EDSA and Semiosis.

bibliolepsy-picture.jpgOn this anniversary of that week in February in 1986, I go back to my first novel Bibliolepsy, which ends with that week, and wonder if this reading of EDSA still holds.

“It was at about this time, I believe, that the country became afflicted with what one might call semiosis, a sepsis of the semiotic tract, an infection of the sign-making glands. We assign to this event meanings that all lead to questions of life and death, philosophical heartburn and patriotic dread. We revise and revisit our feelings toward it the way Romans of old found omens in the intestines of birds. That, too, was a form of semiosis. The street itself, EDSA, takes on, at odd moments in the present day when I travel through it, a weirdly disorienting sense of a symbol gone awry. Why should it? It’s still just a street, going to seed in an unremarkable third world way.

Other people (e.g., psychoanalysts, romance novelists, air traffic controllers) have pointed out before in different contexts that the ability to see meanings is not necessarily a sign of wisdom, or health. It may indicate intellectual training or acumen, yes, but it may also be a symptom of delusion, fierce heartache, severe ennui, and other renditions of mental weakness. We must take into account that our own revisions of the rebellion we call, eponymously and thoughtlessly, EDSA may be all of the above, and more.

If it is at all possible, in a non-Heraclitean world, to go back, to step into the same river twice, maybe when we do we must ban all meanings, tropes, and symbols—the maladies afflicting EDSA. Maybe if we can stem memory within some filtering contraption, a device of a sort for disinfection, by which we can flush out metonyms, similes, ugly gigantic memorial statues, newspaper editorials, biblical references, mythical allusions, and this entire paragraph, maybe then we might distill something more pure and light, closer to the original weight of a single minute on that street.

The problem with epiphanies is that by definition they cannot be shared. There was no national epiphany in February of 1986; there may have been a million revelations lodged quietly and inarticulately in each heart.

Which may be a flaw in the message, if you wish to see it that way.”

Language, Trump, Duterte

The Swedes wondered what Trump was talking about at his bloviating rally in Florida (a rally to help out his ego after being slaughtered by citizens, intelligence community, and media for the savage executive orders and patent incompetence of his opening weeks in office)—when Trump said, “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” And Sweden started head-scratching about what the hell was happening last night in Sweden—a wooden moose got the attention of a lovesick bull??

The articles on his speech were funny—but too familiar for Filipinos.

Trump is too much like Filipino president Duterte: people scratch their heads over his dumb dangerous comments, then the man backtracks and says he was referring not to a terror attack but to blablabla (in this case an equally foolish exchange on Sweden in Fox News)—he is an incoherent mess, where when he talks about “last night” he means a goddamned news show he watched, not an actual night in Sweden. The horrific narcissism in that slip of the tongue just boggles the mind.

Then his White House will say righteous things about bad media who hate him and the malevolent hearers who distort him—just as in the Philippines after every Duterte press con, his Palace people have to come out and be sycophant translators of the man’s fentanyl dementia.

This Trump presidency mirrors Duterte because for both leaders their speech shows constant psychopathological slips of the tongue. Their speech shows their frequent lapses into insanity, but in banal and kind of comic ways—parapraxes that are seemingly trivial. They actually sound funny. But deranged words are serious business, even if you’re not the leader of your world.

Trump and Duterte’s language shows they are unable to process information in a reality-based way. But the problem is their countries’ citizens (and in this case poor Swedes too) make an attempt to process their speech: we become entwined in the scary contortions of their deep neurosis, laid bare by their weird words.

If reports on Duterte as mastermind of death squads is true, a man who actually handed out money for kills, then his lapses in speech have a much more ominous pall: they cover up/reveal a much more disturbing figure than someone who insults and swears at popes or foreign presidents. His violent Tourettesian invective begins, in hindsight, to rise like semaphores of a deep-seated loathing in Duterte—but in a Catholic country where in some ways confessing your sins soothes you, what sin were we actually being asked to attend to whenever he said fuck-you to obvious figures of authority in his juvenile mind, like the Pope or the United Nations? Duterte is always telling us how fucked up he is, reveling in his fucked-upness—when the truth comes out about Davao’s Death Squads (I will admit, I believe that truth will be grave and horrifying), his fucking words have already told us, putang ina, all we needed to know: that Duterte believes in his heart he is a mess and he’s telling us his mother should not have borne him, putang ina (which makes him sad, actually, though not tragic—nor, for me, would it rouse any sympathy for him).

