Penman No. 439: New Looms for Old

Penman for Sunday, June 5, 2022

WHEN WE first met Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores at the University of the Philippines Baguio five years ago, she was already the director of the new and fascinating Museo Kordilyera that had just opened to showcase the culture of the northern highlands. Ikin graciously took Beng and me on a tour of the exhibits, which UPB had painstakingly put together from its own collections and from the donations of such patrons as National Artist and Baguio resident Bencab. 

But going beyond what was on display, Ikin brought us to the museum’s laboratory—research is the other important part of its mandate—to show us their growing collection of rare Philippine textiles. Some of these were a century old, retrieved and repatriated from collections abroad by Ikin herself, or donated by collectors. This, she indicated, was going to be a vital aspect of the Museo Kordilyera’s mission—to gather and preserve the threads of the past for the appreciation of new generations of Filipinos. 

Indigenous textiles have a long history in the Philippines, having been woven long before the Spanish came—indeed, more than a millennium before the Christian era. They were used for clothing and also for ceremonial purposes such as the burial of the dead. They come in a wide range of materials, designs, and uses, from the abel and Bontoc of the north to the hablon and piña of the Visayas and the Yakan and tinalak weaves of the south, among many others. Using local fibers and dyes, native weavers employ hand looms to turn their traditional designs—animals, celestial objects, humans, deities, and geometric shapes—into not just functional clothing but works of art and visual bearers of their tribe’s or community’s culture.

But these traditional weavers and their products are under threat from many factors, and unless proper and timely intervention is undertaken, cultural advocates like the Oxford-trained Dr. Salvador-Amores worry that they could decline further if not vanish in this digital century. She points to four major reasons for this decline: the advanced age of master weavers and the lack of young people willing to take their place; the scarcity of materials for weaving such as cotton; new technology, cheaper mass-produced substitutes, even fake “ethnic” fabrics; and ready-to-wear clothes and ukay-ukay, reducing demand for traditional textiles.

Enter the Cordillera Textiles Project or CordiTex, which Ikin is also directing, aimed at finding and employing new technology to revive the ancient art of weaving and train and engage a new generation of weavers. The technology comes in the form of the Universal Testing Machine that analyzes the internal and external characteristics of Cordillera textiles so they can be technically described, and the digital loom, which—with the help of software—can recreate old designs and fabrics, especially those that weavers can no longer make, and assist those weavers in doing them on their traditional backstrap or foot looms.

Before the machines come into the picture, however, much research has to be done. CordiTex is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving anthropology, ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, ethnomathematics, physics, chemistry, ergonomics, economics, and geography. (I’ll bet some of us didn’t even realize these disciplines existed. And if we wonder why “ergonomics” is important in weaving, it’s because weavers often suffer from musculoskeletal problems of the neck, shoulders and lower back; strain from incorrect posture; and chronic lower back problems.)

Ikin’s team has conducted research not just in the Cordillera region, but also in weaving collections in the US, Germany, and Austria, where samples gathered a century ago by expeditions to the Philippines are kept. In the US, for example, much material and information can be found at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Newberry Library.

Mathematical symmetry analysis figures out the math behind traditional designs so they can be rendered into formulas, followed by 3-D modeling, to take the physical properties and the weaving structures of the fibers into account. 

Now enter the digital loom—the Thread Controller 2 or TC2—a machine designed, developed and made by Digital Weaving Norway (DWN) to turn design ideas into woven fabrics. Rolled out in 2012, the TC2 is a hand-operated electronic jacquard loom, capable of producing both traditional and contemporary weaves for industrial and artistic purposes. The University of the Philippines has acquired two of these machines—one for UP Baguio, and another for the College of Home Economics in UP Diliman. Six researchers from UP led by Ikin went to DWN to study the use of the machines, and workshops have since been conducted in Baguio and Diliman, assisted by a visiting expert from DWN, to introduce the TC2 and its technology to local weavers and researchers.

Dr. Salvador-Amores is emphatic that their work in CodiTex is not aimed at replacing hand looms. “While CordiTex can now replicate and reconstruct traditional extant textiles through digitization and digital loom weaving, we are doing this so that the younger generation can re-weave these in their traditional looms,” she said. “Hopefully this will empower local weavers, engender ethnic identity, and sustain Cordillera weaving.”

The next time you visit Baguio, take a side trip to the Museo Kordilyera to see what the fuss is all about. You might get lucky and catch Ikin—or if not, then her pioneering book Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society (UP Press, 2014), yet another fascinating topic altogether.

(Photos courtesy of Analyn Salvador-Amores)

Hindsight No. 19: Plot and Character

Hindsight for Monday, May 23, 2022

(Photo from philtstar.com)

WITH THE counting all but over—setting aside some issues not likely to change the outcome—it’s clear that our people have spoken, and that, by a 2-to-1 majority, they have chosen Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to lead this country for the next six years. 

It’s no huge secret that I, among many others, voted for somebody else. Of course I’m unhappy, but what I feel doesn’t really matter much in the scheme of things. Given that the life expectancy of the Filipino male is 67.26 years, I’m already on borrowed time at 68 and would be lucky to see the end of this next administration, let alone the one after that. I’ve told my mom Emy—who voted at age 94 and who shed tears of dismay and disbelief when the results rolled in—that living for six more years to vote one more time should now be her goal. Just surviving will be her best revenge.

I wonder how it is, however, for the young people who took to the streets for Leni and Kiko, believing that they would make a difference. They did, although not in the way they expected, to ride a pink wave all the way to Malacañang. They realized, as we ourselves did ages ago, that money and machinery are always heavy favorites over hope and idealism, and that issues, ideas, and the truth itself can be made to look far less important than image and message, if you can buy the right PR consultant.

They will also have learned, as has been pointed out by other commentators from both sides, that it wasn’t all disinformation—that Marcos Jr. appealed to the genuine desperation of the poor with a promise of relief, however illusory. Since most of Leni’s young supporters were visibly middle-class, first-time voters, it was a rude but necessary awakening to the realities of class politics in this country, which politicians of all kinds—none of whom have to worry about where their next litson baka is coming from—have learned to negotiate and manipulate. 

