Voltaire, the great French writer, said it first. He earned this penetrating insight into government, after suffering 11 months of imprisonment in the Bastille, and three years of exile to England for his caustic criticism of the authorities during his time -the age of Louis XIV and the French Enlightenment.
Today, in the Age of BS Aquino III (the incumbent deserves an era to be named after him for his jaw-dropping presidency), we have witnessed again and again the horrific cost of being right when the government is wrong, and when the head of government is deficient in elementary decency, empathy and sense of duty.
So far, the biggest victim of government abuse is former Supreme Court chief Justice Renato Corona. For being right and courageously writing the High Court’s decision on Hacienda Luisita, he has paid dearly by being impeached by the House of Representative and convicted by the Senate of an offense that was never proved.
The rightness of the SC decision on Luisita was never seriously challenged. Indeed, it is hailed as one of the great rulings of the Supreme Court—arguably the high point of Corona’s brief stint as chief justice.
Aquino started to campaign for Corona’s removal even before he took his oath, by pointedly refusing to be sworn in by the chief justice. In the mistaken belief that he would resign rather than stand his ground, Corona was demonized, harassed and subjected to ridicule, and his family along with him.
Corona’s ordeal had a predictable chilling effect on all public officials who can only be removed by impeachment, and on every member of Congress (of both the House and Senate) who have to do the impeaching. Everyone except the President, who was the Robespierre of this reign of terror.
Before Corona, Aquino struck down another key figure in the justice system – former ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. Her offense was holding a constitutional office to which she was lawfully appointed for a six-year terem, and which the newly-elected president considered vital for the implementation of his agenda of vengeance. Her removal was a dress rehearsal for the more ambitious move against Corona. The ease of its execution through a complaisant House steeled Palace confidence that the impeachment of a chief justice for the first time in Philippine history could be done.
Before Corona and Gutierrez, Jose Rizal was indubitably the prime example of the truth of Voltaire’s dictum. His two novels, Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, constituted the threat to the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. The subsequent discovery of the Katipunan and the outbreak of the Philippine revolution set the stage for Rizal’s trial and martyrdom.
Why Government overreaches
In a best-selling book featuring Voltaire’s truism as its title, US superior court Judge Andrew Napolitano discusses the legal underpinnings of Voltaire’s observation, and how government in America today repeatedly encroaches on personal liberty, and violates the rights of citizens enshrined in the US constitution,
He writes: “it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong, because government in America today is not logic or reason. It is not fidelity to the constitution, and it is not compliance with the rule of law. Rather it is force.
“Government today steals liberty and property in the name of safety. It restricts your ability to express yourself, to defend yourself, to be yourself. And it uses fear to keep the people submissive. Government rejects its moral and legal obligations, insulates itself from litigation, breaks its own laws, makes its own rules. Government will not hesitate to use force upon those who challenge it.”
To this, Thomas Jefferson’s words are a reproach: “people should not be afraid of their government, governments should be afraid of their people.”
Government unhinged by Haiyan Disaster
Not surprisingly, typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda to us Filipinos) has spawned numerous examples of Voltaire’s dictum at work, because the Aquino administration has been starkly shown as incompetent, insensitive, and ignorant.
From Day 1, the government was caught with its pants down. At times, government has madly suggested that Haiyan’s victims were in the wrong for standing in the way of the typhoon, instead of being elsewhere.
Because Tacloban city bore the brunt of Haiyan, and for rightly demanding maximum assistance from the national government for the rescue and relief challenge, Mayor Alfred Romualdez was designated for blame by the government.
After personally weathering the typhoon and witnessing how people and communities in East Visayas were battered. Police regional director, chief superintendent Elmer Soria, quickly estimated that the casualty count could go as high as 10,000. This did not sit well with President Aquino, who in an interview with CNN confidently declared that the casualty count would top out at 2,500. He dismissed Soria’s forecast as the result of emotional trauma. The next day, Soria was unceremoniously removed from his post.
That the casualty count, since then, has repeatedly surpassed Aquino’s 2,500 ceiling, and inched closer to Soria’s calculation is glossed over.
Because she hits the bull’s eye on the proper handling and disposition of bodies, Dr. Raquel Fortun of the Department of Health will likely be the next official to be removed by the government.
A forensic expert hired by DoH to help identify the bodies in Tacloban, Fortun criticized President Aquino’s pronouncements on the slow body count as only exposing his incompetence and ignorance.
Anderson Cooper’s unassailable journalism
Without a doubt the most influential voice in reporting the catastrophe to the world was Anderson Cooper of CNN. He and other international journalists were instrumental in impressing on the whole world the magnitude of the tragedy, and in triggering the massive outpouring of aid from almost everywhere.
Cooper will not be forgotten for his vivid reportage, and for prickling the conscience of the nation with his alleged tweet: “There is no leader, there is no government, there is no civil defense in the Philippines.”
That tweet forced Aquino out of his foxhole. The government complained to CNN in Atlanta about Cooper’s reporting. This led Cooper to tone down his broadcasts, and quietly leave town.
It’s been suggested that the garnishment of Manny Pacquiao’s bank accounts is another case of the government punishing a citizen who does not toe its line.
Voltaire’s truism may need to be amended to read, “it’s dangerous to be popular and loved by the people when the President is unpopular.”
I will discuss the Pacquiao case in another column.
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Yen Makabenta resumes his Manila Times column today
Yen Makabenta, who wrote a weekly OpEd column and the daily “Good Morning” column for The Manila Times, resumes writing for The Times today.
He has an extensive background in government service and journalism.
He served as Policy Research Director in the Marcos government from 1980-86, and as senior speechwriter to President Fidel V. Ramos from 1992-98,
His work in the media has spanned the roles of publisher, editor, and columnist. He was founder and editor-in-chief of the Philippine Daily Globe, and has written a column for several Philippine dailies.
He was educated at the Ateneo de Manila University, where he earned an honors degree in English and Literature.
His column will appear on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the Times.