Whether Trump’s bigoted speech during his campaign was merely calculating was up for grabs for some people (not me) but we see now a psychotic view of race that his policies betray: the violent focus on vulnerable brown and foreign bodies in his executive orders—immigrants, refugees, including their children—is one with Trump’s (psychotically) racist comments and beliefs on criminal blacks and, of course, his horror of the sheer being of Barack Obama, original birther that Trump is.

Of course Trump is also one with the psychotically racist people who voted for him—at the heart of America is its unresolved issue of race, which makes America a weirdly high-functioning schizophrenic place. And of course the political calculus of keeping immigrants out helps the GOP in its historically perverse, Southern-anti-Reconstruction delusion that a political lynching of brown bodies will mean fewer anti-GOP voters.

But as we know we can view this in overdetermined ways: just because an action might be politically rational does not mean it may not also be deeply disturbed.

The psychopathologies of these men’s tongues might seem comic and even trivial on one hand. But lapses in language are always the most puzzling but most powerful signs of a self’s division. We are dealing with damaged people here. They will keep sounding funny but of course we know they are profoundly not.

And what then is the end, what then is the point of recognizing the madness of leaders?

Quite simply: we must protect the vulnerable that their insanity kills.

We must protect and fight for the adult former-children of DACA, the immigrants rounded up unconstitutionally by ICE, the refugees who will have no home despite all their extreme vetting and extreme suffering, the poor who will lose their health care, the women whose bodies will not be free to choose under this Trump/Pence idiot regime.

We must work for the victims of the anti-drug war slaughter in the Philippines—who are almost, to the individual, poor and outrageously hopeless in a society that degrades them. Civil society groups are helping out—IDefend, FLAG, and so on. We must help those groups. I am hoping we in Filipino America can band together in the future to help those victims: an idea for that, coming up soon.

Multo ng Malacañang: Read Our [Ghosts’] [S]lips

 

A month ago news came out that Duterte would not live in Malacañang because he said it was full of ghosts. The statement, coming three weeks after election day, was one among many of the personal, close-up glimpses the country had of the incoming president as both the Philippines and the world were coming to grips with a new order. A video of his statement is here.

The newscast first sets up Duterte’s macho style, contrasting it with his multo fear, or, as he calls his fear of living in the Palace—“maramaing mumu diyan”—in deliberately childlike speech that both makes light of his position and underlines it: because as far as I can tell, only he can make fun of it.

There were the usual jokes in the comments section about Noynoy Aquino, his predecessor, being the real multo, and of course the irony that it was Imee Marcos—who should know—who relayed the information to Duterte that the presidential palace had “five” resident ghosts. The reporter interviews one of the Palace’s gardeners who reveals that he once saw a wheeled office chair move on Malacañang grass on its own, as if sitting on it were some unseen man just going about his official multo-of-Malacañang business. And, of course, now we know that “Mister Brown,” a tikbalang, lives in a balete tree on the palace grounds.

But to be honest, at this point in the post-election cycle, Duterte’s pronouncement was a cliché. We were used to strange moments coming out of Duterte’s press conferences. As a person, he was beginning to be predictable—a bit like a crazy uncle that you tolerate because at Christmas he might give you money.

So I began looking at the comments section to see what else was new. As many have noticed, the followers of Duterte are a fiercely faithful bunch. It’s also useful to note, as some have already, that they are a faithfully parsing bunch: they love to deconstruct the incoming president’s pronouncements.

What exists beside every Duterte statement that flummoxes normal beings is a paratext—a marginalia of interpretations that coexist with his oracular voice and accompany his message precisely like a ghostly trace: a trail maybe not of supernatural but of supra-aural or subliminal (at least to them) meanings. Duterte’s faithful are sophisticated readers of his words: literary explication is central to his followers’ understanding of the incoming president—they point out metaphors, puns, historical allusions, and so on. Like Biblical scholars, they constantly engage in exegesis.

‘Ekai Atoneg’ explains, “Ghost means under the table operatives not the literal ghost mahina talaga kayo di nyo pa talaga kilala si Digong.”

Ekai underlines ‘ghost’ as a political pun: ‘under the table operatives.’ He/she also emphasizes the “slowness” [mahina] of those who do not “know” Duterte [the verb used is kilala, which also implies something a bit more personal than abstractly ‘knowing’ someone: kilala is a verb that, however metaphorically one might mean it, includes interpersonal knowledge, e.g., being friends with him; contrast ‘kilala’ (know) with ‘alam’ (know): one verb is more personal, familial than the other]. They feel an intimacy with him.

