Monthly Archives: September 2012

Idea for a book

I am not all that interested in collecting the columns I have written, but there is something I would love to do: publish a selection of my columns in which I engaged with certain personalities, and whose responses ran in my column space or in the neighboring letters page. The introduction for each exchange could include an overview of the issue at stake and an attempt to bring the matter up to date. And after the columns and responses, we could have a last word of sorts — with columnist and correspondent alternating. I hope to use this unusual format to drive home a point: that public discourse, in itself, is important. Possible title: Arguments at the Newsstand.


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Kneeling knight


I found myself immediately drawn to this work in alabaster, by an unknown hand, about an unknown subject. The notes provided by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave the Spanish work a simple descriptive title, “Kneeling knight,” but almost everything about it–except for the missing sword, which was sheathed in its scabbard–reminded me of St. Ignatius at Manresa. The noble bearing and the pose of supplication, the military attire and the look of prayer, the sense above all that we have intruded into a scene where a life is being dedicated to some ideal: it all seemed Ignatian to me. The museum dates the sculpture to c. 1600, which is (it occurred to me when I read it) just about right. It was created about two generations after Ignatius’s death, but at a time when the romance of knights errant still rang true.

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Column: What if the Church is in error?

One thing I love: Whenever I write on religious or theological matters, I almost always receive lengthy, well-considered responses written in a spirit of fraternal correction. Most of them arrive by email, although several come through the door marked “comment thread.” This column, which prompted several such responses, was published on September 18, 2012.

After 45 De La Salle University professors issued a statement in support of the Reproductive Health bill early this month, a distinguished alumnus of La Salle (and Harvard) wrote a powerful rejoinder. I cannot agree with all the points raised by Bernardo M. Villegas (or BMV, as we all referred to him at the Center for Research and Communication where I worked two decades ago), but I thought his response was both muscular and gracious, emphatic and respectful, at the same time. Continue reading

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Column: Journalistic judgment and Obama’s speech

With links to three previous posts. Published on September 11, 2012.

It is already conventional wisdom to say that Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, fell flat—especially when compared to his wife Michelle’s stirring speech on the first day of the convention, or to the master class ex-President Bill Clinton gave on the second day, or to his own soaring words when he accepted the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in Denver, Colorado, in 2008. Okay, maybe, but flat according to whom?

I have been worrying this question since I read Molly Ball’s assessment of Obama’s anticlimactic, “perplexingly lifeless” address in the Atlantic Monthly. I thought his acceptance speech was solid, substantial, not so much sober as sobering. But Ball, whom I read regularly, thought otherwise (and so did many others). Continue reading

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Column: Not yet, Bam, not yet

Yesterday, at a public function, a Cabinet secretary’s first words to me were, “Not now, Bam”–a playful, slightly imprecise reference to the following column, which was published on September 4, 2012.

Bam Aquino was my student at the Ateneo de Manila all of 17 years ago; he was, in a word, outstanding, the sort of student a teacher remembers long after the last papers have been marked. I still vividly remember the distinction he once proposed, just right after one particular class ended, between “convince” and “persuade”—the first was an appeal to reason, the second an appeal to the will—which I found a little too categorical for my taste then, but whose explanatory power I understand with greater clarity today.

Now Bam wants to run for the Senate; I have no doubt that he would excel in it—but I urge him not to run. Not next year, and not in 2016. Like many others, I believe that the Aquino family has sometimes served as history’s instrument; there is a family legacy we can all reference (even those critics who cannot stand the Aquinos can hold them accountable according to that legacy’s own terms). Continue reading


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Column: Supporting the Ateneo professors

Published on August 28, 2012.

The misreading of the memo that Ateneo de Manila University president Fr. Jett Villarin wrote to his university community on the vexing issue of the Reproductive Health bill was both unfortunate and immediate. The original story that appeared in the Inquirer completely misunderstood the import of the memo, or the effect it had on the professors who wrote an impassioned, rigorously argued statement in support of the bill; as a result, a good number of readers thought that the Jesuits had thrown the professors to the dogs. Continue reading

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Column: Not my kind of Catholic intellectual

Published on August 14, 2012.

I would like to explore the idea that an American congressman currently in the news represents the emergence of a new kind of Catholic intellectual, but let me begin with a short note about my kind of Christian politician.

