‘Rotten mackerels in the moonlight’


Being overheard saying the B-word in airports, even if only as a joke, could mean missing your flight, being separated from your luggage and traveling companions, getting interrogated and who knows what else. If you are already inside the aircraft, you could get off-loaded, handcuffed perhaps, and detained.

But hereabouts, a former president threatening to lead a secession of the island of Mindanao from the republic gets only a collective shrug or a big LOL emoji on social media. Traitorous, treasonous, seditious? Take your pick and spell it right.

But for some, it was their duty to take the verbal threat seriously even if there was no physical movement to carry out the threat. The Inquirer banner headline a few days ago: “Año: Any secession move to be met with force” (News, 2/5/24). “Ay, pinatulan,” to say it in Filipino, and why not? Below the headline: “The national security adviser said the government would defend ‘the national territory,’ as the military chief visited Army camps in Mindanao over the weekend. Former President Rodrigo Duterte earlier called for an ‘independent Mindanao.’”

Some found humor in the threat, like I did, and conjured up scenarios on how the secession process would be, how messy it would be, with the dying and dead littering the landscape. Picture a rag-tag band of secessionists that could be mistaken for bandits with an aging and fentanyl-driven former president in the lead, the dreaded Davao Death Squad marching right behind him. Pardon my cinematic imagination. Caricaturists would have a fun day portraying the exercise in futility. Defenders of the republic should not be amused, or if they are, should not show it.

That, while the so-called people’s initiative (PI) for a Charter change was in the throes, botched as it was because so easily did the clumsy initiators blow their own cover. What the letters PI stood for in the Filipino language was not lost on many. And so the finger-pointing began. Whose big idea was it? Who funded it? Who signed and what did the signatories receive in return? Did they know what it was all about? It was exploitation of the poor and the ignorant at its worst, to say the least. Just imagining the process could make one hyperventilate. Still, if there is anything that we hope for it is that the ill-motivated who exploit the poor and ignorant will have their comeuppance, if not tomorrow, some other day.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has issued a statement calling down the initiative. So did the seven task forces/mission partners of the Conference of Major Superiors in the Philippines: “None of it springs from a genuine desire to serve our people—the unemployed and underemployed, the lowly-paid working class, the dispossessed peasants, the marginalized indigenous peoples …” It ends by reminding that ”the 1987 Constitution guarantees Filipino control of our resources.”

Again, a favorite quote comes to mind: “Like a rotten mackerel in the moonlight, [it] shines and [it] stinks.” It was from American aristocrat John Randolph who said it in the 1820s against his colleagues in the United States Congress whom he considered so brilliant but so corrupt.

In his New York Times opinion piece, Alan Ehrenhalt expounds on the rotten mackerel: “The phrase has lived on not only because of its cleverness, but because it defines a moral ambiguity most of us find very hard to understand. We look for heroes to represent us, although we rarely find them. We take certain perverse pleasure in unmasking hypocrites and dispatching blowhards who fail to deliver on their promises. The leaders we have trouble dealing with are those of obvious talent and genuine achievement who turn out to have displayed appalling ethical insensitivity—or worse.” I don’t know about the PI perpetrators’ obvious talent and genuine achievement but the blowhards we have plenty of.

The “mackerels in the moonlight,” Ehrenhalt says, represents “an ethical problem more delicate and more depressing than the existence of outright evil.” Not to forget to add the word “rotten” else we disparage the mackerels that most Filipinos can afford and love to eat fresh from the sea. Ecce, behold the mackerel on the table while our deep-sea fishermen are being chased away from our own territorial waters by big bully China’s naval forces. And speaking of rotten ones that stink and shine, it did not take long for word to get out that some compatriots of ours in the media are now allegedly in China’s payroll. Who can tell us that this is not true? Again, traitorous and treasonous are words to spell correctly and meant for those who have sold their souls to the ogre west of the Philippines.

All that while there is no stopping the price of rice from rising while in some parts of the country vegetables are rotting, price of eggs is in an all-time low and landslides are burying homes and humans in parts of Mindanao. To borrow a line from a song: Who can we turn to?


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