The fourth edition, as it were, of an annual roundup of anti-Aquino criticism. Published on November 26, 2013.
At least once a year in the last three years, I’ve tried to document the patterns of criticism directed against President Aquino. I got started because of what I thought was unfair criticism; I continued partly because of the vigorous, sometimes orientation-altering feedback, and partly because tracing the patterns can be instructive and useful to understanding politics, Philippine-style.
The documentation is hardly comprehensive; my so-called field notes are only preliminary; indeed, as I wrote at the get-go about the patterns I discerned, “there are others, some of them perhaps better objects of study than the ones I’ve chosen.”
“Catastrophizing” disaster coverage. Published on November 19, 2013.
Read, and wince. “During this time, they said, girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted.” It won’t be easy to identify which esteemed media organization ran this sensational passage.
This post-apocalyptic vision was a description of the horrifying conditions at the Convention Center in New Orleans, days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the famous city in August 2005. But as it turns out, it was a description that was not (and perhaps could not have been) independently verified. The source (the “they” who did the saying) were unnamed refugees; other sensational details in the story with the remarkable headline “City of rape, rumour and recrimination,” could also not be verified, or were later proven false.
The British spelling in the headline is a clue, but it isn’t much of one. Because that story, with that headline, and that passage, was published by the “normally staid” Financial Times.
This column, written in the immediate aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda or Haiyan, generated intense feedback in the comments thread on Inquirer.net — many of the abusive kind. I guess that’s what happens when a politician is treated, or treats herself, as a celebrity, as a “darling of the media;” the fans come out with their daggers drawn. An interesting experience. Published on November 12, 2013.
I write out of a sense of duty—knowing not only that “politics” is the last thing people want to read about these days but also that other subjects (discussed fortunately in other columns or in the news pages) are, truly, matters of life or death. But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s “star turn” at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing last week was so wrong, on so many counts, that letting it slide under a storm surge of post-“Yolanda” media attention would be an injustice. Bear with me.
From intuitive processes to systematic errors. Published on November 5, 2013.
Inquirer colleague and top business journalist Dax Lucas raised an interesting point on Facebook a few days ago. Linking to an image of the Inquirer’s Oct. 31 front page, which carried the headline “P-Noy: I am not a thief,” he wrote: “A key tenet in psychology and communications: the mind edits out words like ‘not’. So avoid stating in the negative.”
I thought it was interesting advice, because the President did not in fact say those exact words. I phrased my comment as a question: “Curious: Does this tenet work in languages other than English, such as the Filipino Noynoy used?”
Dax acknowledged my response, and graciously said he needed to study the matter, but others following the conversation immediately volunteered that, yes, the communications axiom worked in non-English languages too.
A new lease on political relevance. Published on October 28, 2013.
There are various shades of red in the political spectrum, but for the sake of argument I will adopt the convention in use in many newsrooms and identify the Philippine Left as those associated with the National Democratic Front (NDF). These political forces include some of the most successful party-list groups in our history, such as Bayan Muna.
Their success is apposite, because it explains two telling political developments in the last decade. At the same time, their indisputable mastery of the parliamentary arena, or at least of the processes of entry into that arena, obscured the specter of irrelevance that haunted the Left during the first three years of the Aquino administration. The pork barrel scandal, however, has altered the political landscape dramatically.
The argument, in other words, is that the pork barrel scandal has given the Left a new lease—if not exactly a new purpose—on life.
The backlog has grown stout again, and now I have 21 columns to upload. I would like to make Newsstand current, in the hope (likely vain) that with the backlog cleared I can really start blogging again. Wishful thinking, but who knows?
Today’s column includes a reference to Ninoy Aquino’s unread arrival statement of Aug. 21, 1983. Here is the copy I first posted in 2006.
Remarks at the Akbayan party-list group’s 16th anniversary program, held on January 30, 2014.
Thank you. I am honored by your invitation. At the same time, I must confess to an inconvenient concern: a journalist in a political assembly should be on the sidelines, not at the podium. So if you will allow me, I will rationalize my presence here today, in my capacity as a writer of columns and editorials, as an act of truth-telling. Incomplete, certainly; maybe even incoherent; but independent truth-telling.
It must be a time of mixed emotions for Akbayan. Your political base remains robust enough to regularly send representatives to Congress, major legislation that you support such as the Reproductive Health bill have become law, some of your leaders are serving in high government offices, and you have the President’s ear. But Risa’s second run for the Senate ended up just short again, and the prospect of a national consensus behind either party leader or political program looks less bright than a year ago.
