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The Dutertefly Effect and the Philippine Stub Universe

Ninotchka Rosca

Nothing exemplifies the hallucinatory universe created by Rodrigo Duterte in the 7,400 islands of the Philippines better than Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, running for the Senate under the banner of the PDP-Laban party. 

“God works in mysterious ways,” she said, an irony on the irony of being with the party which had been founded to overthrow her father. 1  But this reversal of fortune and the enshrinement of the absurd for the archipelago has become an everyday happening since 2016, when the country entered what the Tibetans would call the “red line” – that ruby gash at sunset which presages really bad times.  The sunset has been constant since then, as the Dutertefly Effect2 rushes like tarantula venom among the 100 million Filipinos sardined in a territory the size of New Mexico, their sense of vastness coming only from a sea that sings in perpetual azure.  But that too is vanishing, as China occupies one islet after another and bans fishing by the brown people in a growing area of the West Philippine Sea.

She won, despite a roiling scandal of her claimed degrees as pure fakery – from a Princeton undergraduate degree to a University of the Philippines law degree, cum laude.  Heck, it seemed she didn’t even graduate from high school, though she claimed to have done so as a valedictorian.  None of these mattered, as the Duterte Regime’s senatorial slate was of the most violative, if not the most violative, of those qualities and credentials Filipinos had hitherto taken as preferable for senators.    An uber-rich candidate who turns rice lands into subdivisions was joined by former officials with graft and corruption cases, do-nothing senators, third-term senators violating the two-term mandate of the Constitution for the Senate, one senator known for booking dishabille dancers for political rallies, the police chief in charge of the “drug war,” and the president’s factotum whom he himself characterized as “a billionaire” despite or because of his one lifelong job of being a “special assistant.”

 In contrast, the opposition Liberal Party fielded a slate of knowledge, skills and commitment – ranging from the Dean of the College of Law of La Salle University to the economist who helped the previous administration lift the country from a debt-paying to a lending one, to a military man who spent seven years imprisoned for mutinying against corruption, and the lone Muslim woman to resign from the Duterte government to protest rape jokes and the bombing of Marawi City, the only Islamic city in the archipelago.  Three family names – Diokno, Tañada and Aquino – among the eight candidates bore a legacy of fighting the dictator.  They all lost, some more resoundingly than others, in an election marked by massive vote buying, fraudulent voting and a 7-hour non-functioning of the tallying machine.  Administration candidates swept the election.  Allegedly. 

William Gibson used the idea of “stub universes” – parallel realities sprouting from decisions made/not made, events which happened/didn’t happen – in his 2014 novel The Peripheral.  The Philippine “stub universe” born of the Dutertefly Effect is more of a horror picture show.  While running for president, Mr. Duterte had repeatedly declared his willingness to become the country’s Hitler by  murdering “three million (meth) addicts,” to make the population more “manageable.”4  Human Rights Watch had documented the similar use of murder as “policing” in Davao City, where Mr. Duterte had kept a firm grip on power as mayor for 30 years.  More than a thousand were executed, including street children.4  True to his word, upon being declared the president-elect, the killing started in Central Luzon, notably the Metro-Manila area.  Bodies started piling up  – under bridges, in rivers and the sea, in alleys, at intersections;  some with heads totally shrouded in masking tape, like unfinished mummies;  some, tortured and stabbed innumerable times;  some, in pools of blood in the open streets, alongside cardboard signs with the words “adik, huwag tularan” (addict, do not emulate).  The killers were usually a two-person team, helmeted and riding in tandem on a motorcycle – a means of transport ubiquitous in the traffic-clogged country.  Occasionally, a killing orgy by as many as 14 men would be reported.  Occasionally, too, when the shock and horror of single assassinations no longer reached the decibel desired by some unknown murder director, killing sprees would be held, like the August 2017 “One Time, Big Time” (OTBT) police operation which Arab News reported thus:

In the first major One-Time Big-Time operation this week, police in Bulacan province neighboring Manila reported killing 32 people on Monday night. While human rights activists and other critics voiced outrage, Duterte quickly praised the police involved and urged more of the same. “If we could kill another 32 everyday, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country,” Duterte said on Wednesday. Police reported killing another 25 people that evening, then overnight Thursday and into the early hours of Friday an AFP team witnessed nine other bullet-riddled corpses in funeral parlours, inside slums or on nearby roads.5

While the police would admit to only 5000 “kills,” some 25,000 murders are “under investigation”6– probably more, since the murdered poor and very poor would not even be reported.  A whole murder economy has grown around Mr. Duterte’s avowed “war on drugs;” the tandem-riding assassins are said to be paid for each kill  and while Government denies complicity in the on-going carnage, the reality is that only a very few of these murders are actually investigated; in the rare instances when the targeted person did fight back and managed to kill or wound the assassins, the latter were discovered to be connected with the police.7  Assassins were paid, no question asked, from five thousand pesos up per kill.  No wonder the trillion peso ($18,938,974.32 at current exchange rates) savings left by the previous administration disappeared and the Duterte Regime is resorting to loans from China, which can only be deemed usurious and which demand “national assets” as collateral. 

