Yearly Archives: 2011

Column: A Tagalog conspiracy

Column No. 175, the first of a two-part series on Rizal’s Tagalog correspondence. Published on December 28, 2010.

“Kaibigang Selo: Ang may taglay nitong sulat ay isang lihim na kapatid natin sa Rd. L. M. no. 2 ang taas. Walang sukat at dapat maka-alam na siya’y kapatid kundi ikaw lamang at ako.” Thus Rizal, conspiratorially, to Marcelo del Pilar, on November 4, 1889.

Most of Rizal’s letters were meant to be read in company, to be passed from hand to hand, to be copied and circulated (indeed, copies of some of his letters were found by the raiding party that broke into the warehouse where Andres Bonifacio was employed, and were used as evidence in his trial for treason). A few, like this letter from Paris, were meant to be confidential, and a hundred and twenty years after it was written we can still easily intuit why. Continue reading


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Column: 5 million books

Published on December 21, 2010.

Google Books is controversial for several reasons; in this ambitious corporate attempt to digitize as many books as possible, copyright and monopoly issues may only be the most vexing. These and other issues are contentious even though, or especially because, casual reader and scholarly researcher alike already enjoy the benefits of digitized books directly.

Many of the books are available only in Preview format, but even the limits of this format can be liberating: some books offer a few pages (so we can read Fr. Miguel Bernad on “The Nature of Rizal’s Farewell Poem”); others several dozens, perhaps even a couple of hundreds (such is the case, for instance, of the massive and minutely detailed Indonesian-English dictionary by Alan M. Stevens and A. Ed.
Schmidgall-Tellings). Continue reading

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Column: Binay in the Katipunan

Published on December 14, 2010.

Very interesting feedback in the last two weeks, in response to the column on Chiz Escudero and Andres Bonifacio, moves me to revisit the topic. Instead of worrying the definition of “ilustrado” again, however, I would like to discuss the class composition of the Katipunan—and argue that somebody like Vice President Jojo Binay would have fit right in.

I am sure I am not the only one to wonder, reading the standard accounts of the Philippine Revolution, about Pio Valenzuela, the medical doctor, co-founder and Katipunan emissary to the exiled Rizal. What was someone like him doing in a revolutionary organization described (by the fecund Isabelo de los Reyes) as “a plebeian association” consisting of the “pobres y ignorantes” or (by the influential Teodoro Agoncillo) as “a commoners’ society” made up of “the unlettered masses.” Continue reading

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Column: The longest roll call

Published on December 7, 2010.

Without quite realizing it, a week ago I walked into the longest roll call I’ve ever been a part of—but I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a reflection on influence, and it begins with a book.

On Nov. 30, the Ateneo de Manila published “To Give and Not to Count the Cost,” a collection of essays about “Ateneo heroes,” to mark (several months late) the end of the university’s 150th anniversary. In the case of some of the subjects, the quotation marks were superfluous. No one can seriously dispute that Jose Rizal, Gregorio del Pilar, Benigno Aquino Jr., Edgar Jopson, Evelio Javier and several more were heroic, however that term is defined. In the case of a great many others, however, their heroism had a decidedly personal meaning: an unforgettable act of charity, a decisive intervention, the gift of lasting friendship or personal example. Continue reading

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UP Rizal 150 conference program

UP Rizal 150 The international conference on the Rizal sesquicentennary organized by the University of the Philippines, scheduled for June 22 to 24 at the newest building on the Diliman campus, has all sorts of treats for the Rizal student. The program (please click on the link to the PDF file) is a doozy.

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Column: Escudero and Bonifacio, ilustrado

Published on November 30, 2010. It was a thrill to receive, a few days after the column came out, a letter from Jim Richardson (about whom, well, see below).

I don’t think there is any question that Senator Francis Escudero’s campaign support for the vice-presidential candidacy of Jejomar Binay proved pivotal in the May elections. One political ad of Escudero’s was especially well-timed and well done; it featured the popular first-term senator asking the simple question, Who is my vice president? against a backdrop of Binay images. His lengthy answer began this way: “Ang bise-presidente ko, hindi mayaman, hindi ilustrado, kulay Pilipino (My vice president is not rich, not an ilustrado, looks Filipino).” Continue reading

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Column: The end of “media” as we knew it

Published on November 23, 2010–the first anniversary of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre.

