President Duterte's Hitler remark upon arrival from official visit to Vietnam
President Duterte's arrival from official visit to Vietnam (Screengrab from RTVM video)

With his — so far — 91 percent approval rating, President Rodrigo Duterte has the political capital and unprecedented opportunity to raise the knowledge and awareness of large numbers of Filipinos on those issues that for 70 years and through 11 administrations since the restoration of Philippine independence in 1946 have bedeviled this country. They include such fundamental questions as the roots of Philippine poverty and underdevelopment, and the causes of the rebellions and uprisings that have haunted and still trouble these islands.

Duterte’s golden opportunity to present a coherent analysis of these related issues was during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 25, during which the former candidate and elected president, whose campaign mantra was “Change is Coming,” could have attempted an answer to why the majority of Filipinos have remained poor despite economic growth, and how the armed social and political movements that have persisted in this country for over a hundred years are the result rather than the cause of underdevelopment. That analysis could then have proceeded to explain just how the new administration intends to address poverty as the core issue behind the support that carried Duterte to the presidency.

The 16 million who voted for him did so for such seemingly peripheral issues as the traffic problem, crime in the streets, and government corruption. But although unarticulated in these terms, at the heart of these complaints was the sense that far-reaching changes, even revolution, were the only answer to the Philippine crisis characterized by extreme disparities in wealth and opportunity — in which a handful of families have everything including fleets of cars, mansions and holidays in Europe and the Americas, while millions in city and countryside labor for a pittance, and the poorest of the poor and their children beg for coins and sleep in the streets and under bridges.

No such analysis occurred during the July 25 SONA, and neither was such an analysis presented in Duterte’s report on his first 50 days in office. In what has since become a habit, Duterte abandoned prepared speeches in both instances and chose to improvise and to emphasize the drug problem.

He announced a unilateral ceasefire with the New People’s Army (NPA) during the SONA, and mentioned the resumption of peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in his 50th day report. He also vowed to end corruption in government. But his emphasis in both addresses was the campaign against illegal drugs, which by his 50th day in office had already claimed 612 lives.

Other than declaring that “we cannot go on fighting each other,” Duterte presented no explanation on the connection to the country’s problems with poverty and its attendant ills of the peace talks, government corruption, and the campaign not only against drug pushers but also against users. Those initiatives did not seem to be elements in a coherent plan. Rather did those policies, such as the obsessive focus on the war on drugs, seem as if they were based on nothing more than personal loathing (Duterte several times said that “I hate drugs”).

One of the consequences of Duterte’s winging it has been to fan the ignorance rather than the enlightenment of his more fanatical supporters, of which there are presumably millions.

Its impact on the informed and reasoned discourse necessary in a democracy has been venomous. The whole media system and even its most capable practitioners are being demonized for their supposed bias, inaccuracy and corruption merely for reporting his public utterances. On the assumption that anything he says is as unassailable as God’s truth, any criticism of Duterte’s policies no matter how well argued and articulated invites the most virulent name-calling, accusations of being in the payroll of the “yellows,” and even involvement in an alleged conspiracy to destabilize the administration.

The most recent instance of what even his allies have described as Duterte’s seeming inability to weigh his words before he utters them demonstrates how a president can detract rather than add to the sum of his supporters’ knowledge. For the international flak his “Germany at least had Hitler” remark has gained, his supporters blamed the media again, without either understanding the role of the media as a purveyor of information — their duty to report what the number one official of the land says, his statements being indicators of official policy — or the value of information to the lives of the citizenry of this Republic.

What is equally distressing is that while few Filipinos are particularly well-informed on the crimes of the Nazis and their Axis allies (as evidence of which, for example, one can cite how many older Filipinos are named Adolf, Benito [after Benito Mussolini], and even Hitler), the Hitler comment made it seem that the only offense Hitler was guilty of was his determination to get things done.

That was the implication of Duterte’s expression of seeming admiration for history’s worst mass murderer, who instigated a war that cost Europe immense suffering and 50 million battlefield deaths (they killed 20 million in the former Soviet Union alone) in addition to six million non-combatant, mostly Jewish deaths that included men, women and children.

Among the six million he murdered, however, were Romanis (Gypsies), real socialists (not the “national socialist” kind), communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally challenged, homosexuals, and other “undesirables.”

Make no mistake about it: Hitler and his Nazi thugs’ constructing the autobahn, encouraging Ferdinand Porsche to build Volkswagens, or his revitalizing heavy industry by creating a war economy as part of Germany’s post-World War I recovery do not mitigate their having committed the most barbaric crimes in all of human history.

Neither is it appropriate to argue, as his other apologists are saying, that because the Israelis are killing Palestinians and other Arabs today, Jews shouldn’t be taking offense at Duterte’s Hitler remarks. What is to the point is that it is not only grossly inappropriate, but also deeply disturbing, to imply that Hitler could be some kind of model of executive decisiveness in the same breath that one proclaims for the whole world to hear that the president of this country is just as decisively prepared to slaughter three million drug addicts.

As some of his allies are suggesting in the wake of his Hitler remark, perhaps it’s time for President Duterte to take a holiday from making public utterances and to just do what he said during his 50th day report he’s being paid to do: his job. It doesn’t make the country look any better in the eyes of the world for the head of the Philippine State to keep apologizing for remarks that at the time he uttered them were patently offensive.

Either that or he should look for a speechwriter whose style would be more to his taste while being tasteful, and whose compositions he can read in their entirety. That way his officials and apologists can also take a vacation from having to explain, interpret and otherwise soften his often outrageous, shocking and profanity-laced asides. Either of these options could help put a stop to the gross displays of arrogance, hate and cluelessness too many of his supporters are demonstrating daily in Facebook and other social media sites. The silence that follows should help arrest, even if by mere default, the current decline in democratic discourse.

First published on BusinessWorld. Image is a screen capture from an RTVM video of President Duterte’s speech upon arrival from official visit to Vietnam.

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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