Category Archives: Nieman Notes

Column: An eyewitness account of Mabini’s funeral

Katas ng Harvard. Published on January 22, 2013.

While rummaging through microfiche copies of newspaper clippings “relating to the Philippine question” at Harvard’s Widener Library last year, I came across the following excerpt from a diary recorded by an American woman visiting the Philippines in 1903. Several entries from the diary had been published in a newspaper sympathetic to Philippine aspirations, likely the Boston Evening Transcript, and this one, in particular, all but jumped out at me.

Not even Cesal Adib Majul’s standard biography of Apolinario Mabini contains a detailed account of his funeral—a massive outpouring of grief, prefiguring the 1983 funeral of Ninoy Aquino. Mabini died on May 13, 1903; he was buried on May 16, a Saturday. The diary entry is dated the following Tuesday; together with other excerpts, it was published on July 17, 1903.
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Kneeling knight

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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: 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: 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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David’s The Death of Socrates

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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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An Instagram

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One of many photos I took of Memorial Chapel — to my mind the very center, the still point, of the Harvard experience.

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Reni’s Charity

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“Charity,” by the Italian Guido Reni, at the Met in New York, is stop-in-your-tracks beautiful. I certainly found myself rooted to the ground, when I visited last September. Reni’s vision of idealized female beauty draws you in; everything seems to revolve around her — even the multi-racial children she nurses who are awake look into her eyes, to catch her attention — but I think the real source of attraction lies outside the idealized features: the hint of a cleft chin, the first signs of loosening hair, the serene but distant gaze. Is that a looking at, or a looking for?

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David’s The Holy Family

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Hands down, the most affecting portrait of the Holy Family I’ve ever seen. “The Holy Family,” by the Netherlandish master Gerard David, hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — or at least it was there the last time I visited, and when I took this close-up. I was drawn first by the color and the small scale of the work; according to the museum’s notes, it was first used for private prayers, some 500 years ago. And then the mood of the painting struck me: It is a portrait of anxiety, of a recognizably ordinary family consumed by worry or rumors of an incomprehensible fate; poor Joseph did not even have time or chance to clean his fingernails.

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My heart jumped …

when I saw who had collected (and donated?) a most useful set of newspaper clippings I found at Harvard’s magnificent Widener Library. And to top it all: Somewhere in the middle of the reel (the collection was in microfiche format), I read an unnamed American woman’s eyewitness account of Apolinario Mabini’s funeral, in 1903. I experienced several varieties of religious experience, right then and there.

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