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?

* * *

Tony Blair, the British prime minister from 1997 to 2007, spoke at leadership forums at the Ateneo de Manila and in Sofitel Philippine Plaza on Monday. I caught the first one, where his speech was a crowd-pleasing mix of prepared text and off-the-cuff remarks. It reminded me that, in the political communications sweepstakes, before Barack Obama there was Tony Blair.

I took note of the following:

* * *

Like many successful politicians, he is a master of the art of self-deprecation. Of many possible examples, here’s one that relates to his role as Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East. Once, in Jericho, he played the part of the eager tourist. “Where are the walls?” he said he asked his guide, who then had to dutifully remind him of his stupidity. “Well, if you remember, they fell down….”

He is also good at another political art, that of representation; he is a person to whom telling anecdotes and absurd encounters happen. On the day the Lehman Brothers investment house collapsed, he said a man, recognizing him on the street, shouted a loopy yet loaded question at him. “Hey, Mr. Blair, who are these brothers, anyway?”

He is also adept in dropping the revealing aside. In his talk at the Ateneo de Manila University, he worried the question of education for a few minutes, and then suddenly remembered he had visited the Jose Rizal monument the previous day. “Rizal — what a profoundly educated person he was….” (It did not hurt that Rizal is the university’s most famous graduate.)

What struck me most, however, was Blair’s approach to discourse, as evidenced by characteristic turns of phrase. There were quite a few, but perhaps the key phrase he used most often was “the most important thing.” On the struggle with extremists: “The single most important thing is to have a better idea than the idea they have.” On the role of religion: “The most important thing is to get people together.” On the response to globalization’s dislocating influence: “The most important thing is … [to] have a driving commitment to justice.”

What this tells me is that his politics — or at least his political talk, now that he is out of political office — is marked, not so much by the easy recourse to superlatives, but by a drive for the doable essence. Cut through the clutter, zero in on the nub, hit the nail on the obvious head. Thus: The problems Obama faces “are essentially global in nature.” Or: “Education, in my view, is what will make the difference in the future.” Or: “That’s the only way to make the world work.”

We may quarrel with the details, but in an uncertain world Blair sees himself in the certainty business.

* * *

I share colleague Nono Montalvan’s grief over the death of the illustrious Jesuit from the “great island” of Mindanao, Miguel Bernad. I cannot share his belief, however, that the national media’s indifferent treatment of Bernad’s death reflects the marginalization of Mindanao by the towering outposts of “Manila centrism.” (There are better examples.)

Agreed: Something was marginalized, in the Manila-based media’s benign neglect of one of the country’s great writers. But it was a realm much vaster than Mindanao: the republic of letters, culture’s only commonwealth. (Another citizen, the philosopher and teacher of prayer Thomas Green, SJ, died a day before Bernad. His passing, too, went largely unremarked.)

I like how, in a tribute uploaded on Facebook (naturally enough), the Jesuit “General Councilor” for East Asia and Oceania, Danny Huang, described the work of Bernad, a prolific writer of necessary books, by its style: “chaste prose.” He called it exactly right, I think.

A grace note: Bernad had written the Inquirer a letter to the editor (he was a master of many a genre), after the newspaper ran an editorial proposing three questions with which to make sense of the controversy around the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 3. (I have uploaded the editorial and his letter to my Newsstand blog.) It was a short note, compact with praise. It may also have been a little too generous; no matter. His words fell on the page (the Sept. 16, 2002 issue, in fact) like a benediction.



Filed under Newsstand: Column

2 responses to “Column: Tony Blair, essentially

  1. Pingback: Blair Watch Project « Newsstand

  2. Pingback: Blair, Philippines - the ‘battle about Islam’ uppermost for peace « Tony Blair

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