Hindsight No. 15: The Also-Rans

Hindsight for April 25, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

I USED to hold Isko Moreno in high esteem when he was the new mayor of Manila and seemed intent on cleaning it up, figuratively and literally. My wife Beng and I were once on one of our regular sorties to the Japan-surplus shops along Avenida Rizal when we heard a great commotion outside, and when we looked, a team from the mayor’s office was spraying the street with jets of water and making sure the sidewalks were clear of obstructions. 

When he announced his bid for the presidency and came out with that beautifully produced “Ako si Isko” commercial—before Leni Robredo entered the race—I thought he was a viable prospect. I even told Beng and my mother, who had their misgivings, that I would vote for Isko if Leni didn’t run because he checked all the boxes: coming out of poverty, visibly on the job, willing to stand up to presidential bullying, good-looking, and passably articulate. Even his sometimes broken English was no problem and might even have been endearing, proof positive of his struggle to learn the language of another class. 

I was similarly impressed by Ping Lacson’s command of governmental matters and his coolness under fire, and especially by his refusal to avail himself of his pork-barrel allocations. I might even have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—a huge doubt bordering on certainty—on the Kuratong Baleleng murder case if it came down to that. I recall having been in the Senate gallery in 2003—the UP Charter was also up for deliberation then—when Lacson took to the floor, put up a screen, and with devastating efficiency and cutting sarcasm laid a trail of dashes connecting the First Gentleman to the mythical “Jose Pidal.” After the presidential debates—and as Isko’s sheen began to dull and darken—I began to think, like many others, that he would have been a great No. 2 (whether as vice president, or second choice). 

But whatever remaining palatability Isko Moreno had—dragging Ping Lacson along (Norberto Gonzales we can kindly ignore)—vanished with that Easter Sunday gripe session masquerading as a press conference that only revealed their pettiness of mind and character. It wasn’t even just what they said—for which they would’ve already been raked over the coals hundreds of times before this column comes out—but the way Isko in particular handled the post-presscon flak that sticks in the craw. 

Given a chance to refocus his sights on Ferdinand Marcos Jr. instead of yapping at Leni’s heels, Isko doubled down on his silly dare for Leni to stand aside and let him take on Marcos Jr. one on one, claiming that he owned the “everyone-who-can’t stand-Leni” vote, next to the frontrunner. And no, said his manager, it wasn’t some impulsive remark brought on by the summer heat. It was all thought out; they’d made their calculations—Leni had hit her ceiling, and Isko, well, his ceiling was higher. 

Which has to make one wonder: how did he think he was going to get there? Did he imagine he’d inherit a suddenly headless Pink Army, and merge that with a gazillion Leni haters defecting from the Marcos camp (and his bottomless war chest)? What about the “everyone-who-can’t-stand-Isko” vote, which can only have ballooned after his stunt? And no, Leni Robredo isn’t some sidewalk obstruction to shove out of the way.

Dissociating himself from Isko’s call, Ping Lacson said that he “didn’t see it coming,” which of course was possible, but troubling for someone supposed to be a consummate tactician. Should he have been bothered that Isko upstaged him, or even more, insulted that Isko didn’t even care to ask him to withdraw as well, given his deep-frozen standing in the polls?

Manny Pacquiao dodged a bullet by what his manager called “divine intervention”—a congested airport—and so was able to land and perch on a square foot of moral high ground. Giving the Almighty more work to do (after all the “acts of God” recently being attributed to Him), Pacquiao also explained that only God could change his mind about running.

Leody de Guzman did the smart thing and enjoyed his halo-halo in South Cotabato. Whatever happens, I think history will salute Ka Leody’s albeit largely symbolic candidacy, as an example of pushing principles over percentages. 

Leni Robredo ignored the press conference and asked her Kakampinks to do so as well, training their attention on the remaining weeks of the campaign—and on the frontrunner.

Frontrunner Marcos Jr. may have had the best time of all, laughing his head off at the Easter show. (When a Facebook friend asked if he might have paid for the presscon bill, I told her that those fellows couldn’t have come that cheaply.)