Despite this continuing killing spree – 38 lawyers have been assassinated, for one – Mr. Duterte’s favorable rating remains high, per poll surveys.  Rather surprising, as the hundred million Filipinos are tolerant, by and large, living in the diversity of 187 ethno-linguistic groups and tribes, engaging in the occasional rebellion and dissidence, and accepting, even, of Asia’s longest Maoist guerrilla war.  Therein lies the insidiousness of the Dutertefly Effect – its destruction of what had been factors of stability in the last 30 years, despite the chronic crises of poverty and steep class divisions; a warping of what had comprised the normal,  all replaced by rage, insults and by a ludicrous loyalty to one person who could do no wrong, or if he did, was all the better for it – a direct appeal to the usually somnolent id of the national psyche. 

A Construct and A Digital Populism

Neither the city (Davao) nor its then mayor boasted of singular achievements as to have inspired the fanatical devotion seen in the 2016 presidential elections.  But in 2010, Facebook entered the Philippines offered free connection via the cell phone.  It was a mind-boggling success.  Within a short period, Facebook had 30 million Philippine-based accounts; today, it has over 70 million, with a recent study showing Filipinos spend an average of ten hours a day on the Internet.  The “free data mode” of this was supposed to enhance connectivity – and for a while, it did, until the connection among millions itself was weaponized.  What has developed is a disconnected labyrinth of narcissistic “stub universes”, with Duterte idolatry as religion.  This digital “ir-reality” is augmented by click farms, a troll network, advertising agencies – all churning “fake news” and historical revisionism

Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was in the Philippines the year before the presidential elections and, in a speech, stated, “Election campaigning will never be the same again due to the advent of cutting-edge technology.  “The traditional and conventional methods that have been employed through all the elections in the last century may still work, but they will be unlike new strategies and tactics that are products of behavioural micro-targeting, psychographic profiling, predictive analytics and many other modern tools.”8   It would subsequently be revealed that Facebook shared the personal information of 1.1 million Filipino FB users with Cambridge Analytica. 

The tools and medium may have been readily available but content was a matter of invention: what would best appeal to an electorate and how to maintain that appeal.  From the website of the Strategic Communications Laboratories came this text (subsequently deleted) which is generally deemed to have referred to Duterte:   “In the run up to national elections the incumbent client was widely perceived as both kind and honourable, qualities his campaign team thought were potentially election-winning,” the SCL web content said. “But SCL’s research showed that many groups within the electorate were more likely to be swayed by qualities such as toughness and decisiveness. SCL used the cross-cutting issue of crime to rebrand the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action, who would appeal to the true values of the voters.”9

Mr. Duterte was said to have run a “near-perfect social media campaign” – whose message consisted of themes hewing closely to – ironically enough – a Hollywood archetype of the bad boy, the outsider, the rebel, the defiant one living a thug life.  Davao City, thereby, morphed into “the safest city in the world,” thanks to its murderous ways.  He was declared by NASA to be “the best mayor in the solar system” (not true).  He was The Punisher – in a leather jacket, cradling a monster assault weapon, or perched on a motorcycle.  Three motifs ran through his political bad boy song: 

  1. “I hate drugs,” he said, and his social media churned up stories of heinous crimes supposedly committed by drug addicts.  When one anti-narcotics official took issue with his “three million addicts,” stating the actual figure was half of that, he was fired.  Whenever Duterte’s poll rating fell, the number of addicts would rise.  Whenever the shock and awe of the killings waned, a new repulsive crime would be committed, allegedly by an addict, the latest being the killing of a 16-year old female, her face flayed to the bone. 
  2. “I hate the US and the West.”  He shifted Philippine foreign policy from its Western connections toward subservience to China and proceeded to borrow billions of dollars, once more sinking the country into a new debt trap.
  3. The political and sexual subservience of women are one and the same.

All three draw from bad moments in his life.  Fentanyl was and is said to be his drug of choice.  Because of the Human Rights Watch report on extra-judicial killings, he was refused a visa to visit his current companion, then working in the US as a nurse.  His mother was said to have punished him severely and his first wife had their marriage annulled, based on psychological battering.  A psychiatric evaluation for the annulment called him a narcissistic sociopath.  All these appear to have been inputted into the Regime’s way of politics, governance, and foreign policy. 

Populism Rooted in Misogyny

The “bad boy” archetype is rooted in misogyny, a direct contravention of the strong women mythology of pre-colonial Philippines, where gender equality, in governance, war and possessions, was more the norm than the exception.  Despite Mr. Duterte’s near-pathological disdain for the West, in this wise, he was the bearer of a legacy of Spain and the United States.  His first “political kill” was Senator Leila de Lima, who dared to open hearings on the Davao Death Squad and brought two witnesses, former DDS members, who blew the lid off Davao’s secret.  The Regime’s viciousness was on full display for maximum intimidation; de Lima was portrayed as a drug lord, a sexual outlaw – the male chortling over a purported sex video of the senator must have reached the moon.  It was only after Every Woman, an ad hoc network of women activists, took countermeasures, calling on women to issue a declaration10 declaring she was the one on the sex video that the Regime’s then Secretary of Justice admitted there was no such thing.  Convicted drug lords were used to testify against de Lima; one was stabbed and nearly killed before he would agree.  The one drawback the Regime did not anticipate was that everyone would proclaim, at the Congressional hearing, that the drug source was either China and/or North Korea.

