Try to bear with me here: Philippine Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte is a lot like a professional wrestler.
Perhaps even for his most ardent supporters, Duterte is not exactly the most articulate or eloquent Chief Executive we ever had. But that espouses a certain kind of eloquence: one that assumes that everyone exists in polite society. At least for his supporters, his brutal frankness and spontaneity is a refreshing break from the rather straight-laced and prosaic traditions that come with politicians of yesteryear. You don’t expect Mayor to “arrogate” something, much less “abrogate” anything or “abjure” a lot of things. The Mayor is the kind of person who would not hesitate to pepper his fiery rhetoric with curses, long-winded anecdotes, and innuendo. He’s a veritable goldmine for impersonators, impressionists, and the occasional attempts at Dubsmash.
Just last year, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella traced the colorful language to “Cebuano subculture.” And in so many other threads on the Internet, the defense for the Mayor’s language somehow careens to the repudiation of traditional Philippine politics that has propelled Duterte to being the country’s Mayor. Waxing lyrically: when the Mayor curses, it’s all part of the continuing rejection of elite politics, and him embracing the people.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form, and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965
On February 25, 2017, before a throng of supporters in Luneta, Sandra Cam stood before a throng of avid Duterte supporters to proclaim: “Masarap ang pumatay at mamatay para sa bayan.”
It was a statement that, considering many things about the news, has died a speedy, natural death: not with political maneuvering in the Senate and our dalliances with “leaks.” At least in this country, to write the news is to record hurried moments in the present and to forget them the next day: after all, bigger and more important things happen tomorrow.
Less than a year into his presidency, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has probably talked about “death” and its synonyms more than all past Presidents combined. Duterte, as it seems, taps into the primal: in a world where the wheels of justice turn ever so painfully slowly, the President provides haste and promises urgency. And if it means to kill, so be it.
It’s a certain single-mindedness that emboldens the likes of Cam to make remarks like that. It’s a certain single-mindedness that empowers people like DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III to encourage supporters to call for the imprisonment—or whatever fate awaits—Sen. Antonio Trillanes III. It’s a certain single-mindedness that has Congress in a frenzy to pass the death penalty.
There are a lot of things the Duterte administration gets right about their “war on drugs.” True: like many social ills, many things about drugs can be traced to the upper echelons of society. True: many anti-drug government programs in previous administrations did not go far enough to have lasting effects. True: drugs are a big problem in society, and cannot be ignored in a conversation about peace and order. Needless to say, this government is enthusiastic about the drug program. Thousands of addicts have already surrendered, with no other reason than fear of the President.
But it does get a lot of things wrong. And one blog entry wouldn’t suffice for that. So at the risk of sounding nitpicky about the Duterte drug war, let’s head on over to that one thing that they really bungled.
In yesterday’s paper, F. Sionil José began his essay with the word “revolution,” and proceeded to discuss what he called “the Duterte revolution” in ways that aren’t revolutionary. He describes the next few years in the same way a propagandist would describe his demagogue, or how a campaign manager would describe his client: the florid banalities of ”sacrifice” and “ethics,” the attacks on old enemies like “oligarchs” and “privilege.” And yes, the tired and hackneyed platitudes that are supposed to get a rise out of “the people:” in Mr. José’s words, a “revolution is rooted in ethics and patriotism.”
I guess that the reason why we use the word “revolution” a lot—mostly outside its intended meaning—is because of our desire to participate in one. We want to be part of those historical milestones that fundamentally change the way we live. So much so, that we’re willing to accommodate anything as a “revolution,” fundamental changes to our lives be damned. Such that “revolutionary” things become mundane: socio-political revolutions become as revolutionary as, say, home TV shopping products.
And this is not to take anything away from President Rodrigo Duterte’s victory (maybe other than the poetic language his most ardent supporters want to lend it): it is a triumph of our electoral process. That itself is probably “revolutionary” to a voting population so accustomed to cheating and painfully slow canvassing. It’s what happens when institutions work the way they’re supposed to. Still, it’s founded on things that are in dire need of “revolution:” political institutions that are still in disrepair, processes that aren’t intact, and the great burdens to the public.