Smoke from the presidential pulpit
“Courage is fire, bullying is smoke,” said the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, who certainly knew about bullying as he was often demeaned for being born a Jew despite ascending the heights of British politics.
But if Disraeli made us aware of the ephemeral nature of a bully’s bluster, it is from an anonymous source that we know what defines a bully in the public sphere: “Softest on the people who need discipline, hardest on people who need compassion.”
Anyone come to mind?
Certainly, President Duterte feels alluded to.
When in a homily to mark the first “Misa de Gallo” of the Christmas season, an event of some significance among Filipino Catholics, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle condemned the abuse of power and counseled the powerful to not be bullies, the President hit back with all the vitriol he could muster.
“When did I ever scare or bully people?” the President asked in a speech in Davao.
Instead, he implied, it was the Church that had started the fracas when priests were quoted as saying that they were praying for Mr. Duterte to die.
Actually, the Cardinal had quite a mouthful to say about bullying and abusing power, although he never mentioned anyone by name.
“Do not bully anyone,” Tagle said, quoting St. John the Baptist. “Don’t use your power as a license to be rude. Don’t use your power to coerce people. Don’t use arms to level false accusations against others.”
Maybe the prelate was referring to Mr. Duterte’s previous attack, which called on the people to kill the bishops because they were “useless” and “did nothing but criticize his brutal war on drugs.”
Just a day or so later, the President escalated anew his attack on the Church, claiming that a priest in Davao City had died from complications of HIV/AIDS, a violation of a law calling for confidentiality on the status of people living with (or dying of) HIV/AIDS, and using the continuing stigma against AIDS in an attempt to smear the reputation of a priest and of all clergy in general.
The President also continued to use his bully pulpit to hit back not just at prelates and priests, but even those running with the opposition in the upcoming midterm elections.
First on his list was former interior secretary Mar Roxas, whom Mr. Duterte had defeated in the 2016 polls. In a speech, he accused Roxas of “ordering” the ambush of former police general Vicente Loot, now the mayor of Daanbantayan in Cebu.
He did not offer any details, and the next day presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the President’s comment was “obviously” a joke.
If the President was indeed “joking,” he certainly didn’t show any sign of an attempt at humor. Indeed, the remark could be described as a veiled threat, either of another ambush attempt or of charges being readied against Roxas.
And if the President or his spokesperson sought to soften the blow aimed at Roxas, Mr. Duterte was less subtle with a “weaker” target: the lumad or indigenous communities in remote but resource-rich areas.
Referring to the need to “protect” the tribes from communist guerrillas, the President said he would “hamlet” them, referring to the Vietnam- and Marcos-era policy of forcibly confining village folk into isolated areas so they could be more easily monitored and controlled, usually by armed troops.
Lumad communities have been quite vocal in their protests against big business and political interests encroaching on their ancestral lands to exploit the resources in these lands—trees, minerals and even fuel.
Indeed, the President is living up to the template of the tinhorn despot. Some personalities, including the son (and namesake) of now Bureau of Corrections chief Nicanor Faeldon, appear to be let off easily — in Faeldon Jr.’s case, suspiciously cleared of drug use despite being arrested inside what police described as a “drug den.”
Others — church personalities, opposition figures, tribal folk — are threatened and attacked, bullied in other words, just because they present available and convenient targets. Their persecution is masked by the “smoke” of power and impunity, and by the cowardice of a bully.