It’s a sad turn of events—and I’m not being facetious here in any way—because it would have been good for our democracy and for our people to have had truly worthy and viable candidates to choose from, to offer hope beyond May 9 in a new breed of political leaders willing to stand up to despots, kleptocrats, bullies, monsters, and crooks—and children thereof. Instead we see politicians willing to do and say anything to win—even if they won’t, which only makes it doubly sad and puzzling. By holding that pointless presscon—the more expensive equivalent of an email blast announcing “I’m alive!”—the three men merely highlighted the singular fitness of Mrs. Robredo to take on Marcos Jr. for the presidency.

Come May 10, either Marcos Jr. or Robredo will have won. That will leave all the others as also-rans, some of whom will take their loss with grace and dignity, some of whom will protest to high heaven, some of whom will count their net income, and some of whom will look for someone else to blame. 

You can be an also-ran and hold your head high, prepared to fight for the people again not six years down the road, but all the years in between. You can also be an also-ran whom people will be happy to consign to oblivion, having revealed how desperate, how foolish, and how nasty you can get just to be called “Mr. President.”

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. 11: A Political Playbook

Hindsight for Monday, March 28, 2022

I WAS rearranging the books and periodicals in my library the other day when I came across a copy of a journal from more than 60 years ago—the 3rd quarter, 1958 issue of Comment, self-described as “a quarterly of Philippine affairs… conceived in the observation that absence of thought has resulted from a prevailing atmosphere of conformity and dread of ideas.” 

It was quite an assertion to make, but the journal’s mainstays were up to livening things up in the Cold War chill that had turned many Filipinos—both in government and academia—into rabid anti-communists. On Comment’s editorial board were F. Sionil Jose, Onofre D. Corpuz, and G. Burce Bunao (on leave for their studies abroad were Alejandrino Hufana and Elmer Ordoñez). Then only in their early thirties or even younger, these men would count among the most prominent intellectuals and writers of their time. 

What particularly caught my attention was an article written by Corpuz on “Filipino Political Parties and Politics.” O.D., as he would be known, had just recently returned with his PhD in Political Economy and Government from Harvard, on the verge of a long and prominent—though sometimes contentious—career in public administration that would see him serve as Secretary and then Minister of Education, founder and president of the Development Academy of the Philippines, member of the Batasang Pambansa, and president of the University of the Philippines. 

Another political scientist and UP president, Jose V. Abueva, gave due praise to Corpuz upon the latter’s passing in 2013, citing his landmark scholarship in economic history. But Abueva also pointedly noted that O.D. was “soft in his judgment of Marcos’ authoritarian rule.” (Interestingly, Corpuz had described martial law as “an anti-democratic but constitutional coup” and EDSA as “a democratic but unconstitutional coup.”)

I was curious about what O.D. Corpuz observed of Philippine politics in the 1950s and if those observations would still hold today. Let me share a few choice quotations from the article, and you tell me if they don’t remind you on some level of what we’ve been seeing lately.

First, he notes the political centrality of the family and the elite:

“The importance and strength of the family and of its manifold of values, interests, ethics, and behaviors is one of the basic facts in the cultural context of politics and government in this country…. Close association between party and family was natural from the outset. 

“The first elections in this country in this century were municipal elections. This meant that, as a general rule, during the critical time when the foundations of political leadership were to be established in this country, those foundations had to be local…. The organization of national politics that later came after 1907 was essentially a superstructure resting on local foundations, in which the locally dominant families were the primary factor.”

I knew that only men could vote until 1937, but I didn’t know until I read Corpuz that, early on, you also had to own “real property worth at least five hundred pesos or paid at least thirty pesos of the established taxes annually” and read, write, or speak English or Spanish.

These requirements of maleness, wealth, and literacy lodged if not locked political power within the elite. Citing the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, Corpuz then goes on to classify political parties into “cadre” and “mass” parties, with practically everyone falling into the former category (the communists being the notable exception), comprising individuals bound by common interests and goals. These groupings were temporary, opportunistic, and shared the mindset of the elite from where their members came. These members also freely defected from one party to the other as circumstances required or suggested:

“The frequency of defections is a unique and interesting characteristic of Philippine politics. No party system abroad seems to breed that adventurous individual in whom ours abounds, who changes his party affiliation almost every season…. Defectors do not defect by themselves. They have personal and independent followings that go with them wherever they go, and it is these, as much as the defectors themselves, that are coveted by the parties.”

