Monthly Archives: March 2009

Blair Watch Project

When a friend in Honolulu told me she had received a copy of a news story I filed about Tony Blair’s candid remarks on Islam, it occurred to me to try and track the Internet mentions the story — or to be more precise, the two stories — got. Should be an interesting exercise, I thought.

All told, I filed four stories and a column on Monday, March 23. The first two (here and here) were “breaking news,” which I filed over lunch. The next two (main and sidebar) I filed around 6 or 7 pm, after I had turned my column in. (I had written most of the column the night before, but I ended up completely rewriting about three-fifths of it in the afternoon.)

I regret that I did not fully understand the context of Blair’s remarks, about the struggle for control within Islam. (He had made other, earlier, speeches.) But even if I had, I still think the remarks (“There is essentially one battle going on, and it is a battle about Islam”) would have struck me as news. That seems to be the consensus, too, of those who linked to or commented on the story.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the breaking-news version (the headline of which should really read “Battle for Islam heart of Mideast crisis,” not “on”) got more play. It went online about 12 hours or so before the version for the print edition. Excluding about four links in aggregators and about two in discussion forums, I found the following (my apologies for the perhaps inaccurate short hand):

Pro-Blair (I mean, quite literally)


A Davos tracking site

USA Today

There were, in addition, two more mentions or links I found.

The longer, more “reported” story (I had had time to listen again and again to parts of the audio recording I made, and was able to connect more of the dots in the notes I took) got fewer mentions. Again, without including general news aggregators and chat forums, I found the following:

A conservative Jew’s point of view

A religious news aggregator

PS. Friend and photo-blogger Hilda Kapauan Abola was at the late morning forum too. She has photos, and more links.


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Column: Tony Blair, essentially

On Nicole’s alleged recantation, Blair’s revealing rhetoric, Bernad’s “chaste prose.” Published on March 24, 2009

Here’s what I do not understand about the dramatic turn in the “Nicole” case: why educated Filipinos think living in the United States is not an option for a Filipina raped by an American. That was the clear assumption behind some of the horror expressed last week over Nicole’s decision to join her (new) American boyfriend, “for good.”

The question “How could she?” — asked in a context where the possibility of “moving on” is acknowledged, just not to the United States — is precisely what I don’t understand. Why did Nicole’s choice of place (as distinct from her decision to sign a second affidavit) outrage some Filipinos, even those who have been to the vast American mainland?

The clear assumption must be anchored on more obscure bases. Perhaps the United States is a nation of rapists? Perhaps every one of the 300 million Americans will remind the victim of the rape? An Inquirer editorial last week took up the same issue. “How could she even think of living in the United States? This is the question that continues to unsettle many of us. The answer must be: Because she did not consider herself raped, or taken advantage of, by the United States — only by a single American.”

The United States is a sprawling country; in many ways, it is the best place to start a new life. Nicole’s second affidavit (the preparation of which must be investigated) caused a national fit; almost everybody felt disoriented afterwards. But as to the very possibility of Nicole “moving on” by “moving to” the USA: Is the option really as logic-straining, as morality-bending, as we all made it sound?

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Excerpt: Contextualizing Dasmarinas

One of those “bridges” in Readings in Philippine History, which DLC used to connect disparate documents. Sometimes the transition is wonderfully unexpected: this muscular bridge brings us from 16th-century Manila to 9th-century Baghdad.

In 1586, two decades after the beginning of the conquest, the Philippine colonists called a general junta or assembly in Manila to consider the state of their affairs. It appeared to them that although Spanish sovereignty had already been firmly established in the principal islands of the archipelago, and the conversion of the population to Christianity had got off to a good start, they were faced with problems of the greatest urgency. For one thing, there were radicals among them, chiefly missionaries of the Las Casas persuasion, who held that Spain had no right to the Philippines at all, and clamored for the total abandonment of the enterprise. But even if they disregarded this vocal minority and decided to stay, their penury — their almost total lack of the most essential equipment and supplies — made it more than doubtful whether they could do so. They lacked a regular military establishment to repel external attack and a regular administrative structure to maintain internal order. They lacked a policy to regulate their trade with Spanish America and their relations with the rest of Asia. What, for instance, were they to do about their powerful, potentially dangerous, yet fatally fascinating neighbors, China and Japan? Send missionaries to convert them? Or soldiers to conquer them?

