Liberal Laments: The Heroism of SP Lopez
I’ll go out on a limb and state that the most important thinker of postwar Philippines is Salvador P. Lopez—“SP” to his friends and admirers. Though few of us remember him today, this self-described “ambidextrous” intellectual reshaped everything he touched: from literary criticism, diplomacy, political philosophy, to pedagogy.
With Duterte going to war with the UN over human rights, we should recall an architect of the global human rights regime.
Now is the best time to rediscover SP. With the University of the Philippines having selected its new president, we should recall the grand old man of Quezon Hall (that’s the UP admin building, for the non Iskos). With Duterte going to war with the UN over human rights, we should recall an architect of the global human rights regime. With our representative to the UN unleashing vitriol on Twitter, we should remember a Pinoy UN rep who acted with dignity. With the renewed glorification of Marcos, we should recall an Ilocano whom Apo wanted to jail. And with the global populist challenge to liberal democracy, we should recall someone who, until old age, described himself as “the same old liberal.”
Born in 1911 in Curimao, Ilocos Norte, SP grew up in a period of linguistic and cultural transition. It was a time Filipino intellectuals began shifting from writing in Spanish to English. SP himself learned the English essay from American teachers in a Laoag high school. Studying literature at the University of the Philippines, SP’s mentor’s included the Australian literary critic Thomas Inglis Moore and a young Carlos P. Romulo, who returned from studying at Columbia University.
SP lived a storied life; he was a journalist and editor, he fought in the war and became a POW, he occupied various positions in the foreign service.
SP was primarily a critic. In 1940, he published the book Literature and Society, which won the Commonwealth Literary Prize. The series of essays served as a treatise against dilettantism, advocating for a “proletarian literature” that discussed the pressing problems of an infant nation.
SP lived a storied life; he was a journalist and editor, he fought in the war and became a POW, he occupied various positions in the foreign service. But for our purposes, let’s go back to his time at the UN and at UP.
In the late 1960s, he became the Chairman of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights—a position once occupied by Eleanor Roosevelt. According to historian Roland Burke, John Humphrey—the initial drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—described SP as the best chair of the commission, ahead of eminent figures like Roosevelt and the Lebanese philosopher, John Malik.
As chair, SP led a campaign to give the commission the authority to take stances on human rights violations across the world, often against the wishes of powerful countries like the United States and the Soviet Union. He even drafted the initial mechanism that would allow the UN to investigate petitions of individuals concerning human rights violations in their countries.
The UN Commission on Human Rights is now the UN Council on Human Rights, and it is the body that seeks to investigate the killings under President Duterte’s war on drugs. Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella criticized the UN for imposing “liberal Western values” on the Philippines. But what Mr. Abella fails to note is that these “values” and mechanisms were largely defined by our own Department of Foreign Affairs, by diplomats like SP, Romulo, and Jose Ingles—all of whom fought to give UN human rights monitoring teeth. Human rights are as Filipino as the Kalabaw.
After his stint at the UN, SP returned in 1969 to replace Romulo as UP President. In doing so, he had “agreed to exchange the problems of the world for the problems of the campus.” The latter would prove as intractable as the former.
SP arrived in a radicalized campus. Maoist student groups and their allies were becoming more prominent, attracting the ire of the budding tyrant in the palace. As the university’s most senior administrator, SP had to protect his wards. At the same time, as a government employee, he was accountable to Ferdinand Marcos.
The university president became a Solomonic leader. At no time was his wisdom more evident than in February 1972 during a series of events now known as the Diliman Commune. From the first to the first to the ninth of the month, students and protesting jeepney drivers barricaded UP campus.
Throughout the nine days, SP tirelessly negotiated with Marcos to prevent a police incursion. But Marcos patience grew thin and wanted to deploy the police. More than a decade later, SP would recall how he averted violence:
On the night of February eight I slipped out of the campus and took a room at the Sulo Hotel nearby. Then I dispatched an urgent letter to the student leaders in which I said: “Tomorrow is the deadline set by the authorities to bring down the barricades. If the barricades are still standing by daybreak, the police will break through in full force. Since I am not prepared to accept responsibility for the bloodshed and destruction that could ensure, I will resign as President of the University this night, if you ignore my demand.
At one hour past midnight the word came: the barricades would be removed at daybreak.
In September of that same year, Marcos declared martial law. SP initially gave Marcos a chance, celebrating the fact that “Instead of marching in the streets, the students have queued up to enter the library, theatre, gym or swimming pool.” The required sycophancy not withstanding, however, SP quietly allowed the scattered student movement to reorganize on campus.
He would not be neutral for long. By 1974, SP could not longer “pretend to be unbiased” because “liberalism itself is a bias.” And, as a liberal, he was “not a fanatic of the absolute.” This liberalism would lead him to a collision course with the dictator.
In a highly publicized University of Hawaii speech, SP warned that “Prolonged repression tends to erode the support of the people and constrains them to remain silent when their voice most needs to be heard.” Moreover, the authorities, “seduced by the attractions of unrestrained authority, may soon come to believe that the delegation of power to them is permanent.” People’s “constitutional rights and liberties,” he concluded, had to be “restored sooner or later—preferably sooner than later.”
By the end of the year, SP was out of a job, replaced by Marcos’s former education minister.
In the years that followed, SP would become a grand old man of the opposition. Though the rode was long, he remained patient, believing that “Social transformation in a democracy is a long-term task of all the people living and acting together in freedom and responsibility.”
He continued to write and forward his liberal beliefs until the end of the dictatorship. Throughout this period, SP repeated his favorite mantra to various audiences. It is a mantra that we may have to revive today.
For Salvador P. Lopez, it was always “better to be silenced than to be silent.”