Defeat, it’s been said, can offer more lessons than victory, and while we may have metaphorically won in some significant respects—chiefly the aggregation of “middle” forces not tied to any traditional political party into a burgeoning progressive movement—there will be much to review and refine in the years ahead. This very dissociation of the Kakampinks from the old parties and their command structures, for example, was a blast of fresh air for many volunteers, but also a liability for operators used to the old ways.

Understandably there’s been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in the trenches, in the desire to meld seething resistance with grudging acceptance. I see it in both young and old activists—the young, because they’re heartbroken for the first time, and the old, because they didn’t expect to find themselves facing a Marcos all over again. The bashing and taunting they’re getting online from galleries of screeching monkeys doesn’t help. 

Being one of those old fogeys, I tend to be more subdued in my reaction to Marcos Jr.’s victory, and advise my young friends to cool down, ignore the bashers, and steel themselves for a complicated and challenging future. As someone who went through and survived martial law—I was eighteen when I was arrested and imprisoned for alleged subversion (although I was never charged or tried in court, just locked up for the state’s peace of mind)—I can offer them living proof that we can survive dictators and despots, with faith, resourcefulness, and courage. My parents survived the Second World War, and many other people have gone through worse.

I’m neither predicting nor wishing that a Marcos presidency will be bound to fail. I’d hate for the country to suffer just to prove a point. Besides, whatever I think today won’t matter one bit to what will happen. Whatever Marcos does, he will do so of his own will, by his own nature, out of his own character. What that character really is will emerge in the crucible of crisis—and crisis is the only thing the future guarantees, whoever the president happens to be. Beyond and regardless of the propaganda for and against him, Mr. Marcos Jr. will have ample opportunity to display what he would not have us glimpse in a public debate, and that revelation will do more than a million tweets calling him a thief or praising his acumen.

Speaking of character, I had an interesting discussion last week with an old friend, a renowned professor of Business Administration, who brought up the possibility of “luck or destiny” to account for the Marcos victory. He added that luck was an important factor in business, and that he would flunk a student who thought otherwise. 

I disagreed; as a teacher of creative writing, I said that I wouldn’t accept “luck or destiny” as a resolution for a student story. We’d call it deus ex machina—a helping hand—which thwarts the logic of the narrative with an artificial and improbable ending. I know: it happens in real life, but not in good fiction. As Mark Twain says in one of my favorite quotations, “Of course fact is stranger than fiction. Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” 

Whether factual or fictional, stories are really less about events—the plot—than character. The plot is simply there to enable character development. Things happen for a reason: to test and reveal our character, to show ourselves and others what kind of people we really are, with dramatic clarity and inevitability.

If you’re wondering why I strayed from the May 9 election to a mini-lecture on writing, it’s because we can look at that election and its aftermath as a long and continuing narrative that will establish our character as citizens, and as leaders. The next crises—the post-pandemic economy, China’s ambitions, a crackdown on civil liberties, getting deeper in debt—will come to try us. That’s the plot. And when that happens, Bongbong will be Bongbong, and all Filipinos—31 million of them, especially—will see exactly what they bargained for.

So if you’re still smarting, just chill, recuperate, get back to something you enjoy doing, and let this drama take its course. Like my mom Emy, endure and survive. Give Marcos Jr. a chance to achieve his “destiny,” which could yet be everyone’s best education.

Hindsight No. 18: Wisdom from Suffering

Hindsight for Monday, May 16, 2022

(Image from tunedinparents.com)

THERE’S A line I remember from a college course in Greek drama—specifically the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus—where Zeus memorably explains why the gods bring pain and torment to humans, when they could just as easily shower them with joyful blessings: “Justice inclines her scales so that wisdom comes at the price of suffering.” Man suffers, so he will learn.

I kept going back to that line this past week as I tried to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened: by what appeared to be a huge majority, our people had chosen a dictator’s son to lead this country for the next six years. Despite reports of massive vote-buying and irregularities at the polling stations, I wasn’t even contesting the overall results—I was never much of a conspiracist—but asking myself how and why the masses of our people keep making poor choices at the ballot box, voting against their own strategic interests. (Am I being presumptuous to sit in judgment of our average voter? Yes, and I make no apologies, having lived through martial law, all three EDSAs, Garci, tokhang, and Covid.)

Did we not suffer enough over the Marcos years and from the plunder and repression enabled by martial law to have learned that unbridled authoritarianism is a curse on everyone, both despot and citizen alike? Clearly not, or we would not be here today, facing the restoration of that rapacious regime. And it will be because—going by the moral logic that informed the Athenian stage—we have brought it upon ourselves, by casting more votes for the very same people whose greed we continue to pay for, and will pay yet more for, all over again.

In that case, should we flog ourselves over that seeming poverty of collective wisdom? Shall we call ourselves stupid and even hopeless, to have gained the freedom to vote, only to squander it for the benefit of those who took it away in the first place?

Of course, the right to vote never came with any assurance of voting wisely and responsibly, with democratic values foremostly in mind. For those whose lives have never changed regardless of administration, it can simply be another source of easy income. For others, it can be a form of personal revenge for injustices suffered daily, for the sharp tongues and heavy hands of otherwise pious employers. Still others might simply want, for once in their lives, to be part of what they think is the winning side. 

From these “winners,” we can expect a barrage of gloating and taunting, which has already begun. The cynical will remind us that we were wrong to have even hoped and tried; this was all foreordained by the numbers, which are the only thing elections are ever about. Some will even trot out that hoary quote, “Vox populi, vox Dei,” to stamp divine approval upon this outcome. In other words, we were all just exercising our free will, our freedom of choice, which after all is central to democracy. Only sore losers cry.

But then again, free will has never guaranteed critical intelligence. Which leads me—not being a political scientist—to ask these questions of those who might know better:

What if that “freedom” had been subverted and compromised by massive and deliberate disinformation? Was it still a free citizen who willfully cast a ballot for someone provably inimical to democracy, or a wound-up robot executing a series of plotted motions? Can we blame the desperate and the misled? Can we still call it a “free, fair, and clean election” if the fraud already started many years before, in the distortion of history and the rehabilitation of unpunished convicts? 

