Thursday, March 23, 2006

French toast

The Wall Street Journal scoffs at France for showing “symptoms of an ailing democracy” as “thousands on the street assert the right to make laws for the millions” (the protests are actually being staged by student groups joined in by unions against a new employment contract law).

“All these small revolutions were inspired by the French Revolution,” the scathing March 21, 2006 editorial pronounces in a manner also implying that the French system being immature may yet lose the right to be called a republic, a “democratic republic” to be precise. The French never really “shied from guillotining aloof rulers,” the archetypal conservative and pro business paper digs in apparent apotheosis of the American way.

The editorial piece is not just present-day American rants and raves against the French; it is as old as American brand of politics in Thomas Jefferson’s time. I will explain my point by connecting historical events with certain discourses that are gaining high currency today.

One is on the penchant nowadays of the Arroyo government to throw the criminal law book on sedition and cognate crimes at political dissenters and detractors. But the thinking of columnist and Pinoy blogger Manuel L. Quezon III (mlq3) is to the effect that certain provisions of Revised Penal Code of the Philippines such as seditious libel (or “inciting to sedition”) are both colonial and anachronistic. My own view, which assumes mlq3’s observations as valid, is that the crime of inciting to sedition as defined under Article 142 of the Code is now extinct by force of the provisions of the Constitution. I will deal with this later but first let me sketch a brief rundown of relevant U.S. and Philippine histories.

Capitalizing on the French bogey (from Napoleonic France), the elitist Federalist government of President John Adams passed a couple of oppressive laws in the United states designed to gag the pro-French supporters of Adam’s archrival, the populist Thomas Jefferson, many of whom were poor immigrants from Europe. Such laws were the Alien Laws, which authorized the president to deport dangerous and enemy aliens, and the Sedition Act, which was similar to the inciting to sedition article of the Philippines’ penal code. Before the “lockjaw” law, as the Sedition Act was called, pamphleteering of the time were unrestrained, and Adams anti-French policies were often viciously attacked. Many Jeffersonian editors critical of the president were indicted and jailed under the law. Scholars today point out that the Sedition Act was in direct contravention of the U.S. Constitution but the Federalist-dominated Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutionality of the law. The auto-limiting law was simply allowed to expire in 1801. Following the conquest of the Philippines by the United States, the Sedition Act that had expired a century ago* was passed on to the Philippines during the “pacification” period and was ultimately incorporated into the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines to countervail the Filipino insurrention bogey or “to maintain colonial control in a subject country” as mlq3 correctly has pointed out. The Code took effect in January 1932.

As a student of Constitutional Law, I have always maintained that at least Article 142 of the Revised Penal Code was rendered inoperative ipso facto upon the taking into effect of the 1935 Constitution which provides that “All laws of the Philippines Islands shall continue in force . . . unless inconsistent with this Constitution.”

I have greater confidence today to say that Article 142 is no longer in force because the (Commonwealth) Constitution of 1935, the (Marcos) Constitution of 1973 and the (People Power) Constitution of 1987 all provide the following provisions:
No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, [of expression] or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievance.
The clause “freedom of expression” is newly added to the present (1987) Constitution.

The command of the Constitution is clear and unmistakable but why would the Court (sometimes Congress and the Executive too) insert exceptions to it, such exception as the so-called “clear and present danger” rule? Why is The Wall Street Journal still demeaning the French Revolution even today?

To put it in general terms, freedom of speech or of the press and popular power have parallel offices. The expansion of their domains has the opposite effect of constricting the domain of the powers that be. In a political sense, the press is but one institutionalized aspect of the phenomenon we now call “people power” - I mean those romantic and traditional journalists who still refuse (some by taking partial refuge in the blogosphere) to be withered into just another form of concentrated power, the media power as The Wall Street Journal represents. In revolutionary France, these powers were the clergy, the aristocracy and feudalism itself. Today, these power structures are what former president Fidel V. Ramos calls as the “unholy alliance” and “perverse symbiosis” of the political and economic elites in the Philippines. The Filipino power holders are no different from the power holders of the American variety that The Wall Street Journal is obligated to protect against what conservative intellectual Samuel Huntington regards as the “excess of democracy” (of the French sort).

I believe I have answered more specifically my second question above here, where I have cited Filipinos’ People Power as the basis of my platform instead of the “small revolutions” in France, in part as follows:
People Power as a movement can thus be juxtaposed quite interestingly to the “wars of national liberation” without being attached to either side of the ideological divide in the “proxy wars” of the Cold War period. If it’s a war at all, it is one powered by the people or a coalition of people across the political spectrum who, like the American revolutionaries, have longed for true political sovereignty and political equality.

Losing Philippines to a real democracy - the People Power democracy - is something that Americans can ill afford: it will mean the final triumph of ordinary democracy (over elitist democracy) that the American revolutionaries came so close to achieving.
One happy caveat: while the French revolution model was regarded as “an open hell,” the Filipinos’ People Power erected an EDSA Shrine.

I am hoping to provide a critical answer to the first question in my next entry.

*During World War I, the U.S. Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Espionage Act. Both laws were repealed in 1921.


Blogger HILLBLOGGER & Hillblogger Jr said...


Very "elaborative" piece.

On a more specific point, I thought you dissected the Wall Street Journal "rant", "rave" rather surgically.

I would have loved to translate it for Le Monde but am afraid am not a professional translator, interpreter and might miss the message of your discourse (as in lost in translation - pity!) They would've loved it!

November 21, 2006 12:38 PM  
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