Of course, Ekai gets it from a heckler, ‘Ravy Hackfield’—“Haha. Daming alam. Laliman mo pa.”

Equal to Duterte’s supporters are Duterte’s hecklers, those who laugh at the ‘deep readings’ [‘laliman mo pa’: or ‘yeah, keep digging for deep meanings’] and ‘daming alam’ [sarcastic phrase for ‘great knowledge’] of Duterte supporters.

But once you get into the mode of such ‘laliman,’ it is actually hard to extricate yourself from the possibility of alternate meanings. The language of Duterte becomes intrinsically intriguing because the possibilities for meaning have been opened up by his readers, his faithful audience who keep noting that all words have alternate texts—everything has a paratext.

‘Chum Bian’ says, “Hindi yan literal na ghost matalino yan si digong kung maka Du30 ka alam nyo na.”

Chum Bian does not even need to explain what the non-literal, metaphorical meaning might be (nor does he/she need punctuation, for that matter)—it is enough that a metaphorical explanation must be implied in ‘ghost’ because the man is “matalino”: intelligent.

(Of course, ironically this implies also the lack in Duterte’s words—one takeaway is that, because you need to reach for metaphor to understand him, you cannot take him, or his literal words, seriously, which is a drawback, politically.)

But there you have a third word for knowing, apart from ‘alam’ and ‘kilala’—‘talino,’ in this case a noun, not a verb—meaning intelligence. Matalino is a Tagalog adjective: the binisaya adjective could be baltok, or the Spanish cognate intelihente. (I see Chum Bian, a “maka Du30,” as a reader who speaks binisaya, likely Cebuano; though of course he could be Tagalog or Ilocano or Waray, who knows—Du30’s followers have a wide geographical swath.)

In Waray we might also use maaram; in Cebuano maalam. In short, our different Filipino languages have many root words for knowing and for intelligence. The fact is, given our various words for it, it seems we value knowing, but above all we recognize different modes of it: cunning, or academic, or commonsense Juan Pusong knowing, and so on.

I am not sure if matalino and baltok imply exactly the same thing: though they both mean intelligent. To know (alam) might be different from being intelligent (baltok). In Waray, maaram hiya, she is smart or she knows, has a different shade from baltok hiya, she is smart. I do think in the adjectives maaram and baltok, cunning is implied, something beyond academic knowledge, perhaps intuition, too; though if one is being entirely complimentary, baltok or maaram will mean a layered knowing—erudition in school and smarts outside of it.

But Chum Bian uses a Tagalog word “matalino” for Duterte here. Let’s say Chum Bian is Visayan, perhaps Cebuano. Once in the Visayas you use Tagalog to describe someone, you have broadened your audience, of course—you are aiming beyond your home—you have cosmopolitanized yourself.

The fact is, that is the annoying default experience (so default we in the provinces never even think when we code-switch to Tagalog) of being outside of the metropole (for me who grew up in Leyte, that is Manila, not New York). In my view, one implication of the word matalino is that Chum Bian is suggesting Duterte’s linguistic sophistication, just as he, Chum Bian, is sophisticated linguistically (for one thing, unlike the Tagalog, Chum Bian probably knows at least three languages, English, Tagalog, and Cebuano, e.g.).

Thus, for his supporters, Duterte’s metaphorical language is part of his talino—just as Chum Bian’s trilinguality, and his knowledge of alternate linguistic meanings, including metaphorical meanings, is part of Chum Bian’s talino, of his having ‘alam’—unlike the non-followers of Duterte.

This intense parsing of Duterte’s words by Duterte’s followers is fascinating not only because his followers have given us a new president, a new regime—whether we like it or not. I think this parsing of words is fascinating because it keeps revealing to us something integral to Filipino experience but always somewhat unexamined about Filipino experience—that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is always ‘sophisticated,’ in that we are aware, because of language, of multiple worlds and meanings always at once.

We always bear within us several texts, a paratext for our English and a paratext for our Tagalog and a paratext for our Waray or Ilocano or Ilonggo—we bear a marginalia of tongues all simultaneously and at once. We cannot help it. We cannot help but bear multiple worlds in us. And I mean that word ‘bear’ in those multiple senses: we are burdened by it, we are born to it. [I will not get into our damned colonized history here that condemns us to what we are born to and to what we bear.]

