AS a few of you may have noticed, I have been out of circulation for several months. That’s a largely personal matter that I do not intend to discuss; there were circumstances, some caused by me and some by others, and a big part of the solution was to get myself out of the intellectual and social cesspool that is Manila and embrace anonymity.
What makes it pertinent to even mention my own travails is that my self-imposed exile turned out to be enlightening in a completely unexpected way.
If one watches from outside the wall for a time, the only feeling one can possibly have towards the media in this country – both the so-called mainstream and the even more self-important social – is mild disgust. Media has divided itself into two, and only two, combative cults. Both are gravely, perhaps fatally compromised, and neither bears any resemblance at all to any useful notion of a fourth estate.
On the one side are slavering, brook-no-dissent zealots, among them a shocking number of formerly critical thinkers, for the incumbent administration. It is almost embarrassing to watch their desperate grasping for relevance; not for themselves, perhaps, but certainly for the object of their devotion, and in such a manner as to make it painfully obvious that their ardor is nothing more than a stubborn unwillingness to admit the bald reality that the current president is very nearly as petty and mediocre as any leader this country has ever spawned.
Even then they can still claim moral ascendancy because on the other side are the media who have openly embraced a monumentally bad caricature of political leadership and organization, and are completely unaware of how comically ridiculous they appear for having done so.
All this would be alarming if it actually mattered. Instead, it’s alarming that it doesn’t. For all the propaganda about the wide public support for Duterte, once one steps out of the world in which it seems terribly important to believe or disbelieve that – in other words, joins the world the other 99-point-something percent of the population lives in – one finds that the prevailing mood is one of complete ambivalence.
It’s not hard to see why. For all his showmanship, Duterte has substantially turned out to be a very conventional Philippine president, none-too-subtly focused on remaining on top of the political dogpile, and managing the country according to a vague and simplistic expression of aspirations for the country. With only one or two exceptions, his Cabinet is virtually indistinguishable from any other – a collection of mostly unimaginative, recycled apparatchiks and a few utter but ultimately harmless clowns. His most substantial policy ideas, such as the tax reform package and most of the infrastructure “wish list,” were borrowed wholesale from administrations past, are yet to bear any fruit, and most likely will not given the relatively short time available to him.
Little wonder, then, that he has concentrated on the mundane, expending energy on such banalities as putting a stop to smoking in public places (hasn’t worked), discouraging jaywalking (hasn’t worked, either), and those old public policy classics, the “war on drugs” and “rooting out corruption,” the latter being an especially ironic effort for one whose arguably evident first priority is to keep a firm grip on his personal fiefdom. All these sorts of acts of “governance” are hailed as achievements, but under the best of circumstances would result in nothing more than a return – or more appropriately, since we are talking about the Philippines – an advance to a merely normative state. It is a sad commentary on both the leadership and the led that doing a minimal caretaker’s job is somehow considered an accomplishment.
As unimpressed as the public seems to be with the media adoration of all things Duterte, they are even less moved by the appeals favoring the “opposition.” The Liberal Party and its sorry cast of characters are a study in failure so astonishing it ought to be its own course in a political science curriculum. Not since the Marcos era, and maybe not even then, has there been a political cabal that has pursued power for its own enrichment, nor one that has so openly engaged in clearly corrupt practices in both the pursuit and maintenance of power.
Incredibly, the LP, by way of its supportive media, actually presents this as a value proposition to the country, and characterizes the current legal proceedings against some of its leading figures – which, as already noted, is just Duterte doing the job he should be expected to do – as persecution. So one-note the party is about its orientation, in the rare moments one of the handful of leading LP figures has to express something that sounds like an actual opposition policy idea, they can’t even fake it, giving us such hilariously mind-boggling canards as the suggestion that the ruins of Marawi be preserved.
Two political sides, both flawed, and neither making a significant impact on the country and the lives of its people. Yet the media, which should be doing its job of holding the leaders and the would-be leaders to account, has decided that these are the only options, and instead has thrown all its resources into a futile attempt at turd-polishing.
What the media here either does not understand or chooses to ignore is that it must play a clear role in the democratic framework – through informing the public from an objectively critical perspective, it in effect represents the public’s needs and aspirations to political leaders. By lining up on one side or another, it robs the people of that connection.
Duterte needs the foil of a legitimate opposition; any president does, because that’s what makes the difference between a “good” or maybe even “great” president and one who only rises to the level of “not bad”, which is the best Duterte can hope for if he and his country continue on their current shared path. An opposition that has what it honestly believes are the best interests of the country in mind and strives to critically question and offer substantial alternatives to majority policies on that basis – as opposed to retarded afterthoughts like maintaining an already depressed city in a state of ruin to make a point about the importance of basing political choices on labels – helps the president do his job better, which ultimately benefits not only the majority who gave him his mandate at the ballot box, but those who did not.
When that sort of organized opposition is absent, the media, if it’s doing its job, naturally fills that role – not by pointedly taking a negative position to whatever the government proposes, but by simply being critical in the pure sense: Not simply repeating whatever it’s told by the official mouthpieces, but by analyzing its substance and explaining the implications of it, good and bad. But that, unfortunately, is too much work for a media born of a culture whose entire sense of self-worth is based on how it believes it appears to others, a media that measures success only by its numbers of access points and circulation or follower counts. And in the end, it will accomplish nothing; the Philippines will look just the same after Duterte as it did before, and remain just what it’s been for generations, nothing more than a sandbar in the world’s backwaters.