Monthly Archives: July 2008

Dear Nick (and other unconscionably late replies)

Nick, I’m glad we share the same regard for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I wish I could remember who it was who led me to Plato’s new Academy. (I tried commenting on your blog, you know, a few times, but each time I get a funny message, telling me to quit fooling around and go on my merry way.)

Angela, many thanks for responding to the “Humanae Vitae” column. I tried to write it from the perspective of faithful disobedience. I got a ton of letters in the mailbox, most of them long, thoughtful responses. I was bowled over, in part because they (the letter writers) knew more than I did. Several wrote in the spirit, shall we say, of fraternal correction—-but except for one letter they (the letters) were all polite, patient, even-tempered. It was rather a different experience.

Mong, thank you for posting the link. Your insights on torture are a little hard on mass media, but I think I agree with many if not most of the points you raised. (Is that good or bad?)

And Hao-wei: Great question. I like Scott Fitzgerald’s one-line advice on writing because, at least in the eyes of a man privileged enough to write for a living, it rings true. “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” I’ve tried this exercise in workshops and classrooms. I ask the participants or the students to explain what the piece of advice means, and the answers they come up with—-writing is an immersion, writing has a beginning and an end, writing is about surviving, writing is a skill that can be learned, writing is entering another world, writing sharpens the senses, writing is a task, writing is a stunt, writing involves pleasure, writing requires discipline, and so on and so forth—-make the ringing last a whole lot longer.


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The Trojan horse

I’m not sure if I read my friend Manolo Quezon correctly. He seemed to be more categorical in his appearance Monday night on the Korina show; his thoughts as written up are expectedly more nuanced. But if my Inquirer colleague is saying that President Arroyo’s eighth State of the Nation Address sent a coded message to her congressional allies to smuggle the Trojan horse of Charter change in already, then I must confess that I don’t get it.

I saw the speech on TV live; I’ve read the speech online twice. But I cannot see the alleged marching orders at all, coded or not. This is not to say that, as Ricky Carandang earlier suggested, Palace operatives are not in fact working to get the Charter change express moving again. It’s just that I don’t see it in the Sona.

In other words, and as far as I can tell, the Sona did not send the word out to the President’s allies to begin working on the complicated logistics of Trojan-horse-smuggling. (Maybe she used other means.)

Three readings.

1. While Moro autonomy makes fullest sense in the context of a federal system (and hence requires constitutional change), the ARMM remains a creation of Congress, not a constitutional convention. Widening its scope, in the event that a plebiscite calls for it, needs only legislative action.

2. Malaysian pressure and economic considerations are driving the government’s peace initiative. It is actually in the government’s strategic interest to delay the peace process; every day of delay strengthens the hand of rebellious or disgruntled Moro Islamic Liberation Front factions, which weakens the hand of the MILF negotiating party.

3. Some of the President’s closest political allies—-local government officials like North Cotabato Gov. (and boxing impresario) Manny Pinol and Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat—-are vehemently opposed to the outline of the peace agreement as it is taking shape. They are the ones who do not want the August 11 ARMM elections to be postponed. The President’s decision to “certify as urgent” the bill seeking a postponement of the polls—-postponement keeps the possibility of an enlarged ARMM voting for new officials, MILF officers perhaps among them, tantalizingly open—-this decision the President’s allies see as approaching betrayal.

The key passage that Manolo quotes

The prime reason is the endless Mindanao conflict. A comprehensive peace
has eluded us for half a century. But last night, differences on the
tough issue of ancestral domain were resolved. Yes, there are political
dynamics among the people of Mindanao. Let us sort them out with the
utmost sobriety, patience and restraint. I ask Congress to act on the
legislative and political reforms that will lead to a just and lasting
peace during our term of office.

I read not as an order but as an appeal, even a passing of the buck, or at least an attempt to forcibly engage Congress in the on-again, off-again process of “sorting out” the “political dynamics among the people of Mindanao.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: Gloria’s dilemma.

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Column: Lords temporal

Published on July 29, 2008

I thought the President looked unusually haggard yesterday, at least at the start of her speech. It wasn’t until her mention of the jeepney driver whose daily income rose from P200 to P500 because of a crackdown on “kotong” (a protection money racket) that she started to beam.

