This past month, I watched in disbelief as the most important political debate of my generation devolved into a circus starring Senator Tito Sotto III as the clown. While proponents of the Reproductive Health Bill* struggled to move the deliberations forward, Tito Sen declared himself champion of the opposing camp and planted his feet firmly in the way.
Fair enough. But then he opened his mouth during his first turno en contra speech, and it all fell apart. The nation tuned in, expecting well-reasoned arguments, only to hear plagiarized ideas, outdated research, and manufactured drama. It all went downhill from there (here’s a timeline and another one if you just woke up from a coma and missed it), with the last turno en kopya disaster turning out to have a conclusion directly translated from a Robert F. Kennedy speech.
In the public smackdown that followed, I noticed something rather unusual. The Senate was silent. The people were in uproar, but there was no backlash from the other members of the institution that Sotto’s antics were debasing in front of the entire world. Juan Ponce Enrile, whose legacy as senate president is at stake, practically gave Sotto a hug for being so misunderstood. Even the volatile Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who is as much an academic as she is a public servant, was uncharacteristically tolerant. Really, senators? You don’t care about the blatant lying and stealing within your ranks at all?
You know what this reminds me of? The fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings**. Remember how Frodo had to take the One Ring to Mordor when the great powers of Middle Earth refused to even touch it? They feared the temptation of the ring, so it fell to a simple little hobbit to vanquish the darkest evil in the land. “Even the smallest person,” the Elf-queen Galadriel told him, “can change the course of the future.”
Now I don’t know if our leaders’ failure to denounce Sotto’s lack of integrity can be compared to the noble rejection of the ring’s power, but Rappler’s Carla Montemayor offered some conjectures. No matter what the reason, their hands-off response to Sotto’s shenanigans has allowed his corruption free rein in the Senate. And now it falls to ordinary Filipinos and whatever tools we can muster to call him out. It’s up to us.
We combat the misinformation, manipulations, and outright lies that Sotto and his ilk spout on a regular basis. Refusing to be fooled, we link to reputable studies, point out logical fallacies, and hover over our keyboards ready to google fu the heck out of the hype.
We rally behind two of us, writer Miguel Syjuco and teacher Leloy Claudio, who challenged one of the highest officials in the land to a debate about his so-called evidence against the bill. (Sotto refused them, of course, because God forbid he should ever exert actual intellectual effort.)
We fire off tweets and memes and Facebook posts, today’s equivalent of placards and people power chants. We laugh and mock and rage at Sotto, but underneath it all, we just want an apology. We just want to believe that there’s decency and integrity in our sworn leaders. (SPOILER ALERT: Not gonna happen, guys.)
We start petitions to penalize or oust Sotto which, let’s be realistic, would probably only be ignored by old school politicians who wouldn’t comprehend that behind these digital signatures are flesh-and-blood Filipinos desperate for change. But we sign them anyway, because we want our names to be included in the lists of those who care enough to try.
In the end, that’s the real reason we even have a fighting chance. Not because we have political clout, religious influence, or crowds of reporters hanging on to our every word. Our power rests on the simple fact that we give a damn. Apathy is so much easier. After all, haven’t we learned after decades of corruption that cheating is inevitable? Yet we refuse to accept that. We refuse to just shrug it off. And it’s making a difference.
Every time we make the decision to care, we claim our place as agents of change. We become the Ako ang Simula generation, defined not by age but by the refusal to entrust our future on the whims of a handful of men who have their own selfish agendas. We practice democracy as it’s meant to be. It may not change the world now, but it’s certainly changing us by making us think about what we can and should do for our country.
We may still lose this battle, mind you. Sotto, after all, survived the exposure of his link to a drug lord as he pretended to spearhead the fight against drugs. But the fact that we are still fighting means something. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who knows how it feels to be helpless in the face of evil, says, “There may be times when we are powerless to fight injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
If we do as he says, if we keep protesting with our words, actions, and votes, we may yet prove Galadriel right. Ordinary Filipinos, the ones you can find not in seats of power but in internet cafes, classrooms, or street corner tambayans, may yet change the course of our country’s future. I for one am willing to try.
*For the record, I am pro-RH bill. I believe it is pro-poor, pro-life, and pro-development. However, even if I were on the other side of the fence, I still wouldn’t want someone who has earned the nickname The National Embarrassment speaking for me.
**In fairness, it doesn’t take much to get me thinking of the LOTR. My brain practically lives in Middle Earth.