I do not wish to add to the unbearable burden of the families of the victims of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre, especially those who lost loved ones who were not media workers, with another reflection on the massacre’s implications on Philippine journalism. The horrific killings—57 bodies recovered, one still missing—reveal more about life in the Philippines than the state of the media: The Philippine polity as an anarchy of families (to borrow Alfred McCoy’s evocative book title); the role of violence in society; the wages of greed; the coopting of much of the country’s security forces; even (in the case of the unfortunate victims who
merely happened to be driving by) the very gratuity of life when you are poor
or not powerful. Continue reading

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Column: Paraprosdokian: Christian Monsod on the 2010 vote

Published on November 16, 2010.

Don’t look at me; I had to look up the meaning of the word too. I had stumbled on it in Christian Monsod’s “excellent lecture” on the 2010 automated elections (the phrase is Mahar Mangahas’, from his column on expert assessments last Saturday).

At first I thought it was a mistake; it seemed out of place in Monsod’s congenial English. Turns out it is an exact term in rhetoric, meaning a figure of speech, often
used for comic effect, in which the latter half of the line redefines the
meaning of the first. A classic example would be Henny Youngman’s famous joke,
which begins as though offering his wife as an example of something: “Take my
wife … please!” (Badaboom.) The end recasts the meaning of what comes before. Continue reading

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Entering “a new era of the Internet”

Speaking at Mashable Connect 2011, Steve Rubel proposed a third Internet era: After Commercialization (1994-2002) and Democratization (2002-2010), comes Validation (beginning, according to his non-Mayan calendar, in 2010).

With this shift in authority, Rubel proposes that as of 2010, the Internet has entered the Validation era, in which Internet users are beginning to “find the signal in the noise” and hold on to only those pieces of information and people that are most important to them online. The rise of intimate social networks such as Path, and group messaging apps such as GroupMe, Beluga, Fast Society and Kik, is an indicator that “people want to be closer to people they care about and let all the riffraff set aside,” says Rubel.

A most interesting, if rather programmatic, read.

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Journalist navel-gazing, continued

Joshua Benton’s presentation before the Canadian Journalism Foundation last January, especially the last paragraph of the seventh of “Eight trends for journalism in 2011” he posited, made me sit up and take notice.

One last element about this. This is the BBC’s iPad app, if you haven’t seen it. And I think one of the brilliant elements of it is that when you launch the app, it doesn’t present you with a menu of options. It doesn’t say, “Here are 17 options, choose one.” It’s not a choose-your-own-adventure. It immediately tells you, “This is where your adventure should start.” It puts you in a story right away. You don’t to have any action, you’re immediately pushed in. And then it becomes, “How do you navigate from story to story?” Instead of going to a story, hitting the back button, going to look over the other menu of options, then going back again. The metaphor that exists on a lot of iPad apps in the news world is swiping from story to story. Which is a very similar experience to what you traditionally had in newspapers — seeing stories and being able to dive in right there.

The return of the professional journalist as gatekeeper?

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Column: Criticizing journalists, continued

More on the Mai Mislang affair and its implications for the practice of journalism. Published on November 9, 2010.

Tonight, sometime past 10:30 or so, TV5 will air an episode of “Journo” discussing the controversy over Assistant Secretary Carmen Mislang’s insensitive, undiplomatic tweets on Vietnamese wine, men and (the motorcycle) throng. My column last week prompted the producers and the program host Luchi Cruz Valdes to include me in the discussion. It is not a talk show, so how it will turn out is a mystery to me. I understand that other columnists and bloggers were interviewed too: my friend Billy Esposo from the Star, Connie Veneracion from the Standard Today and Jove Francisco, the reporter, anchor and pioneer blogger from TV5. Continue reading

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Column: One mistake and you’re out

This one was a doozy; feedback was both loud and intriguing. TV5’s new media-issues show Journo ran a comprehensive report on the entire Mai Mislang fiasco and its aftermath. Published on November 2, 2010.

Mistakes are inevitable in the practice of journalism. With the sheer amount of information that must be processed in preparing a newspaper or producing a newscast or publishing a website, it is almost impossible to get everything right: to make sure that every spelling is correct, every detail double-checked, every fact verified.

This is not to say that accuracy is an irrelevant principle; indeed, it is of paramount importance precisely because it is a difficult ideal. Continue reading

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Column: Noy’s “comfort zone”

A “psychological” reading of the second President Aquino, published on October 25, 2010.

Consider this a belated meditation on President Aquino’s first 100 days in office.

I was one of those who applauded his decision to immerse himself in prayer, before throwing his hat into the presidential ring. It seemed to me that he was not only doing the right thing; by going on retreat in Zamboanga City, under the spiritual direction of a nun who was close both to his mother and to him, he was doing the characteristic thing. That is to say, the retreat was character-revealing. Continue reading

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And speaking of filters…

I still cannot remember whether it was Roel Landingin or Exie Abola, or perhaps another friend, who told me, many years ago, to check out Arts & Letters Daily. The tip proved to be invaluable. I still read Arts & Letters Daily almost every day; it is the home page of my office computer.

