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May 18

The Long View: The tar baby

The tar baby

By Manuel L. Quezon III

WHAT was orchestrated along the lines of Lenei Reifenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece “Triumph of the Will” (her film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally of the Nazis) has turned into a scene straight out of Walt Disney’s “Song of the South,” in particular, the fable of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, in which a fox gets the goat of a rootin’ tootin’ but rather vain rabbit by setting up a baby made of tar along the side of the road. The rabbit, spotting the tar baby, tries to strike up a conversation, and gets frustrated over the tar baby’s silence. The rabbit tries to beat up the tar baby, but with every kick and punch, he gets more and more stuck until the fox comes out and taunts the rabbit. The lesson, of course, is that you shouldn’t mess with something you have no business with in the first place.

Charter change, as originally scripted, was supposed to result in the intimidating yet seductive spectacle of a population rising up to reclaim democracy. It was going to be breathtaking and unstoppable. It was like putting a Japanese bullet train on Philippine National Railways (PNR) tracks. Pull the train whistle all you like, make all the speeches in the world, bring out the brass bands, publish all the glossy timetables you desire, and still, the result is what we have: cash and saliva don’t a popular initiative make; popularity does. And it simply wasn’t — and isn’t — popular enough. The Sigaw ng Bayan bullet train was all about shouting and found itself stuck in time-tested tracks. Now it is being subjected to what real-world PNR trains regularly endure: an assault from the public.

From the start, everyone from the stationmaster down to the locomotive driver and conductor were told it simply wouldn’t work: The Constitution is like our narrow-gauge railroad tracks and putting a shiny bullet train there was an exercise in futility. Perhaps the President hoped, and some of her people promised, that the train would magnetically, or even magically, levitate over the tracks, perhaps they read “The Little Engine That Could” once too often, but reality has a harsh way of intruding into zany schemes and the people’s initiative has proven exactly that: too zany to work.

Now, like some folksy Uncle Remus (the character in “Song of the South” who tells the Brer Rabbit fables) sitting in the caboose watching all the fuss, some of the President’s allies decided to tell the story of the tar baby and convinced the powers-that-be that Charter change through a people’s initiative is an unwinnable fight. You don’t need a bullet train, the old PNR engine will do. Rev it up enough, and it will smash its way through anything in its path. And while perhaps the Lambinos and Bengzons of the present have invested too much, emotionally or otherwise, in the vain hope of making their bullet train fly, they can be left trying while the pros try something else. It’s like a variation on a math problem: If engine A leaves station 1, traveling to point B at 20 kph, and engine B leaves station 2, traveling to point be at 10 kph, which engine will arrive at point B first? The correct, political answer is: It doesn’t matter. The government owns both engines, so whichever one gets there first can be proclaimed a win-win triumph of transportation. The Strong Republic railroad.

Just the other day, a foreign journalist interviewing me for a series on the political situation remarked, in between takes, “You know, I’ve been trying to get hold of a government spokesman but no one is replying.”

I told him that perhaps the government was still formulating its message. He said that was quite possible.

The new message is being broadcast loud and clear: It’s the Dagupan Express all the way! The Charter change express has shifted engines, that’s all. And it’s good to consider, at this point, what some versions of the tar baby fable have as their ending. Having been taunted by the fox, Brer Rabbit recovers his wits, begs the fox to throw him into a briar patch, and the sadistic fox complies, not realizing the rabbit can handle the thorny leaves and he can’t chase him through the briars. Brer Rabbit gets thrown into the briar patch and has the last laugh.

So who is Brer Rabbit, who is Brer Fox, and who is the tar baby? It depends on whom you ask. I happen to think Brer Rabbit is the President, Brer Fox is the Speaker, and the tar baby is the public and its hostility to the so-called people’s initiative. Then again, our Loony Tunes political situation means the big players, at various points in time, play the role of the rabbit and the fox — at times all fight and bluff, at other times, engaging in crafty cunning and plotting. And every one of them, at whichever time they want to play the fox, can create as many tar babies as they please. And each time they decide to be the rabbit, they expect to outwit the fox. And as for you and me — well, sometimes one has to be thankful for the tar babies.

Whether we’re watching the Brer rabbits or foxes and their tar baby games, you have to wonder how that will affect your reality. Looking at that shiny, noisy but useless “people’s initiative” sitting dead in its tracks, makes you wonder how much of our taxes went to what is a spectacularly failed experiment. And watching the happy face of the Speaker as he wets his whistle, you have to wonder, too: Will that Dagupan Express remove the stones and dirt, the cracked and uneatable grains, from National Food Authority rice at P15 to P20 a kilo? What’s cheap shouldn’t necessarily be of inferior quality. And at P5.50 to P6.50 a pack, instant noodles are more affordable and cleaner than what the government can provide.

And that’s the true moral of the tale: a constitution doesn’t provide edible rice. People do. But if they’re wrestling tar babies, well…

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