POLITICS

REVIEW: What 'The Duterte Manifesto' tells us about the president

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Six months after the elections, a writer reviews “The Duterte Manifesto” — a collection of quotes from the president’s election trail — and revisits the controversial leader’s strongly-worded campaign promises.

(CNN Philippines Life) — China in the 1970s will always be known for the political turmoil and rampant factionalism of the Cultural Revolution, where thousands of citizens were publicly shamed, tortured, and executed by Mao Zedong’s Red Guard. The name is no accident — society was turned inside-out. Cliques dominated politics and haunted friendships. At the slightest hint of discipline, teenagers ratted out their parents as counterrevolutionaries and had them paraded with placards around their necks. Shouting matches and public persecution replaced law and order. There was discourse, yes, but it was neither substantial nor freely made: big words like “imperialist thought” and “bourgeois apologetics” hummed in the air of universities and Town Halls alike, but they were thrown like accusations, darts hurled at the humanity of politics.

From this dark chapter in history, one book stood out as an iconic testament to the depravity of cult personality: the pocket-sized “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong,” proudly waved in political rallies, featured in propaganda, graciously gifted for weddings and birthdays alike.

Thankfully, “The Duterte Manifesto” does not in any substantial way resemble Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Though similar in physical size and page count, the contents of this handy collection of quotations from Duterte’s presidential campaign offer no ambitious ideological projects or political visions. Instead, the book celebrates the absence of politics, making an exceptional case for introducing to the government a number of social taboos, such as: the massacre of alleged criminals, the curious fragility of the Filipino male ego, and a possible return to a boisterous and empty nationalism. “The Duterte Manifesto” captures the president with his most memorable words; words that in both senses are sometimes shocking, sometimes confusing.

"The Duterte Manifesto" covers a wide range of issues made relevant by the president's campaign, but not without a few playful chapters, including one where he is the casual subject of tongue-in-cheek jokes described by movie titles.

The book begins with an introduction by the illustrious Senyora Santibañez: part-meme and part-political commissar to the Duterte campaign. She throws her hat behind the candidate, raining platitudes on the coming slaughter of criminals and their contribution to the funeral business, soil fertility, and the fish of Manila Bay. Such celebrations might seem prophetic given the violence in the streets today, but right or wrong, this introduction bespeaks of a morally bankrupt opinion.

“The Duterte Manifesto” is divided into ten parts, numbered in intimidating Roman, neatly spaced across two pages to give off a Mosaic vibe: “Thou shalt keep my commandments.” The book covers a wide range of issues made relevant by his acerbic campaign, not without a few playful chapters where he is the casual subject of tongue-in-cheek jokes described by movie titles (the second chapter, titled “We are Filipinos before anything else”) or where Duterte portrays himself as the savior of anachronistic patriotism (the first chapter, “I cannot do this alone...”).

Two chapters in, and the reader is pleasantly lost in his stream of consciousness. By the third chapter (“We must be a peaceful nation”) Duterte champions the secession of Mindanao, his willingness to die for country, and his quixotic clamor for a war — any war — even against abstract social windmills, like poverty or corruption. Ever the strategic chameleon, Duterte, in the fourth chapter (“Puro kayo reklamo…”), promises the following: the murder of drug felons, at the very least slight physical injuries against petty criminals, and the prosecution en masse against corrupt officials “to the hilt.” As a concession he closes with this: “Never ever challenge the law.” The messaging is clear: The law applies to all, and the president is the only exception.

“The Duterte Manifesto” captures the president with his most memorable words; words that in both senses are sometimes shocking, sometimes confusing.

The fifth chapter (“Hindi ako nananakot…”) might sound like a chapter where Duterte clothes himself with self-praise, but it surprisingly contains Duterte’s words about the worsening urban conditions of Metro Manila: he dismisses the capital as “unsolvable” and suggests that cars be committed to a giant automotive pyre. Space is given for a testament from his daughter, Sara Duterte, in the sixth chapter (“To my friends and family…”) who remembers calling her father after a hard time in law school. Sara is recounted to have been unable to stop crying, as Duterte reckons she must have been pregnant, or raped: an observation that unfortunately implies that a woman who cries on the phone must somehow be a victim. Included also is the testimony of Leo Carlo Panlilio, a church pastor, for the token religious opinion to sanctify Duterte’s wrongs for that one, impossible, pyrrhic right. The chapter concludes with a token nod to the separation of church and state.

The seventh chapter (“I believe in love, yes. Forever, nah.”) faithfully quotes various degrees of chauvinism, as he preaches the acceptable forms of flirtation without regard to the woman’s point of view: one quote, in fact, goes “I do not pull the woman to my face and kiss them. It’s the women who come to me with pouted lips.” The chapter concludes with a paean to masculine immortality: “Kaya yang tao, lalaki, ‘yang ano natin is sacred. You know why? It is the link sa atin sa humanity. Because if I die and I have a son, his seed will continue to propagate.” Ever the spiritual man, Duterte touts an Abrahamic destiny to subdue and populate the Earth, as only men alone can accomplish.