If and when voters elect a buffoon and a bully president—like they did with Donald Trump, among other such demagogues we know—does that validate buffoonery and bullying, and make them acceptable? Does it wipe the slate clean, erase all liabilities, and establish a new norm for political behavior? Most simply—as millions of us must have been thinking these past few months—if the president refuses to pay his lawful taxes, can we be morally compelled to pay ours? 

Vox populi, vox Dei—if this was God speaking, what was he saying? This is what I’m hearing: “By your own choice, I am giving you this man to be your president—so you will learn.”

I wonder how much more suffering we shall have to endure for our people—especially the generations post-martial law—to learn that voting has personal consequences, that the Marcoses do not represent “moving on” but sliding back into the dismal past, and that this election was their best chance in ages of creating a true “golden era” of humane, honest, and progressive governance, instead of the tinsel fantasy they’d been sold. How and when can we value the truth once more?

Again, Aeschylus—writing half a millennium before Christ—throws us a line from Prometheus Bound, spoken by the hapless girl-turned-cow Io. Hounded by a gadfly, Io is in constant pain, and tells Prometheus her tale of woe; but she insists, at the end of her story, that she wants to know her future, however difficult it might be: “If you can say what still remains to be endured, tell me; and do not out of pity comfort me with lies. I count false words the foulest plague of all.” This campaign saw innumerable “false words” rain down on our electorate, not just words of spite but also of artificial sweetness. 

I am angry and dismayed, but not without hope. In Io’s case, despite her terrible travails, she learns that her future is much brighter than she would have expected—she will be restored to human form, and would count among her descendants the great hero Hercules. 

We can yet be the progenitors of our best selves as Filipinos. We just need to endure, to learn, and to endure some more.

Hindsight No. 17: The True Winner

Hindsight for Monday, May 9, 2022

(Photo from lumina.com.ph)

I HAD another column all lined up for today—Monday, the 9th of May, arguably the most important Monday of this year if not the next six years. But I’d forgotten that the ban on electioneering, which started yesterday, won’t end until midnight tonight, so I’ll shelve that piece for another time—with major revisions likely, depending on the outcome of today’s vote.

Maybe it’s just as well that that happened. It forced me to pause and simmer down for a while, just when emotions and tempers were rising to a boiling point and nothing else seemed to matter but politics and the colors of our T-shirts.

I’m sure I’ll be speaking for many of us—and even across the political divide—when I recall that just a year ago, we all led what seemed to be normal lives, or at least as normal as lives could get under a crippling pandemic. We were in deathly fear of a virus we couldn’t see, of getting infected by some pasaway neighbor or relative, and of dying by our lonesome in a strange hospital ward with a tube stuck down our throat. Our chief concern was survival—as individuals, as families, as communities. We walked around like inter-galactic travelers in face shields and face masks, soaked in 70-percent alcohol, hands raw from constant washing. We felt lucky to be alive, never mind that the cinemas were closed, restaurant food was takeout-only, and we all became talking heads in little Zoom boxes. Today we can afford to chuckle a bit at the memory of those days, even if we know—or have to be reminded—that those days are far from over. 

But just as the influx of vaccines brought a steep drop in Covid rates, another contagion appeared on the horizon—election fever. Its symptoms included not only indifference to other diseases like Covid, manifest in the sudden and universal disregard for “social distancing.” They also showed in an increased propensity for loudness and even bellicosity in public discourse—especially online, where sticks and stones came free by the ton. The emergence of candidates and choices meant the emergence, as well, of our long-cherished biases and preferences. 

Our candidate defined who we were, and because of that, we took everything personally, responding to every swipe and gibe as though not only civilization itself were under attack, but also our gut, the precious and tender core of our very being. We felt hot under the collar every time our champion was maligned, and often returned the gesture with equal vehemence, thankfully with a dash of Pinoy humor. Whichever side we were on, we believed that nothing less than the nation’s survival was at stake, something larger than ourselves. We could survive Covid, but the loss of one’s candidate seemed like an even graver existential threat. 

Many years from now, the drama of this election will be remembered for its intensity and divisiveness, for the rancorous fervor with which many partisans fought for their beliefs, or for their scripted spiels. Some operators showed us just how low and how nasty a campaign could go, with the leanest of morals and the fattest of budgets. Never has so much been spent on promoting falsehood and obscuring the truth. Never was the public’s intelligence valued less by candidates expecting to coast to victory without having to be asked difficult questions and to account for their liabilities. Never did surveys, scientific and otherwise, seem so opaque and perplexing, like hazy oracles supposed to convey some prophetic message. 

But it will also be remembered for its creativity, its outbursts of spicy wit, its spontaneity of generosity and the communal spirit. Never have we witnessed a campaign so heavily reliant on the kindness of strangers, who ceased to be strangers in an instant of mutual recognition. Never have we seen crowds so huge—wait, yes, we have seen multitudes mourning a martyr’s death, or forming a human tidal wave to sweep a dictatorship away—but not hundreds of thousands massed for the sheer joy of congregating for the good. Never have rallies—once gatherings devoted singularly to the expression of popular anger and dismay—been so uplifting and flush with hope, like a cathedral without a roof raising its prayers to the sky.

And whatever happens today and in the weeks and months to follow, those rival strains will remain in the air—the noxious fumes of the devil’s workshop and the cool and cleansing breezes coming down summits too high for us to see. I think we will realize and understand that this election, as titanic a clash of values as it was, is but another episode in the larger and longer story of our continuing quest for nationhood, another tentative answer to the question of who and what it is we want to be. That story and the conflict at its heart will go on for generations more, and every six years our people will have a chance to choose between right and wrong, between redemption and damnation, between wisdom and ignorance.

Those of us who feel that they chose rightly today have no cause to regret their action, regardless of the outcome. You voted not just for your candidate, but for the best Filipino in you, which can never be a loss; you have passed the test of faith in the good and just. It may take longer for others to reach that point of peace with oneself. The results might suggest that there are more of them right now than you—which only means that there is more patient work to do, and also more time to do it, beyond the frenzied crush of the past few weeks.

