The meaning of a word is never fixed, philosophers tell us.  Even dictionaries offer alternative meanings.  We thus look for a word’s meaning in the context of its use.  There we find that meanings constantly shift, expressing images, but also suppressing others. That is why texts are full of tension.

In the past few days, we have been served a menu of undecidable words: “strong republic” (referring to the aspiration of the Macapagal-

Arroyo administration), “accounting arrangement” (referring to the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement or MLSA), and “calibrated tolerance” (referring to the policy that the government intends to use with demonstrations), to name but a few.  These words are meant to express something, but we can sense they are also “doing” something.  Nowhere perhaps has Wittgenstein’s statement been truer:  “Words are deeds.”

The concept “strong republic” dominated the President’s recent State of the Nation Address.  She wielded it like a shield against terrorism, crime, separatism, insurgency, and poverty.  She talked about “empowered institutions” as the weapon of choice in the conquest of poverty.  But she means much more.

In the context of our national experience, we know what else a strong government can do other than to address the problem of poverty and criminality.  It can turn its power against the people. Thirty years ago, Ferdinand Marcos invoked lawlessness and poverty as the principal reasons for declaring Martial Law.  He said his goal was to “save the republic” and his preferred way was through a “constitutional authoritarianism.”  Unimpeded by debate, and cloaked with absolute powers, he then made quick decisions that perked up the economy, made the streets safe, and built homes for the poor.  But he also took control of the media, locked up his critics, and gave the military the power to detain suspected dissidents indefinitely.

Marcos cleverly tapped into the basic insecurities of a young nation. Demoralized by the relentless squabbling of its politicians and lack of national direction, the public welcomed the rise of a leader who would take charge of their lives and restore political stability. Marcos presented himself as a willful leader who would take care of a weak and confused people.  He created a dictatorship, no matter how hard his publicists tried to soften it with words like “smiling Martial Law” or “constitutional authoritarianism.”

The word “republic,” with all its references to a representative democracy freely chosen by the people, vanished.  The glossy label “New Society” took its place.  Marcos terminated the tension between the two basic functions of a republican state – to serve the interests of the people and to ensure their meaningful participation in their own governance – in favor of a strong state free from accountability.

A strong state and a strong people need not be incompatible with one another.  To me, a strong people paves the way for a strong state, but not vice-versa.  Our experience with Marcos taught us that the only way to ensure that a strong state is not built on the back of a weakened people is by protecting the people’s right to dissent.

Today, the right to dissent is precisely what we may lose under the so-called policy of “calibrated tolerance.”  What the government really means is the end of tolerance and the use of force against those it perceives to be breaking the law.  Under its concept of law – “no permit, no rally” — dissent will not flourish.  Organizers of political protest do not secure permits.  The Constitution does not require them to do so.  The law only requires that, in the exercise of their basic rights and freedoms, citizens take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

But there is no way this government can stifle dissent without being reminded at every turn of its own origins. On a bright day in January 2001, together with thousands of other demonstrators, I stood next to Roilo Golez on JP Laurel St. eyeballing the police across a barbed wire barricade that stood between the people and the presidential palace.  None of us had a permit.  But how easily power induces amnesia in people. Today, as National Security Adviser, Mr. Golez, the inventor of the measured phrase “calibrated tolerance,” has conveniently forgotten the acts of public defiance that installed the government he now serves.

But then amnesia seems to afflict us all.  It is the only reason I can think of that would explain President Macapagal’s confident transactional approach to the new American military presence in our country.  She clearly has forgotten how, just a decade ago, a patriotic Philippine Senate said “No” to the material aid that the Americans were dangling before a needy nation in exchange for a new treaty that would extend their stay.  The US said we were foolish to defy their wish and they made sure we would not forget what it meant to say “No” to America.  When they left, they hauled everything they could carry, compounding the desolation that Mt. Pinatubo had wrought upon the base lands.

Today the very language in which the proposed MLSA is defended betrays the same shameless mendicant pragmatism that guides our present dealings with the Americans.  It is nothing but an “accounting arrangement”, Foreign Secretary Blas Ople assures us, echoing his boss.  Well if it is, the nation is entitled to know in clear language what it is giving up in exchange for what it is being promised.

But then clarity has never been the strong suit of those in power.

Their talent is the use of words not to edify but to stupefy.


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