Monthly Archives: May 2006

31 May 2006: Today’s links

Lexington on the revitalized religious left: The Economist’s man in Washington has words of caution to say about the supposed resurgence among  Democrat supporters who "get" religion.

Getting to know "The Teaching": As Christianity Today puts it, not all discovered manuscripts reveal "a lost Christianity." Take the Didache, for example.

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Not (necessarily) un-Filipino

I’ve heard a few comments, attributing the Dale Abenojar controversy to a kink in our Filipino-ness. I don’t know what you think about Abenojar’s claim that he had summitted Everest on May 15, from the more difficult China (Tibet) side. For my part, the picture the Star ran yesterday — with first-time Alpine climber Abenojar standing straight, two thumbs up — looked too posed, unlike, say, the unglamorous shot of Romi Garduce slouching on the summit, almost falling back on the clutch of Sherpas sitting beside him. But like many others, I guess, I’m open to contrary evidence.

The question is: Is the controversy typically Filipino? Is it Pinoy in the sense I’ve heard it said? "Pinoy talaga!" Or "Pinoy na Pinoy, ano?" ["This is so Filipino" -- close, but not exact.]

The answer, I guess, is: Only if we nationalize numerous other competitors, such as Peary and Cook, who famously disputed the distinction of who was the first man to reach the North Pole. (Today, Peary retains the advantage, but it is only fair to say his claim is still questioned by many.)

The controversy, I wager, is a typically human one: Born of ambition and competition and jealousy and pride, of "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself," to put old William Faulkner to use again.

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Anything you can do, I can do better

Reading the news about Rep. Jacinto Paras switching sides, I couldn’t help thinking of that famous song that sings the virtues of one-upmanship. As I wrote 244 days ago (ah, the wonders of Technorati), "a reshuffle after crucial tests of will in parliament is not only inevitable but necessary. It is a rite of transition, for both sides of the aisle." That post was occasioned by, among other incidents, Paras’s call for House Minority Leader Francis Escudero’s resignation. Now it seems that, in the run-up to the next round in the impeachment wars, and taking his cue from certain members of the majority, Paras has decided to put himself in play.

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30 May 2006: Today’s links

The "common good" thinkpiece making the rounds of the Democratic party: It’s a month late, but still worth a close read; this may be the "big idea" the Bush opposition is looking for.

Project Gutenberg in the Philippines: Thanks to Manolo for calling our attention to this admirable, and necessary, work-in-progress.

Another name for our obsession with books: Less sexy than book lust, but think of the possibilities! (Courtesy, of course, of Word Spy.)

Underneath the Robes: People magazine meets the American judiciary (another reason why Edwin Lacierda must thank his lucky stars). Sample topic: the hottest judges in the United States. (Of course, hot is relative, but does anyone remember Kimba Wood, once Clinton’s nominee for Attorney General?)

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Peace before Ramadan

I wanted to write about this last week, when the following story ran in the news columns. The government was looking forward to finally concluding a peace treaty with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the next few months, Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz said.

"If we are able to conclude the final peace agreement with the MILF, we’ll have dramatically improved the security, stability in central Mindanao," Cruz told reporters.

He said Manila was "confident" that a political settlement would be reached before the start of Ramadan.

Good thing Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo sang the same refrain today in a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur; I get a second chance to write about it.

"I believe before Ramadan, which is in September. Hopefully even long before Ramadan," Romulo said when asked when he expected an outcome for the MILF talks.

Romulo told reporters at a meeting here of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) grouping of mostly developing countries that the two sides were working on the issue of ancestral domain, or traditional Muslim lands. [Inq7.net also carries the AFP wire story, here.]

My two cents: The renewed government emphasis on concluding a peace agreement with the MILF is a function not only of a less recalcitrant MILF but also of a more single-minded AFP. I believe the armed services have come to the conclusion that it is really best to settle the MILF problem peacefully, in order to focus on finishing off the communist insurgency.

One set of "proofs," which I (but maybe not too many others) find convincing enough: The institutional bias of the AFP is against a peace treaty; if not to oppose one outright, then at least to drag its feet. I am reminded of the shift in perspective in Eduardo Ermita’s worldview, when he left the office of Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process to become Secretary of National Defense. Unfortunately, all I can find on the Net right now is this filed-away column of Bel Cunanan’s, which reminds me of the impressions I had then.

… At the time of his appointment to the defense department, he was thick in the peace process as the government’s point man in the talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF, an offshoot of the MNLF-ed) which are about to resume in Kuala Lumpur.

But while familiarity with the secessionist problem in Mindanao is a decided advantage for Ermita, he has to be conscious that his perspective on the peace process now has to change somewhat, to reflect the demands of the Armed Forces.

