Chopping Duterte’s Head Off


One can recall Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s huge fan and also his infamous killer if one wants to see a deeper disappointment in the behaviour of many of Duterte’s supporters.

On December 08, 1980, Chapman, virtually a nobody, shot John Lennon outside his apartment in New York. A friend used to tell me that Chapman did that out of his obsession with Lennon. Killing him would be the only way by which he can have a significant part in Lennon’s life; killing Lennon was the only way Chapman can get to be included in the biography of the Beatle.

Other accounts would point to the fury that seethed in Chapman as he became keen about the contradictions in his idol. Wikipedia quotes Chapman, “He told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of their lives around his music.” His counsel initially worked on the insanity defense in order to absolve Chapman but Chapman eventually told him that he would like to plead guilty. His lawyer opposed this but Chapman stood by his decision and finally convinced the judge of his mental ability to come up with the guilty plea. He was then convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to at least 20 years of imprisonment.

One can think of Chapman’s obsession with Lennon and find an unusual affinity – an inverse one — with the idolatry many seem to be forming for presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte. We are all familiar now with Duterte’s rape joke days ago and how it has led to a divide between those who criticized him and those who defended him. The lines of reasoning were mind-boggling less because of the way they referred to ‘greater’ deeds of the Mayor, which for them hugely offset one verbal remark, than the way they seem not just to decriminalize rape but even to justify it. When one sees ‘rape victims’ or females coming out to express support for Duterte, one wonders if it is part of a campaign ploy or a more widespread attitude that spells out how doomed our democracy is.

I see this massive outpour of support for Duterte and Chapman’s decision to gun down Lennon both as unproductive ways of ‘looking up’ to someone – a kind phrase, this “looking up,” for we can ask, have we seen not an unhealthy idolatry for Lennon in Chapman; are we not seeing a blind celebration or an inert obedience to Duterte on the part of many of his followers?

And yet, despite being literally destructive, Chapman’s act is not the worse one between the two. At least some versions are saying that what prompted Chapman to kill Lennon is the contradictions he saw in him, contradictions that shattered for him the image of his idol, and more importantly, contradictions that made hollow all self-conceptions he has made by identifying with this idol. Criminal as his act may be, it can be treated productively as a symptom of that social phenomenon of fandom, the status of celebrities and its tendency to obscure actual relations. On the other hand, there is nothing criminal in what Duterte’s supporters are doing; it’s part and parcel of the freedom of expression blah. But what I read as the underlying situation it merely serves as symptom of is a political dynamic that is ashamed of its name and wishes to change it to political passivity or political laziness or Holy-art-Thou-Political-Master kind of politics.

Yet more intent cogitation can bring us right to the mark: do not Duterte’s supporters and Duterte himself make a perfect fit? The former’s very act of strong-willed defense and nearly unwavering glorification of Duterte complements Duterte’s stature as a knightly icon in electoral politics. Conversely, Duterte’s stature as a bearer of seemingly supreme and unfaltering political force is complemented by his followers’ sheep-like support. Many of Duterte’s supporters do not have fangs; they do not have the balls to make the politician they support accountable when he errs. They will not cover their noses when Duterte farts; they will say that it may smell bad but it is not bad to be inhaled.

Is this a dig at Duterte or his followers? I say no, not exactly. More aptly, this is a dig at the very political terrain where such blind obedience takes place.

In Italo Calvino’s “Beheading the Heads,” we see a political setup that apparently laughs at and spurns most of the existing ones we witness and practice now. It begins with a scene of preparation for a national festival, a festival when the politicians are beheaded to mark the end of their terms. As someone explained in the story, “Authority over others is indivisible from the right of those others to have you climb the scaffold and do away with you.” He added, “Only heads of state can be beheaded, hence you can’t wish to be a head without also wishing for the chop.”

Caravaggio

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) by Caravaggio mula sa: http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2013/01/19/decapitations/

We can recall Chapman and the disillusionment that fazed him in relation to his idol John Lennon and finally spurred him to kill his idol. We can always say, Oh that was too much and we are likely not in the wrong. At the other extreme, there are supporters of politicians, who will never dare even to point out their political heroes’ creased polo or take offense when he jokes about rape. Elsewhere, someone abandons an island ravaged by a super typhoon; someone deprives supplicating farmers of food and we feel not even a tinge of uneasiness.

Perhaps it is not only that these politicians not feel the necessary threat of a chopping – mostly figurative – whether when they are just running for or are already in a government position. Perhaps as a people, we too are not just hesitant but unwilling to ‘behead’ our leaders, unwilling to make them accountable, unwilling to criticize them when called-for.

We do not need a literal gun as Chapman did; we just need a symbolic ax as Calvino insinuates.