Hindsight No. 27: The Truthifier

Hindsight for July 18, 2022

IT HAD been a nightmare to create, but was—save for the occasional brownout—a dream to operate. The “Truthifier,” as the machine was called, occupied almost the entire fourth floor of the old Doña Salvacion Building on the northwest corner of Plaza Regina in the city’s warehouse district. Most other people would have insisted on a sleek, postmodern structure—or perhaps even an underground vault—somewhere in BGC, among the banks and condos that tried to outdo each other in smartness and attitude, but Arsenio would have none of that. He was a brilliant engineer who understood algorithms, quantum computing, event horizons, The Singularity, and all the other buzzwords that sci-fi junkies more than the scientists themselves loved to spout. But Arsenio was firmly old-school, with a prewar Pelikan 100 in his breast pocket and oxford brogues that he made sure were polished every day, even if he was headed nowhere else but the Factory.

The Factory was where he had built the Truthifier over seven years from the ground up, scrutinizing the assembly of every panel, bolt, nut, wheel, gear, vacuum tube, insulator, switch, dial, and the thousands of other parts that went into the machine, some of them turned out on a lathe by Arsenio himself, following his own blueprints. Arsenio was well aware that he could have programmed a computer the size of a pizza box to do his bidding, but Arsenio disdained software, which could be hacked. He believed in finely designed and intricately crafted machines that made noises like “ding!” and “zzzt!,” whose diodes glowed orange in intense concentration, then spat out text from a teletype printer at the far end.

The Truthifier had one basic purpose: to turn ugly statements, even lies, into something that sounded like the velvety truth, better than most people could. There were probably a few professors out there who could do the same thing, but like all people, professors could be distracted, they could forget, they could be bought, and they could refuse. They also lied. And they died. The Truthifier, being made of brass, wood, glass, ceramic, and copper wire, could do none of that. Arsenio had to acknowledge that he did recruit his old friend Dr. Lucas Tagbanua, retired Professor of Linguistics and Philology at the University of Wurzburg and most recently Chief Librarian at Dagupan City College, to assist him in setting up the tree of linguistic arguments which he would convert to mechanical and electronic pathways. They made history when, in their fifth year, Arsenio typed this carefully on the front-end keyboard: “I murdered my father.” After a few minutes of gears turning and bulbs flickering, Lucas received a message on the other end: “I sent my father to a better place.” It was all still very simple and unsophisticated, but the two men cheered and celebrated. And then, four months later, Dr. Tagbanua died after being hit by a truck delivering action-figure toys.

That, Arsenio sighed, was the problem with humans; they were organic. But he had gotten the fundamental logic down, and he pursued the project to the point that he now had a dial that offered Simple, Moderate, and Extreme options, where “I sent my father to a better place” (Simple) became “I relieved my father of the unbearable burden of life” (Moderate) and then “Against all my filial instincts, I decided to return my father—he of my own flesh and blood—to the source and the end of all human aspirations, to the trackless void of eternal peace and silence” (Extreme). 

“Does it bother you,” Dr. Tagbanua had asked just a week before he died, and after they had achieved success to the Moderate level, “that the Truthifier isn’t really saying the truth, but something that just sounds like it—maybe even a lie?”

“No,” Arsenio said impatiently, making miniscule adjustments on a master valve that regulated adjectives, comparatives, and superlatives. “What we’re doing is giving people a version of the truth that they will want to believe. What’s the use of the truth if you can’t believe it?”

There were many, he was certain, who would pay for Extreme, which would go a long way toward recovering his R&D costs and even make him a tidy profit. He had happily spent all the money he had won from the lottery on his project, so he was beholden to no one, but now that he had accomplished proof-of-concept, he looked forward to some payback, so he could indulge other fantasies like riding a Vespa around Rome with a footloose princess.

Sometimes, just for fun, he fed the machine outrageous fibs like “Jose Rizal was bisexual,” for which he received this Extreme result: “While Jose Rizal had many recorded relationships with women, his sexual preferences were likely as broad as his mind, and his natural curiosity would have encouraged him to explore novel possibilities with his cohort of male friends.”

As soon as word of the Truthifier got around, the clients came to the Factory, in a discreet but steady stream of cars and SUVs with dark-tinted windows whose occupants slipped into a service elevator large enough for a marching band, although they always came alone. A general wanted to explain why he had so many people executed without trial; a priest wanted to introduce his three children to one another; a woman wanted to tell her sister something about her husband. But mostly they were politicians looking for better ways to say the most mundane things, like “I will serve you” or “My opponent is a pedophile.” They paid just enough to keep the Truthifier running and re-oiled every three months.

One day a Rolls-Royce drove up to the Factory and out stepped a man in a gray three-piece suit and top hat, wielding a cane. He looked like a boy who had aged all of a sudden, his long hair hanging in graying strings. 

“How can I help you?” Arsenio asked, barely looking up from a console that monitored temperature levels within the machine. 

The man took off his hat and put it beside him on the couch. “My father was a crook. For a very long time. But I’d rather forget that. And while I’m at it, I’d rather that everyone forgot, as well. I hear your machine can help.”

“That’s—complicated,” Arsenio said, after figuring out how many propositions the statement involved. “It will cost you some.”

“You must be a very busy man, so I won’t waste your time,” said the customer, glancing at his rose-gold Nemo. “How much for the Truthifier?” With a finger, he drew a horizontal circle in the air. “The whole thing.”

Stunned speechless, Arsenio sized up his visitor, who had crossed his legs and draped his arm on the backrest, like he had all the time in the world. Despite his agitation, Arsenio began thinking of Audrey Hepburn hugging his waist, her perfume curling up his nose as their scooter drove past the Colosseum. 