It is true, though, that in many ways we read what we are inclined to read, even (or especially) on the Web. My own links these days (just to so-called mainstream media) include the following:

The New York Times (something I need to read off several computers, since I haven’t gotten around to subscribing). Still the indispensable first (and often final) source.

The Washington Post (something I’ve been reading closely again, after the New York Times put up its pay wall).

The Boston Globe (some very interesting finds, every now and then).

Washington Monthly, main for Steve Benen’s partisan but rigorous and fair take on US politics, in Political Animal.

Huffington Post (although I must say this reads better off the iPad than off the Web). A glorious mix of the must-read and must-avoid, but already a center of gravity for political junkies like me.

The New Republic, especially The Book and the political commentary of Jonathan Chait.

The Guardian (the best coverage of environmental issues, plus a thriving community of commenters and terrific photos — the last a very nice treat to indulge in on the iPad).

For Philippine news, the menu remains basically the same: the Inquirer, Newsbreak, ABS-CBN, GMA, occasionally the Star. I tried to add TV 5’s Interaksyon, but had to drop it because it takes too long to load.

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The Filter Bubble

“Most of us are aware that our web experience is somewhat customized by our browsing history, social graph and other factors. But this sort of information-tailoring takes place on a much more sophisticated, deeper and far-reaching level than we dare suspect. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results your searched for?)”

Who better than peerless Internet content curator Maria Popova to introduce us to Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble — and to raise questions about the overcustomization of our web experience?

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Column: One who got it all wrong

In which I criticize one beloved icon and source of Rizal studies. Published on October 19, 2010.

I apologize for writing, yet again, about Rizal. The feedback I got from last week’s column on Padre Damaso and the rape of Pia Alba persuades me that the Philippines remains incomprehensible without reference to the national hero. (To be sure, I am writing a book on Rizal, and the very act of writing makes me susceptible to just the sort of feedback I got last week!) Continue reading

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Column: The rape of Pia Alba

After Carlos Celdran pulled off his cinematic Damaso protest on the altar steps of the Manila Cathedral, opinion writers (myself included) joined the fray. Published on October 12, 2010.

Two columns in the wake of Carlos Celdran’s Damaso protest got me thinking about the vexing relationship between Maria Clara’s mother and Padre Damaso, and about the meaning of Damaso himself. On reflection, I must say it was the historian Ambeth Ocampo who got it wrong, and the anthropologist Michael Tan who got it right. Continue reading

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Column: Teachers, for and against

Time to play column catch-up again. This one was published on October 5, 2010.

I wanted to do this last year, but my plans fell through. Several weeks ago,
however, I got an invitation from Metrobank Foundation, encouraging me (together with other columnists too) to say a word or two today, World Teacher Day, about the influence of teachers. I would like to oblige my friends at the foundation; at the same time, I need to call them to account, for an error in judgment that—in my teacher-influenced view, at least—undermines the dignity of the profession they have served and honored since 1985. Continue reading

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Column: Aquino and the “mouthpiece”

A conclusion. Published on September 28, 2010.

The photographs from last week’s seven-minute meeting between President Benigno Aquino III and US President Barack Obama are rich in nuance. Allow me to add another possible layer of meaning: the Indonesian connection. First, both presidents have suddenly cancelled state visits to Jakarta, because of domestic politics (Obama cancelled twice). And second, Obama has a statue in the Indonesian capital, showing him as a little boy, to mark the years he spent in the city; because of a backlash, the statue (built with private funds) was moved from a public park to the grounds of the government school he attended. In contrast, Aquino doesn’t have a statue in Jakarta, but should. I don’t mean a monument or a marker of himself, but of a Filipino whose cause the President can advocate and make his own when he meets, finally, with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Continue reading

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Column: Aquino and the “evangelist”

A continuation. Published on September 21, 2010.

President Aquino’s once-postponed state visit to Indonesia, tentatively rescheduled for October, may profit from a detour through the steppes of Siberia. A side trip only in the imagination, I must add, but one that helps place the influence of both Jose Rizal and the Philippine Revolution on Indonesia’s nationalist awakening in a new, perhaps brighter, light.

