On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the 20th Century — for the Philippines

Historian Timothy Snyder writes On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the 20th Century for a global audience that skews American. In this blog post I offer insights from his work adapted to the Philippine setting. His book is a quick read, with each chapter opened by a one-paragraph sidebar that delivers pretty much the main point of the chapter. It is then followed by a brief exposition using one to two key examples from history. I’ll share that sidebar in bold, followed by a comment or two, or perhaps an excerpt from another piece I’ve read that’s aligned with the topic. I’ll keep my input short, punchy, and leave the rest for your reflection.

#1 Do not obey in advance.

Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

Let me relate this to a question I once posed about us Filipinos — why do we seem so comfortable with giving up our rights? Here is a passage I discovered from “The Philippine Bill of Rights” written by Robert Aura Smith in the February 1945 issue of The Far Eastern Quarterly —

“The concept of a Bill of Rights, as such, is essentially an occidental product. For a number of centuries in British, French, and American political thought, there has grown the conviction that the rights of the individual must be preserved and safeguarded, not through the authority of an individual, not through membership in a particular group or party, not through reliance upon force of arms, but rather through the accepted processes of declared constitutional law. …

“The adoption of this concept in the Philippines was not as easy as might be supposed. There were traditional modes of thought influencing the Filipino in other directions. The concept in the beginning was alien, and political experience and education had to be added to the characteristic Filipino outlook before the Bill of Rights concept could become second nature to the Filipino in his approach to the problems of group organization.

“The political history of the Philippines since the middle of the seventeenth century was not conducive to this type of growth. Whatever the Filipino came to know of the liberty and the dignity of the individual under three centuries of Spanish domination was provoked rather than inspired. Spanish rule was absolute and, under it, the liberty of the individual became a matter of the grant of the ruler rather than the right of the ruled. It was a government of men, not of laws. The rights of the Filipinos, as rights, were no conspicuous part of Spanish political thought.”

One reading of this passage is that in the Philippine context, the equality of men is not ‘self-evident’ as Jefferson would put it. Rights, rather privileges, are given through the consent and patronage of the governing authority. Once it was the King of Spain. Then Uncle Sam. Then the cohort of men and women who we saw as uniquely positioned to solve all our country’s problems. To avoid obeying in advance, we can begin by moving beyond the mindset of electing leaders who we depend on to tell us what to do.

#2 Defend institutions.

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

I recall an article I read on Rappler, ‘The curious case of the Mocha Uson blog‘. Carmel Abao raises some interesting points, especially the last: Uson’s blog is a symptom of a fragile, not robust, democracy. It may claim to stand for ‘freedom of expression’ but does so in a dangerous way.

Abao writes:

The Mocha Uson blog controversy should remind us that there is something terribly wrong with our representative democracy. Citizens are now (literally) fighting with each other directly (on social media) instead of through their elected representatives. That there are more exchanges and more dissent outside of government instead of within government should be cause for concern.

Yes, public discourse on social media should be promoted but it should not replace or supersede deliberation in mandated political institutions such as the legislature.

This situation is evidently the consequence of having a supermajority in Congress rather than a political configuration where the minority effectively engages the majority. It must be noted that such is not just President Duterte’s doing but the product of patronage-based/pork barrel politics, a weak party system, and a winner-take-all political system.

If we had real and strong political parties that stood for particular ideals instead of just serving as vehicles for presidential candidacies, and, a system of proportional representation where diverse ideals could be articulated and negotiated, perhaps public discourse outside of formal politics would not be so antagonistic and polarizing. Moreover, if we had real political parties, public discourse within formal political institutions would be more substantive and productive.

In my opinion, our representative democracy is not working because we have reduced democracy to a numbers game. Who wins the plurality in elections wins it all and losers are expected to be invisible after elections. Who gains the most number of followers in social media are deemed the most authoritative of all political commentators and those who have fewer “likes” and “shares” are deemed unreasonable or insignificant. What is viral online is deemed the (only) truth.

#3 Beware the one-party state.

The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

The Philippines has never been known as a country with a robust party system. Political horse-trading is the norm and every cycle we can rely on balimbings jumping from one party to another, usually following whoever has the power and money (pork).

And over the past year, we’ve seen a rush of stories where popular figures were forced to explain an unpopular vote. Case in point is Geraldine Roman and her attempt to playdown her vote for the Death Penalty as a matter of ‘political pragmatism’. Others are singing a similar tune now with the vote to defund the Commission on Human Rights.

