I borrowed my title from a perceptive observation made by journalist Salena Zito in an article in the Atlantic magazine. Ms. Zito suggested that there are today two kinds of Americans:
(1) supporters of Donald Trump who “take him seriously but not literally”; and (2) Trump critics, including the media, who “take him literally, but not seriously.”
A clever turn of phrase, but more than that, it is prescient and discerning. Ms. Zito is now credited with having scored a bull’s-eye; she saw Trump’s victory and solid support from miles away and ahead of other journalists. Fittingly, she has risen from her work as a reporter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to a higher-profile gig as columnist of the Washington Examiner.
We Filipinos are bifurcating (forking?) in the same way in relation to President Rodrigo Duterte. If you are a full-blooded, genuine (or found-only) Filipino, you are probably either one of the following categories:
1. Those who take Duterte seriously but not literally. Included in this category are Palace communicators, Cabinet officials, and most Duterte supporters.
2. Those who take Duterte literally, but not seriously. Included in this category are the Liberal Party politicians and Yellow cultists, some media analysts and many foreign journalists.
Foreign residents and workers in the country should also be classified in the same way. Many take keen interest in Philippine politics and governance, because it could determine the future of their work or living situations.
Duterte talks, the press reports
There is a real difference between taking Duterte seriously and taking him literally, and it is serious enough to have caused a current major argument between the administration and the press (national and foreign).
In remarks before the Davao City Chamber of Commerce last Saturday, President Duterte talked again about martial law with his tonsils showing.
He declared: “I have to protect the Filipino people. It’s my duty. And I tell you now, if I have to declare martial law, I will declare it. Not about invasion, insurrection, not about danger. I will declare martial law to preserve my nation, period. Wala akong pakialam diyan sa Supreme Court. (I don’t care about the Supreme Court.) Because the right to preserve one’s life, and my nation, my country transcends everything else, even the limitations…Walang makapipigil sa akin—walang invasion, invasion. (Nothing can stop me—no such thing as invasion, invasion.)” (For this quotation, I thank my colleague Kit Tatad in his column yesterday.)
There is a lot of heat and much Duterte in the statement, and you surely cannot fault the press for dutifully and correctly reporting it.
But Palace communicators saw things differently. Realizing that the President may have gone too far, they accused the press of “misreporting” what the President had said.
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar intoned: “We…decry the latest misreporting that the President will declare martial law simply ‘if he wants to’ or that ‘no one can stop the President from declaring martial law.’ Such headlines sow panic and confusion to many. We consider this kind of reportage as the height of journalistic irresponsibility.”
Irresponsibility? Who is responsible? — the one who talked his head off, or the one who reported what he said.
It’s grotesque to shift the burden to the media on this – unless Palace communications is prepared to say officially, “that it doesn’t want the public and the media to take the President at his word, and that they do not want him to be taken seriously.”
Spokesmanship is easy when you take the issue up the wall.
Democratic institutions under test
There’s a serious point that must not be missed here. Not that Noynoy Aquino is a model, but from the outset, the new administration has placed on the rack the quality of our civic discourse.
DU30 persistently coarsens our public life with his intemperate remarks and oftentimes wild claims and charges. The nation should not let this continue on increasingly weighty issues, without holding DU30 accountable.
Otherwise it will look to the whole world that we Filipinos are so naïve, we are deliberately allowing this to happen. From there, it will be a small step for them to conclude that we have passed to the rule of an Idi Amin or a Hugo Chavez.
Like a kidnap victim or a corpse, it is vital that our constitutional system shows some signs or proof of life. It should say that we remain a country of laws, limited by bureaucracy. Our President is not a unilateral ruler.
The power and strength of our democratic institutions is under test by a victorious majority that thinks it can ram through any change of the rules or any consitutional amendment by simply claiming that it represents the voice of the majority of Filipinos.
Of all political heresies, this is the most dangerous – that a political majority, representing itself as the voice and the will of the people is at liberty to change the Constitution at will, and sacrifice even democracy itself.
Wasting time and opportunity
My big lament is that time is being frittered away and our energies are not being expended on the more urgent tasks of growing and strengthening the economy, creating new and better jobs, building the modern infrastructure of a 21st century nation, and forging lasting peace and security for our country.
It should be by these posts, not by the number of drug suspects killed, that the Duterte government should chart its progress.
What should spur it to strive for more and better is that the economy remains strong, certain reforms have caught on, the bureaucracy is responding to the demand for faster delivery of services. It has not been shackled by the fact that DU30 spends much of his time in Davao City and in visiting military and police camps.
Ironically, the opposition (which is principally the Liberal politicians and members of the Yellow Cult) is overcome by so much lassitude, it has done nothing to organize itself during the past six months. They have preferred to idly plot destabilization, instead of organizing a principled and sustained opposition to the administration. It has been seduced by the thought that having angered the US, the Duterte government will fall apart.
In real democracies, political parties, when out of power, spend their time in the wilderness on strengthening and rebuilding their ranks.
Will the losers get their act together soon? Will they wake up to opportunity in time to contest the midterm elections in 2019? The proverbial stages of grief and mourning are taking longer for the Liberals than they normally do. Without biding BS Aquino, they are Noynoying?
The point is that there are serious causes to fight for in the agenda set by the government before the nation. There is a new or amended Constitution to quarrel over. There are conflicts that remain to resolve.
It is on such weighty pursuits where the labors of leaders and parties are most fruitfully expended, and where the rewards can prove to be enduring. The nation needs all the energy it can muster to move forward.
So yes, I say it is better to take President Duterte seriously in his ambitious initiatives, than to just dismiss him for his careless remarks.