I anguished over the creeping amnesia when it comes to our wrenching from the dictatorship 34 years ago. But Filipinos have no sense of history, my dear confidant and most patient mentor said. And Manong sent me a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, to re-read and ponder in my mature years what had perhaps gone over my head in my college Literature classes.
“Anguish is a dangerous affair for the squeamish, so people forget it,” Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling says to the reader. “Silentio,” meaning “quiet.” To remain quiet would be the easier alternative than the painful existential self-examination of anguish and doubt, and the conflict of intuitive responsibility versus selfish detachment. “Silence is the snare of the demon, and the more one keeps silent, the more terrifying the demon becomes.
“(But) people do not know what they ought to say but only that they must say something.” Yet notwithstanding the philosopher Descartes’ conviction that “I think, therefore I am,” the quality of thought declines with age because of the alterations and compromises suggested by experience, the author says. “For life has divided what has been united in the child’s pious simplicity… Is (your) heart still young enough not to have forgotten the fear and trembling that disciplined (your) youth, and which, although the grown man mastered it, no man altogether outgrows?”
If you have been tested like Abraham in the Bible, you will never forget how you feared for yourself and for your loved one, but more than fear, how faith in your God and in yourself should not have made you fear at all. In a four-scenario exegesis of Genesis 22:1-18, Johannes as Conscience monologues on the anguish of the patriarch Abraham, who was asked by God to kill his beloved son Isaac at the altar of sacrifice. Abraham stoically proceeds to obey God’s orders until God stops him in time and rewards his devotion.
Kierkegaard says, “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”
I have not forgotten the fear and trembling of my youth, Manong. What Kierkegaard calls “the shudder of thought” shakes us all still — history has been battered with conflicts of universal principles, with global wars and horrible terrorism. Thoughts and emotions are more complex than can ever be conjured by the allegorical scenarios of Johannes Silentio of the sacrifice of Isaac by his own father. Is it time for the sublimated resignation to Fate, while hoping, in the realm of the existentialist Absurd, that it will not be Humankind who will be the final victim of sacrifice in all these? To be truly absurd, who else can it be?
In our country, a peaceful revolution that restored democracy is being denigrated as an event that lacked follow-through. Six presidents after ousting the dictator Ferdinand Marcos — are we back to where we were before 1986?
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a -7.31% GNP growth in Marcos’ last year to 3.42% in 1986, the first year of Corazon Aquino, by default the icon for democracy, by being the widow of the slain Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., whose murder in 1983 triggered the public protests against the dictatorship. From 1986, GDP rose and fell parallel to world measure according to fluctuations in the global economy, growing with the ASEAN region to levels of 6-7% ,and averaging about 5% in the last 20 years. Not a bad recovery for a country plundered by an autocracy.
But for the yet unrecovered and now seemingly unrecoverable plundered wealth of the country, the people must be most jealously zealously for honesty and integrity in government and in private life, and most consciously fighting for human rights in the fear and trembling memory of the atrocities in martial law. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” Kierkegaard exhorts.
Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index has ranked the Philippines 113th of 180 countries least corrupt (meaning 67th most corrupt), a 14-notch fall from its standing of 99th place in 2018 and a 28-notch plummet from the much-better 85th rank in President Benigno Simeon Aquino III’s term. Shall we dubiously console ourselves that anyway, the Philippines “improved” from its lowest rank of 141 in 2008, at the height of the Gloria Arroyo corruption scandals? We ranked 36th in 1995, when Fidel V. Ramos was president.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2019 World Report cites the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s (PDEA) own report of 4,948 suspected drug users and dealers killed in police operations from July 1, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2018 in President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs. But this does not include the thousands of others killed by unidentified gunmen, the HRW says. According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), 22,983 such deaths since the “war on drugs” began are classified as “homicides under investigation.”
The HRW website lists prominent human rights defenders, oppositors to Duterte’s Drug War, red-labelled activists, some vocal journalists and critics against the administration who have been arrested and detained, ousted and/or had cases filed against them. Rappler’s Maria Ressa with other journalists under siege in their respective countries has been recognized as Person of the Year for 2018 for “for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the imperfect but essential quest for facts, for speaking up and for speaking out,” Time Magazine declared. Perhaps the most chilling attack on press freedom has been the surprise quo warranto case filed by the Solicitor General Jose Calida on the ABS-CBN network, which has raised dust in the circus of investigations-in-aid-of-legislation for the tight-rope renewal of its franchise to operate.
The sovereign rights of the Filipino people have been gravely compromised in the blatant disregard of a UN Arbitral ruling that had already and finally decided that the West Philippine Sea belongs to the Filipinos and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid, according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Yes, China is very much in the picture, as the 1998 US Visiting Forces Agreement was terminated by Duterte last month. With fear and trembling we realize the country is now very much dependent on China who, ironically, will be the most immediate and proximate protector of our boundaries in case of attack. And the Chinese illegal entrants or specially admitted “tourists” (generally believed to be about 300,000) who operate and use the online gaming operations (POGOs) seem here to stay, with Duterte’s blessing, because POGOs “help the economy,” suspectedly inclusive of money-laundering activities.
“At last, Senate asks Supreme Court to define limits of Duterte’s power,” Rappler gasps in an article on March 9. This is the first time since July 2016 that the Senate as a body is challenging a Duterte policy before the High Tribunal, clearly asserting the almost-doubted separation of the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers in the Constitution. Duterte cannot unilaterally decide to terminate the VFA agreement, and not to renew the ABS-CBN franchise.
But just as soon as the fear and trembling of the nation relaxed in anticipation of the resolution of tensions and anxieties, Duterte faced the people on March 12 to announce the “lockdown” (his words) of Metro Manila amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Metro Manila’s mayors will impose a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. for social distancing under the “community quarantine” status.
“I do not have the time to think of whether the lockdown can be a prelude to the declaration of martial law; right now I can only think of the virus,” a writer-friend says. Kierkegaard writes the existentialist conclusion: “for one who does not understand that the whole power of the spirit is required for dying, and that the hero always dies before he dies, that man will not get so very far with his conception of life.”
Faith saved Abraham and Isaac from hurting each other. God will save us too.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.