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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Friday, July 15, 2016

entry arrow7:48 PM | The New Normal of Quiet Despair

It is easy, even tempting, to dismiss the dread—a thick, growing mucus of it—as symptomatic of paranoia. Human nature is wonderful, but also perfectly naïve, that way. In Greek mythology, Cassandra refused Apollo’s gift of prophecy, which he was giving her in a bid for seduction. Scorned, the god spat into Cassandra’s mouth, inflicting her with a curse that nobody would ever believe any of what she prophesied. She did foresee the destruction of Troy, and warned its citizens about the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse. And she saw the tragedies befalling everyone else around her.

But no one believed her.

History is ripe with Cassandras. The same fervent disbelief has churned in various permutations over the decades: “Hitler will not dare invade Poland.” “Senator McCarthy is just looking out for us because there are communists everywhere.” “Oh, come on, the science is not decisive about the link between cancer and smoking.” “Marcos could not possibly suspend the writ of habeas corpus.” “Climate change is not real.” And so on and so forth. Confronted with prophecies of darkness, the human tendency is to dismiss the warning, and to embrace the comforts of denial. The warnings, they’d say, are just a little too much on the paranoid side. But then again, to quote Joseph Heller in Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

In one of the panels at the International Conference of Philippine Studies held in Dumaguete last week, the scholar Oscar Campomanes made this remark that struck me as stark in its truthfulness: “History is the only discipline that matters.” He was right. An educated consciousness of what came before—and the learning that must stem from that—is the only way we could better inform the actions we take. George Santayana, of course, has given a version of this line, which has since passed into cliché: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Alas it is a cliché that has never quite gotten into our skull thickened by denial.

When the bodies started piling up a few days ago in what appeared to be a growing rage for vigilantism, emboldened by a strongman’s battle cry for a war on drugs, the manner of the deaths and the manner of the disposal horrified me—as they should any right-minded human being. The anonymity of the hits. The crude fact of packaging tape sometimes covering the corpses, mummifying them in despairing positions. The cardboard signs that declare the dead a criminal—“Pusher, ‘wag tularan,” “Snatcher, ‘wag tularan,” etc.—justifying the murder. Inside, I scream: “What happened to due process?” These days those two words—bedrocks of a functioning democracy—are being laughed at. And I could not understand how people could shrug off the sinister implications.

There has been a quiet acceptance by almost everyone of these things happening. And also waves of violent mocking by a mob if you issue dissent.

It is not an entirely new thing. A sense of history would attest that these things have happened before, in exactly the same manner, give or take a culturally specific difference. I am going to use right now the most frightful of historical correlations. Because now I totally get what life was like for ordinary Germans in Nazi Germany, especially in the contentious pre-war decade. You see, seeing and reading about the horrors of World War II—in particular, the unbelievable death machine of the Holocaust—I used to ask myself: How come nobody did anything? Why were ordinary Germans so quiet, so passively (or aggressively) supportive of the programs of Hitler’s regime? Couldn’t a civilized people recognize a evil in their midst?

Actually, psychology has an answer: human beings are hard-wired to accept (and even participate in) evil, and be obedient—as long as there is an authority figure giving us a blanket permission to go ahead. The Milgram Experiment in 1963 proved that. The Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 proved that.

We are the new Milgram experiment. We are the new Stanford Prison experiment. And for those who resist, you soon become aware that while you kind of know “what’s happening,” you feel a helpless about it. What is often worse in your discovery of the new normal is that the friend you thought you knew is actually a member of the Black Shirts, those ordinary people in 1930s Germany who supported Hitler’ s ascent by bullying everyone else around them. (They wore black shirts in their operations of intimidation, hence the name.) Today, any dissent you offer is met with very vocal violence, especially online. I have dissenting friends threatened with rape. I have received malicious emails, too. Most often I’m just told to shut up. “O.A. ka,” they’d say.

Hitler started with the “undesirables,” too—people he thought had no place in polite society he just systematically eliminated. And everyone cheered him on.

I’m beginning to feel there is only a slight difference with Germany’s 1933 and our 2016. At least I could still write this article in the name of freedom of expression, and have some assurance there will be no knock on my door come midnight. But I wonder for how long? The media is now just beginning to be discredited, with pronouncements like “there are many media people who are connected with the drug trade.” It’s a subtle charge with deeper repercussions. There are calls for the “impeachment” of Senator De Lima, a dissenter—even though any person who knows the operations of government know a senator cannot be impeached. My fear is that soon, any dissenter—even those without drug connection—could just be anonymously picked up, killed, wrapped in tape, with a cardboard to proclaim the corpse: “Pusher ‘to.” And nobody can do anything about it. Is this paranoia? Or just the Cassandra warnings coming in with a sense of history?

The ironic thing is that I do know the President means well. This is my dilemma, and the extension of my human need to feel “everything is all right.” (The poet and activist Mila D. Aguilar told m: “I agree with everything you said except that ironic thing, Ian.” To which I replied: “I’m still hopeful kasi.” Mila replied in return: “Oh well. We can always hope against hope. Maybe I always see the worst so I won’t be disappointed.”) I’m not exactly sure though if our President knows how this framework he has created—given the history and the psychology that we know—could easily escalate into something monstrous and uncontrollable. History is rife with the bloody reminders of mob rule. Why are we not learning from it?