We are always trailing ghosts of words, a trace of other words and thus meanings, as we speak. (Note: This is true of humans; but it is existentially transparent with Pinoys. Pinoys, in this sense, are uber-humans: or the colonized is hyper-human—but that is too much theory for now.) When I say baltok, I also have the word smart in me, as well as talino and maalam. As Eliot’s Wasteland goes, I can do the police in different voices. We live daily with the ghosts of our various selves, our triple languages, our multiple worlds via our several, and severing, tongues.

The emergence of Duterte, who makes prominent the language of an other, at least if we consider the political convention of Tagalog as the not-other (by the way, that is not, for me, my lived experience, since the language of a so-called other, Waray, is my motherland, my tongue-ina, to use that witchy code-switching term of poet Eric Gamalinda)—the emergence of Duterte only makes that existential multiple-tongued reality of the Filipino slightly more obvious.

Our ‘sophisticated’ knowledges—talino and alam and baltok realities arising from our everyday sophisticated experience of our multilinguality—are made prominent in the emergence of Duterte. But perhaps more importantly, in the emergence of Duterte’s readers.

But on the other hand, that existential linguistic quality is not enough to sustain the mesmerizing, messianic qualities of his words upon his followers (not to mention the distressing, to say the least, effect of them on his not-followers). Sylvia Mayuga, in her essay on Duterte and the Pilandok tale, and Ninotchka Rosca, in her comment on Duterte and his ‘duro’ politics, have brought out folk aspects of the man that many respond to. In another post, I looked at the most immediate historical moment that strikes me in Duterte: his strongman-nostalgia (and our strongman-attraction that may also be part of the country’s vote for him). And he does contain folk qualities—a Juan Pusong type, an insider who acts like an outsider, seemingly dumb but actually always victorious, a justice avenger, a pun-twisting joker, etc etc. One can look at him in an exterior, narrative way and parse him as a riddle, a folk image, and so on, and we can get a quite complex, edifying or not, mirror of ourselves achieved by those readings.

But reading the comments makes me also aware that his significance lies in the readers themselves—his readers are a fateful text. I’d say this includes both the responses of his faithful and of his hecklers.

‘Lea Sanchez’ goes, “May point si Mr President haha. Lahat ng kaganapan sa history ng Philippine politics dumaan diyan haha XD.”

The president has a point, says Lea Sanchez: to read Duterte’s comment on the palace is to read all the events [lahat ng kaganapan] of Philippine history through Duterte’s proclaimed fear of the ghosts of Malacañang.

An anonymous poster adds, “Malacañang means malaking lakan, o ahas [snake]. I think we have to change the name. Puro ahas diyan. SNAKEPIT.”

For both Lea Sanchez and Anonymous, Duterte’s fear of multo in Malacañang then is a historical allusion and political critique—and the historical allusion, inevitably, is encased in a linguistic pun. For Filipinos, history is a matter of pun. In Anonymous’s case, malacañang, malaking lakan, house of a big lord, but also, house of a snake, is a linguistic and physical pun, both the snakepit that is language and the house of ghostly snakes. I have no idea if this punning interpretation of the word malacañang, as snakepit, is accurate, but it is sufficient perhaps that Duterte faithful go there.

It is impossible in the Philippines to separate historical critique from language play.

Thus, the presidential palace, as parsed by Duterte evangelists through his messianic, metaphorical language (however aware he is of the meanings his followers will make), becomes a tongue-lashing snakepit, that is, a historically corrupt house of politics that has poisoned the nation through the years.

I would not say that his followers are mistaken.

But then an anonymous poster responds: “Malay nyo naman po matakot sila sa yo”—Who knows, sir, if it is the ghosts who will be afraid of you.

To which ‘Kevin Mercado Linsao’ gleefully answers, “The famous ghost still won as Mayor!”

And so ‘Losi Garo’ jeers, “Akala ko astig ka. Looks like he does not have balls afterall.”

But ‘Alesha Mohhamed Lavender Unica’ laughs at Losi Garo, “lol have sense to understand what he means.”

While ‘Rotsen Naalcab Agirab’ goes on, “Hahhahaha taga davao ako boy!! Hindi mo pa mkuha ang style ni mayor!! Ganyan yan marunong magbiro peru wag lng magalit dahil lion yan.”

And so on and so forth.

(I mean, even the posters’ pen-names seem like plays on words: anagram [Losi Garo: Roli the Siga?], palindrome [Rotsen: Nestor?], chiasmus [Ekai Atoneg: Genato E?]—all those slippery games of self-naming, our treasured secret identities, through language-play, that to me are precarious ways to hold on to a passing sense of superiority, a perilous control. I imagine we like to pun because when we play with words, at least we might feel, however illusorily, we have control over meaning—since we don’t over our lives.)

