L’Esprit de L’Escalera

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“Copying,” says Senator Sotto, “is the highest form of flattery.”  Yet in three Senate terms, the Filipino voting public flattered him through a copying of a different sort: his name in the ballot.

The French have a term for it: l’esprit de l’escallier.  It’s a perfect retort made too late, as when one argues on a landing, ends up descending from the staircase in frustration, and ends up thinking of a brilliant comeback once he reaches the bottom.  The problem is that Tito Sotto never left.  He had the temerity to deny the act, the audacity to belittle his critics, and ended up giving a half-hearted – if not half-assed – apology to the Kennedy family for his blatant plagiarism and misappropriations of the “Day of Affirmation” speech.  Today he continues to be recalcitrant and even irreverent: perhaps maintaining that his plagiarism is not the worst thing in the world.

To be clear, plagiarism is not the most grievous sin Filipino politicians should be pilloried for.  If we take Senator Enrile’s word for it, countries copy each other’s laws, and maybe that’s “plagiarism,” and then again the Senate is not the academe.  If we take Sotto’s supporters’ words for it, plagiarism is the concern of the non-masses: those who are educated, who have access to the Internet, and value intellectual property and academic integrity.  The gibbets should be reserved for more heinous sins to the public sensibility, and true enough, it should.

The truth is that there isn’t really a long line of politicians ready to be fitted to the stocks, if we’re going to go by the defense I shared earlier.  There are, however, long lines (and lineages) of politicians – proven in ineptitude and corruption – who have filed (or are filing) their Certificates of Candidacy, and get voted.  On another point, Sotto uses the very same spirit that gets him voted in the first place: the pass that he is not of “mataas na pinag-aralan” sort (which begs one to ask if going to the Kennedy School of Government isn’t).  So what’s with the torches and pitchforks?

Of course plagiarism is not the worst thing in the world, much less the Philippine political system, or the Senate for that matter.  It his response to his wrongdoing that is galling.  It’s not theft and murder in its literal form, but in its figurative form: one that steals and murders the ideas that we build our democracy on.  Even the much-maligned Lito Lapid had the heart to admit that he was but a flickering matchstick in a league of luminaries: Sotto had to hide behind the trappings of power to admit that he wronged – and even screwed with – the public consciousness.  Not with a “dingding ng opresyon” translation, but that getting away with it is even easier when you’re in a position of power.

With no reproach, with nary a slap on the wrist from his colleagues who would probably know what “plagiarism” is.  Not even kid gloves from Senator Enrile: once the grand old statesman of the Corona impeachment trial who served as the moral compass of a Senate almost united against the excesses of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, now turned into Tito Sen’s sidekick in a “Bulagaan” routine on the Senate floor.

Does the Senate have more important things to do, as Atty. Romulo Macalintal claims?  Of course they do, not the least of which is to clean up their act and recover the confidence of the people before they even start to govern and to lead.  We accept as “normal” the shenanigans of Senators in the way of cybercrime laws, corruption charges, balancing government with showbiz (and even turning it to one), and an overall loss of confidence that renders voting meaningless enough for the many who accept this as fate.  That should set off alarm bells in the Senate.

If this all boils down to a matter of voting, yes, we can do better every four years, every six years.  But the onus of leading, and leading rightly, is for the Senators to bear.  That our demands for the right leadership – one that includes with it the duty not to plagiarize – falls on deaf ears and is responded to by condescending comedic remarks is outrageous.

That’s why we’re angry.  That is the issue.  Plagiarism becomes an issue if what we demand of our leaders is honesty and integrity.

And Sotto makes his wrongful retorts at the right time: one that underscores his abilities as a comedian, and overrides his abilities as a Senator.  That he has an opposing view on the RH bill is not a problem: that’s what we have debates in the Senate for.  And when his day of attribution has come and gone, he didn’t do the right thing by his ideas.  Rather, he pressed on, dismissing perfectly valid arguments against his stand and his conduct as nothing more than showbiz-y “character assassination.”  Sotto didn’t leave the stage in an apparent act of l’esprit de l’escallier: he used it as his stage, his proof to the masses that he still has it, as far as being a comedian is concerned.

Which is the ultimate irony in all of this: Sotto could have risen up to be the champion and defender of the anti-RH bill lobby.  He could have acted like the Senator that he is.  A solon, a statesman, a scholar, a charismatic leader, a debater of substance.  Rather, even in championing a cause he and so many others deem worthy, he goes down in the records of the debate as the man who took the low road.  He’s not the champion of his side in the RH bill debate.  He comes out of the play as a plagiarist.  That’s why the gibbets should remain open for Sotto.

It’s l’esprit de l’Escalera: that smug, smarmy, Tito Escalera-esque response and dramatics of one Vicente Sotto III that, for the past three months, turned the whole Senate into a taping of “Iskul Bukol.”

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