Published on November 17, 2015.
ROOTING THROUGH my notes while doing research on the first Jesuit pope, I realized I had not yet shared the following remarks I made at a Province Forum of the Philippine Jesuits last year. Perhaps they may still be of some use:
Let me start from where I work: Journalism needs more Jesuits. I do not mean the profession needs more Jesuit columnists like Fr. Joaquin Bernas or Jesuit bloggers like Fr. Joel Tabora or Jesuit entrepreneurial advise-dispensers like Fr. Javy Alpasa. Or at least I do not mean that necessarily; it is also true that we in the media can always do with more Jesuit-produced content. The rotating column God’s Word Today is yet another good example; it has the advantage of being written by Fr. Jett Villarin and Fr. Manoling Francisco, among others. It only suffers from the disadvantage of appearing in the wrong newspaper!
What I really mean is that journalism needs more Jesuits as subject experts.
Published on November 10, 2015.
LIKE MANY other Filipinos, I went to register for my biometrics on the last possible day. It wasn’t the original plan, of course, and in fact I did go to the first special registration conducted in our barangay hall and also to another one held in a nearby mall. Both times, however, I was late; by the time I got in, the cut-off for the line had already been reached. No excuses—I should have gone months earlier, when it would have taken a few minutes, perhaps less than 10, to complete the entire exercise.
Instead, I ended up going to Quezon City Hall at dawn on Saturday, Oct. 31, where I waited in line for nine and a half hours. Like I said, no excuses.
But standing in line confirmed key lessons I learned from queueing for other purposes, in other places. I do not mean to place the hard-working staff of the Commission on Elections, or the staff of Quezon City Hall, under a harsh light; indeed, some of the lessons were confirmed by what they did, not by what they failed to do. I do want to offer constructive criticism, for the next time a government agency or a private institution needs to manage, and engage, a queuing crowd. Continue reading
Published on November 3, 2015.
I GOT the sense that the earth made an extra revolution or two last month; so much history was being made.
In the Philippines, the middle of October was the time for prospective candidates to file their certificates of candidacy for the 2016 elections. Despite the carnival-like atmosphere and the unprecedented number of applications for president, the filing period brought clarity to the country’s favorite pastime of politics.
Of the many words that filled the airwaves and the column inches and the digital pages, those of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte were the most awaited and the most analyzed. He had to decline the presidential draft that has been following him for the last several months not only once (at the start of the week) but twice (in the last hours of the filing period). On Monday, Oct. 12, he read a statement that repeated his many attempts to decline the draft, and then added: “We have a problem in the family, and in the order of things, you do what is closest to your heart.” (This was what he told the Inquirer last August.) Continue reading
Published on October 27, 2015.
In 2013, in “Marcos was the worst,” I compared Gloria Arroyo and Joseph Estrada to Ferdinand Marcos in terms of “fiscal dictatorship” and outright corruption, and called them “rank amateurs.” There was simply no comparison.
As I wrote then: “Marcos institutionalized corruption on such a scale we continue to feel its effects today. In his 20 years in power, the country’s foreign debt metastasized from about $1 billion to over $25 billion; in a statement released last year, [the Freedom from Debt Coalition] repeats the estimate that as much as a third of all that debt, about $8 billion, went into his pockets or those of his cronies. The country will continue paying for all that debt until 2025.”
The point I sought to make was that Marcos, by far, was the most corrupt man in Philippine history.
In 2014, I followed up with a consideration of Marcos’ subversion of the Supreme Court of his time. In “Marcos was the worst (2),” I related his “consulta” with incumbent justices, which was his way of lobbying them to rule in his favor. “The discussions did not only reek of legal and ethical conflicts; they were patently illegal, deeply unethical—and subversive.” But the truly troubling thing was that “the sessions with [Fred Ruiz] Castro (or other justices) did not end in 1971. In the same way that Marcos’ suspension of the writ was a trial run for the declaration of martial law, his meetings with the justices paved the way for more secret consultations” after martial law had been declared. Continue reading
Published on October 20, 2015.
