7/27/2020
Obsessions

I'm sure you know of a guy who thinks he knows the story behind everything. He says he knows why things work the way they are, that he has some secret insight you wouldn't otherwise have if you weren't talking to him. He says he has an understanding that would never occur to you because, well, I guess he just has a way of connecting the dots that you don't. He may say he's read a lot more things than you, but you're not really sure about it. You get the idea.

Sure, that's really all of us right about now, or at least those of us who are foolish enough to continue commenting about politics. (In writing that first paragraph, I definitely realized I am describing myself, and a little unkindly at that.) Considering that we've been mostly stuck at home and lacking any immersive distractions for over four months now, we can't help but connect the dots and release our frustrations somehow. To those that see things our way, we're someone who understands the real issues. To those that don't, we're stupid pricks who do nothing but be annoying and complain. And really, that's how we see that one relative who, as we most likely have put it, shoves his misinformed political opinions down our throats.

The difference is, we're not in power. That uncle of yours can only spout his conspiracy-laden dribble on his social media accounts, but he's not in a position to do much more about it.

On the other hand, Rodrigo Duterte is.

Yes, he is that guy who thinks he knows the story behind everything, who says he knows why things work the way they are, who claims an understanding you will never have. His presidency so far has been unique in how it's been guided by what seems to be his personal philosophy, his personal value system, above all. Sure, you may say it's a good thing, that he's not beholden to some other interests that are in it only to enrich themselves and their friends. But as we've seen, there's really no pinpointing what his beliefs are. Sure, you can oversimplify and say it's "drugs are bad" and "China is good" and "human rights just get in the way of justice", but it's always a bit more complex than that.

What clarity you do get comes when it becomes clear he is talking about something he's really interested in. When he finds an opportunity, he'll quickly make a segue and spend some, or a lot, of time telling his audience what he thinks. You know, like how that uncle of yours would always the opportunity to tell the world he's right, that he's always been right, that you're better off believing what he says because he's right. In those late night (or early morning) taped-as-live-but-not-really televised speeches, you have the president just breezing through his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, but having that twinkle in his eye when he finds a way to shoehorn his pet topics: his dislike of communists, his dislike of terrorists, his insights into how we're too stupid to follow America blindly when we could be following the likes of China and Russia. You hear him get just a bit animated when he talks about how we all have to wait until a vaccine against the coronavirus is devised. Sure, you might be able to believe him when he says he does not want anyone to die because of the pandemic - always followed by an explanation as to why he wants to not reopen schools indefinitely - but his inability to better articulate what he truly believes in means we're all hazy about it ourselves.

It's a pattern we now know all too well. No wonder most of us - or at least those in this echo chamber - have learned to not watch his speeches and just rely on Joseph Morong's summaries. We've learned this pattern not just in the past four months, but in the past four years, like in his speeches for those industry groups that manage to get him, or for most of us, his annual State of the Nation Address. If you're still watching that, like I do, you have to admit that you're watching not for what he'll say on-script, but for what he'll say off-script, for that provides our clearest (but not really) window yet into what he's thinking of, and what he cares for the most.

This SONA is different, of course. We're still in the middle of a pandemic that's long run away from us. (I think we're at 82,000 confirmed cases as of this writing.) In between insufficient testing capacity, non-existent contact tracing and mixed message when it comes to reviving the economy, the government is still scrambling to properly respond. (Surely we're skeptical them when they say they've boosted the number of tests they can do in a day?) You'd expect Duterte to at least focus on COVID-19, the most pressing concern of all Filipinos, particularly those who have lost their livelihoods and are struggling to make ends meet - or even just to get home.

Well, not really. Which should be understandable if the president chose to look beyond the immediate pandemic and focus his messaging on what we can do now that the worst is over. But even that was lacking, considering how he jumped from one topic to another, not even making proper transitions, leaving us with the responsibility to pretty much rearrange his address just to have a glimpse of the overarching themes, to have an idea of what his priorities for the next twelve months are. Well, there are vague mentions of jumpstarting the economy further - reforms to boost the country's digital economy, for instance, or a cut in corporate taxes to spur investment - and some mention of ensuring we are able to handle the next pandemic, or more likely, the next typhoon or earthquake. But, really, all that gets lost in the haze, because the president, personally, is not interested in that.

Remember the last four months? Or, even, the last seven months, starting from when the first cases of COVID-19 emerged here? As the government dithered in its response to the looming pandemic, ostensibly so we do not offend particular countries, and especially when the first restrictions on activities came down and cases began to rise, the government got busy seemingly consolidating power, focusing on removing entities that are seen to sow dissent. So it's goodbye to ABS-CBN, denied of its franchise to operate, and forced to go off-air. It's hello to the Anti-Terrorism Law, whose definition of "terrorism" is so broad and whose oversight is so lacking anyone can claim these words I'm writing right now are designed to bring down this administration. More subtly, there are efforts to make sure that the government's preferred message - that they're doing a good job, and anyone who says so it's just looking to destabilize everything - is getting out louder than anything else. Clearly not working.

