I don’t want to exaggerate but, goodness, there are moments when I think that Rodrigo Duterte is god’s—or Davao’s—gift to teaching social sciences.

There is no doubt that some of his pronouncements – and the way he delivers them – are jarring, sometimes offensive for certain sectors and individuals.  But people perk up, and people listen, and they discuss.  And some of the topics that have energetically been discussed so far have rarely, if at all, seen the light of the public outside a few classrooms (and this, too, is more the exception than the rule).

Since right before his travel to Laos for the ASEAN Conference, Duterte has been giving a non-stop history and current-events lesson to his fellow Filipinos, and even the rest of the world.  In his now famous tirade (it has been called that, though now that I think about it, I must sound like that too from time to time in the classroom) before leaving the Philippines, Duterte took the US government (with Obama as synecdoche) to task for its historically appalling human rights record.  He cites the numerous massacres against the Moro people in the first two decades of the twentieth century, well into the supposed “peacetime” after the “official” end of the Philippine-American War.  He correctly linked the current problems of Muslim Mindanao with colonial American policies of political accommodation, treaty-breaking, and outright violence – a model that generations of American-trained politicians inherited and continue even until today.

But before the genocidal war against Muslims in Mindanao (and indeed, Filipinos in general – some estimates put the Philippine-American War to be the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, even more so than World War II), the American military had had plenty of practice with the different Native American nations during the so-called “Indian Wars” in the late 19th century.  This disgraceful period in American history was introduced to many Filipinos in the form of cowboys-vs-indians “Westerns” that were popular movies from the middle of the last century.  Duterte must have enjoyed them as a child but was able to go beyond movie fantasy and discern the stereotyped portrayals of “treacherous” Indians and “noble” Cowboys and the historical injustices that these perpetuate.

Duterte also brought up US relations with Mexico, but his lack of elaboration doesn’t mean a lack of substance in the allegation:  Obama has never publicly chastised the Mexican government over human rights abuses, officials with possible links to drug cartels, and overall crime.  But on the other hand, he was quick to denounce Venezuela, another Latin American country with less-friendly ties to the US and a more independent foreign relations policy (see the overlap?).

These historical facts and current analyses are available from various reliable sources including the internet.  But many of our countrymen are still in the dark about the Philippine-American War, the empire-building history of the United States, and its continued intervention through direct and indirect means in the external and internal workings of other sovereign governments.  History classes at the college level (which I teach) may be too little too late when the proper foundation of correct facts and mental tools for critical thinking aren’t laid down at earlier educational levels.  Duterte just shined a very bright spotlight on historical lessons that often get glossed over since, after all, the US is now such a great friend to us (I learned just now that Duterte had opened up another despicable historical episode in Philippine-American relations:  the infamous “kill everyone over the age of ten” directive of General Jacob Smith in retaliation for fatalities the US Army suffered in Balangiga, Samar).  After examining these further and going beyond conventional historical teaching (as Duterte must have done), why, one might just end up spewing invectives, too.

One more thing for which I think Duterte needs to be commended is a bit more general than these specific incidents but is nonetheless thrilling for someone who swims in the social sciences for a living and as a passion.  There was a time when, save for some classrooms in the UP, there was such a strong taboo against discussing anything leftist.  The word “Communist” was attached only to “insurgents” or “godless”, and “Socialist” was considered only a shade less worse.  “Aktibista” was an insult, a cause to get suspended and/or expelled, or your mother’s worst nightmare.  One time, not too long ago, a student of mine shyly approached me and quietly (in case anyone was listening) asked me if I was a Socialist.  In a (now-inane) moment of internalized self-doubt, I simply smiled and coyly asked back, “What do you think?”

But Duterte’s proud admittance from the get-go that he was a leftist and a Socialist has broken the taboo on these words, and, by extension, the concepts and historical contexts they carry.  Now my students unabashedly ask about and discuss Communism and Socialism.  Outside the classroom, their philosophical potency and political gravitas are slowly being restored.  Even if the residue of old Cold War epithets can still be spotted in various public fora, at least Duterte’s declaration has made it more difficult for simplistic, derisive stereotypes to automatically hold sway.

At a time when history, philosophy, and the other social sciences are marginalized to favor STEM directions, deprioritized in academic settings, caricatured in profit-oriented mass media, and generally seen to be “useless” in a neoliberal world, anything that piques the public interest in this respect are opportunities for deeper learning in these domains.  Even Duterte’s wrong-headed support of the Marcoses instigated such a vigorous drive to correct historical revisions and wrongs, something that never sparked under the term of the previous President who directly benefited from these historical circumstances but during which these revisionist stands must have already been simmering.

Duterte’s provocations, the strong responses they elicit, and the rapid way by which these are transmitted (as pronouncements of the highest official of the land) have expanded the range of what people here and abroad want, or need, to discuss.  The challenge now is to see if what is learned in our much expanded classroom be translated into concrete action for the overall social well-being of the nation (what are the social sciences for, after all?).

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