BONIFACIO BEGAN to eat his simple fare, and while thus employed he heard a rifle shot that made him start. He put down the bowl and looked blankly at his uncle-in-law. His heart beat loudly, savagely against his breast.
“What was that, Uncle?” he asked, fidgeting nervously. “Did they kill my brother?”
“No, my son,” the old man answered laconically.
“Well, how is he doing? Please feed him, too,” he implored, fearing that his brother was suffering from hunger. Continue reading
Published on October 13, 2015.
If Teodoro Agoncillo was the Moses of the class-conflict theory of the Philippine Revolution, the historian Renato Constantino was its Joshua—he led their followers into the promised land. Since the late 1960s, the rich-versus-poor theory has become mainstream fare, even conventional wisdom; despite the efforts of the director and the cast of “Heneral Luna” to add layers of nuance to their interpretation of history, for instance, the movie’s narrative momentum leads easily to a confirmation of the Agoncillo-Constantino thesis. It is the frame that fits most conveniently.
To Agoncillo’s pioneering work, Constantino added structure and consistency; unfortunately for the Philippine revolutionary experience, it was the structure and consistency of a Marxist ideology. In groundbreaking, icon-shattering lectures and essays such as “Veneration without Understanding” and “The Miseducation of the Filipino,” and in forceful textbook-length arguments like “A Past Revisited,” Constantino advocated, in the words of his most perceptive critic, “the importance of the correct understanding of the Filipino past in order to have insight into the problems of the present.” The scholar John Schumacher, SJ, summed up the historian’s driving impulse: “[H]e has expounded on the pernicious role that the official view of the Filipino past inculcated by colonial historiography and the American educational system has had in disfiguring in the minds of Filipinos the true story of their past.”
It is a profound irony, then, that Constantino sought to recover that “true story” using a Marxist framework, which the revolutionaries themselves did not use and which the revolutionary experience disproved.
Published on October 6, 2015.
The most influential Filipino historian of the 20th century was the formidable Teodoro Agoncillo, who wrote “The Revolt of the Masses” and changed our view of history. Not all of his influence, however, was salutary or, in truth, properly historiographical. He wrote some bad history.
As the provocative success of the historical epic “Heneral Luna” should prove, his driving idea that class conflict defined the Philippine revolution and explains its ultimate failure has come to be so dominant, so second-nature to any discussion of Philippine history, that it has even come to wrap one historical figure he did not deem heroic in the one-size-fits-all mantle of class-conscious heroism.
I mean Antonio Luna, of course. In the course of a series of conversations with Ambeth Ocampo, which Ambeth has been kind enough to recall in these pages, Agoncillo once waxed eloquent against Luna’s betrayal of the first phase of the revolution (“Luna not only did not join the Revolution of 1896, he was a traitor!”) before reaching a thundering conclusion: “As a matter of fact, I do not consider Luna a hero. How did he become a hero? He never won any battle, papaano mo sasabihing hero iyan [how can you say that’s a hero]?” Continue reading
Published on September 29, 2015.
In “Heneral Luna,” the actor Alvin Anson portrays Jose Alejandrino—the revolutionary general whose memoirs serve as a supplemental source for the acclaimed movie. Those memoirs, published in 1933 and translated into English in 1949, offer the fullest portrait of his good friend, the mercurial Antonio Luna. It gives us vivid impressions (to borrow Luna’s favorite literary style) of his student days in Europe, his tumultuous year with the Army of the Malolos Republic—and, in 1896, his hour of treason and cowardice.
A two-paragraph section in Alejandrino’s “The Price of Freedom” and titled “Antonio Luna in the year 1896” makes for necessary reading.
“It appears in official documents that in this period Luna committed the greatest error of his life in denouncing the existence of the Katipunan and in revealing, during his imprisonment after the first outbreak of the rebellion, the names of some of his friends affiliated with the Society. Later, he explained however to me his aforesaid acts by saying that with the physical and moral tortures which he suffered during his imprisonment, and upon being assured by the Spaniards that he had been squealed upon by his own friends, denouncing him as an accomplice in the rebellion, his violent character made him lose his better judgment. And having fallen for the scheme woven by the Spaniards, he declared that those who had denounced him were more guilty than he.
