Sleight of hand
We already know what we’ll find when we google “Jim Paredes.” All of his activism and artistry is buried beneath so much noise about a short leaked video. Some outlets even asked for statements from other OPM greats, as though having his privacy invaded entitled Paredes to another round of humiliating comments on his personal life. The cruel and unpleasant business shows some of the ugliest facets of our society — ageism; a backward and inconsistent prudery; a hunger for finding fault; and cries of “hypocrisy!” for anyone in public life caught in any activity even remotely sexual. And if all of this reminds us of how the public behaved in the light of detained Sen. Leila de Lima’s so-called sex videos, it could be because the intended effects are parallel and intentional. One video might be real and the other fake, but they accomplished similar things — the discrediting of a staunch opponent of the big man in Malacañang, and the distraction of the public from other issues at hand.
De Lima herself calls on the people not to be distracted; she said as much in a 2018 Rappler article on the State of the Nation Address, and she said it again recently when she called the video a “diversionary scheme.” Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay called the tactics a “policy of distraction” in 2018. We know that sleight of hand, a talent for distraction, is a natural and even necessary extension of politics, and the Duterte administration uses it endlessly and effectively: The media circus and the bewildering conflagration of fake news have made the internet a more toxic, more distracting environment than it’s ever been. Our own algorithms and our thirst for the salacious and scandalous do the work for them. They only have to release one video, one nonsensical or polarizing statement from one of Mr. Duterte’s famous sycophants, and their work is done: Our natural urge to gossip and to comment will do the rest.
It isn’t even that the distractions are, in themselves, unimportant. The Paredes issue highlights Filipino attitudes about sexuality, age and privacy that ought to be threshed out and discussed. It’s the same with the rape jokes, the insults to God and to priests, and the rest of the ignorant bile from the Palace — important, but not life-or-death important.
The timing, too, is suspiciously convenient. The topic seems oddly vacuous, and yet very gossipworthy, as it drowns out the news on the killing of 14 farmers in Negros Oriental — a massacre according to witnesses and kin, a legitimate operation according to the Philippine National Police. It was also an effective distraction for many who had seen, and been alarmed by, the recent viral videos linking a presidential son with the drug trade. Not to mention rising China-Philippine tensions and our bewildering withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.
We’ve seen the Trump administration do much of the same. One most effective example of distraction happened with rising antigun violence sentiment in the wake of a Las Vegas massacre at the hands of a civilian gunman. The momentum was transmuted into something else when Trump then tweeted about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The conversation across the country turned to race relations instead, and gun control was put on the back burner. With distraction, political pressure and the momentum behind protest die down, lose steam. Outrage is deliberately provoked in one area to distract from another, and media coverage — or lack thereof — follows suit.
This politics of distraction is effective, and its machinery is composed of the morally bankrupt. We might never know for sure the hand who was responsible for the leaked video or the motivations behind the leak, and if it was a deliberate political move. But for all its effects, it may as well have been: We’re more enraged about the morality of a man in a compromising position rather than about murder, police violence and impunity. In the age of Trump and Duterte, in the age of strongman politics, social media overload and fake news, we ought to constantly be asking: What am I being distracted from? Let’s focus.
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