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.

“Living without the skin”: Or the ego position of not voting for Hillary Clinton

I always say, I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I grew up on Mao. Of course, the latter part is not strictly true. I barely read Mao when I was sixteen and joined campus marches against the Marcos dictatorship at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. But, as they say, I have many good friends who were Maoists. I watched how campus activists moved and strategized for larger aims—the larger aim being to destroy imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism, of course. 🙂 We weren’t marching for small change. We were going for the big bucks, the revolution. But the chess-positioning and the coalition-building and the tactical warfare maneuvering even re: the most picayune details of campus-election-candidates and so on are imprinted like weird DNA that never gets erased in my brain, no matter how I try. I do strange internal analytics whenever confronted with anyone (friend, lover, boss, student): I consider myself and my class and historical position in relation to the other, and I am always refracting this positionality back into my relationship with that other [friend, lover, boss, etc] so that, however desperately I would like to have an unmediated relationship [with anyone really, even my daughter], I am always defeated. My old teenage, UP-campus-activist mind gets in the way. I am never only myself: I am always part of a goddamned world dialectical-materialist struggle, even when I am just choosing my kid’s gym shoes or bored as shit at a faculty meeting. 🙂 But what my experience with campus activism at Diliman taught me was that the decision one made (and ALL of one’s decisions were political) was always contingent on the needs of the moment—in relation to the larger cause.

It was our end that was necessary; our means were contingent.

Thus, the rift among my friends upon the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, for instance—a figure (correctly) enshrined in our PSR teach-ins as basic panginoong-maylupa slash comprador-bourgeois. When one of my classmates from the English department, Cochise Bernabe, asked me in 1983 if I wanted to go and serenade Ninoy at the airport when he arrived, I looked at him as if he were nuts: why would I want to do that?? Cochise, clearly, was not among the Maoists. Of course, now, looking back, I regret not going—what experiences I miss as a writer because of what I scorn as an ideologue! Anyway, we had to decide: were we for the obviously imperfect widow Cory Aquino (an oligarch, from one of the most powerful landlord families of the country—but also, at the time, clearly a means for change) or do we boycott? Officially, the party line was boycott; at the same time, many of us joined the Cory marches: the split, in my view, lay in the Gramscian instincts that, however doctrinaire the higher-ups might be, were deeply engrained in our campus activism. Not that we read Gramsci then (our handbook was Amado Guerrero, after all). But as Gramsci says, “the truth is, one cannot choose the war one wants.” There is an ego position, I think, in seeing political choices as being determined by ideological purity: we wish the war to be on our personal terms. In 1986, I chose to march for Cory because I thought the left needed to be in the trenches given the needs of the moment—marching strategically, with larger aims in mind. I still believe that at the time, even with what I know now, my choice was correct. Overthrowing the dictator was “historically necessary,” a material change for the country (though revolution is yet to come…). And it is terrible that the left, which gave organization and momentum and clarity to the anti-dictatorship movement that installed Cory, did, as we argued would happen, get left behind in the immediate euphoria of that so-called rebellion, since it had publicly boycotted her election. The leaders of the left failed to seize the moment.

They should have read Gramsci.

(Of course, there are many, overdetermined reasons for the weakened Philippine left and, of course, for all the atrocious post-Marcos governments that followed the people power rebellion of 1986.)

In the case here of Hillary Clinton, I choose to vote for her because we need to be in the trenches and so advance our larger aims. The notion that she must respond perfectly to my demands is an ego position that I have long discarded. As I learned as a kid in Diliman, I am never only myself—I am part of a larger struggle. My vote is strategic and provisional, and yes, it is a sign of my defeat, but it is also a sign of my refusal to lose the war. With Trump, we lose a lot—not least of it enthroning a raging racist—he is a concrete threat to people of color—we need to accept this fact—that allowing this man to govern us is an irreparable reality that we do not need to live to regret. (That Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, was the PR consultant to the dictator Marcos is a historical repetition not lost on me.)

Gramsci had made this interesting analogy of politics to anatomy: “By highlighting the anatomy and the function of the skeleton nobody was trying to claim that man (still less woman) can live without the skin.” He was talking about “structure/superstrucure”; but I use the metaphor in terms of ethics. To imagine that we can live with the harm of a trumpity presidency on our civil liberties, on the poor, on #blacklivesmatter, on Muslims, and so on, to not recognize the ethics of the moment, is to imagine that we “can live without the skin.” We highlight the skeleton—our ideological purity—but we still need to live in the world.

I’m not saying that a vote for Hillary is “historically necessary,” as an election is just one of the tools for change, and repeatedly, as we can see, it is a fairly deficient one. But a vote for Hillary is also, to me, not merely “arbitrary”: there is a concrete difference in our choices. One is flawed but makes sense and has allied goals (for one thing, she shifted given the demands of Bernie Sanders: one must see that as a good sign); the other makes no sense at all.

Difference matters: literally. Difference is material—difference is part of the world of things.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: the Gramscian mantra my friends in Manila mutter every day as they wake up to more strange news of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines on one hand and the prospect of peace in Mindanao on the other, both under the not-so-trumpian yet certainly perverse new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Everywhere, there’s a specter of global weirdness haunting the world these days. Sadly, it is not the specter Marx was foretelling. But we can still act in the ambiguous moment and vote—with our larger goals in mind.