“The events of 1896 separated us from each other, he having been prosecuted and later on sentenced to suffer imprisonment in Spain, while I left the country for China and Japan [on official missions for Emilio Aguinaldo to procure arms for the revolution]. We were able to see each [other] again in Kabite toward the month of July, 1898. He was returning home after having served his sentence in the Model Prison of Madrid, and he brought with him in his baggage books on military strategy and tactics and treatises on field fortifications. Above all, he brought with him a desire to atone for his past mistakes.” Continue reading
The first of five columns provoked, or inspired, by two viewings of Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna.” Published on September 22, 2015.
Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” is a masterpiece of filmmaking; we should all see it. But it is, primarily, art; only, secondarily, history. Learning to distinguish one from the other is an exhilarating, necessary, education.
The “but” in the lead is a testament to the movie’s persuasive power. Much of this power lies in the astute casting, in the sweeping cinematography, in the compelling pace of the storytelling; some of it rests on the familiar structure of the narrative: of one against many, of country before self, of nation above class, of good versus evil.
The movie begins, and ends, with a disclaimer about creative license. Tarog’s reimagining of parts of Philippine history has inspired spirited discussion in the classroom or animated conversations over coffee or beer, about the shape of our history and about our own role in the shaping. (I overheard one conversation between early-twentysomethings; they were hoping that, perhaps, just perhaps, box-office results would lead to a trilogy of movies—a trilogy about Philippine revolutionary heroes, not comic-book or Young Adult characters!) Continue reading
The last of the “path to victory” series, published on September 8, 2015.
I think Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is genuinely conflicted about running for president. His “big announcement” yesterday afternoon categorically renouncing a presidential bid must have dismayed his emerging network of supporters; at the same time, he must have been acutely aware that a genuine draft is extremely rare in Philippine politics. Did he do the right thing?
Last month, I tried to assess the election prospects of Mar Roxas and Jojo Binay: two declared candidates for whom not running is not an option. (It is a mistake to think that Binay will avoid a presidential campaign to ease the political and legal pressure on his family; becoming president is the vice president’s best defense.) I also tried to weigh the chances of a reluctant Grace Poe; as a first-term senator, she has the option to run again for the Senate in 2019. Duterte falls in this second category; he is on his seventh term as city mayor. Having taken a break from running Davao City in 1998 by serving in Congress (where he says he was bored beyond tears) and then again in 2010 (when he served as vice mayor), Duterte can look forward to two more terms in City Hall.
Also, and even though he doesn’t look it, he is already 70; he is just a few years younger than Binay. When he visited the Inquirer several days ago, he was forthcoming about where the strongest resistance to any presidential plan lay: his family. The summary he offered of his family’s main argument was in metaphorical Bisaya: Why are you even thinking of running, when you’re starting to walk with a limp? When he left the newsroom past midnight, after more than three hours in the hot seat, he did seem to have a slight but detectable kink in his walk. Continue reading
Written on the afternoon of Monday, August 31, 2015, an hour or so after the Iglesia Ni Cristo protesters left Edsa, and published the following day. The lucky timing led to over 60,000 page views of the original column (my 360th, as it happens), and about 17,500 shares on Facebook. Plus hundreds of very interesting comments.
Wow. What just happened?
As I write this, the smoke has cleared from the Iglesia Ni Cristo protest action on Edsa. The protesters have gone home; the intersection of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue and Shaw Boulevard, the main site of the mass action, has been tidied up; the major satellite rallies in Cebu and Davao have been called off.
Protest organizers eagerly declared “victory” when they announced the end of the protest, saying the thousands of church faithful who had taken to the streets can now go home because the Iglesia ni Cristo had reached an “agreement” with the government. What that agreement stipulates they did not say. Neither (as of the time of writing) has the government.
I am skeptical that any agreement has in fact been reached—aside from the strictly logistical understanding needed to allow the protesters to leave Edsa in orderly fashion. Of course I could be wrong, but it does not seem likely to me that a famously stubborn president like Mr. Aquino, buoyed by renewed popularity and unfailingly loyal to his friends, would abandon Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on the altar of political expediency. Continue reading
Published on August 25, 2015.
