Ninoy, the Straw Man
Ninoy Aquino has become a graphic design sensation of sorts. Along with the nostalgia for all things yellow, spurred by the death of Cory Aquino, we are now inundated with a barrage of Ninoy-themed merchandise. His iconic monotone image is now plastered on shirts, bags, car plates, and whatnot. This retro wave can be attributed largely to the much-publicized iamninoy campaign, which mobilizes a strong band of artists and retailers like Team Manila, Analog Soul, Bench and Penshoppe.
Recently, a group of graphic designers going by the (strangely patriotic-conyotic-almost-sarcastic) name of Oh-We’re-So-Filipino (OWSF), unveiled a very curious instance of this Ninoy-ism: the Ninoy for 2010 t-shirts. In an article about the shirts, the group describes the brand of “fun patriotism” that they wish to put forward in light of the upcoming elections:
Sportscaster Mico Halili said his group wanted to introduce the radical idea to make people think: What if Ninoy were alive today? What could he be doing during these tumultuous political times? How can the country be better with a President like Ninoy?
Halili explains that the brightly-colored graphic tees, bearing the iconic image of Noynoy and following the retro aesthetic of a 1980s election campaign, encourage people to act. “Wouldn’t you want your next president to be someone like Ninoy?” he asks. How the shirts actually instigate action (or what kind of action it wishes to instigate, for that matter), however, is not exactly clear.
The rise of the cult of Ninoy marks an important stage in our national consciousness vis-à-vis the Gloria Arroyo regime. First, it indicates that the blatant corruption of the government under Arroyo has reached the point where it is a generally acknowledged fact. Everybody agrees that the system under Arroyo has become so sickening, and we are left to collectively grapple for alternatives, immediate or otherwise, to her rule. Unfortunately, the system has been so developed under the auspices of imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism that there is hardly any way out, at least nothing easy, foreseeable or seemingly “possible.” The famous slogan of the May 1968 uprising in Europe said it best: Be realistic, demand the impossible! The only true solution, after all, is a total rejection of the whole reigning order—thus, socialism, communism?—and for one to fully grasp and embrace that entails a high level of consciousness, willpower and courage, as well as a lot of idealism. These are traits which are not easy to sustain, let alone come by.
The “impossibility” of the true alternative thus leaves Filipinos in a quandary. There are those who propose reform and compromise, an awkward and difficult integration into the current system like a skin graft which may or may not succeed. There are those who can afford to choose not to deal with the situation, who maintain a certain sense of apathy and distance, reveling in their middle- or upper-class comforts or even literally escaping from the problem toward the seemingly greener pastures overseas. Others choose to stick it out and continue the fight, immersing themselves in the prolonged struggle of oppositional movements. Some resort to wistful nostalgia, drawing from the handier depths of memory—easy, convenient and best of all, free. This last category is where the cult of Ninoy falls under.
Thus, while the popularization of Ninoy’s image indicates the growing awareness regarding social ills, it also signifies a certain socio-political immaturity which hinders us from being collectively decisive on such ills. If the Philippines were Britney Spears, we’re currently at the Crossroads, and we’re not a girl, not yet a woman.
The Straw Man
OWSF’s Ninoy line is a glaring example of this awkward period. It is political, but not exactly. It looks radical, but isn’t really there yet. It claims to encourage action, but towards what? Ninoy Aquino, in this case, is the political equivalent of a straw man argument, a false and/or irrelevant proposition which diverts attention from the issue at hand.
“Ninoy 2010,” if we consider the rationale put forward by OWSF, is simply a vague campaign. Despite the obvious Aquino imagery, they deny supporting Noynoy’s presidential bid, but do not seem to be endorsing anyone either. It is naïve to distance Ninoy from Noynoy because in all aspects, from color choice to name recall, one cannot deny that the cult of Ninoy is inseparable from his son’s candidacy. Halili says that those from the older generation which actually experienced EDSA 1 and Martial Law are “confounded and confused” precisely because of this Ninoy/Noynoy dissociation—and for good reason. Noynoy’s meteoric rise as a political Messiah figure of sorts, after all, is founded on popular support for his parents, rather than on his own merits as a politician. (Again, this is another sign of political immaturity, a vestige of the dynasty politics deeply ingrained in our political culture after centuries of colonial rule.) Regardless of OWSF’s intentions, the popularization of their Ninoy 2010 line, in the context of the May 2010 elections, will benefit Noynoy.
The Campaign: Young, or Childish?
Halili explains that their line’s target market is the youth, a sector which, forming around half of next year’s voters, will prove decisive in the polls’ outcome. “Young people understand our message,” he says. “There really has to be creative thinking to generate humor.” This is perfectly logical, because the young bourgeois market, those who can afford the expensive Ninoy 2010 shirts, are either part of the sheltered/apathetic middle class culture as previously explained, or simply too young to really know Ninoy and understand his context. The target market possesses a low level of political maturity, matching that of the t-shirt line.
Then, of course, there is the “hip” factor, what with the resurgence of retro, Helvetica and Bauhaus typography, day-glo colors and 80s fashion, the shirts simply look “cool.” Patriotism is reduced to a “fun” and fashionable exercise, nationalism reduced to a trend, and political statements shifted from the streets onto shirts. The Ninoy apparel, then, celebrate not the youthful idealism of EDSA 1 and the First Quarter Storm, but rather the infantile naïveté which hinders us from fighting back against a more ominous retro phenomenon: the return of Martial Law.
It is easier to propose the hypothetical candidacy of Ninoy Aquino the icon (not necessarily the person himself), because he has been mythologized and institutionalized to the point that it is almost sacrilegious to contest his nobility and heroism. Turning to fantasy is not uncommon, given that the culture of elections and governance in the Philippines is structured in such a way that it disallows genuine representation of the marginalized majority at an equally fantastic level. Only politicians from the enchanted world of the rich, whose hands are inevitably sullied by corruption, are likely to be able to run for and clinch a spot in ruling the kingdom. This is a culture which has brought about a flawed “democracy,” which in reality is merely an egalitarianism of the elite, where wealthy landlords lead the government, where elections are tainted by “magic,” where honest and qualified citizens’ chances of clinching the Presidency are dashed simply because they cannot afford to campaign. Choosing a presidential candidate is not really much of a choice, only an exercise in selecting “the lesser evil.”
Evil is the norm, and we are left to conjure heroes like Ninoy to slay the corrupt beasts, even if only in our imaginations. Like all adolescents, though, someday we have to get over our fairy tales and move on to the less desirable task of facing the nitty-gritty. A line of cryptic t-shirts simply wouldn’t do the job. In light of the Ampatuan massacre and the Arroyo regime’s mad scramble to cover up its dirty tracks by way of dictatorship, one can only hope that this rude awakening comes to us soon.#
Images from http://owsf247.multiply.com
Editors’ Note: This article was originally published in Viewer Discretion.