Seares: Salceda’s slip: Po-tay-to is po-ta-to but ‘authoritarian’ is not ‘authoritative’

Pachico A. Seares

“Mukhang reasonable naman yong (P55 million) cauldron. Kaso Imeldific, ‘yong dating, may grandiosity. Authoritarian regimes are always, you know, because you need to symbolize. (Is Duterte administration authoritarian?) in consequence, yes, but not in character... In effect.”—Rep. Joey Salceda on ANC’s ‘Headstart,’ Nov. 19, 2019

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda is an administration ally. Thus when he publicly called the Duterte administration “authoritarian,” that drew attention and raised eyebrows.

Salceda cited (1) the government’s passion for symbolism (the “imeldefic,” the “grandiosity”) in spending P50 million for the cauldron in the SEA Games torchlight ceremony (2) the fear among House members to vote against President Duterte’s bills and other proposals in Congress (“Katulad naming mga congressmen, we vote as the President wishes out of fear of him.”)

ANC talk show host Karen Davila wanted to be sure and asked Salceda twice if he meant the Duterte government is authoritarian. After saying the government is strong and the next government is likely to be weak, Salceda walked back by changing “authoritarian” to “authoritative.” “Authoritarian... authoritative... decisive is the better word. Ikaw talaga pinapahamak mo ako,” said Salcedo.

Gershwin song

It was lame turnaround. If the congressman thought “authoritarian-authoritative” is in the same league as “potato-potayto, tomato-tomayto, either-ayther” in the 1937 Gershwin song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was wrong.

“Authoritarian” and “authoritative” do not even come close in the way each is pronounced. On meaning, they are distinctly dissimilar. “Authoritarian” involves use of power and coercion, blind submission to authority, and strong central government and limited freedoms. “Authoritative” is limited to use of authority, which can apply to power in a democratic setting. It can mean, as Salceda used belatedly, “decisive.” Not despotic, which is the effect of authoritarian rule.

Lapse, not slip

The congressman’s tongue slipped, said one news media headline. A slip is a mispronunciation or wrong use of an adjective, not an argument for his description of a regime. More of a lapse in judgment, a momentary indulgence of those who couldn’t speak freely in a free forum, lured by a veteran interviewer to cut loose from his safe mooring, and when the interviewee did, was asked, “Are you sure?”

In taking back what he said, calling the government “authoritative,” then changing it to “decisive,” Salceda reinforced his earlier disclosure about lawmakers’ fear of the President, not just in halls of the House but also in public forums such as a broadcast program.

Political acumen

But a president’s control of Congress is by itself not authoritarianism. It is initially political acumen of an administration. Past presidents controlled the legislature before. Real authoritarianism comes when an administration no longer observes or pretends to follow the requirements of democratic governance.

Maybe just “indicias” of authoritarianism or the beginnings of one. Lawmakers like Salceda might yet realize that patriotism demands that they vote and talk according to the best interest of the country, not according to dictates of one person or party.

Po-tay-to is also po-ta-to. The authoritarian is not just authoritative--or decisive. He is, in diplomat Teddy Locsin’s jargon, a “f***ing” dictator.