It involves the memory of a controversial Indonesian mestizo (an “Indo”) whom biographer Paul van der Veur calls “the evangelist for Indonesian political nationalism”—the very first, in fact, to demand independence for Indonesia, and who spread the good news through his work in journalism and political organizing. “The Eurasian E. F. E. Douwes Dekker, through agitation and the establishment of a real independence party, the Indische Partij (Party of the Indies), was the first to make a major contribution in the field of political nationalism.” DD, as he was more familiarly known, was a grand-nephew of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who as Multatuli wrote “Max Havelaar,” the searing anti-colonial novel which preceded “Noli me tangere.” Continue reading

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Column: Aquino and “the troublemaker”

From September to October, I had the good fortune to be allowed to go on book-writing leave. The following column, and the two that come after, were written as I was first coming to grips with the research I had done (or failed to do); they were, I guess, a way of writing a book by other means. This first column was published on September 14, 2010.

The distinction does not belong to Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa, who looks more and more like President Aquino’s weakest link; or Undersecretary Rico Puno, who revealed yesterday morning in a TV interview with Anthony Taberna that he is not playing hardball with the country’s jueteng lords; or my friend Billy Esposo, whose dismaying descent into factionalism has him all but foaming at the mouth, describing erstwhile allies as enemies of the state, and “stray dogs.”

The title refers, instead, to Jose Rizal himself, as Sukarno, Indonesia’s charismatic founding president, described him in yet another rousing speech in 1962. “And I also ask the United States of America, is it true if people say, for instance, that the independence of the Philippines was the result of the troublemaker Jose Rizal y Mercado, or Aguinaldo? No!” Continue reading

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Column: At the end of the day: A President’s accountability

Published on September 7, 2010.

In his latest outburst, Sen. Joker Arroyo has given us yet another yardstick by which to measure the depths of corruption the country plumbed, under the Arroyo administration he supported and succored. Apparently, for the former human rights lawyer, President Benigno Aquino III’s Trumanesque statement that when all is said and done about the Aug. 23 hostage-taking tragedy, he was “responsible for everything” was absolutely the wrong thing to say.

“It’s good for listening and good for the image,” Arroyo said in a radio interview last Sunday. “But it amounts to nothing. It has no effect because he will not resign, according to his advisers. It is an unnecessary comment. If he said that, does it mean that everyone who is under investigation is absolved?” Continue reading

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Column: “Where the hell was Gabby Lopez?”

This piece on the hostage-taking tragedy in Luneta was published on August 31, 2010.

Imagine, for a moment, that criticism of media coverage of the Aug. 23 tragedy extended to the whereabouts of network CEOs on that fateful day. In reflecting on the work of the ABS-CBN news organization, for instance, people would then demand to know, “Where the hell was Gabby Lopez?” And however Lopez (or Felipe Gozon of GMA, or Manny Pangilinan of TV5) would choose to answer, perhaps by talking about operational responsibility, or the division of labor that allows a news and entertainment enterprise to do its work, or the daily reality of editorial independence, the answer would always come across as so much defensive posturing.

This absurd, where-is-the-network-CEO scenario is, of course, meant to provoke reflection on the assumption, held by many Filipinos, that President Benigno Aquino III should have been “present” (either physically or through sheer force of character) during the developing crisis. Both Conrad de Quiros and Jarius Bondoc have already answered in the negative. I share their view, but I am more interested in the fact that it was a common assumption. Common, but still erroneous. Continue reading


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Kermode, the sense of an ending

A sample of the many sendoffs to the great literary critic Frank Kermode, whose books helped give shape to my reading:

The New York Times: “I wanted to write about Kermode because I admired him. In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.”

The Telegraph: “Kermode had initially been a scholar of the Renaissance, notably of Shakespeare, Spenser and Donne, but he came to the attention of fellow academics with Romantic Image (1957), a study of the use of imagery in poetry by romantic and modern writers.”

“He continued thereafter to combine Renaissance and modern studies, but in both his preoccupations remained broadly the same – the relationship between art and order, and that between writers and the changing world of which they had tried to form a coherent vision.” Continue reading

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Column: Worth a life

Published on August 24, 2010.

A change of pace, from the political: Frank Kermode, the finest literary critic of our time, passed away last week, at the age of 90. I discovered him—that is to say, for myself—in the 1980s, when I was haunting the airy rooms of the British Council when it was still based in a converted house in New Manila. Finding him was a fruit of that habit that a reader who has no means of income quickly learns to make his own: inhabiting the spaces between bookshelves for hours on end. It was, in other words, pure accident, the result of one book, one author’s name, leading to another.

At least that is how I remember it, of how I came to fall under his spell. It seems a long way from the common rooms of Cambridge or the Isle of Man to the tragicomic reality of Philippine politics and journalism, but I did learn at least two formative lessons from two decades of reading Kermode. (It should come as no surprise to his devoted readers that he wrote a charming piece on the very notion of “formation,” too.) Bear with me. Continue reading

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