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Contrasting Digong with P-Noy

Since the end of the elections, we have been treated to a cascade of new announcements directly from Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte himself, unfiltered and sans spokesperson: for examples, on the “hypocrisy of the Church,” on the “immediate” hero’s burial for Ferdinand Marcos, on his support for medical marijuana, family planning and K-to-12, on his preference for living in Davao instead of Manila, on possible Cabinet appointments proffered then turned down, on his love of durian, and many more.

Every interview is liberally peppered with cuss words and jokes, and spoken in the Creole of the South—the mix of Bisaya, Tagalog and English. Unedited, improvised, erratic, informal, his discourse is no less commanding, like that of a patriarch at the head of the table regaling his family with endless stories. He infuriates and compels, attracts and repels, drawing you into an imaginary circle of intimacy only to subject you to his intimidating presence.

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The contrast with P-Noy (and Mar Roxas) could not be more striking. The Aquino administration observed highly developed protocols. The President studiously stayed behind a wall of spokespersons. His disciplined and decorous discourse was his trademark, but in times of crisis, it was his downfall. His Filipino, like his English, was elegant but ponderous to the point of being pedantic, so that his attempts at humor usually fell flat. He was “decente” and easily legible to the upper reaches of society and the international community.

But P-Noy was utterly without street cred and widely perceived—fairly or unfairly—to be bereft of empathy. Paradoxically, his distance was the guarantee of his consistency: What you saw was what you got. In an odd sort of way, P-Noy’s seeming inaccessibility underwrote his claims to transparency: His was the rule of objectivity, where charts and statistics conveyed the empirical truth, government websites charted spending, and even the scandal of the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) and PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund), or the unevenness of relief efforts for “Yolanda,” the investigations of the Mamasapano fiasco, and so on, showed his administration’s willingness to bare (and bear), rather than hide, its operations and the spread of its influence. Nothing was hidden. Everything was in plain sight, or so it seemed.

With Digong, it is too soon to tell. But the sense one gets is that his seeming approachability and much vaunted “authenticity” (which is open to interpretation) are as much an asset as a drawback. He seems to disdain the trappings of power: He said he doesn’t want any inaugural hoopla and will take his oath in his office, that he won’t live in the Palace, and prefers to conduct business from Davao rather than Manila since there are more than 34 flights to and from the two cities. From the start, he has thus studiously cultivated the image of a simple probinsyano.

Yet, there’s nothing simple about provincial ways. They have their own complex operations designed to shield themselves from outside intrusion. To be provincial does not mean to be “humble” or “unassuming” in Digong’s case. It means being expelled from school yet getting the valedictorian to work for you. It means claiming the right of the oppressed and exacting your revenge: molested by an American Jesuit and condemned by the bishops, Digong can now position himself as the aggrieved victim calling out the abuses of the Church.

Provincialism thus has its advantages. By privileging local rules and methods of power, it tends to hold itself apart from national and international standards. Human rights? Imperial impositions! Feminist demands? Bayaran lang yan! Congress? An inconvenience at best, an obstacle to local autonomy at worst! Death squads? You must mean effective instruments of justice and peace! Misogyny? It’s just the way we joke around here, and you wouldn’t get it.

To privilege the provincial as a base of power is thus a way of setting yourself up in a state of exception. You are sovereign in your own way, and the usual rules don’t apply to you because in your province, you are king with the right to decide on who will live and who will die. Different conditions, different rules.

Of course, there are also similarities: Both P-Noy and Digong have chosen kabarkada and kaklase for their Cabinet appointments, for example. But throughout this transition period, what we have seen so far is a dramatic contrast in rhetorical styles—storytelling for Digong, carefully worded press releases and speeches from P-Noy. And by looking at their respective ways of speaking, we also get a sense of their distinct styles of governing—for Digong, the local is the national, the provincial is the world; for P-Noy, the local is subsumed by the national, and the national is connected to a larger world.

At least on those two levels of speaking and governing, we are seeing some change. Whether it will be for the better or the worse is difficult to say for now.

Vicente L. Rafael ([email protected]) teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, Rodrigo Duterte
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