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Reading up on Duterte

(Conclusion)

Last week we took up the first four of the 16 scholarly essays that compose A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency, edited by Nicole Curato, published by the Bughaw imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Again, scant space won’t allow us a full review of this landmark anthology, but let’s see how we can share its strengths of cogency as we see them.

In Lisandro Claudio’s and Patricio Abinales’ “Dutertismo, Maoismo, Nasyonalismo,” ancillary backgrounding elements are dispassionately provided, ranging from the limits of Duterte’s “political lexicon” to his perceived nationalism and qualities as an “authoritarian thoroughbred.” Several other scholars and writers are cited. The following passage strikes us as the most dominant of the utterances:

“In the years to follow, this volume is likely to be succeeded by a plethora of essays and studies about a singular figure in Philippine political history. Scholars will continue to ask: What kind of politician is Rodrigo Roa Duterte? As early as now, the president has been classified in multiple ways: populist…, authoritarian…, and even fascist… More ascriptions are soon to follow. These labels will point to something accurate about the president, but they will miss out on certain things. If Duterte’s own political biography proves anything, it is his unorthodoxy and his various contradictions. He will continue to confound scholarship.”

Cross-references abound among most of these essays, evidencing a feature in the compilation process that apparently allowed the contributors, or most of them, to become privy to the other submissions. In effect, this produced concurrence over some insights, or led to complementary variances of analytical appreciation.

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But even absent this feature, Duterte’s transparent narrative arc easily establishes the primary configurations for any multiplicity of viewpoints on his rise to power, and the prospects of continuing rule.

It all falls into place, this dovetailing based on the givens, such as the following: Duterte’s machismo and uncouthness, his links with the DDS, idolatry of Marcos, anti-Americanism, purported socialism, affinity with the Left, anti-elite pretensions, empathy with indigenes and Muslims, disdain for liberal democracy, the war on drugs as manipulated battle cry, contempt for human rights (and lives), fascist tendencies, even his uniqueness a “thin” populist and ideologue both.

Of these frameworks, some have been outpaced by recent events, quickly rendering them inadmissible as constant or extant assumptions. Most prominent would be his now undone alliance with the hard Left. Even the initially projected sensitivity to the plight of the lumad and Muslim minority have been rendered suspect.

The inclusion of a Duterte-as-Mindanaoan-stalwart perspective is understandable. “The Mindanaoan President” by Altez and Caday cannot be dismissed as hagiography. At best, rather is it expectedly characteristic of hopeful naiveté.

“Celebrity Politics and Televisual Melodrama in the Age of Duterte” by Pertierra, “The Rise of Trolls in the Philippines…” by Cabañes and Cornelio, and “Queering Rodrigo Duterte” by Evangelista are also appreciated — as features of “soft” fascination, if not quite anent the dark underbelly of the subject’s tentacular regime. But it is the hardcore pieces that are the most revelatory, thus compelling. 

Nathan Gilbert Quimpo’s “Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’…” is as concise as it is even-handed. Prospectively, it states: “Thus far, Duterte has been successful in securitizing drugs through the anti-drug ‘war’ and in bringing back national boss rule. On the basis of his very high satisfaction, approval, and trust ratings, the populist Duterte could very well continue with the deadly ‘war’ and national boss rule until the end of his term and possibly even beyond. Opposition, however, is growing, and it is also possible that Duterte does not finish his term.”

For her part, Sheila Coronel calls a spade a spade in her fact-driven “Murder as Enterprise: Police Profiteering in Duterte’s War on Drugs.” While hammering home the sorry picture of “The Drug War as Business,” her indictment provides a sterling example of thorough journalism as scholarship.

“The police were acting not always as loyal executioners for their political patrons but as entrepreneurs looking for maximum gain.

“… We know how they are used as instruments of political power and are cognizant of the societal and structural reasons why they resort to violence. But we know less about the moral disengagement that allows them to kill, the processes that transform a young officer into a murderer, and the calculations that take place when a policeman crosses the twilight zone where policing melds into criminality. And that enables the mobilization of a murder machine that works on an unthinkable scale and impunity.”

These words are chilling, especially since earlier it is offered that “… Duterte tapped into this grey zone when he unleashed his war on drugs.”

Jayson Lamchek’s “A Mandate for Mass Killings: Public Support for Duterte’s War on Drugs” overlaps parts of Coronel’s factual presentation, while stating at the outset that “The public’s acquiescence to Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs is as concerning, if not even more so, than the daily slaughter of suspected drug dealers.”

His conclusion shares the same concern: “The stakes for human rights advocacy are very high indeed. We need all our imagination and courage to take on the task of avoiding a looming genocide.”

In her epilogue, editor Curato sums up the commendable effort: “As we learn more about the Duterte regime, there are more questions that demand critical conversations.”

Yes. We imagine a sequel that would include what weren’t covered in this volume, likely by dint of topical timetable. Among these would be perspectives on the Catholic Church’s evolving stand vis-a-vis any emerging resistance, the substantive role of creatives in this resistance, and those sourced to scholarly voices from Muslims and indigenes.

Also welcome would be a litany of prevarications and verbal flip-flops by the national boss — from the grand sham that was the bloating of DDB figures to the demonization of the “dilawan” — as well as takes on his shallow selection of questionable cohorts, growing suspicions of corruption, viewpoints focusing on reputable business groups, a study of how mainstream media may have been largely co-opted, why, even a discussion on the subject’s medical prognosis.

No such “Reader” greeted our previous presidents after their first year in office. This indicates concern more than fascination — although there is that, too.  

Quimpo concluded his own piece thus: “The Philippines is in for interesting and uncertain times.” Indeed, if there’s any commonality that informs the present selection of essays (albeit some are in silent mode), it appears to be one of uncertainty.

The surprise rise to power — especially given its increasingly alarming nature — has divided the country. That fact alone should impel more critical engagement. BTW, against the matter of a numerically disproportionate schism (for now, anyway), the quality-over-quantity caveat may be argued.

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