On a personal note, today my mother Emy turns 94. She is eager to cast her vote, knowing that it could be the last time she will choose a president to lead our people. She cares about who will win, for our sake. More importantly, she cares about choosing wisely, for the sake of her soul. She knows something many of us have forgotten in the flood of surveys and fake news: that the only true winner in these elections is the one who can show God his or her ballot with honest pride and joy.

Hindsight No. 13: The Imperfect Good

Hindsight for Monday, April 11, 2022

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 William Blake

I’VE RECENTLY come across a number of posts online by people complaining about the “self-righteousness” of campaigners for a certain candidate to explain why they might, or will, vote for the other guy—yep, the tax evader, debate dodger, academic cipher, political under-performer, and, if the surveys are to be believed, our next President. 

Now, I can understand their irritation. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong to their faces, or have the truth shoved down their throats. 

I can just hear someone muttering: “How can you be so sure of your manok? Don’t you know she’s an airhead, lost in space, a Bar flunker, an unwitting decoy for the (choose your color—Reds or Yellows)? There may not be much I can say for my bet—and okay, I’ll admit I don’t really know or care what he thinks because he’s not telling—but I prefer him to your insufferable assumption that you and your 137,000 friends are torchbearers for the good, the right, and the just. (And you’re such a hypocrite, because I know what you pay your maids, which isn’t more than what I pay mine, but at least I don’t pretend to be some crusading reformer.) To be honest, it’s you I can’t stand, not since you put on that silly all-pink wardrobe and plastered your gate and walls with pink posters. But guess what—you’ll lose! All the polls say so, and I can’t wait to see you crying your eyes out on May 10.”

Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, I’ll bet my favorite socks (which I haven’t worn for the past two years) that you know someone on the other side who’s thought of or verbalized what I just wrote. The forthcoming election has become a test not just of friendships, but of how far some of us are willing to pretend that all politicians are the same, all opinions are equal and should be equally respected, XXX number of people can’t be wrong, and that whoever wins, democracy will, as well.

This presumes a parity of political, financial, and moral power that just doesn’t exist and probably never did, at least in this country. The playing field is far from even. It’s been horribly distorted by disinformation, vote-buying, intimidation, and who else knows what can happen between now and May 9 (and the days of the vote count, after). The dizzying game of musical chairs that preceded the final submission of candidacies to the Comelec last October (resulting, ridiculously, in the ruling party being frozen out of serious contention for the top two slots) was but a preview of the seeming unpredictability of Elections Ver. 2022. I say “seeming” because there may be outfits like the former Cambridge Analytica that will presume to be able to game everything out and bring a method to the madness that will ensure victory for their clients.

What we know is that this will be the first presidential election, at least in recent memory, where the presumptive frontrunner refuses to be questioned about important issues, faces legal liabilities that would crush anyone less powerful, campaigns on little more than a vapid slogan, ignores China’s encroachment into Philippine territory, claims to know next to nothing about his parents’ excesses, and takes no responsibility for them. Even more alarmingly, his lead in the polls suggests that these issues don’t matter to many voters, thanks to miseducation and disinformation. 

So, no, not all politicians are the same, and not even all elections are the same. But for all its surface complications, May 9 truly and inevitably comes down to a simple choice: that between good and evil—between those who stand for truth, freedom, justice, and the public interest and those who side with falsehood, dictatorship, oppression, and corruption. If you can’t distinguish between the two, or refuse to, or prefer to obfuscate the matter by repackaging it into, say, a war between families or between winners and losers, then you have a problem. 

This isn’t just self-righteousness; it’s righteousness, period. You can’t justify preferring evil because of some perceived shortcoming in the good. It’s in the nature of things that “the good” will forever be imperfect, forever a work-in-progress. It can be clumsy, patchy, plodding, long drawn out, and sometimes, if not often, it will lose skirmishes and battles to the enemy; fighting for it can be wearying and dispiriting. On the other hand, evil is well thought-out, comprehensive, well-funded, and efficient; it can attract hordes to its ranks, and promise quick victory and material rewards. Evil is often more fascinating and mediagenic, from Milton’s Lucifer to Hitler and this century’s despots. But none of that will still make it the right choice. 

Commentators have pointed out that Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s embattled president, may not be the shining hero that the media has served him up to be, because he had repressed his enemies before the Russian invasion and had established links with neo-Nazi groups. Now that may well be true, although it will be hard to believe that the Zelensky that emerges out of this crisis—if he does—will be the same man he was before.

But none of that excuses Vladimir Putin’s murderous rampage, nor elevates his moral standing, nor permits us to turn our eyes away from the carnage in the smoking rubble. The “Western media” and “Big Tech”—the favorite targets of despots, denialists, and conspiracists—may have their problematic biases, but only the radically lobotomized will accept the alternative, which is the Chinese, Russian, and North Korean interpretation of what constitutes journalism, and of an Internet within a net. 

We cannot let the imperfections or even the failures of the good lead us to believe that evil is better and acceptable. You don’t even have to be saintly to be good. If you’ve led a life of poor decisions, making the right one this time could be your redemption. There are far worse and darker crimes than self-righteousness in others.

Hindsight No. 12: The Color of Danger

Hindsight for Monday, April 4, 2022

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, I took on the first of what would become many biographical assignments: the life story of the Lava brothers. In many ways, they remain the most fascinating of my subjects, brilliant men with PhDs and other advanced degrees from such schools as Columbia, Berkeley, and Stanford who, despite their upper-middle-class origins, were counted among the most dangerous subversives in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Three of them—Vicente, Jose (Peping), and Jesus—became general-secretaries of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas. Never Party members, Horacio and Francisco (Paquito) were nationalists and civil libertarians who served in high government positions—Horacio as one of the new Central Bank’s top economists and Paquito as chief legal counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which he helped organize. (A sixth brother, Pedro, also became a Party member in the US but died before the war.) 