If I remember correctly, his perspective did change. But over time, both Ermita’s attitude to the MILF peace talks and that of the AFP became tempered, more flexible, especially after the MILF disavowed links with al-Qaeda and the Abu Sayyaf. Cruz, as near as I can tell, has pushed peace with the MILF since assuming the defense portfolio. I gather he met less resistance from the generals, in part because of the (new) focus on the communists.

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29 May 2006: Today’s links

The Universalis blog: I did not realize that Martin Kochanski, whose admirable online breviary I’ve used on and off for years, has decided to keep a blog. Mass tourism (as in, Holy Mass), anyone?

The Global Voices podcast: The very first, in Global Voices’ newsmagazine format, includes Juned Sonido reporting on the Da Vinci Code reception in Manila. Interesting experiment, though I’d like to correct two mistakes at the start of the report: It was Bishop Ramon Arguelles who pushed for a ban on the movie, not Archbishop Angel Lagdameo. And the movie was in fact banned in the city of Manila, on pain of a fine and imprisonment. The R-18 rating allowed other cities, with less reactionary city councils than Manila’s, to screen the movie. (Try Radio Free Harvard Cubao and Baratillo too.)

Hillary Clinton’s iPod test, which Jack Shafer Jacob Weisberg (so sorry, my bad) scores in more ways than one. Kevin Drum does not know Jack (ah, Jacob?), and strongly disapproves.

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If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it …

… it isn’t news.

The large-scale earthquakes over the weekend were a shock. After the 6.2 quake that struck the island of Java last Saturday (and killed over 3,300 Indonesians, many of them still asleep), earthquakes of similar magnitude hit Tonga and Papua New Guinea on Sunday. A smaller quake also struck northern Luzon on the same day.

Was the Pacific "ring of fire" entering a period of great volatility? It certainly seemed like it, judging from the news. Yes, the quakes and the imminent eruption of Mt. Merapi in Java are part of a larger pattern.

"There’s no doubt they are effects of the same cause — the ring of weakness in the Earth’s surface," said Gary Gibson, professor of seismology at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

But, no, the region is not faced with the prospect of greater seismic activity.

Gibson said that the flurry of seismic activity of the past days was comparatively small.

"On any given day you would find seismic activity greater than this throughout the Pacific region," he said.

"Last week there was a sequence of earthquakes between New Zealand and Tonga that were far greater — we got up to magnitude of 7.8 on one day," he said. "But nobody knows anything about it because it didn’t affect anybody."

In other words, because Saturday’s earthquake claimed a terrible toll, the weekend’s series of quakes stunned us into thinking there was more heat to the fire around the ring.

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Good weather, bad news

It may be that the extremely good weather during this year’s climbing season is responsible for the record number of deaths on Everest. An Australian and a German have brought the total number of dead to 15. (Of course, this helps us keep the Oracion-Emata-Garduce triple treat in better perspective.)

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San Francisco goes Pinoy

That’s the San Francisco Chronicle, in a real first: A podcast channel on Philippine topics, by Filipino-American journalists. Pinoypod_1 Some of you may remember Boying Pimentel, who wrote the Edjop biography and started Kuwento Kuwento: Tales and Conversations from the Filipino Experience. It seems his podcasts inspired others in the Chronicle newsroom to try their collective hand at something similar. The name of the experiment is Pinoypod; the Chronicle’s news release identifies the project’s who’s who.

San Francisco – The San Francisco Chronicle announced today its launch of Pinoy Pod, a weekly program of interviews, news features and information about the Filipino experience in Northern California, the Philippines and beyond.  This bold experiment, the first of its kind by a major American newspaper, can be downloaded at www.sfgate.com/blogs/podcasts

"The Pinoy Pod allows us to use multi-media technology to connect very powerfully The Chronicle/SFGate to the vibrant Filipino community here in the Bay Area, throughout the country and overseas," said Phil Bronstein, editor of The Chronicle.

In addition to English, some episodes will be in Tagalog and other Philippine languages.   Topics will include arts, culture, entertainment, business and political and social issues.  Pinoy Pod’s 10- to 20-minute podcasts will be posted Tuesdays.

The Pinoy Pod crew includes some of The San Francisco Chronicle’s most experienced journalists: Deputy Managing Editor Leslie Guevarra, editorial writer and columnist Pati Poblete, podcast producer Benny Evangelista, business reporter and Pinoy Pod producer Ben Pimentel, reporter Cicero Estrella and copy editor Michelle Louie.

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Hanging out with Alexa

It’s skewed, I know, and hardly a random sample. But it’s fun. And it does give us an idea of where one site is, relative to another. Now a third party has taken Alexa to the next level (that would be the Alexa-for-dummies level). Meet Alexaholic.

For more fun, try what a friend and colleague suggested: track Sigaw ng Bayan.

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Digging one’s grave

A few days ago I wrote about possible tactical openings, which the political opposition could exploit to put the Arroyo administration on the defensive, or perhaps even in the (impeachment) dock. A few more have surfaced since then; here is one of them.

