Qwertyman No. 5: A Rhetorical Question

Qwertyman for September 5, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

TEACHER LENLEN’S chest swelled with pride when she opened the door to her 8th grade classroom in Gen. Pupu Noknok Elementary School in the town of Bugbugan, province of Kalamias, in the People’s Democratic Republic of Kawefo. Freshly painted in the fluorescent green that seemed to be in favor since President Ongong’s election, the cavernous classroom held exactly 100 chairs, and was reputed to be the largest elementary-school classroom in the archipelago. It was so huge that Teacher Lenlen had to use a microphone hooked up to two loudspeakers in the back of the room to reach the farthest students, from Wutwut to Zygzyg. 

“Good morning, class!” she shouted on the first day of school, oblivious to the idea that she didn’t need to scream because she already held a microphone. “My name is Mrs. Lenlen Fayfay, but you can call me Teacher Lenlen, and I will be your homeroom teacher. Now, what is a homeroom teacher? According to Wikipedia, a homeroom teacher ‘is responsible for almost everything concerning a homeroom period and classroom. At the start of the school year, it is the homeroom teacher’s responsibility to make sure that each student gets relevant textbooks and materials, which are supplied by the government. The teacher is also responsible for the attendance.’ Is that understood? Did I make myself clear? If yes, then answer ‘Yes, Teacher Lenlen!’ If you did not understand what I just said, raise your hand and approach the microphone when I recognize you. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Teacher Lenlen!” The answer, magnified by the three standing microphones set up at key points along the central divide between left and right, reached Teacher Lenlen like a towering tsunami, forcing her to cover her ears.

“You don’t have to shout!” she shouted back. “Just speak in your natural voice! Okay, class?”

“Okay, Teacher Lenlen!” Another wave rolled over her, drowning her shriek of protest.

“Teacher Lenlen! Teacher Lenlen!” A boy’s hand shot up from the middle of the room.

“Yes? Who are you and what is it?” Secretly, Lenlen felt relieved to be dealing with just one student, whose solitary voice she could easily overpower. “To the microphone!”

The boy scurried to the nearest mike, giving high fives along the way to his giggling classmates. “My name is Marmar Pwepwe, and I have a question.”

Teacher Lenlen raised her hand to stop him before he could speak, seizing upon the moment as a teaching opportunity. “Before you answer me, let me make this clear, this being our first day of class. Because there are one hundred of you, we have to make sure that every question you ask is important, all right? Wait, wait, wait! Don’t answer me! If you want to say ‘Yes, Teacher Lenlen!’, just nod your head—quietly, like this.” She nodded her head, keeping her lips sealed. “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Teacher Lenlen!” came the bone-jarring reply.

“Eeeek, stop! Stop it! I told you to nod your heads! How hard is that? Didn’t your parents teach you to nod your heads? Okay, everybody, let’s nod our heads together—up, down, up down! That’s good, do it again, up, down, up down! See? A nation that can nod together can be great again!”

“Teacher Lenlen! May I ask my question now?” said the boy Marmar.

“Oh, all right! What is it?”

“Well—I googled what you said about homeroom teachers, and I discovered that it’s the definition of a homeroom teacher in Afghanistan. Teacher Lenlen—are we in Afghanistan?”

A roar of laughter erupted. His classmates had known Marmar to be a smart aleck since the lower grades, for which he had been sent to the guidance counsellor’s office more than once.

Teacher Lenlen’s cheeks turned red. It was true—there was a long list of definitions in Wikipedia for “homeroom teacher,” and she had conveniently picked out the topmost one, for Afghanistan. So what? How different could Afghanistan—wherever that was—be from Kawefo? 

“Before I answer you, don’t you know that cellphones are prohibited in this school during class time? And how could you google anything, when even I can’t get a decent wi-fi signal in this room?”

“I didn’t use a cellphone, Teacher Lenlen! It was a tablet with cellular data, which my mother gave me for my tenth birthday, for Zoom!”

“Oh, so your mother gave it to you! Maybe I should talk to your mother about using tablets in class, when we’re no longer using Zoom, but meeting face-to-face. Class, are we still on Zoom, or meeting face-to-face? DON’T ANSWER! That’s what’s called a ‘rhetorical question’—a question you already know the answer to, so you don’t even need to answer it. Everybody write this down!” She went to the blackboard and wrote “R-H-E-T-O-R-I-C-A-L!”

