizas once again winning beauty crowns? Indeed, as a cynic once declared, we’re an undereducated and overentertained people, which is why the rest of the world finds it hard to take our country seriously.

While media folks bloviate on the sinking peso, only rich folks worry because the majority of citizens are used to the daily struggle for survival. “When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes,” Stephen Jay Gould observed, “the seeds of political manipulation are sown.” Thus, the politicians (big men with small characters) engage in their endless chicanery.

We may be famous for being easygoing, trumpeting that “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” But a friend who once worked as a tour guide in Cebu related that she didn’t last long on the job and was soon fed up with having to take foreign tourists around so-called scenic spots amid piles of garbage and the squalor found seemingly everywhere. She found the widespread deficit of civic spirit an embarrassment.

So we drift along, putting up with daily disorder under our obtuse leaders, turning reality into jokes. The notion of nationhood continues to be a sham, the stuff of tragicomedy.

Isabel T. Escoda has written about migrant workers, especially in Hong Kong where she lived for many years before moving in 2015 to her birthplace of Cebu. Her books include “Letters from Hong Kong,” “Hong Kong Postscript,” “Pinoy Abroad” and two books for children.

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