IN 1633, the Inquisition declared Galileo guilty of writing a heretical book in which he supposedly favored the Copernican theory that the Sun rather than the Earth was at the center of the (then known) universe. The Catholic Church eventually admitted that he might have been right, it is the Earth that revolves around the Sun rather than the other way around — but it did so only in 1983, or 350 years after Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for life.
Considering how much Miriam Defensor-Santiago thinks the world of herself, it might take her that long to discover that she’s neither the Sun nor the center of the universe. Relentlessly aware of her being a lawyer and a former professor of law, of having been a judge, and now a “senator-judge” who’s on her way to the World Court, Defensor-Santiago only rarely fails to remind everyone of her titles and alleged
She does so almost inevitably at someone else’s expense, by demonstrating in word and deed her disdain for those other mortals she thinks don’t measure up to her levels of achievement. Those mortals include practically everyone else, whether congressman or lawyer, government official or bank clerk, or, for that matter, any other citizen of this supposed Republic. As such they’re expected to hang on to her every word rather than cover their ears to shield them from her screeching.
This conceit did not begin during the impeachment trial of Renato Corona, although, in the course of trying to live up to her own lofty idea of herself during that ongoing freak show, she’s made it a point to belabor at the expense of substance every technicality no matter how trivial so she can demonstrate her knowledge of the law, and in the process harangue and insult not only the prosecution panel as an entity but also its individual members.
In one by now nearly forgotten incident, during the Estrada impeachment trial in early 2001 she berated three citizen-spectators for supposedly heckling her. Her short fuse, her screams, insults and abuse have earned her a reputation as a virago, a harpy and a harridan, although many Filipinos call her other, even worse names.
They used to have fun doing so, but no longer. Nowadays those Filipinos who still have their wits about them are beginning to realize that she’s not so much the disease as one more symptom of the rot that’s eating away at the country of their frustrations.
Almost every instance in which Defensor-Santiago has blown a fuse has involved acts or statements she thought to be belittling her or ignoring her supposedly exalted status, recognition and respect for which she assumes to be a matter of entitlement. It’s disturbingly close to a belief that not being deferential to her constitutes lese majeste — except that Defensor-Santiago’s neither queen nor empress, and Filipinos not her subjects, although some might argue that the Defensor -Santiago delusion precisely consists of a misplaced belief in the perks of royalty.
One can imagine her declaring that if the people have no bread they should eat cake. To which the proper response would be “to the guillotine” — but only after the Bastille has been stormed and every royal pain thrown out of the State.
Defensor-Santiago’s is a perspective completely contrary to the pretensions of this rumored democracy. And that perspective is, at the moment, in the very center of the impeachment trial. That trial is not about her fellows in the Senate who’ve suddenly been transformed into “senator judges” by putting on maroon robes, the prosecution panel, or for that matter, even Corona. It is certainly not about Defensor-Santiago. It is about the corruption, greed, abuse of power, and lawlessness at the very core of the class that claims to be the guardians of law and the enforcers of order in this country whose foul reign has made injustice, poverty and misery the lot of millions.
At the heart of that malignancy is the contempt for the people and sense of entitlement Defensor-Santiago so starkly demonstrates. But that Defensor-Santiago’s behavior is more about civilization than plain civility is not as important as the fact that she is a type and a personification of the virus of despotism resident in the brains of practically every official, whether elected or appointed, who, while paying lip service to democracy, in their heart of hearts despise it because they think themselves miles above the governed.
That infection is evident in every Bureau of Customs clerk who thinks it his right to beat anyone who dares overtake his Porsche in Manila’s streets. It is evident in every mayor who barges into a broadcast booth to pistol-whip a broadcaster whose comments have displeased him. It was clinically evident in the arrogance of those who planned and carried out the Ampatuan Massacre, who thought themselves masters of the world, and immune from punishment by virtue of their wealth and power. And it is equally evident in the Corona impeachment trial, where, from day one, it has been argued that the supposedly exalted status and power of Renato Corona entitle him to deferential, even obsequious treatment rather than subjecting him to the most exacting standards of accountability a democracy expects of the powerful.
The disconnect between democratic imperatives and the predilections of the powerful has made this country what it is. It cannot be remedied by tinkering with the law, which, in any event, usually ends up strengthening the way things are and making attempts at change and reform even more technically infuriating. It cannot be remedied by throwing money at the poor either — or for that matter, by throwing out a Chief Justice who’s likely to be replaced by someone equally flawed. It can only be remedied by removing from the equation those who think themselves the people’s masters rather than their servants. That will take some doing — and in a country where nothing really changes, 350 years may not be enough time to do it in.