Corrupting a country
How did it happen that a president can have the audacity to publicly say he lied about a senator’s supposed bank account overseas? Is the unabashed disclosure a sign of his increasingly brazen self-assurance that no one will register even a whimper over it?
Why is it that many buy the idea that the thousands who have been killed in the war on drugs are mere collateral damage in the campaign and not, at bottom, a terrible symptom of a careless and brutish disregard for human life—a product of a policy, though unwritten, of simply eliminating those who are seen to be the scum of society, in this case mostly the defenseless poor?
Why is it that after more than four decades of the memory of martial law, we stand on the brink of another wholesale collapse of our institutions? Once again, as in the Marcos regime, state instrumentalities are being used to hound and silence critics, particularly those who stand up to Malacañang in defense of human rights and the rule of law.
It is supreme irony that a senator of the realm is exposed to public shaming for being “immoral” and a “slut” when Mr. Duterte himself is a known womanizer and cohabits with someone who is not his legal wife. He excoriates Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales for “selective justice” when Sen. Leila de Lima is in detention despite the fact that his own secretary of justice, Vitaliano Aguirre, knows that the testimony of convicted drug lords, who are not disinterested parties, will not stand in court. Aguirre is himself guilty of playing fast and loose with facts and the law, announcing secret meetings between senators and terrorists, and, when caught plotting red-handed via his own cell phone, fumes and rages and files suit.
Mr. Duterte’s cohorts in Congress have become a virtual army for legislating in aid of persecution, dark horses who execute his apocalyptic designs. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, himself still shadowed by his involvement in past scandals like Piatco, has put into motion impeachment moves against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for alleged corruption. Vice President Leni Robredo has also been threatened
with impeachment for “betrayal of public trust” for her disclosures to the United Nations about the extrajudicial killings: She has supposedly ruined the country’s reputation (“siniraan ang bayan”).
Yet Mr. Duterte is the one single person that has once again ruined the reputation of this country. Never mind the opinions of the United States or Europe, but in this region, people invariably ask, “What has happened to your country?”—the subtext being: How, after so bright a promise at the restoration of our democratic institutions in 1986, the Philippines is back to the delusion that strongman rule
makes for a strong state.
There are many interrelated answers to this. For the moment, let me just comment on the perplexity of some over Mr. Duterte’s continuing popularity and the oft-repeated notion that Filipinos are personalistic and thus gravitate to personality rather than platform or ideology. This is why our “people power,” it is said, while it has inspired other countries to similarly rise in revolt, has failed to get institutionalized into mechanisms that would foil the rise of authoritarianism once again.
First, there is nothing wrong with our culture of personalism. It is precisely because we take personally the depths to which our public morals and civic culture have been degraded that our people are once again taking to the streets. We do our people a disservice when we fault them for lacking ideological moorings or tar them as merely “dilaw” or “pula,” or whatever color-coded labeling we inflict on them, when what they are actually doing is rising to that call inside them, which is in fact more primal: the sense of right and wrong, of just and unjust, of what is decent and indecent as our parents have taught us and as our culture has conditioned us.
Second, we do not account to culture what are really issues of power. We do not have a “damaged culture,” as pundits like to echo an American journalist who only had a cursory look at the distortions caused by our colonial history. What we have is a long-running ruling class—political dynasties dating back to colonial times, whose sense of accountability is not to our people but to their colonial overlords or the current equivalent: whoever captures the apparatus of power and commands all the levers that dispense the spoils of privilege. Hence the mass migration to the party in power, and the 119 members of the House who toed the line and voted to reduce the 2018 budget of the Commission on Human Rights to P1,000.
That we prefer personality to an impersonal bureaucracy or an abstract ideology we must accept as a given. This means that the quality of leadership in our institutions is critical. Leaders, because they possess coercive power, are in a unique position to shape their organizational culture. They set the boundaries, the unwritten code of what can and cannot be done. Mr. Duterte, in his vast carelessness about law and language, has let loose a virulent moral virus that has contaminated the few good people around him and now threatens to engulf the entire nation like a plague.
Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.
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