There is no way out of the tangled braid of language and interpretation and politics and history and jokes as ways of knowing that bedevils our islands.

In the voice of the Duterte critic, Duterte himself will become a metonym: Duterte will inevitably become the ghost that Duterte himself fears.

It is hard, in our political world especially, and in our tongues in cheek that respond to it, not to see the reflexive, inevitable fallibility of the leader.

Duterte, as far as history goes (even in the tautological logic of his own followers, who accurately label his future home as a snakepit, so that then Duterte himself is the big snake in it) will inescapably become the ghost of Malacañang.

The one who is killed and will kill.

Maraming mumu diyan. Including, who knows, what Duterte fears of and for himself even as he speaks.

It’s exactly as Freud calls it—this comment on the multo of Malacañang. It’s a psychopathology of the tongue: the extreme self-awareness that occurs in lapses of speech.

The fact is, the readers of Duterte, whether follower or critic, will keep on dragging our multiple ‘sense[s] to understand,’ our many ways of being ‘marunong,’ including, of course, our most palpable intelligence—the great intelligence of jokers—‘marunong magbiro’—our jokiness being ultimately a mark of our own sense of our slips—the way our completeness of self lies in our seeming ineffability, our multiple selves that constantly escape our grasp via our multiple tongues—as we slouch toward our Bethlehem, to one more inauguration of a leader who, one only hopes, will be not the lakan in the snakepit but the healer outside of it.

Malay nyo, as Anonymous says. Who knows?

I wish for him to be the hilot, the healer. Above all, I wish us all the best.

But then, my own paratext bubbles up in me, as I also think, he could also be just the snake charmer.

But does it matter who, in fact, he is?

Maybe it is for us the readers to go deeper, into ourselves. We are the text, the ghost, whose lips we must read. With empathy, with hope, with a sense of our mutual intelligences, for after all in our multiple ways there is only the one country for which the many dream.

Laliman pa natin.

 

Duterte: Strongman, Jokerman (in CNN Philippines)

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Thanks to Don Jaucian of CNN Philippines for publishing the article on Duterte in its entirety. This was written in the heat of the election cycle, and I have read it again in light of the results and my own ambivalent feelings about Duterte (I sympathize with his voters, and I find Duterte himself—and the phenomenon of him—absolutely fascinating, a complex story of the Philippines and of overdetermined desire, that is, in this case, of a people’s political desire, a kind of idealism, an anguish, “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary—having more than one cause”). And I recognize demagoguery as an election strategy—heralded it seems as a Filipinism—Dutertism; but however much you make a Juan Pusong hash of his affect, the violence underlying it is a problem. I reread the article, and I would not change a word of it.

There’s that story of when Gertrude Stein first saw the portrait Picasso made of her, and she complained: “But it does not look like me.” The artist replied: “Don’t worry, it will.”

The issues behind this election outcome are structural, not personal. I was interested not only in a portrait of Duterte and his voters but also to consider  what constructs us.

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My Foreign Policy article on Duterte

The editor of this piece chose the title—not I! I do not think the Trump analogy is the best—nor is the sensationalizing caption—really annoying, actually. My original draft of this piece (published in its entirety on CNN Philippines) does not even mention Trump. The editor wanted the link to Trump to make it “understandable” to an American audience. Personally, I think the U.S. still needs to make the phenomenon of their Trump understandable to the world. With its sensational headline (again, not my fault!), this piece has also been picked up by NZ Herald and The Chicago Tribune, and cited in Forbes.

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Paltik Candidate: Duterte and the Duranos of Danao

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Paltik Presidente

It is fascinating to check out the genealogy of Rodrigo Duterte. He excuses his foul mouth by such comments as “hindi ako anak ng konyo”—I am not a child of the upper classes.

But if you look up his bio, his father, Vicente G. Duterte, was in fact the governor of his province, Davao, when he was growing up, in 1959 to 1965—his formative, teenage years. Thus, he was no unknown peasant when he was learning to be a man. He grew up a governor’s child. He is, in fact, “anak ng konyo”—that is, a child of privilege.

There is no sense that his father had oligarch ways; in fact, there is very little info on what his father had done for Davao.

But Davaoeños on my FB page mention that his mother, Soledad Roa-Duterte, was known for her good heart, a civic leader—she supported Cory Aquino in 1986. It is said Cory Aquino handpicked Duterte to be officer-in-charge of Davao City when his mother declined the honor. He was elected mayor in 1988 and served six terms, a mayor of Davao City well into the 2000s.