But I must hasten to repeat what I had written earlier: These are not necessarily cracks in the administration’s wall. Some of them are visible proof that politicians are only doing what comes naturally: raising one’s value before a vote. In other words, some politicians are positioning themselves for the next phase in the impeachment wars.

Of course, some of the disagreements are genuine, or rooted in less malleable reality. Consider National Security Adviser Bert Gonzales’ irresponsible claim that mass graves — ostensibly proof of an ongoing purge within the Communist Party — had been found in Bukidnon. Mindanao bigwig Joe Zubiri was apoplectic.

Bukidnon Governor Jose Ma. Zubiri yesterday belied claims by National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales that the military had unearthed two mass graves in the province containing the skeletal remains of 18 communist rebels and sympathizers who had been killed by their comrades.

“He (Gonzales) made it appear that Bukidnon is a massacre field. That’s a lie,” Zubiri, chair of the Northern Mindanao Peace and Order Council, told the Inquirer in a phone interview.

Citing a military report, Gonzales earlier said the New People’s Army (NPA), armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, carried out 11 killings in San Fernando town and another seven in Quezon town.

During his stint in the Regional Peace and Order Council the past five years, Zubiri said he never received reports of mass graves in the province. The military, according to the governor, had recovered only two bodies in Bukidnon — one in 2001 and the other in
2005.

“I don’t know his agenda but definitely we won’t allow him to use Bukidnon for whatever agenda he has,” said Zubiri whose son, Juan Miguel, is the representative of the third congressional district of Bukidnon.

It seems Gonzales is reading from a script on which the Zubiris, close friends of the President, were inexplicably unconsulted, and could not possibly approve.

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Cocktails at 6

I finally met the great Butch Dalisay — in a US Embassy reception, of all places. Last Thursday, I went up to him and introduced myself, we exchanged cards, we talked about his sister who was a classmate of mine ("She was the best in our class [in UP Law]," I said; "we were half as good as her, but that’s because we shared her notes!"). We talked a little about the largely undeveloped art of biography-writing in the Philippines; he said he was writing a biography of the brothers Buenaventura. I also learned he was set to teach (again) in the States this fall, in a college in Wisconsin. A good time to buy your fix of the latest Macs, I suggested.

The following day, he addressed the departing Fulbrighters. His speech, published in his Monday column in the Star, is a wonderful read. (He has also included in his blog a letter from a fellow Fulbright alumnus; I can only hope the program’s budget, nickel-and-dimed during the Reagan era, has now been fully restored.)

PS. I like the way he writes his column, but even the best of them pale, become almost workaday, when you set them side by side his fiction, which is marked by a truly heightened use of language.

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Malling in Asia

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Why not take a look at the Mall of Asia on its opening day? So off we went last Sunday. It was just us, and about a million other people.

Have you ever been caught inside Megamall, during a Midnight Madness sale? It felt like that last Sunday — except that the new mall’s impressive and accessible design allowed us to grab a lungful of fresh air whenever we needed to. We caught the Everest documentary in the country’s first Imax theater (contrary to what I expected and what PCIJ’s Vinia Datinguinoo wrote, this particular theater did not feature “the world’s largest wrap-around screen;” the screen did not wrap around the audience, but occupied only one wall, albeit a wall several stories high).

There were a few signs of lack of preparedness: woefully inadequate directionals for mall-goers in cars; not enough trash cans (the one outside the Imax exit on the second floor, near the stairs, overflowed with evidence of our disposable consumption culture); not a single ATM in the so-called Entertainment Mall, which is in effect an annex to the main mall. But except for a few stalls we saw at the back of the South Wing, the mall had its fill of locators, and most of the stores were open in time for the launch. The toilets were numerous, easy to spot, and clean. Security was friendly but tight. And yes, there were several ATMs in the main mall.

For my money, the restaurant row at the back is the best thing about the mall; you can eat your dinner or nurse your beer while watching the famous Manila Bay sunset. (Also, I counted five bookstores: National, Fully Booked, Books for Less, Book Sale, and A Different Bookstore, which had a 15-percent discount opening week promo. That alone might be worth coming back for.)

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Unidentified motorcycle-riding gunmen

Annaliza Abanador was slain Thursday inside the clothes and gifts shop in Balanga, Bataan where she worked as a cashier. That would make her assassination (she was an organizer for a Kilusan para sa Pambansang Demokrasya or National Democracy Movement affiliate) doubly remarkable; she was not only the 10th leftist activist killed in two weeks, but she was the first to be killed inside her place of work. Usually, the assassins kill their victims out in the open, on the street.

But according to the KPD, the assassins rode a motorcycle. That detail fits the pattern of many of the killings (by the Inquirer’s count, over 120 in five years).