There is an aspirational aspect to politics: the political horse-trading need not be the norm. But this also requires better choices and better people to be elected. Perhaps some of us who speak loudly of our dreams can take those to the halls of Congress eventually.

#4 Take responsibility for the face of the world.

The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

For this, I’ll let these pictures do the talking:

Images matter. Nothing is accidental.

#5 Remember professional ethics.

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.

I recall how simple it was back during the time of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: people saw her as corrupt and for that understood how everything else in government was as broken and corrupt. This is why Noynoy Aquino’s platform worked so well: the Daang Matuwid was a full-on counter to the crookedness of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. It was a simple message that resonated and was compatible with the ‘Aquino brand’ that was then still untainted.

Then, it was easier for teachers to teach, actually. In imparting good civic and professional values, all we had to show was the negative that was coming out of the Arroyo administration. Resistance was doing good and promising a country better than what those in power are trying to make them to be.

#6 Be wary of paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

The Davao Death Squads — the real DDS — are well-documented, even if their narrative is not fully accepted. Duterte supporters have even appropriated the name to mean something else — the Duterte Die-hard Supporters — even if both their effects is to embolden and enable Duterte’s brand of fascism. This is why, for the life of me, I still find it difficult to imagine how anyone with a sense of the Davao Death Squads could have voted for Duterte. Denialism was rampant during the elections, and this denialism is turning its ugly head again now that police brutality has become a reality despite all our warnings.

#7 Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.

Not all police are the same. In this section, I’d like to recognize those who are standing up against impropriety and evil.

Cebu City Chief Police Superintendent Joel Doria works with the CHR to train his new officers.

From Bogo City, Cebu, Police Chief Supt. Byron Allatog wants a community-based response to the drug problem.

Cagayan de Oro Police make it policy to have zero casualties in apprehending drug suspects.

It is possible to do good work. It is imperative to do good work.

#8 Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

It’s a paradox that in a technological age that enables freer and looser movement for individuals, the forces of sameness and compliance are also in full swing. Behind every ‘personal brand’ is someone who has the ‘fear of missing out.’ So to stand out, say no to the forces that compel you to get in line. Here is a good read on how to get over FOMO.

This is why I’m slightly skeptical of outrage culture. Yes, it is important to speak up and to articulate our sentiments on the matters that move us. But there comes a point when all that seems to happen is a steady stream of outrage online but with no action on the ground? Then it becomes a little disillusioning.

So lately I’ve been trying to take a step back when something happens, get all my facts first, and then chime in with an opinion if and only if I feel it leads to something useful or practical. Otherwise I keep it to the length of a tweet — and just one — if I feel my sanity requires a little steam out for the sake of my mental health. But I’m still plagued by the question of what happens next and how we can break the cycle of outrage so that we all have something to collectively celebrate and be thankful for.

#9 Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

I’ve been trying to up my reading output as of late. At a point I felt that the Internet was making me less patient, less curious. Reading books allows me to slow down and really think through what I’m learning. And after going fully digital with my books, I’m finding that I’m picking up hardcovers more and more. Not surprisingly, it is liberating to go at your own pace rather than being fed information by an algorithm.

Next up is writing. I used to write quite a lot and I hope to exercise those muscles again. I find that there is value in expressing oneself but aspire to do ways that aren’t redundant (see #8) but instead value-adding.

#10 Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

The truth may be contested but the facts are verifiable. Democracy today has become doubly challenging when the facts themselves are negotiated. It all began when Public Relations firms started spinning for their clients, but that has now become supercharged through the use of social media and open knowledge platforms such as Wikipedia. Hence it becomes more important to double down on sources that are verifiable, vetted, and somehow more static and less prone to manipulation. Hence, books (see #9).

But indeed, men have been overselling themselves since the opening paragraph of Hammurabi’s Code. And like Hammurabi, modern day politicians weave their own narratives so they come across as larger than life and hence more entitled to extracting resources from a state they have captured for their own. This is what drives the historical revisionism of the Marcoses. This is why everything scholarly and written about the man and his legacy must be preserved, and why everything they present online must be contested.

#11 Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.

Fake news thrives on two things: vindictiveness and convenience. There are opinions which people push regardless of the facts, moreso if reputation and competition is at stake. Then there is just failure on the part of the consumer to discern and dig deeper into the headlines dished out by social media news. But it is still possible for long-term stories to gain traction. In recent memory was My Family’s Slave which shone an atypical light on the culture of Filipino househelp. The story spurred quite a lot of commentaries and led to the general consensus that as a society we can’t have multiple standards on people’s rights.