A friend, the filmmaker Jason Paul Laxamana—he directed Magkakabaung (2014), Babagwa (2013) and Astro Mayabang (2010)—told me: “I’d make a prophecy: there will be no fascism in the next six years.” (God, I hope so.) To this, another friend, Prof. Philip Van Peel, added: “I think you’re right. Fascism requires two things: first, a clear cut ideology based on national identity, and second, iron discipline from the obedient followers. I don’t see any of these two emerging here.” But I do see an emergence. Marcos, for example, used to call his dictatorial regime as “martial rule with a smile.” The thing is, Filipinos tend to make “softer”—but nevertheless still harsh—versions of iron rule, so I’d wager this: there is a possibility of the next six years being “fascism with fiestas.” And that it will be predicated by two things: first, a resurgent nationalism about “a common good”—already present with these extrajudicial killings (“Para sa kabutihan ng bayan!”); and second, a mob rule that believes the leader can do no wrong and any dissenter is either “bobo” or soon to be another corpse wrapped in tape with a cardboard attached to him. But there will be fiestas, sans fireworks.

Prof. Van Peel replied: “The future will tell, but I think it won’t be like you say…. I don’t see Duterte as a nationalist. Quite the opposite, he is very inclusive. A nationalist would always blame the ‘Other’—foreigners, ethnic or religious minorities, etc.”

Another friend, the lawyer Trixie Cruz-Angeles, told me: “This is an inappropriate comparison. The killings in Nazi Germany were unquestionably state-sponsored. There is no evidence yet that the alleged spate of killings is pursuant to a policy directive of the government. Right now, all we can assume is that these are murders. Who executed them? We don’t know yet. Sige, compare pa more.”

I told Trixie that that is not entirely true. He has been captured by television giving statements that basically encourage people to do extrajudicial killings. There was that infamous quote, for example, about the expected bump in funeral services. True, there is no “policy.” He’s wiser than that. He’s all public bluster, but no written rule—which makes it more dangerous. But he symbolizes the state (hence he is the authority), and words do come out of his mouth. For many people, that’s enough. That’s the Milgram experiment for you.

Trixie replid: “Yes but we know that it is not. You want liability, then prove it. Where is the government policy? Why do we presume there is no investigation when this is SOP for all homicides involving law enforcement? If we demand the presumption of innocence then it applies to all, including government agents.” In reply, I sent her a news item from GMA News about the new Solicitor General Jose Calida telling the Philippine National Police about not being afraid of possible congressional hearings on the recent spate of deaths in the currently raging “war against drugs.” I do know Trixie to be a fantastic lawyer—she’s a legal celebrity in the Philippines—and I know her replies spring from a knowledge of the rigorous demands of the law especially regarding allegations and evidence: the law requires evidence, the law needs a paper trail to convict. But I’m thinking: what if the perpetrator is a lawyer, is very smart and cunning, and knows how exactly not leave a paper trail, like written policies?

Of course, sooner or later, these things, no matter how hidden, do get found out with dogged investigation, but that takes years. We’re still finding out things about Marcos, for example. And Richard Nixon’s “smoking gun” White House tapes after the Watergate scandal erupted have several minutes suspiciously deleted from them. And to go back to Nazi Germany, the papers of the Wannsee Conference—the notorious high-level conference that determined the Final Solution for the Jews of Europe—were destroyed, except for some stray copies that were later accidentally discovered. The paper trail—great and damning evidence that it is—is also easy to hide, to tamper with, to destroy. And right now, my best “paper trail” is the President’s mouth and the things that come out of it, and then to consider the resulting body count that is happening. Aren’t words enough for us anymore?

Trixie replied: “Awwww Ian, you know me. I don’t like to lump cases together and make conclusions. Each one is driven by different motives or causes. This is not to say I don’t share your worries. I do. But I also don’t want the discourse to be based on emotion. Particularly when they involve very solid rights.” I tell her that as of the moment, given the quickness of what has been happening, I’ve been trying to balance emotion and evidence, as well as history and psychology. I tell her this combination is the best dissent available for me as of the moment. Because so many people these days are just too quiet, and too quick to say, “Okay lang ‘yan.” It’s almost like I’m seeing unthinking zombies. I have been asking questions like: what happened to my friends? why are they not alarmed?

“Because we link causes to personalities,” Trixie said.” “That is yellow. That is red. That is Marcos. Just my opinion, but divorce these from the possibility that they will damage the polar personalities and we may get better discourse. That’s just my guess. But it could be anything.”

And this is true. I do hope, however, that the mob believes that though. I’ve found it difficult to do “discourse” with most of them. Somebody just called me O.A. in a Facebook comment—just one dismissive word bereft of knowledge of history.

“Consider it a badge of honor,” Trixie said. “You out yourself out there, you’ll get some stones thrown. But you, at least, are out there. But here’s what I’m can promise you. I’ll be more stringent with the cops. They do bear the burden of public trust.”

But it dawned me hours after my dialogue with Trixie that I was perhaps wasting my time fighting people’s politics, and their earnest hopes that all these are “for the betterment of the country.” It made me feel utterly helpless—but also strangely liberated.

I have a favorite quote from Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] (1939) that for me explains everything about people, and which has once more made me philosophical about things: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”

With that, I’m signing off from the debate.

Let history be our arbiter.

Let the blood that has been spilled so far mean something.

And God bless us all.

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