All parties needed money, and they knew where to get it:

“Cash contributions come in the form of large donations. M. Duverger calls this the system of capitalist financing…. The majority party would enjoy a positional advantage over the minority in the matter of contributions, forced or voluntary, from business firms. It is similarly favored when it comes to per capita levies from aliens, especially the overstaying Chinese, who render their donations unto Caesar during the Christmas and political seasons.” 

Corpuz predicts, presciently, that the old landed aristocracy would at some point be matched or supplanted by new wealth coming out of commerce and industry, which would then control the political levers. Ultimately, family trumps party and ideology; its survival and prosperity are what matter most:

“A somewhat more important factor is the existence of private and family interests that are not subordinated to the demands of administration unity or party discipline. Some families affiliate themselves to a party only as a tactical maneuver, with the basic aim of acquiring a means for aggrandizing family interests.”

Finally, Corpuz observes the existence of a significant “floating electorate”—today’s “undecided” or “convertible” voters—and how to win them over:

“In the Philippines, to a degree rarely matched elsewhere, the slogans of the parties belong to the corpus of political myths…. The lack of ideological meaning in the party platforms is often lamented… (arising from) the fact that the attitude of the floating voter is unpredictable…. As a minimum condition, they must not alienate the floating vote. In this case, therefore, the safest course of action for the campaign planners is to declare the party’s unswerving dedication to generalities.”

I’ll leave it to your imagination what those “generalities” might be today. But I have to say that for a minute back there, I thought I was reading a political playbook for the 2020s.

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. 

Hindsight No. 8: Who Owes What to Whom

Hindsight for March 7, 2022

A COUPLE of weeks ago, an unattributed article in another newspaper titled “National artists owe it all to Marcos” berated five National Artists—Bencab, Virgilio Almario, Alice Reyes, Ramon Santos, and Ryan Cayabyab—for proclaiming their support for VP Leni Robredo’s presidential bid. They were, said the unnamed writer, ingrates for forgetting the fact that the National Artist Award had been created by Ferdinand Marcos, implying further that they owed their fame and fortune to Manong Ferdie, without whose patronage they would be nobodies hawking their wares at streetcorners. “Prior to his being named national artist in 2006, Cabrera was not as well known as he is today in the national art scene. Today, his paintings sell in the millions of pesos.”

That’s odd because as far as I knew, Bencab, along with the others, was already famous within and outside Philippine artistic circles well before he was proclaimed National Artist. In fact, didn’t he become one because of his impressive body of work? Or did I get it wrong? According to that article, it was the NA Award that made these people, and since Manong Ferdie established it, then, well, they were forever indebted to him for their professional success. That should go as well for such luminaries as Jose Garcia Villa, Vicente Manansala, Amado Hernandez, F. Sionil Jose, Jovita Fuentes, and Atang de la Rama, among many others. 

The article dutifully reminded the reader that “To recall, on 27 April 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation 1001 creating the Order of National Artist of the Philippines, to recognize outstanding Filipino artists. Under the Marcos proclamation, a national artist is entitled to a cash award of P100,000, a handsome monthly stipend, yearly medical and hospitalization benefits, life insurance coverage, a place of honor in state functions and national cultural events, a state funeral, and burial space at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.”

Wrong. There were no such benefits under that proclamation, only the honorific title. (Go on, look it up.) The emoluments came later, in the form of the aforementioned one-time cash award and a P2,000 monthly stipend, raised much later to P10,000 and then P50,000 (on the government pay scale, equal to about Salary Grade 19, just one grade above sub-professional supervisors). Since National Artists typically get chosen in their 70s or even posthumously, that’s not much of an outlay. 

I would have been more enthralled by Manong Ferdie’s magnanimity if it had been his personal finances that paid for the package. But that was always the people’s money. And even his personal finances had a way of being traced back to some public source.

