I don’t know know if he has taken a survey on the subject—or even if he was quoted accurately, the media in these parts being prone to putting words in their sources’ mouths—but Senator Joker Arroyo is supposed to have said that “the public is crying for blood” in the “Jose Pidal” expose.

The only way to appease the public, the senator allegedly told a reporter in so many words, would be for accuser Panfilo Lacson to substantiate his charges. Lacson, said Arroyo, should attend the joint Monday meeting of the Senate committees involved in the by now two-week hearings on Lacson’s claims.

“While Lacson, like Nero, is abroad fiddling in his lair (sic), we are treated like Roman gladiators in the Senate coliseum,” said Arroyo.

For the information of the uninitiated—or those who were napping in their Western Civilization classes at the University of the Philippines—Arroyo was alluding to certain events in ancient Roman history, among them the emperor Nero’s supposedly fiddling while Rome burned, and the Empire’s preference for blood and gore for entertainment via gladiatorial combat.

Nero, whom historians say ordered the burning of Rome in the first place, has since given the English language the expression “fiddling while Rome burned.” It means, among others, ignoring serious issues while focusing attention on the inconsequential. One presumes, therefore, that it is in that sense that Senator Arroyo referred to Lacson’s “fiddling”.

On the other hand, the reference to gladiators comes from the displays of bloodletting known as the “games”, for which the Romans erected coliseums all over the Empire, the 50,000-capacity Colosseum in Rome being the most famous.

In that setting as many as 10,000 men (and women) have been recorded to have fought in one day to the delight of the crowds. These men and women—most of them slaves and criminals, others adventurers in search of fame and fortune—were pitted against each other as well as against animals like lions, tigers, bears, buffaloes and whatever else could be imported from the outlying regions of the Empire.

The outcomes were seldom as glorious as the Hollywood movies (for example, “Gladiator”) suggest. The Roman “games” were arguably the bloodiest ever recorded in Western history, and all for the sake of keeping the Romans—both the high-born as well as the lowly—entertained.

But the entertainment had a political purpose. It has been argued that the killings encouraged and preserved a martial culture of conquest by desensitizing ordinary people to violence and death. Even more crucially, they were also political in that they distracted the people from looking into such political issues as who may be granted Roman citizenship, or whether Rome should remain a republic or acquiesce to dictatorship. In this sense the killings helped stabilize Roman society by helping keep discontent within manageable norms.

Though confused and confusing, Joker Arroyo’s Roman metaphor helps explain why the hearings on the “Jose Pidal” accounts took place and why they’re going on. It’s to pander to the public’s lust, not necessarily for blood, but for someone to end up at the receiving end of its contempt. It is also to help keep them entertained in the face of the difficulties of living in a society that has defied transformation from poor to less poor, and that has instead fallen from poor to poorer.

Arroyo’s use of Rome as a Philippine political metaphor, however, can stand a few corrections. For example, one can conclude from his statement that the blood Arroyo thinks the public wants is the senators’. After all, if they are indeed “gladiators in the Senate coliseum,” it is they who would be, metaphorically speaking, engaged in combat.

And yet it should be obvious that if the public at all cried for blood, it would be for the blood of Jose Miguel Arroyo, and that of his wife Gloria. The senators are not out there on the coliseum sands battling for their lives, but in charge of the (Senate) coliseum. It’s Gloria and Mike Arroyo who’re face to face with their adversaries, among them Senator Panfilo Lacson, who’s in the enviable position of being both one of those in charge of the coliseum as well as a combatant.

In ancient Rome the spectators were the ultimate arbiters over life and death; they who decided whether a combatant, though defeated and bloodied, should live or die. Their judgment depended on a number of factors, among them whether the gladiator had fought bravely and well. In most instances, however, the public verdict was usually death—unless of course the defeated gladiator had been slain in the process.

By now known to everyone who hasn’t been living in a cave, the Lacson charges consist of claims that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel has been laundering money and keeping it in fictitious accounts under the name Jose Pidal. Lacson has been out of the country for about ten days, supposedly to “secure”—or is it to look for?—evidence to support the accusations he made in two privilege speeches at the Senate last August.

As combatant, it seems that Lacson had gone into the arena unarmed—or, as Senator Arroyo has suggested, Lacson was not ready with any evidence when he delivered his privilege speeches.

Lacson’s absence from the country and hearings has been criticized by both administration as well as opposition sources. While he’s away on his puzzling mission, his spokesman and opposition colleagues have taken over the task of keeping the Jose Pidal issue alive. Metaphorically speaking, this is like getting another gladiator to fight for you, while you scrounge around for a weapon.

Because one of the chief combatants has withdrawn from the field in an obvious attempt to look for the weapons (the evidence) he’s supposed to have had when he started it all, the field has been pretty much left to the Arroyos, specifically to Mike A and his lawyers, who’ve been pressing their advantage by pointing out the absence of evidence so far against their client, as well as the distinct possibility that no crime has been committed in the first place to merit continuing the hearings.

One suspects that the public, eager as it always is to witness the collapse of the mighty, specially such a one as Mike Arroyo, has lost interest in the game. After all, despite the juicy prospects of such details as Mike Arroyo’s alleged dalliances with secretaries’ being exposed, there’s not much action going on, and the hearings have reached a veritable dead end.

As Joker Arroyo’s metaphor should have put it, Mike Arroyo is out there in the coliseum sands with no one to fight except Lito Banayo, Lacson’s spokesman. Oddly enough, Arroyo admitted that the people want an end to the hearings even as he was saying that they’re after blood.

“People want it (the hearings) finished,” he said. “The tempo of this case depends on Senator Lacson. It is so unfair that we continue with this hearing absent the one who started it.”

It is of course equally unfair that it is not only Lacson who’s fiddling while Rome burns, but also the entire Senate. Senate President Drilon says that the Senate is actually doing other things, but the public is unimpressed, and believes that all 22 senators are focused on Lacson’s claims and nothing else.

“Absent the one who started it”—and absent the kind of evidence or even any discernible use in aid of legislation the hearings would serve—the only value the hearings can still provide is entertainment and distraction from the cares Filipino flesh is heir to. It isn’t even great entertainment at that, if you compared it to “Meteor Garden”, and judging by the now stale text jokes making the rounds of the cell-phone-owning crowd.

God knows this country needs its entertainment. There are the usual problems of crime in the streets, galloping poverty, maddening traffic, non-existent social services, grandstanding politicians, horrifying prospects for the Presidency in 2004, and over-all, a country rapidly being led to nowhere, to escape from. With only the Jose Pidal dud to entertain them nowadays, the people might ignore the hearings altogether, and turn their attention to the country’s real problems instead. Where would the Senate, the politicians and the entire political system be then?

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, September 16, 2003)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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