I remembered them last week when I read the reports of bookstores being splashed with red paint and of a certain government official spewing the same substance out of her mouth. No, I’m not going to defend Vicente, Peping, and Jesus Lava against Red-tagging; they were proud communists to the end. 

What has stuck in my mind from the many interviews I held with Peping and Jesus in their home in Mandaluyong was a moment with Peping—who, when I met him in the mid-1990s, was a frail and white-haired old man. Peping had graduated salutatorian from the UP College of Law in 1937 and his thesis, hailed by Dean Vicente Sinco as the best they had ever received, was published by the Harvard Law Journal. In his dotage, Peping seemed stiff, dour, and humorless, but as a young man he had played the banjo, with “Always” and “Five-Foot-Two” among his favorites.

At some point, I asked Peping: “Among all the figures in history, whom do you admire the most?” Without batting an eyelash, sitting ramrod-straight in his wooden chair, he answered: “Stalin and Marcos.” 

The mention of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s brutal dictator for over 30 years until his death in 1953, was disturbing but not surprising. The PKP looked up to the Soviet Union as a model, and some of its members had been trained there, although the Lavas themselves downplayed the connection, citing the Philippines’ greater affinity with the Chinese experience. Upon his release from prison in 1970, Peping had gone to Moscow, and then to Prague, where he and his wife lived for the next 20 years. Clearly, even if Stalin had long been officially repudiated in Russia, he left a deep and positive impression on Peping. 

What I didn’t expect—although it would make sense in retrospect—was his admiration for Ferdinand Marcos, whom he had never personally met. Why would Peping Lava, a hardcore Communist, admit to being a fan of yet another dictator, whose martial-law regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of so-called “enemies of the State,” many young and idealistic revolutionaries among them?

The answer might be found in the relationship that Marcos cultivated with the old Left, including a meeting between Marcos and representatives of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) in 1968. Negotiations between Marcos and the PKP leadership reportedly followed, resulting in the release of Peping in 1970, and of Jesus Lava and Casto Alejandrino in 1974; Luis Taruc had been released even earlier in 1968. (The PKP had been decapitated by the arrest of Peping and many leading members in 1950, followed by the arrest of Jesus in 1964.) 

The Lavas were convinced that, despite all his liabilities and abuses, Marcos was a nationalist at heart who was aware of, and opposed to, American imperialist control over the country’s economy and politics. The Americans, not Marcos, were the main enemy. (Peping believed that the Americans were responsible for the deaths of Ramon Magsaysay, Claro M. Recto, and Ninoy Aquino.)

They were attracted by his “independent” foreign policy, especially his diplomatic overtures to China and the Soviet Union. Citing international sources, they even surmised that their release had been a precondition attached by the Soviets to rapprochement with the Philippines. Jesus Lava would contend that as of 1974, the PKP had entered a “negotiated political settlement” with the Marcos administration and had therefore been legalized. (Meanwhile, breaking away from the old PKP, Jose Ma. Sison had “re-established” the CPP in 1968, and it would be his CPP-NPA-NDF combine that Marcos would go after under martial law, as would Marcos’ successors.)

If any of this sounds familiar in light of our recent history, you win no prizes. When Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, my old friends on the Left bubbled over with excitement, believing they had found a trustworthy ally who was prepared to unfriend America in favor of rosier relations with China and Russia. I was dismayed then by what I thought was fatal naivete, or miscalculated opportunism; he played them, not the other way around. 

Today, with such instrumentalities as the NTF-ELCAC and even education officials at the vanguard, going against the Reds is back in fashion. The “threat” they pose is allegedly serious enough to warrant billions in the budget for anti-subversion programs, never mind that the CPP-NPA’s military significance has been severely diminished over the past 40 years, and that we need that money for more pressing concerns. 

Never mind, too, that Russia and China—the erstwhile centers of the global Red revolution—are now universally condemned as oppressors of their own people and aggressors beyond their borders. Stalinism is back with Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping is trying to out-Mao Mao. (And another Marcos threatens to return to Malacañang. Peping Lava could feel right at home today.) Our government says it hates communists with a passion, and yet the best it can do is remain “neutral” in Putin’s war on Ukraine, and “realistic” in dealing with China’s encroachments on Philippine territory. 

All this leads me to conclude that the old Marxism-Leninism—which is barely recognizable in today’s Russia and China—is no more than a bogeyman, and even the government knows that. Red-tagging just happens to be a convenient cover to attack the real enemy: the liberal middle forces now at the forefront of reform and of democratic regime change. The color of danger is pink, not red. 

Hindsight No. 10: A Princely Welcome

Hindsight for Monday, March 21, 2022

IT WAS a little burp in the flood of election-related stories that we’ve been wading through all month so it may have gone unnoticed by most, but it piqued my interest strongly enough to take note of it for a future column, and here it is.

Last March 8, the faculty and staff members of Kalinga State University in Tabuk, Apayao received a memo from their president, Dr. Eduardo T. Bagtang, informing them that the KSU Oval was going to “be utilized as the landing area of the choppers” of presidential and vice-presidential candidates Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte the following day. Accordingly, all teaching and non-teaching employees were “requested to welcome the aspirants but no one is allowed to approach them. We are to welcome them at a stationed area in the College of Education.” 

The memo was replete with misspellings and other small infelicities that initially caught my attention as an English teacher, but let’s get past those to the substance of the memo, which was clearly aimed at giving the “Uniteam” combo a warm and hospitable reception. 

Was there anything wrong with that, legally or morally? I’m not entirely sure, which is why I’m raising the question. To be honest, my knee-jerk reaction—as a self-declared non-fan of candidates who avoid debates—was to say yes. To be fair, however, it’ll be good to look at it from both sides, as a study of our culture and its political aspects. The DepEd, the Civil Service Commission, and the Comelec all have rules prohibiting public officials and employees from electioneering. Did the KSU memo cross that line? Was a “request” tantamount to an order?

Just between us Pinoys, it seems the polite and civil thing for a state university president to welcome political candidates. State universities and colleges depend on government support, and whichever parties or officials come to visit, we deem it acceptable if not adroit for SUC presidents to (let’s not say “curry favor”) establish cordial relationships with those in power, or expect to be. (And before we forget, let’s congratulate CHED Chairman Dr. Prospero “Popoy” de Vera, last year’s KSU graduation speaker, for having been named an “adopted son” of Kalinga just this month on the occasion of his visit to KSU.)

