Monthly Archives: August 2013

Jessica Zafra, on #twistedthursdays

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August 25, 2013 · 8:10 am

Column: What Aquino and Rizal had in common

A tale of two martyrs. Published on August 20, 2013.

They came home. They did not have to; the threats they faced to life or liberty were real and manifest, the work they could have done outside the country to continue to contribute to the freedom struggle useful and varied.

The advice they received was almost uniformly negative. “I am prepared for the worst, and have decided against the advice of my mother, my spiritual adviser, many of my tested friends and a few of my most valued political mentors,” Ninoy Aquino wrote in his arrival statement. He had planned to read it the day he returned to Manila 30 years ago; he did not get the chance.

Jose Rizal prepared two letters before leaving Hong Kong in June 1892, to return to the Philippines for the second time. They were to be opened in the event of his death; about three years after his execution, Apolinario Mabini became the first to make them public.

In the letter addressed “A los Filipinos,” Rizal wrote: “The step that I have taken or I am about to take is undoubtedly very perilous, and I need not say that I have pondered on it a great deal. I realize that everyone is opposed to it; but I realize also that hardly anybody knows what is going on in my heart.”

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Column: Truth and hyperbole in basketball

Max Weber at the rainbow arc. Published on August 13, 2013.

It was a teaching moment, and Coach Chot Reyes seized it. After his Gilas Pilipinas team ended the so-called South Korean curse on Saturday and earned a ticket to the world basketball championships in Spain next year, Reyes had a message not only for his players but for anyone who cared to listen.

“I wanted to have a quick huddle with the players. I told them, ‘Congratulations. We have achieved our objective, now our dream is at hand.’”

And then he said (I am using a slightly edited version of Interaksyon.com’s fuller account of my batchmate’s statement at the post-game news briefing): “I don’t know if there were [already] people here in one [of] my earlier interviews. I said, our objective was to win a medal but our dream was to win it all. So we have achieved our objective, now the dream is at hand.”

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Column: Confirmation bias: A case study

Links to follow! Published on August 6, 2013.

The other Friday, I had the privilege of speaking before over a thousand delegates taking part in De La Salle University’s exceptionally well-organized Student Media Congress. In direct response to the organizers’ request, I talked about how newspapers like the Inquirer were “redefining reading” and “taking print to the next level.”

I argued the following points: globally, print is very much alive; it has a future that will excite the younger generation; it will continue to form a part, even a leading part, of the media mix; and augmented reality (like INQSnap) is transforming print as we know it

This is how the Rappler story, by David Lozada, reported my half-hour on the stage:
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Column: “Hysterical sex”

Famous writers playing word games. Published on July 30, 2013.

Spoiler alert: This column is entirely, unapologetically, about writers and writing.

Last week, three literary lions of late 20th-century London gathered in New York City to read and make merry. “The occasion,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “was a rare joint appearance by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the literary equivalent of a concert by the Three Tenors—or perhaps a friendlier version of the Yalta conference, with three longtime allies jostling to carve up whatever territory might still be controlled by big-dude British literary novelists of a certain age.”
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Column: Talking peace with the MILF

Reading the latest signed agreement, looking for clues. Published on July 23, 2013.

Can the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front still end in failure? We got a reminder in recent weeks that peace with the MILF remains very much a work-in-progress—and that progress is never guaranteed.

MILF officials aired their frustrations over the delay in the resumption of what are officially still called exploratory talks; when the 38th round finally pushed through, in Kuala Lumpur, the negotiations seemed to have teetered on the brink. It took an unusual extension before the government and MILF could agree on the final language of the Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing.

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Column: What would Ignatius do?

Still playing catch-up, but only six more to go before the Newsstand column archive becomes current. Six entirely different columns, beginning with this one on the Ignatian approach to discourse. Published on July 16, 2013.

Having been asked to play a small part in the second Ignatian Festival this coming weekend, I have found myself in the last several days wondering what it is exactly that draws me, again and again, to Ignatius of Loyola.

The author of the Spiritual Exercises and the founder of the Society of Jesus was an extraordinary man. The contradictions of his life would give a soap opera writer pause: a vainglorious soldier become ascetic priest, a restless romantic turned organization man, a stoic (wounded in the siege of Pamplona, he underwent leg surgery twice without so much as a complaint) who shed tears at Mass.

Not least, at least for me: An indifferent writer, who could change lives with the turn of a phrase.

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Column: Let us now praise a holy man

Excerpts from a pastor’s journal. Published on July 9, 2013.

