Category Archives: Spiral Notebook

Under the Gun: Democracy in the Crosshairs

Eisenhower notice

Keynote at the 10th anniversary of the Eisenhower Fellows Association of the Philippines, on October 5, 2018. [The passages I bracketed in parentheses I did not read aloud anymore, to cut down on the speaking time.] I ran excerpts from the speech in my column of October 9. The opinion piece “The Marcos family’s last gasp,” written for the Asia News Network’s Writers Circle, first appeared in Vietnam News on Saturday, October 6, 2018.

Is the democratic project in the Philippines in the crosshairs?

To ask the question is itself already a sign—of something. I think we can all agree that, generally speaking, we raise medical concerns when we are ailing, not when we are in the full flush of good health. We ask whether our democracy is under the gun, when we sense that it is under threat, or a target.

Sometimes the threat is not obvious. Sometimes it is massive and persistent, but too familiar to be visible. We can take our initial bearings from the man after whom your fellowship is named. President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, famously warned against the “unwarranted influence” on “our liberties and democratic processes” of what he called the “military-industrial complex.”

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Playing catch-up (again)

Will start adding my 2018 columns to this little corner of the web. Coming up: Column No. 475.

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Pages from ON THE MARCH: The Jesuits in the Philippines since the Restoration

Editing this book (the second coffee table book on the Jesuits published by Monching Cruz and Manny Engwa, to raise funds for the Philippine Jesuit Aid Association) was a gift, a joy, an answered prayer—and a way to give back and to give thanks to the many Jesuits who served as mentors or colleagues.

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Column: Duterte’s secret

“… [is] the accumulation of political capital through the systematic abuse of the rule of law. Mr. Duterte said it himself, about using his prosecutorial power to plant both intrigue and evidence. This is how he understands things get done.” Published on December 5, 2017.

The attempt to start a groundswell of public support for a “revolutionary government” failed dismally last week; some supporters of the Duterte administration have not yet come to terms with the brutal political reality, a year and a half since Rodrigo Duterte took office, that campaigning as outsiders is entirely different from governing as the establishment. Does this mean that the existential threat to the constitutional order that was the “RevGov” attempt has ceased to, well, exist?

The answer is No, because here is the truth of the matter: A deep antidemocratic spirit, hostile to the rule of law, characterizes Dutertismo. And this spirit will continue to seek ways to express itself—if not through the self-coup that is a revolutionary government, then through the extension and even expansion of martial law, the weaponization of Congress’ power to impeach, the continuing abuse of the justice department’s prosecutorial powers. Continue reading

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Restoration is both going forward and going back in time

It’s been a week and a day since, but Toti Cerda’s “Restorer III” is still fresh on my mind. This homage to twinned icons—the muralist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, who died in 1969, and the ubiquitous smartphone, whose Internet origins go back to around the same time—was the work that moved me the most at the 2018 Art Fair Philippines. Cerda updates Botong’s “The Nose Flute” by integrating a smartphone into the ritual scene, but at the same transforms the 1955 painting into what looks like a much older mural (a second tribute to Botong) that would not look out of place in Rome. The colors and the perceived texture of this 48″ x 60″ painting (acrylic on canvas) remind me of ancient Roman murals and mosaics, with the bolder red of the wrap-around woven possibly hinting at the Renaissance. But of course the artist in shorts and sleeveless shirt is a very Filipino type (and adds yet another layer to a beautiful and complicated work). Endlessly fascinating.


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“The O of ecstasy”

I wrote this originally as a Facebook Note. 

A personal hero of mine died yesterday. The great poet Richard Wilbur was 96.

He wrote beautifully, embracing form and tradition to plumb the truth of “the things of this world.” (The title of one of his books of poetry, taken from one of his most famous poems.) He described our world with all the innocence of a faithful eye:

“Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof …”

Even something as ordinary as peeled onion became transformed, or rather was seen in a higher light:

“How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.”

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On the level of craft alone, this movie is must-viewing


I saw “Respeto” a second time last night, and it was even better than I remembered. Just on the level of craft alone, the movie is must-viewing: The actors do not seem to be performing at all, but only living out their portion of life. (Dido De La Paz is unforgettable as Doc; the rap stars Abra and Loonie are a revelation—but it seems unfair to point to individual actors when the ensemble acting is so fluid and generous and on point.) The story is gritty AF but punctuated repeatedly by genuinely funny moments. (In this sense, it is very much like the Noli.) The cinematography finds the hidden poetry of Manila’s ugly quarter (the tracking shots,  the chase scenes in what is our own flyover country, above all the calming, clarifying episodes in the cemetery). The writing is first-rate (and the English subtitles match it). Not least: the music! I am not a hiphop or rap fan, but I came away from the first viewing with a new respect for this nasty, brutal but legitimate art. (That the rap battles were improvised on set, as director Treb Monteras said in one interview, is another reason to respect this angry, difficult form.)