Hospitality is arguably ingrained in the Filipino. When then vice-presidential candidate Mar Roxas visited Davao City in November 2009, then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte pulled out all the stops to give him a royal welcome, and even endorsed him for being “clean.” Of course seven years later, running against each other, Rody was calling Mar “the most incompetent Filipino ever to run for president,” but they could both look back to happy memories of walking the streets of Davao together, and of Mar even driving Rody’s pickup truck then. 

Political incumbents routinely welcome campaigning candidates to their territory, which the visitors can spin to their advantage. When Isko Moreno visited Cotabato to meet with BARMM Interim Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim last month, newspapers were quick to interpret the Manileño’s introduction by Ebrahim as “our incoming president” as a “virtual endorsement” of his candidacy. It was denied the next day by the BARMM spokesman, but denials don’t stick that well in the memory. 

Of course there are thorny exceptions to this ritual politesse. The logistical obstacles reportedly thrown in the way of VP Leni Robredo’s massive rallies by some local politicians and their allies come to mind. Not only were these hosts inhospitable but openly hostile, as if they had been visited and threatened (they probably were) by a pink virus. 

In contrast to the red carpet prepared by KSU President Bagtang and his staff for the BBM-Sara team, a “welcome activity” being planned by the Baybayog National High School in Alcala, Cagayan for Leni set for March 12 had to be scrapped after questions about its “official” nature. The school had sent consent forms for parents to allow their children to attend the activity—deemed “official” because Leni was still, after all, the sitting Vice President, and waving as her convoy passed would have been part of their “civic duty”—but the plan was dropped, to avoid controversy.

This reminds me how it used to be pretty normal for us, when we were kids, to stand at attention under the hot sun for visiting dignitaries, wave flags or flowers, and cheer like our lives depended on it (and maybe, in some ways, they did). We thought politicians, priests, generals, and CEOs were all respectable people and worthy of our admiration. When we realized they were not, the flags and flowers turned into streamers and placards. This is why all but the bravest and most progressive politicians have been loath to set foot in liberal citadels like UP, where a reception of another kind awaits them.

Now, KSU is clearly not UP, by which statement I do not wish to denigrate the strides KSU has made in higher education, which can be found on its website. I refer to the intellectual atmosphere and spirit that inhabit each school and how these are fostered by their constituencies and leadership. KSU, I now recall, was also one of three SUCs that pulled out “subversive” books from their libraries last year in compliance with a much-criticized CHED memo urging them to toe the anti-Red line. Given that background, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find it opening its arms wide to the “Uniteam,” which says it wants national unity for and with everyone—as long as they don’t read, teach, and keep certain naughty books. 

But let’s not be too judgmental, as the campaign season is far from over, and it’s possible that candidates Robredo, Lacson, Pacquiao, Moreno, and de Guzman might yet decide to visit Tabuk, and land their choppers on the greens of KSU. In that case I expect Dr. Bagtang to be his old congenial self and to issue more memos requesting the faculty and staff to welcome the visitors, although I doubt that VP Leni and Ka Leody will be landing in such princely fashion.

Hindsight No. 9: Only the Stupid

Hindsight for Monday, March 14, 2022

(Image from the diplomat.com)

MY BELATED foray into Facebook and the whole FB notion of “friends” led me to ask myself if—in these contentious times—it would be wise to apply a political filter to the many “friend requests” I receive every day, 90% of which come from total strangers.

My simple, old-fashioned liberalism said no. Keep it open. If I were confident in my beliefs, values, and principles, then I shouldn’t fear the presence of contrary ideas, which could be a springboard for a lively and high-minded discussion of alternative futures. 

Maybe I could even make fast friends from the other side, people who were equally concerned about our country’s situation and the need for capable leadership. Maybe we could even meet sometime for coffee or a few beers, engage in playful joshing about other’s politics, and end the day with a soulful rendition of “Kumbaya” around a bonfire. We could show the world the true meaning of unity, love, compassion, and all those nice words politicians can’t resist mouthing every five seconds.

It sounded good—at least in theory. Agree to disagree, turn the other cheek, and all that. Embrace the enemy, and the burrs, bumps, and other imperfections of democracy. Celebrate political diversity as a strength. Accept whatever happens in May as the sovereign will of the people, and yield gracefully to the new president’s wisdom. 

I wish I could say that that I took that high road—but I didn’t; I couldn’t. I did leave the door wide open on my first month on FB, during which I said yes to practically every request that came my way, and kept all my posts public. Soon enough, as my political preferences became obvious, I began to be cursed and trolled. Okay, par for the course—you express an opinion, you expect blowback. I tolerated it for a while, and then I asked myself—do I really want or need this, in my personal space? Were these silly comments enlightening me in any way, except to prove how much savagery you can draw from the tiniest scrap of brain? 

And so I learned the other side of Facebook that everyone else seemed to be adept at: delete, block, mute, unfriend. I began screening every “friend” request to reject dubious characters outright, including and especially those openly campaigning for candidates perpetually too busy to attend public debates. Now, I realize I’m being politically suicidal that way, by hunkering down in my hermit’s cave and refusing to participate in the time-critical mission of conversion. So please don’t do what I did, and be nice. 

But forget the trolls—that’s like talking to your toilet. So far, my toilet’s been telling me this: “Our guy will win. Look at the polls. It’s over. Only the stupid think otherwise.” I flush it all down, but it keeps floating back up. 

Seriously, going beyond paid-by-the-click trolls, I want to find an intelligent, articulate supporter of He Who Will Not Debate and ask just one question: “Why?” 

Do such people exist? They certainly do—I’ve personally known quite a few. Brilliant, eloquent, educated in the world’s best schools, well-traveled, at the top of their professions. They will claim to have been there, done that; some may even have been torchbearers and ideologues for the Left. Somewhere along the way, for reasons known only to them, they make a complete about-face, declare liberal causes dead, and cast their lot with the same people they once found repugnant. They become the gurus of the Right, the stylists of a fashionable authoritarianism they try to invest with narrative inevitability. 

