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The Mind of Recto: The Wound and the Bow, June 21, 1952

The Mind of Recto: The Wound and the Bow

by Teodoro M. Locsin


June 21, 1952—LYTTON STRACHEY, father of modern biography, complained against the two-volume “life” that usually followed and seemed almost to form part of the burial rites of the distinguished dead:

“Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.”

This piece on Recto, who is very much alive, will be brief.

Its purpose is to draw the trajectory of his mind, not to go into the minutiae of his life or every step of his career; his life may be quickly sketched, his career rapidly followed. He was not born rich; he walked to school with scuffed shoes. To pay for food and lodging, what he learned at the Ateneo in the morning he taught in another school in the evening. He received at the Ateneo, it is significant to note, a European education, not the American one being dispensed at the public schools. He graduated with what a biographer calls “the unbelievable grade of ‘excellent’ in all subjects.” His scholastic record was better than Rizal’s.

In doubt—being so good in so many subjects and variously urged by relatives and friends to take up holy orders, medicine, engineering—in doubt, he took, in the honored tradition—in doubt he took up law. He proved himself supreme in it.

He has been a representative, a justice of the Supreme Court and is now a senator; he hopes, it is known, to be president. In the Supreme Court and in the Senate he has shone in dissent. It was due to him that an attempt to deny the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and the press to foreigners was frustrated in Congress. The magazine Newsweek, or its ill-informed correspondent, thought this a remarkable, a surprising thing for Recto to do. It was the thing one would expect Recto to do; he presided over the constitutional convention that drafted the Bill of Rights.

He has also been a poet.

Today, no man in the Senate commands more respect by sheer force of mind than Recto. No one has a cultural background so broad, a logic so implacable, a rhetoric so firmly based on the masters. Not that Recto is a good speaker, as the word is commonly defined. He does not raise his voice; he makes few, if any, gestures; he is dry and unemotional. He makes no promises, utters no angry denunciations; when he denounces anyone, it is in a tone so judicious and reasonable as to pass almost for praise. Well, not exactly praise. The man denounced may never be able to look at himself in the mirror again. At the same time, he will not feel he has been outraged; he has merely been exposed.

Recto is not a good speaker, no.  He will arouse no mob.  But heaven help the one whose pretensions he chooses to demolish.  His sentences march, like ordered battalions, against the inmost citadel of the man’s arguments and reduce them to rubble; meanwhile, his reservations stand like armed sentries against the most silent approach and every attempt at encirclement by the adversary.  The reduction to absurdity of Nacionalista Senator Zulueta’s conception of a sound foreign policy was a shattering experience; the skill that goes into the cutting of a diamond went into the work of demolition. There was no slip of the hand, no flaw in the tool. All was delicately, perfectly done. The most result from the lightest blow—the greatest damage with the least force.  Recto cannot—no one can, except against the stupid and ignorant—he cannot defend the indefensible, but what can be defended, he will see to it that it will not be taken.

The usual politicians offer no challenge to the mind. They are all so obvious in their purpose, so pitiful in their intellectual equipment, so mediocre in their performance, so common, so unremarkable that one could cut a pattern and it would fit them all. Some have money and want more; some have none and would get some; most are capable of a mouldy sort of rhetoric, cliché-infested, paltry of thought. The tired shibboleths of the professional rabble-rouser characterize their speeches. The frantic gestures, the screaming voice, the frenzied expressions, the hysterical charges, the crocodile tears—these are the usual politician’s stock-in-trade.  Recto does not resort to them.

It is a surprising thing, then, that he should have polled more votes than Roxas in a prewar senatorial election and should continue to inspire enthusiasm among an impressive number of the electorate. His fellow Nacionalistas say of Recto that he is aloof—alien to the masses, caviar to the general, but the proof of the pudding, after all, is in the eating, and he got more votes than any other Nacionalista senatorial candidate in the 1949 poll. Than any Liberal candidate, probably, if the poll had been clean. Is it possible, then, that the common people have and could be fired by a passion like Recto’s for an abstraction—for law?