A reader who manages to reach chapter eight (“Don’t f*ck with my team”) might already be highly amused by the ragtag assortment of topics as assembled here, but will still not be any closer to discerning a political purpose for a manifesto to be ostensibly followed by the people. If the quotes in this chapter are any indication, Duterte seemingly assures the voting public that mediocrity is acceptable, that excellence is overrated, and that his casually self-serving appreciation of the freedom of speech trumps the political demands of his office to remain respectable and cordial: “Nung nag-graduate kami, sabi ko, tignan ko yung diploma mo, be. Pareho lang naman ng nakalagay, pati pirma, parehong pareho. Tapos siya, 94. Ako sa bar, line of 7. Pero sa awa ng Diyos naging Mayorako. At sa kinamalas-malasan, putangina, naging presidente pa.” The chapter ends with a cheeky checklist of crimes in the style of Buzzfeed quizzes, to see if you would live or die under a Duterte administration, as if dying couldn’t get any easier.

In one of the chapters of the book, Duterte champions the secession of Mindanao and his willingness to die for the country.

The ninth chapter (“Sinabi mo. Gawin mo…”) is a chapter devoted entirely to the “rape joke” incident from one of his rallies. But instead of apologizing for remarks that offended people both here and abroad, Duterte makes a case for male honor, circumventing the criticism hurled against him for the controversial rape joke with a story of how he saved a child hostage decades ago. Here, the president, in his retelling, exhibits a firm understanding of voter mentality, easily distracted by action hero antics and the guttural swears peppered in his speeches, as if to say, “Remember that other time? When I rode a chopper to a hostage crisis? I saved the kid!”

The chapter revealed a Duterte who was not only stubborn in his ways, but was also intransigent with his mistakes. No apology was ever dispensed without an equally braggadocio remark, which folds over and over on the harmful issue hurled at him. Nine chapters into the manifesto, it is clear that Duterte’s politics is not rock solid, though he would like us to believe that it is; he is instead, gelatinous, constantly shaped and reshaped by our deepest, darkest desires.

Thus explains the cult of personality.

Duterte makes a case for male honor, circumventing the criticism hurled against him for the controversial rape joke with a story of how he saved a child hostage decades ago.

In the final chapter (“Itaga n’yo yan kung sa’n niyo gusto itaga!”) the reader is left with no clearer picture of Duterte’s politics, but is certainly given an impressionable one: a man of real action to be placed in a government of pettiness and lassitude. The chapter is a menu of popular policies, premised “Pag ito hindi ko nagawa, shoot me.” There’s the passage of the Freedom of Information Law, job creation for our country’s most impoverished, and tough commitments to fighting climate change. The president wants to build regional rail systems, yearns for food independence, licks his lips at the taste of national industrialization, but this brand of nationalism is outdated and anachronistic: We are a long way from the budding wartime industries of the 20th century, and forcing outdated worldviews to modern day complexities is like administering voodoo magic against cancer.

The book closes with remarks from Senyora Santibañez again, gracing the reader with a fallacious diatribe generous in its admonishment of traditional politics and the need for radical change. She goes: “Nakakasawa na ang mga pulitiko na puro pangako pero wala namang ginagawa.” Her glorified Facebook post exudes disbelief in the justice system, the incredulity of elections, and the lazy pessimism of Filipinos.

But the testaments are not all bad: one story recalls Duterte’s days as vice mayor, personally caring for a teenage boy suffering from cancer. Another story looks back on Davao’s legendary safety, as a woman falls asleep on a taxi and safely arrives at her destination, honor intact. Of all the personal stories shared in “The Duterte Manifesto,” these two stand out as sincere narrations of real people, with legitimate frustrations with their government, and honest-to-goodness belief that a man like Duterte can change a system mired in corruption and inaction.

There are two testaments in the manifesto — about Davao’s safety and Duterte and a cancer patient — that stand out as sincere narrations of real people, with legitimate frustrations with their government, and honest-to-goodness belief that a man like Duterte can change a system mired in corruption and inaction.

The book’s last testament also recounts the reflections of a commuter taking the PNR train, experiencing the undisciplined shuffle of Filipinos, from the absence of queues to the abundance of trash. She recounts how this experience led to the logical conclusion that discipline — paternal discipline, of corporal punishment — is the missing ingredient in Philippine society, and that Duterte was the only candidate to dispense it. Such remarks are irresponsible. A democracy is a government of grown-ups, who are accountable by their words and deeds, always fair to others.

Still, it’s a fitting testimony to end “The Duterte Manifesto,” and equally telling of what his supporters see in the controversial leader. In this fictitious social view, principles tend to give way to desperate solutions, sometimes without regard for the pernicious cost that must be paid. It is no “manifesto” similar to a digestible read of Maoist thought, but is instead a faithful reproduction of how impetuous responsiveness won Duterte his presidency. A riveting read for the politically childish, who are always so captivated by tendencies for authoritarian rule, the booklet, already too brief for literary consumption, is made even shorter by its empty contradictions. Thankfully, part of the proceeds of the book go to the Davao Children’s Cancer Fund. That, and it makes a fantastic paperweight.

***

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.