Joe Torres helpfully runs excerpts from a PCIJ survivor manual. This survival tip in particular stands out:

When driving on wide lanes or avenues, drive close to the island to prevent motorcycles from approaching or riding abreast. As in the Damalerio case, the killer came from the left and had a clear shot of Damalerio, who was driving.

Of course, this wouldn’t have helped in Abanador’s case.

PS. A tiny discrepancy in the report on the Balanga slay has been nagging at me since yesterday. According to the KPD, the killers arrived on a motorcycle. That must mean that there were witnesses who saw the killers drive up to the store. (Else who is to say they did not use a car or arrived on foot?) According to the police, however, Abanador was killed at around 4:30 pm, and her body was discovered only at around 6 pm, by a customer. Didn’t the witnesses hear the gunshots? (She was shot nine times.) If they did, what did they do in the hour-and-a-half between attack and discovery? But if there was no one to hear the gunshots, who saw the motorcycle?

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Forget the Da Vinci Code

Here is a real scandal, in the old scandalize-the-faithful sense.

The Vatican cautiously acknowledged today long-standing allegations of sexual abuse by the founder of prominent Catholic community, asking him to give up his public ministry in favor of a quiet life of "prayer and penitence."

The announcement marked the first public action by Pope Benedict XVI on the sensitive issue of sexual abuse in the church. And it came against a priest with a particularly high profile: the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the fastest growing Catholic communities, praised often by Pope John Paul II.

(That was the New York Times’  main story online, by the way.) Not surprisingly, it was our man in the Vatican, the irreplaceable John Allen, who broke the news the other day.

Capping a decade-long on-again, off-again investigation of accusations of sexual abuse, the Vatican has asked Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, to observe a series of restrictions on his ministry.

In effect, Vatican sources told NCR this week, the action amounts to a finding that at least some of the accusations against the charismatic 86-year-old Mexican priest are well-founded.

The Vatican statement is here. (For the record, I think the Pope’s measured decision was the right one.) The response of the Legionaries, one of the fastest-growing new religious orders, is here.

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Panganiban’s legacy

Reading Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban’s speech before the Georgetown law school, I get the impression that the Supreme Court chief was aiming to hit one out of the park. Or to change metaphors, he wrote a speech that he knew was destined to be one for the books. (The speech is on the Supreme Court’s useful website, but hidden under Panganiban’s biography; the court’s own news release is here.)

It is not the usual practice among our Supreme Court justices to speak of judicial philosophies, in the sense that American legal scholars speak of the judicial philosophy of, say, Felix Frankfurter or William Douglas. Panganiban’s attempt to speak plainly about his, in the middle of his all-too-short term as primus inter pares, seems to me to be a deliberate act of legacy-making.

He speaks of the "twin beacons" of liberty and prosperity, and at one point deepens his explanation by using the audience’s own history.

“Your country’s struggle for civil liberties is, of course, just as long and difficult. The freedoms you have won with so much sacrifice and sufferings have become the bedrock of your democratic system and economic progress. Indeed, those freedoms have become so inextricably linked to each other that it seems unthinkable to conceive of liberty without prosperity, or prosperity without liberty,” he said.

And in what may be called the Philippine judiciary’s version of the Catholic church’s preferential option for the poor, Panganiban waxed Magsaysay-like.

“The stark realities of poverty in our country have led our courts to realize that they can no longer turn a blind eye to the abysmal and widening gap between the rich and the poor. Thus, we have veered away from the view that courts exist in a vacuum, oblivious of their political and economic environments,” Chief Justice Panganiban said. He stressed that “the 1987 Philippine Constitution mandates the state to ‘promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty.’”

It’s a revealing read; it explains both the recent decisions on EO 464, CPR, and PP1017 (which of course news reports about Panganiban’s speech pointed out) and the two-year-old holding (on appeal) of the equally controversial Mining Act.

Postscript. It may be seems that the Supreme Court really does read Inquirer editorials the occasional editorial. Last December 26, the newspaper Inquirer had written, apropos of Panganiban’s appointment:

Panganiban looks more than ready to continue Davide’s judicial reforms. He has in fact already codified the objects of his reforming zeal. He calls them Cida: corruption, incompetence, delay in justice, and lack of access to the courts and their dispute resolution mechanisms. (If we may make a suggestion, he would be better off changing the code to read Acid; these four evils, after all, have a corrosive effect on both the judiciary and on society at large.)

Just now, rooting around in the Supreme Court website, I realized that the Chief Justice had in fact changed the name of his four-part reform program. The same news report on the court’s website also carried the following paragraph.

Earlier, Chief Justice Panganiban addressed the United Nations Development Programme. In his UNDP talk, he also reiterated his commitment to continue and to revitalize reforms in the Philippine Judiciary. He said that the High Court would focus on what he called the Judiciary’s ACID problems – limited access to justice by the poor, corruption, incompetence, and delay in the delivery of quality judgments.

The new formula is right there in the Georgetown speech too, and in the Chief Justice’s homepage message. It’s enough to give one, ah, heartburn.

