Monthly Archives: January 2009

Updike at Rest

A favorite author passed away yesterday, in Massachusetts.

At 4:57 am, I received the following message from good friend Gibbs Cadiz: “Just in: John Updike dead at 76.” He knew I admired the man and master.

When I started this blog, I did capsule reviews of some books I thought said something about me: It was, so to speak, an About Me in books. Of the many Updike books I could have reviewed, I chose More Matter:

John Updike: More Matter: Essays and Criticism
Perhaps John Updike’s best stuff is in some of his short stories, his poignant, precise miniatures of American suburbia, but boy can the man write sweepingly, paint the broadest canvas. In his criticism, he displays a generosity of vision that matches his panoramic gifts, his Nabokovian ease in writing exactly and yet ecstatically. More Matter is the fifth collection of his essays and criticism, after Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, and Odd Jobs. (The first volume is the only one I haven’t read yet.) He pokes fun at his own prodigious productivity (“more matter,” he quotes Queen Gertrude telling Polonius, “with less art”); even he knows the sheer volume of his output diminishes scholarly and critical interest in him. But I suppose he can’t help himself from writing (and publishing). More Matter includes learned, writerly disquisitions on freedom and equality, religion and literature, and reconsiderations of American past masters. But inside every syntopical impulse, I guess, beats the pulse of the miniaturist. Updike’s short essays on iconic photographs, for example, shine brilliantly, like unfading colors in a book of hours. A powerful anthology, searchingly intelligent.

The New Yorker’s open line for tributes: Remembering Updike

Jay Parini’s take, in the Guardian (there are others): American Splendor

Michiko Kakutani’s appreciation: Updike Made the Mundane into a Saga

Salon’s appraisal: John Updike’s Life and Work (from 2000)

Not least, James Fallows’ blog post: “When a figure of this stature passes…”



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Column: Drugged (or, PDA for PDEA)

Some thoughts about knights in dull, dented armor, with some interesting links; published on January 27, 2009

Who needs martial law, when you have the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002—and Jovito Palparan in the Dangerous Drugs Board?

As any private lawyer worth his salt will tell you, the circumstances behind the dismissal by the Department of Justice of the case against the so-called Alabang Boys are most curious. There may really be something to the allegations, aired by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in both congressional hearings and news conferences, that state prosecutors dismissed the case for several million reasons (only a fig-leafy few of them legal).

But what has happened since the news first broke, last month, is that the sordid story became a morality tale. The opposition’s often hostile treatment of witnesses from the DOJ is easy to understand; they are stand-ins for, effigies of, the controversial justice secretary. But even administration congressmen on the House committee on dangerous drugs have self-evidently chosen to side with the PDEA—reducing the state prosecutors to splutter in defense of their strained English grammar, their selective legal reasoning, even (in the case of state prosecutor John Resado) their unusual personal circumstances. Continue reading

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Columnists’ secrets

poster-columnistv3From the invitation:

In his dissenting opinion on the landmark press freedom case In re Jurado, Chief Justice Reynato Puno (then an Associate Justice) wrote: “As agent of the people, the most important function of the press in a free society is to inform and it cannot inform if it is uninformed.”

A free press does not only inform; it also forms—public attitudes, the public’s appreciation of important issues, public resolve. In short, public opinion.

Opinion columnists bear a great responsibility for that crucial task of formation; the most influential columnists not only provide incisive analysis, they also on occasion do original reporting. In this way, they help shape the climate of opinion, the public discourse that sustains the democratic experiment.

How do they go about their work? What have they learned over the years about the handling of sources? Who do they trust? When they come under severe pressure, how do they cope? And why do they write what they choose to write? Two of the country’s most influential columnists, Jarius Bondoc and RIna Jimenez David, answer these and other questions.

In discussing and documenting their answers, “The Shaping of Opinion” seeks to deepen our understanding of the nature, and the possibilities, of public discourse.

Should be fun!

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Obama to Gloria

The following passage from Barack Obama’s inaugural address (solid, but without Lincolnesque lift, as I hope to discuss one of these days) must have been aimed at the Putins and Mugabes, but I won’t be surprised if Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will find herself perceived (by her critics and perhaps by others too) as being in the subset of the admonished.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

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“The Washington Mall is really like a kind of pasture”

I thought this post I wrote in 2006, about a visit to the Mall in 2005, can stand a re-posting, as millions crowd into Washington for Barack Obama’s inauguration.

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.

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Column: An early death

Published on January 20, 200

A good friend died the other week; Joey Fermin, SJ was 46.

He had been ill the last year and a half of his life, but when the end came, it still came suddenly. A mere eight hours after being brought home, to the Jesuit Residence inside the Ateneo de Manila campus in Quezon City, he succumbed to a familiar disease of unknown origin.

Too young, much too young, many mourners at the wake murmured.  Maybe. Being in the same age group, I would certainly like to think so. But I doubt if “F,” as we called our classmate since high school, would have agreed; a priest for only 10 short years, he knew death’s dearest demographic. Every day is a slaughter of the innocents; to these victims, 46 would have seemed a ripe old age. Continue reading

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Column: Korina’s wedding and other ploys

Published on January 6, 2009

The phrase I’m looking for, but won’t fit into the title space, is “anti-Charter change initiatives” — events and measures that will help create an unstoppable momentum for the 2010 elections. “Ploys” will have to do.