But the campaign against powerful females – i.e., women wielding power – continued.  The first female Supreme Court Chief Justice of Asia was removed by a vote of the supreme court justices, majority of whom had come to power during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, now a Duterte ally.  Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales was subjected to threats and insults.  She pushed back and managed to serve out her term, retiring in 2019.  But the most celebrated attack waged by the regime was on Rappler, an on-line news magazine; its staff and publisher, Maria Ressa, were the recipient of bans on coverage, libel cases, threats, and all manner of harassment. 

Ms. Ressa has had eleven cases filed against her, was been in jail twice and has had to post bail on eight cases.11  The most recent case of libel was filed by an immigrant from China to the Philippines, who, shortly after acquiring Philippine citizenship, made it to the Forbes list of the Philippines 40 wealthiest with assets worth $100 million.  Mr. Duterte claimed not to know Mr. Keng, despite the latter’s having received a government contract for land reclamation in the Manila Bay.Such contracts are the exclusive pervue of the office of the president.   For all the Regime’s pains, Maria Ressa was declared one of the Hundred Most Influential People of the World by Time Magazine, an irony.  Rappler still operates.  “We live our mission,” said Ms. Ressa, in explaining how she and her staff had taken and survived the Regime’s blows.12

The take-away from this, both for observers, critics and the Regime, is that gender war trumps class warfare any time.  A population where the majority are powerless, wielding power over the female and marginalized genders can be a potent distraction.  Mr. Duterte continues to employ blatant misogyny to commit crimes against both nation and humanity, calling his audience bitches at an event to celebrate the Philippines’ scoring high on the gender equality index; calling his critics bakla (homosexual literally but faggot idiomatically), stupid, etc., etc.    It’s an endless stream of cuss words in a country where protocol is so engrained historically that the common language has a third person plural pronoun to addressed those who must be addressed in deep respect. 

The Maninilong

The archetypal creature for dictatorships and petty tyrants in the Philippines is the maninilong (closest translation:  he who hides beneath the house, in reference to the old architecture of elevating reed huts on bamboo stilts).  A feeder on the sick and on corpses for its energy, the maninilong  is also a master hypnotist, replacing the corpse it steals with a banana trunk, thereby maintaining a semblance of normality in the village.  Under Duterte, the killed and the murdered are morphed into the label “addicts” and the three plagues ravaging the country – Dengue, Measles, HIV – do not even enter official awareness.  Instead of the tens of thousands of cases for each, attention has been focused on the ten who supposedly died from an anti-dengue vaccine disseminated by the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III. 

Under the latter’s administration, the country had emerged from the economic illness caused by the massive loans taken out on the country’s future by the Marcos Dictatorship.  Such a state of health, the maninilong cannot tolerate; hence, the orgy of borrowings from China. 

In the last 12 months, Beijing has entered discussions to provide funding for two Philippine railway projects with a combined cost of US$8.3 billion. They have also discussed the possibility of helping fund up to 30 smaller projects with a combined value of US$3.7 billion….If (Budget Secretary) if Diokno’s estimation of US$167 billion is sourced from China at a rate of 10% interest, in ten years the Philippine debt to GDP ratio would soar to 197%, which would give them the second worst debt: GDP ratio in the world.13

What Is At Stake

Beneath Duterte’s performative politics and the consequent “mass consensual hallucination” – to use another Gibson phrase – is a cold-blooded experiment in social engineering, one already being done in some Southeast Asian countries. This is certainly far beyond the ability of Duterte’s people to plan but within their power to implement.  All governmental checks-and-balance institutions are being re-aligned toward monolithic governance.  All value systems which made for rational politics are subverted.  All remnants of the history of Western colonialism and liberal democracy are being erased, historical landmarks either demolished and replaced, or defiled, as with the monument of Jose Rizal, popularly considered the national hero.  The very topography is being altered, with land reclamation projects slated for Manila Bay, which coincidentally looks out into the West Philippine Sea, toward that part of the South China Sea being claimed by three contending countries.  From the chaos, a new order is being pushed forward, beginning with the changing of the Constitution itself.  In the last hundred years or so, the country has had five constitutions, the constant replacement stopping democratic processes from taking root and becoming institutionalized.  The struggle being fought is not only over political power but over identity, the essence of history, what comprises the social contract between the governed and the government.  Ironically, despite Duterte’s own rants against Western colonialism and imperialism, left unchanged is the capitalist character of the economy – though one fueled by cronyism, corruption and the continuing self-entitlement of petty tyrants.