It is there, in his dedication to law, that Recto’s significance chiefly lies. But law, to Recto, means civil law; it is possible only under civilian rule. Hence, his warnings against the increasing predominance of the military in Philippine affairs. The army, if unchecked, is certain to establish a despotism, no matter how well-intentioned at the start. The army, by its very structure, is hierarchical; the orders of officers are absolute. There is no separation of powers, judicial, executive, and legislative, on which a democratic society rests. As the army grows and grows, civil control must decay; a military coup d’ état becomes a probability. To Recto it is no argument for despotism that the despot may be benevolent.

In the Philippines the democratic processes had so far deteriorated that the relatively free elections of 1951 were possible only through the intervention of the military, inspired, at that, by another country. Recto observed:

“Already, I daresay, the thought is not uncommon in our military circles that only the army can enforce order, that the reality of power is in its combat battalions, and that, in a not too distant day, it can, and shall, and should, decide the victor in any electoral contest. It will be said that such a temptation will now assail a republican army, a citizen army, but the history of nations is full of such temptations that were not resisted, and were even joyfully embraced, for few men, particularly in the face of vice and corruption, can resist the temptation of using their power to reform, by force, if necessary, the society of which they will fancy themselves the saviors and liberators….

“We have already reached the first stage in the familiar tragedy.”

Not only electoral fraud and terrorism menaced the rule of law, threatened to substitute the rule of men in its place. Corruption had undermined the morale of the people and the government service. From top to bottom it was increasingly felt that all was permitted, everything licensed—if one had the power and influence. If one had the connections. To a man brought up in the ideal conception of law, the spectacle was an appalling one. No curse seemed strong enough for such a regime.

Most are familiar with the biblical account of Moses and his anger at the fall of the Chosen People into idolatry. He broke the tables of the law. Only after the people repented of their sins was Moses prevailed upon to make new tables. He must have known that, it being human to err, the laws would be broken—but those who broke them would do so conscious of the offense, knowing they had broken the Law. To violate is to affirm, for one cannot violate what is not there. Thus, man, although he has sinned, may be forgiven. But cursed be he who says that there is no law and man might do all things. In the version of the story of Moses by Thomas Mann, the lawgiver declares:

“And I will lift My foot, saith the Lord, and tread him into the mire—to the bottom of the earth will I tread the blashphemer, an hundred and twelve fathoms deep, and man and beast shall make a bend around the spot where I trod him in, and the birds of the air high in their flight shall swerve that they fly not over it. And whosoever names his name shall spit toward the four quarters of the earth, and wipe his mouth and say ‘God save us all!’ that the earth may be again the earth—a vale of troubles, but not a sink of iniquity.”

The sink of iniquity that the Philippines became after a few years of Liberal rule could not but enrage a man like Recto. With visible effort at self-restraint, he noted:

“During the past two or three years, particularly since the mock elections of 1949, I have often been oppressed, as no doubt you too have been, by a vague fear that we are living in the wrong country, or if you prefer it this way, that our country is inhabited by the wrong people. Surely, I said to myself, this cannot be the country and people that we envisioned in the Constitutional Convention of 1934. When my colleagues and I set to work on that constitution, we had before us the inspiring vision of a united people practicing self-government, moulding civic spirit and learning patriotism in the daily observance of just and wise laws, ever vigilant against any threat to their liberties, faithful in the performance of their duties, and firm in the enforcement of those rights which are inalienable because they are God-given…

“… What do we have now? At the very head of the government, clutching tightly around him the robes of false authority, a man, over the legality of whose position the gravest doubts have been cast, sits enthroned, a very monarch of his ambition and behavior, far removed from public opinion and the guidance of disinterested and competent advisers, surrounded instead by sycophants, opportunists, courtiers, and jesters, and plotting the foundation of a dynasty that will perpetuate the ignominy of his regime.”

