Beijing’s willing tool, and other themes



Allow me to do something new: review the columns I wrote in 2019, to look for patterns or recurring themes.

I wrote seven columns related to the midterm elections and its aftermath, including “How much power does Inday Sara have?” — one of at least three occasions where I raised, and tried to answer, this very question. I also wrote three columns on the ongoing power struggle among the different factions in the Duterte governing coalition: “After Duterte: A preview,” “Notes on a coronation,” and, not to put too fine a point on it, “Power struggle in the Palace — and Bikoy.”

I devoted a few columns to larger-than-life personalities I look up to: two on the late senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr.; two on retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio; two on Sen. Leila de Lima; and two on the Catholic bishops (written, however, from the perspective of a layman scandalized by President Duterte’s shameless attacks on the church and the Catholic faith). But I also dedicated several columns criticizing the various “small men” surrounding the President: two on presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, two on Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin, one on ex-police chief Oscar Albayalde, one on Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

On five occasions, I used this space to run excerpts from speeches I had been invited to read: “Duterte, estoryador” was from my Ramon Reyes Memorial Lecture; “Deny manipulators the oxygen they need” was from the keynote I read at the annual conference of the Philippines Communications Society; “Fight back against bakak” was from the commencement speech at Southern Philippines College in Cagayan de Oro; “The truths I learned at the Ateneo” was from the second of my commencement speeches in my alma mater; “The many ways of repression” was a rewriting of my presentation at the 85th PEN International Congress. All of them dealt with more than one issue, but the central concern in each was the reality of disinformation.

The consequences of disinformation are serious indeed. “Under a President who is an ‘estoryador,’ a teller of tall tales, the logic of the snake [Pope Francis’ Bible-based description of the work of disinformation] has rattled many of the institutions of society. Orchestrated campaigns of organized disinformation have caused many of us to ignore the facts, enabling Sen. Leila de Lima’s calculated harassment and unjust detention, or avoid the truth, prolonging unrehabilitated Marawi’s undeserved agony.”

At least three more columns involved the problem of organized or official lying: “Facebook and the dishonest Usec Lorraine,” “Disinformation is not limited to digital” [an excerpt from a briefing paper I wrote, available for free online], and “Why does the President lie?” To answer the last, I suggested four possible answers: he lies as levity, as strategy, as policy, and as pathology.

(Another column, “The free market of ideas is outdated,” references other speeches where I wrote down my worries about the limitations, and the consequences, of the free market as metaphor.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that of the 50 columns published since Jan. 1, about half are related to the Duterte administration, including “Is this the second Marcos administration?” At least seven (a Marcosian number) are directly about the President. On June 25, for instance, I argued that Beijing had not in fact used the actual word “war” to describe its possible response to the Philippines asserting its sovereign rights in parts of the South China Sea. “… we have only one source for Beijing’s supposed readiness to go to war: Mr. Duterte himself, who interpreted a conversation with Xi [Jinping] in May 2017 in those exact terms. But nobody in the enormous Chinese government confirmed the President’s interpretation. Turns out Xi didn’t have to threaten war; he only needed to talk to a politician who thinks only in terms of war.”

This willingness to serve as a useful tool for Beijing is one of the reasons I outlined in “The case for impeaching Duterte.”