Odd as it may seem, like Franco and his fascists, they will profess to be servants of God, and can be judged only by Him. They are not in it for the money, they will insist, although they live very comfortably. They affect a carapace of cynicism—they support He Who Will Not Debate, not out of love nor confidence in his admittedly mediocre talents, but because he will win, like it or not, so they are already thinking ahead to how he can be manipulated by his No. 2, their real horse. They are in it for the long game.

Sure, they’re smart, or seem to be. The only problem is, they’ve lost a fundamental sense of right and wrong. They’re beyond outrage. Proficient at turning fiction into “fact,” and inflated by their proximity to power, they mistake cleverness for conviction, and survival for salvation. In the end, they believe in nothing but themselves; they are their own echo chambers. “I don’t care what people think about what I think,” one such pundit told me, and it told me enough. 

So if and when I ask these people “Why him?”, I don’t expect a gush of praises for the fellow’s virtues, but rather a PowerPoint lecture on why he will win, regardless of everything. “Only the stupid,” they will remind me, “look at elections in terms of good and evil.” 

Even academics can over-analyze things and ignore or forget the basic question: Is it the right and the good thing to do? “Realpolitik”—a pet word of cynics—is no excuse for resignation and acceptance. 

All the scholarly explanations for Vladimir Putin’s Russo-centric world view can’t justify Russian aggression. Putin may have a right to feel threatened by a pro-NATO Ukraine, but he still doesn’t have a right to invade it and shell it to pieces. And we need to say so. As so often happens, to pose as “neutral” in this case (ostensibly because we have no dog in this fight) is to support the oppressor. We do have a dog, and it isn’t so much Ukraine itself but justice. 

So when I choose my Facebook friends, I choose people who still believe passionately in truth, freedom, and such things as the strategists of the Dark Side find foolish and irrelevant. I choose people who will restore and reinforce my faith in humanity, and who will remind me that we, too, are in this for the long fight, way beyond May 9.

“Only the stupid” may refuse to surrender in the face of looming annihilation, but I’ll take the Zelenskys of the world anytime over its Putins. 

Penman No. 436: A New Blooming at Milflores

Penman for Sunday, March 6, 2022

CHAIRMAN MAO’S dictum about letting “a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend” must have been on the mind of former activist, writer, retired UN official, and later gentleman-farmer and entrepreneur Antonio “Tony” Hidalgo when he founded Milflores Publishing in 1999 to publish books that would “meet the needs and wants of the Filipino masses.” His wife, the celebrated author Cristina Pantoja “Jing” Hidalgo, could not have been more pleased. Aside from building a lovely heritage home in San Miguel, Bulacan with a cock farm for Tony behind it, the Hidalgos were eager to do their part for Philippine literature beyond teaching and writing. 

Milflores would go on to publish 80 titles on such varied subjects as suburban living, cockfighting, and 20th-century masculinity, on top of the usual fiction. It was beginning to make a mark as a small but quality press—and then Tony sadly and suddenly died in 2011, leaving a devastated Jing to carry on with distributing their titles. Busy with her own professional life, Jing soldiered on as far as she could, until 2020 when a white knight entered the picture in the form of Andrea Pasion-Flores, who had been her student (and mine) at UP many years earlier. 

Since graduation, Drea—a fine fictionist in her own right—moved on to become a lawyer, then executive director of the National Book Development Board, then our first international literary agent, and until 2020 general manager of Anvil Publishing. Post-Amvil, Drea was looking for fresh challenges and opportunities, and she found it in Milflores. Her husband Javi, also a lawyer, put her up to it: “Javi and I thought about starting a new publishing company, which might’ve been cheaper. But Javi gave me the idea of buying Milflores. First, because of the name—it fits with ours. Second, it already had some goodwill that would be a shame if it were forgotten. Third, it wouldn’t hurt to ask Jing if she had any plans for it. In a heartbeat, she said yes.”

Since that takeover, Milflores has already come out with an impressive list of titles that herald a new blooming for both the company and Philippine literary publishing as a whole. Against all the odds thrown her way by the pandemic, the tenacious Drea managed to secure publishing rights from top-drawer Filipino authors such as Charlson Ong, whose wild and wacky novel White Lady, Black Christ became Milflores’ flagship offering in May 2021. As Charlson’s agent, Drea had already sold an earlier novel of his to a Malaysian publisher, so this was a natural follow-through.

This was followed by a new edition of Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga. Drea had also sold NJ to Penguin Classics. “I wanted this book more than anything because, as Ambeth Ocampo said, the book went out of print the moment it was published because the government gave it out as a souvenir during the centennial of Rizal’s death in 1996, and was never reprinted.” Drea pulled out all the stops, and went for a hardcover edition. “If I was to deserve this book, there would be no cutting corners. I had to make people realize the value of this book. It had to be an object to be desired. And, as Ambeth told me, we both made sure it came out well because we both felt NJ deserved no less. When I die and go to book heaven, I want to hear Nick and Rizal tell me, I did well by them, haha!”

Simeon “Jun” Dumdum’s Why Keanu Reeves Is Lonely and Why the World Goes on as It Does, a small collection of poetry, was another risk worth taking. “Knowing I wouldn’t be raking in millions with this book, why did I want it? Because anyone who reads his poetry will be uplifted. It’s a book to treasure, really. Jun Dumdum was so game with whatever we did with it, even if we said we’d like the book to be neon pink and green. He was onboard! I like those kind of writers.”

Writer and noted bookseller Padma Perez brought Milflores its biggest book yet, Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis, co-published with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). Most books with a political agenda tend to be preachy and off-putting, but Harvest Moon is unique in its concept and execution. Twenty-four writers from around the world were given evocative photographs as prompts, with the further stipulation that they were to avoid buzz words and phrases such as “sustainability” and “climate change.” The result is visually and textually moving, investing the project with deep personal insight. This book is being sold at a deep discount, thanks to a subsidy from ICSC.