To Recto, the law is the law, to be observed by all and mended, if at all, only by law. He lives by it. He has, in fact, grown rich in its practice—but by mastering, not perverting it. He would abide by all its implications. To the President, it may seem strange, even subversive, that Recto should offer himself as legal counsel to the communists when they came up for trial. But the law is the law; a man should have legal counsel if he is to be properly tried, no matter for what offense. Anything else would make of the trial a mock one. (Neither mock elections nor mock trials for Recto.) Let it never be said by the communists that they were railroaded to imprisonment or death, that they might have been saved but for the incompetence of their counsel. They had the best in the land. But even he could not save them. It was democracy in action, wonderfully in action, and the communists could not afterward make propaganda out of the result. Had they been represented by a lawyer who had been at the tail of his class instead of at the head, they might have cried: “Unfair!” But they had Recto.

Communism could only be repulsive to a man of Recto’s non-conforming spirit, aside from the fact that he is a man of wealth. But the law is the law, to repeat, and Recto would assure every man of a true day in court. It was not that he would defend the communist creed, but that he would stand by the democratic one. All have a right to counsel when their lives or liberties are at stake. Recto, the corporation lawyer, offered his services to the Reds.

The law, of course, is merely the law, and not always to be equated with justice. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor alike to beg, to steal their bread, and to sleep under bridges.” The law is the superstructure; but what of the foundation? What if the society the law holds up rests on social injustice? Against violations of the Bill of Rights, Recto has been sleeplessly vigilant, but what of the poor—must we have them always with us? May they hope, at best, to live only in a vacuum of political liberties, of which Recto stands today the foremost champion? Must one think merely of the law? Their spirits are hungry, says a character in a play by Shaw, referring to well-paid workers, because their stomachs are full. What of the poor?

Nonetheless, before one talks of changing the law, its rule must first be firmly established; only then would it be possible, without injury to the Republic, at the least cost to the fewest people, to correct and amend. First of all, there must be law. Cursed be he who says there is none.

What of Recto’s alleged anti-Americanism? We accused him of that in an article on Philippine security. It cannot be the same as anti-democratic, for that is the last thing one could call the president of the Constitutional Convention and the proven defender of the democratic faith. What does it mean, then, being “anti-American”?

If to be the least bit critical of America, of any of its ways or institutions, is to be anti-American, then Recto is anti-American. Yet to be thus critical is to be in the direct line of a great American tradition. Lincoln was critical of Negro slavery. Wilson would involve the United States in the League of Nations, going against the old isolationist injunction against foreign entanglements. Franklin Delano Roosevelt attacked such established American practices as the sweatshop, child labor, the boom-and-bust economy, poverty in the midst of plenty. Today, millions of Americans reject and are determined to change a foreign policy, for being critical of which Recto gained the reputation of being anti-American.

If, on the other hand, to be pro-American is to agree to everything Americans say—that hardly speaks well of one. In fact, it is a rather obvious form of opportunism; surely Americans cannot be beguiled by it. Such pro-Americanism is so patently a mask for mendicancy, Americans should beware of it. Every time an American hears a Filipino say that America is perfect and Americans beyond reproach, he should be prepared to be asked for money. To pay for the praise of the venal with so sound a currency, as the American dollar seems to us not fair exchange; it is to give good money for shoddy goods. To win over to one’s side, on the other hand, the critical and incorruptible is to gain a friend indeed, because not a friend habitually in need, a chronic dependent, but one who, being independent, can be depended on.

Recto’s concern—excessive concern, it seems to some—over national sovereignty comes naturally. To the legal mind, sovereignty is indivisible; a part cannot be surrendered without denying the whole. Since the beggar cannot be sovereign, Recto, while conceding the aid received by the Philippines from the United States, is always quick to point out the benefits received by the United States from us:

“I speak not only in terms of bases, parity, tariff preferences, immigration rights, and other unprecedented concessions, but also in terms of loyalty measured in the blood spilled in Bataan, Corregidor, and Korea….Our relations with the United States have not been a one-way street but a two-way street, in which the traffic was just about equal.”

