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Zoos, circuses, the Ark

After the circus, do we go on to the zoo?

I’m using metaphors, of course, and it’s not so much the zoos or circuses as the animals in these places—the nonhuman varieties—that humans have always so enjoyed watching. As metaphors, animals are excellent, allowing us to think more vividly, using familiar images to tackle profound issues.

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It’s no wonder all cultures have fables or stories that have animals (as well as plants and inanimate objects) with human attributes, talking and offering moral lessons.  The most famous and loved ones are those of Aesop, a Greek slave and storyteller who lived in the fifth century BC. More than a hundred of his fables have been adapted and readapted, translated into numerous languages.

We’re all familiar, too, with Rizal’s “Ang Pagong at ang Matsing” (The Hare and the Tortoise), a story of one-upmanship and of wisdom, slow wisdom, winning over the rash and the arrogant.  Rizal personally illustrated that fable, which has many similar variations in other cultures.

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Fables are popular as children’s stories, Dr. Seuss perhaps being the most famous authors of such stories among the modern ones. But there’s also no lack of adult fare for this genre. George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which warned about totalitarianism, is an example of a particularly heavy political piece.

In the last 20 years or so we’ve seen an explosion of cinematic fables. Pixar Films is the most prolific of the producers of this genre. There’s no end in sight for films with animals and plants—a modern twist would be toys and cars—that don’t just talk but sing and dance, all the while dishing out advice on moral living.

Animal politics

Human politics seems to inspire animal metaphors. We hear of the buwaya (crocodiles) of Congress. Crocodiles are the most familiar wild animals among Filipinos given that they inhabit rivers close to human settlements. Crocodiles were (and still are) greatly feared; but they are seen as most dangerous when they cry. “Crocodile tears” represent the height (or depths) of insincerity because crocodiles supposedly shed tears while devouring their victims. The Filipino also refers to these tears (luha ng buwaya), which have indeed been established to occur while crocodiles eat, according to a research report published in 2007 in BioScience. But the crocodile tears are also found when crocodiles are not eating—simply as lubrication.

Less familiar to Filipinos because we don’t have them in the Philippines are the baboons, actually great apes who don’t quite deserve their reputation of being clumsy and as blundering creatures—in other words, of not being very bright. The baboons are used as a metaphor for legislators, thus the term “a congress of baboons.” Actually, the baboons are very gentle creatures.

We refer to elections as circuses, and think of politicians performing and doing tricks like circus animals. “Come on, come all!”  the barkers, well, bark (see, another animal metaphor), enticing people to watch the spectacles.

In my Inquirer e-mail box last month was a poem by political prisoner Alan Jazmines, “When the Zoo Took Part in the Elections.” This was first published in Ateneo de Manila’s Philippine Studies in 1985 but was written in 1984, when an ailing dictator Ferdinand Marcos tried to retrieve lost legitimacy for his beleaguered leadership by talking about possible elections, which were eventually held in 1986.

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Jazmines didn’t think too highly of the proposed elections under Marcos, seeing it as another sham exercise. He then named, in his poem, different zoo animals that were taking part in the circus. I leave it to readers to imagine what humans were being represented by these animals with some hints from Jazmines’ poem:  lions (insisting on their desires according to laws enacted in their native habitat), crocodiles (quarreling with lions), snakes (speaking with forked tongues and frequently changing skin), birds (continuing to multiply into multitudes).  Then we have seals (who stand on the head, for peanuts), monkeys (somersaulting), ostriches (burying their heads), aquaria fish (staring wide-eyed, gulping everything).

Jazmines ends with elephants who “surmised there had been serious lessons in the past.  But it had been so long since the last, they forgot.”

Jazmines sent his 1984 poem around with a note about it being as relevant for the 2016 elections.

Cabinet Ark

Indeed it is, but I find the poem relevant, too, in the search for Cabinet members.  To the credit of the Duterte administration, we are seeing a wide spectrum of political ideologies represented in his Cabinet and for the first time in our history, we see the Left being given Cabinet positions.

I worry more about the new administration having to give out Cabinet positions to pay back political debts to their big financiers, and to power brokers. People can only hope the incoming powers that be will remember they have bigger debts to the man and woman in the street, the ones who saw in him a voice, however coarse at times, for the voiceless.

Again, I am impressed that the administration has included the Left, to which it owed no debts. There seems to be a genuine interest in getting progressives into the Cabinet to help solve social problems, and to move toward a resumption of peace talks with the National Democratic Front.

What I do worry about are the zoo animals Jazmines wrote about. After the electoral circus, I see more zoo animals flying, crawling, slithering around.

Can you hear them?

Can you smell them?

Was that a company of colorful kulasisi in the corner?  (For non-Filipino readers, the kulasisi  are parrots with a reputation.)

I see the incoming Cabinet as a kind of Noah’s Ark, and hope it will be a peaceable kingdom inside. It will be unrealistic to expect complete peace and harmony, but we need to hope that Duterte, like Noah, will be able to keep the animals from going after each other, even while steering the Ark through turbulent waters.

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TAGS: Animal Farm, animal politics, Cabinet, Rodrigo Duterte
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