The politics of memory
If the essence of politics is human relationships, what ails Philippine politics is, at root, human nature itself. Tapping into this root in a Philippine polity deeply divided by Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency is like drawing the antidote for snake bite from its own venom.
That root is simply this: that humans living on earth look to the stars—their dreams, wishes and visions. To understand one another’s star, we need to look at their outgrowths in history to recognize what divides but could unite us in a larger picture.
Many Filipinos now suffer the equivalent of poisonous venom from four months of Mr. Duterte. The first bite was a daily indiscriminate death toll of addicts, pushers and dealers in a drug war gone rogue. Next bite was the door he opened to old terrors with a Marcos comeback. The third bite, the severest yet, has been his foul-mouthed dismissal of our country’s traditional friendships with US, EU and UN leaders.
New dread spreads at this writing on what exactly he committed the Philippines to in his state visit to China. This same China has taken over the West Philippine Sea with a fortified security outpost in our territory, destroying our coral beds, and stealing our fish and fishing waters. As they ravage our countryside for minerals, Chinese businesses are also poisoning Filipino millions with a drug trade worth $4 billion.
A photo of Mr. Duterte’s secret trip to Beijing “sometime in November 2014” on his assistant Bong Go’s Facebook page was a tectonic revelation. Now everyone saw how skillfully Mr. Duterte had disguised his tilt to China while gaming his way to the presidency, even feigning initial coyness.
Now he’s a President pointedly moving away from America while pivoting to its geopolitical rival China. Meanwhile, his by-now-trademark inconsistent statements are keeping the world guessing, Filipinos included. What does he really mean in his apparent lack of long-range thinking? Is he leading us, or merely leading us on?
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s remark that Mr. Duterte didn’t consult his own Cabinet about ending the PH-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was just another jolt in a daily series of jolts. And so trauma upon trauma now clouds, if not paralyzes, the nation in uncertainty.
What must we do to end this? First, while Mr. Duterte prods us to make new history, let’s look around and see what our past has made of us. Let’s start with over a century of speaking and writing in English, six million plus Fil-Americans in the United States now, our military’s long-held view of PH-US relations, and, not to forget, American Top 40s blaring from jukeboxes all over our islands.
Political and cultural analyses crawling out of the woodwork see Mr. Duterte’s point about our “growing up”—away from Uncle Sam. With them come little-known realities from our own country and countrymen now in global diaspora. Is this fragile new world a-forming what he is moving to divide, with its 10 million overseas Filipino workers and their dependents?
Pinoys are now confused about the different directions our country is following with different stars. As Mr. Duterte brings our divisions to the fore on a jerky course between past and present, our prize-winning Filipino historical novelist Gina Apostol just wrote a valuable meditation.
In “Duterte and Our Revolutionary History,” Gina writes how she wept at the details she found in the historical archives of “the maniacal savagery and racism of the Americans that prosecuted [the Fil-American] war…”
“Duterte’s rant has teeth,” she points out. “[B]ut no virtue. The slippery slope of his self-serving rage is that, on top of having bare knowledge of our history, now we must also misapprehend its ethics… [H]is rage misreads our history as blind nationalism. His is history as neurotic fetish, egotism’s scar—not space for reflection.”
Therein lies the difference between this troubled and troublesome minority President and the statesman we badly need now.
Sylvia L. Mayuga is an essayist, sometime columnist, poet, documentary filmmaker and environmentalist. She has three National Book Awards to her name.