Still, the president is fired up. He's managed to take down all oligarchies in the country, he claimed - and he did not have to invoke martial law to do so! That's proof that he's right, that he's always been right, and maybe if we just took time to really pay attention to what he's saying, we'll see that he's right and, maybe, subscribe to his entire belief system. Then what he's doing to - err, for the country will make sense and we'll appreciate that he's only stripping us of our rights because he loves this country so much.

But then you have these pesky critics who beg to differ. No, Frank Drilon said. You haven't really taken down all oligarchies. If you really want to do so, you'll pass the law that prohibits political dynasties. Enter the State of the Nation Address, and an opportunity for Duterte to school this opposition senator, once and for all, on what he's really doing. He's just telling the senator - and all of us, by extension - the facts, or at least the facts he thinks we need to know. Like that uncle you avoid in family reunions.

Of course, that uncle of yours can't do anything - but Duterte can. He has his obsessions, and he'll do whatever it takes to deal with it. In perhaps the most telling of his off-script moments, he basically justified how the government can take over the country's media and telecommunications apparatus.

"All that is good that belongs to government, whether it be the airwaves, whether it be the lines, or whatever that is good for the people, will belong to the government, and it should be government who should be given the first option to utilize them," he said, in what is a thinly-veiled reference to ABS-CBN's franchise woes. "Ang sobra, kanila."

"I call on our communication companies to improve their services lest we be forced to take drastic steps to address the less-than-[inaudible] service that the public is getting from you," he continued, shifting his attention to a topic that might appeal to his audience: slow Internet speed. "If it's just a matter of added capitalization or the infusion of money, go and look for it ... If you are not ready to improve, I might just as well close all of you ... at kukunin ko 'yan, i-expropriate ko sa gobyerno."

"The next two years will be spent improving the telecommunications of this country without you. I will find a way. I will talk to Congress and find a way how to do it."

It's easy to read this as simply an attack on Smart and Globe in fact of Dito - the much-vaunted third telecom led by Dennis Uy, a seeming favorite of the president - which was slated to launch this year but faced difficulties as COVID-19 came in. That is scary enough as it is, the idea of a telecommunications company losing its license to operate through political means - and I am no apologist for Smart or Globe, or PLDT for that matter, hell no.

But I'll go and make it more complicated. Duterte wants all of us to acknowledge that he's right about everything, and he has to means to shove that down our throats. His intent, in his (ideally) last two years as president, is to cement his legacy, and to make sure that it is unassailable and unquestioned. He's done it by drowning out criticism with misinformation and social stigma. He's done it by massaging data to make it more confusing, making us question what's true and what isn't. (Just take how we're reporting the number of COVID-19 cases in the country.) And he will do it by physically eliminating outfits who he sees as going against his preferred narrative, that of him and his belief system, whatever that is, being correct, and more importantly, being the only right thing for this country he supposedly loves. That explains Maria Ressa's woes. That explains ABS-CBN's woes. That explains the ban on public protests and the banning of journalists from covering the president's speech in person, ostensibly due to the pandemic. Any opportunity to control the narrative - and surely controlling the means through which these messages are sent out is next? What, too complicated?

Well, yeah, perhaps it is. A little conspiratorial, even. It is in our nature to want to show to the world that we are right all along. It's in our nature to want other people to know what we've left behind is good. Duterte's reaching the end of his life, and so he feels he doesn't have enough time to make sure that we all see things his way, that we understand why he did what he did, that we acknowledge that it was all for good. It was a bit weird in his SONA last year, when he began talking at length about the #DuterteLegacy when he's just halfway through his term and he hasn't accomplished much yet - not that he hasn't done anything; rather, these things will take time. This year, when there are more pressing issues to tackle, when there are more important questions to answer, when our existence as a nation and as a human being is pretty much at stake? It's scary. All so he can "give the Filipino people the facts" about, I don't know, how the oligarchy is really about water and electricity, or how death penalty will really solve things, or how we have to put our lives on pause until China comes to us and gives us first dibs on that COVID-19 vaccine?

But, well, maybe we're just missing the point. Maybe he's right and we just haven't listened enough. We are too busy protesting to actually contribute something, after all. I mean, in this pandemic? We're stubborn assholes, aren't we? Acknowledging that has got to be a start.

And your responses...

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