It was a good choice, even an inspired one, from the perspective of the political arts, to present Federico Alvarez, the jeepney driver, as the first of her Reaganesque props. When he stood up, everything Malacanang officials said about a “no-frills” State of the Nation Address was proven a lie, but only those of us who were naïve enough to believe the obvious expectation-tempering statements emanating from the Palace would have been disappointed or outraged. But the [cultural] resonance of a jeepney driver, the calculated comprehensibility of money in hundreds of pesos (not in the billions)—I thought that this was politically artful. Devious, and manipulative, but effective.

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Qantas video

Picture 1
I can’t find it now, but I believe Tarra Quismundo’s story was the first to break the Qantas emergency landing, at least in the Philippines. (I think the Melbourne Herald Sun was the first to break it, worldwide. Take a look at this listing of stories, which indicate the time.) Tarra’s story has since been incorporated into this Agence France Presse report on

It was the video clip taken by a passenger inside the unlucky plane, however, that riveted me. I first saw it on the Guardian website, then on the Telegraph, then on the New York Times (although I stopped after the umpteenth interruption). The Guardian has most of the raw footage, while the Telegraph’s version has both a voice-over narration and interviews with passengers exiting Naia Terminal 1. The Times used Reuters, and only a link to the video on its front page; the two British papers (see image above, for example) had the video players right beside their banner stories.

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Column: Worrying “Humanae Vitae”

To be published July 22, 2008. Here’s hoping I won’t get hit by lightning, here in Zamboanga City!

The most vexing papal encyclical of modern times marks its 40th
anniversary on Friday. Recent events have certainly conspired to spirit
“Humanae Vitae” back into the news. Only the other week, Ozamiz Archbishop
Jesus Dosado issued a pastoral letter asking the priests in his
archdiocese to consider denying Holy Communion to anti-life politicians.
The virtual FATWA prompted me to reread Pope Paul VI’s ardent, anguished
love letter to an unchaste world.

Perhaps I am mistaken, or I am the one confused, but in reading the
encyclical again I thought I detected a mistake in its reasoning, or at
the least an unfortunate confusion.

* * *

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What was the country’s population at the time the Noli was published?

Just under 6 million, according to a census taken in 1887. (To be sure, the figure excluded non-Christians, an unfortunate head-counting practice that lasted until the end of the 19th century.)

The information comes from a charming table available on the eminently useful National Statistical Coordination Board website, which tracks the population of the Philippines from the “census years 1799 to 2007.”

How many Filipinos did Rizal die for, in 1896? At least 6.2 million. How many Filipinos lived in the country at the time the Japanese invaded in December 1941? The answer must be more than 16 million. And how many Filipinos suffered through the imposition of martial law? Perhaps just under 40 million. This allows us to cite US Sen. Mike Mansfield’s reported reaction to the declaration of martial law with greater precision. “The problem with the Philippines is that it has 40 million cowards and one SOB.”

The NSCB chart tells us that this site, and a commenter on this thread, and an Inquirer editorial too, got the population (and therefore in all likelihood the quote) wrong.

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Not a red Haring

Quite a number of readers have raised the question: Who is this “great theologian Bernard Haring” you mentioned in passing in last Tuesday’s column? One answer is in this tribute written by another theologian who got in trouble with the Vatican, Charles Curran. His remarks first came out in the National Catholic Reporter. Excerpts:

Haring’s moral theology was based on the covenant — the good news
of God’s loving gift for us and our grateful response. Christians are
called to growth and continual conversion in their moral life and in
their multiple relationships with God, neighbor, world and self. He
staunchly opposed any legalism that made God into a controller rather
than a gracious savior.

Two significant developments occurred in his moral theology. The
earlier Haring, as indicated by the title of The Law of Christ, still
saw law as the primary model of the Christian life. But in 1978 his new
three-volume moral theology, written this time in English, was titled
Free and Faithful in Christ, which indicates the move to a more
relational model for the moral life and the rejection of a legal model.

I think our understanding of sin today—-often summed up in the principle that one ought to be hard on the sin but compassionate on the sinner—-owes a lot to Haring’s work.

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Batman and the Joker

I saw the movie Monday night, at the biggest press screening I’ve ever been to.

Two-thirds of Batman: The Dark Knight make for a terrific movie. Then it repeats itself. The ending is unnecessarily didactic: too many speeches, in the age of Obama. The criminal genius of the Joker is unexplained, a given (except for his first heist), while Batman’s dark art is painstakingly demonstrated, granted plausibility every time. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is seriously miscast as the muse who inspires both the law enforcer and the outlaw. But despite all that, Dark Knight remains a must-see.

