Tricky Revolutions

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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.

And there’s where the trickiness lies.

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José prefaced his essay with the Edsa Revolution: that great, almost unassailable institution of our democracy that—at least for the past three years—almost cleaved this country. The hatred for all things Aquino and/or “yellow” is predicated in that idea: if anything, political machinations and leverage over the years has made Edsa synonymous with all things Aquino. The equally important social movements that led to the ouster of Marcos were set aside, and only the narrative of Aquino mattered. It’s that narrative—the symbol of Cory and the yellow ribbons of what was then Highway 54—that lent immense political capital (and to a certain extent, legitimacy) to the Aquino administration. It is why people are willing to distill and condense their rejection to something as simple as a yellow ribbon.

And that same idea is pretty much the same thing that’s happening with what he calls “the Duterte revolution:” it’s that exact same narrative, with a little extra bluster that can only be inspired by the macho swagger of our new leader. And all of this kind of reveals itself in the small but meaningful irony of José’s own essay: that while he warns us (rightly) that revolutions do not bring immediate change, he turns the whole thing over to promise “cataclysmic change.”

It’s a small wonder why people respond to the news of street murders and “extra-judicial killings” (more on the quotation marks soon) as they would a cataclysm. Some would praise the purging as if the land is being cleansed, inspired by the fervor of a leader who—my God—hates drugs. Some decry the murders as a violation of human rights, demanding due process as if it disappeared completely. And so it is with almost everything that President Duterte does these days.

I think that as a country, we are ripe for revolution. And that’s the thing: we always are. And I may not have Mr. José’s life experience, but I think I have enough of it to know that we’re almost always on the brink every time we get the chance to put new leaders in place. It’s not that revolutions are a bad thing, but when everything is prefaced with the idea of radical change and the gloom-and-doom rhetoric of the now, and that hope can only be brought in by the select few—the oligarchs of our own hopes—setting the nation forward doesn’t really work anymore.

Maybe it’s because it’s more exciting to cleave the country based on a narrative of “good” and “evil” than things that are a little more boring, yet necessary. Things like consolidating our political institutions. Or organizing parties based on clearer lines than personality: things like policy and platform, or perhaps a better-defined political spectrum for our own country. Or dealing with the justice system, instead of vigilantes whizzing by with bullets and cardboard signs.

The brink is no place for us, if we really want to thrive. We need better ground. We need solid ground. And yes, we need common ground. A little less bloody, too.

If anything, the political steps taken by the Duterte administration as of late are anything but revolutionary. One look at the current Cabinet—and his choices for advisors and such—is enough to tell you that Duterte hasn’t shed the parochial politics that people despise: rather, he affirmed his role as a patron. A lot of doubt has been cast on the foreign policy directions of the new administration: rightfully so, if not for our current Secretary of Foreign Affairs. And the whole thing with unilateral ceasefires is another matter altogether. And that’s not to take away from the benefits, either: his moves to increase the salary of teachers, the steps taken for a more transparent government, his initiatives to lower income taxes. Heck, mentioning the name “Duterte” nowadays is to evoke discipline from a wayward lamb in the flock of Filipinos. And as many criticisms as you can throw on his Cabinet choices, you can’t deny the earnestness that there is in creating a more inclusive, more representative government at work.

Perhaps it’s the feeling of hope that is fundamental. But this is just another day in the pinwheel of our political lives: new elites replacing the old ones (some of them returning ones, at that), cramming grand narratives into a single personality, the false dichotomies that emerge from our collective fetish with symbols, and so on. Maybe calling it a “revolution” makes it a little more palatable. A little bigger, a lot more “hardworking,” and in the end, a little self-serving.

All this brings me back to Mr. José’s essay.

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“Revolution” rolls down the tongue like nothing in this world. We all long to be part of one, be it the great revolution that finally overthrows our enemies or finding a “revolutionary” way to put on a pair of socks. We all long for that grand, amazing narrative that cements our place as a really special era in the history books of the future. So much so that we are all so willing to accept that meaningless cliché for us to feel better about things: “the revolution starts with ourselves.” I mean, that’s how F. Sionil José’s essay ends.

And that’s kind of tragic, I think. Maybe we’ve gotten to that point that the good things we do—for that matter, when we do the things we are supposed to do—become revolutionary on that basis alone. Which paints the grand narrative of Mr. Jose’s essay: that narrative of self-loathing and self-flagellation that empowers people like Duterte to win. The narrative of self-infantilization that makes us look up to “Tatay Digong” and “Mommy Leni.” The narrative of contempt for ourselves that the Philippines can only be saved by drastic action, or appearances of it. It’s narratives like these that make platitudes like “revolution” awaken patriots—and tyrants—in all of us, watering down the tree of liberty not because of a sense of duty, but because it is in fashion. That much, I agree with Mr. José.

If anything, Mr. José—like all of us—should take our cues from the revolutions that he had enumerated: the French, the American, the Chinese, the Iranian, and everything else in between. Because our relatively convenient revolutions—including what he calls this administration—do not compare at all. What we have is a shift in the balance of power. Another normal day on the brink, with the added nuance of a killcount.

Or maybe we’re just weary (maybe even scared) of real revolutions: the kind that would make us quake in our slippers. The kind that demands a lot more from us than a fist emoji or a baller-band from the previous elections. The kind that doesn’t happen because of elections. The kind that don’t come from the poetic flourishes of National Artists (or for that matter, the brooding of a blogger at two in the morning), but in places where true revolution lies.

But that’s for another time.

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