Written by Sheila Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Reprinted with author’s permission.
Haydee Yorac told it like it is. This is about as rare in public life as a polar bear in Boracay. If it were more common, our country wouldn’t be in the fix it is in today. There would be no need for apologies, no crises triggered by “lapses in judgment.”
Haydee dazzled because she told the unvarnished truth.
“Truth, like light, blinds,” one of her favorite writers, the existentialist Albert Camus wrote. “Falsehood,” said Camus, “is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.”
If there is anything that Haydee’s life has shown us, it is this: You can tell the truth and get away with it. You can tell the truth and still be so loved, so respected and so feared. Haydee knew, much more than anyone in public life today, the awesome power of truth, of honesty and of personal integrity.
Unfortunately, truth telling is uncommon these days, not just in politics but also in the profession to which I belong. I have been in journalism for over 20 years and I can tell you that the media often give more space to the “beautiful twilight” of falsehood, flattery and prevarication than to the glaring light of truth.
This is why we needed Haydee. She showed us glimpses of that light. She had a bullshit detector better than anyone of us had. I know this from personal experience because some years ago, I was asked to introduce her as the keynote speaker at a media conference. I, of course, went overboard. It is not difficult to be hyperbolic about Haydee.
She wasn’t pleased. She told me half-jokingly that she thought I was beyond sycophancy. Ok, maybe I was sucking up to her. After all, I am a big Haydee fan. Her law firm was also giving us free legal advice. And let’s admit it, we all have an inner Joe de Venecia in all of us. I thought I had restrained mine better than most. But Haydee was too sharp to let it pass. She knew that words come easily to us, smooth talk even easier.
The moral of the story is: You can’t get one over Haydee. You don’t even try. Ask her former law students. Ask Danding Cojuangco. Ask Imee Marcos and Ali Dimaporo. Ask RAM and the MNLF and the NDF. They will tell you that Haydee had uncommon wisdom and uncommon sense. She had a razor-sharp intellect. She had a mind that was so clear because it was uncluttered by ambition or by lust for wealth or power. It was a mind that was free because it was not shackled to a personal, political or ideological agenda.
Journalists don’t see such clarity very often. She told EVEN US the painful truth. At that media conference, she quoted Camus, who was both a novelist and a journalist. The French writer famously said: “A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
Without missing a beat, and flashing that famous glare, Haydee then proceeded to tell the journalists present there that thus far, in the Philippines, Camus’ promise, that a free press can be good remained largely in the realm of existential possibility rather than reality.
This is why Haydee will be so sorely missed. Everyone sucks up to the media in this country, but not her. And yet, even if she didn’t wine or dine journalists or schmooze with editors or columnists, she had an enviably good press. Every journalist I know had real, not just grudging, respect for her. We were all in awe of her. It makes me wonder: if we had more public officials like Haydee Yorac, men and women who appeal to our nobler, rather than baser, instincts, would we also not have a better press? Or for that matter, a better society?
In the last few days, Haydee’s many achievements have been recalled. I will not repeat them. We remember also her warmth, her humanity, her deep and abiding faith. We miss the glee with which she lapped up jokes. She had a keen sense of the absurd and the ridiculous. She was sensitive to the power of humor: not only is it a weapon of the weak against the strong, it also helps keep us sane despite the madness of the times.
Through those times, Haydee had an unerring sense of what is important. Her career in as a lawyer and as a public official focused on the most elemental things that make a democracy work: clean elections, justice, accountability.
As head of the National Unification Commission, she went around the country to probe the roots of conflict. She saw that it was not ideology, but the hunger and thirst for justice that drove rebellion. As a human rights lawyer during the Marcos era, Haydee had already realized that people did not need law, they needed justice. Peace, she said, could be obtained only through a social contract for a just, humane and equitable society. “The peaceful resolutions of armed conflict,” she said then, meant “neither blame nor surrender, but dignity for all.”
Truth. Justice. Dignity for all. These are big words. We avoid them now because these are complicated times and these words have been much abused. Besides, we are being told that there are other things that are more important: terrorism, the economy, political stability. With the budget deficit and rising oil prices, these are not times for waxing philosophical or existential.
Tonight, I will dare to speak big words in memory of Haydee Yorac. Her greatness lay in believing in the possibility of truth, justice and human dignity. Even in the most faithless times, Haydee believed. She believed that the greatness of the human spirit lies in the struggle against the forces that overwhelm it. As her favorite, Camus, said: “It isn’t happiness we should seek, but much more than that, a kind of greatness-in-despair.”
Haydee had that kind of greatness that stood out in times of despair. We sorely need it now. But now that she is gone, we have to find that greatness in our own selves. “In the depth of winter,” Camus wrote, “I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”
This is a winter as deep, as harsh as any. The best tribute we can pay to the great Filipina we are honoring tonight is to find the invincible Haydee within all of us.
(From Inside PCIJ)