“I think it is now three years since I last used a typewriter,” Pope John XXIII began a letter to his brother. “I used to enjoy typing so much and if today I have decided to begin again, using a machine that is new and all my own, it is in order to tell you that I know I am growing old…” He had just turned 80.

Shortly after he died, about a year and a half since sitting at that typewriter, his spiritual notebooks and some of his letters and special prayers were published as “Journal of a Soul.” A few years later, I found my father’s copy of the book; I have been reading it, on and off, ever since.
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Column: When the United States lost its way

Published on July 2, 2013.

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In 1981, the diplomatic historian Robert C. Hilderbrand wrote a pioneering study of the first attempts by the US government to “manage” public opinion. The book’s early chapters focus the spotlight on William McKinley, the president who prosecuted the Spanish-American War and launched the American conquest of the Philippines.

I found the following paragraph in the first chapter (titled “In the Ways of McKinley,” an allusion to one of the standard accounts of the McKinley years, Margaret Leech’s “In the Days of McKinley”) all but revelatory.
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Column: Doubting Edward, or Wolf cries boy

Published on June 25, 2013.

What should we make of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower? The exclusive accounts of Glenn Greenwald and others from the Guardian, sourced from a week’s worth of secret interviews with Snowden in Hong Kong, are rock-solid, the proofs they offer incontrovertible.

The secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) on April 25 of this year, compelling the Verizon telecommunications company to provide copies of the “meta data” of all telephone calls in its system to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing, daily basis.” The secret 41-slide PowerPoint presentation of a massive monitoring program that allows the NSA to directly access the computer systems of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and other iconic tech companies, called Prism. The two petitions from US Attorney General Eric Holder to the Fisa, which sought broad powers to scour communications even without a warrant.

And yet some of those who may be expected to welcome Snowden’s revelations have raised doubts about the intelligence contractor’s story. Famous feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, sounded the alarm about the United States turning into a police state in 2007. Last Friday, however, she wondered aloud on Facebook whether Snowden was the real thing.
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Column: Rizal’s equal

To mark another Rizal birthday–his 152nd–I thought of training the spotlight on the other great leader of the Propaganda Movement. Published on June 18, 2013.

Marcelo del Pilar left behind dozens of letters—altogether a wonderful read for Filipinos interested in history. Many of his letters were written in Filipino, especially those he wrote to his wife and his daughters, but these also include important, indeed historical, letters to Jose Rizal.

I think Del Pilar was very much Rizal’s equal as a political writer; it is instructive to read La Solidaridad, for example, when their bylines or pen names appear in the same issue, sometimes even one after the other. Del Pilar was no novelist; perhaps he lacked what the eminent literary critic V. S. Pritchett called, in an entirely different context, the “vegetative temperament” necessary to write a novel. But Del Pilar had an instinct for politics (he never apologized, as Rizal did repeatedly, for sacrificing art or life or fill-in-the-blank “on the altar of politics”), and that instinct informed not only his analysis but also his pragmatic conduct in the circles and corridors of Madrid.
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Column: 150 times a day

Column No. 250–appropriately enough, for one who first entered the commentary space as a political blogger, a repurposing of a blog post. Published on June 11, 2013.

Allow me to run something I posted on my blog last week—on June 5, in the middle of the World Newspaper Congress in Bangkok. Having heard yet another resource speaker repeat the newly popular research finding that smartphone users “check their phones 150 times a day,” I was moved to check the basis of the research for myself.

At the 2013 World Newspaper Congress and in its parallel conferences… the ascendancy of the mobile space is a recurring theme. The one idea that sums up this compelling vision of the present-sliding-into-the-future is the “150 times a day” meme:

WAN-IFRA@NewspaperWorld22h
According to research, people are checking smartphones on average 150 times a day @iRowan #editors13 #wnc13

That tweet, from the conference organizers’ official account, is representative. Of the hundreds of tweets and dozens of links I followed, many versions of the meme follow the same three-fold form: the attribution to “research,” the extension of the scope to “smartphones,” and the assertion of the frequency, “150 times a day.”

But is this statistic for real?
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Column: Rizal in the Catholic Encyclopedia

“Rizal, hidden in plain sight.” Published on June 4, 2013.

The first Catholic Encyclopedia was published about a hundred years ago; preserved inside this monumental work, like fossil in amber, is an unlikely and dated entry on Jose Rizal. Make that “carbon-dated.” The errors and emphases of this 1912 entry allow us a close, specific look at a particular era, when Catholic Americans in the Philippines had all but rationalized the national hero as one of their own.

