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Sisyphus’ Lament

What is the meaning of truth?

/ 05:06 AM December 31, 2018

In 1901, Gen. Jacob Smith ordered that Samar be turned into a “howling wilderness,” after the townspeople of Balangiga, Samar, killed 48 US soldiers.

Public historian Prof. Xiao Chua revisited how US troops refused to obey. Fifty thousand Samareños never died in the “Balangiga Massacre.”

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Do not shroud history in myth and exaggeration, Chua cautioned.

For fact-checking, he was denounced as unpatriotic.

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We decry historical revisionism, yet scorn facts that challenge pet narratives.

Pinoy pride insists Agapito Flores invented the fluorescent bulb, and Jesus Christ was born in Manila.

We approach law similarly.

We consider disciplines such as history and law inherently subjective. We feel entitled to anger when objective doctrine diverges from what we want to hear.

Reacting angrily but uncritically to law fuels “own goal” activism.

In 2017’s martial law decision, media championed Justice Marvic Leonen as the “lone dissenter” for arguing martial law was completely void.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio was astoundingly labeled a “partial dissenter” for ruling martial law was valid only in Marawi City itself, where actual combat took place.

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Carpio and other “partial dissenters” emphasized classic martial law doctrine. In contrast, by 2018, Leonen’s dissent had little impact as it reached an extreme result using unorthodox, stray doctrine all the way to free speech law.

Thus, editors critical of martial law unwittingly undermined our most senior jurist in a generation-defining legal drama. They drew public attention away from other dissents and moderate concurrences, centrist arguments more likely to win later cases.

With the best of intentions, they made critical public debate on the law on martial law impossible.

This happens all too often, even to longtime Inquirer editors and readers.

As Chua witnessed, we ardently support worthy causes with baseless arguments popular on social media. Separating absurd from solid reasoning is treason.

Yet the best lawyers are first to shoot down ludicrous arguments from their own side. They know how fatal “own goals” are.

Take the Aquino appointees.

In the Torre de Manila case, Justice Francis Jardeleza upheld cultural preservation but rejected the Venice Charter, which is not a law and was never signed by the Philippines.

In the Marcos burial case, Justice Benjamin Caguioa threw out the National Pantheon law because it governed a different cemetery.

In the De Lima case, Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe voted to dismiss, yet emphasized it was premature to raise witness credibility when the case focused on the charges’ validity.

These nuances are difficult truths. But they must be debated alongside widely discussed truths, such as how indefensible the quo warranto case was.

Perhaps the most difficult truths are those that must be told to editors and truth-tellers.

As Chua demonstrated, before we ask what is patriotic or where one’s politics lies, we must more fundamentally ask what is true. Public debate must be grounded on foundations with integrity.

Perhaps this is unrealistic idealism.

What lunatic, after all, goes to a basketball game to cheer for the referee?

What madman applauds objective truth?

Even before I began contributing op-eds in 2011, I only wanted to be Randy David.

My idol once shared that when readers complain he is too academic and intellectual, he writes even more academic and intellectual essays.

The pinnacle of opinion writing is harnessing one’s domain knowledge and persona to advance unique ideas, beyond populist rants.

But can one still aspire to be Randy David in a social media age where clickbait is persistent temptation, intellectuals are rewarded for acting like influencers, and “wokeness” is uninformed?

Will my most important columns on hard law ever be revisited? Will law students ever bootleg my format of Supreme Court sportscasting?

In December 2014, I chose the tag “Sisyphus’ Lament,” for how discussing legal principles in the Philippines is the epitome of pointless labor.

Now, I recall Heneral Luna’s words: “May mas malaki tayong kalaban sa mga Amerikano—ang ating sarili.”

Now I know how Luna felt.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan. This column does not represent the opinion of organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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