The unbearable privilege of pettiness
In the not-too-distant past, when a Filipino senator invoked personal privilege in order to speak, the Senate set aside the business of the day in anticipation of hearing someone of the caliber of Claro M. Recto, Lorenzo Tañada, Jose W. Diokno, or Jovito R. Salonga fill the chamber with stirring words of wisdom, patriotism, and high-mindedness. In keeping with the Senate’s image as the nation’s most important forum for issues, a privilege speech was typically crafted as a discourse on what ailed the nation, a prelude to an exposé of government corruption or negligence, or an introduction to an urgent piece of legislation. Watching and listening to the substantive floor debates that followed were one of the most satisfying ways of educating oneself on national issues. The quality of our political class was a great source of national pride for young people like us at that time.
How things have changed! These days, a senator’s privilege speech is likely to be no more than a theatrical display of self-indulgent pettiness and hollow rhetoric, full of emotion but signifying nothing. The preponderant abuse of this democratic tool makes one wonder at what point things went wrong. One searches in vain for signs that the passing of the years has made us stronger as a community and more capable of self-rule.
The senators who listened to Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr.’s privilege speech on June 9 were too kind or too polite to say anything that might reveal what they were thinking. But, their faces showed that they were consecutively amused, amazed, and perhaps taken aback by the cinematic self-assurance by which incoherent thoughts could be communicated by a colleague. Theirs indeed is the privilege of being able to take things in stride, of keeping silent as a matter of courtesy even when outrageous things are said or done. But they will understand, I hope, if the rest of us, ordinary citizens of this country, who work hard and pay our taxes promptly and in full, do not find anything edifying in the spectacle of politicians charged with plundering the nation’s coffers singing their way through their speeches.
I reviewed the video of the speech on YouTube, and read the text twice to get a sense of where it was going. But I could not comprehend the speech’s basic thrust. Its tone was alternately accusatory and conciliatory. It sounded serious in some parts, struggling to rise above the shallow emotions, the clichés, and the air of righteousness that pervaded it. But in the end it drowned in its own pettiness, accompanied by the funereal strains of a maudlin farewell song.
Let us briefly deconstruct this unusual performance, which, perhaps more than anything else in its genre, gives us a glimpse of the dysfunctional coupling between politics and show biz. Delivered partly in Filipino and partly in English, the speech opens with a grandiose plea to permit the expression of feelings that might signal the start of a new chapter in the nation’s narrative. It then proceeds to lament the expenditure of so much government time and resources over the plunder cases, and asks that attention be refocused on the more urgent problems of the Filipino people.
Striking the pose of a statesman, the senator explicitly addresses President Aquino, and rambles on about the nation’s more pressing problems—poverty, hunger, unemployment, natural disasters, crime, the country’s rundown international airport, etc. Speaking like a prophet who has seen the light, he then tells P-Noy: “Lead this country not with hatred but with love. Lead the country towards unity and not partisanship. Push our nation’s interest and not political agenda…. You still have two remaining years. Jailing your oppositors (sic) should not be the only achievement and legacy you will be leaving behind.”
Revilla warns the President about the perils of vengefulness and points to the disrepute to which Congress as an institution has fallen as a result of the pork barrel controversy. He tells him to do something to dispel the growing suspicion that all this is a prelude to abolishing Congress through Charter change. And so the speech goes, one non sequitur following another, a jumble of overused slogans, capped by a section thanking all those who have helped the senator in his movie and political careers.
In decent mature societies, individuals in similar situations would resolutely avoid attracting more public attention by making fools of themselves. They might quietly bow their heads, not in admission of guilt, but out of shame for being at the center of the nation’s troubles. They may do everything to prove their innocence in court, but they will not permit themselves the liberty of strutting around as though the charges against them were purely contrived and the nation’s agitation unjustified. Least of all are accused political leaders in these societies, once they are formally charged, given a political platform from which they could mount a counteroffensive against their perceived enemies. By such restraint is further damage to institutions avoided.
There is no satisfaction in writing these thoughts on the anniversary of our country’s independence. A day like this should be an occasion for highlighting those aspects of our national history and existence that inspire hope and enable us to forge a moral identity as a nation. But, maybe, feelings of intense shame aroused by the corrupt and thoughtless conduct of our leaders are as necessary to political renewal as are the feelings of pride evoked by the heroism and selflessness we see among our people in moments of crisis. Long live the Filipino nation!
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