In the short-term though, and as social media still figures out how to combat misinformation, it falls on us to educate each other on what can or shouldn’t be shared. That in itself is a heavy, political discussion but to do so is to stand up (see #8) and avoid the pitfalls of social media argument death spirals.

#12 Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

Perhaps an analogue for the Millennial generation is their habit of talking to their Grab and Uber drivers. Feeble and quaint as these encounters may be, they do lead to surprising insight about themselves and each other; there is definitely no shortage of insightful #UberStories online. But how do we scale this up? In Pope Francis’ visit to us last 2015, a message he left us is the importance of the encounter — being present with others to get a deep sense of their story, hopes, and dreams. To take a quick break as I’ve now written twelve items and have eight more to go, I’ll turn over the floor to Pope Francis with his TED talk where he expounds on the theme of encounter.

#13 Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

On the morning of November 19, 2016 my wife and I woke up spiritually pained. Ferdinand Marcos was buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani just the day before and it became hard to imagine a world where the justice could be served for all those who were taken away and killed during the dark days of Martial Law. So we then went to a memorial for these fallen, unsung heroes. No one called us there. No one expected us there. But there we were, communing with their names in the hopes our own spirits never forget them.

There are just moments in one’s civic life when the routines of the day have to be set aside so that we can re-orient and focus ourselves amidst the competing values of daily life. And by its nature, civic virtues invite us beyond our comfort zones and this may mean getting up from our seats, walking a mile in others’ shoes, and being present in new spaces whether it be a protest rally, a march, or listening in at a key hearing in Congress.

#14 Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.

Social media has become so contested that nothing is safe, not even your memories with friends, your ideas, and your stories. If can’t be done away with, a social media detox would be healthy every now and then.

#15 Contribute to good causes.

Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good.

If there is something we should be proud of in our country, it is that we have a very vibrant civil society. There is no shortage of groups seeking to do good, and even less of a shortage in opportunities to put together groups when there are needs that are yet unserved or unmet. Building capacity for these organizations (Peoples’ Organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, Social Action Centers) is now a key area of interest and competence as well. The Zuellig School in the Asian Institute of Management has Master’s programs (and scholarships) for Development practitioners. I myself am part of a group that has recently been doing organizational development work for non-profits.

#16 Learn from peers in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

I am of two minds about the impact of foreign culture on Philppine mores. Given our sizable diaspora, there is no lack of insight and input on how the best of what is out there can improve our cities, communities, and livelihood. And yet at times, when faced with the hard work of adapting lessons learned to our shores, we preempt difficulties and challenges with a strange brand of Philippine exceptionalism — “Eh, iba naman kasi dito sa atin.”

There are definitely deeper structural issues that make meaningful systemic change difficult despite the evidence on how it can be done. A good case on this would be the War on Drugs. Universal opinion is now against the heavy-handed method chosen by Duterte and yet he refuses the wisdom of the experience from other countries.

#17 Listen for dangerous words.

Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

Mr. Duterte now finds himself in two wars, both of which are aggravated by the words and the manner with which he dispenses his opinions.

The War on Drugs is as contentious as it is now widespread. The fallibility of the strategy is well-established. Yet Mr. Duterte’s fixation on the menace goes beyond an obsession with failed tactics — he is demeaning in his language and refers to addicts in the most dehumanizing terms. He has deep ingrained biases that will make it difficult for him to see reason, and to subject any criticism of his methods to a deadly war on attrition.

Second is the War in Mindanao which is facilitated by his declaration of Martial Law and the impossible Siege of Marawi. This war, too, he subjects to absolutist terms which he even connects with the proliferation of drugs. To rally support for these excursions, Mr. Duterte resorts to his ‘Duterte Harry’ persona, using words and language that are not fit for civic conversation. And to complete the poision brew, Mr. Duterte wraps his slurs in his own brand of Nationalism that ultimately alienates and oppresses others.

#18 Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.

Shock and awe. A phrase used by George W. Bush when they were mapping the invasion of Iraq. Shock and awe. A turn of phrase used by Duterte supporters to describe what they hope will be his impact on the oligarchic narrative they wish to destroy. Common to both is the use of fear, of which Duterte is proving to be a cunning master. He has repeatedly and constantly shocked and upended expectations — from ostracizing his Vice President to sponsoring the Burial of Marcos, from dehumanizing addicts and drug dependents to threatening all those who speak on behalf of Human Rights. Fear keeps the opposition on the defensive and preempts any action that would critique or check the incumbent. This in turn boosts the morale of his supporters who see this as the behavior of a strong-willed leader.