That the origin story of Duterte, champion of death squads as a form of justice, lies in his being handpicked by Cory Aquino says a lot.

The Philippines’ continuing accommodation of Marcos-style fascist warlords, from the Cory years on, is the country’s rot. State violence remains our cancer though the dictator has, so they say, died.

Duterte likes to talk about Davao as a safe city under his long mayoralty; Human Rights Watch notes otherwise. Davao City certainly was not safe when a rash of hostage taking occurred in 1989, a now infamous year after his well-publicized account of the rape and death in 1989 of Australian missionary, Jacqueline Hamill. Davao, then and now, is probably no more safe than any large city in the Philippines with guns and assassins and petty thieves and drug lords operating in militarized local settings—in which too often state oppression joins with personal revenge—that have marked the Philippines since the guardia civil killed Crispin in the Noli, and the Americans took up where the Spaniards left off, and then our own series of sad republics has had its day.

Instead, what is remarkable about Duterte’s Davao City is not its dubious safety but its death squads. Duterte’s fans like to say that the extrajudicial killings of street children and drug addicts are worth it if the rest of citizens can walk the streets free. But no citizen in her right mind should sleep well at that cost. As far back as 525 B.C, the ancient Greeks knew well enough that Orestes and the rest of his bloodletting ilk of the house of Atreus had to stop taking justice in their own hands already. Thus courts were invented (so says Aeschylus). Courts, as far the civilized world goes, remain a fine alternative to bloodletting.

State-supported violence to tamp down crime is not security: it is crime. But when one looks further into Duterte’s genealogy, one gets an insight into his assassin-friendly rule. The Dutertes, like many Davaoeños, are emigrants from elsewhere, usually Cebu. In Duterte’s case, his father Vicente was from Danao City, in Cebu province. That lone consonant shift, v to n, Davao to Danao, is a significant différance. Danao City is the stronghold of the Duranos, a warlord family to which the historian Michael Cullinane devotes a whole chapter in Alfred McCoy’s classic anthology on Filipino cronyism, An Anarchy of Families. The figurehead of the violent, gun-loving Duranos is their patriarch, Ramon Durano, Sr. His wife was Beatriz Duterte.

There’s the rub.

Turns out the Dutertes of Danao are linked to the notorious Duranos, potent deliverers of Cebu votes to the Marcos dictatorship in every crucial election of Marcos’s reign.

This is what I gather from the family trees that have proliferated since the man has become a buzzword—not all of his words so nice—in these elections (correct me if I am wrong, as the genealogies are actually conflicting): Beatriz Duterte Durano is the first cousin of Vicente G. Duterte, the late governor of Davao. Beatriz and Vicente’s fathers, Facundo (Vicente’s) and Severo (Beatriz’s), are brothers, children of Isabelo Duterte and Concepcion Buot. Since 1955 to 1986, Beatriz Duterte Durano was a force in Cebu politics, trading off the position of Danao mayor or congressperson with her children, Boy and other boy Duranos, so that their elections were “monotonous,” says Cullinane.

But her husband, Ramon Durano, Sr., is the kingpin—the Marcos crony whose spectacular devotion to martial rule is not meteoric but metonymic: his name is a substitute for the GGG (not galunggong, but guns, goons, and gold) of Philippine politics.

When I was growing up, visiting Cebu every summer, I’d hear of these toxic Duranos. Their fiefdom, Danao, was the well-known, dreaded (to a child’s mind) place of paltik. Some towns are known for their puto or their piña; Danao was known for its paltik—crude but effective Filipino-made guns, made illegally, but the Marcos-era police turned a blind eye. I grew up thinking that if you entered Danao, you’d be riddled with drug addiction or bullets. The Duranos were the overlords and masterminds of an un-charming cottage industry. At a time when violence was normalized and rumors of disappearances were as common as the whiff of kaingin, to me violence in Cebu equaled the Duranos. Guimaras was famous for its mangoes; Danao for its deaths. These were childhood equations of my martial law years.