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Top of the world

According to Art Valdez of Team Everest, Leo Oracion became the first Filipino to summit the world’s tallest mountain. The feat was achieved at about 5:30 pm today, Philippine time (around 3:30 pm in Nepal). This is still uncomfortably too close to nighttime, which I gather is dangerous for descents, but apparently the clutch of climbers Oracion worked with had no choice; they were slowed down by other climbers ahead of them.

Oracion had a Neil Armstrong-like quote (again, as relayed by Valdez, who is at the Everest base camp): "The Philippine eagle has landed on the world’s highest mountain." (The ABS-CBN story has a slightly different phrasing.) Turns out Leo’s real name is Heracleo; fitting, isn’t it, for him to succeed at this modern labor of Hercules?

More good news: Oracion’s teammate Erwin "Pastour" Emata is mounting his assault on the summit sometime tonight. And rival Romi Garduce, whose decision to scale Everest this year probably prompted the First Philippine Everest Expedition to speed up its schedule by a full year, should begin his own assault in a couple of days. If they all make it, what a terrific treat: three Filipinos at the top of the world.

PS. In a somewhat bizarre twist, the wife of climber Dale Abenojar told ABS-CBN her husband may actually have been the first Filipino to reach the top of Everest, a feat he achieved several days ago using the North Face route. He’ll bring proof when he comes home, she said. Shades of Amundsen and Scott!

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Tactical openings

Cracks in the wall, they aren’t, at least not yet, but a few stories in the last few days have suggested that all’s not necessarily, well, united, inside Malacanang. Consider the following:

Item. Senate President Frank Drilon is currently engaged in an effort to put an opposition stamp on yesterday’s Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council meeting, but it’s hard to argue with his statement of fact.

In an interview with Senate reporters later, Drilon denied that the senators had “softened” on the issue of Charter change. It was Malacañang, he said, that had backtracked.

Drilon said Ms Arroyo did not refer to the people’s initiative during the meeting.

He said the President had apparently accepted the Senate’s position that such an initiative was “patently illegal” because of the lack of an enabling law for its implementation.

Let’s set aside that "apparent acceptance" by the President of the Senate’s position; that seems to me the art of spin at work. But if it is indeed true that GMA did not once refer to the so-called people’s initiative during the rare meeting (the last one was held in September), then that would be a tactical opening for the opposition.

In the same report, Speaker Jose de Venecia rebutted the claim that the President had abandoned the initiative, but we can already imagine the consequences of Drilon’s assertion: When JDV makes the rounds of local politicians, he will be hard-pressed to explain away the President’s resounding silence, in the Ledac meeting, on the initiative.

Item. One of the Speaker’s close allies in the House has just given Malacanang uncomfortably frank advice.

SAYING President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo needed independent-minded legal advisers not sycophants, an administration congressman Tuesday urged Malacañang not to rely too much on the Department of Justice which had taken the “path of legal extremism and political rigidity.”

That’s Cebu Rep. Antonio Cuenco, saying a mouthful. Cuenco — a former deputy speaker, a key player in the politics of Cebu (GMA’s million-vote-margin bailiwick), and a former colleague of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez — now wants the President to heed the advice of the likes of Solicitor General Ed Nachura (another former colleague), in order to avoid more defeats at the hands of the Supreme Court.

Cuenco urged Malacañang to rely more on Solicitor General Antonio Nachura and legal luminaries in the House instead of the DoJ, saying this would prevent “another serious loss in its legal battles and policy advocacies such as what happened in the cases of EO 464, Proclamation 1017 and (the calibrated preemptive response policy against street protests).”

The Supreme Court recently ruled against the Palace on several provisions of Executive Order No. 464, which barred government officials from attending congressional inquiries; Presidential Proclamation No. 1017, which placed the country under a state of emergency, and the CPR, which banned street protests.

“Malacañang badly needs men and women with legal expertise who can boldly tell the President that a legal standpoint is wrong and who can call a spade… a spade,” Cuenco said.

Item. Jueteng is back, and if Archbishop Oscar Cruz and at least two politicians speaking off the record (unfortunately, I cannot find the story on the Net) are right, it’s because political players are starting to raise funds for next year’s elections.

THE Roman Catholic bishop leading a campaign against “jueteng” said he was convinced the illegal numbers game has returned to help finance the campaign kitty of some politicians in next year’s elections.

“Not far from now is the envisioned 2007 elections,” Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said in a statement. “It is not surprising at all that jueteng is once again back in business.”

Next year’s elections? This must mean that politicians, even those involved in jueteng who are almost by definition allied with the incumbent administration, are hedging their bets. The odds are increasingly against the Charter change express making it to the station; when political fortunes are at stake, even seasoned gamblers find it less risky to, well, call a spade a spade. And start shoveling.

