CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 18 November 2017

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History teaches but who learns?

DAVAO (UCAN): “If rationality still matters in this beleaguered Republic of The Philippines, how have we, as a people, shifted once more to supporting a rising authoritarianism?” Brother Karl Gaspar, a veteran of the resistance to the bloody regime orchestrated by former president, Ferdinand Marcos, asks.
 
With stark memories of the fear and brutality of the 1972 to 1981 martial law era and his years in prison, Brother Gaspar gasps with some amazement as recent surveys on the political state of the nation show that the president, Rodrigo Duterte, is enjoying a high approval rating of 82 per cent, a four-percentage-point rise from his 78 per cent rating early this year.
 
Brother Gaspar says that it seems strange that the worse things get, the more the terror and violence rages, and the more signs of hope fade, the more his popularity rises.
 
The Redemptorist brother wonders why the debacle in Marawi, the grinding poverty that continues to be the norm, the drug killings and the falling peso all seem to make him more popular.
 
“Most of our congress said yes to extending martial law in Mindanao until the end of the year,” he notes, while at the same time asking, “Is there logic in all this?”
 
Brother Gaspar wonders if it is possible to mobilise theories from the social sciences to help those who are scratching their heads in wonder as to how, as a people, Filipinos are once again supporting a rising authoritarian rule.
 
He quotes boxing legend, Manny Pacquiao, as saying, “The authorities that exist have been established by God, consequently whoever rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
 
Pacquiao is also a senator and postures a bit as a preacher, but Brother Gaspar points out that he is a much better fighter than theologian.
 
Brother Gaspar notes that after Duterte was elected one year ago, an anthropologist, Pons Bennagen, called for the setting up of an online people’s school where the social dynamics of his rise to power could be explained.
 
However, one year on, he says the question, “Why has Duterte remained very popular among Filipinos, including the nation’s elite and intellectuals?” still escapes a feasible explanation.
 
But he thinks the most likely one comes from historian, Vincent Rafael, who suggests, “It is the logic of scapegoating… and lies at the core of Duterte’s political speeches,” as one explanation.
 
Then on martial law and its extension, Rafael says, “The cultural logic of martial law is woven into the very fabric of social institutions.”
 
Brother Gaspar quotes him as saying, “Martial law is less a legal state than a state of mind deeply ingrained in even the most liberal of Filipinos, who prefer hierarchy and authority as the guarantors of safety.”
 
Ethnographic studies have shown that pre-conquest indigenous communities in The Philippines needed strong, decisive and courageous leaders who feared no one.
 
Mythical heroes were celebrated in orally transmitted epics, which narrate how they vanquished their enemies in ways that were gruesome, but considered heroic.
 
Brother Gaspar points out that such archetypes have continued to appear at various junctures in Philippine history and can even embrace Pacquiao’s epic fights.
 
Marcos envisioned himself as this kind of leader, but fell short of the expectations of the masses, dying in ignominy. But his memory has been resurrected by his political dynasty that continues to promote a revisionist history trumpeting “the golden years of martial rule.”
 
Brother Gaspar believes that Duterte was formed in this same mould and many factors have arisen that favour his rise to this mythical level.
 
He has been packaged as a no-nonsense leader, with the fearless swagger of the street fighter and anti-United States of America rhetoric while marshalling an army of trolls on social media.
 
Brother Gaspar notes that these factors hone in on the greatest fears of people, as drug addiction is every family’s nightmare and the rise of the feared face of global terrorism—the Islamic State—all add up to the desire in the Filipino heart for a leader like Duterte.
 
For more than a century as a republic, the democracy that the founding fathers yearned for has never been set on solid ground, which belies the myth that the country is a bastion of democracy in a Third World setting.
 
Brother Gaspar says that Filipinos cannot even imagine themselves as one nation, one language, but concedes that the persistence of regionalism, the rise and continuing hold of political dynasties, weak political parties and an electorate swayed by patronage precludes this.
 
But he believes one angle that should be probed is why so many intellectuals and social reformers, who have resisted oppression and championed human rights and civil liberties in the past, have suddenly become part of the 82 per cent of Duterte flag wavers.
 
Many among those who embrace Duterte are products of the martial law years of Marcos. They were activists who marched in the streets, took risks and suffered arrest, torture and imprisonment.
 
They also remained consistent in the praxis of their ideological leanings, until Duterte came to power. So why this shift? A very human explanation, perhaps.
 
For many decades, these generations have been pushed to the periphery, operating from the margins with little power, influence or resources and fighting the establishment over the long haul.
 
When there were bursts of success, new developments arose; funding was cut and with it went its mass support and, on top of that there is the reality of aging and illness. Many were frustrated, desperate and ready to give up.
 
Brother Gaspar believes that consciously, and perhaps much more unconsciously, Duterte offered a way out of this crazy mix. New hopes arose as they found themselves closer to the centre of power.
 
But what about the 18 per cent that do not wave flags for Duterte? Are they a solid mass of critically-minded Filipinos who, in biblical terms are the light of the world, salt of the earth?
 
In an era when rationality is overshadowed by darkness and the taste for basic human values like justice, freedom, the rule of law and solidarity with the vulnerable and weak have soured, it means little.
 
In addition, this group is fragmented and also embraces the ever present gaggle that has no opinion, together with the fence-sitters.
 
But what percentage of the 18 per cent can really be regarded as being critically able to withstand the bullying and name-calling and hang onto the vision of a just and free society?
 
Would there be reason to despair if among the 18 per cent there is only one per cent?
As a man who wrote and directed realistic street theatre for socialising and conscientising people before moving them to action, Brother Gaspar looks to literature for inspiration and finds it in Cicero’s De Oratore (About the Orator).
 
“By what other voice, too, than that of the orator, is history, the witness of time, the light of truth, the life of memory, the directress of life, the herald of antiquity, committed to immortality?”
 
In short, Brother Gaspar says, “History is the teacher of life!” But  what needs to be asked is who is learning from it?

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