Where else did our taxes go? Why, to the recipients of the CCP International Artist Award, which I’ll bet most of us never even heard of. The book Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation by Christi-Anne Castro (Oxford University Press, 2011) chronicles how the First Lady instituted this award—which came with an unspecified life pension for such laureates as Van Cliburn and Margot Fonteyn—in June 1973 “as a personal gift from Imelda Marcos as well as a small incentive for international performers to make the long journey to the Philippines to perform at the CCP.”

(Photo from philstar.com)

The article chides “anti-Marcos” creatives for dreaming of becoming National Artists and for accepting its conferment. But since when did the award—or any credible award for that matter—require fealty to its originator or sponsor? Were the victors at the 1936 Berlin Olympics expected to genuflect before Hitler? Should Nobel Prize winners espouse arms sales, as Alfred Nobel once did? 

I don’t dispute the claim that the Marcoses supported the arts and culture through the creation of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Folk Arts Theater, and the Manila Film Center, as controversial as they were (and in the case of the Film Center, as tragically ghoulish, with as many as 169 workers’ bodies reportedly entombed in the concrete). Favored artists were set for life. 

But cultural patronage is a PR expense. The art shows decorated and sanitized the regime, and made it appear to whoever cared to look that the Philippines was one big, colorful, glittery stage. For the National Artist Award to be taken seriously, they had to recognize serious artists—even those who weren’t Palace toadies, like Nick Joaquin (who accepted the award in 1976 only on condition that his friend the journalist Pete Lacaba, then in prison after being brutally tortured, be set free). After the Marcoses, the NAA was revived and expanded—the National Scientist and National Social Scientist Awards were also established—but it never quite shook off the stigma of political favoritism. Most notably, in 2009, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo played dagdag-bawas and anointed four of her personal choices NAs, prompting a suit from the real NAs and many other petitioners, which ultimately prevailed. 

If you want to get political about utang na loob, even Rodrigo Duterte acknowledges that it was Cory Aquino who jumpstarted his political career when she appointed him OIC mayor of Davao after EDSA 1 when his mother “Nanay Soling”—among the few staunch anti-Marcos activists in Davao—declined the offer. He later said in an interview that he was not going to dishonor his mother’s memory “by following the persons that she helped shut down.” But then in 2016, against widespread opposition, he allowed Ferdinand Marcos to be interred as a hero. That should have earned him a cache of pogi points with the Marcoses, who then jumped the gun on Inday Sara’s own presidential ambitions—or whatever Tatay Digong had in mind for her—by pushing Junior for No. 1. Of course, my pro-Sara friends (I do keep a handful, for our mutual entertainment) insist that Sara is going her own way and isn’t answerable to her dad. So this puzzle of who-owes-what-to-whom gets more and more difficult to figure out. Does it even matter in Pinoy politics?

And if we’re serious about debt collection, how about the P125 billion in ill-gotten Marcos wealth that the Philippine government still has forthcoming? Sounds more like the Marcoses owe it all to the Filipino people.

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. 

Hindsight No. 5: The Dropout Factor

Hindsight for Monday, February 14, 2022

(Image from thetimes.co.uk)

HOW MUCH of a factor is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s being a college dropout in making people decide whether he’s worthy of being voted President or not? The anti-Marcos forces seem to think it’s a viable issue, on two counts: first, that Junior failed to complete his studies at Oxford and subsequently at Wharton, despite the extravagant resources put at his disposal; and second, that Junior and his people have repeatedly asserted that he graduated from both institutions, despite clear evidence to the contrary. 

One would think that, in a country where higher education is widely seen to be the only ticket out of poverty, Junior’s profligate ways should have turned off if not outraged large swaths of the CDE electorate that everyone now acknowledges will effectively choose our next leader.

The picture of him posing as a top-hatted dandy in front of a Rolls Royce when he should have been sticking his nose into a book in the library should be sickeningly ridiculous to anyone who has had to take three sweaty and dusty jeepney rides to school. That he or his cohorts would insist that he has a BA and an MBA from the world’s top universities without proof of an actual diploma should offend anyone who failed to finish college, despite a bright mind and high grades, for lack of money—like my father did.

But sadly I suspect that for many of Junior’s supporters, the dropout factor is a non-issue, for a number of reasons. To begin with, going by the statistics, ours is a nation of dropouts. Even well before the pandemic, according to one study, the graduation rate from college was only 61%, which means that two out of every five students fell off the rails. So Junior should be in good company. 