“What does ‘rhetorical’ mean, Teacher Lenlen?” asked a little girl in the front row. Lenlen was glad that nobody else seemed to have heard her, because, come to think of it, she didn’t know, except that when you added “question” to it, it meant exactly what she had just said. She went up to the girl and whispered, “I’ll tell you tomorrow. That’s tomorrow’s lesson.”

Marmar was still standing at the mike, and said, “If you want to talk to my mother, Teacher Lenlen, I’ll give you her phone number.” 

“I was speaking rhetorically!” Lenlen retorted. “I’m talking to you, not to her!” Marmar’s confederates snickered in their seats. “What’s so funny?”

Another boy piped up. “Teacher Lenlen, Marmar’s mother is the governor!”

Marmar Pwepe… Governor Pompom Pwepwe—of course, she should have made the connection! The governor was known for her fiery temper, punching sheriffs and other public officials who crossed her path. Beads of sweat began to form on Teacher Lenlen’s forehead.

Just then, a squadron of policemen appeared at the door, discombobulating Teacher Lenlen further. Had she been reported so quickly? What was going to happen to her pension, to the trip to Bangkok she had been planning for so long?

“Ma’am Lenlen Fayfay?” asked their commanding officer. “I’m Captain Shushu. We have been deputized by the regional office of the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency—” 

“Oh, no—you have the wrong person. I’m Mrs. Fayfay, yes, but I swear to God, I’m not a subversive! I never said anything bad about President Ongong or… or Governor Pwepwe….” She stared at Marmar, begging for mercy.

“We’re not here to arrest you or anyone, Mrs. Fayfay. We’re here to requisition thirty chairs for the regional office, which needs more furniture to properly perform its solemn duties. I trust you agree?” Captain Shushu turned to the students, counting heads. “The first three rows, get up!” His men took their chairs out into the corridor. Lenlen could hear a similar commotion happening in the other classrooms.

The students sat forlorn on the floor, clutching their bags. Teacher Lenlen wondered if she needed the governor’s phone number, after all.

Penman No. 442: Yes, You Cane!

Penman for Sunday, September 4, 2022

AS IF I didn’t have enough junk filling up every corner of the house, I’ve lately gone on another collecting binge, for which the only justification I can offer is that, well, it’s age-appropriate. 

I’m talking about collecting canes and walking sticks (we’ll use those terms interchangeably for this article, although there are technical differences between them), accessories we now associate with the onset of decrepitude or some other infirmity. I’m not quite there yet—although, at 68, I should need no excuse for carrying a cane, especially for my periodic attacks of gout—but I thought it prudent to prepare now for the inevitable, and acquire artful and functional canes while I’m still sentient enough to know between wood and plastic.

I’m not sure when this newfound diversion began for me. I’d been using the familiar, adjustable metal canes you can buy at drugstores for my gout, which Beng has also leaned on for her arthritis. At some point—as with my other follies—I must have said to myself, “If I’m going to carry this around all day, it might as well be nice. No, forget nice, it might as well be grand!”

And so began my hunt—online, in Japan-surplus shops, and wherever else you can find them—for the perfect cane, which, as soon as you say it, you realize is an impossibility, because the next one is always going to be better, or at least different.  That’s just how it is for collectibles, and how my few working fountain pens grew to 400 at one point (now trimmed down to a more modest 150). 

To bring some reason into this passion, let’s go back to the utilitarian roots of walking sticks and canes, supposedly in the long sticks or poles that shepherds carried to protect themselves and their flocks from predators like wolves. The same sticks were used as walking aids, to climb up hills and mountains with, as well as for taking measurements. By the 1500s, with the use of cane for the shafts, the word “cane” entered popular usage.

Meanwhile, beyond saving you from a bad fall, these wooden sticks found a new and loftier purpose in the hands of men (and some women) who ruled over vast kingdoms and had to show something for it. They became scepters for emperors, kings, and queens—bishops also took to holding even longer staffs—and as such had to look the part, acquiring embellishments of silver, gold, and precious gemstones. When you had to say something like “Off with his head!”, it seemed more convincing to do it with an upraised stick. Moses, of course, had the most potent rod of all, good for getting water out of rocks and for smiting down the detested Amalekites. 

(Image from 123rf.com)

All that pomp and pageantry associated with carrying sticks must have rubbed off on the bourgeoisie, who took to canes as fashion accessories, one more way of showing (or showing off) how prosperous and important one was. Carrying a cane didn’t mean you were lame; to the contrary, it suggested that you wielded power as a bona fide member of the gentry. Genteel ladies had their own versions, some of which had secret compartments for perfumes, combs, fans, and even mirrors; the men liked theirs with swords, knives, and guns—these multipurpose sticks were called “system” canes.

