Column: The diminishing of Alex Magno

Blair compared; St. Paul dissed (sort of); Alex Magno deconstructed. Published on March 31, 2009 (with the print version hiding a head-slapping typo–“stringest,” instead of “stringent”–that makes me cringe. I am reminded of my five-year-old son quoting from his favorite cartoon show: “I … was weak.”)

One more word about the Tony Blair speaking tour. It may have been the most complete triumph by a British dignitary on Philippine soil since, well, Brig. Gen. William Draper landed unopposed, somewhere in Malate, in 1762. Of course, two and a half centuries ago, the British easily conquered the capital but faced great difficulty in the periphery.

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Poor St. Paul. Marking the “bimillennium” of his birth allows us to see his role as the architect of Christianity in clearer perspective. But generations of criticism of his in-your-face epistles (in my own case, it was E. M. Cioran who forever corrupted my reading two decades ago) have taken their toll. Even the Pope, instinctively displaying the intellectual honesty we require of modern minds, thinks he must pay it some heed. In his extraordinary letter of March 10, clarifying his controversial remission of the excommunication imposed on four Society of St. Pius X bishops, Pope Benedict XVI recalls how reading a certain passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (“bite and devour”) concentrated his thoughts about the controversy.

But he also writes: “I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in Saint Paul. To some extent that may also be the case.” It is only then, after this thoroughly diverting confession, that he continues: “But sad to say, this ‘biting and devouring’ also exists in the Church today…”

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I did not join those who, after history’s stunning turn in 2001, came to regard UP professor Alex Magno, master of ceremonies at a key Edsa 2 event and since then a director at a government bank, as a fatally compromised columnist. In fact, I even welcomed the morphing of his column into what it is now: “First Person” is a relaxed ramble through the corridors of power, a thrice-weekly reminder that the political is personal, and vice versa.

I do not often agree with Magno, but it is not necessary to agree with a writer’s point of view to learn to read him as a matter of habit. Style is its own reward.

But (the inevitable but), I was sorely disappointed with his column of March 26. Let me rephrase that. Disappointment, however grave, is the wrong word. I was outraged—by the liberties he took with the values that make his career as a public intellectual possible in the first place.

Essentially, his column is about his misgivings over the Limkaichong disqualification case. But because he cannot prove wrongdoing, or indeed offer any new fact, he is content to argue by innuendo. The moral flaw in his column can be described simply enough: He pretends to worry that “one more respected institution [the Supreme Court, no less] is in danger of falling under the shadow of disrepute,” but then proceeds to manipulate the available light so that the shadow cast is at its darkest.

The logical flaw is repeated several times; perhaps none is as characteristic as his unembarrassed bid to turn Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr.’s defense of Chief Justice Reynato Puno into the very proof of accusation. “By going on record clearing the Chief Justice on mere say-so, Sen. Pimentel also puts on record the accusations contained in white papers circulating anonymously and which might not otherwise have been dignified by the responsible media.” This is an astonishing claim, because in fact Pimentel was reacting to media reports; the record had already been made, by a duty-bound press.

What Magno does with Pimentel’s unobjectionable defense is use it only as a further excuse to write about the scandal—and then offer it as justification of the very “accusations contained in white papers” which Magno manages to reproduce assiduously in his column.

Let us be clear. There were, in fact, two irregularities in the Limkaichong case: an inadequate but still unpromulgated decision, and a leak of the same decision to a party in interest. How inadequate? Nine justices had voted “in the result”—a disturbingly high proportion. Consequently, the Court en banc voted to hold the controversial decision, and called for oral arguments. It was only during the oral arguments that crucial facts emerged, facts that were not included in the draft decision. (Many of these details were reported by Newsbreak magazine, which enjoys a publishing arrangement with the Star, Magno’s own newspaper.) [See here and here, for instance.]

One would think that Magno, an academic of long standing, would have welcomed the self-correcting mechanism that immediately whirred into action when the Court found itself on the verge of issuing an unjust decision. A collegial culture, the tonic of frank discussion, a unanimous resolve to set things right—all this should have satisfied a public intellectual’s stringent standards. How surprising, then, that Magno saw in this by-the-book remedy only “strange things,” only “murkier” circumstances, only a Chief Justice “suddenly” reconsidering a decision, only resolutions that are “a little bizarre.”

The quality of Magno’s argument can be summed up in this plangent line: “The action of the Chief Justice has now come under serious question—and even more serious insinuations.” And that is exactly what Magno offers: mere insinuation, the “wholesale slaughter of reputations.”

That vivid phrase is Magno’s too, but from a column he had written earlier, when he railed against the lynch mobs of public opinion. This, for me, is the most telling thing about Magno’s recitation of alleged facts. He never mentions their purveyor, Louie Biraogo. Much diminished, he had become part of the mob.

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