Here’s your sign

IN June, 1863 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania. As the soldiers of General Robert E. Lee fanned out across the countryside, they noticed that some of the nervous residents were greeting them with all manner of bizarre gestures.

When they finally asked someone just what the hell was going on, the soldiers were told that some days ahead of the advancing army, agents had arrived and promised to teach, for a hefty price, of course,  the terrified Pennsylvanians secret signs that would protect them from having all their possessions looted by the invading horde.

On hearing this, the Confederate soldiers laughed their asses off, and took what they wanted anyway. Fortunately for the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Southerners got those very same asses handed to them by the Union Army a few days later, but no one ever got their stuff or any of their money back.

Throughout history, hand signs and gestures have proven to be of limited use. Some legitimate applications include conversations between deaf people; passing short messages such as “Blue 14,” or “X out and fly” in the course of certain sporting events such as football; and as secret communication among members of exclusive groups. For example, my fraternity had a “secret handshake,” which was useful when meeting a member from another chapter. It conveyed the message, “We are brothers, because we belong to the same group. Let’s go drink beer until we throw up.”

Filipinos, however, have elevated the use of hand signals to what they no doubt believe is a sublime art in participating in the democratic process. The latest is a plucky young lady named Shibby De Guzman, not “shibby” as in Dude, Where’s My Car? but rather a “student protest leader” who, despite remaining a complete cipher to most of the country even after someone talked Time magazine into naming her “an influential person,” is leading the youth protest against “extrajudicial killings” with the power of the Hang Ten:

Surf’s up, dudes.

Shibby and her gang of grrll power up there are following in some mighty footsteps, most notably the tattered remnants of the Liberal Party, which has reconstituted itself, token Muslim and all, as Tindig Pilipinas, a Tagalog phrase that means, approximately, “Why won’t you love me, Philippines?” in English. The movement, which opposes the incumbent administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, has adopted the defiant salute from the popular Hunger Force 10 From Navarone movie (Is that what the movie was called? I don’t know. I don’t watch that shit.) as its call to arms. Or maybe they are signaling, um, three? It’s hard to tell. But they have a symbol, dammit:

Risa didn’t get the email about the OOTD.

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay used to do that one, too:

But Binay’s a Boy Scout, and the Boy Scouts have owned that one for about a century, so he gets a pass.

Other protest groups have adopted their own unique symbols, though not all of them have been comprehensible. A case in point: The Black and White Movement, which got its start when former Secretary of Awkward Hair Coloring Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, seen here with former President Cory Aquino, and some of her other Cabinet colleagues decided they had milked their association with then-President Gloria Arroyo for all it was worth, and set themselves up as an “opposition.”

Aging is a bitch, ain’t it.

The group adopted an interesting, rather Grecian style of the Shocker as its talisman, seen here on Black and White leader Leah Navarro, looking quite a bit more current than the 30-year-old avatar she uses as a social media profile picture:

Recently, however, it seems the group may have learned their signature might not mean what they think it means, because they seem a little uncomfortable:

Wave your hands in the air like you don’t care

And of course, the granddaddy of them all, the pioneer in the art of hand signs, is the once-formidable Liberal Party, here displaying their famous L-sign:

Once again, Mar demonstrates there is nothing so insignificant that he can’t find a way to screw it up.

But the hand sign is not merely a form of protest among Filipinos. Even popular President Duterte has his physical signature:

Feel free to disagree with me, but I think Manny Pinol was about the best move Duterte has made.

But to his credit, it at least doesn’t come across as a product of a focus group:

You damn kids stay off my lawn.

All jest aside, the Pinoy penchant for showmanship — that they would rather spend more time on attracting attention through sight gags than substance — is a serious character flaw that leaves this country unable to graduate from banana republic status. An unwillingness — and not, I think, an inability — to face any sort of complexity will keep the Philippines from even moving in the direction of its potential, to say nothing of reaching it until society as a whole develops at least a measure of disdain for the trite.

As I have written before, one of the most important parts of an effective democracy is a legitimate, productive opposition. The “war on drugs,” for example, needs to be challenged, because historically,  in any country the “war on drugs” has been oversold and underdelivered. The US has fought a “war on drugs” for better than 40 years, and is currently beset by an opioid epidemic. Colombia, which supposedly got a handle on its drug problem about the time Pablo Escobar got blown off a roof 20-odd years ago, just last week seized 12 tons of cocaine. It is the height of folly to assume that a career provincial mayor has all the answers and is beyond making mistakes. It is likewise unreasonable to assume that he cannot offer a solution, or a significant part of it. But it takes reasoned dialogue and engagement to determine that one way or the other. It takes dissent not merely concerned with stopping or removing him, but to oblige him to exert real intellectual effort, and adapt when it’s logically necessary to do so, to hold onto the mandate he’s been given.

When the country is collectively more determined to use its heads rather than its hands, perhaps then it will see progress worth waving about.

Stand there like that long enough, maybe you’ll catch the hint. Let us know how that works out.