In the London of the 1700s, according to one history of canes, “A gentleman had to procure licenses for the privilege of carrying canes. It was expected that they would abide by certain rules or risk loss of the privilege. The authorities actually policed rules for canes and walking sticks vehemently. It was considered an extreme violation of manners to carry a walking stick under one’s arm, to brandish it in the air, drag it on the ground or to lean on it while standing.”

Thankfully today no such licenses are required, and the etiquette of canes is observed mainly in the breach. Canes are back to being the implements of the sick and the aged, and eyebrows will rise if you appear on the street or in your workplace sporting an antique derby (a popular style with a short wavy handle) or a shillelagh (a cane made from a rough piece of wood with a knob on top).

As a senior, I consider myself exempted from all licenses, excuses, and medical prescriptions in this regard. I collect canes because, like my pens, they’re both tools and works of art, relics from an age of manners and elegance. That they’re out of fashion is an even bigger plus, because it means very few other people want them, and their prices will be reasonable. 

The Philippines is a great place to start collecting canes, because we have very fine antique and vintage ones, made of kamagong or some other hardwood, intricately carved with mother-of-pearl inlays. Some others have silver pommels, handles, bands, and ferrules (the metal caps at the tips) and fine repoussé (hammered) work on the silver. Japanese canes often come in bamboo, which can be very expressive at their bent handles. 

What I’ve looked for outside of our region are canes from Europe and the US, which employ horn, silver, brass, and other materials for their handles, which can be elaborately carved and decorated with animals, skulls (not my thing), and whatever floats the owner’s boat. Vintage canes can also come with bands or badges that denote provenance, such as the owner’s monogram or his military service. There are many websites online devoted to this hobby, and eBay is always a rich source for canes (new but vintage-style ones made in India can be had for not too much). It’s important, by the way, to trim your canes down to size—your hand should be just resting lightly over the handle beside you—not bent upward or reaching down. I do this myself with a hacksaw, and use one of those rubber plugs sold in True Value for chairs to cap the bare tip.

I’m not waiting for my next bout with gout to enjoy my walking sticks. Having resumed my walks around the UP campus, I’ve found that carrying a cane not only supports me but improves my balance and rhythm (I swing it out in front of me like a pendulum). Beng, who needs them more (and who has her own mini-collection), has also discovered that being a cane-carrying senior has its advantages: people are more courteous, service is faster, and seats miraculously appear. I’ll try that the next time we fly!

Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Qwertyman No. 1: Maiden Speech

Qwertyman for Monday, August 8, 2022

(Image from Etsy.com)

THE FRESHMAN senator was worried. The Hon. Victor M. Dooley was due to deliver his maiden speech on the Senate floor in a week, and he still hadn’t come up with a brilliant idea to wow the media with, to assure his many millions of voters that they had chosen the right fellow over a couple of dozen lawyers, economists, professors, and retired generals.

No one was surprised when he won. He had all the proper credentials for a 21st century senator: his grandmother had married an American soldier, giving him square cheekbones, facial hair, and a Western surname; his father had been a commissioner of the Bureau of Customs, amassing a fortune in just a few years; he himself had been a matinee idol, a pop singer, a TV game-show host, and, when he got too old for the lover-boy roles, he reinvented himself as “Mr. Disaster,” the TV-radio hero whom you could count on to be there even before the first Navy rescue boats, the first aftershock, and the Chinese volunteer fire brigade. 

Mike in hand, and in a voice perfect for soap opera, Vic reported on the masses’ tragic losses while doling out relief bags containing a T-shirt with the “Mr. Disaster” lightning logo, a kilo of rice, three cans of sardines, five packets of instant noodles, and a prepaid phone card with P50 load, with which they could get online and thank him on FB. He had over 10 million followers on Facebook, seven children by three women, a warehouse full of supercars, his own chopper, and a new young thing named Yvonne, whom he had met in Boracay doing the TikTok dance.

It was Yvonne—once while they were playing footsie at the fish spa—who had dared Vic to run for senator, to prove that he really loved her and that he was really as popular as he claimed to be. She hadn’t even been born when Vic Dooley—sneaking out of his History class—joined a noontime TV show and shook, rattled, and rolled his way to showbiz fame. Vic giggled when she said, “Why not run for the Senate?” and she thought he was tickled by the idea, but it was only the tiny fish feeding on his toes. At any rate, like they say, the rest was history, and Yvonne stole the SONA fashion show with her see-through terno.