If I mention the Duranos to my sister, for example, she immediately says—so violent. If I mention Duranos among Manileños, I only get glassy eyes. The power of the family is unknown. Information about the provinces is so lacking in the capital that it is no surprise that to many, the Duterte phenomenon catches them unaware. This is one more strike against the blinkers of the people of the national capital region. Significantly, in the last Pulse Asia Survey, the only region in which Poe and Roxas win is the Visayas. Who knows if that is because—they are aware of Duterte’s entire career—or of course Poe and Roxas have their own familial footholds in the Visayas—or maybe the Visayans are more intelligent and knowledgeable than the people in Manila would care to admit, knowing both the capital region’s personalities as well as their own. Who knows.

News reports state the Duranos of Cebu City (don’t know about Danao City) are not (publicly) on Duterte’s side in this election (the family had huge splits after Marcos years, according to Cullinane); but that does not negate the Durano/Marcosian style of Duterte’s views of law and order, ie, extrajudicial killings as state policy. He’s interesting (and thus maybe worse) in that he’s pretty open about it.

I keep wondering why the biography and genealogy of Duterte barely make play in Manila news. I imagine it is because for so long the man was ignored in the capital, for his Bisaya accent, his outrageous mouth, and his provincial affect as some no-name bumpkin. It would have been useful to figure out that the man has long had pertinent examples from his own set of relatives, however distanced or estranged he may be (I have no information on his actual personal relations with them) as an example of how to remain in power.

 

Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer

Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer

In July, I got the news I had breast cancer. In August, my surgeon told me it was not only cancer, it was a BRCA2-positive, triple-negative basal-cell carcinoma—a kind of super-duper invasive genetic mutation that sounded like a cross between alien kryptonite and at least eight of the ten plagues that descended on Moses. In September, I had a bilateral mastectomy with one-stage reconstruction using acellular dermal matrix thingamaboobs (yes, I think that is what they are scientifically called, actually made of pigskin, I think; like a good Filipino, and Angelina Jolie, I have pork in my breasts). Then I had eight weeks of bed rest and nonstop eating of barbecue-flavored garlic-ridden Boy Bawang. A lymph node was taken out, examined, then declared negative for further cancer—but despite the good news, the procedure was torture, numbing me on my right side so that I thought a zombie had eaten up my flesh while everyone kept telling me all was good. Then, because of the high incidence of second cancer recurrence given my newly discovered mutant genes, I had four toxic doses from November to March of Taxotere with Cytoxan, despite being “cancer-free,” meaning for four months I lost my hair and my taste buds, gained gastroesophageal reflux disease (fondly nicknamed Gerd, like some just acquired pet iguana), and, what the hell, could get no pedicure for weeks (nail cells are fast-growing, like carcinoma, and chemotherapy eats up everything that looks alive). In addition, my oncologist packed steroids into my veins because, she said, it turns out in her experience, hello, every single human being is allergic to chemotherapy. No kidding, I said, skin burns all over the place but flushed with that steroid high.

And yet, when I woke up to my FB feed this morning and saw the message some “friend” was sending around, I thought—fuck Jesus and all of the seven dwarves.

The sight was worse than cancer.

Like this page, said my so-called friend (now not)—Bongbong Marcos for President in 2016.

And as if this were not enough to make me want to zap my news feed until the world looked like the dunes of Paoay, I then clicked like a masochist on Senator Bong Revilla’s privilege speech.

I mean, those are two oxymorons in one mouthful. “Senator Bong” and “privilege speech.” The first sounds like no senator and the second is no privilege nor, as far as I could tell, speech.

It was a comedy routine.

As I told a friend, this is the kind of thing you do for art. In my job as a writer, I have taken the dictum of Flannery O’Connor to heart when it comes to the Philippines: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” Unquote.

And this is true of Vhong Navarro as of Bong Revilla.

So I clicked play.

While a grim, ineluctable rage and dawning sense of tragedy came over me looking at the page for President Bongbong for 2016, a nonstop run of giggling took over as I listened to Senator Bong.

I mean, this is too much fun in the Philippines. As another friend, survivor of Thatcher’s Britain likes to say—I laughed so hard I cried.

Batter my heart, three-personed, music-video playing, tearful pop-song-writing pork barrel demonyo, Bong Revilla. And was that a trinity of pigs I saw hugging each other in inexplicable self-congratulation, unashamedly bunching together at the end of the speech (screen shot below), like a trio about to sing “My Way” before (I hoped) a righteous gunman shoots them—or was it just my imagination running away with me, damaged by basal-cell carcinoma?

How on earth could a snapshot like that be possible?

Only in the Philippines is not my answer.

