How dare you

LOOKING ASKANCE - Atty. Joseph Gonzales (The Freeman) - May 9, 2021 - 12:00am

Just what exactly did President Duterte hope to accomplish with his debate dare versus former associate justice Antonio Carpio? Was it mere bravado that propelled the president to toss the dare like a grenade into an already volatile crowd? Because that dare had the effect of making everyone sit up and rub their hands in anticipation.

It would have been the match of the century, a duel that even boxing aficionados, used only to seeing hardcore slugging in square-shaped rings, would have eagerly tuned in to. Never mind that pretty much nobody would have brushed up on their Constitutional Law basics, much less their International Law principles and Latin maxims - these days, everyone is entitled to their wrong opinion.

And just what exactly was the Cabinet and Senate President Tito Sotto thinking when they advised the president against proceeding with the debate? What were their motives for post-haste dissuading him to continue? What was the strategic calculus in arriving at this decision?

From where we are sitting, it seems the decision was ill-advised. Those advisers, who are all already thick-skinned anyway, perhaps thought that they could have gotten away again with just another lousy decision. But this one takes the cake, and exposed the president to magnifying, emperor-has-no-clothes proportions.

What would it have cost the president if he had showed up at the debate and performed poorly, anyway? “Poorly” is a subjective term. He is still a showman who knows his audience - not the snooty academicians who are sure to parse his every word - but the everyman that he has always struck a chord with, and somehow hypnotized with his purported empathy for their everyday concerns.

No, that audience, the president would have been able to play had the debate pushed through. He would have amused them with his jeers, tickled them with his folksy jokes, and rallied them behind him regardless of what he actually said in the course of a debate. Remember how he diminished Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago in one wisecrack? Those same instincts would have served him in good stead in an actual debate. Who would care about substance? His fans, helped along by influencers and apologists, would seize on every little phrase he uttered and twisted them just so to interpret them in the most favorable light possible. It would have been a win, regardless.

Add to the equation his army of social media denizens and his battalion of official scriptwriters, who would have saved his face at all costs. At the end of a tumultuous, acrimonious day, there would have been no loss of face for him. Maybe, there would be more ammunition available to his critics, but then, so what? His base would have been intact.

But this outcome, though. This decision might have been the most momentous one in the president’s thus-far polarizing term. His volte-face from his original dare exposed him to so much more damage than his advisers could have imagined.

The resulting barrage of memes and jokes and ridicule has brought to stark light the worst possible facets that his supporters may never be able to explain away to themselves. Accusations like “coward” and “chicken” (not to mention the lack of man-equipment) have effectively stripped away his machismo aura, the aura that has resounded so well with the working class.

It was not as if he rejected a foolish dare from an ordinary citizen, as the administration seems inclined to repackage the narrative. Instead, it was the president who himself dared the good justice to come up and joust - but once his dare was accepted, he slunk away from his own bluster. That will not look pretty to his base - and will lead them to think that perhaps his explanations for his inexplicable attitude towards China may indeed be worthless.

There is a movie with the title of ‘Who Dares, Wins”. This is the wrong movie.

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