They decided that they could not decided these things themselves; they had to refer them to the King. Accordingly, they elected a Jesuit, Alonso Sanchez, their accredited agent, armed him with a formidable sheaf of memorials, and sent him to Madrid to obtain from Philip II answers to their questions and assistance in their necessities. It was thoroughly characteristic of Philip, that painfully conscientious king, that in the very year of the armada against England he found the time to study the petitions of his Philippine subjects and marginally annotate them in his own hand. He made the policy decisions they asked for: the Philippines must be retained; there must be no adventuring in China or anywhere else; the trade with America must come under government regulation. He found the funds to start a hostel for orphan girls. But perhaps the most inspired thing he did for the Philippines was to tell Father Sanchez to look around for a good man to send as governor; for Father Sanchez found Gomez Perez Dasmarinas.

During his brief term of office (1590-1593) Dasmarinas organized a small but effective fighting force to defend the Islands, surrounded Manila with a wall and moat, suppressed banditry in Zambales, and found an acceptable solution to the vexed question of tribute. His government was autocratic but just, practical yet imaginative, even whimsical. It was the government of a caliph of Baghdad, the kind of government around which legends gather.

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Checkout; check-in

Good friend Gigi has a post up on a friend’s ghastly encounter with the checkout lady from hell. It reminded me of Michael Totten’s week-long run-in with “The Worst Airline Company in the World,” which I had wanted to inflict on other readers since I first read it a couple of weeks ago. Read Gigi’s “Customer service … redefined?” to be incensed; its story of a random act of unkindness is out of Shirley Jackson.  And then (if you have some serious amount of spare time; the Alitalia piece is very long) read Totten’s report; it’s a tale out of Kafka.

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Column: Pope Benedict regrets

Published on March 17, 2009

Last January, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops remitted (that is to say, lifted) the excommunication placed two decades ago on four bishops of the Lefebvrite Society of St. Pius X. The official decree expressed an ardent hope. “This gift of peace, coming at the end of the Christmas celebrations, is also meant to be a sign which promotes the Universal Church’s unity in charity, and removes the scandal of division.”

Instead, it turned into a greater scandal, when word spread that one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, was an active denier of the Holocaust. In an incendiary interview on Swedish television, mere days before the decree was published, Williamson claimed Nazi gas chambers did not exist and that perhaps only 300,000 Jews (instead of the accepted estimate of six million) were killed by Hitler’s regime.

Immediately, Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to repair relations with the ultraconservative Society (which considers the Second Vatican Council heretical) became the long-anticipated signal that the Pope, once feared as the Panzer cardinal, was astride his tank and finally making a hard turn to the right. His decision was attacked, not least by his fellow German, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for diminishing the horror of the Holocaust, and by many others, Jews as well as Catholics, for encouraging illiberalism and intolerance. (I, too, was one of many dismayed by the Pope’s action.)

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Excerpt: The Chinese uprising of 1603

De La Costa’s history of the Jesuit missions in the Philippines, from 1581 to 1768, necessarily includes many scenes of pillage and ruin. This one, the beginning of a narrative about how the Spaniards put down a Chinese revolt in Manila that they had themselves provoked, is another of those set-pieces DLC is so good at–it is a rattling good read, but it is a close-up that moves the larger narrative forward.

The morning light revealed the rebel host massed on the Quiapo shore, clearly intending to cross in force. Acuna decided that he was not strong enough to prevent them, but sent patrols to set fire to the parian. At this a shout of rage went up from the rebels and they began to cross. The patrols retired, having done their work, and the parian gate was closed. The rebels ran through the billowing smoke of the burning quarter, killing those who had opposed the uprising and calling on the rest to arm themselves. Stamping out the fire in some of the houses, they climbed to the upper storys and roofs to flaunt their banners and rake the nearest parapets with a steady and pretty accurate fire from their captured arquebuses. The Manilans on the wall returned the fire briskly. Among them was a theological student from San Jose who distinguished himself by calling his shots. “The man with the banneret next,” he would call out coolly; and sure enough, the man with the banneret would suddenly lose interest in the proceedings.