The encyclopedia was a milestone in Catholic apologetics; it remains a favorite of many. The first edition in particular, published in 16 volumes (including index) between 1905 and 1914, has its online fans; two versions of this landmark reference available online are worth noting. The New Advent is a lovingly crowdsourced version started by Kevin Knight; the Original Catholic Encyclopedia is a massive scan done by the valiant apologists at Catholic Answers.

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Column: When a watchdog turns lazy

In which I express my disappointment, in one particular instance, with the CMFR; published on May 28, 2013.

Jeers to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) for flagrantly misrepresenting a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial, and substituting lazy memory for careful research.

On April 30, CMFR published a critique of a front-page Inquirer error. In “Another Inquirer ‘mistake’,” the media watchdog took the newspaper to task for attributing a Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) statement—on the April 20 New People’s Army attack that wounded Gingoog Mayor Ruth Guingona and killed her driver and her bodyguard—to the party-list group Bayan Muna.
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Column: The sheer inadequacy of single-factor analyses

The last of a series of seven election-related columns, an attempt to understand Grace Poe’s stunning first-place finish in the Senate race. Published on May 21, 2013.

Apparently, there was a sympathy vote for the late, defeated presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. At least that is what many commentators, both professional and on-Facebook-only, assure us is the meaning of Grace Poe’s 20 million votes.

I can understand why the senator-elect sees her unexpected victory as vindication for her father; it is harder to understand why so many seem to think that that is the only meaning. Or why—and this is my main argument—there should be only one explanation.
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Column: Breaking the survey mirror

Published on May 14, 2013.

I must disagree with the esteemed Randy David, when in his May 9 column he lumped election surveys together with “political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, [and] corporate financing of electoral campaigns” as obstacles to modernity.

By that measure, every single modern polity that the Philippines can possibly look to as template is premodern. In fact, given that mature democracies use election surveys even more heavily than the Philippines does, by Randy’s own criteria they must be even more backward than we are.

I must quarrel especially with his reduction of the purpose of election surveys to the general notion of trending, and thus of the bandwagon. To quote the passage in full: “Interestingly, theorists of modernity do not fret over the fact that premodern societies do not measure up to these standards. They believe that societal evolution eventually favors the emergence of autonomous political systems. In short, whether or not there’s an explicit law banning them, political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, corporate financing of electoral campaigns, and the use of surveys to sway voters are bound to become less important, or even obsolete, as society becomes modern.”
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Column: “It’s entirely about character”

Some readers misunderstood this column as a concatenation of endorsements, less than a week before the election. My purpose, however, was to do as I did the week before the 2010 vote, and come clean with my choices. Published on May 7, 2013.

That line is from “The American President,” a political romance starring Michael Douglas which the incumbent American president recently described (for comedic effect, but not inaccurately) as “Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasy.”

The quote comes from a climactic speech, which to my mind best expresses the view that it is personal character—not platform or policy or ideology—that matters most in politics. (I’m tempted to rank this speech right up there with Charlie Chaplin’s, at the end of “The Great Dictator,” if only because it is less abstract, more grounded.)
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Column: Trillanes, Honasan most vulnerable now?

A reading that proved to be erroneous, at least in terms of actual election results. Published on April 23, 2013.

The results of the April 13-15 Social Weather Stations survey are in, and for the first time two nonreelectionist candidates for the Senate have broken into the Top 4. The number of survey respondents who said they would vote for Nancy Binay and Cynthia Villar rose from 47 percent in March to 49 percent in April, enough for them to tie for joint 3rd-4th place.

But I would guess that the real story from the April results, from the point of view of the campaigns themselves, is the sharp declines in voter support for the ex-soldiers running for reelection, Antonio Trillanes IV and Gringo Honasan.

(Caveat emptor: As I have done in previous columns, I equate the voter preference of the respondents participating in these surveys with voter support, and assume that these numbers will translate, more or less directly, into actual votes. More qualifications need to be made, but that is the gist of it.)
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Column: The true test of a Catholic vote

Published on April 16, 2013.

I see that Brother Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai Catholic charismatic renewal movement is up to his favorite old trick again: preaching to the converted. With the usual fanfare, he named the first six senatorial candidates endorsed by the so-called White Vote, a bloc of Catholic Church-affiliated organizations, at a prayer assembly last Saturday. It is no coincidence that five of the six are doing well in the surveys.