Other analysts, notably retired Chief Justice Art Panganiban and resident constitutionalist Joaquin Bernas, have already mapped the forbidding legal landscape for those who seek to change the Constitution within 2009. Some of the landmarks they have drawn look suspiciously like political formations.

But let us consider the specifically political route to the May 10, 2010 elections. Which political events will help bring that date closer, make the crucial election a reality? I list seven.

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Most-read online

The year ended with some good news for this particular “hack-in-law.”’s compilation of the most-read op-ed pieces of 2008 online placed four of my columns in the Top 15: a complete surprise to me, and of course an absolute encouragement.

The four, as it happens, dealt with two of the biggest stories of the year: the NBN-ZTE scandal, and the triumphs of the best boxer in the world:

3. “Pacman’s English” (July 1, 2008 )
8. “How NOT to read Lozada’s testimony” (February 12, 2008 )
9. “Manny Pacquiao’s lesson in legitimacy” (March 18, 2008 )
14. “Why Neri refuses to talk” (February 19, 2008 )

Tracing the links just now, I realized one more thing these four columns have in common: They were all uploaded to this blog posthaste, within a day or two of publication. (Yes, I can take a hint.)

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Column: A mistake in Rizal’s letters

Published on December 30, 2008

The letter is the 12th printed in chronological order, out of the 226 included in “Letters Between Rizal and Family Members 1876-1896.” It is dated Jan. 17, 1882, written in Madrid and addressed to Jose Rizal’s brother-in-law Silvestre Ubaldo.

Ubaldo had repeatedly asked Rizal to work for his transfer to the government telegraph station in Calamba. Rizal’s reply was practical to a fault: “I’ll see if I can do something for you at the ministry, but my acquaintances are still few. If you didn’t expect much from the post you hold, I believe it would be much better if you would devote yourself to farming.”

He does not fail to end on a light note, asking Ubaldo to give his regards to his wife Señora Ipia (Rizal’s sister Olimpia), “who turned out to be stout as I believed. Tell her to stop wriggling.”

The letter, however, is erroneously placed in the chronology. Rizal did not leave for Europe until May 3, 1882. He did not arrive in Barcelona until June 15, and did not begin his studies in Madrid until Oct. 3. How could he have written a letter from Madrid before he even left Manila?

I have not seen the original letter, but I can make an educated guess about the mistake. It was the turn of the year, and 1883 was not even three weeks old; Rizal wrote down the wrong year.

It happens. It happens even to the best of us; and it happened to Rizal.

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(Formerly) No. 12

On the most helpful site (The Life and Writings of Dr. Jose Rizal), the letter marked as No. 12 in the anthology “Letters between Rizal and Family Members 1876-1896” is filed under the year 1882. This perpetuates the mistake in dating which–in all likelihood–Rizal himself made. As I sought to point out in this column, it should have been dated 1883.

It begins:

I received your letter of 23 December and I’m informed of its content. I thank you for your perseverance in writing me, but I wish you to know that I’ve already answered your two letters, which I appreciate very much. I guess you have not yet received my reply on account of the great distance separating us.

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“Beautiful actress, luminous singer”

Just in case you think the preceding post needs a visual or two (with thanks, ahem, to Karimadon and PinoyExchange):


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Column: Marian, Karylle and the politics of virtue

Published on December 23, 2008

I have no wish to subject the beautiful actress Marian Rivera to ridicule or innuendo, but something she said last week startled me into thought, and made me reconsider the politics of virtue in a new light.

Obviously I am not referring to her very public quarrel with the luminous singer Karylle, or the past or future shape of Karylle’s relationship with actor Dingdong Dantes. (Like millions of other Filipinos, I too would like to know the answer to the essential question: What did Dingdong do, and when did he do it?)

I am referring to Marian’s outburst on Dec. 15, when she faced the movie press. She criticized Karylle for implying, through her now-famous answering smile, that she, Marian, was pregnant; reading her series of statements online, I was at first entertained and then, to quote Tom Wolfe in “The Painted Word,” “I noticed something!”

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Another missing page

I missed writing today's column. The start of the year has been burdened with heavy news, with a medical emergency in the family. And last week a friend died, at only 46. I tried to make sense of his death, spending several hours writing yesterday, but I couldn't come up with anything worth a look. This marks the first time, in the year and a half I've been writing columns, that I missed publication because I didn't finish something in time.

I didn't miss a single week in my first year, even though there were times when I thought I couldn't write because I was in sick bay or ground down by other deadlines. But in the last half-year, I've missed four issues: today, of course; November 11 (I was in meetings I couldn't get out of); September 30 (I was sick); and August 5 (honestly, I don't remember why). Too many missing pages!