Like Batman Begins, the movie that re-animated the Batman movie franchise, Dark Knight is dark indeed, and brooding. The violence is amped, but the anticipation it builds before certain, almost ritual acts of violence (the Joker introducing himself to the mob, the Joker in the act of taking over one mob family) is pitched so high it is almost unbearable. You want to hide, but you can’t.

The hype, for once, is accurate: Heath Ledger turns in a chilling, mesmerizing performance as the Joker. It would have been career-defining, if Ledger had not died earlier this year, after completing the movie. Instead, because it can be viewed (at least eventually) as severed from Hollywood’s cult of personality, the acting is a classic, a performance that defines what it means to be evil.

That is saying something, because the movie faithfully reflects the shifting, ambiguous nature of good and evil, right and wrong. The brothers Nolan (Christopher directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan) must have known what St. Paul meant, when that firebrand drew the line separating good and bad, sin and grace, right across the human heart. That helps explain why the most riveting dust-up in this summer action blockbuster is the clash of ideas, the struggle with ideals.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney, fill the screen when they are in it, but Ledger’s Joker owns the picture. Of the many crimes he commits, the biggest, the most memorable, is film piracy. He runs away with the movie.

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Column: “Are you a Catholic writer?”

Published on July 15, 2008

Some readers had a ready question after they read last week’s criticism of the GMA network’s “proud to be Kapuso” tagline. What about “Team Kapamilya”?, they asked.

I haven’t seen many of ABS-CBN’s new in-house plugs, but I think I do get the drift. They illustrate the difference between identification and promotion. Journalists who identify themselves as “Kapamilya” or indeed as “Kapuso” are doing the necessary thing, claiming responsibility for their journalism. Those who identify themselves with every report or newscast as “proud to be Kapuso” or (if ABS-CBN falls down the same hole) as being “in the service of the Filipino” are doing promo work.

In most instances, every piece of journalism must be identified as the work of some one or some group. That is the news media’s minimum responsibility. (Of the many publications available in the country, it is only The Economist which eschews bylines or taglines—-although, to be sure, it has learned to give due recognition to the authors of its famous special reports, which this magazine which calls itself a newspaper calls “surveys”. Newspaper editorials, of course, are still unsigned, because they are meant to represent the view, not of one person, but of the institution.)

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More popular than Jesus?

He was, he said, misunderstood. A 39-year-old interview with John Lennon, broadcast for the first time ever only this weekend, on BBC Radio, tries to contextualize his infamous quip that the Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus.”

“It’s just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more
influence over youth than Christ,” he says. “Now I wasn’t saying
that was a good idea, ‘cos I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can
turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re
here to do.”

The story in the Telegraph sums up the issue by declaring, in both the headline and the photo caption, that the Beatles “were a Christian band.” Well, define Christian. I can’t quite wrap my head around the notion that my favorite band was actually a proto-U2 (coincidentally, my second favorite band). I haven’t heard the interview yet, but I get the sense that John was only in damage-control mode.

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Tasting freedom

I’ve been doing a lot of research on the use of audio slide shows, loitering in the digital corridors, so to speak, of the Guardian and the New York Times, among other multimedia laboratories. I like the new format’s many possibilities, but I do agree with conventional wisdom: Any show longer than two minutes becomes difficult to follow, falls down the slippery slope to boredom. (The incisive, indefatigable Mindy McAdams explains why.) But this slide show in the Times about a wrongfully convicted man’s first year out of prison, five and a half minutes long, is riveting. It’s the best of the many I’ve seen.

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The color of occupation

If you like the novels of Alan Furst, or just find the existential allure of Paris under the Occupation hard to resist, you may find yourself dawdling over Richard Brody’s latest blog post. He writes about a controversial exhibit featuring 270 color photographs of wartime Paris (by Andre Zucca), apparently the only color photographs from that time. I find the black-and-white images from that period deeply evocative, but the color photos (this site has four photos, one more than can be found in Brody’s New Yorker blog) are rich and affecting too. Brody writes, as an aside: “had French films at the time been made in color, there might have been no Resistance at all”.

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Notes on torture

Three weeks ago, I joined a panel discussion on torture, in a daylong forum organized by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. It was really an opportunity for me to listen and learn (my co-panelists, for example, were Carol Arguillas of Mindanews, Caloy Conde of the New York Times/International Herald Tribune, and Ed Lingao of ABC News).

My very limited perspective (as these aide-memoire notes show) was only that of an editor vetting stories and an opinion writer proposing policy.

