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Obsession with appearances

Posted August 01, 2008 09:13:00(Mla Time)

Cebu Daily News

Last Monday, Congress behaved not as a co-equal branch of government, but as a groveling institution that views itself as subordinate to the Chief Executive. The preening and posturing of the members of the House of Representatives, in particular, demonstrated how powerless they believe themselves to be, and how they have to compensate for it by competing with each other in terms of their costumes. The most obvious demonstration of decadence is when tradition is stripped of all meaning and ends up reduced to an obsession over superficial things: when appearance ends up trumping substance.

Congress has taken to viewing the State of the Nation Address (Sona) as something like a public ball, a political soiree in which ostentatious display is the main priority. Photographs and accounts of the pre-martial law Sonas suggest that the annual event was a much more restrained and businesslike affair. When I asked around when, exactly, the president’s report became an excuse to have a congressional fashion show, most recollections indicate that the transformation took place during the Ferdinand Marcos-era national legislature. Female legislators and the wives of assemblymen wanted to compete with Madame Imeldific. Our legislators have yet to discard this legacy of ostentation of the dictatorship.

It may be more useful to point out that as the years have progressed, our speakers and Senate presidents have abandoned all pretenses of being more than groveling toadies of the incumbent. This comes from a feeble understanding of what they are — heads of the two chambers of a co-equal branch of government — and therefore they fall victim to the belief that gallantry requires fawning over the Chief Executive.

Last Monday we saw the Speaker and the Senate President galloping up to the helipad to personally greet the President, and the Speaker breaking protocol (as all his recent predecessors have done) in fulsomely introducing the President; and of the members of the House going beyond politely rising to welcome her and instead mobbing her. The only tradition properly maintained, was the band playing Tirso Cruz Sr.’s “Mabuhay,” the presidential anthem since prewar days, to mark the arrival of the President.

Tradition, formality, protocol, ritual — all have their place in a democratic and republican setting. They can help give officialdom and the citizenry alike a sense of scale, scope and place in national commemorations and festivals. They tie us to those who came before, and facilitate the conduct of events in an orderly and dignified manner. But when their meaning and purpose are forgotten or ignored, we have what we saw: a national disgrace and demonstration of how obsession with appearances can alienate the citizenry. — Manuel Quezon III, Inquirer

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