I myself dropped out of UP in my freshman year because I was becoming increasingly more involved with student activism, and I was also itching to get a job and earn some money. Like many dropouts who managed well enough on their own, I wore my undergraduate status for many years like a badge of honor. But there came a point when I simply longed to learn in a more structured way, so I went back to school, and graduated with my AB at age 30.

To Junior’s defenders, dropping out of Oxford is understandable. “Oxford is even harder to get into than UP!” said one online. And besides, said another, he did get a special diploma, which “is already equivalent to having a degree. UK educ system is different from PH system. Between him showing certification vs emailing Oxford, I would believe him.”

As I noted in last week’s column on “Denial and Dissonance,” the politically captive mind will fashion creative explanations for everything from the “fake” landing on the moon to Donald Trump’s “stolen victory” over Joe Biden.

A Reddit thread on the topic overwhelmingly agreed that being a dropout wasn’t the problem; rather, lying about it was. “At least Erap admitted to being a dropout, and he still became President,” said one poster.

Publicly exposed, Junior back-pedaled. His official Senate resume in 2014—digitally preserved for all time on archive.org—clearly showed him claiming a master’s degree in Business Administration from Wharton and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford. This has since been amended to “graduate coursework” for Wharton and a “special diploma” for Oxford.

(Image from rappler.com)

But there’s another side to this college-dropout issue that’s worth thinking about: what’s a diploma really worth, anyway, and what exactly have we done with ours?

We have many thousands of college graduates working well beneath their professional capabilities as domestic helpers overseas, or in jobs that require more use of their hands than their brains. So a diploma has never guaranteed success (and as Junior’s example shows, you can get very far in life without one). 

But also, since when was a college degree a measure of intellectual ability and, even more importantly, of moral probity? What has our incumbent Palace dweller done with his law degree, beyond assuring the tokhang brigade of his full protection and threatening to defy the Supreme Court? At least Ferdinand Sr. used his to cloak his every ploy with a veneer of legality. 

In terms of intellectual caliber, Marcos had probably the most illustrious Cabinet members in our history, with PhDs from the world’s foremost universities, but even they could not rein in his regime’s excesses, and some even abetted them. The good ones left early; a few tried to draw a line; others became willing accomplices to dictatorship and plunder. As idealistic and upright as they may have been or started out, Marcos suborned many of these technocrats and forever compromised the edukado in Philippine society, turning that respected figure into a minister at the foot of a despot, his wife, and their whimsy.

Our incumbent burnished anti-intellectualism into a virtue to curry favor with the crowds, and got flunkies with LLB’s to explain away his bad behavior like auditioning comedians. You listen to their tortured spiels and you ask, was this what they went to college for?

Wealth and power hold far more charm for many of us than schooling, because we see education as but a means to those ends. To be rich is to be smart and praiseworthy enough. If the rich behave imperially, impudently, irresponsibly—well, they earned it, didn’t they? We can forgive and excuse them no end; we still think like tenants thrilled to be invited into the big house for a cup of chocolate. 

We seem surprised and suspicious when a well-educated person with an honest heart claims to love and understand us, and promises to improve our lives, because we no longer recognize real goodness and ability when we see them. So we go with the devil we know, and who cares how he fared in History or Philosophy? As Ping Lacson puts it, logic was never our strong suit: “Ayaw mong manakawan, tapos, boboto ka ng magnanakaw?” I have a PhD, and I can’t figure that one out.

Hindsight No. 4: Denial and Dissonance

Hindsight for Monday, February 7, 2022

(Image from contemplativestudies.org)

I FIRST heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance” fifty years ago in UP from my friend Jose “Oying” Rimon, then a Mass Comm major just grasping the mechanics of social behavior. Oying would go on to become a population expert and close adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates on public health, capacities in which he had many occasions to see cognitive dissonance at work in shaping people’s attitudes and responses to development policy. 

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going to have a real one, Dr. Sam Mcleod, explain what the concept means: “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance…. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” 

The examples that usually turn up in the literature are fairly simple: you smoke, but know that smoking is bad for you; you know you need more exercise, but put it off for tomorrow, citing the workload on your desk.