I began with a reflection on two of the most discussed torture stories published in the Inquirer in the last few years (the special report on the Abadilla 5, mainly by Stella Gonzales and Juliet Javellana, and the series on Communist Party of the Philippines purges, written by Totoy Sarmiento).

“They show the following:
* Torture knows no ideology, except power.
* Torture is an expression of the paranoia of power, a paranoia that feeds on many sources.”

(At this point I also noted the responsibility of non-state actors.)

I then took a stab at the following question: What can we do to stop the use of torture as an instrument of official policy? Three suggestions:

* Stop the practice of presenting suspects.
* Minimize dependence of criminal justice system on witness testimony.
* Redefine meaning of case solution.

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“Does Iran’s state media use Photoshop?”

That is the question raised by The Lede, the New York Times media blog. Apparently, the photo which showed four Iranian missiles being launched the other day (a calculated counter-move to Israel’s war games last month) had been doctored.

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Column: Proud of GMA

Published on July 8, 2008

In making my case against the GMA network’s blurring of the line between journalism and marketing, I forgot to make one line of argument explicit: There is a difference between identification (“Ang inyong Kapuso”) and advertising (“Proud to be Kapuso”). The first is necessary, like a byline in a newspaper story; the second is an option best unchosen.

I wince whenever I hear the anchors and reporters of the GMA TV and radio network sign off each broadcast or report with the company’s new tagline, “Proud to be Kapuso.” I do not doubt their sincerity; indeed, given the high quality of the work they do, they have much to be proud of. I only question the decision of network management to use the journalists in their employ to blur the line between journalism and marketing.

Do not misunderstand me; I have nothing against newspersons helping out their news organizations in non-news functions. High-profile TV presenters do a lot of good when they engage in charity work, even if the charity happens to belong to their company. Of the many tasks that burden philanthropic organizations, two require the help of the well-known and the well-connected: raising awareness of the given issue, and raising funds for the advocacy. That’s where the Mel Tiangcos and Tina Monzon-Palmas come in. (To be sure, other humanitarian organizations, without similar access to celebrities, sometimes wilt under the pressure of competing for increasingly smaller slices of the charity pie with the likes of GMA’s Kapuso foundation and ABS-CBN’s Bantay Bata foundation.)

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That new GMA tagline

When it rains, it pours. Both the wifi (PLDT) and cable (Bayantel) are down, so I’m reduced to using my cellphone (Smart) to go online. I wanted to upload my column for tomorrow tonight, to allow me the chance ahead of time to explain why I decided to criticize the GMA network’s new sign-off signature–“Proud to be Kapuso”–but I can’t access my files. I guess I’ll have to wait till the connection’s back up.
But let me just say: I have many friends in GMA, but in writing the column I consulted none of them. My view, that the use of the tagline is unfortunate, because it blurs the line between journalism and marketing, is entirely my own.

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Guilty pleasures

Summer's books
Between the end of March and the first week of June, I bought 26 books, most of them second-hand, all of them at a discounted price. (It has been ages since I paid full price for a book.) One day I decided to stack them up, one  on top of another. How many have I read? I’ve finished reading three in full; four more books fall under the heading “largely read.” One book remains unopened. My good friend Vic was right, when he reproved me all those years ago: I bought books not only to read them, he said, but to possess them. Guilty as charged.

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Before “Frank,” and after

Dec 2007
June 2008
At the risk of sounding insensitive, to the plight of typhoon Frank’s many victims, allow me to note one effect that hit close to home. Our neighbor’s lush garden (more like a small forest, really) took a hit. The photo on the left was taken last December; the one on the right late in June. I don’t know if you can see the difference, but we can feel it. (A couple of trees fell during the storm, and a couple more, including a mango tree that gave shade to our kitchen, had to be cut down, after the rain.)

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Hanging out with Plato, that is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy must be one of the best-kept secrets on the Web, at least that part of the Web I frequent. I can’t recall any of the 70-odd blogs I regularly read making any reference to it. (And yet someone must have referenced it; I didn’t find the site on my own.) I have learned to make it a regular stop (it even has an RSS feed, an active one). It isn’t meant to be a one-stop shop for theory, but in its areas of expertise (philosophy, of course, but also disciplines that intersect with philosophy, such as law or political science) it is very good indeed. To use a current but startlingly violent metaphor: It blows Wikipedia out of the water.