But in fact, Akbayan did better in 2013 than it did in 2010; Risa [Hontiveros] gained over a million more votes than the first time, and her vote total in 2013 was twice that of Teddy Casino of Bayan Muna. But the rules of political arithmetic are unforgiving. Population growth, electoral cycles, and (not least) campaign funds are as much a determinant of success at the polls as candidate character or party platform.
Where does Akbayan go from here?
Published on October 15, 2013.
Some thoughts on the pork barrel scandal as it now stands, but first a short anecdote.
Last Thursday, on a busy street corner in midtown Manhattan, I stopped to buy a Sabrett hotdog. I paid for my $3-lunch with a $5-bill. When the vendor gave me my change, it was a sheaf of bills—considerably more than the $2 I was expecting. I gave the bills back to him, and said, “Thanks, but I only gave you five.” He gave me a quizzical look, then handed me two singles.
I stepped off the curb, feeling pleased. I headed straight for my next meeting, eating the hotdog along the way. (It was as good as I remembered.)
Published on October 8, 2013.
The other week, I had the privilege of attending three events in Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts, the venerable commonwealth that is almost but not quite as old (here’s a fun fact) as the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas. Allow me to record some of my main impressions.
First on the list was a forum I helped organize and which featured Nieman fellows from Asia. “Old Traumas, New Dilemmas: Four Asian Media Perspectives,” hosted by the Harvard University Asia Center and the Nieman Foundation, ranged over a great diversity of topics. Sayuri Daimon, the new managing editor of the Japan Times, remembered lessons learned from coverage of the Fukushima disaster; Chong-ae Lee of the Seoul Broadcasting System made an appeal, based on personal experience, to revisit the historical record; I spoke on the politics of the pork barrel.
But it was Yang Xiao of China’s Southern People Weekly who made the strongest impression; his description of the challenges facing China’s liberal media in the post-Olympic era began with a scrupulous sketch of the specific Chinese context of “liberal” but ended with a simple declaration of journalism’s true purpose: To speak truth to power.
Published on September 24, 2013.
I had a chance to join 14 other Asean journalists in a wide-ranging interview with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week. ANC’s Coco Alcuaz, formerly of Bloomberg, has already written of Lee’s pragmatic approach to the territorial disputes between China and some Asean member-states.
It is worth repeating the most important quote from Lee. Asked by Siti Hajar of the Borneo Bulletin whether the territorial disputes between certain Asean states and China can be resolved sooner rather than later, he replied:
“It cannot be resolved. These are territorial disputes. I say it is mine, you say it is yours. Whose is it? So either I say sorry, I made a mistake, it is yours; or you must say sorry, you made a mistake, it is mine. And no government can say that. So therefore, I do not think that the overlapping claims can be cleared up. They will remain overlapping. But what you can do is manage the situation, avoid some escalation at sea, on the land or sea itself, and where possible, do joint development of the resources which are there, which I think is Brunei’s approach from what I can see.”
This unusual rendering of the central event of the Good Samaritan parable, a color lithograph by the Dutch artist Lion Cachet, from 1896, caught my eye when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last September. It took me some time to figure out why. Finally, I read the explanatory text. Turns out the piece was inspired by Indonesian batik – a modest example of the colonial periphery making an impact on the center, and a nice inversion that parallels what happened on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Published on September 17, 2013.
Some readers have asked about the “writing experiment” I attempted last month at the Loyola School of Theology, when I sought to discuss the church-media dynamic by, among other things, rewriting a famous Gospel parable. Perhaps the best way to explain what I was up to is to show, not tell. If you will allow me then, here is an extended excerpt:
The closest a column of mine has come to going viral (over 5,500 shares, some 3,000 Facebook recommends on Inquirer.net). This was published on September 10, 2013 — a day before the late, still-unburied dictator’s birthday.
GLORIA ARROYO practiced what the Freedom from Debt Coalition called “fiscal dictatorship”—impounding allocations at will and realigning items in reenacted budgets without congressional authorization. (Those who visit her at the hospital where she is detained may continue to deny reality, but it was this control of the budget that allowed the pork barrel scam to flourish.) Joseph Estrada centralized jueteng operations right in Malacañang. (He also forced the Social Security System to buy stocks for which he received a P180-million commission.) Compared to Ferdinand Marcos, however, Arroyo and Estrada were rank amateurs.
Column catch-up, all over again. This piece was written after the so-called Million People March, and was published on August 27, 2013.