The theme is bleak, and the reality the movie gives vivid life to is as complicated as our own tortuous history. But that this independent movie even got made, and that it is so good, equal parts heart and craft, is both proof and source of hope.


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A series of unfortunate appointments

Without meaning to, I started an occasional series of columns on unfortunate appointments to key government positions. It was prompted by Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay’s kowtowing (a word with Chinese roots!)  to an aggressive China; I patterned the use of the word “unfortunate” after Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” (Irony, though, sometimes refuses to travel.)

“The unfortunate Mr. Yasay” was published on July 12, 2016, the same day the arbitral tribunal awarded the Philippines a near-complete victory in its case against China. “No one wants to go to war,” I wrote. “[T]hat’s what diplomacy and international law are for, to assert our rights and our claims without recourse to violence. It is unfortunate that, even before he starts, Yasay has surrender on his mind.”

On August 23, 2016, I followed up (that is, it became a series in my mind) with a column on “The unfortunate Salvador Panelo,” then, as now, the chief presidential legal counsel. Many things are unfortunate about Sal Panelo, but I focused on the quality of his lawyering. “He argues like an ambulance chaser …. The great principles that animate the higher practice of the law, not merely to resolve disputes but to discover truth and dispense justice, are inconveniences that must be rationalized away.” Also: “Panelo has … argued, in more than one instance, that basic principles of law do not mean what generations of lawyers have been taught they meant.”

Both Panelo and Yasay (since rejected by the Commission on Appointments because of his American citizenship) were appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte. The third column was on an appointee of President Gloria Arroyo’s—Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Diosdado Peralta. His decision rationalizing the burial of the remains of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani provoked great outrage. On November 15, 2016, in “The unfortunate Justice Peralta,” I wrote: “There is none so blind as he who refuses to see. Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s ponencia in the Marcos burial cases will go down in history as the cowardly rationalizations of a willfully blind man; he deserves the opprobrium coming his way. He still has six years to serve in the Supreme Court, but his legacy will be forever defined by this badly written, ill-thought-through, deliberately obtuse majority decision.”

The fourth column in the series went back to a Duterte appointee: the solicitor general who told the public, and by extension the Court of Appeals, that he was effectively a member of the Supreme Court. In “The unfortunate Calida, ’16th Justice’,” published on February 21, 2017, I wrote: “it is both unethical and illogical for a solicitor general to assert that he is ‘considered’ as another Supreme Court justice, because in fact he isn’t and because the separation of powers requires that he shouldn’t be.” I concluded: “Calida’s invocation of his supposed stature as the 16th Justice was plainly meant to put pressure on the Court of Appeals.”

The subject of the next column in the series is probably Duterte’s most famous, and possibly most consequential, appointment: In “The unfortunate Bato dela Rosa,” published on May 2, 2017, I gave three reasons (reasons shared, of all people, by Speaker Bebot Alvarez) why “No chief of the Philippine National Police has brought as much disgrace and discredit to the institution he heads as Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa, a likeable enough police officer promoted beyond his capacity and competence.”

Who should I write on next?

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Marcos was the worst (a series)

In the last four years, I’ve written four columns making the case that “Marcos was the worst,” period.

In September 2013, in “Marcos was the worst,” I argued that the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was the most corrupt man in Philippine history. “Compared to Ferdinand Marcos, however, [Gloria] Arroyo and [Joseph] Estrada were rank amateurs. 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, FDC 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.” (I also argued that, measured against his own anti-communist standard, he was a colossal failure in containing the communist insurgency he said was the reason for declaring martial rule in the first place.)

In September 2014, in “Marcos was the worst (2): The SC,” I argued that Marcos, who prided himself on his legal acumen and painstakingly constructed a legal facade for his dictatorship, systematically subverted the Supreme Court and the rule of law itself. “Marcos, entering the second half of his second and last term, was anxious about how the Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of the suspension of the writ, which had been immediately challenged. So he did what came naturally to him: He subverted yet another democratic institution.”

In September 2015, in “Marcos was the worst (3),” I argued that the Marcos era represented the fourth occupation of the Philippines. “In 1981 Marcos inaugurated what he grandly called the Fourth Republic. But it is closer to the truth to say that his regime was, in fact, the Fourth Occupation. After the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese, Marcos used martial law to colonize the Philippines.”

And in September 2016, in “Marcos was the worst (4),” I argued that Marcos succeeded in imposing martial rule because he had manipulated, intimidated, or incentivized the business community into supporting what he called the New Society. “But the Marcos regime lasted as long as it did, not only because Marcos’ Ilocanization of the military had turned it into a pliant tool, but also because many businessmen believed political stability was in their best interest; the Americans, too, found his anticommunism appealing.”

This is the same man a majority of justices on the Supreme Court allowed to be buried at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, the very same man honored by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines with a monument and by President Duterte with a province-wide holiday.

For shame.

