Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s.
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In mid-2017, in the first year or so of Duterte, at an art talk in Manila, I was still open to appreciating the brazenness this government championed. I thought this could lead to an openness to critique, an unpacking of the systemic dysfunctions of a nation, including the many ways in which oppression operates in the arts and culture sector.
But even then I knew, that while this boldness might lead to questioning the feudal character of the cultural systems and its contingent acts of violence, having this conversation was such a high price to pay for the thousands dead in the drug war, the transformation of Marcos into a hero, the thoughtless appointments of un-credentialed allies into cultural institutions, the growing attacks on the people.
Since then it’s also become pretty clear that what we have is nothing more than a government kept afloat by double-speak: Presidential rhetoric is policy, actual laws are flouted by those in power, people suffer the repercussions, and everything is taken back by spokespersons. Impudence is nothing more than a rhetorical strategy, brazenness is solely about providing soundbites, and boldness merely paves the way for violence. This has been our status quo the past four years.
Facing a global pandemic has not changed this government one bit. In fact, COVID-19 has revealed how low the bar is set as far as leadership is concerned, and how public service has decayed to the point of shameless violence and utter incompetence. We are all in agreement, across the political spectrum, beyond our differences, that this is not the leadership we deserve. And artists and cultural workers have risen, as we always have, to the occasion of nation. Most in ways expected, but many others in ways new and different, if not surprising. None of it might be bringing us out to the streets just yet, but all of this points us in that direction. One hopes we get there before it’s too late.
Here are recent examples of how arts and culture are pushing back against oppressive policies for the last four years.
When Raimund Marasigan and Gloc-9 released a song a little over a month after the lockdown was first declared, these two voices were exactly what we needed to hear. The music was haunting in the way only Marasigan can create it, the chorus singing of portents: the end of the world is coming, ready your weapons, the darkness is here. Gloc-9’s verses then succinctly captured the crisis of now, not so much with regards the pandemic, but in relation to leadership that is corrupt and brutal, that cares little about the people and the virus, presaging what has since unraveled: a governance that used COVID-19 to clamp down on our freedoms, pass laws that justify state violence, allowing itself to wash its hands of accountability. The song asks: “Sino nga bang kalaban / ‘Yun bang dala-dala ng hangin / O ‘yung haring may dala-dala sa ulo / Sino nga ba talaga ang kalaban / Gusto mo ba talaga na malaman / Hanging madumi / O mahanging gahaman.” Almost five months since a lockdown was first declared, we now all know the answer to that question.
Throughout the two-month lockdown, and then these months of various versions of quarantine, an important voice that has risen is the younger generations from the Filipino diaspora that call themselves Filipinx. The label itself is its unity: there is a clear sense of its generational uniqueness and geographical grounding (read: not Filipinos in the Philippines, so get a grip). But also there is a sense of humility: an admission that they might not know everything there is to know about what’s happening in the Philippines, but there is a willingness to learn, a thirst for issue-based discussions about the homeland. The bravery might possibly come from the distance, but given how our freedoms across the globe are endangered by populism and dictatorships, then these acts of resistance are just as risky. This is exactly the unity we didn’t know we needed in these critical times.
Small citizen initiatives have sprung up in the past five months, and not for doing relief work which we are wont to do in times of disaster, but just as important, for taking on this propaganda war. Hacktibista, Media Commoner, Art Not Terrorism, Gets Mo Ba? and the Junk Terror Law Telegram Channel are citizen-run projects that all seek to discuss issues of nation in ways that rarely happen anymore: through facts and data, by focusing on issues not personalities, and keeping a keen eye on the details that fall through the cracks of social media noise, manufactured trends, and state propaganda. Neither Left nor Liberal, there is a freedom here to choose the information we all need to agree on, beyond that political divide. Small and generally anonymous, there is fear and there is anger. That the decision was to flex the muscle of anger is also the act of hope we need: it asks, there has to be something we can do; it says, this is what we need to do. That communities are being built around these initiatives that are solely about delivering information is a positive, if not an auspicious, thing.
