Column: Terminal decadence

Published on October 14, 2008

Some time ago, Conrad de Quiros reintroduced a useful concept to public discourse: Jacques Barzun’s notion of “decadence.”

He began by quoting a key paragraph from Barzun’s epic survey of Western culture, “From Dawn to Decadence,” which painted a bleak landscape of routine meaninglessness. The paragraph’s conclusion: “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.”

My own understanding of decadence is terminal; that is to say, it involves endings. It has an end-of-days feel, but without the rapture.

In his book’s prologue, Barzun offers a definition: “All that is meant by decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of possibility. The forms of art, as of life, seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.”

I was prompted to search online for both Conrad’s Aug. 13 column and Barzun’s masterwork because of the midnight release of convicted double murderer Claudio Teehankee Jr. To my mind, Teehankee is part of an awful rogues’ gallery that emerged out of, and came to symbolize, the decadence marking the end of Cory Aquino’s presidency. Now he has been granted executive clemency by an administration that—or so I would argue—is also in the throes of terminal decadence.

A Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial tried to make the same connection last week:

“Claudio Teehankee Jr. represented one of the worst failings of the immediate post-Ferdinand Marcos era: the reemergence, in the tumultuous transition from dictatorship to democracy, of a culture of impunity, of enclaves of influence, where powerful people believed themselves above the law because they were rich and they were armed. We may be tempted to think that Ms Arroyo did not realize this, or chose not to. But looking around us, seeing a landscape stained by too many killings and haunted by too many disappearances, perhaps the better answer is: Teehankee is this President’s kind of man.”

Two quick caveats. I realize that Barzun used the concept of decadence to refer to historical epochs, not to single countries or one-term presidencies. It may well be that the Philippines, post-Marcos, is suffering through a continuing era of decadence. “The loss it faces is that of possibility”: This may be the true legacy of the Marcos dictatorship.

I must also place on the record a fact of personal history: I belong to a generation of Filipinos who would have gladly offered their lives for Cory, and who continue to respect her as democracy’s indispensable icon.

But, in my view and in that of many others, the last years of Cory’s history-shaping term were not happy ones. I know many from the middle class whose memories of the early 1990s are dim: It wasn’t only the power outages that sapped morale; it was also the series of sensational crimes, perpetrated with impunity inside those very “enclaves of influence,” that demoralized the public. The year 1991 was a true “annus horribilis”: In the space of a few months, businessman Rolito Go shot Eldon Maguan in a minor traffic dispute; the Vizconde family was massacred in their own home; and Claudio Teehankee Jr. killed Maureen Hultman and Roland John Chapman inside the tony Dasmariñas Village.

All high-profile crimes; all bearing the mark of decadence. The public felt not only revulsion, but exhaustion.

There is that same sense today, as we live through Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s seventh year in the presidency. The killings and disappearances that will forever be associated with retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan are a large part of the reason, but the spectacular crimes recorded this year alone, including the gruesome RCBC massacre, have contributed to the same end-of-days despondency. Many feel a peculiar restlessness, because it is a time that “sees no clear lines of advance.”

When Teehankee slipped out of jail, he found himself in an all-too-familiar world.

* * *

About a year ago, Rolito Go’s former lawyer, Emmanuel Q. Fernando, wrote the following in the Manila Times:

“His shooting of Mr. Maguan was unintended and accidental. He was driving on his side of the road when Mr. Maguan, traveling in the opposite direction, suddenly swerved and blocked his path. Mr. Maguan’s car then screeched to a halt, to avoid bumping the slow-moving car of Rolito.

“Mr. Maguan alighted from his car and had the gall to wave Rolito back as if he had the right of way. At the same time, he was cursing and shouting invectives at Rolito. Rolito then got out of his car. When Mr. Maguan saw Rolito’s gun, he returned to the driver’s seat as if searching for a weapon. Rolito approached him only intending to ensure that his right of way be respected, when his finger slipped and the gun inadvertently went off.”

His finger slipped, under the pressure of decadence.

* * *

Major news organizations in the United States are now paying attention to Barack Obama’s “ground game,” which improves on Karl Rove’s get-out-the-vote tactics by removing the rhetoric of fear and replacing it with the politics of commitment. But it is one statistics-heavy website’s original reporting that I would recommend. FiveThirtyEight’s “Road to 270” series (270 is the number of Electoral College votes a candidate needs to win the US presidency) offers candid, revealing snapshots of the campaign, from the ground up. Fascinating.


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