Now Yvonne liked to hang out in Vic’s Senate office, which she had decided to decorate with a marine motif—to remind her, she said, of her humble beginnings as a fisherman’s daughter in Caticlan. This distressed Vic’s chief of staff Roy, who was a professional operator Vic hired from a defeated incumbent, and who could not keep his eyes off Yvonne’s bare belly. She was tweaking the angle of a huge blue marlin painting on the wall behind Vic, who was too deep in thought to notice. Even now, when they were gathered around the big table to discuss Vic’s maiden speech, Roy’s gaze traveled below her navel. 

“Everyone knows me as Mr. Disaster. So we should come up with something disaster-related, right? Hmm, like maybe deputizing Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for disaster relief operations?”

“But boss, if one of them drowns, it might be an even bigger disaster!” said Roy. 

Vic nodded reluctantly. “You’re right…. How about a change of image? Slowing down a bit to something softer, gentler. Like, uhm, Mr. Sensitive. Kuya Vic. Someone you can turn to….” He looked up dreamily at the ceiling, imagining his new persona.

“Hm, puede,” said Roy. “Instead of going out to every disaster, we can just set up a social welfare unit in the office—maybe something Ma’am Yvonne can head!”

“Did I hear my name? Are you giving me a table and a chair? Can it be in aqua?”

Vic struggled with his irritation. “I need an issue I can be identified with—something that will appeal to the heart of the masses, that they will thank me for forever…. That congressman’s anti-ghosting bill’s pure genius! I wish we’d thought of that first. Imagine all the heartache saved if people just—just told the truth! Are you there, are you alive, do you love me, what about our kids? And to think that he even linked emotional abuse to loss of productivity—” 

“If you criminalized emotional abuse, half of this country would be in prison, and mostly men,” Roy said dryly. “How’s that for loss of productivity?”

“Ohhh, you’re right again,” Vic said, remembering how he had skipped out on the three mothers of his children. “It’s a violation of—of human rights! Of the pursuit of happiness!” Instinctively he reached out for Yvonne, curling his arm around her waist. “What do you say, baby?”

“I think a sea turtle would be good for the other wall,” she said. 

Roy groaned, too audibly, and Vic frowned. Yvonne slid out of Vic’s grip and stretched her body like she was about to do calisthenics. “You know, I’d rather leave politics to you boys because I’m more interested in, uhm, the finer things in life, like beauty, health, and art. But let me give you a tip: you can’t legislate things like happiness or the truth. Ghosting? Did they even think of the implications of a law against ghosting? It would force people to tell the truth, to own up to their responsibilities, to face the consequences. Sounds good, but don’t you see where the opposition can go with this? Let me throw you a hypothetical question: if you owed someone a lot of money, like back taxes, and that person comes running after you but you pretend not to hear them, as if you never owed them anything, isn’t that ghosting?” 

She turned to Vic and planted both hands on the table, leaning into his face. This time Roy wasn’t looking at her midriff but at her eyes, which reminded him of his Math teacher in high school, when she was about to send him to the blackboard. “If you like this office as much as I do, pray for more disasters to happen, and keep doing what got you here. Novelty and political risk are directly correlated.”

“Where did you learn that?” Roy whispered.

“Western Aklan Institute of Technology, AB Political Science, magna cum laude, 2018. Best Undergraduate Thesis for ‘The Impact of Full Devolution on Environmental Compliance in Boracay Island.’”

“Can—can you write my maiden speech?” the Hon. Victor Dooley croaked. “Write whatever you want.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Yvonne, adjusting the tilt of the blue marlin yet again.

Penman No. 441: The Mystery of the Word

Penman for July 31, 2022

TO BEGIN with a small personal note: this week marks my 22nd anniversary writing Penman for the Philippine STAR, an adventure that began on August 5, 2000 with a piece about my recent writing fellowship in Norwich, England, working on the novel that eventually became Soledad’s Sister (Anvil Publishing, 2008). I’ve kept every column I’ve written since then in my digital files, now numbering over 1,100 pieces; a couple of years ago, I selected what I thought were the ones worth reading again (not every column is, to be perfectly honest) and put 110 of them together in a book titled A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays (UP Press, 2020, still available on Shopee and Lazada). 