I want to deconstruct the instructively skewed political analysis of self-described “observer” Serge Osmeña, senator of the Republic, but this exercise will have to wait. Having started with a reading of Mar Roxas’ possible “path to victory,” and having followed that up with a look at Jojo Binay’s still very viable track, I am bound to consider Grace Poe’s own chances of winning.
Can Poe win? The objective answer is clear: Yes, she can. Will she win? As the current frontrunner, the odds are in her favor; if experience is any guide, however, it is in fact still too early to tell. We should have a better idea by early next year.
Reducing these banal facts to writing will strike many as an overbelaboring of the obvious. Surely the trends are clear? As recorded by both Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia, the trend lines since the second half of 2014 have been on the up and up for Poe, downward for Binay, a roller-coaster ride for Roxas. The smart money must be on Poe. Continue reading
Published on August 18, 2015.
FOR A couple of seconds, right at the end of the President’s annual address, I thought I saw her hesitate—as if the waves of applause that greeted her had stirred a familiar thought, as if she half-wanted to say something more.
She certainly seemed pensive at the very end; it was a triumphant speech, but from where I sat, she did not seem to bask in the final, uproarious standing ovation. She waited for the applause to wind down, and then said, very simply, almost inaudibly, ‘Thank you.’
Perhaps she felt, at the end of the briefest of her five State of the Nation speeches, that she had not done enough, that in spite of all the staff work and President’s time that had gone into the speech, she had nevertheless come up short. Continue reading
Column No. 357. Published on August 11, 2015.
We should ask the same questions of the first declared candidate for president that we asked of the second. Thus: Can Jojo Binay win in 2016? Despite the recent loss of his frontrunner status, the objective answer must still be yes. Will he win? We should have a better idea by March next year.
Again, these answers are a belaboring of the obvious—except that President Aquino’s endorsement of Mar Roxas as his preferred successor has colored partisan analysis by sharpening the contrast between the two political rivals. There is now a palpable sense of excitement among Roxas’ supporters, especially among the true believers, that because the endorsement was announced at the right time and in exactly the right way, momentum is on Roxas’ side.
That remains to be seen. The plans of Sen. Grace Poe, the popular political newcomer who topped the Senate elections in 2013, are very much a factor; indeed, Roxas and his chief lieutenants are still busy wooing Poe to join his ticket as vice presidential candidate. (I think even the seating arrangement at the head table in the so-called show of force by Roxas’ political allies in Greenhills, San Juan, last week was designed with Poe in mind: Roxas was seated between Mr. Aquino on his left and two prospective running mates on his right, the popular actress and accomplished politician Vilma Santos-Recto, governor of Batangas, and civil society favorite Rep. Leni Robredo.)
And Binay is not exactly standing still. A week after the President’s State of the Nation Address, he offered his own “true” take on the national situation; he used the occasion to deepen his criticism of the administration he used to serve.
Can he win? The necessary conditions are there. Continue reading
Published on August 4, 2015.
CAN MAR Roxas win? The objective answer is yes. Will he? The most realistic answer is: It’s too early to tell.
I find myself belaboring these obvious points, because the theory—or the narrative, if you will—that Roxas is a sure loser is making the rounds again. (For a couple of days after President Aquino endorsed Roxas as the Liberal Party candidate for president in the 2016 elections, the news and social media environment for Roxas turned decidedly favorable. Call it the endorsement bump.) But some of the same people who thrill to the possibility of a Miriam Defensor Santiago presidential run (which would be her third), or declare confidently that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has the right strategy and enough money to lay claim to the presidency, sweepingly discount Roxas’ chances because of his “low” ratings. But in the June 2015 Social Weather Stations survey, only 4 percent of the respondents saw Santiago as one of the three best leaders to succeed President Aquino, while only 3 percent listed Marcos. About a fifth of the respondents, or 21 percent, included Roxas in their list. Continue reading
Published on July 28, 2015.