When I saw the Inquirer’s front-page photo of President Aquino visiting flooded areas last week, joined by Risa Hontiveros, Joel Villanueva and other close political allies, I cringed. I thought it was a mistake. The opportunity to join the President as he made his rounds has an undeniable appeal; it was a chance to make common cause yet again with a consoler-in-chief who was also a friend. It was also an opportunity to be of practical service, to physically distribute relief goods or to listen patiently to survivor stories. Continue reading

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Column: Chief Justice of the Philippines? No such thing

Published on August 7, 2012.

The Judicial and Bar Council, meeting this week to agree on a short list of candidates for chief justice, would do well to remember one specific untruth Renato Corona said at his impeachment trial. He infamously began his premeditated walkout from the Senate trial by intoning the words, “The Chief Justice of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” But in fact, there is no such office, and therefore no such official.* Continue reading

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Column: P-Noy’s Kabayan problem, and ours too

Published on July 31, 2012.

President Aquino is wrong to think that the fundamental nature of news has changed. But he is entirely in the right when he calls journalists to account according to journalism’s own standards. Unless, of course, journalists think those standards are only meant to be paid lip service.

“Negativity” in the news—the word the President used in his remarks at BusinessWorld’s 25th anniversary rites last Friday—has become the shorthand defining what an ABS-CBN story online would later call his “scolding spree” against the media, even though the real controversy erupted only after the President directly criticized ABS-CBN anchor Noli de Castro at the 25th anniversary party of the iconic “TV Patrol” newscast, later that same Friday. Continue reading

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Column: Can Manila influence Beijing?

As providence would have it, this is a good time to upload the following column, now that Senator Trillanes’ meddling in the issue is headline news. This tale of three papers was published on July 24, 2012.

It does not require any special access to realize that friends of China have already launched several attempts to try to moderate Malacañang’s position on South China Sea issues; we live, after all, in a famously porous polity. But the question is: Are there similar attempts, on Manila’s part, to influence the public agenda in China?

The paradox of the new China is that it is both a closed regime and an open system. Traditional readings of the Chinese political framework, Andrew Mertha writes in an important paper revisiting the concept of “fragmented authoritarianism,” neglect the reality that “although China remains authoritarian, it is nevertheless responsive to the increasingly diverse demands of Chinese society.” Continue reading

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Column: To China, with (tough) love

Written somewhat foolhardily in the middle of a seminar, and published on July 17, 2012. As it happens, this post is this blog’s 888th.

In the ongoing dispute with the new superpower over competing territorial claims, the Philippines finds itself between the devil and the South China Sea. No simple solution to the controversy appears on the horizon, and the country has recourse to only a few options.

But some options are better than others. I would like to make the case that, contrary to the usual speculative criticism, the Philippines has actually made the best of a bad situation. I remain worried that, in the end, and as a Chinese journalist I met last month on his way to New York argued persuasively, the current shape of the conflict would only strengthen the all-too-visible hand of the People’s Liberation Army. But what, really, can we do? The country’s options are limited. Continue reading

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Column: Most influential opinion journalist?

My first column after a year away; I pay tribute to an excellent editor, both friend and mentor. Published on July 10, 2012.

A good number of names in almost any survey of the country’s most influential opinion columnists make their home in the Inquirer’s opinion pages. Some of these columnists have the advantage, not only of lucid analysis or illuminating prose, but of careers in television: I think, for example, of Randy David or Solita Monsod. Others equally gifted have become popular despite what may best be described as indifference to regular TV appearances: You have, for instance, someone like Conrad de Quiros or Michael Tan. Still others of similar talent become must-reads because they bear almost the entire weight of their profession on their shoulders: Consider Fr. Joaquin Bernas (law), or Ambeth Ocampo (history), or Amando Doronila (journalism).

It is an easy thing for me to suggest these and other names from the Inquirer’s opinion pages, but the fact that I can also suggests something characteristic about the pages themselves. As the print (and, since about a decade and a half ago, also digital) equivalent of the public square, these pages have managed to attract some of the most powerful soapboxes of the last quarter-century. Continue reading

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I took a break from column-writing

from mid-August 2011 to mid-July 2012—an 11-month stretch required, more or less, by the terms of the Nieman Fellowship. To be more precise, I was asked (and when I thought I saw a scheduling loophole, gently reminded) to avoid regular work (that meant columns and editorials) during the academic year. I had the privilege of auditing a total of nine courses, although I did serious study only in six (the rest were classes where, as a new friend told me, you simply come in and “let it wash over you”). Acting on the advice of another, older friend, I took advantage of the amazing number of conferences, forums, seminars, and readings available at the university; by the time I went home, I had gone to a total of 106.

