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Barry Gutierrez: Surreal and familiar


The past year has been surreal.

In the 384 days since the current administration took office, there have been many moments when the world seems to have turned upside down.

In social media, for instance, hordes of Facebook accounts (whether they actually pertain to actual individuals is, of course, another line of inquiry) lambast as “fake news” articles published by reputable, long-established news organizations while gleefully sharing the most patently ludicrous posts from obvious purveyors of the most blatant propaganda.

At the Supreme Court, nine sitting justices voted to allow the burial of the late dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos, at the Libingan ng mgaBayani, while insisting – rather pointedly – on the apparent meaninglessness of the act. They took pains to note that his internment in a place named Heroes’ Cemetery (a “misnomer” they claimed) nonetheless did not confer on him the title of “hero.”

And, certainly, possibly the most surreal element of the past year has been the thousands – 12000, 7000, 3000 (or even zero, if you belong to a certain fringe segment of the population) – of killings committed in the course of the President’s “war on drugs.” What is surreal about this is not just the number of casualties (in 2016, the PNP officially reported 2363 killed by police operations, compared to the 34 reported in 2015) but the combination of denial, obfuscation, and indignant justification that the administration and some of its supporters have responded to it with: The now familiar sequence of arguments that begins with “There are no killings,” evolves into “But the killings are not as many as that reported by media,” and finally ends with “But the killings are all justified anyway.”

Surreal. Just like I said.

The surreal nature of the past year has also resulted in, what I feel, is a tragic underappreciation of one of the most significant and inspiring events ever to transpire in the largely sordid terrain of the Philippine political landscape. And yes, I am talking about the election of Leni Robredo as Vice President.

In VP Leni,we have a first term Congresswoman, who spent the majority of her career not as a politician, but as a lawyer for the poor and powerless, coming from a 1% rating in pre-election polls to ascend to the second highest political office in the land. And along the way, harnessing the power of a grassroots campaign to engage with and ultimately prevail over the money and machinery of her rivals, most of whom were professional politicians, with the power, positions, and pedigrees to match.

In VP Leni, we have a government official who routinely, sometimes vehemently, eschews the trappings of high office, makes every effort to cut the expenses charged to her office’s already meager budget, and takes the time to visit the most far-flung communities in the country every week.

In VP Leni, we have a rare glimpse into the kind of leader, democracy, at its best, can give us.

In ordinary, rational, right-thinking times, I imagine there would be widespread appreciation for VP Leni (to be fair, 3 out of 5 Filipinos, according to the most recent surveys, still do) and for the amazing story of her campaign and eventual election. Instead, in these surreal times, we are treated to a near daily spectacle of dedicated Leni-bashers castigating her for a host of “sins” that range from the trivial to the out and out ridiculous.

She has been criticized for having a daughter go to Harvardon scholarship, for saluting the flag on Independence Day, for providing help and a willing ear to evacuees from Marawi, and for the fact that a group of high school students chose to write about her for their school project. She is “tamad” when she chooses to not attend some events, and when she does attend she is “epal.” She is often accused of spending too much, and also, somewhat contradictorily, of spending too little.

If this brief recitation is confusing, that is simply because it really is. In the past, we took our leaders to task for corruption, for human rights violations, for plain old incompetence. These days, it seems a lot of our fellow citizens – or at least a noisy, insistent minority – overlook corruption, human rights violations, and plain old incompetence in everyone else, to instead focus on the much more urgent concern of what dress Leni Robredo chooses to wear on a given day.

It’s been a surreal year. But I remain hopeful the coming one will be less so.