IN JULY 2005, at the lowest point in Gloria Arroyo’s presidency, she went to the Batasan for the State of the Nation Address rite not so much to defend herself, as to test her political allies’ defenses. She received an enthusiastic welcome.
To witness the outpouring of support, to hear the lusty cheers and to see the outstretched hands, for a leader who only a couple of weeks before had considered resigning because of an election fraud controversy, was to learn a crucial lesson in political resilience.
The political class respects power, recognizes it, rallies to it—and nothing adds sheen to power like surviving a crisis.
I am reminded of this fundamental fact of Philippine politics because of the spreading notion that President Aquino is “losing clout,” is becoming a “lame duck,” as he begins his last year in office.
This notion runs counter to Philippine political experience. Continue reading
Published on July 21, 2015.
THE LAST two columns—a consideration of the returning Filipino’s frustration that the Philippines is “being left behind,” followed by a discussion of the “deadly” Filipino habits that help explain why—lead us to the necessary question: What can we do about it? The several hundred comments on both Disqus and Facebook (I have tried to read every single one) have mostly been thoughtful if pained responses: elaborations of the argument, illustrations from personal experience. Continue reading
Published on July 14, 2015.
THE HUNDREDS of comments in response to last week’s column, on “The misery of the Filipino,” were largely empathetic; many shared the same deep sense of possibility and the same sense of sharp frustration. The response inspires me to take the next step and ask the unavoidable question: What are we doing wrong?
A Malaysian academic swears some of the best medical doctors in Singapore are Filipino. (I think some of the best bankers, too.) A Thai media executive investing in digital believes, or rather simply assumes, that his regional website should be developed by “creative” Filipinos. A famous New York City-based newspaper designer describes a Filipino colleague as “the best art director in the world.” I know a Filipino manager who is the consultant of choice of one large American enterprise doing business in different parts of Africa. Many of us can offer our own examples of Filipinos doing excellent work abroad.
The pattern of excellence can assume large-scale form, on the level of entire countries or industries. Indonesian companies have Filipino corporate executives working at the highest levels. Some of the world’s best universities have Filipino students at the top of their class or doing pioneering research work. Filipino architects have helped shape the skyline in Brunei; Filipino engineers have helped tame the deserts of the Middle East; Filipino mariners have helped define the modern maritime industry.
And yet, back home, this pattern of excellence is difficult to find. The continuing MRT fiasco and the unresolved scandal of the Mindanao blackouts are defining failures of the Aquino administration, but the cause of the “misery of the Filipino” I wrote about—“the unhappiness of a citizen seeing her country being left behind”—is not merely political, goes beyond the lifespan of single administrations. The endemic corruption, the absence of “gleaming infrastructure” to match those of neighboring countries, even the lack of discipline at traffic intersections or indeed on any road where jeepneys and tricycles can load or unload passengers anywhere, at any time: These and similar conditions of life in these islands go way back, some right past Rizal’s generation. Continue reading
Published on July 7, 2015.
TRAVEL BROADENS the mind; for the Filipino tourist or scholar or worker abroad, it must also deepen the misery of being Filipino. Do not get me wrong; Filipinos are a famously happy people, with an extraordinary capacity for both work and play. I can also attest, from my own happy experience, to the resurgence in patriotic pride since the late 1980s.
Whether it was the People Power revolution in 1986 which electrified the world, or the 1991 Southeast Asian Games we hosted and nearly won, or the decade and a half of uninterrupted economic growth since 2001; whether it is the worldwide fame of a boxing all-time great, or the phenomenal rise of a completely new industry in business process outsourcing, or the determined challenge against an expansionist superpower in the West Philippine Sea, or the continuing celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of a heroic generation—I share the sense that many Filipinos are proud of their country, with an uncomplicated sense of pride. It is a pride different in degree from the identity-anxious nationalism of the 1960s, different in kind from the sham Filipinism promoted by a dictatorial regime in the 1970s.
At least that is my sense: There is today a greater clarity about our place in the sun. Continue reading
Published on June 30, 2015.