Two weeks into the lockdown, something momentous happened. After four years of spreading disinformation, asking malicious questions under the pretense of public opinion, and claiming that social media irresponsibility is okay because she is no journalist, Duterte-appointee, ally, and chief propagandist Mocha Uson’s primary platform—her Facebook page—was taken down. It happened via a Twitter hashtag #MochaUsonIsOverParty, possibly fueled by the page’s attack on Vico Sotto’s sensible governance in Pasig, but probably also a product of a collective power that was now being realized on lockdown: here we are on Twitter, we all believe the same thing, let’s use this power for something. It is unclear (as with all organic hashtags), how this started and who started it, but it happened again very recently, with the #TanginaMoBongGo hashtag, a response to the Duterte-ally Senator sending a subpoena to a student for having shared something negative about him on social media.
The elders and conservatives have been quick to be critical of these Twitter takedowns, but what is also important is its context: for the past four years no one has held Duterte allies and propagandists accountable for the falsity and malice that they spread; and now we are the ones being attacked for being critical? This double standard has gone on for too long, and defiant Twitter just might be one of many responses that we need.
“Ngayon Ang Panahon”
On July 10, a week after Duterte signed the Anti-Terror Bill into law, music collective Alternatrip released a song written and produced by Ean Aguila, Jam Lorenzo, and RJ Mabilin. The power of this is not just in gathering together 30 musicians to perform it during a quarantine, and neither is it in its call to action; instead it is in its daring to step out of the box labeled “protest song,” insisting instead that there is a present voice, a lyricism and musicality, that can be used to speak of the state of the nation and call on the people to rise to the occasion of nation. Its power is in its contemporaneity, one that reminds us that while we are all part of a collective history of protest and resistance, this does not mean we cannot do it differently. The issues might not change, but the modes of protest can. And must.
In 2019, soon after the Senatorial elections that put more of Duterte’s allies into power, in another talk in Cubao X about where to go from there, and establishing how we lost the elections through massive funding, disinformation, and divisiveness, I said what I think most everyone already knew in that room: this is a propaganda war, and we are losing. On the upside: propaganda means this is a cultural battle, one that we have the tools to win.
Except we are far from winning. At that time, I thought our only problem was the political divide. Now one realizes it’s also that we are always outplayed and outsmarted by this government’s propaganda team and strategists. Case in point: just as we were building up the campaign against the Anti-Terror Bill, Congress passed it; just as we were building towards the Veto Terror Bill campaign, Duterte signed it. Just as we’re figuring out what to do next, Congress denied ABS-CBN its franchise. All this happening as COVID-19 numbers grow. Government spokespersons deliver spin after soundbite to keep us incensed, angry, disgusted, all generally dispersing our energies and distracting us from the more fundamental issues that matter.
But artistic and cultural work knows only to persist, even as it might be fueled by the decision not to do anything. In a recent conversation among curator Patrick Flores and artists Mark Salvatus and Yason Banal for the Metropolitan Museum’s webinar Cues from the Times, Art and Crisis, the seeming delayed response to the times, if not the decisive un- (anti-?) productivity, could be seen as an act in itself of resistance to artmaking, and to the systems that demand of artists productivity. This opens us up to the possibility that the best response of the arts and culture sector in this time of government incompetence and state violence is to shift from artmaking to civil dissent, from being artists and makers to being citizens that use their art to address the state of the nation — a different kind of making, a specific act of movement.
One hopes that time and energy will continue to be spent on rethinking old strategies of protest, how the tried-and-tested formulas might be reconfigured, how we can work towards a movement that is unexpected and surprising, beyond the imagination of government propaganda, and disengaged from its business of soundbites and distractions. The work is massive, but if anger is that muscle that has brought us to this point of creativity, then this government has given us enough fuel to keep this going.
We just need to know where to bring it.