Monthly Archives: April 2006

And now, a word from the sponsor

I’ve a couple of posts left to write about the Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference in Makati City, plus a longish response to the comments about my concerns regarding the “postmodern pursuit of truth.” I also intend to write one or two posts on the Supreme Court decision invalidating the key provisions of EO 464, plus a word of explanation about new stuff (or old stuff newly laid out) in this blog. But weekends are the busiest days of the week for me; I am reduced, at this time, to releasing what amounts to a programming note. Quick, change the channel!


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Continuing the conversation

The last two posts point to sites we can use to catch up on the Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference, but one is particularly useful. Ethan Zuckerman does not only have a great view from his backyard, or accepts the blame for the existence of a particular kind of pop-up ad; he also writes a well-tempered "live blog." (I put that in quotes, because while efforts like these allow us almost real-time access into an ongoing event, they really aren’t live in the literal sense. But as a metaphor I think the phrase works well enough.)

I think Ethan’s documentation work (he does other stuff for the Berkman Center and Global Voices) presents us with a template for improved live-blogging. We need to build on the just-the-facts-ma’am reporting or the-facts-mixed-with-a-dash-of-attitude approach that mark many live-blogging attempts. We need to achieve reported documentation.

It helps if one has been keeping track of the topic over some time. Note Ethan’s take on Isaac Mao’s presentation on the great firewall of China.

In past talks on net filtering, I’ve heard Isaac refer to the idea that “freedom of thought” is a precursor to “freedom of speech” – he’s got a more developed version of this meme now, and refers to the firewall as the conjunction of three walls – barriers to free access, free speech and free thinking. Isaac notes that China has “brainwashed” its population through the educational system. He remembers, “in childhood, my parents would say, ‘Don’t say that, it’s dangerous.’ Later in University, people would say ‘Don’t say democracy in a public space, it’s dangerous.’”

Reporting and documentation.

Naturally, because much-traveled Ethan is a kind of parachute blogger, he can sometimes get the local nuance wrong. See, for instance, his first paragraph reporting on Manolo Quezon’s presentation. But read his six or so posts thus far from the Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference, and I hope you will agree with me that they are of a high quality indeed — both useful as news and instructive as example.

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Vietnam rose, up close

Those of us who (are wont to) take our freedoms for granted, consider the case of the Vietnamese delegates to the Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference ongoing in Makati City. Two of the seven delegates were arrested last Tuesday at the Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). One was a doctor, Chi Dang told me; the other was a practicing journalist. They have since been released, but there is no doubt that their saga, and that of their colleagues in the Free Journalists Association of Vietnam who actually made it to the conference (organized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and co-hosted by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism), continues.

Most of the seven delegates (some are from Hanoi, some from Ho Chi Minh, and one is from central Vietnam) were visited in their homes by the state police some time before leaving for Manila; they were asked questions like: Who is organizing the conference? Do you know what SEAPA does? We have freedom of expression here, why do you have to attend a conference on it? And so on.

They were each told to "report everything" to the authorities after the conference. And then they were advised, as Chi Dang, who presented a rather bleak but ultimately hopeful situationer on Vietnam yesterday, recalled, to watch their back. (Here’s a photo of her, courtesy of Rebecca Mackinnon.) "Our people will be watching," Chi said, in her charmingly lilted, fluent English. Wait, she said, as she looked at what I was writing in my notebook. "This is what they actually said: ‘We’ve got people to watch you in Manila.’"

PS. I also asked Chi, who did not want to name her colleagues who had been arrested: Aren’t you worried about using your real name in the conference? Word will get around, won’t it? She said it didn’t really matter. They "already knew last week."

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Vietnam rose

Here at the Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City, the talk of the town, at least over lunch, is Vietnam. Two of the delegates scheduled to attend the conference were arrested at the airport yesterday, before enplaning for Manila. Chi Dang, of the Free Journalists Association, did say she received word last night that her two colleagues were released eventually. But the fact that the arrests took place brought home to everyone in the conference the true stakes involved.

Erwin Oliva has a first report on the three-day conference out on And Von Totanes, aka Filipino Librarian, is blogging for PCIJ; he has two updates (here, which carries a copy of Sheila Coronel’s impressive overview of the Asian cyberspace scene, and here).

Postscript (April 20): Here are more details on the Vietnamese experience.


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In to pasture

Last Monday, I found out there was (finally) a USB cable I could use to upload the images in my two-year-old cellphone. I happen to be in the thick of thinking the whole notion of a public square through, and by coincidence (or providence) I rediscovered a short series of photos I took almost exactly a year ago that has a bearing on the idea.

When I first visited the Mall in Washington, DC, I was most struck by its rough-and-ready quality, by its lack of polish even. No cement, and certainly no marble floors. Just grass and soil. I was so intrigued I took the following photos (don’t expect much, it’s only a 0.3 megapixel camera phone). 

Mall_capitol_1 Mall_capitol_2 Mall_ground

That’s my shadow, by the way, in the first photo. (Click on the pix for a better look.) Note especially the third photograph. It’s just … ground.

I’m not sure what I did with these photos, or whether I started thinking of the Washington Mall in particular terms as a specific kind of public square. But a few days later, on May 17, I sat in at a briefing by Steve Berg, an editorial writer of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He gave an admittedly simplified but nevertheless absolutely instructive comparison between the two sets of principles that have shaped the American project: "cowboy values" and "dude values."

Quite a bit of it was of course traditional: "the open range" vs. "cities and culture," the need for "moral clarity" vs. the imperative for "analysis," that sort of thing. (He was frank about the limitations of his scheme, and adept at using it to talk about aspects of the American experience in greater depth.)

But what struck me most was the following statement, which he used to illustrate the dynamic between "freedom" and "planned order." [It appears in brackets in my notebook, exactly like this.] The "Wash. Mall is really like a kind of pasture." A kind of open range but within the context of a city? I knew, immediately, exactly what he meant.

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I was all set to go, but something came up. As a result, I missed iBlog2; in particular, the session on political blogging, which I was looking forward to attending. But I was able to read the "live-blogging" work of Von Totanes (see here, here, and here) and, later in the day, Jove Francisco (one, two, tie my shoe; three, four, shut the door). The summaries helped, but the pictures were, perhaps literally, really worth a thousand words (or some six thousand characters).


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The Katrina Pulitzers

The 2006 Pulitzers are out, and Katrina coverage is in. (Note how Public Service [always] leads the list of categories.) I see that the Dallas Morning News has added to its collection of photography Pulitzers (the last one, in 2004, was shared by Fil-Am Cheryl Diaz Meyer). And I’m happy to note that Nicholas Kristof’s "deeply reported" columns won for Commentary. The Washington Post (which received four in all, its biggest single "haul") and the New York Times (three) received prizes for agenda-setting reporting.

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Resurrection nonsense

Once more, with feeling. I thought the following (stylishly written, graciously empathetic) review in The Times (of London) made great sense.

Round and round we modern readers go, disputing the range of possible facts which could have given rise to the New Testament’s testimony to Easter and to the early churches. But perhaps we are not yet listening to the New Testament itself.

There are some assertions I would quibble with, but this much comes through loud and clear (and I hope you will agree with me): The writer worked hard to earn for these two sentences their place in the review’s concluding (conclusive?) last paragraph.

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The postmodern pursuit of the truth

It strikes me as curious when I hear the very same people who demand (as we all should) the strictest accounting of the truth in the Hello Garci wiretapping scandal or the May 2004 election fraud controversy require lesser standards when it comes to the truth of the so-called lost Gospel of Judas (or Dan Brown’s fiction-marketed-as-fact bestseller, The Da Vinci Code).

Shouldn’t we use the same standards in ascertaining the truth in these religious controversies? I’m afraid, though, that the very word "religious" is seen as license for muddling through. Either that, or our standards betray our priorities.

The notion the eminent Randy David entertains in his column today, that the Judas text makes Christianity more "interesting," seems to me to fall far short of truth’s highest standards.

Strictly from a sociological standpoint, I think the discovery of the Gospel of Judas makes Christianity a far more interesting religion than what centuries of metaphysical theology has made of it. It restores to it a powerful historicity. It makes it less dogmatic, and it creates room for more interpretative readings of the Scriptures.

I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that Christianity never lost its powerful, almost overwhelming sense of historicity; I think the prominent sociologist (and leading anti-Arroyo critic) misappreciates the "dogmatic" value of a third- or fourth-century Coptic copy of a second-century Greek original (compared with the first-century New Testament texts); I believe he waxes overly romantic about the possibilities of "more interpretative readings" of the Scriptures.

If we demand to know exactly what happened in the 2004 elections or how the Garci wiretaps came to be, we should also demand (or require) of our selves and the relevant institutions exactly how the Scriptures came to be. The rigor of knowledge is different from the cozy, please-feel-right-at-home expansiveness of "interpretation."

PS. Today’s Inquirer editorial reaches the conclusion that the gospel of Judas is not Scripture precisely because of what’s missing: the resurrection story.

In other words, if a gospel is correctly understood as a faith account, the Judas text accounts only for faith in Judas. The Jesus who appears in the gospel of Judas is a lesser figure — quick to laugh at his disciples’ ignorance, quicker to share supposed secrets with a favorite. (One of those secrets, not coincidentally, is that he is only an angel. No wonder the early Church fathers condemned the text.)

We are asked to believe in Judas, but at Jesus’ expense.


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A confession

By way of introducing the "Notebook" sideblog

I found myself upset by something innocuous said in a conversation with two good friends earlier this year. One of them, with his usual joshing good nature, greeted me with a compliment disguised as a mild taunt: "O, you haven’t been reading lately." I knew immediately he was talking about Reading Room, a sideblog feature where I write about books and authors who have influenced me. In particular, he meant I hadn’t updated the feature in a long time — and of course that he was reading me regularly enough to notice. (The last one was, and still is, about John Updike and his latest compendium, "More Matter.") I explained, with as much good cheer as I could muster, that Reading Room was designed to serve as a sort of bibliographical About link; it’s a small selection of books and authors that may say something about me. It was important, I thought then, when I started the blog, and I still think now, almost 10 months later, that readers can — and only if they wish to — take a relatively closer look at some of the blogger’s formative sources. Reading Room was not meant to be a record of my reading, or a snapshot of the books beside my bed. I thought I put on a pleasant face and kept a civil tone, during the explanation, but inside I was, what is the word, mortified.

Yes. I plead guilty to vanity. Pride goeth before a fall, and in my case that fall will be accompanied — no, helped — by a library of books crashing down on me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

The conversation helped me realize how vain I am about reading; it hurt me to the quick. I have always been a reader; reading is part of my earliest memories; there is a scar just above my right eye which I got when (I was perhaps four years old) I reached over for a Junior Collier’s Classic on the topmost shelf and fell (hitting the leg of a wrought-iron chair); I read the familiar back of the cereal box at breakfast when there is nothing else to read.

I did not fully realize, however, that vanity was part of the experience. (This is what good friend Fr. Vic Baltazar, SJ must have meant, when he chided me way back in college about the many books I bought but left unread; the drive to possess a book, its words, its ideas, often expressed itself in the lesser but equally powerful drive to own the book.)

I wanted to tell my friend, in that conversation: I can’t stop reading even if I wanted to. I read two or three books at the same time. When I was teaching some 20 years ago I decided to actually list down the books I was reading; I think I was inspired by Richard Wilbur’s words about the "cataloguing impulse." In 1987, I think it was, I read almost 50 books. (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) These days, with the press of work and writing, I am happy to finish two books a month. In fact, to create order out of this bibliographical chaos, that is what I aim for: Finish at least two books a month. I can, as I have all my life, start on as many books as I want; but now I must finish at least two of them.

Of course, I did not say any of that; I was not only horrified that someone, a very good friend at that, would think I was a slow reader, or only an occasional one. I was also deeply ashamed, about being so vain.

Well, fast-forward to today. There is no happy ending; no expiation after the sin. There is only … another instrument of vanity! I found out about the useful Sideblog from Bystander. When I saw it on his site, I thought, Hey, I want one of those. (It’s the proprietary instinct again.)

Thus: If you’re still around by this paragraph, you will notice the Notebook sideblog on the upper left. I will use it to write short notes about the books I’m reading; sometimes it will be a simple list, at other times maybe a short response to something I’ve read.

Pride, vanity, guilt: I know, I know. We are condemned by our individual patterns of sin.

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O death, where is thy sting?

The President has an eye-popping Easter message: She has commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment.

On the occasion of Easter, it is my honor to announce our policy to commute the death penalty to life imprisonment.

That’s it. One short paragraph, in a message of five short paragraphs. No explanation offered, none given. The Palace left it to the official press statement to tender a justification.

In her Easter Message, the President said anyone who falls and makes mistakes has a chance to stand up and correct the wrong he has committed.

"As we celebrate and rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection, I wish to announce that we are changing our policy on those who have been imposed the death penalty. We are reducing their penalty to life imprisonment," the President said.

The press statement must refer to another Easter message, because the one posted on the Palace website does not carry these explanatory sentences. posted the story first, at 5:51 pm, running an Agence France Presse bulletin with inputs from the Inquirer Malacanang reporter. This breaking-news story, however, was no longer on the Inq7 front page when I started to write this post. I had to fish it out of the archives net. Making up for lost time, ABS-CBN bannered the AFP-driven story, but with a more arresting (because more specific) head: "Terms of 1,000 death row convicts down to life"

The AFP story included a paragraph about the possible influence of the Catholic bishops.

The country’s influential Catholic bishops have long called for the abolition of the death penalty. In recent months, they helped Arroyo by refusing to join the opposition-led campaign to oust her from power over charges that she cheated in the May 2004 elections.

I think the wire agency was right to do so; despite the paucity of official explanation, the President’s Easter message did pay specific (if somewhat unrelated) tribute to the bishops.

Our beloved bishops spoke of the people’s fear of more chaotic politics even as they struggle to make a decent living. We seek above all the nation’s salvation from poverty and discord.

This paragraph comes immediately before the announcement of the commutation.

As a strategic move, the dramatic decision makes practical sense for the President. It allows her to continue her courtship of the bishops, with a precisely timed gift that the anti-death-penalty prelates will not be able to sweep under the crisis-of-legitimacy rug. It permits her to continue setting the agenda (and on an issue for which some of her staunchest critics are leading advocates).  It may rattle a few of her close supporters (not excluding publisher Max Soliven), but it gives her the satisfaction of actually (finally?) doing something she has long believed in.

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“Its strange sense of ineloquent desire”

The New York Times has a stirring editorial on People Power, but of the immigrant kind.

The marchers in white T-shirts poured out of the subway doors and merged into a stream, flowing like blood cells through the tubular innards of the Washington Metro, past turnstiles and up escalators and out into the delicate brilliance of a fine spring day. On the street, they met up with the others — young parents, old people, toddlers in strollers, teenagers in jeans and jewelry — and headed to the Mall, where they and their American flags dissolved into a shimmering sea of white, red and blue.

It ends with an astonishing burst of what looks like public-square doggerel, a scattering of graffiti, but on closer reading turns out to be an ode to democracy. If I may make a wager: This is one editorial they will be teaching in American civics classes in years to come. (Well, at least in schools where the New York Times is welcome.)


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More Judas

Adam Gopnik has a writer’s take on the Gospel of Judas story ("bad news Judas," in the words of the Inquirer). I especially like his title, "Laughing Jesus," which I would have wanted to use too, if I had worked up the gumption to write on the so-called lost gospel. I find Gopnik’s use of "canonic" to mean "canonical" odd, but otherwise his words have, at least for me, what Leonard Bernstein called the virtue of inevitability.

It certainly makes for odd bedside reading. “The Gospel of Judas” isn’t actually a gospel by Judas, or, really, a gospel at all in the sense that we might expect: an account of the life of Jesus, from birth to death and rebirth. It is, instead, a mystical riff on a life already assumed to be familiar. It begins just before Jesus’ last Passover in Jerusalem, as the disciples are offering a prayer to God over the dinner table. Watching them, Jesus laughs. “Why are you laughing at us?” the nettled disciples ask, and Jesus says that he is laughing not at them but at their strange idea of pleasing their God. (One of the unnerving things about the new Gospel is that Jesus, who never laughs in the canonic Gospels, is constantly laughing in this one, and it’s obviously one of those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know laughs, like the laugh of the ruler of a dubious planet on “Star Trek.”)

Christianity Today has an extensive roundup of Judas-related stories. Two, in particular, impressed me. The (Anglican) Bishop of Jarrow says simply the timing (carbon-dated and all) is all wrong.

This document is an interesting piece of evidence about how one part of the Early Church, in all its diversity, tried to understand Judas’s treachery, but it isn’t going to tell us anything more about either Judas or Jesus. It is 100 years too late for that.

And Biblical expert Bruce Chilton finds the hype beneath National Geographic’s dignity (and this from a member of the hype-savvy Jesus Seminar!)

In its release, National Geographic repeatedly states that it has "authenticated" the document. Several press outlets have simply repeated those claims. But "authentic" turns out to be a slippery term as used by the National Geographic Society. No scholar associated with the find argues this is a first century document, or that it derives from Judas. The release says the document was "copied down in Coptic probably around A.D. 300," although later that is changed to "let’s say around the year 400." This amounts to saying that "The Gospel of Judas" is an authentic fabrication produced by a group of Gnostics in Egypt. Gnostics believed that their direct knowledge of heaven permitted them to understand what no one else knew, or could know by historical knowledge. For ancient Gnostics to believe in their own powers of divination is charming; for their flights of imagination to be passed off as historical knowledge in our time is dishonest or self-deceived.

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Where does the center lie?

The other Friday, I wrote about Solita Monsod’s forthcoming column on the Charter change steamroller, and then concluded: "The center is where Winnie Monsod is."

A man whom I’ve never met but deeply respect, Edwin Lacierda, was the first of many to react to — and ultimately reject — that assertion. (He explained his thoughts at greater length in his own must-read blog.) But this was not the first time I wrote about Monsod in those terms. More than six months ago, I already had occasion — albeit through a reply in a comment thread — to suggest that the Inquirer columnist, GMA-7 host, and University of the Philippines economist helped define the political center for me.

But about the comment on Winnie Monsod I’ll make an exception. I think she is writing from the exact center of Philippine politics. I find her scrupulously fair; I think that is one reason why, at least for me, whose instinct is always to roll to the center, she makes eminent, almost perfect sense.

I still think she is scrupulously fair; I believe this quality is a function of her independent-mindedness. I cannot understand why anyone would suggest that, before she came out swinging against the so-called people’s initiative,  she was merely angling for a Cabinet post. (It’s possible I may have missed out on a nuance or two, but I don’t think so.) I completely disagree with Dean Bocobo’s opinion that Monsod (and, as he adds, the newspaper I work for) is being morally inconsistent, especially on the question of Edsa II. I wait for any offer of proof that Monsod’s straight-talking political analysis is anything but the product of her own set of high standards applied to practical realities.

Of course, she has made mistakes (and if I have more time I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with a handful). But who hasn’t? Being in the center certainly doesn’t mean infallibility in judgment. (The center is also a spacious realm; I believe another Inquirer columnist, Rina David, takes up residence there, although she is certainly more critical of recent Arroyo policies.)

When I posted a link to the New York Times editorial last week, I wrote by way of introduction:

Incidentally, the April 5 issue has an editorial on the Philippines. The following paragraph has a reading of the political situation (these "dark days") which I would classify as decidedly centrist: 

Mrs. Arroyo is no Ferdinand Marcos, at least not yet. But this onetime reformer is reviving bad memories of crony corruption, presidential vote-rigging and intimidation of critical journalists. Unless the Philippine Congress and courts find ways to rein in her increasingly authoritarian tendencies, democracy itself may be in danger.

Decidedly centrist? What did I mean by that? In that particular context I was referring to the Times’ successful attempt to analyze candidly, without crossing over into advocacy or adopting the bracing assessment of advocates. Another writer I look up to, Conrad de Quiros, illustrates what I mean between analysis and advocacy. In his column today, he writes about that same editorial, and then adds a quick critique:

Only three things are debatable in those contentions. One is that GMA was a "one-time reformer"-the only thing she reformed being her image from economist to the Nora Aunor of Philippine politics. Two is that she is not yet a Ferdinand Marcos. And three is the word "President" before her name.

De Quiros has taken a consistent stand against President Arroyo, and is certainly in the forefront of efforts to remove her from office (or at least to extend and defend the reasons for doing so, in the public square). This is valuable work, and since I think everyone has a role to play in the polity, should be welcomed and encouraged. But De Quiros is speaking as an advocate. The three "debatable" contentions are precisely among those aspects of the editorial that I found (or responded to) as centrist.

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April showers

Manolo Quezon has interesting readings on the fall of Bataan, the New York Times’ public editor explains his newspaper’s evolving policy on corporate blogs, and Mollie Ziegler of GetReligion surveys the Gospel of Judas scene and tries to stifle a yawn.

Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

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Solita, again

Some may have been taken by surprise, when Solita Monsod came out in absolute, unmistakable terms against the Charter change juggernaut last week. But as I hope I will have a chance to explain sometime soon, I did not find her position unexpected. Her column today offers another argument against what she calls "world-class perfidy."

IT’S no longer just the Charter change, or "Cha-cha," that the traditional politicians are using to get people to dance to their tune. They’ve introduced the "two-step" as well, in an attempt to get the public onto the dance floor, so to speak. The dance terminology makes it sound innocuous, but make no mistake: we are talking of world-class perfidy here, being perpetrated against the Filipino people.

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George W. Judas

What’s an intelligence leak or two, to slime a critic, if a war is at stake?

It turns out Scooter Libby got the green light from George W. Bush himself to attack ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, using sensitive intelligence about Wilson’s wife, a CIA operative.

The Washington Post has a lengthy treatment of the latest twist in this scandal:

President Bush authorized White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to disclose highly sensitive intelligence information to the news media in an attempt to discredit a CIA adviser whose views undermined the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, according to a federal prosecutor’s account of Libby’s testimony to a grand jury.

The story does not fail to include Bush’s now notorious quote:

Three months before Fitzgerald [the prosecutor] began his probe in December 2003, Bush said at a news conference that "I’ve constantly expressed my displeasure with leaks, particularly leaks of classified information. . . . If there’s a leak out of the administration, I want to know who it is. And if a person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."

Yeah. Because, you know, that would be me.

The New York Times story adds more context:

The disclosure occurred at a moment when the White House was trying to defend itself against accusations that it had inflated the case against Saddam Hussein.

The president has the authority to declassify information, and Mr. Libby indicated in his testimony that he believed Mr. Bush’s instructions — which prosecutors said Mr. Libby regarded as "unique in his recollection" — gave him legal cover to talk with a reporter about the intelligence.

Courtesy of Political Animal, I found Fitzgerald’s filing on (where else?) Smoking Gun. Maybe Jesus told Bush, Libby, and Dick Cheney to do it, in order to "exceed" his other disciples? "You will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them." Sounds about right.


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The (moral) empire strikes back

The President’s courtship of the country’s influential bishops is all for nought, if the polite but powerful pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, released today under the name of the conference president, is any gauge.

Despite the diplomatese (the use of questions instead of assertions, for example), Archbishop Angel Lagdameo’s letter on the signature campaign for Charter change packs a wallop. 

We view with alarm, however, the present signature campaign endorsed by the government. Signatures are apparently collected without adequate information, discussion and education. The manner in which these signatures are supposedly collected, including door to door campaigns, are not conducive to the kind of informed participation that such fundamental changes demand. The changes that are being proposed for signatures of citizens are dangerously unclear and open to manipulation by groups with self-serving interests. The complexities and variations of the parliamentary system are not adequately explained and have not been sufficiently discussed by our people.

And yet again:

This lack of clarity on how the changes will truly benefit our nation raises disturbing questions about who will truly benefit from these changes. It seems that the changes as they are being proposed now will benefit mainly those who already hold positions of power and privilege in the current political system. This raises questions as to the authenticity of this signature campaign and the motives of those who promote it. Is this truly a "people’s initiative" or the initiative of self-seeking political players wanting to entrench themselves in power? We might further ask the question of the source of funding for this entire operation.

The conclusion is a call to Christian arms:

We invite you then to reflect and pray over what we have presented in this statement. If, before God speaking in your conscience, you agree, we call upon you to discern the appropriate actions. As Christians, we cannot be complacent and inactive in the face of this present issue of charter change, which is so crucial to the future of our country and people. Vigilance, education, principled opposition may be necessary steps to take.


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Kissing Judas

"The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover."

Thus the gnostic Gospel of Judas begins, in a complete translation made public only several hours ago; it is the first complete new gospel "released" since the Gospel of Thomas in 1959. The National Geographic, which sponsored the translation, offers an interactive experience of the 1700-year-old manuscript.  (Here in the Philippines, National Geographic’s "Gospel of Judas" premieres on Palm Sunday, at 10 pm.)

The New York Times gives the lost gospel generous front-page treatment: two stories, plus excerpts in pdf format.

One story talks about the discovery and the translation.

An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years, and it portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple and willing collaborator.

In this text, scholars reported yesterday, the account of events leading to the Crucifixion differs sharply from the four gospels in the New Testament. Here Jesus is said to entrust Judas with special knowledge and ask him to betray him to the Roman authorities. By doing so, he tells Judas, "you will exceed" the other disciples.

"You will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them," Jesus confides to Judas in the document, which was made public at a news conference at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

Though some theologians have hypothesized the "good Judas" before, scholars who have translated and studied the text said this was the first time an ancient document lent specific support to a revised image of the man whose name in history has been synonymous with treachery.

Scholars say the release of the document will set off years of study and debate. The debate is not over whether the manuscript is genuine — on this the scholars agree. Instead, the controversy is over its relevance.

Another piece discusses the manuscript’s meaning.

"The manuscript tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas," said Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "It tells us a lot about a group that were labeled heretics in their own day."

Scholars on all sides agree that the text was probably produced by a scribe in a Gnostic community of Cainites — early Christians who regarded the traditional villains of the Bible, including Cain, Esau and Judas, as heroes.

"There is no evidence that any of these documents ever represented mainstream Christianity," Professor Witherington said. "The Cainites were always on the fringes of their own movement."

He said that unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which were written in Christianity’s first century, Gnostic works were produced in the second century and afterward. To say that the Gospel of Judas reveals anything factual about Judas, Dr. Witherington said, "is like saying a document written 150 years after George Washington died tells us the inside truth about George Washington."

Another member of the National Geographic panel of scholars, the Rev. Donald Senior, said the Gnostic gospels could undermine Christianity only if many Christians were to adopt the kind of conspiracy thinking that undergirds "The Da Vinci Code": that an "orthodox elite" of early church authorities suppressed the free-thinking, spiritual Gnostics "for the sake of uniformity and conformity."

Father Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which advises the pope, said that the Vatican is not likely to regard the Gospel of Judas as a threat. He said that the Roman Catholic Church’s likely response would be to "affirm the canonical texts" in the New Testament, rather than seeking to refute each new discovery.

"If the Gospel of Judas suddenly became something that hundreds of thousands of Christians were claiming as their revelation and scripture, perhaps the church would come out with some kind of statement," Father Senior said in an interview. "But mostly I think it’s just not even on the radar screen."

He added, "I’m just glad it wasn’t found in a bank vault in the Vatican."

You hear that sound? That’s the sound of collective teeth-gnashing by thousands of conspiracy theorists.

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A new fixation

And just like that, President Arroyo has found religion in the gospel of the fixed term. Not hers, of course, but that of the Armed Forces chief of staff.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said at a news briefing [on Monday] that the President supported proposals to give the Armed Forces chief of staff and the Philippine National Police chief fixed terms.

“We believe that a fixed term will serve the best interest of the organization and its mission,” said Bunye. “The overall objective of this is to have professionalism and redirect these two important agencies away from politics. It will not be beneficial if we have a new AFP chief of staff or PNP chief every so often.”

After appointing eight AFP chiefs in five years (and four Philippine National Police chiefs in the same time), the President seems to have no more use for the revolving door (which had caused many a political analyst or editorial writer to fulminate against the transparent politicization of the armed services, and forced the Senate, even while still under an administration-friendly Senate president, to pass a term-fixing bill over a year ago).

What could explain the President’s conversion? One guess: Hermogenes Esperon. The Army’s commanding general is often described these days as chief-of-staff-in-waiting. He may not have to wait long (I say "may," because it is still possible that the soon-to-retire Gen. Generoso Senga may find his term extended); but it seems to me more and more likely that a pliant House and an unwitting Senate may yet make the President’s favorite general and strongest military supporter the first beneficiary of a fixed-term law. Outgunned, and now outgamed!

PS. Another item in the Survivor’s manual. Defense Sec. Avelino Cruz is intent on reforming the military bureaucracy. I was one of the many who greeted his appointment to the Department of National Defense as a grievous mistake; but it does seem that the consummate lawyer has done his homework, and is in fact aggressively pushing both much-needed modernization and bureaucratic reform. His stock is certainly high with American generals, judging from a revealing lunch I attended in Pearl Harbor sometime last year. Now he wants to junk the seniority system, sort of. But he also wants to extend the terms of all generals. The price of reform? You tell me. 

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Keeping an Opinmind

It turns out I was one of the first Typepad users of Opinmind Quotables, a neat service that generates quotes from one’s own blog, at random. I tried it out starting last week, as an experiment. The results, thus far, have been decidedly mixed; they have also been inadvertently funny.

I like the idea itself, and the way the widget looks on the page. I also like the fact that it scours even the sideblogs for random quotes, which is I think the reason why quite a number of them are from the entries in my Reading Room, which I designed as a sort of bibliographical "About Me." Unfortunately, some of the lines generated from these reviews-on-the-run ("a great read," "beautiful prose") seem like blurbs about the blog. They most emphatically are not.

It gets worse: Even the comments are searched for quotes; this has resulted in the service choosing lines that may be misconstrued as deliberate come-ons, that is, as quotes I chose precisely to draw readers in. "Someone’s getting insecure…" That sort of thing.

But the unintentional comedy is sharpest in quotes like the following greeting, the last line of a letter from a great friend: "I miss you all!" So much for political analysis.

PS. Typepad features on its website some of the blogs that use its software. Turns out two of the gurus of counter-intuitive cultural thought use Typepad to blog: Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point fame, and Steven Johnson of Everything Bad is Good for You. I’ve read the first, but still have to get around to the second. I have read Johnson’s blog before, though (before I started blogging).

He made an intriguing point, then, about the difference or even the conflict between blogging and book-writing. Should bloggers take offense?

So for me at least, the trick of writing a book is somehow shedding all the layered, time-shifted contortions of writing, and somehow recreating what it would feel like to sit down as a newcomer to the book and start reading. Anyone who has ever written a book will probably recognize the challenge here: you write a new section at the end of a chapter, and as you’re writing it, it seems like you’re producing some great material. And then you sit down and read through the whole chapter a few weeks later, and the new section reads like it’s been pasted in from someone else’s book. Or you think you’ve constructed a perfect opening argument for the introduction, and then you sit down to read it and realize that you’ve neglected to mention the most important — though also, to you, the most obvious — point of all.

Most of the time, you can only catch these things if you’ve tricked your brain into approaching the book as though you yourself were a new reader, entering into that private, linear, slow exchange that is book reading. And private, linear, slow is exactly the opposite of the experience of blogging. What’s great here is the remixing, the group mind, the hypertextuality, the fact-checks, the trial balloons. It’s an amazing environment, but to me it’s directly antagonistic to the mental state you need to make a book work as a reading experience, and not just a collection of facts and ideas. It’s like trying to compose a new melody in your head while standing in the middle of a full-throated choral group. And so when I’m immersed in writing a book, I try to keep these worlds separate, even if it feels like I’m betraying the blog somewhat with my silence.


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Thaksin, The Times, and The Ca t

Was at the beach for a couple of days, and when I got back I found that the real world truly has a rhythm of its own: Thaksin Shinawatra had tendered his resignation, the New York Times had changed its online look, and the comment threads in our little corner of the blogging world had buzzed with life (here’s one of them). I hope I will be able to respond to most if not all of the comments —  if not soon, then at least in the fullness of time!

The Times’ new look is, in a word, amazing. I still look up to the newspaper as the gold standard in journalism, despite the scandals of the last few years. I think the Washington Post has a better understanding of the role bloggers play in journalism’s continuing evolution; for instance, it features its many bloggers right at the top of its site’s front page, on a rotating basis. But the Times is still the news leader; the new look (which took effect April 2) allows it to live up to that role. (It also uses a cool typeface even Issy of Barakocafe would approve of.) I still have deep reservations about the pay-per-view Times Select, which had the surely unintended effect of reducing the online readership of Times columnists; but the new look’s wide screen, its combination of old features and new, its wealth of multimedia options, its easy navigation (the books section, to give just one example, is still easy to find) — just wonderful.

Incidentally, the April 5 issue has an editorial on the Philippines. The following paragraph has a reading of the political situation (these "dark days") which I would classify as decidedly centrist: 

Mrs. Arroyo is no Ferdinand Marcos, at least not yet. But this onetime reformer is reviving bad memories of crony corruption, presidential vote-rigging and intimidation of critical journalists. Unless the Philippine Congress and courts find ways to rein in her increasingly authoritarian tendencies, democracy itself may be in danger.

Lastly, a quick reply to The Ca t, who took me to task for "allowing" Hermes’s plus-size dig at Sassy Lawyer: I do not moderate the comment threads; I only require an email address. I think this best approximates my own ideal of the public square, in the context of the blog. Of course, "best" is relative. Of the 677 comments this blog has received since it started, I’ve had to remove maybe six or seven, for using obscene, even scatological, language. (The first five or six, which I believe came from a poster in Baguio City, was a series of unbelievably vicious personal attacks on another blogger).

It is in this context then that, yes, I am responsible for "allowing" Hermes’s comment. Does that mean I agree with him? Only if one grants that, by "allowing" The Ca t’s comment, I also agree with her.

But the real world has a rhythm of its own; I am glad The Ca t was able to drop by.

Update as of April 6, 3:50 pm: Found out the International Herald Tribune, which is now owned 100-percent by the New York Times, also carries the "dark days" editorial — but as its lead piece, and with a different head. Read "The sad decline of Arroyo."


Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

True colors

Of course I love the stark white and deep blue of incomparable Boracay when the sun is high, but the colors at the end of the day — something like champagne mixed with sand — have their lasting attractions, too.

Bora_sunset Bora_low_tide

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Orwellian syllabus

This "featured article" by Amartya Sen in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion website argues that democracy isn’t a Western tradition and includes the following illustration:

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela describes how influenced he was, as a boy, by seeing the democratic nature of the proceedings of the meetings that were held in his home town: "Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer."

When I read the piece, I was reminded of (among other stray thoughts) something Resty Odon wrote about two weeks ago, when he argued about the need to equip our minds with the right tools to depoliticize language. Resty’s inventory included the following:

– advancing our arguments
– deciphering ‘spinned’ information
– discerning between primary resources data and secondhand lies
– second-guessing things left unmentioned or unsaid
– getting down to bare-bone facts
– sifting through propaganda materials
– identifying unimpeachable evidence
– winnowing the chaff from the essential

Ah, yes. The syllabus for a new Orwellian age.

PS. In two posts, Resty suggests a list of essential books. I would like to add: anything by Timothy Garton Ash, who may be George Orwell’s true heir in political reporting. I only have The Uses of Adversity at home, but somehow I think that’s more than enough.


Filed under Readings in Politics

Benedict’s wager

How has John Paul’s successor done since his election as Vicar of Christ, Servant of the Servants of God, Bishop of Rome? (Note that, since last month, the title of Patriarch of the West no longer applies to St. Peter’s heir.) The world’s best Vatican reporter, John Allen, has a robust, broad-shouldered take on Pope Benedict XVI’s first year. (Incidentally, Allen will recross the Atlantic after six years or so in Rome; he will still write his peerless roundup of Church news, an update of which is available every week, but this time also from the perspective of the Church outside the Eternal City. Hence, the change in title come July: from The Word from Rome to All Things Catholic.)

Allen writes:

Benedict is a supple thinker, and unpacking his approach on any given question requires nuance. Because his points of departure are the 2,000-year tradition of the church, coupled with his own judgments about the character of people under consideration, rather than the ideological categories of secular politics, his decisions will sometimes strike the outside world as surprising and out of character. Nor has his direction over the first year been entirely uniform, as if one can generalize from a single document or papal act to explain everything else.

All this, however, constitutes an "insider" perspective, crafted from the point of view of devotees of the papacy and of Vatican politics. Generally speaking, that’s not what secular media outlets are after. What they want to know is, in the "biggest picture" sense possible, what are the most striking or surprising aspects of Benedict XVI’s first year, and what do they teach us about where things are going?

That’s the question I’ll try to answer here. I’ll organize my reflections under five broad headings:

  • What Hasn’t Happened
  • Who’s Paying Attention?
  • The Dictatorship of Relativism
  • Tough Love
  • Benedict the Teacher

Insightful reading. One comes out of it (at least I did) feeling smarter than one really is. Under the third "broad heading" of relativism, for instance, Allen writes:

To put Benedict’s point in street language, it boils down to this: You may not like what we have to say, but at least give us credit for our motives. We’re not talking about truth because we want to chain you down, but because we want to set you free. It’s not a matter of love and joy versus a fussy, legalistic church. It’s a question of two different visions of what real love is all about — Baywatch, so to speak, versus the gospel. We too want happy, healthy, liberated people, we just have a different idea of how to get there.

"Benedict’s Wager" is that by reframing the debate in this way, the church can get a new hearing in a cultural milieu in which many people long ago made up their minds. Whether that’s the case remains to be seen, but judging from the reaction to Deus Caritas Est, he at least seems to have some people scratching their heads, reconsidering impressions of Catholic teaching they long regarded as settled.

As a footnote, for all the talk about Benedict as an Augustinian pessimist, he actually seems to believe there are still people out there who can be persuaded by unadorned argument — if you think about it, a rather optimistic stance.

Elsewhere in his lengthy post, Allen recalls a recent anecdote about Pope Benedict XVI, which illustrates the former university professor’s lucid teaching skills. (It’s really quite good.) But Baywatch versus the gospel? Allen is no slouch in the lucidity stakes.


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