JV Ejercito, Koko Pimentel, Cynthia Villar, Antonio Trillanes and Gringo Honasan rank among the Top 9 in the latest available Social Weather Stations survey; only Mitos Magsaysay is—as of that mid-March survey—statistically still outside the probable winners’ circle.

In other words, even without Velarde’s White Vote, five of the six candidates stand a good chance of winning a Senate seat. By a kind of political alchemy, many of these candidates will feel a sense of gratitude, perhaps even a sense of obligation, to Velarde for the endorsement—even if in fact they did not need it. It will be 1998 all over again.

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Column: Will Risa or Dick make it? Survey says …

I missed my deadline for April 2, just as the campaigns for the 2013 midterm elections were heating up; I tried to make up for it with seven election-related columns in the next several weeks. This one, published on April 9, 2013, was the first.

Supporters of Risa Hontiveros were the first to point this out to me. She was doing worse at this stage of the campaign in 2010, they said, and yet she still came tantalizingly close to winning then.

Let’s take a look at the SWS surveys from three years ago. In the January 2010 poll, she came in at 22-23, well outside the prospective winners’ circle. In February 2010, she improved to 18-20, but then lost ground in March 2010, falling to 22-24. (She would come back strongly in the succeeding months, improving to 16-18 in April and to 14-15 in the May 2010 survey, before finally landing, after the votes were counted, in 13th place.)

Her numbers in 2013 are healthier. In the January 2013 poll, she came in at 18-19. She consolidated her position in both the February and March surveys, claiming solo 18th place. This is, of course, still six steps removed from a seat in the Senate. But the campaign implications are clear: She is starting from a higher base, and if she can muster the same momentum she put to good use in 2010, especially in the second half of a 90-day campaign, she just might break into the circle of 12.

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Column: Does the Holy Spirit read social media?

In which I suggest, ever so gently, that two cardinals revisit their theology of the media. Published on March 26, 2013.

The retired cardinal archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, had a ready answer when asked, upon returning from the conclave in Rome, why the media failed to predict the identity of the new pope. “God does not read social media,” he said.

That is the quote as found in Lito Zulueta’s comprehensive March 17 report in the Inquirer. On Zulueta’s Twitter account, the quote, tweeted at least a day before the newspaper came out, specifically names the third person of the Holy Trinity: “because the holy spirit does not read social media” (no caps).

The Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time blog remembered Rosales’ quip in the same, specific, fashion. Cris Larano’s engaging post quoted Rosales as saying: “The joke in Rome is that Pope Francis was elected because the Holy Spirit didn’t read social media … or watch CNN.”
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Column: Quezon on the 5 Philippine Republics

MLQ3’s official response to questions I posed in a previous column; published on March 19, 2013.

Manolo Quezon, Malacañang’s resident thinker, was kind enough to respond in detail to my column questioning the constitutional basis or historical warrant for the 5th Republic. Since his reply is over twice as long as our letters page permits, I am running it in this space; however, I have had to delete about two paragraphs’ worth of detail to make it all fit:

… [W]hat is produced by the government is bound by what the government itself has proclaimed to be its official history. Official history is more rigid in many ways, than the free-flowing and thought-provoking debate among those interested in Philippine history. Official history is bound by Philippine laws and executive issuances, which dictate official policy or the public consensus on historical questions.

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“Habemus Papam”

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The third edition of the March 14, 2013 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer–which went to press past three in the morning.

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August 20, 2013 · 7:12 am

Column: Tagle’s pope; Benedict vs the media

Published on March 12, 2013, at a time of heightened speculation about the possibility of a pope from Asia.

I haven’t finished reading Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s dissertation, a theological thriller titillatingly titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II: The Influence of Paul VI,” just yet, but one passage has struck me with the force of revelation.

“But Paul VI also poignantly laid bare the irony at the heart of the papacy: the divinely instituted center of communion constitutes in the present time the greatest block to Christian unity. The lofty view of the papal office supported by a sure faith is cast in an almost tragic shade.”

This insight, which I understand Paul himself recognized, is sandwiched between a recapitulation of his “abundant reflection” and “innumerable musings” on papal primacy as the gift of the first Vatican Council, and his “slow acceptance” of the teaching that supreme power over the Church was shared by the communion of all bishops, “united to its head.”

This tension which Paul felt with all his being reflected one of the central challenges of the second Vatican Council. In Tagle’s formulation: “Collegiality as a mark of the renewal of Vatican II must be related to the papacy as defined by Vatican I. This issue proved to be one of the most contested in the council”—and gave Paul, perhaps the most conflicted of all 20th-century popes, “the most torment.”
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