In August 1999, or just over a year after the popular Joseph Estrada took office as the country’s 13th president, a major protest rally brought the Makati central business district to a standstill. A hundred thousand people, perhaps 120,000 at the most, occupied the intersection of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas; they were there, mainly, for three reasons: They went to signal their disapproval of the Estrada administration’s Charter change campaign; they went to sympathize with the plight of the Manila Times, then recently shuttered, and the Inquirer, then undergoing the second month of an unprecedented advertising boycott, both in circumstances many believed to have been orchestrated by Malacañang; not least, they went because Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino asked them to.
So (six weeks late to the show), turns out the final episode of Burn Notice is set in an abandoned newspaper building. Ouch.
A tale of two martyrs. Published on August 20, 2013.
They came home. They did not have to; the threats they faced to life or liberty were real and manifest, the work they could have done outside the country to continue to contribute to the freedom struggle useful and varied.
The advice they received was almost uniformly negative. “I am prepared for the worst, and have decided against the advice of my mother, my spiritual adviser, many of my tested friends and a few of my most valued political mentors,” Ninoy Aquino wrote in his arrival statement. He had planned to read it the day he returned to Manila 30 years ago; he did not get the chance.
Jose Rizal prepared two letters before leaving Hong Kong in June 1892, to return to the Philippines for the second time. They were to be opened in the event of his death; about three years after his execution, Apolinario Mabini became the first to make them public.
In the letter addressed “A los Filipinos,” Rizal wrote: “The step that I have taken or I am about to take is undoubtedly very perilous, and I need not say that I have pondered on it a great deal. I realize that everyone is opposed to it; but I realize also that hardly anybody knows what is going on in my heart.”
Max Weber at the rainbow arc. Published on August 13, 2013.
It was a teaching moment, and Coach Chot Reyes seized it. After his Gilas Pilipinas team ended the so-called South Korean curse on Saturday and earned a ticket to the world basketball championships in Spain next year, Reyes had a message not only for his players but for anyone who cared to listen.
“I wanted to have a quick huddle with the players. I told them, ‘Congratulations. We have achieved our objective, now our dream is at hand.’”
And then he said (I am using a slightly edited version of Interaksyon.com’s fuller account of my batchmate’s statement at the post-game news briefing): “I don’t know if there were [already] people here in one [of] my earlier interviews. I said, our objective was to win a medal but our dream was to win it all. So we have achieved our objective, now the dream is at hand.”
Famous writers playing word games. Published on July 30, 2013.
Spoiler alert: This column is entirely, unapologetically, about writers and writing.
Last week, three literary lions of late 20th-century London gathered in New York City to read and make merry. “The occasion,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “was a rare joint appearance by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the literary equivalent of a concert by the Three Tenors—or perhaps a friendlier version of the Yalta conference, with three longtime allies jostling to carve up whatever territory might still be controlled by big-dude British literary novelists of a certain age.”
Reading the latest signed agreement, looking for clues. Published on July 23, 2013.
Can the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front still end in failure? We got a reminder in recent weeks that peace with the MILF remains very much a work-in-progress—and that progress is never guaranteed.
MILF officials aired their frustrations over the delay in the resumption of what are officially still called exploratory talks; when the 38th round finally pushed through, in Kuala Lumpur, the negotiations seemed to have teetered on the brink. It took an unusual extension before the government and MILF could agree on the final language of the Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing.
Still playing catch-up, but only six more to go before the Newsstand column archive becomes current. Six entirely different columns, beginning with this one on the Ignatian approach to discourse. Published on July 16, 2013.
Having been asked to play a small part in the second Ignatian Festival this coming weekend, I have found myself in the last several days wondering what it is exactly that draws me, again and again, to Ignatius of Loyola.
The author of the Spiritual Exercises and the founder of the Society of Jesus was an extraordinary man. The contradictions of his life would give a soap opera writer pause: a vainglorious soldier become ascetic priest, a restless romantic turned organization man, a stoic (wounded in the siege of Pamplona, he underwent leg surgery twice without so much as a complaint) who shed tears at Mass.
Not least, at least for me: An indifferent writer, who could change lives with the turn of a phrase.
Excerpts from a pastor’s journal. Published on July 9, 2013.
“I think it is now three years since I last used a typewriter,” Pope John XXIII began a letter to his brother. “I used to enjoy typing so much and if today I have decided to begin again, using a machine that is new and all my own, it is in order to tell you that I know I am growing old…” He had just turned 80.
Shortly after he died, about a year and a half since sitting at that typewriter, his spiritual notebooks and some of his letters and special prayers were published as “Journal of a Soul.” A few years later, I found my father’s copy of the book; I have been reading it, on and off, ever since.