As it became clear that the sangleys were mounting an attack from the parian, the Spanish and native companies swarmed to defend their respective sections of the wall. Even the lay brothers among the friars had formed a company of their own, and were looking very fierce with their habits tucked up under their cinctures and armed to the teeth, some with sword and pike, others with lighted fuse and arquebus. Lopez, accompanied by one of the scholastics who flourished a rusty and obviously useless halberd, moved along the parapet hearing confessions.

When the sangleys finally attacked, it was pell-mell, with no sort of direction or concert. Some ran in ragged groups with scaling ladders which they tried to place against the wall, but concentrated fire from the walls dispersed them with heavy loss before they could achieve their purpose. Others made for the gates as though to force them open, but with nothing but clubs and axes to do it with. They too turned back before the murderous musketry, leaving scores of dead behind. All day until late in the afternoon they kept coming, trusting blindly in whatever gods had told them through their auguries that the city would be theirs; but the gods had lied.

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Excerpt: The capture of Melchor Hurtado

On the Net, there is very little of Horacio de la Costa’s masterly prose.  The best writer in English the Philippines can claim as its own; more’s the pity. It occurred to me: Perhaps we can even the odds a bit by uploading short excerpts from his work? Here’s the first in what will necessarily be an occasional series. It is a couple of paragraphs; nothing out of the ordinary. But mark the almost cinematic quality of the narrative; it is the effect of both the right storytelling stance and vivid, vigorous diction: the exact word (“floundering”), the accurate adverb (“whitely”), the unexpected phrase (“hissed against the beach”). For DLC, just another (quarter-)day at the office.

From The Jesuits in the Philippines (pp. 293-294)

Very early the following morning, just before dawn, a fisherman of the town put out to sea in a canoe to inspect his fish traps, which he had not visited for some time. The eastern sky grew lighter before him as he paddled, and suddenly he could make out against it the dark hulls of a great fleet. It was the Magindanaus, riding lightless and silent just out of sight of land, waiting for daybreak to swoop on a town still half asleep. Even as the fisherman swung his canoe about the signal was given, a great shout went up, a thousand oar blades splashed whitely in the water, and the high sharp prows leaped forward.

The people of Dulag had just enough warning to scramble out of their homes and run to the woods for cover. The fathers and brothers of the mission joined a fleeing group with nothing but their breviaries and the clothes on their backs. Otazo ran out of the church with the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament as the first of Bwisan’s ships hissed against the beach. Fortunately, the older boys of the boarding school kept their heads. They collected the panic-stricken people into small parties  and set out with them to designated hiding places in the hills. They had prepared these earlier under the fathers’ direction and stocked them with emergency rations. But with women and children in the company, they made slow progress through the overgrown trails. Moreover, it had begun to rain. It was easy for the pursuing Magindanaus to follow their tracks and to hear them floundering through the underbrush. The Jesuits  and the people with them stopped for a moment at a bend of the trail to catch their breath. They were about to resume their flight when their silent pursuers were upon them. It was a case of each man for himself. While his companions plunged into the thickets, Hurtado found a hollow in the twisted trunk of a banyan tree and flattened himself within it. A woman with an infant in her arms ran past him. A Magindanau pounded after her and brought her back, weeping. As the warrior swung past the banyan tree, dragging his prey, he saw Hurtado. He leaped at him with raised kampilan, but when he saw it was a Spaniard and a priest, took him alive.


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Column: The “stigma of print”

Published on March 10, 2009

It is a commonplace in Shakespeare studies. Tudor England labored under a so-called stigma of print, when publication using the then-new printing press was thought to be, well, “baduy”. Manuscripts remained the preferred mode of publication, in large part because they were, by nature, elitist. Only the best “read” them.

That, at least, is how the theory works. The phrase comes to mind, because the death rattle we hear from the newspaper industry suggests it may prove useful in a new context, in an afterlife. In our increasingly digital age, will stigma attach anew to publication-by-printing-press?