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Scenes from the Forum

Haven’t yet had a chance to write about World Justice Forum V—held at The Hague last July. Aside from allowing me to meet rule of law advocates and role models, it moved me to take the next step in a rule of law project I’ve been worrying for some time. It was good to meet kindred spirits, including exemplary Filipino delegates.

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One difference between Congress and the Senate, Philippine edition

A memorable phrase from prominent political analyst Mon Casiple, our guest in tonight’s INQ&A radio/Facebook program: “In the House [of Representatives], a congressman has one eye on the President. In the Senate, a senator has one eye on the presidency.”

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“Law in the land died …”

“Law in the land died. I grieve for it but I do not despair over it. I know, with a certainty no argument can turn, no wind can shake, that from its dust will rise a new and better law: more just, more human, and more humane. When that will happen, I know not. That it will happen, I know.” — The great Jose W. Diokno, who died 30 years ago today

From the memorial website.

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Turns out the rumor is NOT true 

So: The word that has circulated among legal circles in recent days, about the law school official reportedly caught in a compromising situation, is fake news. The school has dismissed all speculation that the official was on his way out, through an unambiguous memo. And a good friend who knows the spouse says the spouse denies any such incident.

The lawyers have been gulled. Now the question is: What was the rumor for?

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Highs and lows

I was part of a three-person team from who covered the climate change negotiations in Paris, in December 2015. Belatedly uploading the two columns I wrote there, plus one I wrote before, brought back strong, Seine-filled memories.

“In literature as in life, Paris is a symbol …”
“But five factors suggest that … Paris will succeed.”
“I asked him to say a little more about the central spiritual question.”

Now might be a good time for a quick summing-up.

Our team — Kristine Sabillo, Sara Pacia, and me — wrote over 50 dispatches, posted dozens of tweets, produced several video stories and infographics. Back home, we were backstopped by NewsLab lead Matikas Santos and reporter Marc Cayabyab, and by web designer Sephy Garibay and artist Mok Pusong.


The special site Sephy created featured our Media 21 Asia project on stronger storms and the coping mechanisms of two coastal regions — as well as a Dateline Paris section that allowed us to update our special site several times a day during the Paris negotiations. (All the dispatches are here.)

“The sound we heard, then … must have been a controlled explosion …”
“In a move certain to raise the Philippines’ profile …”
“The Ice Watch does nothing but melt.”

The two-week coverage had many highs and lows; seeing actual Arctic ice melting in the heart of Paris (in front of the Pantheon, in the art installation called Ice Watch), hit me like a great shock. It was many highs and lows, all at once.

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Picking up where I left off

Like hope, the idea of using this blog more actively springs eternal. After 15 months of inactivity, I’m thinking of starting again — first, by uploading a whole basket of (deplorable?) columns. The last two posts were the first of five Newsstand pieces on or occasioned by the groundbreaking “Heneral Luna.” Let me pick up where I left off.

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Women at the Gemaldegalerie

I went to the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin in June last year, before the start of a study tour of German media institutions, to see its pair of Vermeers. (Part of my bucket list.) Along the way, other works of art caught my eye — including these two profiles of “jungen Frau,” done in the 15th century. They seem to me to be very much a part of their time, and at the same time thoroughly modern, of our time. The first looks familiar because it is by Botticelli; that is to say, it reminds us of Botticelli’s women, but because it is in profile we are not certain at first. The second is by one of Botticelli’s masters, Antonio del Pollaiuolo; we stare at it because we think it looks like someone we know (the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, perhaps, stepping back in time); only later do we realize that we were staring because it — she — was beautiful.

ProfileYoung frau

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Archiving on overdrive

It’s been a while.

To start blogging again, I thought I’d upload the 80-odd columns still in the files, to get this blog’s archive up to date. Incoming!

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21 columns to go

The backlog has grown stout again, and now I have 21 columns to upload. I would like to make Newsstand current, in the hope (likely vain) that with the backlog cleared I can really start blogging again. Wishful thinking, but who knows?

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Batik-inspired Good Samaritan

This unusual rendering of the central event of the Good Samaritan parable, a color lithograph by the Dutch artist Lion Cachet, from 1896, caught my eye when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last September. It took me some time to figure out why. Finally, I read the explanatory text. Turns out the piece was inspired by Indonesian batik – a modest example of the colonial periphery making an impact on the center, and a nice inversion that parallels what happened on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho.


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Demolition job

So (six weeks late to the show), turns out the final episode of Burn Notice is set in an abandoned newspaper building. Ouch.

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A year in a week (or so)

Here we go again — another attempt to bring this blog, if not to some semblance of life, then at least up to date. That means, at a minimum, uploading my Newsstand columns, about a year’s worth, in (I hope) about a week’s time. Here goes nothing.

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150x a day? Seems more spin than science

BANGKOK–At the 2013 World Newspaper Congress and in its parallel conferences, the World Editors Forum and the World Advertising Forum, 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:

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? Continue reading

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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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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 Holy Family


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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