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“With a nagging tinge of irony”

One response to the column on "The Christian in politics" came by way of the feedback loop, and offered a summary view of my writing on religious issues:

I read with much interest and with a nagging tinge of irony
John Nery's article "The Christian in politics", which appeared in his
December 16, 2008, column. Nery is correct when he points out that,
far from disavowing politics, a Christian can — and at times should
— engage in politics as it is the means to help create a better
society. To do so in a Christian manner, however, one must at least
know one's faith. And so I find it curious that this is the same John
Nery who erroneously claimed that artificial contraception is an issue
on which a Catholic can disagree with the Church in good faith. He
uses this falsehood to defend the 14 Ateneo professors who have
betrayed their and educational institution — despite the documented
fact that the Church has always been against artificial contraception
as far back as Church teaching has been recorded. The early Church
Fathers condemned it; the encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) did the
same, as did Humanae Vitae (1968). The issue is NOT an undecided one
in which a Catholic can faithfully take either side. To pretend that
it is such is ignorant at best, and irresponsible at worst! Nery is
correct when he writes: "A fuller reckoning of Manglapus' faith-driven
politics awaits a grateful nation." One wishes then that Nery's
"politics" were as at least properly-informed.

Emmanuel Amador
Ateneo de Manila AB Communications Arts AB Philosophy (1985)
Cebu City

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Column: The Christian in politics

Published on December 16, 2008

“Rekindling The Fire,” the forum on the political legacy of Raul Manglapus on the occasion of the great Christian Democrat’s 90th birthday, raised the temperature inside an Ateneo de Manila University conference hall one nippy afternoon the other week. (By the time the three-part conference ended, fog had descended on parts of the Loyola Heights campus.)

Much of the heat came from the warm glow of recollection: 1971 Constitutional Convention delegates Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Teofisto Guingona recalled details from their first foray into politics and their first encounters with Manglapus; Ramon Magsaysay Jr. recounted the heady days when his father served as president and explained why it was only natural, like a very law of physics, for young men like him orphaned by his father’s death to gravitate toward Manglapus, the country’s youngest-ever foreign secretary; Lito Lorenzana, a former undersecretary, spoke about the moment Manglapus recognized him in a meeting, asked him whether he was from the Ilocos, and then pronounced: “We must be related.” From that time on, Lorenzana said, “I was his forever.”

(Lorenzana’s recollections were truly Manglapus-like in that they reminded all of us in the hall about the romance of politics. For better or for worse, this is still how many politicians and political workers get started. Before it is a calling or, worse, a business, politics is a campaign, even a crusade.)

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Column: Before Bolante

Published on December 9, 2008

On March 16, 1950, Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong, chairman of a Senate special committee created to investigate the Philippine government’s dubious purchase of two pieces of property, questioned businessman Jean Arnault about the transaction. Arnault’s suspiciously evasive answers to one question in particular led to his imprisonment at the New Bilibid Prison, the national penitentiary, and presaged former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante’s slipperiness before that special committee’s successor 58 years later.

Excerpts from the landmark Supreme Court decision Arnault v Nazareno make for revealing reading:

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"If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called the Internet. You can find a lot of people there who don't like you." – Tina Fey, receiving her Golden Globe a few minutes ago

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Column: Sucking people dry

Published on December 2, 2008

The new majority in the Senate is built around a nucleus of presidential aspirants (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But wouldn’t Mar Roxas, Loren Legarda and Ping Lacson have done better if they had maneuvered to replace Manny Villar with, say, Nene Pimentel?

As it is, they now have the added burden of distancing themselves from a radioactive Malacañang whose principal Senate ally, Johnny Ponce Enrile, is now Senate president.

Given President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s deep unpopularity, the candidate who will be perceived by many to be her true opposition—to have suffered at her hands, which is a role Villar can easily play by aggressively contrasting himself with Enrile, and thus with the President—should enjoy a sizable advantage in 2010.

To use a term popularized by President Arroyo’s favorite Georgetown classmate, navigating the road to 2010 looks like it will require a whole lot of triangulation.

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Column: Down from the hill

Published on November 25, 2008

I received about as much feedback on last week’s column about Sen. Joker Arroyo’s exclusivist approach to the interpretation of law as I usually do from columns on religious issues or political topics viewed from a religious perspective. One of those comments is on the Letters page this Tuesday; I hope it gives other readers a sense of the spirited public reaction that came my way. The email from Harley Barrales in New Jersey is representative of all but one of the letters I got. Unlike most of the other letter-senders, however, Harley is a lawyer. Good for him.

* * *

When I first heard of Jose de Venecia’s upcoming and already controversial biography, I knew it was the real thing from the title alone. “Global Filipino: The Authorized Biography of Jose de Venecia Jr., the Visionary Five-Time Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines”—doesn’t that carry the authentic bombastic touch?

But will De Venecia turn out to be President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Chavit Singson? (The question assumes that the analytical template to follow is the one that led to EDSA People Power II.) The answer must depend on other factors, including lengthy hearings in the House, televised live. But I still think the better framework for analysis is the run-up to EDSA People Power I: The opposition must prepare first to ensure that the 2010 election pushes through, and then to win it. Those dreaming of a resounding Obama-esque victory must organize like Obama.

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