I can only agree, of course, when colleague Conrad de Quiros describes the background against which we must come to terms with the death of many newspapers. “Newspapers may go, but not so news and not so reading.” The instinct for news, the human capacity for reading (a capacity largely untapped, until the invention of the printing press and Martin Luther’s revolutionary appeal for the Christian faithful to read the Bible for themselves) made newspapers both necessary and possible.

But the question we must ask ourselves, especially those of us in the Philippines caught in right-of-reply absurdia, is: What kind of news? What kind of reading?

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Best backdrop for a book launch

I was at the launch of Jess Estanislao’s latest book, “Breaking Through,” at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza the other week. It was held at the “bayside,” and came with a view.


Apologies for the grainy images; I used my phone’s 2.0-megapixel camera.

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Column: Worrying about the future

Published on March 3, 2009

In Cagayan de Oro City last Friday, a high school senior named Niku Tindugan asked me a blunt question during the first open forum of the day. Aren’t you worried (“Hindi ba kayo nag-aalala,” he asked in Filipino) that young people don’t read newspapers anymore? His question was echoed by a college editor during the second open forum I took part in (held this time at the busy atrium of the SM mall in the city), who asked what school newspaper editors should do to reach students who no longer read school newspapers.

The short answer: Yes, working journalists are worried. The worrying is hardly confined to the Philippines. Consider the case of a friend who works in risky Mexico; her husband is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, the venerable newspaper which may be shut down in a matter of days. “There are no words” to describe this reversal of fortune, she writes.

The long answer is, well, lengthy indeed: We worry, but we do not despair.

Despair, to quote a recent column of colleague Randy David’s, written in another context, is merely the other side of confusion. In the first place, the younger generations are still reading — mainly in other formats, of course, like Twitter and Facebook and by SMS, but like other information-processing generations they still require the hammer of news and the anvil of opinion to force the world into a recognizable shape. We — that is, “traditional” journalists — simply need to fill their need where they need it. Secondly, the decision-makers still read the newspapers, either in the traditional print format or in the now-tested online edition.

A blunt question deserves a blunt answer: A bright young kid like Niku may no longer read newspapers, but his teachers, his parents, the people in Cagayan de Oro who make decisions that reach all the way to his school and his home — they still read newspapers. Their reading helps shape the world Niku finds himself in. We can say this dynamic is part of the structure of Philippine reality. There is the critical few, and then there is the crucial many. Where, in five years’ time, does Niku see himself?

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Bernad’s benediction

When I heard the news that the great Miguel Bernad, SJ had passed away, I remembered that he had written the Inquirer a letter to the editor that was as unusual as it was short. It was out of the ordinary because when he wrote it he was still a weekly columnist for the Star, and because it was unreserved praise. It took me some time to find the letter; I hadn’t yet been detailed to the Opinion desk when it was published, and my desktop’s archive search function was, well, dysfunctional. Last Sunday, though, I finally found both the editorial he praised, and the letter the newspaper published, back in September 2002.

I remember thinking then, when I first read the letter: Perhaps there really is a role for editorials-that-ask-questions. Bernad had given it his imprimi potest. It can be printed!

Editorial: September 9, 2002

Bottom-line questions

The controversy over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 3 project illustrates the physics of publicity: too much heat, not enough light. The flurry of press releases and paid advertisements from almost all sides in the hundred-million-dollar dispute has buried the issues under the use of blatantly selective facts, masterful innuendo and extensive name-calling.

The dispute is an old one. It was partly the reason why Transportation Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez resigned earlier this year. But last week the controversy found its way back to the front page, when Secretary Gloria Tan Climaco, the presidential adviser for strategic projects, told the Senate she was negotiating a buyout of the German partners in Philippine International Air Terminals Co., the project concessionaire. The trickle of press statements then turned into a flood.

(A piece of advice for press agents: Errors of fact are also mistakes in strategy. They give the game away. Last Thursday, for instance, press releases from at least two of the vocal anti-takeover congressmen and one from Piatco itself made reference to the “five-man” Cabinet review committee. This is wrong, of course; the top-level panel consists of seven Cabinet secretaries, including its chair Justice Secretary Hernando Perez. But while the same facts may appear in independent statements, the same error of fact can only appear in statements written by the same hand, or sharing the same mis-information. Two releases with the exact same error of fact may be coincidence; three is a conspiracy.)

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