The response is to achieve a certain ‘freedom from fear’ which will require a certain acceptance of what can be changed or cannot be changed within the current rules of the game. Freedom from fear, however, will require time, patience, collective action, and courage. To be impervious to fear is to be immune to the machinations of the regime.

I am still figuring this out myself, but so far what has been working is stepping back from being enslaved by the news cycle and resisting the urge to express my outrage and indignation on their own terms. We all have other talents and dreams — especially dreams. And by anchoring our energies on the aspect of our lives we can impact — our families, our friends, our work — then we generate hope. We generate the energy that will be required to fight another day and work towards that country we all dream about. Done is never done.

#19 Be a patriot.

Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

At the end of the day, we share the same country with the 40% of voters (16 million) who voted for Duterte last 2016. It is easy to cast derision and blame their way, but the truth is that the factors that precipitated the rise of Duterte preceded any judgment or calculation by those 16 million. Through our past choices that may or may not have excluded others, there now exists a society where some feel so alienated that they had to vote for a person that was as foreign to the system and who was poised to make a country into one that included them. And after Duterte passes his term, we will all be left to pick up the pieces.

Thus, we are constantly nation-building. Everything we do now counts. We resist when we fight the power, we resist when we live good lives that exemplify Filipino values. Sipag. Tiyaga. Pagmamahal sa Diyos. Pagmamahal sa kapwa.


Walang Bayanihan na walang Bayani.

#20 Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Our history is full of stories of men who knew the price that had to be paid for freedom and liberty. And once lost, these prizes are not redeemed automatically either. We’ll have to fight to win them back and it may hurt. In this New New Society that Mr. Duterte has ushered in, we are now at 13,000 and counting.

But then there are the rest: the educated, the privileged, the elite. What are we willing to give up? How far are we willing to go? After the books are read and after the walls of text are written, after the work is done and our families are cared for, and after the degrees are won and the papers are published, what more will we be ready to do for this little country of ours?

As for myself? I don’t know. I have some ideas. But I’m hoping that we all get to figure it out together, as free men do.


How Leila De Lima Lost

Leila De Lima has two key lessons to offer leaders of all stripes: that when you challenge authority and force change, make sure you have a coalition to guide you and that you regulate the pace of change. Ronald Heifetz, a Harvard professor known for his work on Adaptive Leadership, calls the latter as ‘turning up the heat’ and cautions leaders to sense where a group is at before pushing them to do more work.

This is why I felt that bringing in Matobato to testify on the Davao Death Squads was a tactical error. As important as it was to bring such truths to light, it may have been too much too soon for the Senate at this point in time. Public opinion was also sorely against De Lima, limiting the capacity of all those who should listen to ‘do the work’ of connecting the dots between the DDS and the conduct of the current drug war.

To complicate De Lima’s fortunes, I noticed how alone she seemed. She stood alone in every press conference. She hardly had any entourage as she walked through the Senate. Her party allies hardly defended her; though at first Drilon was willing to raise questions on her behalf, he now seems less so. The other LP Senators are nowhere to be heard, save for a few loose remarks in the media from time to time. Most likely, they are reserving their own political capital and not raising the heat too quickly in their respective kitchens. And so it falls back on De Lima. She came in with no coalition to speak of to what was in all intents and purposes all out war. Whether she underestimated her alliance is irrelevant; the work of leadership is to mobilize and not merely count favors.

So can De Lima recover?

Right now it doesn’t look good. The Hearings at the House are politically calculated to poison De Lima — no one would want to ally, much more coalesce with her. And the heat has been raised so high that the gasket has blown and now the kitchen is blowing up in many places. There is not much room for her to maneuver right now, but Heifetz always recommends that leaders should know when to retreat, lick their wounds, and ‘step on to the balcony’ to view the terrain anew, strategize, and find new inspiration. The last thing she should do is to remain on the confrontational path she’s been on. This is not to recommend that she reverse course — that’s a surer way to lose — but to live on to fight another day.

Since she quoted the Ancient Romans in her privilege speech the other day, it would be fitting to remind her of how they regard Fortune in the work of politics. Fortune is a fickle woman, the Romans say. And while Lady Fortune is with her opponents right now, De Lima can only hope that she tires soon and that there will be a reversal.

Maybe then I could write about how Duterte was close but  didn’t win. If it happens.