It isn’t perfect (the entry on Karl Marx, for example, by Jonathan Wolff, I found to be most useful — for the most part. But when Wolff turned to discuss current scholarship, I thought he lost his sense of proportion.) When it comes to theory, it’s a great place to get started, or to review where one has been. 


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The last stage

Colombia’s defense ministry released a video (apparently already if lightly edited, altogether less than four minutes long) of the last stage of the daring rescue last week. The video is here; the NY Times article setting the context (including vigorous official denial that a $20 million ransom was paid) is here.

At one point, Ingrid Betancourt can be seen “staring despondently” at the ground, just before boarding the chopper. I note that she is wearing boots, and carrying a backpack (presumably containing her personal effects). These are courtesies we cannot even begin to expect from the Abu Sayyaf.  

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Five reasons

why the spectacularly successful Colombia rescue mission couldn’t have happened in the Philippines:

1. Did you say a yearlong operation?  

2. Two helicopters in use, with 39 helicopters waiting on standby? The Philippine Air Force doesn’t have even half that number.

3. The Abu Sayyaf doesn’t have a supreme commander, and thus a reason to bring; there is no “there” to justify bringing the different groups of hostages together.

4. Humanitarian mission or not, the Abu Sayyaf would have searched the helicopters. Not to look for arms but to “ask” for tokens: cellphones, wristwatches, flashlights, yes, even those Che Guevara shirts.

5. The secret mission would have been reported in the papers.  Secret? What secret?

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“Absolutely incredible”

The daring rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and other high-leverage hostages from the jungles of Colombia is straight out of the movies. The four newspapers I read most online all had original reporting (that, I suppose, helps explain why they are among the world’s best). The stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph are all a rattling good read.

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Column: Pacman’s English

Published July 1, 2008

Was I serious, some readers wanted to know, about last week’s suggestion to convert Ang Kapatiran into a “parish-based political party”?

Dead earnest, I always joke in reply. I happen to think such a vital political party would be a boon—on condition that the vitality is real.

By parish-based, of course, I do not mean Catholic Church-organized. I mean organized by Catholic laity at the parish level, exactly like Couples for Christ (either faction). If the parish priest will allow the party to host assemblies or even conduct a formation program in the convent, it would be a distinct logistical and psychological advantage for the party. (Its members, by the way, call it AngKap. Appropriate, isn’t it?) Allowing politically engaged parishioners to attend, say, a forum in the parish office on the political spectrum or a discussion featuring political analysts is another, less dramatic form of help the parish church can provide. But even without the active involvement of the clergy, nothing prevents parishioners from mobilizing politically, using the parish as the unit of organization. If massage parlors—excuse me, I mean “spas”—can deploy attendants outside churches to distribute promotional leaflets, I don’t see why the party can’t use Sunday Masses to recruit politically engaged parishioners.

I myself cannot join the party, in part because my obligations as a journalist prevent me from making partisan commitments, and in part because my own views on population will probably not match those of Ang Kapatiran. But I do realize that an opportunity is waiting to be seized. Political parties in the Philippines are essentially coalitions of convenience, bound less by principle or even agenda but by cash and patronage. (Even those who are out of power depend on the largesse of financiers with political interests.) The possibility that a party like AngKap can break the traditional mold, precisely through its parish base, is rousing.

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Best quote (ever) on writing

My money’s on this line from a letter Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter “Scottie”:

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

I don’t know why, but maybe because I am not a good swimmer, the image appeals deeply to me. It certainly has great explanatory power; I’ve used it many times, in classes and seminars, since at least the mid-1990s.

I found the line in a book of Fitzgerald’s letters, which I bought in 1988 or 1989, when good friend Gigi brought me to a wonderful second-hand bookstore somewhere in Greater L.A. Still have the book, although I found out today that the line is actually the first quotation listed in Fitzgerald’s Wikiquote page. Breathe deeply.

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Column: Multiply Kapatiran

Published on June 24, 2008

I attend business forums with the same readiness I answer invitations to political conferences; it is one way to keep up with trends in both market and state.

Last week’s World Marketing Conference (naturally enough, a pioneering initiative by the Philippines, which is really quite good at this sort of thing) will be remembered not only for being the first of its kind but also for hosting the founder of Multiply, the rapidly growing social networking site.

Peter Pezaris wowed the young crowd who showed up at the brand-new SMX convention hall, not least by avidly posing for pictures. He described Filipinos as “a very warm people,” and noted, not entirely out of topic: “Boy, do they like to take pictures!”

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