Why is this relevant to our present situation? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me quote from an article by Dr. Eddie Harmon-Jones in Psychology Today wondering why so many Christian Americans still voted for and supported Donald Trump despite his patently un-Christian behaviors, such as adultery. “As president, he has engaged in many actions that seem immoral. How do so many still support him? Surely they must experience dissonance over this. How do they reduce this dissonance?” (For that matter, why did so many conservative Fil-Ams vote for Trump on the excuse that he was supposedly “pro-life,” ignoring his many other moral infirmities?)

Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the hard facts and figures in front of them? How do they reconcile these contradictions in their minds to feel like they’re doing the right thing and to feel better about themselves? (The science suggests that we humans have a natural impulse toward feeling good.)

This is what the psychologists call reducing or resolving dissonance—accepting or acknowledging what the more logical part of your brain is saying, but then coming up with a rationalization or justification for sticking to your original belief anyway; or, with much more effort, you find a reason to cross over to the other side. Sure, smoking is bad for me, but so is anxiety; sure, maybe vaccines work for other people, but I’m not like other people—I haven’t been sick in twenty years; sure, I lied on my tax declaration—but haven’t bigger people done much worse?

Dissonance is a shade different from denial, which is the outright rejection of proven or provable fact. Holocaust deniers will insist it never happened; other neo-Nazis will say it did, but that the Jews brought it upon themselves, or that Hitler wasn’t to blame for the genocide. 

This is the stuff that conspiracies and conspiracy theories are made of—a little truth here and a little truth there, interwoven by threads of fanciful fabrications to create some semblance of alternative logic. Spun imaginatively and cast widely enough, this web of lies can begin to acquire the sheen of truth, or what passes for it among its believers.

Are those believers stupid or crazy? Not necessarily. An interesting paper by the psychologist Andrea Kohn Maikovich argues that terrorists aren’t simply the hate-filled loonies they’re often pictured to be. Rather, recruits go through a radicalization process during which they negotiate between their personal predisposition not to commit violence and the collective pressure to do more than carry placards on the street. When the dissonance hits its peak, some leave; those who stay have found a way to convince themselves that violence is good and necessary.

Writing for the Atlantic Monthly on “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic,” Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris note that “When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties. The social psychologist Lee Ross, in laboratory experiments designed to find ways to reduce the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. ‘The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,’ he told us.”

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why pro-Marcos narratives can seem so compelling to many Filipinos, despite the clear and documented evidence of ill-gotten wealth (let’s say it plainly: theft), brutality, deception, and other abuses of power during the martial law years. They’re rich and powerful—which we all want to be—so they must have done something right.

People who are already rich don’t steal; it wasn’t FM Sr. who committed martial law’s excesses, but his administrators; EDSA 1 was nothing but a CIA operation; Imelda was never imprisoned, so she can’t be guilty of any charges thrown at her; the younger Marcoses knew nothing about what was going on, and so will be different from their parents; if the Marcoses were bad, the Aquinos and Lopezes are worse; et cetera. If you feel comfortable with any of these ideas, then you’ve made your own kind of sense of the past, even if you may not even have been there.

Of course, I have my own set of stubborn core beliefs and dissonances as well. I keep holding on to the idea that Filipinos are worth dying for, only to be disappointed by the way many of us choose our leaders. I believe in democracy, but I feel frustrated when it’s gamed by people who obviously don’t care much about it. 

According to cognitive dissonance theory, something has to give: your cherished notions, or the hard truth. It seems much easier just to give up hope, but there’s no real comfort nor resolution in that, either.

Hindsight No. 3: A False Nostalgia

Hindsight for Monday, January 31, 2022

SINCE MY belated debut on Facebook just over a month ago, I seem to have acquired something of a reputation for my posts about the past—not in the scholarly mode of a real historian, which I most certainly am not, but as a collector and keeper of objects that evoke strong associations with times and people long gone. These include century-old fountain pens and typewriters, and even older books and documents steeped in the accumulated oils of the hands that held them.