It is this passion for independence that drives a man like Recto sometimes to extremes of utterance. The mutual defense pact between the United States and the Philippines may be queerly worded—no such contract would be allowed to go through a law firm like Recto’s, it is, in its letter if not in its spirit, so patently full of holes—at the same time, it is surely going too far to call it a swindle, as Recto does, and then go on and speak of duress, threats, and intimidations.  It should be noted, however, that the brunt of Recto’s attack falls, not on the United States, for looking out for its interests, but on the Philippine administration, for being too mendicant to insist on its rights.

Besides, the Philippine position is so weak, so untenable, the independence of the country faces such threats from so many quarters that short of lasting international peace, which is a dream, one who thinks long and hard on what the Philippines must do to save itself can hardly avoid being filled with a sense of angry frustration. In such a mood, one may well grow violent over the wording of a pact. Those who maintain a more confident attitude are only able to do so because they do not think about the fix we are in. “Leave everything to America”—that’s the standard view. It’s a weak-minded one. If they are right, it is for the wrong reason; if Recto is wrong, it is for the right one.

There is always the possibility, of course, that Recto’s not always restrainable doubts about America’s perhaps too glib assurances of safety have deeper roots than the national predicament. Recto was a poet before he was a politician; in his youth he was steeped in European culture, not American. He belonged to a literary tradition that the American pursuit of Manifest Destiny brought to an untimely close. English put Spanish, which Recto had learned so painfully and so well, to the sword.

“Poetry withered away for the writers of my time,” bitterly remarks Don Perico, a character in a play who deserts the arts for politics, “because we knew that we had come to a dead end, we had come to a blind alley.  We could go on writing if we liked—but we would be writing only for ourselves—and our poems would die with us, our poems would die barren. They were written in a dying tongue; our sons spoke another language….”

Anchises was carried by his son, Aeneas, from burning Troy. The men of Perico’s generation must carry themselves to their graves.

“We have begotten no sons.”

Here is injury, indeed, though unconsciously inflicted. Here is a wound. Recto, the poet, maimed at the very start….The American liberation of the Philippines brought another wound. With other members of Laurel’s Cabinet, Recto was imprisoned in Iwahig where he awaited trial for collaboration with the Japanese whom he had the courage to caution against abuse of the Filipinos….The wound could not have entirely healed.

The American critic Edmund Wilson named one of his books after the Greek legend of Philoctetes to whom Heracles passed on a bow given him by Apollo— “a bow that never missed its mark.” Philoctetes, on the way to Troy, was bitten by a snake; the wound, becoming infected, gave so horrible a smell that his companions abandoned him. Afterward, however, the Greeks were told that they would never win the war without the aid of Philoctetes and his bow. The problem was how to persuade the embittered man, whose wound did not heal, to join the Greeks, to forget his grievance and his pain in the common cause. Philoctetes finally relenting, his wound was healed and the Trojan War was won.

The point of the legend would seem to be that a man’s wounds, the psychic ones, are not to be distinguished from the man, that they make him what he is, that if he is strong, they are the source of his strength; the wound is the bow. The strength, however, will lie useless until the man is reconciled to the society that had inflicted the wound or rejected him because of it. The pain will cease when the wounded man finally identifies his fate with the common one.

Will Recto’s wound ever heal? It is the source of his strength, his independence.  He may negotiate, he will not beg. But must it always pain? Will it never heal? Yes, one hazards—when the opposition of which he is such a pillar becomes the administration. As the wound of Philoctetes healed when he forgot his old grievances and joined the Grecian camp, bringing victory over Troy, may one not say that the wound of Recto will heal when—when he enters Malacañang? Then he must think not of one but of all.

But he will say, of course, that this, precisely, is what he has been doing all this time.