Two “opinion pieces” made the rounds and generated enormous controversy in the last few days. One was a Facebook post by a University of the Philippines professor; the other a sharply worded dissenting opinion by a famous justice of the US Supreme Court. Both, in my view, offer instructive examples of extremist thinking — that is, of a lived philosophy or ideology taken, in one particular, unfortunate instance, to the extreme. In their desperation of the moment, both the leftist sociologist Gerard Lanuza and the right-wing jurist Antonin Scalia came off sounding like grown men whining. Continue reading
Column No. 350, published on June 23, 2015.
For a good many of us, “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) will be the most subversive text we will read all year, or indeed for many years. The extraordinary eco-encyclical from Pope Francis contains explosive truths, not about the science of climate change, but about the persistence of poverty, the excesses of a market economy, the fetish for technology and the technocratic solution, the consequences of middle-class aspirations, the failings of the media, even the role of the human in a “rapidifying” world.
“Laudato Si” offers the kind of radical reading that subverts our assumptions, challenges our deepest convictions, makes us see anew. The lengthy document attempts to give a truly global treatment of the ecological catastrophe we all face; some or many of the notes the Pope strikes will be familiar to us, but taken together, the whole acquires a resonance unheard since “Gaudium et Spes” signaled the reconciliation between the Church and the modern world. Continue reading
Published on June 16, 2015.
I wish to revisit a topic that colleague Oscar Franklin Tan and I have debated in recent weeks: the role of commentary in the so-called free market of ideas. I have the sense that while we are both believers in free speech, we define the terms of the argument differently. To be more precise, we may have different ideas of what passes for publishable commentary in newspaper opinion pages.
The argument has not lost its appeal for me since Oscar first raised what I called his “seductive” but “untenable and misguided” appeal to Inquirer editors to screen out controversial opinion pieces like those contributed by retired Court of Appeals justice Mario Guariña III; I have continued to review my own response, borne out of the experience of working in opinion sections in three newspapers, including in particular almost a decade and a half with the Inquirer, to check my biases and trace the consequences of my position. But I am led to return to the subject because Oscar’s criticism of an opinion piece, in another newspaper, raises an even more uncomfortable question. Continue reading
Published on June 9, 2015.
THE hit HBO series is as real as fantasy gets. The world imagined by the novelist George R. R. Martin and translated into compelling television by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss is both celebrated and condemned for its controversial “realism”—conspiracies are hatched in brothels, money and beauty are traded as political capital, the well-meaning are put to death.
For a show that includes ice-treading zombies and fire-breathing dragons, “Game of Thrones” is widely seen as a brutally frank dramatization of life’s hard truths. The powerful and ambitious are Machiavellian in their scheming; the state is Orwellian in its dependence on spies and informers; life itself is Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and (as in the story of the good, well-meaning Ned Stark) always at risk of being suddenly shortened.
Scholars of international politics have taken to the show. Leading journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy have mined the series (and sometimes the books on which the series is based) for lessons on international relations (IR) or political alliances or the nature of power itself. Continue reading
Published on June 2, 2015.
IT IS an imposing sight. The massive balete tree in Maria Aurora town, in Aurora province, is about as tall as a 15-story building and at its base is as wide as a three- or four-bedroom house. Tourists visit it by the busload, drawn by a simple superlative: It is known as the largest balete tree in Asia.
There is some slip-sliding, sometimes, and local guides also call it the oldest—but that title probably goes to the balete tree in Canlaon City, in Negros Oriental, which has an estimated age of 1,300 years, or more than twice as old. (I have not yet been to Canlaon myself.) But the tree in Maria Aurora is an extraordinary sight; first there is its sheer size; then there are the thousands of hanging roots that have descended (the tree starts as an air plant) to form an incredibly dense curtain right around it; and then there is the gap, just big enough to accommodate a crouching adult human, in the middle of the tree.
It takes only a couple of minutes to walk through the tree. The roots inside have been smoothened over the years, from contact with tourists’ suddenly helpless hands and wayward limbs, but being inside the tree, and looking up from within its hollow core at a hall of roots, is an eerie, unforgettable experience. Continue reading