The death of human rights lawyer Benjamin “Ben” Ramos Jr. last November 6 depicts the level of barbarity Philippine politics has sunk into and the staggering sense of inevitability of the consequences for the socially conscious Filipino intellectual.
One is hardly surprised at the fate of Ben Ramos Jr. a “passionate, dedicated and articulate” defender of “peasants, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners and mass organizations in Negros.” According to the National Lawyer Guild–International Committee, Ben “is the 34th lawyer killed under the Duterte administration.”
In a short span of two years under the Duterte administration, there has been a tremendous number of persecution and killings of lawyers, priests, religious workers, journalists, peasant leaders, student activists, and political rivals and the thousands of victims and affected by the immoral war on drugs. Political violence is no rarity in the country, but such level is quite unprecedented in recent history. For the first time in our national history we have a government, represented by the president, whose passion for violence is the guiding principle of most its policies. Thus encouraging and fomenting a culture of violence in a country that is devastated by the present socio-politico-economic crisis which seems to verge on hopelessness, compounded by the incompetence of past administrations. Whatever direction one looks, one expects to see blood: the excessive force and power allotted to the police and military who regularly abuse them; local politicians who, in imitation of the president, engage in their own brutal version of drug war; armed vigilante groups financed by powerful landowners in close company with the military and the police.
Despite all this, we encounter committed and courageous public intellectuals like Ben Ramos Jr. and that makes a difference and gives us hope.
Ben best stands for what a socially conscious intellectual means by the people he represented and the causes he fought for. Before his death he was “counsel for the Mabinay 6, six youth activists who were arrested in April 2018 on trumped up charges… and the Sagay 9, nine unionized sugarcane farmworkers who were brutally massacred on October 20 for occupying land that was rightfully theirs.”
And the way he lived is touchingly exemplary for its dignity and simplicity. Ben’s widow Clarissa recalled that most of his cases were unpaid; his poor clients, peasants and fishermen of his province, offer in return for Ben’s legal services “banana, fish, chicken, vegetables and sometimes Christmas lantern.” He owned neither a house nor a car in stark contrast to the extravagant, luxurious-loving lifestyles of our power-obsessed politicians who see our country through the tainted windows of their high-class cars. Nevertheless, in spite of the lack of material rewards, he dedicated his intelligence, compassion, energy, and gaiety to the oppressed folks.
It’s difficult to imagine our politicians getting paid with fruits and vegetables or poultry and not owning a house or a car of their own. Because if that were the case, none of our politicians today would run for office again.
Ben’s intellectual work as a lawyer was deeply connected to the suffering of farmers and fisherfolk of his hometown in Kabankalan City in Negros Occidental. He was organically linked to this oppressed class, living and working with them through Paghida.et sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG), a nongovernment organization he cofounded to assist and support the farmers and fishermen in his town.
Such work affirms the side to which the Filipino intellectual dedicates himself: truth and justice, the need to assert the humanity of the oppressed as opposed to power and privilege, the search of status and wealth which is the overwhelming fashion in our political culture.
Although he could have taken a more comfortable path, Ben chose the peripheral, dangerous but significant role in and to the most oppressed class in our society. The role of a socially conscious public intellectual.
To be regarded as a public intellectual implies undertaking tasks outside his or her own specialized field which entails, as Edward Said the Palestinian-American intellectual noted and exemplified, “passionate engagement, risk, exposure, commitment to principles, vulnerability and being involved in worldly causes.”
The quest for truth and justice in a country like the Philippines is not only unrewarding, moreover frequently punished. The mixture of intelligence, compassion and action as embodied by Ben is a serious threat to the powers that be for it inspires emancipatory possibilities, preserving the ideals of freedom, love and justice which our elected leaders with their unique nihilism have utterly abandoned.
If the public looks up to politicians as public intellectuals from what Said underlines, from the most objective, rational point of view, politicians are a compete failure. Politicians who treat their work merely as a profession, as “something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five with one eye on the clock, and another cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior- not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and ‘objective’,” criticized Said.
On the other hand, to be a public intellectual in Ben’s representation is to face constantly the possibility of death. Threats, harassments, intimidation, blackmail are all part of the grim predicament confronting the intellectual. Political tagging the main technique whereby critics of the administration are automatically labelled as rebels, terrorists, communists, and even addicts. Ben’s name was on the terror list by the police. Tagging has been the ideological weapon and justification for most of the political killings in the country. Ben himself was not spared of this ridiculous repression. He was killed pitilessly in a mafia style shooting on November 6. He was 53 years old.
In the face of this level of human brutality, we are inspired by Ben’s courage, intelligence, and above all, his love for the small people. Ben’s unselfishness and intellectual calling seems too remote, too alien in our present age where excessive individualism, fame, narcissism, material possession, love of success are values to be prized and emulated. Yet he proved by his example the demanding responsibility of a true public intellectual and the cost of the pursuit of truth and justice.
Power and privilege and truth and justice are two incompatible and irreconcilable things. The intellectual (in Ben’s standards) cannot embrace the two together: to choose the former implies the renunciation of the latter. Power and privilege demands conformity and acquiescence “not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and ‘objective’”, remarked Said. On the other hand, truth and justice demand laborious and daring acts of moral courage, “passionate engagement, risk, exposure, commitment to principles, vulnerability and being involved in worldly causes.”
While politicians are a failed class of intellectuals the pervading culture of consumption has exacerbated our seriously ailing intellectual culture. The public now looks up to Kris Aquino, Boy Abunda, Karen Davila, Ted Failon and other mainstream figures as intellectuals despite their complete lack of understanding on serious issues. For quite obvious reason: they entertain; they do not teach to think. The addiction of entertainment in the Philippines has gone to irrational heights which is caused perhaps by our failed educational system which in part is a victim of a failed economy. Mindless entertainment does not require us to think, to exercise our critical acumen, but to be passive, to be subservient to what is being told us, to consume and consume: To be uncritical consumers.
Ben’s example suggests that we are more than consumers, that those who have the resources and privilege have the responsibility to take the side of truth and justice. This is a great task.
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino, born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy.