Monthly Archives: August 2006

Escape artist

I was greatly saddened when I read the news in Manolo’s blog: Frank Ephraim, author of Escape to Manila, died last Sunday. He was laid to rest yesterday.

I had interviewed him by phone last year (or was it late in 2004?). When I found myself in Washington, DC, in May 2005, he was kind enough to agree to another interview, this time in his house in Maryland. He met me outside the Metro station, and drove me back after our talk, which lasted for more than an hour. He said he was looking forward to a Manila homecoming.

He was a gracious man, unfailingly polite. I could not begin to tell him his book, his experience, had transformed acquired memory (bits and pieces of World War II lore, movies about the Holocaust, black-and-white stills of  Manila at the tailend of that innocent era called "peacetime") into a potent kind of reality. I was hoping the story I wanted to write would tell him that, and more.  But it was not to be.

(Of Escape to Manila, he originally had much more modest aims. In his home, he had told me: "I first thought of, well, maybe, the best I can do is put together a small archive of heroes, stories, photos, artifacts …")

I took some photos.

Mind you, my borrowed digital camera had just about given up at around the time of the visit, so I was left with my trusty Nokia 6230, with its minuscule 0.3 megapixel camera. (I used the phone to record parts of our interview too; I just had to keep stopping before the three-minute window closed and start again.)

Frank, who survived both Nazi tyranny and Japanese terror, did not look it. He looked like — yes, that’s it — a writer, an everyday witness, in the rumpled-academic style of Teddy White.

Frank_house Frank_in_study Frank_mats


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Proof of life (in them thar ballot boxes)

The best sign yet that elections will go on as scheduled in May next year? Not this announcement, or this unveiled threat, or this counter-threat, although the first and the last look, ah, very promising indeed. But this policy change.

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May it please the court

Today’s Inquirer editorial suggests that the Arroyo administration has a game plan which plumbs the depths of cynicism; unfortunately for my own health, it is a reading of the political situation I share. Unfortunately for the peace of mind of many in the opposition, the success or failure of that game plan depends, in the next several weeks, on the essentially passive institution known as the Supreme Court.

The editorial’s last three paragraphs conclude:

But this turn of events does not come as a surprise, in part because political activists like Rene Azurin have already sounded the alarm. It is hard not to agree: If the Comelec, which is still controlled by Abalos, looks set to reject the Sigaw ng Bayan and Ulap petition, that must be because the administration strategy is to precisely speed up that rejection. The strategy must be to bring the matter as expeditiously as possible to the Supreme Court.

But surely a court that struck down key provisions of the CPR policy, EO 464 and PP 1017—and gave the Arroyo administration pointed reminders on democratic governance in the process—will also strike down the present “people’s initiative”? We have to admit that there still exists residual skepticism regarding this issue, but perhaps the administration strategy is not an outright win, but—and just like the first three landmark rulings—“only” a “win-win” decision.

That would allow the administration—fully aware of the Senate’s reluctance to go to war, totally cognizant of the Supreme Court’s slow, collegial decision-making—to proceed as planned.

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Shades of Hughes

It took me more time to put a handful of paragraphs together on favorite critic Robert Hughes and his unexpected revelation last Sunday than it usually takes me to write something for the newspaper. In part, this was because I had to run through his selection of essays again and then type up the passages I thought were on point; in part this was because I had to scour the Internet for images of the paintings discussed in the passages selected (I had to, I felt I had no choice); and in part this was because (and this was icewater-clear to me right from the beginning) my technical objective in writing "Out of the depths of free love and wild sex" was to imitate the conditions in which I had learned about his first wife’s spectacular indiscretions. In other words, I wanted to repeat what we can call (after Hughes himself, of course) the shock of the lewd. So much earnest erudition in his work, so much sweetness and light — and then this confession.

Oh. If you click on the images, you’ll get a bigger picture, literally.

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In praise of stickiness

If you have a spare second, please take part in the quasi-survey I’m running (it’s on the upper right corner). I’m trying out the new Vizu widget on Typepad; I realize the results would be skewed to the few who drop by this particular newsstand, but what the heck. Let’s live a little. I was curious to find out how many of you actually voted for GMA or FPJ.

All it takes is one click.

If this experiment works out, maybe we can run other statistically senseless surveys. You know, just to get the adrenalin going.

Typepad has a highly satisfied customer in me (even though, ahem, Newsstand has never been a featured blog, or even a link in the list of Recently Updated sites). Just this month, I forked over another annual payment to the accountants in Six Apart (the company that runs Typepad); I’m sure they were as happy to see the color of my money as I am to continue tending to this newsstand, at this particular busy intersection.

In the last few months, I’ve tried to make the site a little stickier. I’ve included a search-this-blog box (courtesy of Technorati) as well as a search-other-Philippine-political-blogs feature (courtesy of Rollyo). I am particularly happy with both the Newsvine ticker from the Associated Press (which is a real-time headline news service; if you click on the links, you are directed to the actual story, usually at least several paragraphs long, right on the AP Newsvine website) and the Technorati Favorites feature, which shows updates from 26 blogs I follow. Naturally, I also worked on what marketing guys would call a new and improved blogroll. The new and improved version still doesn’t match the 50 RSS feeds I’ve signed up for on Bloglines, that marvelous timesaver, but I’m working on it. Oh, I also finally decided on using categories, the easier to find which post is kept under which file.

But if all this is a little too sticky for you, maybe you can subscribe to the Newsstand RSS feed instead (there are three of them). Then you can do your reading (for a sample read, please click on the Subscribe to this site button at the bottom of the left sideblog) without even having to visit this particular intersection in busy Metro Manila. That, at least, will save you a trip.

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Out of the depths of free love and wild sex

It is not easy to love the prose of the eminent art critic Robert Hughes. The writing is elegant and immensely learned, yes, but it is also spiky at times, hard-edged or deliberately, provocatively erudite.

The face is a surface in change; it does not compose itself formally as an index of traits. It suggests that personality is labile, and this insight was part of Watteau’s appeal to modern artists.

This is not the sort of thing one curls up with in bed. In my case, reading Nothing If Not Critical, a selection of his essays, earlier this year, I found myself doing most of the reading sitting up.

On Goya’s famous Third of May:

Goya_may_3 Signs of past art are there: I suspect that the array of French barrels and bayonets carries a small, sharp echo of a more triumphal and chivalrous military piece, well known to Goya: the palisade of lances in Velazquez’s Surrender at Breda. Above all, there is the man about to be shot, whom we saw dragging the Mameluke backward off his horse on May 2. There he now stands, facing martyrdom in his clean, white shirt, throwing out his arms in a gesture that irresistibly recalls the Crucifixion. It is a gesture of indescribable power: it takes the spread arms of the passive crucified victim and makes them active, a flinging out of life in despair and defiance. Indeed, he has a face — coarse, swarthy, dilated in its last moment of vitality. All his fellow victims have faces too. By rendering them as notional portraits — the faces of the pueblo, the Spanish people — Goya grants the living their individuality right up to the edge of the mass grave. The landscape, however, is featureless: a bare hill and bare rocks. And so are the soldiers, whose row of backs still strikes you as the first truly modern image of war because it is the first to register the anonymity, the machinelike efficiency of oppression. Nothing personal.

If I had read this lying down, I’m certain I would have added more to the sum of things I missed.

It took me about a month to read the whole thing through (the book, which I bought from a wonderfully messy second-hand bookstore in Minneapolis, was a definitely harder read than Culture of Complaint, which was the very first book I bought through mail order ten years before). Today, Nothing is about a third thicker than when I bought it, because of all the earmarked pages I used to signpost my unsteady progress. The fat it gained is a reminder that this was the best book I’ve read all year.

Because criticism is also a slow self-revelation, Hughes could not help but write the best possible description of his style — albeit inadvertently.

Chardin_shuttlecock To see Chardin’s work en masse, in the midst of a period stuffed with every kind of jerky innovation, narcissistic blurting and trashy "relevance," is to be reminded that lucidity, deliberation, probity and calm are still the chief virtues of the art of painting.

These, too, are the virtues of his own criticism. The great Chardin, he writes, had the "ability to absorb himself in the visual to the point of self-effacement. Now and again, Chardin_strawberries_1 as in his Basket of Wild Strawberries — a glowing red cone, compressing the effulgence of a volcano onto the kitchen table, balanced by two white carnations and the cold, silvery transparencies of a water glass — the sense of rapture is delivered almost before the painting is grasped."

Hughes values the great paintings because they provide "such a lesson in seeing." This is the very thing we value in his work. He writes the way Giorgio Morandi paints:

Morandi_vase … Modestly, insistently, Morandi’s images try to slow the eye, asking it to give up its inattention, its restless scanning, and to give full weight to something small. When Japanese aesthetes spoke of the quality called wabi, they had in mind something like this: the clarity of ordinary substance seen for itself, in its true quality. Chardin had this most of the time, and Vermeer nearly all the time; Manet and Braque, in very different ways, understood it; and Morandi’s entire life was predicated on the prolonged search for it.

As it turns out, Hughes’s own pursuit of grace and light came out of a troubled personal history; his many odes to lucidity, deliberation, probity, and calm first emerged out of the personal hell called free love.

When I was 28, an Australian living in late Sixties London, I launched into a marriage that brought me, along with early episodes of great delight and even a small ration of enlightenment, the most extreme and durable misery I had ever felt.

Danne was his company in durable misery. The depths of her addiction to sex, with any willing man, and then with women, can only be guessed at, although the excerpt from his forthcoming memoirs that the Times of London ran the other week is graphic enough.

Diletta [the Italian nanny] bravely continued to tend little Danton [Danne’s son with Hughes], and I went into a moping spiral of helpless, unassuageable jealousy. I was a cuckold, going cuckoo. I was bewildered, shell-shocked and lacking the necessary defence of indifference.

Danne liked counterculture icons but generally tended to score mediocre ones. An exception was Jimi Hendrix. She did not tell me about this. Some girlfriend of hers did. I think it was Hendrix who gave her a sentimental souvenir of their encounter in the back of a limo: the clap.

She did not tell me about that, either, before passing it on to me. It was a nasty strain and it took months of antibiotics to shake it. Hendrix’s clap almost outlasted Hendrix himself, who died of an overdose in September 1970.

Hughes’ own oases of "infinite duration" turned out to have been wrested, tree by ordinary tree, from a desert of untold humiliation.

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Bishop takes pawn, or is it the other way around?

It pains me when I see some of our Catholic bishops acting as politicians — and as amateurish politicians at that. Instead of a prayerful or discerning response to questions about the next step after impeachment, the "activist" bishops who filed the impeachment complaints vowed, like defeated ward leaders, to take the battle to the ballot box. An Inquirer story on Page 1 starts off this way:

EXPECT Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez to again file an impeachment complaint against President Macapagal-Arroyo next year, and to campaign against the lawmakers who voted in her favor.

“If she’s still the President,” Iñiguez said yesterday when asked whether he would make another stab at impeaching Ms Arroyo when the one-year ban against such proceedings expires late in July 2007.

“Who knows, she might fall from power soon,” said the prelate who was among the private complainants in the citizen-backed impeachment complaint thrown out by a vote of 173-32.

Bishop Antonio Tobias struck an even harsher tone.

Asked whether he would campaign against the congressmen who had voted to kill the case, Tobias said: “Oh, yes. I will campaign against them.

“Here in Novaliches, I will definitely campaign. That Anna Rosa Susano I will make sure that she does not win again.”

Susano, representative of Quezon City’s second district and an administration ally, expectedly voted against the case.

To be sure, both bishops are perfectly within their rights, as citizens, to file another impeachment case and to campaign against certain candidates. But just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. Oh, of course they can go ahead and file another complaint — especially if the May elections turn into a virtual referendum on the President’s crisis of legitimacy. But their fellow bishops have always taken great pains not to be seen as campaigning, either for or against any candidate. Does Friday’s defeat at the House make that act of prudence obsolete?


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Fr. Blanco, RIP

It was a shock to read, in Ernie Ordonez’s always-cogent business commentary, that the ageless Fr. Jose Blanco had passed away. I am personally grateful to Dan Mariano, who runs the ABS-CBN online news website, for writing about the great man (Derps to two or three generations of students, disciples, and friends).

I was none of the above, and yet it is no exaggeration to say that Fr. Blanco left an indelible impression on me, and helped shape the values I hold dear (or, and I say this without any irony, that hold me). Non-violence as a way of proceeding; the political responsibility of the religiously committed; the "truth of the situation" — seeing him up close and at work taught many of us, even those who never studied under him or worked directly with him, a slew of lessons, both as ideals (which I always fell short of) and as methods.

I was greatly moved when Dan quoted him at some length, because the chosen words brought his lean, gaunt image back to mind. It was not only what was actually said, but how it was said — the choice of words, the cadence of the phrasing — that reminded me of the personal encounters (all too few) that I wrested, so to speak, from the turmoil of the 1980s.

Ever the priest, Derps wrote of the uprising that was initially given little chance of success: "People power is grounded and based on God’s saving activity within us as a people. In the dictum of Augustine: God created us without us, but God will not save us without us. Our political liberation has been our work and struggle and sacrifice, but equally and internally it has been the work of God."

I remember what a good friend, who is now (inevitably) a Jesuit priest, told me: Once, during a solo eight-day retreat under Fr. Blanco’s guidance, he had reached an impasse. He couldn’t concentrate on the points, he had a hard time praying. Fr. Blanco sensed this unease, and told my friend: Take a walk. My friend did, walking out of the Jesuit quarters in Sta. Ana in Manila and into the world. Immersion in street life proved immediately therapeutic. By the time my friend  got back, the impasse was breached.

PS (August 26, 9:28 am): I added a link (above and, well, here as well) to a six-month-old post, where I first mentioned Fr. Blanco’s lessons on "the truth of the situation."

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Wake up and smell the coffee

I just found out that an old favorite, Percolation, is back. Time to add to my Bloglines list.

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It’s showtime!

Mary Jordan has an interesting narrative in today’s Washington Post, illustrating the political uses of swarming. She writes about Mong Palatino, and his role in coordinating a lightning rally in the Malacanang area through a "text brigade."

Soon Palatino’s phone was alive with a flurry of texts from coordinators and marchers anxious to start.

One asked: "Are the media here?"

About a dozen TV cameramen and newspaper photographers gathered outside. They, too, had been summoned by text.

At 1:45, Palatino’s phone pinged again, this time with the message: "ASSEMBLE RIGHT NOW!"

A smile crossed his face. With a few more taps of his thumbs, he forwarded the command down the text brigade ranks. He sent it to those on his phone list, and each who received it did the same. In seconds, about 1,000 students were in the street, stopping traffic and sending cars and bicycle taxis scattering.

Two students quickly hooked up a public address system to the battery of a vehicle. One by one, leaders climbed on top of it to fire up the crowd. Palatino demanded that President Arroyo do more to end the killings and allocate more money for universities.

"Books, not bullets!" he shouted.

The all-at-once strategy worked: The police were caught off guard. Only a few officers were on the scene, and they quickly pulled out their own cellphones to make urgent voice calls. Within minutes, scores more officers arrived.

Two quick caveats. She does not mention that Mong also keeps a well-read blog, and she repeats the assertion that the Philippines remains the text-messaging capital of the world. (Through sheer volume, of course, China is the undisputed king. Here, for instance, is an 18-month-old stat.) Oh, a third concern: There’s very little actually said about politics, beyond the administration vs. opposition divide.

But all in all, a good read.

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A correction (and then some)

I misspoke earlier tonight, on Che-Che Lazaro’s show. While had some earlier problems with Google Adsense, I understand the matter has already been fixed; Adsense continues to run on (Thanks for the "fraternal correction," JV.)

Speaking of the show, I cannot help but be impressed by the way professional broadcast journalists like Che-Che (the anchor), or Twink Macaraig (the EP), or Ces Drilon ("the hardest working journalist in the country," I said, when I met her in the same studio, to which she gamely answered, "No, I’m just over-exposed") make it all look easy. Midway through the show I wanted to bolt the room (and probably looked it).

A few loose ends continue to nag at my shoes, threaten to trip me up; allow me to straighten them out.

1. While a mass audience for blogs would be to die for, today’s still-small audience of blog readers is not exactly a poor substitute. There are, as I started to say but was not able to explain, two kinds of audiences: the critical few and the critical many. TV and radio own the second kind of audience; if Dr. Ronald Meinardus’s crystal-ball gazing proves accurate, podcast-receptive cellphones may enjoy the same kind of reach. But newspapers and blogs (the conjunction looks funny, unintentionally ironic, somehow) have a different — and not necessarily inferior — kind of audience. We should not only accept the fact; we should embrace it. (Besides, a universe of 4.8 million to 8 million PC users — or newspaper readers — is nothing to sneeze at.)

2. So-called traditional media is not unresponsive; the response time may be glacial, compared to the gee-whizzery of new media, but the response cycle does exist. Letters to the editor get written and are published; special concerns are brought to the attention of editors and publishers; criticism of editorial direction is heard and considered. I remember Chuck Mangione had a famous theme called "Give it all you’ve got." He also had a slower version of the same theme, which he called, "Give it all you’ve got, but slowly." So-called traditional media, it sometimes seems to me, has the second theme playing in the background.

3. Everybody is an expert on one’s own life, yes, but I shouldn’t have been narrow-focused. Everybody is an expert on one’s own community too, and we have some good examples among our blogs. Of those I read regularly, I can immediately think of Dominique Cimafranca’s ode to Dumaguete, in Village Idiot Savant, and Juned Sonido’s paean-in-many-parts to Cubao, in When I spoke rather rashly of a "division of labor" between so-called traditional media and the blogs, this, in part, was what I meant.


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The original Laban

Anding Roces, one of the 21 Laban candidates who ran (the usual word that follows here is quixotically) in the 1978 Interim Batasan Pambansa elections, lists the others, beginning with Ninoy Aquino. The "noise barrage" that exploded the night before the elections was truly phenomenal; it was New Year’s Eve in April. Unfortunately, with Imelda Marcos’s slate winning 21-0 (Ninoy was an improbable 22nd), Christmas was postponed for several years.

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The press was never king, but today it has even less of that whole sovereignty thing

Some 18 months ago, Jay Rosen — famous, or notorious, for describing journalism as a religion, with its own rites and acts of faith — sought to end the are-bloggers-also-journalists debate. (Obviously, and as he has himself noted, without too much success.) He wrote then:

The question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers "are" journalists. They apparently are, sometimes. We have to ask different questions now because events have moved the story forward. By "events" I mean things on the surface we can see, like the tsunami story, and things underneath that we have yet to discern.

To be sure, his frame of mind, or his point of departure, is still journalism-oriented. (He is, after all, a journalism professor.) But in spite of the language he uses, there is no mistaking the seachange in the journalism profession that is there for anyone to see.

If my terms make sense, and professional journalism has entered a period of declining sovereignty in news, politics and the provision of facts to public debate, this does not have to mean declining influence or reputation. It does not mean that prospects for the public service press are suddenly dim. It does, however, mean that the old political contract between news providers and news consumers will give way to something different, founded on what Curley correctly called a new "balance of power."

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Oh, no! Not another blogging vs. journalism post

Che-Che Lazaro’s Media in Focus was kind enough to invite me to Thursday’s show, on new media. I understand Sassy Lawyer (that’s Atty. Connie Veneracion to the rest of us) and Ronald Meinardus of My Liberal Times will be there too; I trust they will pick up the slack on my end, which will inevitably wrap itself around my legs, like an indulgent snake.

In a sense, the fact that we are discussing the difference between traditional media and the new forms of media we use on the Internet this late in the day is already commentary enough. But Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, had the foresight to start a new debate on an old issue (old, that is, in Internet years). It’s possible we can use this debate to frame our terms.

Lemann’s piece in the August 7 & 14, 2006 issue of the New Yorker dwells on the still-unfulfilled promise of "journalism without journalists."

To live up to its billing, Internet journalism has to meet high standards both conceptually and practically: the medium has to be revolutionary, and the journalism has to be good. The quality of Internet journalism is bound to improve over time, especially if more of the virtues of traditional journalism migrate to the Internet. But, although the medium has great capabilities, especially the way it opens out and speeds up the discourse, it is not quite as different from what has gone before as its advocates are saying.

He ends his controversial story with a familiar appeal: more reporting, less opinion.

Reporting—meaning the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience—is a distinctive, fairly recent invention. It probably started in the United States, in the mid-nineteenth century, long after the Founders wrote the First Amendment. It has spread—and it continues to spread—around the world. It is a powerful social tool, because it provides citizens with an independent source of information about the state and other holders of power. It sounds obvious, but reporting requires reporters. They don’t have to be priests or gatekeepers or even paid professionals; they just have to go out and do the work.

The Internet is not unfriendly to reporting; potentially, it is the best reporting medium ever invented. A few places, like the site on Yahoo! operated by Kevin Sites, consistently offer good journalism that has a distinctly Internet, rather than repurposed, feeling. To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material—which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not “citizens” with day jobs.

Possibly the most anticipated response to Lemann’s piece was that of Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor who writes the popular (never-at-a-loss-for-words) PressThink blog. (Rosen was also quoted in the article, and one of his new-journalism initiatives written up.)

He said he agreed with much of what Lemann wrote; but he also sought to strike a balance.

But I don’t understand why we can’t have a picture with a lot of continuity in it and some genuine moments of rupture. How’s about one degree of complexity in this debate? Why does it have to be the newsroom reactionary’s “there nothing new under the sun…” or the Net revolutionary’s “…there’s never been anything like it?”

I try to stay away from these extremes but journalists don’t seem to want that. They prefer what Lemann terms “the most soaring rhetoric about supplanting traditional news organizations.” It’s the extreme claim that interests them. If they don’t have speakers to quote they just go without.

Look at how Lemann begins, “On the Internet, everyone is a millenarian.” Really? Here’s PressThink on it, October 17, 2003: “The weblog is continuous—not a revolutionary break—with five hundred years of print culture. It is the printed page, modernized, interconnected, made two-way, but still… ‘powered by movable type.’”

Rosen also quotes Steven Johnson, a celebrated Internet writer; Johnson had also been moved to respond to Lemann’s Wayward Press article, and posted five principles about Internet journalism that he says we can all, already, agree on.

1. Mainstream, top-down, professional journalism will continue to play a vital role in covering news events, and in shaping our interpretation of those events, as it should.

2. Bloggers will grow increasingly adept at covering certain kinds of news events, but not all. They will play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all kinds of news.

3. The majority of bloggers won’t be concerned with traditional news at all.

4. Professional, edited journalism will have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than blogging; examples of sloppy, offensive, factually incorrect, or tedious writing will be abundant in the blogosphere. But diamonds in that rough will be abundant as well.

5. Blogs — like all modes of contemporary media — are not historically unique; they draw upon and resemble a number of past traditions and forms, depending on their focus.

So here’s my proposal: if you’re writing an article or a blog post about this issue, and your argument revolves around one or more of these points — and doesn’t add anything else of substance — STOP WRITING. Pick a new topic. Move on. There’s nothing to see here.

I would like nothing better, in the next few months, than to pick a new topic and move on. But I’ve a nagging sense that agreement on all five of Johnson’s ideas will be a long time in coming.


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In praise of analogy

Or, Something to warm Resty Odon’s rhetorical (he)art

In Aristotle’s generous estimate, metaphorical thinking is the highest art. An article I’ve been meaning to link to since last month makes for essential reading (especially in light of what I rashly called, at almost midnight last night, the substitution or fill-in-the-blanks argument). Even scientists think analogically.

In the lexicon of cognitive science, this process of transferring knowledge from a known to unknown is called "mapping" from the "source" to the "target." Keith Holyoak, a professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, has dedicated much of his work to parsing this process. He discussed it in a recent essay, "Analogy," published last year in The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning.

"The source," Holyoak says, providing a synopsis, "is what you know already — familiar and well understood. The target is the new thing, the problem you’re working on or the new theory you are trying to develop. But the first big step in analogy is actually finding a source that is worth using at all. A lot of our research showed that that is the hard step. The big creative insight is figuring out what is it that’s analogous to this problem. Which of course depends on the person actually knowing such a thing, but also being able to find it in memory when it may not be that obviously related with any kind of superficial features."


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Firing (fill-in-the-) blanks

I have my reservations (as diplomats might say, or travel agents with a planeload of clients) about the shape the "gay apparel" controversy has taken; I certainly think Justice Cruz was in error, and his column a confession of (some) intolerance disguised as an essay in nostalgia. But I also believe that some of his fiercest critics, John Silva among them, have fallen afoul of the very same error they accuse him of.

A secondary error has also drawn my attention. I am referring to one type of argument used against Justice Cruz’s unfortunate opinion; I had seen it used before, at least once in Deannie Bocobo’s well-argued Philippine Commentary, but I had not given it much thought. It nagged at me then, but (like many other attacks of conscience) it passed quickly enough. I mean the substitution or fill-in-the-blanks argument.

Dean used it again recently to criticize Justice Cruz. A letter-writer sent off a short missive to the Inquirer employing the same argument. Even one of the most affable bloggers in the entire country, Nick Nichols in Davao City, hinted at it (although to be scrupulously fair he stopped short of actually using it; I can’t find the post, though — perhaps it was a comment in another blog).

Let me use Dean’s post, not only because it is ready to hand, but also because it stood out from his usual run of entries; usually, Dean argues from a much higher plane. (Goodness knows he is confident enough in his persuasive skills to never, ever, use snide.) He gets to the point in the following paragraph.

But if you were to substitute "NIGGER" wherever Isagani Cruz uses "HOMO" or "QUEER" you would get an embarrassingly racist screed worthy of the antebellum Old South in slave-era America, where quiet, submissive niggers were praised for knowing their place and abolitionists were niggah-lovahs. Instead of the purity of the races as racists then decried, Isagani Cruz worries over the loss of gender purity, or at least, the acceptable, social concept of it in his own formative years.

He then proceeds to quote Cruz’s concluding paragraph.

Is our population getting to be predominantly pansy? Must we allow homosexuality to march unobstructed until we are converted into a nation of sexless persons without the virility of males and the grace of females but only an insipid mix of these diluted virtues? Let us be warned against the gay population, which is per se a compromise between the strong and the weak and therefore only somewhat and not the absolute of either of the two qualities. Be alert lest the Philippine flag be made of delicate lace and adorned with embroidered frills.

After a completely apropos side-comment just this side of snarky,  Dean returns to the main theme, before offering a re-statement of Cruz’s last paragraph:

(Seems to me that the fanciest Philippine Flags I’ve seen do have beautifully embroidered frills and tassels along their borders. Hmm…) But the same statements could have been made about Negroes in the era of American slavery, or during the period of anti miscegination laws before World War II, when Filipinos were prohibited by law from marrying whites in California, (thus starting the first mad rush to Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada). A direct translation from skinheads might sound curiously similar to the above:

Is our population getting to be an abominable mixture of incompatible races? Must we allow racial integration to march unobstructed until we are converted into a nation of raceless mulattoes without the purity of the white race and the brute strength of the Negroes, but only an insipid mix of these diluted virtues.? Let us be warned against an impure population with inter-racial marriages compromising the strength of one with the weaknesses of the other. Be alert lest the emancipated Negroes demand to put the dirty color BLACK in Old Glory?

It all reads well, of course; Dean must be one of the best writers among the country’s active political bloggers. But let me concentrate on the method of argument. Is it logical to substitute one loaded word for another, to treat words as though they were merely numbers? 5 may be restated as 3+2; that is an example of an answer to what E. F. Schumacher, that infinitely wise man, once called a convergent question. But is "predominantly pansy" really substitutible with "an abominable mixture of incompatible races"?

A quick look at the re-stated paragraph tells us that what we might all call "direct translation" (I’m sure Dean is not alone in this) is no such thing; a whole lot of interpretation is needed, before the re-stated paragraph can make sense. That is because words are in fact not numbers; each one carries a world of meaning, and whole worlds can be lost (or added) in the substitution.

I can think of only one exception to this basic principle, and that is when a particular word needing substitution is in fact code. For "Great Satan," read "the United States." For "capitalist running dog," read … you know what I mean.  Is Justice Cruz’s use of the word "pansy," for example, code for something other than the lifestyle choice or human condition he disapproves of? Does he, in fact, and in his unfortunate column, call for inhumane treatment of black Americans? Or pine for Nazi rule? Or wax nostalgic for apartheid?

He doesn’t. What he actually suggests is bad enough, but the fill-in-the-blanks argument either (a) ignores his main points by arguing about something else together, preferably something dramatic and cut-and-dried; or (b) tries to obliterate his main points through guilt by association.

Analogy or metaphor is one thing; actual substitution, altogether, is another.

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More Ninoy

The woman everyone calls Tita Eggie also remembers the day Ninoy was shot.

But at around 1 p.m. I felt something in the air that made me call the Associated Press office at Roxas Boulevard. The excited voice of Norie Aureus, wife of David Briscoe, AP local chief, answered, saying there was trouble at the airport but they did not know exactly what and that they were short-handed at the AP office.

I quickly dressed up and, in less than five minutes, I was at the AP office, offering to help. The first thing Briscoe asked me to do was to call Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos’ defense secretary. Enrile answered the phone himself and quickly told me that he was not sure what had happened and that he knew nothing.

The Inquirer editorial, meanwhile, lists three of Ninoy’s legacies.

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The day they shot Ninoy

It was a Sunday. I did not go to the airport to join the welcoming crowd, because truth to tell I was a little skeptical about him. The controlled press (Bulletin Today, Daily Express, and Times Journal) was full of stories about Ninoy as a traditional politician: There were reprints of stories that had come out when he was town mayor or provincial governor or first-term senator, stories full of bodyguards, haciendas, and the tough talk of the politically entitled. Of course I knew his years in detention and then in exile had changed him; ever since Marcos had arrested Nene Pimentel, on yet another trumped-up charge, the year before, I had had my eyes opened to the true and sorry state of the nation. I looked up to the leaders of the opposition, listened to their arguments, even showed up at a couple of their events. But while I was ready to march behind Pepe Diokno or the old man Tanada, Ninoy left me unmoved. Intellectually, I think I understood him, but there was no emotional, no visceral, connection.

Until the Sunday he died. After a heavy lunch, I had dozed off on the sofa. Sometime in the afternoon, my sister woke me up. She said she had heard that Ninoy had been shot. It took me some time to understand what she was saying. When I finally turned on the TV set, the profusely perspiring face of police general Olivas filled the screen. I did not know much about politics then, but I remember thinking, when I saw him perspire and fidget and look utterly uncomposed, that something terribly important had just taken place, some nightmare had begun.

I saw my father taking the news in in complete silence. Years later it occurred to me that, as a businessman, a corporate manager, he must have immediately realized the assassination’s horrible consequences for business, for the economy. (Sure enough, 1983 and 1984 turned out to be the worst years for the Philippine economy since World War II.)

The rest of the day was a blank; I’m sure we must have spent many hours by the radio, hoping for more news, but all I can remember is the whirring of the hours, as we waited, mostly in vain. Oh, yes, I do remember forming the still-inchoate thought which later turned out to be shared by many other Filipinos who had heard the news: Surely, I thought, Marcos would come out on TV and, well, say something.

Malacanang stayed silent even on the next day, which I will always remember as Black Monday. Back in school, a sense of listlessness, of being out-of-sorts, seemed to affect everyone. A few were exhausted by the outrage that had consumed them since the day before. The impact on Erin Tanada (a grandson, of course, of the old man, and now a congressman from Quezon) was particularly telling. He was always one of the nice guys, one of those happy-go-lucky fellas who are easy to get along with, but that day he was a changed man. I remember him weeping, gesturing vigorously, by the door of the office of the student council; we have to draw a line, he said, again and again, always loudly, like a roar. We have to draw a line, he said, and once he steps across the line [he meant Marcos, of course], we have to fight back. We have to draw a line, he said again.

But Marcos was nowhere to be seen. The shadow of his ominous absence seemed to lengthen as the day wore on, and rumors of panic-buying in the groceries started to circulate. Rumors about Imelda or Ver or Enrile or Danding taking over from a dead or dying dictator also started being passed around.  The lack of information seemed especially dangerous. But it was the unusual lack of water in the school pipes that finally convinced Fr. Raul Bonoan, the dean of the college, to send the students home. It was around noon.

At around that time, I called my father in his office, asking him whether he should send someone to buy groceries — you know, just in case. He said not to worry.

Later in the afternoon, those of us in the student council who were still on campus started to plan our first visit to Ninoy’s wake. With the help of Jocelle Concio, who was a senior year rep (and a niece of Ninoy’s), we were able to enter the Aquino family residence on Times Street before nightfall. Even by that time, people from quite literally all walks of life were already forming queues outside the house. (I was able to say a prayer before Ninoy’s coffin thrice: twice in Times Street, and once in Sto. Domingo church. Each time I felt an unbearable heaviness of spirit.) 

In the days that followed, as the lines grew longer outside the Times Street house and then, after the transfer to Sto. Domingo, around the Dominican church itself, I must have listened to the bootleg cassette tapes of Ninoy’s rousing speeches in the US a dozen times. Despite the squeaky quality of the tapes, it was obvious that Ninoy must have been a spellbinding presence in those American forums; he spoke eloquently and fluently, in machine-gun fashion, and with great command of the facts. Listening to him on the sidewalk, huddled with all sorts of strangers around a tape player, I finally, belatedly, felt a connection. This hero, the thought recurred again and again, actually died for me.

PS. Dawin Lacierda was first to go down memory lane. And if I’m not mistaken, Resty Odon is the first ever to suggest canonization. Santo subito!

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Ninoy Aquino’s Arrival Statement

The most famous undelivered speech in Philippine history

PS August 24, 2009: Cory’s response at Ninoy’s funeral Mass (August 31, 1983)

I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through nonviolence.

I seek no confrontation. I only pray and will strive for a genuine national reconciliation founded on justice.

I am prepared for the worst, and have decided against the advice of my mother, my spiritual adviser, many of my tested friends and a few of my most valued political mentors.

A death sentence awaits me. Two more subversion charges, both calling for death penalties, have been filed since I left three years ago and are now pending with the courts.

I could have opted to seek political asylum in America, but I feel it is my duty, as it is the duty of every Filipino, to suffer with his people especially in time of crisis.

I never sought nor have I been given assurances or promise of leniency by the regime. I return voluntarily armed only with a clear conscience and fortified in the faith that in the end justice will emerge triumphant.

According to Gandhi, the WILLING sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man.

Three years ago when I left for an emergency heart bypass operation, I hoped and prayed that the rights and freedoms of our people would soon be restored, that living conditions would improve and that blood-letting would stop.

Rather than move forward, we have moved backward. The killings have increased, the economy has taken a turn for the worse and the human rights situation has deteriorated.

During the martial law period, the Supreme Court heard petitions for Habeas Corpus. It is most ironic, after martial law has allegedly been lifted, that the Supreme Court last April ruled it can no longer entertain petitions for Habeas Corpus for persons detained under a Presidential Commitment Order, which covers all so-called national security cases and which under present circumstances can cover almost anything.

The country is far advanced in her times of trouble. Economic, social and political problems bedevil the Filipino. These problems may be surmounted if we are united. But we can be united only if all the rights and freedoms enjoyed before September 21, 1972 are fully restored.

The Filipino asks for nothing more, but will surely accept nothing less, than all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the 1935 Constitution — the most sacred legacies from the Founding Fathers.

Yes, the Filipino is patient, but there is a limit to his patience. Must we wait until that patience snaps?

The nation-wide rebellion is escalating and threatens to explode into a bloody revolution. There is a growing cadre of young Filipinos who have finally come to realize that freedom is never granted, it is taken. Must we relive the agonies and the blood-letting of the past that brought forth our Republic or can we sit down as brothers and sisters and discuss our differences with reason and goodwill?

I have often wondered how many disputes could have been settled easily had the disputants only dared to define their terms.

So as to leave no room for misunderstanding, I shall define my terms:

1. Six years ago, I was sentenced to die before a firing squad by a Military Tribunal whose jurisdiction I steadfastly refused to recognize. It is now time for the regime to decide. Order my IMMEDIATE EXECUTION OR SET ME FREE.

I was sentenced to die for allegedly being the leading communist leader. I am not a communist, never was and never will be.

2. National reconciliation and unity can be achieved but only with justice, including justice for our Muslim and Ifugao brothers. There can be no deal with a Dictator. No compromise with Dictatorship.

3. In a revolution there can really be no victors, only victims. We do not have to destroy in order to build.

4. Subversion stems from economic, social and political causes and will not be solved by purely military solutions; it can be curbed not with ever increasing repression but with a more equitable distribution of wealth, more democracy and more freedom, and

5. For the economy to get going once again, the workingman must be given his just and rightful share of his labor, and to the owners and managers must be restored the hope where there is so much uncertainty if not despair.

On one of the long corridors of Harvard University are carved in granite the words of Archibald Macleish:

“How shall freedom be defended? By arms when it is attacked by arms; by truth when it is attacked by lies; by democratic faith when it is attacked by authoritarian dogma. Always, and in the final act, by determination and faith.”

I return from exile and to an uncertain future with only determination and faith to offer — faith in our people and faith in God.

This is the entire statement as it appears (all-caps, italicized quote, and all) in “A Testimony by Ninoy,” a pamphlet published on September 1, 1983 by the Human Development Research and Documentation office of the La Ignaciana Apostolic Center as Human Society No. 21


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Nasrallah’s war

While many others continue to tally the gains and losses in the month-long conflict in Lebanon, the editors of The Economist have already done their sums. The bottom line is summarized on the cover of their latest issue. 081906_economist

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Apparel universe

The dust stirred up when ex-Justice Isagani Cruz wrote his "gay apparel" column shows no signs of settling down, in part because he has a rejoinder to Manolo Quezon’s eloquent defense coming out tomorrow. (His column today could be understood as a strategic diversion, a reminder of the pro-civil liberties position he has taken all his working life.) I could link to his Sunday piece already — entitled, interestingly enough, "Neither here nor there" — but I shouldn’t, given the self-chosen limits of my own, recently sporadic, blogging. I can only say that the most controversial bit, yet again, can be found in the last paragraphs.

Not unexpectedly, he quotes both Holmes and Voltaire.

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With apologies to Agence France Presse

This photo, taken yesterday by the peerless Romy Gacad of AFP in the vicinity of Mayon volcano, spoke to me on so many levels I knew I just had to use it in a page I was closing in Compact. (I hope AFP doesn’t mind if I reproduce it here.) I looked at a couple of other newspapers today, but I haven’t seen anyone else use this. A pity. C0813gloria The composition is so exact it seems almost posed, until you consider the subjects involved: President Arroyo, of course, under the umbrella, facing (or receiving tribute from) Albay Gov. Gonzalez, Reps. Salceda and Lagman, and volcanology institute chief Solidum. (Note the triangle that the officials form.) Other photos, taken by Gacad and by other photographers too, remind us that this particular tableau was very much a product of the moment; in fact, most of the pictures taken at this volcano-gazing event yesterday show either the President by herself or in a huddle with officials. But the veteran lensman saw something different, perhaps a shift in movement, perhaps a blurring and then a coming-into-focus of color. Was it perhaps the presidential umbrella that drew his attention? The result is certainly one worth saving for that proverbial rainy day.

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