A god in ruins

Most of us do not get to know the names of the members of the Supreme Court because, unlike politicians, they are seldom in the public eye. Neither do we remember how they look, apart from the thick robes they wear. It is as it should be. We stand in awe of the members of the Court not for who they are, but for what they represent. They are the best examples of figures of pure authority. Indeed, one may be forgiven for thinking they are the gods who control our destinies. But, in truth, what they represent is no more than the condensed power of society.

We don’t see the magistrates of the high court mingling with ordinary mortals in daily life. They are generally inaccessible to the mass media simply because they should have no need to court public opinion. Their remoteness gives them the aura of grandeur and stability that we associate with the law. The less we know of their personal circumstances, the more we permit them to draw from the mystique of their offices.

In light of this, one can imagine what powerful feelings are unleashed when the chief justice of the Supreme Court no less is put on trial. To the ordinary citizen, the event evokes the giddy sensation of having to stand up to one’s own father for the first time and asking him to measure himself by the same rules he expects you to live by. To the accused magistrate, the experience becomes a severe test of character. He either comes out of it greatly strengthened and affirmed in his nobility, or he ends up shattered like an ordinary man who could not rise to the level of a god.

In the eyes of the public, Renato Corona was found morally unworthy to remain in office not just because of the overwhelming evidence against him, but also because of the manner in which he conducted himself throughout this ordeal. He manifested a total lack of forthrightness and a penchant for blaming others for his troubles. Particularly during his testimony, Corona showed himself to be petty and ordinary, mean-spirited and spiteful. All this only confirmed the darkest perceptions that people came to have of him when he accepted his controversial midnight appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

He had two years to grow, as it were, into the mask he took for himself. Surrounded by politicians whom the public generally regards with scorn, he could have sharpened the contrast between the world of the gods who administer justice and the murky world of mortals who crave for nothing but wealth and power. Instead, he conducted himself like a small town official, more concerned with scoring little points against his accusers than with winning a battle far greater than him or them. The crude language he used in these skirmishes and the pathetic sentiments he tried to stir up betrayed the man behind the imposing mask of the chief justice. Instead of a figure standing above the common throng, the public caught a glimpse of the ambitious palace courtier who was able to worm his way to the highest position in the judiciary through loyal service to a discredited patron.

Alluding to the practice of ancient religions, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti wrote: “The wearer knows perfectly well who he really is; but his task is to act the mask. While doing so he must remain within certain limits, corresponding to the nature of the mask he wears…. The more often he has worn it and the better he knows it, the more of himself will flow into the figure it represents. But there is always one part of him which necessarily remains separate from it: the part that fears discovery, the part which knows that the terror he spreads is not his due.” Once the wearer forgets this, meaning that he cannot be completely identical with the mask he wears, he opens himself up to unmasking.

This is precisely what the impeachment process became for Corona—a ritual of unmasking performed by those who felt he had overstepped the bounds of his own role. “It is part of the nature of this process of unmasking that the perpetrator always knows exactly what he will find. He goes for it with a terrible assurance, despising all the metamorphoses he penetrates as irrelevancies.” I doubt if the prosecutors knew beforehand how much money Corona held in those bank deposits. But they were sure they were quite substantial.

In the end, when the law caught up with Corona, it was not for exceeding the limits of his constitutional authority or for abuse of power, but for the less grave offense of not truthfully disclosing his net worth. Given the cavalier way in which most public officials comply with the requirement of an annual sworn statement of one’s assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN), Corona’s omission of the bulk of his cash assets in his declaration would have been easily allowed to pass as a non-impeachable fault. But viewed alongside the numerous instances when the high court itself used its awesome powers to dismiss lowly government officials from the service for lying in their SALNs, the Chief Justice’s own untruthful declarations could not be excused.

Chief Justice Corona’s conviction has been hailed as the birth of a new paradigm of governance. I do hope its lessons endure for a long time. For we cannot go through the rigors of unmasking without at some point putting the rest of our institutions in peril. Canetti warns: “If it is practiced often, the whole world shrinks. The wealth of appearances comes to mean nothing; all variety is suspect… every ray of light is extinguished in a night of suspicion.”  It is this, ironically, that we are bound to reap if God grants Sen. Miriam Santiago’s wish for a second life so she could rip apart the veil of hypocrisy that she says shrouds our corrupt society.