I’ll admit to having an intense, almost fetishistic, interest in the past—the 1930s are of particular significance to me, because I’m writing a novel set in that period—and I can identify with the romance conjured by postcards of ocean-going liners and of the old Manila Hotel. If you play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on a turntable, you’ll float to the ceiling in my esteem. In my dreams, I fantasize about strolling into the Crystal Arcade one fine day in 1937 and stepping out with a fistful of Parker Vacumatic Senior Maxima pens while towing a cart with all 55 volumes of Blair and Robertson.

But that’s where the nostalgia ends. In many if not most respects—as I’ve told friends who, for example, ask me if UP’s fabled Cadena de Amor ceremony is worth reviving—there’s one place the past deserves to be, which is exactly where it is. Nostalgia is comforting precisely because the past is over, and because we tend to remember just the good parts, and even burnish them to perfection.

But it was never really all that good. Amorsolo’s maidens all seem fresh out of the batis and every Joseon prince’s robes on K-drama seem immaculately pressed even after a swordfight, but the past was literally a filthy place. Queen Elizabeth I was said to take a bath once a month. William Shakespeare and his friends wore those fluffy collars around their necks because that’s all they changed. The lovely ladies of Versailles doused themselves in perfume to quell the odor of their unwashed bodies. The “buntis” window grilles we now admire in old Manila houses were once drenched with dubious liquids being dumped on the street below.

Neither was it so peaceful. Even without counting the devastation of war, the past was fraught with danger, hardship, and unrest. It may have been a grand and glorious time for the rich in their cars and villas, but the masses were suffering in the farms and factories. Power was brazenly exercised, as in the torture and murder of Moises Padilla in 1951. Postwar congressmen carried .45s at their waist into the session hall. As a young police reporter in 1972, I learned where you could find a gun for hire for P500 per target.

We like to think that the past was simple, with fewer choices to be made. But it was never that simple for many without real choices. Poverty was and is never simple, because every morning the mind races to figure out where supper is coming from, and if Nanay can survive on a third of her prescribed dosage or on plain salabat.

All these come to mind when I hear Filipinos today—many of them not even in their 40s—talking about how a return to the “glory days” of Marcosian martial law would set this country back on track and bring us the prosperity, the peace, and the prestige we once enjoyed. I wonder what it is exactly they are “remembering,” and if they understand what putting a Marcos back in Malacañang will mean to this country. This goes beyond the historical amnesia we often hear about these days; the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls it “anemoia,” a nostalgia for a time someone has never known, or that never happened.

No, I’m not calling them stupid or wicked by any means. In many cases they’re simply innocent or uninformed, and therefore suggestible. If they feel oppressed by the present and are facing an uncertain future, the past will acquire the appeal of the womb, offering safety and security. The idealization of martial law as a time when streets were wide and clean and when new buildings were rising right and left is a more inviting prospect for those who can’t be bothered with facts and figures about debt-driven growth, cronyism, and horrific abuses under military rule. (For those facts, check out https://newslab.philstar.com/31-years-of-amnesia/golden-era)

That even oldtimers can wax nostalgic over the Marcos years isn’t hard to understand. Like the Germans under Hitler, many if not most Filipinos then never saw a prison camp, never had a son or daughter tortured and salvaged, never had a business taken over by the regime. Those of us who actively resisted dictatorship were in a distinct minority—as we still are today. Complicity has to be endemic for despots to thrive.

But now once again we are called to arms, in a battle for the imagination—a battle of competing narratives and modes of narration. Will the cold, hard truth alone triumph over romantic fantasy, or will we need to be more inventive in our messaging to get through to those unlike us? Instead of just revisiting the past, should we dwell more on a rosy but realizable vision of the future? Instead of staking out May 9 as a referendum on martial law, should we double down on what a presidential election should be—a competition between platforms and qualities of leadership? (And then use the next six years to correct our history textbooks.)

It’s true that we have good reason to long for seemingly lost or threatened graces like statesmanship and civility (not to mention intelligence) in politics, as well as plain good manners and delicadeza. There are good things we can yet recover and revive from better days, with the right leadership and inspiration. But to do that, we have to save the future from those who would drag us back 50 years into a past that was as morally sordid, as violent, and as dispiriting as anything that ever happened in our history.