Mistaking power for virtue

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Judging from both his cocksure, in-your-face manner and the content of his public utterances over the last five years, Benigno S. C. Aquino III not only fancies himself a thinker; he also thinks his view of things and opinions are unassailable. Together with typhoons, floods, earthquakes and dengue, these are among the realities we’ve had to live with since 2010 as he brags about his alleged achievements, excoriates his critics, and attacks the media.

But he was more than his usual self last March 9, during the “prayer meeting” at the Malacanang grounds, which was obviously meant as a foil against calls for his resignation by, among others, some bishops of the Catholic Church. In both his opening remarks as well as in his subsequent defense of his role in the Jan. 25 Mamasapano incident, Mr. Aquino came off as combative and far from modest, despite his description of himself, during the prayer meeting as well as in other circumstances, as calm and open.

Mr. Aquino described his current critics as attention-deficient (“kulang sa pansin”), and as unable to think straight (“kulang sa pag-iisip ng maayos”). On the supposition that he who criticizes others for certain lapses thinks himself immune from the same faults, we can surmise that Mr. Aquino believes that he’s not himself craving for attention, and that he can, unlike his detractors, think straight.

One can grant the first presumption. Being President of this unhappy Republic after all makes Mr. Aquino the center of attention, especially during those moments in the life of a nation, such as today, when executive competence is critical to the outcome of events like the Mamasapano incident. One can even argue that the last thing Mr. Aquino wants nowadays is attention, given the flurry of demands that he explain why the Mamasapano operation turned into a huge catastrophe, claims that under the principle of command responsibility he should apologize for bungling it — and yes, calls that he resign.

The presumption that he’s a reasonable, straight thinker is something else. One can start with the very idea of the prayer meeting itself. Conspicuously present was the Christian Coalition Movement, which presumably helped organize, or even instigated, the event. Absent was any representative of the Catholic Church. Not even Luis Cardinal Tagle, or the bishops who have declared their opposition to the calls for Mr. Aquino’s resignation or ouster, were in the vicinity.

One wonders if, in attempting to show that he has the support of this country’s Christians, Mr. Aquino was, perhaps unwittingly, being divisive by emphasizing the differences among the Christian churches, while at the same time — unwittingly again — suggesting that he doesn’t have the support of the Church to which he belongs.

But given the number and scale of Mr. Aquino’s other, more recent gaffes, he would probably dismiss it as a minor issue, if at all he’s even considered it. In the same speech before that adoring crowd, Mr. Aquino dismissed, without naming them, those individuals and groups that want dialogues with him by saying that there’s no point in discussing anything with anyone with fixed views.

While he said he was ready to talk to anyone (“handang makipag-usap sa lahat”), he did impose one condition — that the discussion lead somewhere (“may patutunguhan”). Mr. Aquino chose as an example of futility his speaking with the media, which, he said, is pointless because, he claimed, the reports are already done even before he has told the media anything. Besides, he asked, what if whoever he talks to says the exact opposite of what he said?

The media do often have an agenda, and may not have been the ideal example Mr. Aquino could have cited. There are many other sectors of Philippine society he could and should talk to, among them the kin of the non-combatants killed during the same incident, perhaps the families of the 18 MILF fighters killed during the encounter — or even the bishops asking for his resignation.

They may all have fixed views, but don’t most people and most groups? Doesn’t Mr. Aquino trust his capacity to persuade people to accept his views, which he himself has repeatedly said are the only valid ones? And doesn’t his imposing conditions on who he can talk to suggest that he’s ready to talk only to the already convinced? This explains why meaningful dialogue with Mr. Aquino is hardly possible: he wants to preach only to the converted.

Still as far as straight thinking goes: it was hardly straight thinking for Mr. Aquino to have placed his pal, former National Police Chief Alan Purisima, in charge of the Mamasapano operation. Purisima was at the time already suspended by the Ombudsman pending hearings on charges of ill-gotten wealth. Neither was it straight thinking worthy of the Chief Executive of this alleged democracy to keep the acting National Police chief as well as his own Secretary of the Interior out of the loop.

In neither the March 9 prayer meeting nor during any other occasion has Mr. Aquino bothered to explain these decisions. Neither has he even demonstrated a mustard seed of humility by so much as hinting that, yes, the buck stops at his desk, and that he must bear the ultimate responsibility for what happened. Instead he has blamed the former head of the Special Action Force (SAF) — and he blamed him again during the prayer meeting, thus washing his hands of any accountability for the Mamasapano disaster that caused the deaths of some 67 Filipinos and displaced hundreds of families.

We might be expecting too much of an official of the same mold as most of the members of the putrid Congress from where he came before he was President. But even more indicative of Mr. Aquino’s peculiar understanding of his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces — and even more important, as President — was his performance during a Feb. 18 meeting with the relatives of the slain SAF policemen. During that sorry event — a non-discussion if there ever was one, thanks to his flippancy — Mr. Aquino gave the impression that he was making light of the relatives’ demands for justice, and being dismissive, impatient and irritated all at the same time, displaying thereby a total lack of empathy with people who’re not only part of his national constituency, but also in the worst stages of grief for their loved ones.

In 1966, then US Senator William Fulbright described US actions in Vietnam as indicators of “the arrogance of power,” meaning “the tendency of (powerful countries) to equate power with virtue.” Mr. Aquino mistakes power for virtue: thus his self-righteousness and refusal to consider thoughts and ideas other than his own, and his chronic inability to entertain the possibility that he might have been wrong at times instead of being always right.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed here do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.


Published in Business World
March 12, 2015

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