Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte talks to the people after holding a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases core members at the Malacañang Golf Clubhouse in Malacañang Park, Manila on November 17, 2020. (Toto Lozano/Presidential Photo)

It was the students of the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) who had declared an academic strike — they won’t attend online classes and neither would they submit course requirements — in protest against what they saw as government’s inept response to the disaster wrought by typhoon Ulysses. But it was the University of the Philippines (UP) President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to defund and at the same time accused of “doing nothing except recruit communists.”

What some UP Diliman professors are campaigning for is entirely different from what the students of their Katipunan Avenue confrères had done. They are petitioning the UP System administration to end the current semester, which the 2020-2021 academic calendar had scheduled for December 10, 2020.

His spokesperson said Mr. Duterte was “confused” when he threatened and red-baited UP, but his boss did not even acknowledge his mistake. Neither did he show any sign that he was aware of the consequences of shutting down and preventing UP from discharging its duty of providing the country’s youth the best education possible.

His all too obedient cohorts in Congress could still defund UP should he decide to carry out his threat. It would shatter the dreams of the less fortunate for the brighter future that they assume a good education can guarantee, and devastate as well the country’s pool of intellectual assets it needs for it to survive and hopefully flourish. But it would also mesh perfectly with one of the best-kept State secrets in this country: the belief among the powerful that learning is dangerous, hence their preference for citizens who’re as ignorant and as obedient as sheep.

UP mostly graduates the opposite of the oligarchy’s ideal constituents. It is internationally recognized as among the world’s best universities, and since its founding in 1908 has trained veritable legions of the country’s best artists, writers, political scientists, agriculturists, agronomists, composers, physicists, economists, businesspeople, biologists, climatologists, distinguished professionals in nursing, law, education, medicine, communication and journalism, accountancy, engineering, pharmacology, and public administration among many others.

Only the most biased graduates of the fifth-rate institutions that infest Manila’s so-called University Belt would describe it as “doing nothing.” The equally clueless police and military bullies Mr. Duterte claims as his own say exactly the same thing about UP, but that’s not surprising given their long-established anti-intellectual traditions. There are also the regime’s keyboard army of trolls that have poisoned much of public discourse in this country, as well as its hacks in print and broadcasting. As expected, they’ve been echoing the same hoary refrain, throwing it around at the least sign of truth-telling, dissent and criticism from anyone or any organization they associate with the UP culture of academic freedom, intellectual daring and fearless inquiry.

Despite its vast contributions to the nation, and although a university supported by the people, UP has not been immune to the hostility of governments to its steadfast quest for knowledge and understanding of the natural and social environments and their consequences on the human community and on every individual.

The House of Representatives Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA) accused it in the early 1960s of harboring communists among its faculty because of their supposed atheism and the publication in one of their learned journals of a document on the peasant struggle for land, which was a legitimate subject of study. Upon the declaration of martial rule in 1972, the Marcos kleptocracy arrested student leaders for leading protests against corruption and abuse of power, and members of the faculty for their teaching and their books and other publications.

Only the Duterte regime, however, has threatened to defund and shut down UP. An all-out fascist UP alumnus Ferdinand Marcos may have been, but he did not even come close to making that threat. Neither did any of his predecessors and successors, except the current one.

As obviously damaging not only to its faculty, students and staff but also to the nation and its future are the assaults on the country’s foremost university, there is disturbing evidence that large sectors of the population nevertheless believe them and everything else Mr. Duterte and company say. It is not just his having been elected in 2016 that, so his spokesperson claims, also shows that the electorate approves of his rape jokes. His 91 percent approval and trust ratings loudly proclaim it. There are also the low trust and approval ratings of Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, despite her helping meet the needs of medical front liners and ordinary folk in these pandemic- and typhoon-afflicted times.

The fear factor can partly explain these survey results, but there is still the possibility that they do reflect much of the sentiments of the population. Apparently encouraged by these numbers, Mr. Duterte and his attack dogs have subjected Mrs. Robredo to the most vitriolic verbal assaults at every opportunity. But even more telling is the lack of both public and media outrage over Mr. Duterte’s insulting Mrs. Robredo on the basis of false information provided by two members of his inner circle, and his looking at providing relief to the tens of thousands of survivors of typhoon Ulysses not as an official responsibility and humanitarian undertaking but as a political competition he has linked to the 2022 presidential elections.

As expected, he refused to apologize for his false claims, admitting his mistakes not being among his virtues. His spokesperson instead justified his rants against Mrs. Robredo by dragging the Vice President’s daughters into the fray for asking in their tweets — which did not name Mr. Duterte — what government officials were doing to ease the suffering of the people they’re supposed to be serving. Both were of course within their rights, as other citizens were, to ask that question.

In concert with this absence of outrage is celebration by the media, Netizens and even those citizens who have suffered most from government neglect and incompetence, of the Filipino people’s supposed “resilience” in the face of adversity. In practice, that vice in the mask of virtue has meant their surviving and surmounting difficulties by themselves with little or no expectations of government, and only with the help of their kin and friends, civil society organizations, and sympathetic individuals.

Filipino “resiliency” is just another name for letting pass the egregious failures of the dynasts a benighted electorate elects every three years. That the people can manage by themselves is exactly what the bunglers in office want them to believe, because the citizenry’s low expectations sanction their ineptness, corruption and criminal indifference to the plight of the people whose taxes pay their salaries.

Both ruler and ruled feed the rampant confusion over what governance can and should be. The disinformation of the many who could otherwise check the abuse of power is a consequence of the deliberate distortions, sophistry and outright mendacity of the ruling oligarchy. But the feudal assumption that power and status make one’s views credible has also enabled them to so debase public discourse that many mistake bluster for statesmanship, vice for virtue, stupidity for wisdom, deception for honesty, falsehood for truth, villainy for probity.

Not only has rational discourse become almost impossible as a result. Even fewer today are the signs that the government by confusion with which this country has been afflicted for decades, and which has reached its worst stage, will ever end — even as more lives are lost to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, pandemics, and official indifference.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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