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Another Rejection of the Divine Right of Kings

ooh fireI expected, as I think most people did, that the Supreme Court’s ruling that the controversial “Disbursement Acceleration Program” (DAP) invented by President B.S. Aquino 3.0 and his clever, soulless accountant Butch Abad would be that it was blatantly unconstitutional, but I was somewhat surprised that the vote was unanimous (13-0, with one abstention). I don’t think even The Manila Times’ ace reporter Jomar Canlas – who, thanks to having developed a carefully-cultivated, well-protected source at the Supreme Court, routinely breaks news of important rulings and other Court affairs days or weeks before they become public knowledge – saw that coming, and given the usual behavior of the Court, or more specifically, Aquino’s four sycophantic appointees Maria Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen, a 10-4 or 9-5 vote seemed like the probable spread. A vote like that would have allowed the Administration shills to stay in their boss’ good graces, particularly after their unanimous vote against the PDAF in November last year.

The decision instantly brought to mind another momentous unanimous Supreme Court decision that was made, half a world away, 40 years ago this month: The 8-0 vote of the US Supreme Court in the United States vs. Richard Nixon case, which denied a motion by the embattled US President to quash a subpoena for the infamous “Nixon tapes” issued by the US District Court in Washington, DC at the request of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Those tapes, which were records of conversations held in Nixon’s White House office, were central to the rapidly-expanding Watergate case; Nixon and his attorneys, realizing as everyone else already did that those tapes contained damning evidence of the President’s personal involvement in the attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary and a number of other crimes, worked furiously to avoid having to turn them over to investigators, citing national security concerns and in particular, “executive privilege.”

The US Supreme Court’s ruling on July 24, 1974 – which as in the present-day DAP case took an unusually long time to be issued – held that “executive privilege” was not absolute, especially not when it was being used to forestall a valid investigation and judicial process. Unable to defy the courts any longer, Nixon permitted the release of the tapes, and on August 5, the “smoking gun” was discovered: A recording of a conversation that indicated Nixon had been informed of the White House’s connection to the Watergate break-in not long after it happened, and had directed his staff to deflect the investigation. Already 09269L01.jpgfacing impeachment – the House Judiciary Committee had voted to pass an impeachment case on to the full House of Representatives even before the Supreme Court ruled on the tapes – Nixon was informed by Congressional leaders that he would in all likelihood be convicted and removed from office in a Senate trial if it came to that, so on August 9, after giving a tense yet nonetheless weirdly statesman-like address to the nation the previous evening, Nixon resigned, handing over the presidency to his Vice President of less than 10 months, Gerald R. Ford.

There are some eerie similarities between the two cases. Richard Nixon was very different from Noynoy Aquino in some fundamental ways, certainly. Working-class Nixon was a brilliant student, served as a Naval officer in World War II, and was a competent practicing attorney before entering politics, where he gained national prominence through a number of accomplishments as a Congressman, Senator, and then Vice President of Dwight Eisenhower; as President, he was noted for an energetic foreign policy that improved relations with the Soviet Union and China, he expanded environmental laws, initiated significant economic programs (which may or may not have actually been good ideas), and supported affirmative action and equal rights for women. Noynoy Aquino, on the other hand, is…Noynoy Aquino. What the two men do have in common, however, is having been enormously popular at the time of their last elections, and having the same sort of sociopathic vindictiveness, overall lack of ethical sensibilities, and unhealthy obsession with their place in history. Both men presided over Administrations that were uniquely noted for number, scale, and breadth of the scandals that occurred, but both were, at least for a while, able to prevent suspicion from falling on them personally.

When suspicions did become too great to ignore, both presidents preemptively claimed innocence in addresses to their countries on primetime television, and when that didn’t work, both had a bloc of ideological support within their respective Supreme Courts that they thought they could count on to at least ease the blow of an adverse ruling by making it less than unanimous, and therefore debatable. In Nixon’s case, three of the eight justices who voted against him were his own appointees; a fourth, William Rehnquist, recused himself from the case because he had served for a time in the office of Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell. (Nixon, incidentally, had trouble with Rehnquist’s name, and in the taped conversations that were finally turned over to the Special Prosecutor after the Supreme Court ruling, Nixon could be heard several times referring to him as “Renchburg”.)

And of course, both presidents finally pushed it too far, overestimated their own infallibility, and had a personal hand in activities they must have known were blatantly illegal; Nixon’s culpability was established by the tapes he tried so hard to keep from being heard, while Aquino’s was established by his own accountant, Abad, who threw his boss under the bus in his own testimony before the Supreme Court prior to yesterday’s ruling.

It remains to be seen whether B.S. Aquino will suffer the same fate as R.M. Nixon. Within minutes of the announcement of yesterday’s ruling, there were reports that impeachment complaints against Aquino and charges of fraud and malversation of funds against Butch Abad were being readied, but expectations that the moral turpitude of officials like the Secretary of Justice and the Ombudsman (both of whom seem to labor under the additional handicap of having no apparent legal skills) and the Philippine Legislature who would actually handle an impeachment proceeding will suddenly vanish are pretty low. After all, an impeachment on the grounds of willfully violating the Constitution to repurpose funds that mainly ended up in the hands of the legislators themselves will expose many of them as conspirators, and that is a path none will willingly tread. The effect on the country will probably be the same either way: Two more years (or more) of political paralysis, with the focus of those in power directed not towards the people’s business, but their own self-preservation. Sad to say, it’s a situation the country is probably used to by now.