Duterte and the power of symbols

  • Reading time:6 mins read

IT borders on the hilarious how the Yellows’ apologists undertake mental contortions or tear their hair out in exasperation to explain President Duterte’s overwhelming popular support, as demonstrated in his power to convince Filipinos in the recent elections to vote into office such candidates as Bong Go and Bato dela Rosa, unknown barely three years ago.

A trying-hard intellectual explained it away as reflecting the global drift toward authoritarianism, as if nations followed fads, and committing the logical fallacy of confusing the particular with the general. An academic has-been reduces it to the phenomenon of Dutertismo, as if giving something a name explains it. The head of the US-funded Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), like a grumpy old man unable to understand a teenager, condemns his countrymen, pontificating that they have the president they deserve.

While there are many factors explaining Duterte’s popularity, as is true for all phenomena, there are two main explanations.

One is so mundane and concrete, but so distant from the cozy, gated-village world of Yellow ideologues that they cannot grasp its importance. Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs has been so successful nationwide as to have been felt by most people, which explains why 8 out of 10 Filipinos support him.

The second reason is not so concrete, yet has tremendous power over the minds of the citizens of a nation: the symbolic actions of a presidency that somehow convince them not in their minds, but in their hearts: “We have a good leader, he can get things done, and he can unite us.

Our economic and political elite have been oblivious to the drug menace the country has found itself in because of the incompetence of President Aquino 3rd and the alleged complicity of his top officials, such as Aquino’s justice secretary Leila de Lima, accused of taking bribes from drug lords.

This is because it was mostly our poor who fell victim to shabu addiction. A poor worker would initially take it — sold cheaply enough to be afforded by his meager wages, and less expensive than cheap gin — as a means of mitigating his hunger and therefore save him food expenses, or to make him stay awake for days on end in order to earn more hourly wages. As his addiction gets worse though, he becomes a pusher himself, saving some of the stuff for himself.

Yellow ideologues and Western media — so detached from the ground — cannot begin to fathom how much the anti-drug war has in three years changed most Filipinos’ feeling from one of fear to security in their communities. This has led to overall satisfaction over their current lives under Duterte, reflected in the recent Social Weather Stations survey that 93 percent of Filipinos reported they were “very happy or fairly happy.”

It was the stupendous mistake of the Yellows — carried away by the Western media’s consistent howls over the administration’s alleged “human rights abuses” — to have raised in the last elections as its most important issue against the Duterte government the alleged extrajudicial killings by the police in the course of the administration’s war against drugs. Most Filipinos believe in the secular notion of human rights, which is that these are secondary to the more important right of a community to punish, even exterminate, its members who endanger the lives and well-being of other members.

The Yellows’ dogma on the other hand is a metaphysical notion of human rights, that the value of a single human life is transcendental, that is, to be valued in some mysterious way even above the rights to survival of a community. It leads to the Yellow argument that if the drug problem is serious, then focus on education and rehabilitation, and just wait for those involved in drugs to be enlightened enough to drop their addiction and their involvement in the drug business. That obviously is such a flaky argument totally detached from harsh reality.

Second reason
The second biggest reason for Duterte’s popularity is that he has done things the impact of which goes beyond their immediate results, and which convinces people of his leadership: his symbols and symbolic actions

A good example of this is his cleanup of Boracay island, which was closed for six months for that purpose. I don’t think many Filipinos have an idea where or what Boracay is, or really cared about it. It required expenditure of precious political capital as Duterte alienated not just the resort operators in Boracay but most of the Western Visayas elite who profited from the island’s tourism income.

Yet the consequent images of Duterte’s officials tearing down resorts that violated environmental laws and then a thousand people on the beach cleaning the island’s garbage became symbolic of the President’s political will to change the country. Replicated on Manila Bay’s coast, the thousands of people cleaning up the garbage there was a metaphor for the nation uniting to rid the country of decades of political dirt.

Another example of such symbolic actions whose impact transcend its immediate concerns was Duterte’s high-profile order to send back Canada’s garbage, even threatening to break diplomatic relations with it if it refused to accept it. Most people have forgotten about that garbage. But when Duterte very noisily made it a big issue, even the Yellows I would think in their heart of hearts felt proud to be a Filipino.

Other examples
Other examples of Duterte’s symbolic actions seemingly trivial but have helped him become one of the country’s most popular leaders:

– His bowing to his audience in the manner of the Japanese and the Koreans, something no other president has done, which sends the message to Filipinos, “I am your servant.”

– His numerous visits to hospitals to sympathize with soldiers wounded fighting the Republic’s enemies, and to wakes for the fallen warriors.

– His ASAP inspections of sites hit by calamities, most recently to a Pampanga town wrecked by an earthquake, and his visits to Marawi City that had been devastated in the battle against Islamic jihadists.

It is amazing how somebody like Duterte whose political experience has been almost totally in the frontier city of Davao could grasp the role of the power of symbols and symbolic action in leading a nation.



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