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Better dead than Red

It seems Malacanang has finally decided on a script, to explain the assassination of over a hundred left-wing leaders and members since 2001. The left is doing it; it is purging itself.

It cannot be a coincidence that the first high official to broach this idea is Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno (the same person under whose watch the Department of the Interior and Local Government suddenly found itself "supporting" a so-called people’s initiative). The refrain, of course, has since been taken up by other officials. The Philippine National Police has even conducted a study, or so it says, that raises that very possibility.

I find all this extremely disturbing.

In November and December 2003, when we were putting together the pilot episode for InqTV, we worked on a potential agenda-setting story which in my opinion had not yet been sufficiently reported. (A story with legs, in news-speak.) The legal left had shown itself adept in party-list politics; in particular, Bayan Muna was preparing to "diversify." Our story picked up leads that confirmed that the new strategy was aimed at gaining at least six, maybe nine, more party-list seats for the national-democratic left in the May 2004 elections. Satur Ocampo said as much. That was why, for instance, Liza Maza left Bayan Muna; she was preparing to run under Gabriela.

It seemed to me, a political junkie, that this was the perfect political strategy. If you only need, say, a million votes to win three seats under one party-list group, it seemed a shame to win two million votes at the polls. The second million would have only gone to waste.

Even more important, it seemed to me that greater engagement by leftist groups in the so-called parliamentary struggle was something devoutly to be wished for; an even more pluralistic politics could only be a boon. I thought, and I still think, that this is a development even those of us who do not share the national-democratic reading of the political situation should welcome.

But even back then, the legal left’s very success had already rankled many officers in the AFP. Lt. Colonel Dan Lucero was very diplomatic, both on- and off-camera, but, to give just one of several examples, an article in an Army publication pushed familiar buttons when it warned that leftist party-list representatives were using their pork barrel funds to help the insurgency.

(A note: We also got analysts like Benjie Tolosa, chairman of the political science department at the Ateneo de Manila, to read the tea leaves for us.)   

Thus, the story was about the national-democratic left’s political strategy for the 2004 elections, and the growing sense of unease among military men about the implications of that strategy.

In May 2004, of course, that strategy proved successful. From three Bayan Muna representatives in 2001, the national-democratic left now had six: three from Bayan Muna, two from Anakpawis, one from Gabriela. (The youth and Muslim affiliates did not do as well in the party-list polls.) 

It must be mentioned, however, that in the 2001 elections, the expert consensus was clear: Gloria Arroyo’s People Power Coalition had entered into an agreement with Bayan Muna. As one commentator explained, Bayan Muna was GMA’s party-list group of choice in May 2001.

There isn’t any similar consensus as far as the 2004 elections are concerned, but, as we had occasion to discover in our follow-up stories, resignations in national-democratic organizations greeted some of the electoral choices their leaders had taken.

Fast forward to May 2006. Malacanang now deems it necessary to float the purge theory — which, it must be said, still remains a theory. It’s possible, of course, that of the hundred-plus victims, some were killed by once-friendly fire. But the pattern of killings does not lend itself to that simple theory. The critics of Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, who say his deadly coattails end up sweeping dead leftist activists wherever he is assigned, would be the first to object.

Palparan’s latest suggestion, in fact, seems designed to create even more victims. The Army has infiltrated the New Peoples Army? That may be true, although I am one of many who have grave doubts. But of course truth is not the point of such an assertion; doubt is.

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Snarky, defined

Urban Dictionary has quite a few definitions, but I like best this one from Random House, for the paragraph that comes, unexpectedly, after the almost throw-away definition:

The poem has nothing to do with the word snarky, which means ‘sharply critical’. More precisely, snarky means critical in an annoying, sarcastic, grumpy, wisecracking, or cynical sort of way.

The following analysis of words beginning with "sn-" is from The Guardian (London): "And few groups of words are as useful for verbal snipers, those who sneer, snap and snarl, who resort to the snide, sniffy, snarky, snooty and snotty, as those which begin with an s and an n. That is not to say that all belong exclusively to the world of vituperation. Snug and snuggle are cosy agreeable concepts."

I think this list will come in snhandy one day.

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Language of snide

Or, Unlikely lessons from American Idol coverage about a particular kind of political commentary

I’ve been kicking the idea around for some time. If you read a lot of political blogs, as I do from time to time, you would (perhaps) reach the same conclusion I did: An inordinate number of such blogs use snide or snarky language. (Nota bene: In today’s context, snarky is often used as a compliment.)

I have wondered about what it all means. Some snidefests are the author’s work; others thrive in the comment threads, like a party in a house without the owner’s consent. Others have the owner’s full participation, or reflect the owner’s own party-animal sense of self.

A TV columnist’s take on, of all things, the last American Idol episode unexpectedly pushed my thinking in a new direction. (I suppose I must confess that, because in our part of the newsroom the TV is tuned to StarWorld when it’s airing American Idol, I have not missed any episode this season. I know, I know. It’s scary.)

