The masses as non-messiah

A crowd of Duterte supporters do the signature fist gesture
Standard

How could the Filipino people have allowed the outrage that was martial rule? Why did they just stand by while “the show window of democracy in Asia” was being smashed and turned into a dictatorship? Where were they when the newspapers and television and radio stations were being padlocked?

Arrested and detained when Ferdinand Marcos’ military thugs implemented Presidential Proclamation 1081 (PP 1081 was signed September 21) in the evening of September 22nd, 1972, the then editor of an afternoon Manila daily was shaking his head and asking these questions of his fellow political prisoners — newspaper reporters, columnists and his fellow editors; members of the political opposition; student, farmer and labor leaders; former delegates to the Constitutional Convention; academics from the University of the Philippines (UP); and even a former professor of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). 

All had one thing in common: they were critical of the Marcos regime, the policies and acts of which the imprisoned journalists had dutifully reported, and which others examined and criticized on air and in the opinion pages. The students had discussed in their classrooms as well as in the factories of the cities and the paddy fields of rural Philippines the same regime’s corruption, human rights violations, and subservience to foreign interests. Farmer leaders had condemned the regime’s political alliance with the landlords of the tenancy system, while their counterparts in labor knew only too well its anti-worker bias. A military man himself, the former PMA professor had been critical of the armed forces’ material and ideological dependency on the US, their inability to defend the country from external threats, and their use in quelling protests and social unrest.

All were also part of the broad movement for political, economic, cultural and social change that starting in the mid-1960s had been engaged in explaining — in rallies, forums, demonstrations,  and school “teach-ins”— how the corrupt rule of the big bureaucrats who enrich themselves with public funds, the land tenancy system that keep farmers in bondage in the countryside, and government subservience to foreign interests were keeping the Filipino  millions in poverty and preventing the country’s development.

But despite the efforts of the men and women committed to completing the democratization of political power that had begun more than a century ago during the revolutionary period of Philippine history, in 1972 and for many years after, the vast majority of Filipinos met the country’s descent to dictatorship with silence and even outright approval.

Their reasons were as trivial as they were limited to what benefitted them personally. Housewives welcomed martial rule because with a curfew in force, their husbands had to be home by midnight. Office workers praised the ban on the demonstrations many of them despised because they sometimes tied up traffic. The Marcos kleptocracy’s claim that it was teaching Filipinos the discipline that the country needed to progress was met with nods of approval by those who could not see how the total lack of restraint of the power elite had made its behavior the model for much of the populace.

The prelates of the Catholic Church adopted a policy of “critical collaboration” with the regime because they saw dictatorship as the antidote to the radical transformation of society that they feared. They hoped that it would also check the erosion of their authority over the rank-and-file clergy who had awakened to the realities of oppression in the communities they served. Despite Marcos’ known bias for his and his cronies’ enterprises, much of the business community welcomed the prospect of industrial peace authoritarian rule promised.

It took all of 14 years, an energy and rice crisis, a debt-ridden economy, a war in Mindanao, countless human rights violations, and some 4,000 extrajudicial killings before EDSA 1986 overthrew the Marcos anomaly. Even then, however, that event involved only a relatively small  number of Filipinos compared to, say, the two million-strong Hongkong protests that stopped the enactment of a law that would have allowed the extradition to mainland China of fugitives from territories with which Hongkong has no extradition treaty.

The editor of the afternoon daily who was among the journalists arrested in the evening of September 22, 1972 and after was therefore asking far from rhetorical questions. He might well ask them again today, as the country marks the 47th anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ PP1081 which placed the entire Philippines under martial law.

How can most Filipinos today remain silent in the face of the gravest threat to their liberties since the Marcos reign of greed? Why haven’t they come to the defense of the independent journalists and media organizations whose persecution and demonization is rapidly denying what little is left of Philippine democracy a necessary pillar in sustaining it?  How can they keep approving the conduct of the corrupt, incompetent and misogynistic provincial despotism that has hijacked national power whose idea of independence is the sell-out of the country to imperialist China’s economic and strategic interests?

Like live crabs thrown into a vat of gradually heating water, the entire country has to wake up from the mass stupor the steady diet of government mendacity, malice and absurdity, social media disinformation, and the outright lies of regime mercenaries in print and broadcast media have lulled it into.

In trying to account for the continuing mass support for President Rodrigo Duterte and his troubling regime despite the extrajudicial killings the war on the poor and on political activists and dissenters has exacted on tens of thousands of Filipinos; the mismanagement of the economy and the disastrous foreign policy that has led to the country’s subjugation by another imperial overlord; and the only too obvious march to a tyranny that could be worse than Marcos’, many observers have looked into various possibilities.

Among them are the disaffection with its predecessor administration and the decades-long yearning for change. Duterte the candidate and Duterte the president cleverly cultivated both as his reason for seeking and remaining in power. But there is as well the dominance of the regime narrative over social media and in the hate-mongering of its hucksters and propagandists in print and broadcasting. 

While all these do have an impact on the regime’s approval ratings, reality nevertheless challenges its claim that it has changed things for the better.

The current reality is defined by the poverty of some 20-40 percent of the population; the corruption that has metastasized throughout Philippine society; the egregious violations of the fundamental human right to life; and the impunity that allows well-connected criminals to literally get away with murder while petty thieves rot in the country’s overcrowded and disease-ridden prisons.

Authentic change and resistance to evil are possible only when objective reality is subjectively perceived and understood. It is the latter factor that’s currently largely missing in the country of our despair, quite simply because the vast majority of Filipinos see in Mr. Duterte the mirror image of themselves. They see in him and his regime validation of their limited perceptions and bigotry, their blood lust and moral depravity, their ignorance and disdain for the facts, and their contempt for women, dissenters, and reason. Generations of activists have risked their liberties, fortunes and lives in the conviction that once enlightened the Filipino millions will save themselves and transform Philippine society. Could they have been mistaken, and is the myth of the masses as Messiah exactly that — a myth?

(Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO)

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