It was the right call, then; I would have had great difficulty meeting my deadlines–and I would have had to steal time away from study. I missed writing, but was consoled by the thought that the break was only temporary.

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Column: This is what’s wrong with our country

The last column I wrote in 2011, before I left for a year-long fellowship with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The feedback–to the subject of the column, not to my departure (or so I think!)–was overwhelming. Published on August 9, 2011.

The scene was surreal: the old cheat was visibly moved by the resignation of the young cheat, and praised the young man’s moral courage and sense of dignity. Apparently, there really is honor among election thieves.

For those of us with a long memory, Juan Ponce Enrile is the unlikely but altogether fitting benchmark for Juan Miguel Zubiri’s act of resignation. Even though Enrile did not lose the first dagdag-bawas case filed against him by Koko Pimentel’s father, involving allegations of cheating in the 1995 elections, Enrile did own up to massive election fraud—in 1986, during the heady four days of the Edsa revolution, when circumstance and strategic candor made him admit that he had cheated for Ferdinand Marcos in the snap election.

That made his reluctance to accept Zubiri’s resignation both an acute reflection of Philippine realpolitik, and an apt reminder of the many times our country has lost its way. Continue reading

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Column: Forward, attack, lunge!

A modified lecture, with poem included. Published on August 2, 2011.

To accompany his own Indonesian translation of “Ultimo Adios,” which appeared in the Dec. 30, 1944 issue of Asia Raya, Rosihan Anwar wrote “Jose Rizal,” a short poem of 21 lines. My dictionary-enabled, Google-translated modified free version of the poem reads as follows:

The rifle explodes, a single bullet

Penetrates the body; the man falls!

So too fall noble ideals;

independence, its spirit flickering,

As the man closes his eyes.

The man’s body lies on the earth’s lap

That precious man

Broken, shattered into dust

But the spirit which the man showed

Is incarnate in the fragrant bloom.

Years pass and now and then

Air rustles across the man’s grave

O, poet, hero of the nation.


Now the man rises again

Incarnate in the body of the nation

In the breast of every youth,

I hear the man’s voice

Loud, powerful, mighty,

Inviting the nation to continue the struggle:

“Philippines, forward, attack, lunge!!!” Continue reading

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Column: Bitching about GMA

Published on July 26, 2011.

A YOUNG person relatively fresh out of college posted something on Facebook yesterday, several hours before President Aquino addressed the 2nd joint session of the 15th Congress. Her status update struck me, because it seemed emblematic—of much of what is wrong in our political culture. Continue reading

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Column: The (self-) importance of being Harry

Another difficult piece to write, because as I say at the very start, I do like Harry Roque. Published on July 19, 2011.

I like Harry Roque. I do not mind that he styles himself, in his own blog, as an activist lawyer, because in fact that is what he is. I remember him best for his prominent role in the effort to impeach Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at a time when almost all of the political cards seemed to be stacked against the opposition. I met him for the first time at a conference in Hong Kong last year, where we served on different panels; I took to him immediately. I saw him as a family man and a patriot, the kind of affable Pinoy who seeks out other kababayan when travelling abroad.

His latest turn in the headlines, however, outraged me. In an attempt to head off any further debate on the possible uses of Zaldy Ampatuan’s testimony, he irresponsibly politicized the issue by claiming—without any evidence—that the so-called Balay faction in the Aquino administration was behind an effort to draft the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a state witness in the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre case. Continue reading

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Column: Lost boy, playboy, bad boy

Column No. 200. A second attempt to categorize the types of criticism leveled against the second President Aquino, published on July 12, 2011.

Last August, about six weeks after his inauguration, I tried to distinguish the “types of criticism [already] being leveled against President Benigno Aquino III and his administration” by identifying three patterns in the criticism. That attempt, under the column title “‘Politico’, ‘Inglisero’, ‘hacendero’,” drew a vigorous response from several readers. To the most lucid rejoinder, by Herbert Docena, I ceded my column space the following week. Continue reading

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Column: The 10 most important letters Rizal wrote

The third Rizal column, published on June 28, 2011.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment: In the country’s most important correspondence, which letters are the most historic? Several years ago, I came to realize that the best way to introduce a new reader or a new student to Rizal is through his letters. The Rizal correspondence runs to several hundreds, and almost literally there is something in it for everyone. But if one had time only to read the 10 most consequential, what would the short list look like?