Drea Pasion-Flores has followed these up with other provocative projects, including many more in the pipeline. Robby Kwan Laurel’s Ongpin Stories is a timely reprint; former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon’s biography by Eric Ramos is a gripping narrative of a man who rose from doing other people’s laundry and selling in the market to become a general and senator, and one of the heroes of EDSA 1; David Guerrero’s The Crap Ideas Book is an inspirational book on creativity; the bedridden Nick Carbo’s new book of poems, Epithalamion, is, says Drea, his “shot at immortality.”

Milflores also has something lined up for younger readers: Kat Martin’s debut novel At Home with Crazy is the story of a 14-year-old girl dealing with the stress of living with a mother with a mental illness. Internist-oncologist William Liangco’s Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer and Other Essays is a hilarious romp through the travails of med school in a charity hospital. Drea will also publish two graphic nonfiction books by the feminist Swedish graphic illustrator Liv Stromquist and a cookbook by artist and cancer-fighter Robert Alejandro.

“I have big dreams for Milflores,” says Drea. “I want to try to bring a Philippine company out there, not just here. I’m guessing it’s not going to be the next Coca-Cola Company. It’s going to take time and lots of good books, but I have no doubt I can get there—or somewhere close to it.” (More information at milflorespublishing.com)

Hindsight No. 7: Disinformation and Democracy

Hindsight for Monday, February 28, 2022

(Image from designtaxi.com)

LAST FRIDAY—the 36th anniversary of EDSA 1—I spoke to a group of university students who wanted to know what I thought of Filipino democracy. 

I told them that at EDSA, along with millions of other Filipinos, I jumped for joy at the news that Ferdinand Marcos had fled with his family. We did not know—and might not have cared too much then—that they had brought two planeloads of gold and cash with them to Hawaii. All we wanted to hear was that they were gone, presumably for good, and that we were off to a fresh start at peace, freedom, justice, and prosperity. The darkness of the past twenty years would lift, and a new Philippines would emerge, truly democratic and firmly opposed to any form of despotism.

Today we realize what a fantasy that was, what a temporary reprieve. Under Rodrigo Duterte, if the polls are right, most of our people have once again embraced authoritarian rule, implicitly accepting its attendant excesses. The dictator’s son is back, and may even become our next President—to the delight of his supporters for whom martial law never happened; or if it did, then it was a golden age to which we will soon be returning, an age of new roads and bridges, clean streets, industrial peace, Miss Universe pageants, and eternal sunshine. 

Indeed it would be as if the past half-century between 1972 and 2022 were a confused and hazy dream, and now we were waking up where we had left off yesterday, when Ferdinand E. Marcos was poised to “save the Republic and build a New Society.” His son is making sure that we don’t miss the connection by heralding his entrance at his campaign rallies with the anthem of martial law, “May Bagong Silang.” Most of his followers today have never heard that song, or understand its chilling context, or the price we paid—in blood and in billion-dollar loans—for that “new dawn.” To them, it is a catchy jingle, in marching tempo. It comes with the smell of money and power in the air, the promise of a shower of gold for the hopeful masses. 

This, of course, is also a fantasy, but a powerful one—and I think I will be correct to surmise that many of the students I addressed, and even their teachers, fully believe it. And why not? They were never taught in school about the horrors of martial law. Instead, they were told that those were good times, that the Marcoses were good leaders who were deposed by their enemies and the CIA, that rich people don’t steal, and that the Marcos billions came from the gods, Yamashita, and anywhere but the Philippine treasury. That diet of lies has now become a catered banquet. 

The biggest enemy of democracy today—more than at any other time in our or even the world’s history—is disinformation: the willful distortion or fabrication of information to create false beliefs or impressions in the minds of people, turning bad to good, wrong to right, and vice versa. 

This is happening not only here in the Philippines, but in many other places around the world—including America, where Donald Trump has been pushing the “Big Lie” of a stolen election, despite the lack of any credible evidence. Even earlier, in what has by now become a cliché, Josef Goebbels thundered that if you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. 

During and after WWII, military experts engaged in what was called “psywar” or psychological warfare to weaken the enemy’s mental defenses, lower morale, and make people switch sides. This was done through radio, leaflets, newspapers, and other media available at the time.

Today the prevalence of the Internet and social media has magnified the means for disinformation by a magnitude of millions. And this is scary, because according to a recent survey, every other Pinoy can’t tell real news from fake. How can a society so prone to disinformation—to fake news—function well as a democracy?

Last month, the Akademyang Filipino (on whose Board of Trustees I serve) sponsored a forum on the topic of “Can Democracy Win in May 2022?” Most such questions are meant to be rhetorical, with obvious answers. But this time, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by its actual complexity. The problem, I realized, is that we no longer have a clear and common idea of what “democracy” means.

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are politicians eager to appropriate it. “Democracy” has to have been one of the most ambiguous and most abused words of the 20th century, going into the 21st. When a brutal totalitarian state like North Korea styles itself as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” you know something somewhere has gone awfully wrong. Dictators will call their actions democratic—as Ferdinand Marcos and Muammar Ghaddafi did—by asserting that they are acting on behalf of the people, a responsibility that presumably entitles them to extraordinary powers and compensations.

In my layman’s understanding, democracy is the rule and exercise of power by the people through representatives they choose by a free and fair election. It seems simple, but immediately we can see how vulnerable this definition of democracy is to interpretation and manipulation. What is a “free and fair” election? Does it simply mean an election free of vote-buying, coercion, and fraud?

If a candidate wins more than 51% of the vote without obvious coercion or cheating, then will that candidate have won a democratic election? But what if those voters had been fed provably false information? What if they willingly believed that information to be true, and voted on the basis of it? Would this still be democracy at work? 

Arguably, yes, because democracy never promised only intelligent outcomes. Elections are emotional, not rational, exercises. This disturbs me deeply, but again I have to ask myself, am I idealizing democracy as something that can be perfected? Or should I just accept that democracy, like society itself, is inherently messy, mercurial, and manipulable? 

What kind of democracy do we Filipinos have, and what kind of democracy do we want? The vote this May will help provide the answer.