Cacique clichés: Duterte, despotism and liberal orientalist journalism

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By the time Rodrigo Duterte stepped down as President of the Philippines on June 30, 2022, his regime stood accused of undermining the nation’s constitution and destroying press freedom, as well as the arbitrary detention, persecution, and murder of tens of thousands of political adversaries and petty criminals. In their coverage of these events, journalists working for the Western legacy media have often reached for the clichés of orientalism and Western mass-culture. As Ileto (Citation2017) asserts, “Images of the Filipino elite (oppressive caciques, bosses, and patrons) and masses (blindly loyal and manipulated táo, clients of the bosses […] reappear in modern journalistic garb” (p. 270). Ileto (Citation2017) argues that liberal American historians of the late 20th century like Stanley Karnow have been unduly focused on “cacique democracy.” These scholars overstate and/or obsess over the problems of “repressive, manipulative” governance, election-rigging, graft, “clientilism” and clannish “factionalism” to imply that “the tragedies and problems of the present are the consequence not so much of American intervention as of the tenacity of Philippine traditions” (Ileto, Citation2017, p. 268). At the heart of this pathological politics, so the narrative goes, is the cacique tyrant who at once embodies Western skepticism about Philippine self-government and vindicates Western neo-colonial intervention in the country.

According to these paradigms, Duterte is the ultimate cacique—narcissistic, impetuous, unremorsefully violent. Uncannily, he also meets Grosrichard’s (Citation1998) criteria for “oriental despotism” (p. 1), as expressed in a very different time and place by French Enlightenment intellectuals mesmerized by the Middle East. Contemporary journalists including Jonathan Miller and James Fenton are guilty of the same hypocrisy and double standards that Ileto (Citation2017) levels at the historians above, for they denounce the chaos and carnage of Duterte’s Philippines while remaining oblivious to Western complicity in the crisis. These journalists’ tacit ethnocentrism is also reflected in their dependence on narrative tropes and structures borrowed from Western cinema and pulp fiction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)458-465
JournalMedia Asia
Issue number3
Early online date7 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023

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