Refuge of scoundrels

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TO Samuel Johnson (born 1709; died 1784), poet, essayist and author of A Dictionary of the English Language (published in April, 1755), do we owe the observation that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

His biographer James Boswell (born 1740; died 1795) claimed that Johnson wasn’t condemning patriotism but how it was being misused by the unscrupulous to justify even the foulest of deeds. If that was indeed what Johnson meant, he was not not only being astutely observant about his times; he was also being prophetic. Scoundrels have indeed used patriotism, or love of country, to justify even the worst crimes.

Johnson must have observed how the European wars of colonization and the murder of indigenous peoples in the New World that began in the 15th century were being carried out supposedly for love of country.

But Johnson couldn’t have anticipated how, in the name of patriotism as well, the leaders of Nazi Germany and their Japanese allies launched wars of aggression across the planet, killing millions in the conquered territories of Europe and Asia, but in the end bringing upon themselves the destruction and division of Germany and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Neither could he have predicted that in the name of patriotism the endless wars of the lone superpower in the world have today condemned millions to want, misery and early deaths. More than two centuries after, his observation continues to be relevant: not only is love of country, for both the unscrupulous and the clueless still a convenient excuse for acts as diverse as war, invasion, mass murder, and even genocide; it has also become their first and last refuge.

The example of the Philippines, which one suspects has more than its fair share of scoundrels, is illustrative. With love of country for their excuse have the elite, the political dynasties and various pseudo-leaders brought the country to its present state of ruin.

Emilio Aguinaldo compromised the Revolution by ridding the Katipunan of Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna supposedly for love of country. He and his fellow collaborators later swore allegiance to the Americans and the Japanese allegedly for the same reason. Ferdinand Marcos placed the country under martial law on the pretense that he was saving it, and the military supported him with its bayonets while claiming the same noble reason for doing so.

Thirty-one years after the Marcos regime was thankfully overthrown, Filipinos are once again hearing the same refrain — and worse. President Rodrigo Duterte, who’s been floating the idea for months, says that should it become necessary, he will declare martial law to save the country from the drug menace.

Although a lawyer, he has brushed aside as unnecessary hindrances to executive power both the Constitutionally-mandated justifications for such a declaration — rebellion and invasion — as well the charter’s provisions subjecting such a declaration to congressional and Supreme Court oversight.

His spokespersons have issued the usual “clarifications,” but no one really takes them seriously, since, in Duterte’s universe, the drug problem’s turning “virulent” would justify such a declaration — that and the necessity to protect “my country”.

Note that it’s not “our country;” it’s his country. It’s as if the Philippines belonged only to him, like a piece of real estate property on which he has exclusive dominion, rather than its being the common home of 102 million souls who have their lives to live, their problems to deal with, and their rights to enjoy — the very recognition of which drove the framers of the 1987 Constitution to include in that document safeguards that would prevent lives from being wasted and rights from being abused.

The drafters of the 1987 Constitution — most of them, anyway — were moved by the assumption that what makes a country are its people, and that a country is not an abstraction independent of the lives and fortunes of the men and women who comprise it. But an abstraction divorced from its people is precisely how Duterte seems to regard “(his) country.” Does this assumption explain his indifference to the toll in lives and human rights of his obsession with drugs, drugs, drugs — and his looking at them as of no moment and even as necessary to protect a phantasm he calls “my country”?

Duterte also said during one of his frequent and endless public soliloquies that nothing can stop him from declaring martial law should he want to do so; that he would do so not for reasons of rebellion and/or invasion, and that he would not submit to congressional and Supreme Court constraints.

In addition to declarations of lawless intent, those statements are tantamount to a proclamation that the people’s rights and lives don’t matter. Those constraints were put in place, not by the fears of the Corazon Aquino government as he alleged, but by the framers of the 1987 Constitution, acting in behalf of the people, in the hope that they could thus prevent a repeat of the arbitrary arrests, the torture, the enforced disappearances — and yes, the extrajudicial killings — that practically defined Filipino existence during the 14 years that the martial law terror regime of Ferdinand Marcos was in place.

Without the safeguards absent in the 1936 Constitution that allowed Marcos to declare martial law without being accountable to anyone, another such episode, the framers of the 1987 Constitution understood so well, would once more open the floodgates of police and military abuses against the people.

In short, the primary reason for those safeguards’ inclusion in the Constitution was patriotism — but patriotism of the authentic kind, in which love of country is deeply rooted in love and respect for the rights of the people without whom there is no “country;” only an archipelago in the Pacific rim shredded into 7,000 islands.

Duterte has also implied that what’s in the law, including the Constitution, is more often observed in the breach rather than the observance, implying (again) that he’s therefore free to do whatever he pleases. While that’s true enough, shouldn’t the President of the Republic be the first to demonstrate to the people that the laws protective of their rights are vital to the survival of Philippine society?

Perhaps he also has to be reminded that he’s now President of the Philippines because, as mandated by law, he was elected to that post, and what’s more, pledged in his oath of office to defend the Constitution and to do justice to every man.

As imperfect as the Constitution may be, it is still under its auspices that power over the entire machinery of governance has been delegated to him — not by an abstraction, but by the people, each of whom is an individual endowed with inalienable rights. Only in recognition of that fact, rather than in making frequent threats to declare martial law, and in effect encouraging lawlessness, would his expressions of patriotic fervor assume both honesty and legitimacy.

First published in BusinessWorld. Hitler photo from Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0; Marcos photo from Gov.ph

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