Only among public servants with a brutal lack of shame—this aggressive candor that smiles and smiles and is a villain, so Hamlet says, is not endemic only to the Philippines. But it is perfected and limitless in people like Enrile, Revilla, and Estrada—three consummate, incredible pigs. We need to remember they are actual people who have kicked back real people’s taxes and blood and tears. They are not abstract ghouls. To say “only in the Philippines” diminishes their atrocity, as if they were only a trope.

On the other hand, the sight of triplet pigs smiling unabashedly all in a row does not diminish the scene’s irreality.

Image

People ask me why I have never written a novel about current events in my country. My response is—how can you write fiction about real but unbelievable things? Writing a novel requires crafting a suspension of disbelief. Listening to Bong Revilla’s speech, I was beset with one weird travesty of sense after another. Did he really wag his finger over the ills of the country—families with no food or jobs, lack of money to fight crime or help sick people in hospitals—when he is accused precisely of stealing the money needed to combat those ills? Am I missing something? Did he really ask us to unite with him against—well, him? Did he really invoke a list, like Napoles’s or Schindler’s, and so incriminate even God in his crimes? Did I really hear him issue a death threat in the Senate chamber (to the sitting president, no less) like some junior Nardong Putik or something, a gangster without a cause? The imperviousness to artistry in his script combined with the moment’s clueless cinematic posturing was breathtaking.

Comedy is tragedy plus time, so said Mark Twain (I think)—but in the Philippines, we keep getting comedy minus time equals tragedy. The depths of inanity in our political circus are not only an assault on citizens—they are also the despair of any novelist. When I began writing novels, I never wrote directly, but only in ‘side-view,’ with a peripheral eye, about Imelda, because, growing up as I did in Imeldalandia, I kept thinking—how can any writer top that? Imelda is a novelist’s burden to bear, because the story of her continued existence, the eye-opening fact that she is not in jail or at least once-upon-a-time crucified, is simply incredible—and yet for me, a citizen of Leyte, she’s a zombie reality that is also painfully true (in Tacloban, she’s a literal walking zombie, going around hugging people during high school reunions that are not even hers).

So instead I keep sitting at my desk writing about the horrors of the Filipino-American war—that gruesome history is less traumatizing than the surreality of Imelda.

But WTGF, our current events keep confounding my youthful rhetorical question—how can anyone top that? This indicted clown, Bong Revilla, has had not only one but two privilege speeches. Jesus Christ, did Senator Drilon not learn from his mistake already? Goddamn, Senator Drilon—two Bongs do not make a right! Is it the fault in our stars that there is no word as far as I can tell in any language, not even ours (which has the capacity for punning in at least seventy-three ways) that can sufficiently describe the nightmare of relentless irony attacking the defenseless funnybone of the Filipino public the minute Bong Revilla opened his mouth? Anak ng teteng does not cut it. In all of his elaborate, exhaustively catalogued, in fact slightly obsessive-compulsive ordering of sinners in his Inferno, not even Dante Alighieri imagined the circle of hell for that dense inversion of moral intelligence that typified every gnomic note in Senator Bong’s speech—not to mention the circle of hell in which we, the public, were cast into, merely for being alive at the time of his criminal privilege.

And then—he sang.

As one commenter, Anonymous, wrote, Karimarimarim. Or as another, also Anonymous, judiciously said—Just kill me now.

Of all the trite, unbelievably inevitable tropes of fun-in-the-Filipinisms he could have pulled out of his comedy ass, he did exactly what no self-respecting novelist would expect—or, he trumped the modernist (who still believes a story must be meaningful) with exemplary postmodernism—he reminded us in that moment, as the Senate turned into a music-video karaoke bar before our ears, that as a nation, we’re better off as fictions. The truth is a wound.

Worse, he composed a song, put it on an immortal youtube loop, and now we can make it the theme of our lives.

Huwag kayong mag-alala, he more or less threatened as he shifted into what he thought was his moving, musical valedictory—hindi kami mawawala.

The most truthful moment of his speech: Don’t worry, we will never be gone.

We know, Senator, we know.

Though there is no decent human being who is not allergic to frontal assaults on the sense of right and wrong—there is also no steroid to kill the toxic chemicals of moral perverts like Bong Revilla and all of his ilk in the Senate who hugged him without shame or fear of catching his disease after his speech (and I don’t mean just his twenty-seven hundred polygamy-bred blood relatives who have probably long sucked on the nation’s teat). Worse than cancer, these zombies will keep coming back, in different guises, in virulent strains, singing the same songs, as they eat our flesh into a numbing eternity. Don’t worry, we will never be gone. As folk wisdom knows—there is no such thing as cancer-free.