It’s hard to believe that 22 years and 1,100 columns later, I’m still at it, and perhaps even harder yet to believe that I’m enjoying it with the same sense of discovery and delight, looking forward to seeing my text in print with a cub reporter’s enthusiasm. Much of that I should credit to my editors, Millet Mananquil, along with Igan D’Bayan and now Scott Garceau, who have been extremely supportive, sometimes to the point of indulgence (such as when I stray far beyond the normal bounds of art and culture). I’ve since learned to moderate myself, to stay within the zone, and to proactively seek out less known but worthy cultural endeavors to publicize. (The eager beaver in me has made sure that my editors never have to worry about my meeting deadlines; my columns are usually done the week before.)

I began reporting and writing for the old Philippines Herald at age 18, in 1972; at 68, I still remind myself that writing for a national broadsheet, even in this age of Facebook, is a tremendous privilege, so I still respect my editors, my deadlines, and my readers’ intelligence. I can only hope that our younger writers—who now have the freedom and capability to write whatever they like whenever they want on their blogs—will understand that journalism is also a community of shared values (by which I don’t simply mean pakikisama, although there’s a lot of that), and that no matter how brilliant you may think you are, you still have to earn your union card, so to speak, to gain the goodwill and respect of others (and if those things don’t matter to you, then you have a problem, and good luck with that). 

Moving on to other fruitful friendships and associations, I was elated to attend the Parangal for our newest National Artists at the CCP Main Theater last month. The eight new laureates were Agnes Locsin for Dance; Nora Villamayor (aka Nora Aunor) and Ricardo “Ricky” Lee for Film and Broadcast Arts; Gemino Abad for Literature; Fides Cuyugan-Asensio for Music; and posthumously, Antonio “Tony” Mabesa for Theater, Salvacion Lim Higgins for Fashion Design, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya for Film and Broadcast Arts.

I was proud to note that I had worked with or for many of them, and was well aware of their exceptional talent and dedication to their craft. I had never met Nora Aunor, but had written a script for her, “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,” directed by the late (and also National Artist) Lino Brocka. Lino regaled me with stories about how amazingly good a natural actress Nora was, and I thought so myself, watching her onscreen. I had many issues with former President Rodrigo Duterte’s governance, but I have to credit him for not interfering—unlike many of his predecessors—with the National Artist selection process, particularly in Nora’s case, which everyone knew had been previously held up because of her alleged drug use.

I had worked with directors Tony Mabesa and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, sadly both of them now gone. Tony directed several of my plays and always managed to get just the right tone I wanted to come across. Marilou directed my script which eventually became “Ika-11 Utos: Mahalin Mo Asawa Mo” (someone else always made up these more marketable titles, for which I had absolutely no talent), a crime and domestic drama that received respectable reviews but didn’t win any prizes. But what I observed in Marilou was her work ethic and her methodical approach to the material. I had been used to churning out one-week wonders for Lino, but with Marilou, the scripting process took months, because she would pause and analyze every scene and snippet of dialogue for its political and philosophical implications. 

I was gratified to have made the right call in the cases of Jimmy Abad and Ricky Lee; I had privately predicted, before the results were announced (and with no inside information whatsoever) that the two would be very strong contenders (I also mentioned Lualhati Bautista and Pete Lacaba, among those still living; for the record, I was also nominated, but it was more to make my 94-year-old mom proud and happy, which she was, and so I was). I had known Ricky for a long time, both of us being Lino Brocka’s go-to’s when he needed a script done fast. Ricky, of course, was more than fast; he was good. And while I wandered off into many other kinds of writing, Ricky turned screenwriting into the art and profession it deserved to be, not just for himself but for scores of acolytes. We used to ask each other, half-jokingly, why Pete seemed to get all the choice, festival-bound assignments; and we decided that it was because, by his own admission, Pete was the slowest scriptwriter among us, and therefore got to work on the long-gestating projects.

But I was happiest of all for my former professor and dear friend Jimmy Abad, whom I felt should have received this honor at least ten years earlier, given his elevated poetry, outstanding scholarship, and generous mentorship to generations of writers. For someone who began by studying to be a farmer at UP Los Baños and who then entered the Jesuit seminary (when he left after three years, he recalls, “The first thing I did was to look for a store and smoke a cigarette!”), Jimmy found his true calling in unraveling the Mystery of The Word, of language and how it shapes our view of life. I can think of no writer more purely dedicated to his art than Jimmy, the classic absent-minded professor who drives up one-way streets and whom I had to remind of his exact age. When it comes to words and their meanings, he is ever-aware, ever-present, and ever-caring. A true National Artist, indeed. Heartiest congratulations to all!

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.