The deafening silence of celebrities
“You can’t compromise on human rights. That’s my soft message to President Duterte,” thundered one of the world’s leading singers ahead of his band’s much-anticipated concert in Manila.
Breaking from a slew of B-movie stars visiting Manila in recent years, the legendary U2 lead singer, Paul David Hewson, better known as “Bono,” snubbed a presidential meeting in Malacañang, preferring to speak directly to the Filipino public. The Irish singer, known for lifelong progressive advocacies borne out of his home country’s tortured history, was nuanced as much as principled in his words.
“My impression of the Philippines is [that it has] very caring, very sophisticated people,” he said, emphasizing his deep respect for his hosts. Still, reflecting his deep intimacy with the ubiquitous yet erroneous narrative of authoritarian development, he made it clear that he “understand[s] that when progress is made, sometimes people make what they think are compromises for that progress.”
In the simplest possible language, Bono directly questioned the widely-shared hypothesis that democracy and human rights are supposedly “luxuries” that can simply be compromised during earlier decades of developmental consolidation.
The U2 lead singer is well-read on the long and arduous history of many nations, including here in Southeast Asia, where dictators brought both repression and economic ruin. Lest we forget, we are still paying the debt and destruction of the Marcos era wrought more than three decades ago.
A cosmopolitan artist, Bono is also more than aware of many countries around the world, from postwar Germany and Japan to the post-Soviet Baltic states to postdemocratization Taiwan and South Korea, where economic progress has gone hand in hand with democratic deepening. He is also likely aware of the curious case of tiny and rich authoritarian regimes such as Singapore, where the ruling regime continues to deny genuine democracy to a highly educated citizenry.
Bono upped the ante during his concert proper by firmly standing behind our modern “heroes,” especially brave and undaunted journalists and activists who have held the line against the scourge of authoritarian madness. “Also in our prayers, let’s keep the journalists, the truth-tellers, the activists who keep this country spiritually safe. We salute you. Truth-tellers, everyday heroes. Let’s see our lights, let’s see out stars in the middle of the sky,” he said.
This should have come as no surprise, since Bono had made clear his “very deep convictions about journalism,” and how he “probably would’ve been a journalist if I wasn’t a singer” and that the “safety of journalists is very important.” As he rightly points out, even if journalists are no angels and can even be a “total pain in the ass,” one must acknowledge that “democracy requires a free press,” and so how “really glad” he was about the Philippines’ brave and determined journalism community.
By throwing his full support behind besieged journalists such as presidential bête noire Maria Ressa, Bono has exposed a more fundamental reality in the Philippines. With tens of thousands of suspected extrajudicial killings and regular assaults on the most fundamental beliefs of millions of Filipinos, one would have expected most of our own celebrities to use their voice to speak truth to power.
The likes of Agot Isidro, Angel Locsin, Regine Velasquez, Enchong Dee, Karen Davila, Dingdong Dantes, among a number of other valiant voices for freedom, sadly remain stubborn exceptions to the despairing rule. Much more numerous are the ranks of misguided celebrities who have ridden on the coattails of the man in Malacañang in search of relevance, or to enjoy access to power and state resources, or, in more extreme cases, to revel in fantasies of national rejuvenation through a “strong leader.” The majority of them seem to have chosen silence and self-interest above principle and nation.
One need not be Spider Man to know the dictum that with great power comes great responsibilities. In a nation where beauty queens and entertainers are treated like superhuman objects of fascination and respect, our celebrities hold a unique position of influence. And history is filled with numerous tales of how artists and entertainers played a central role not only during revolutionary upheavals, but also throughout periods of progressive reform. Alas, not so in our midst at this time, it appears. One wonders what it would take to jolt many more local celebrities out of their self-satisfied stupor of complacency and deafening silence. We desperately need more Bonos.
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