QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

On my way to NAIA to catch a flight early one morning a few weeks ago, I snapped out of my half-sleep when I heard a song on the radio station that my Grab driver was tuned in to. I hadn’t heard it in almost half a century, and I was surprised to realize that I still knew the lyrics – not that I sang it back then, but because it was inescapable, flooding the airwaves with its bootstep optimism: “May bagong silang, may bago nang buhay, bagong bansa, bagong galaw, sa Bagong Lipunan!” The only difference – and what troubled me even more – was that it was a new arrangement, sung by a solo male voice, obviously a remake for a new generation. We were back in 1973, and whoever was behind that broadcast was making sure we knew it.

But of course, despite all the ironies that have been pointed out with the accession of another Marcos to power, and all the parallels that both the Junior and his detractors have drawn with the Senior’s reign, 2023 isn’t exactly 1973. The convenient conclusion would be to assume that Marcos Part II would be a replay of Marcos Part I – and many Filipinos, myself included, warned of that possibility in the run-up to the May 2022 election. But is there any possibility that President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. might want to break out of his father’s mold and be, to some extent, his own man?

As soon as I say that – and before I get social media all riled up with my seeming revisionism – let me add that it’s the dramatist in me that appreciates the classic bind that Marcos Jr. must find himself in. Drama is premised on the possibility of character change – and even if the character reverts to his old self in the end, a brief flirtation with one’s opposite can be revealing.

In political caricature, characters are reduced to their extreme and basest versions – black and white, sinner and saint, damned and blessed. Oversimplification makes for effective propaganda, just so you don’t forget who the enemy is and which side you’re on. In realist drama, we move beyond types to explore the complexities of human character, taking the individual as a compound of many different – and sometimes even conflicting – traits and predispositions. Thus (goes the playwright’s conceit), no one is totally good or totally evil; the inner monster and the inner angel are in constant contention and, depending on the specific circumstances, one side will prevail at some key point that then defines that character for the history books.

Motivations are key to what characters ultimately become – or decide to become, as personal agency and moral responsibility attend every important decision we make. Pride, love, honor, greed, revenge and lust are powerful motivations, and often get the better of characters who are well aware of right and wrong, but who succumb to what’s been described as “human nature.” The good can become the bad; there’s a whole category of English Renaissance drama called “revenge tragedy” where, like Hamlet, a virtuous hero aggrieved by injustice plots to gain retribution, only to be so consumed by his vengeful passions that he becomes the very evil he condemns.

Now back to Marcos Jr. I’m trying, as the playwright and screenwriter I once was, to see him as the protagonist of our present play, shorn of my personal biases. Improbably – though some would say inevitably – he’s back where his father was, and with the weight of history on his shoulders. He’s firmly seated in power, and has all the opportunity and the resources to do what he wants.

Independent and even critical observers I’ve spoken with have noted how generally cautious Marcos has been, so far, to avoid the kind of issues that will bring masses of people out onto the streets. Yes, the legitimacy of his election remains under serious question (something his handlers still have to convincingly address), but the “single IP” finding hasn’t been as politically incendiary as it probably would be in a more tech-savvy society (no, our appetite for TikTok and Facebook doesn’t count for tech-savvy). Yes, he travels and spends too much, but people – his 31.5 million, real or not – expect that to come with being a Marcos. Yes, he’s backed terribly risky if not silly ideas like a sovereign wealth fund and price ceilings, but again he knows that the economics of it will go over most people’s heads.

On the other hand, he’s made all the right noises with regard to Chinese expansionism, in a dramatic and popular break from his predecessor. In our porma-conscious society, he looks and sounds more presidential than that predecessor who felt choked by a necktie and visibly lost in a roomful of younger, more articulate world leaders. Like his senior, Marcos Jr. understands imagery and pageantry. His rambling ad libs have been his bane, so he stays on script in his major speeches. He made some inspired and popular Cabinet choices such as the late lamented Toots Ople, although he quickly undermined any suggestion of sagacity with the appointment of the likes of Larry Gadon.

Clearly he’s not going to repudiate his father’s legacy. His camp will continue to move to revise history and gild the rust and the rot of martial rule. In his recent speech before Singaporean businessmen, he couldn’t resist crowing that the Philippines’ 7.6 percent growth rate in 2022 was last achieved in 1976, “under my father’s administration.” Thanks to a DepEd edict, Filipino students will no longer learn about the “Marcos dictatorship” but simply “dictatorship,” which would be like talking about World War II without ever mentioning Hitler. The mechanical erasure of Marcosian martial law will be pushed forward by such measures as Sen. Robinhood Padilla’s proposed law designating September 21 as “Unsung Heroes Day,” to honor anti-communists.

But again the playwright in me wants to ask, is there room or possibility in Marcos Jr.’s character to make a clean break from the past and start over as his own man – or will self-interest, political habit and family pressure prove too strong to overcome? One fellow columnist told me that his sense was that BBM was out to rehabilitate the Marcos name, to do better than his dad. Can that happen without admitting and making restitution for the wrongs of the past? We sentimental Pinoys will understand if the son will never speak ill of the father, but can he go beyond that to repair the damage done and build a bridge of trust toward his detractors – such as by releasing all political prisoners, squashing red-tagging and putting the government’s massive intelligence funds to better use? Can and will he risk his political alliances to effect good governance?

Or will it be – to use that word that Executive Secretary Bersamin picked in his letter terminating Finance Undersecretary Cielo Magno for her unsolicited lesson in economics – too “counterintuitive” to do the right thing and accept wiser counsel? Only time and Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. will tell.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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