Lisa de Moraes is a gifted writer, who writes the TV column for the Washington Post. She is also a past master in the art of snide.

Consider her column which chronicled the unexpected exit of Idol favorite Chris Daughtry.

Presumed "American Idol" winner Chris Daughtry went down last night.

No one seemed more surprised than Daughtry himself, who just 24 hours earlier, during Elvis night on the singing competition, had prattled on happily to show host Ryan Seacrest about his mess o’ fans, the Chris-aholics, and all the great stuff they’ve been showering on him, like belt buckles, cologne and junk food.

He wanted all the Chris-aholics watching at home to know he wears boxer briefs.

We think that’s what did him in.

Chris definitely should have taken a strong pro-boxer or pro-brief stand. It’s this shilly-shallying around with "hybrids," as Seacrest called them, that does so much to undermine the resolve of the "Idol" voter. That’s our story and we’re sticking with it.

It continues for five more well-turned, entertaining paragraphs, each an example of high snark.

The thing is, De Moraes writes this way, about Idol or other television topics, almost all the time. In fact, columns like the one above share the generic, giveaway title: "We watch so you don’t have to …"

For some reason, last week’s column set me thinking. De Moraes is not exactly a disenfranchised member of the powerful American press; she writes a well-known, well-read column for the Post. Three years ago, Jack Shaffer wrote a trenchant appreciation of De Moraes’ many gifts.

As a former Hollywood Reporter journalist, de Moraes has excellent sources and commands a nuanced understanding of television. But while great sources are necessary for the kind of journalism she produces, they aren’t sufficient. The irreplaceable thing about de Moraes is that she’s willing to write with caustic, honest wit about a corrupt and contemptible industry that likes to pretend it is advancing art and enlightenment. Rather than encrypt her sardonic message, as most daily journalists do, hoping their enterprising readers might somehow decode the embedded truths, de Moraes writes it straight from the spleen. The sort of spitballs she heaves at her subjects are allowed nowhere else in the Washington Post—not on the op-ed page, an alleged forum for opinions, nor in the playpen of "Sports," the least consequential but most popular section (only Post TV critic Tom Shales bleeds analogous vitriol for his subjects). You’d have to page through back issues of Spy magazine to find writing that is so consistently cruel, abrasive, and spot-on.

But in her Idol coverage, De Moraes sounded as though she were overwhelmed by the media juggernaut that is the Idol franchise. She wrote as a critic who had the duty to write about something she may consider not worth watching at all, but who felt powerless to stop the audience from watching.

That’s when it struck me: Perhaps snide is the language of the informed but powerless.

What can one do, after all, when faced every single day with American television culture in all its numbing, even tedious, massiveness?

I thought of another site I read regularly which can also be described as relentlessly snarky. Get Religion tries to set the world straight about the nuances of religion journalism; it’s an excellent read. But look at the following post, by Mollie Ziegler:

Like everyone else in the world, I bet I’m going to go see The Da Vinci Code. But not because I expect it to be great or even a fun, brainless action flick. It’s more that I’m in a perpetual state of trying to understand how a book as ridiculous as The Da Vinci Code could enable Dan Brown to sit comfortably on piles of cash for the rest of his life. I had a colleague in my newsroom a few years ago who pronounced it the best book she’d ever read. How sad is that? Do readers really want three-page chapters? And do they need their characters reintroduced on every page? Was the book written for people suffering from short-term memory loss? Why why why?

It’s funny, it’s to-the-point; it gets the reader hooked. But it could also be the language of a reporter who knows what an uphill climb the whole Get Religion enterprise is. There is a massive boulder that needs to be rolled uphill every single day; that would make snide a compensatory Sisyphean gesture.

Politics too can overwhelm us with its sheer massiveness. As Wonkette illustrates, sometimes the best way to approach politics in all its variety and absurdity is to speak of it ironically, as mere chatter for the cocktail circuit.

  • The week started off with a double shot of intelligence stories to get us all hot and bothered. Did we say hot? We meant super-hot.
  • Sometimes they pop and sometimes they sizzle.
  • When nothing’s really happening, it’s easy to get bored. Luckily, Katherine Harris makes such a lovely distraction.
  • If it gets really slow, then it’s time to make your own fun. First step: think long and hard about who would win a knock-down, drag-out scratch-battle between two crazy and energized congressional furies. It turns out, no one had to think that hard after all — it was a landslide.
  • Next in the ring, House firebrand and chatterbox Sheila Jackson-Lee squared off against “Sergeant Homemade Sweater” herself, Virginia Foxx. This one had a closer finish, but was still a straight beat down.
  • This is getting pretty exciting, and now it’s time for two of the pre-tournament ranking favorites: Cynthia “I Train In The Off-Season” McKinney and Nancy “Don’t Make Me Give You The Crazy-Eye” Pelosi. It was neck and neck for a while there, but Nancy reached back to her street roots, and clawed out a victory.