It would probably not include some of the more personally interesting letters, such as Rizal telling his sisters that inviting their friends to resettle in Dapitan, where he had just been deported, was “a delicious idea”—in English. Or the letter, in German this time, where he explains to his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt how to use his new invention, a “sulpak” or cigar lighter. Instead, a short list would probably include those letters that explain Rizal best: how he came to write his subversive novels, how he came to part ways with Marcelo del Pilar, how he came to find himself, for the third time, on board a ship bound for Spain. Continue reading

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Column: Criticizing Rizal

The second of three Rizal columns written in June 2011. Published on June 21, 2011.

The idea that Rizal was prickly, sensitive to slights and quick to take offense, was a criticism he himself heard again and again. On Oct. 9, 1891, for instance, while preparing to leave for Hong Kong (and eventually to return to the Philippines), he declined his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt’s suggestion that he resume writing for La Solidaridad. “I have suggested many projects; they engaged in a secret war against me. When I tried to make the Filipinos work, they called me ‘idol,’ they said that I was a despot, etc. …. They said that Rizal is a very difficult person; well, Rizal clears out.” Continue reading

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Column: ‘Ualang dao ga sino’

In June 2011, celebrations to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal reached a crescendo. I was not immune to the power of that patriotic music; all three of my columns that month dealt with the national hero. The first of the three columns was published on June 14, 2011.

Call it a theory of refraction. Even when Spanish clerics or officials criticized Rizal, their criticism was often formed (refracted) by certain assumptions about the most famous man in the Philippines, assumptions both hidden and visible which we can use today to paint a vivid portrait of Rizal in the last 10 years of his life.

After the “Noli” reached the Philippines in 1887, for instance, many Spaniards and not a few Indios were scandalized. We can get a sense of the scope of the scandal when the Augustinian friar Jose Rodriguez published a series of pamphlets the following year. Originally written in Spanish, the eight pamphlets were translated into Tagalog posthaste; the most famous of them carried the title-and-subtitle “Caingat Cayo! Sa manga masasamang librot, casulatan”—which we can render as “Beware! Of evil books and writings.” Continue reading

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David’s The Death of Socrates


Having pretended to read my way through philosophy textbooks in my college years, I welcomed Jacques-Louis David’s masterpiece, The Death of Socrates, like an old familiar, when I finally had the chance to visit its old haunt at the Met in New York. The well-remembered scene drew my attention, but I wasn’t prepared for its arresting colors, especially the deadly red of the disciple with the cup of hemlock, and the vivid white of an unexpectedly virile Socrates in mid-argument. (I always thought the gadfly of Athens looked the part, Steve Buscemi-like.) And the way the condemned man’s garments are draped over his left arm and around his waist: Doesn’t that remind us of another familiar image, the resurrected Christ? David’s allusion startled me, and then I counted the number of disciples present in the scene, Plato included. Exactly 12.

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Better than it sounds: Barack Obama

Notes on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC; third of a series.

On the third night of the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama walked out on stage and up to the podium with a heavy burden of high expectations. According to what has now gelled into conventional wisdom, he came off the stage three-quarters of an hour later with those expectations largely unmet. I am not too sure.

A comparison of his prepared text and his actual remarks (the Washington Post version here, the more complete New York Times version here) shows some differences; he too had responded to the moment as Bill Clinton did, but hardly on a Clintonesque scale. (The instance I remember best—I was following his speech on CNN with a copy of the prepared text—was when he dumped a reference to Google in favor of Steve Jobs.) Continue reading

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A master class in politics: Bill Clinton

Second of a series: Notes on Bill Clinton’s magisterial performance at DNC 2012.

Bill Clinton’s nomination speech on the second night of the Democratic National Convention was an outstanding, even thrilling example of political rhetoric. He made the case for Barack Obama’s reelection in an almost scholastic manner: He raised each of the main charges leveled against Obama’s presidency, and then argued masterfully against each of them. That in almost each instance he demolished the Republican view was icing on the cake; the real gift was the conversational but detailed approach to policy he sought to engage his increasingly rapt audience in. Continue reading


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The personal is political: Michelle Obama

I am writing a few paragraphs on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and I thought I needed to study, and link to, the many stories and reviews and analyses I had read on the three most important speeches at that convention, just to get going. First up, my notes on Michelle Obama’s “stunning speech.”

Michelle Obama’s primetime speech on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina, was cathartic: It purged the party’s remaining hesitations and reservations and misgivings about Barack Obama’s contentious but historic first term and allowed Democrats in the hall and across the United States to rediscover him as the same man who promised “change we can believe in,” four long years ago. Continue reading


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