Again, this is the language of someone (actually, several persons, now that Ana Marie Cox has left the building) who knows an incredible amount but is essentially powerless to change the agenda.

So. Ridicule as the last refuge of the out-of-the-loop; I am not comfortable with this turn in the road I’ve been led to. But that’s where I am, for the moment.

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The Best American Novel in 25 years

If you love books and have a sense of humor, you may want to check this out: the New York Times Book Review got 125 leading writers, critics, and editors to "nominate the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years." The top vote-getters are not unexpected, but A. O. Scott’s explanatory essay first has to deal with the anticipated difficulties — indeed, the essential impossibility — of the thoroughly unscientific list-making project, before he can reach revealing conclusions about what we may well call the FDR generation of American fictionists.

The entire enterprise is iffy (even if the world’s best living critic, Frank Kermode, is one of the judges). The biggest if  is what turns out to be the main though probably largely unspoken criterion:

A big country demands big books. To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply – or not really – to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.

But, it’s a list, in an age of media-driven lists. More, it’s a list where the diversity of choices almost guarantees the result: the top pick will receive only a small percentage of the votes. I’d place more weight on a list compiled by Kermode, say, or the inimitable Clive James. One central, searching intelligence at work. But, despite its limitations, I must say the Times list and the Scott essay are an engaging read. It’s about books, after all.

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Bishops, builders

The Catholic bishops’ latest "pastoral exhortation" is worth a close read, if only to understand the context missed by the news stories that came in its wake. Yes, the bishops did call for "full disclosure" of the Mayuga report and the pursuit of the fertilizer fund investigation; yes, they did commend the Supreme Court for its rulings on EO 464 and PP107. But in fact they did much more, restating the Church’s "commitment" as a threefold "building" enterprise and (once again) calling on the people to take "decisive action."

We urge the faithful and all our institutions: first, to evaluate what they are presently doing to build character, capacity and community; and secondly, to pray and discern over what more we can do to promote a "civilization of love".

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The Dark Side of the Fork

With grateful acknowledgment of Dominique Cimafranca’s mordant wit

I wrote a longish comment in reply to some of Dean Bocobo’s concerns regarding the spoon-and-fork scandal in Montreal, Canada. Because I am such a pack rat when it comes to putting words together, I thought I’d post an alert (or a warning!) here. (I hate anything, even words, going to waste.)

PS as of Friday, May 12, 4pm: Here is a copy of the Canadian school board’s statement, which I think is dated May 10; I got a copy in the mail today, from my brother in Canada. Download csmb_memo.pdf

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Honest (about) Abe

Abe Rosenthal, the editor who did the most to make the modern New York Times what it is today, has died at the age of 84. The obituary in the Times is lengthy and remarkably candid — that is to say, it takes the measure of the man (who after all helped shape the newspaper doing the measuring) in full.

Consider the following two paragraphs:

Perhaps more than those of any editor in modern times, Mr. Rosenthal’s life and career were chronicled closely, and his personal traits and private and professional conduct were dissected and analyzed with fascination in gossip and press columns, in magazines and books, and in the newsrooms and bars where those who had worked for or against him told their tales of admiration and woe.

The extraordinary interest was rooted only partly in the methods, achievements and faults of a powerful figure in journalism; it came, too, from the man himself: a table-pounding, globe-trotting adventurer who shattered the stereotype of the genteel Times editor with his gut fighter’s instincts and his legendary bouts of anger.

Or consider the following summary of his sometimes dysfunctional approach to management:

Throughout Mr. Rosenthal’s years as editor, press critics chronicled his rising fortune and the growing success of The Times. But they also described Mr. Rosenthal personally and as an administrator in generally unflattering terms and characterized his staff as rife with grumbling and low morale.

Wielding enormous power to hire, reward and transfer subordinates, he personally approved all news staff promotions, raises and major assignments, shaping the pyramid of personnel under him and approving all major appointments to local news beats and to national and foreign bureaus. In the process, he made and broke the careers and dreams of scores of reporters and editors. Among those whose careers flourished under Mr. Rosenthal were two future executive editors of The Times, Joseph Lelyveld and Bill Keller, who now holds the title, and Anna Quindlen, the author and former Times columnist. In a newsroom atmosphere suffused with Mr. Rosenthal’s tempestuous personality, there were stormy outbursts in which subordinates were berated for errors, reassigned for failing to meet the editor’s expectations or sidetracked to lesser jobs for what he regarded as disloyalty to The Times. Others, meanwhile, won promotions, raises and access to his inner circle.

Say what we will about the Jayson Blair scandal and its effect on the newspaper, but in this story about Rosenthal’s legacy the Times does not only meet the reader’s expectations; it exceeds them.

PS. Check out this video too, from 1982.

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