(Image from videohive.net)

Hindsight No. 26: The Quick Brown Fox

Hindsight for July 11, 2022

EXAMINING THE machine in front of him, Monching could understand why it had ended up in his shop. There weren’t too many people like him left in the city—or the entire country, for that matter—and he had been told he was the best of them, which he brushed off with a shy smile but happily acknowledged. At 62, he was also the oldest Manileño he knew still fixing typewriters—well, there was Mang Torio who was in his late seventies, but he had stopped five years earlier when his daughter landed a job in Dubai as a cashier in a shoe store, and besides Mang Torio really couldn’t work on anything more complicated than a 1970s Olympia Traveller or Lettera 32 when he retired. 

The older man had an encyclopedic mind, and Monching could still remember running to him when he was having problems he couldn’t sort out himself, like a Corona platen that felt too long (“Washer—washer could be too thick,” Mang Torio would say. “Or you can try filing down the carriage end bushing.”) But you needed good eyes and steady fingers to stay on the job, and Mang Torio had lost his touch when his wife died and he began drinking. At first Monching shared a few bottles with him to commiserate with his mentor, but he stepped back when he saw the old man sinking into an emotional abyss, and soon he was taking over Mang Torio’s jobs just to save his face. 

Now he was hunched over what looked like a bucket of rust, but he knew that beneath all that pockmarked paint was one of the most beautiful typewriters ever made—a mid-1950s Underwood Quiet Tab De Luxe, a two-tone model with sexy curves, like a rich man’s car. As its name suggested, it was top of the line among Underwoods of its time, and in his mind Monching could see it gleaming with new paint and chrome, after the requisite stripdown and rebuild. It had been brought in by an interior designer who was thinking of using it as a prop—she had found it among her grandfather’s effects on a visit home to Mabitac—but Monching had cleverly persuaded her to take a portable Brother 200 repainted in yellow in trade for the hulk. 

He knew what they wanted, young people who looked for “delete” buttons and giggled when they heard the bell “ping!” and who couldn’t care less if the typeface was pica or elite; they bought them for décor, an accent piece suggesting a connection to a golden age they never knew. There were years when it seemed like no one needed typewriters anymore other than the sidewalk clerks who helped make fake IDs and official-looking papers, but now they were back in fashion, and Monching knew that the Underwood could fetch a premium price once he’d fixed it up.

As he tapped the keys to see if they would even budge, he saw something unusual on the TV that was constantly on in a corner of his shop. He didn’t really care what program was showing, and just needed the tinny chatter in the background to help him concentrate on his pawls, drawbands, and adjustment screws. But today all the channels were carrying the same thing, the live broadcast of the new president being sworn into office. 

Monching had voted for the man, like his church elders had told him to do. He had no opinion of him, one way or the other, except to note the familiarity of the name and the implication that he knew more about the job than anyone else. Mang Torio, the last time they met, was all upset and kept mouthing off about how, back when the man’s father was president, he had been clubbed and dragged to jail for joining a rally protesting police corruption and extortion, so he wanted to vote for another candidate, but couldn’t leave his house. 

Monching would have none of that nonsense. He wanted a simple and uncomplicated life, just doing what he knew best, bringing machines that had typed their last words half a century earlier back to working condition. Most had produced office reports, term papers, affidavits, inventories, and such; others wrote love letters, or cut mimeograph stencils for anti-government propaganda. Monching didn’t think much about their past. He was happiest when, done with a reassembly, he could put a drop of 3-in-1 oil (“Never WD-40, it will dry up and stick!” said Mang Torio) between the Shift and Shift Lock keys, check that they worked, feed a fresh sheet of paper into the platen, and peck out “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” It was beauty and order restored.

He watched as a column of armored vehicles rolled across the TV screen in a show of military might, and he wondered how old they were and if they had been refurbished and repainted like his machines. He found himself wishing that people were as easy to fix; Rita wasn’t, and so he left, and had led a quiet life since, sleeping on top of his shop. He had tried to train some apprentices, but no one stuck, preferring to sell dishwashers or to drive ambulances. Only the skeletons of Corona 3s, Hermes Medias, and Remington Model 5s kept him company. He kept his shop floor tidy, picking up the tiniest screw.

Mang Torio’s life, on the other hand, was messy beyond belief. Three wives, children whose names he’d forgotten, a stint on a cruise ship that sank in the Adriatic, sudden wealth, gambling, prison (where he learned typewriter repair), walking the straight and narrow, and then descent into the bottle. Over gin, the man dithered between memory and regret, and now and then, a vain hope for something different.

On the TV, a crowd of protesters struck out at the new president, like jagged letters leaping from an unadjusted keyboard. When he was done with the Underwood, Monching promised, everything would be in line, all crisp and clear.

Hindsight No. 25: The Museum of Suffering

(Photo from philstar.com)

Hindsight for July 4, 2022

PEPITO FANCIED himself a museophile, a lover of places where old and fascinating objects were exhibited for the public’s delectation. Having achieved a certain level of leisure in his life, he had been able to indulge in a bit of travel, the highlights of which were invariably visits to local museums and galleries. While other tourists spent time posing before the Eiffel Tower or throwing coins into the Fontana di Trevi, Pepito preferred to wander the hallways of more obscure attractions such as the Musée de la Magie, where golden swans and painted ballerinas moved as if of their own accord, or the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari, where he could follow eight centuries of pasta-making across the globe. 

He was an omnivore, as far as interests were concerned. He could spend hours poring over Etruscan vases, Masamune katanas, deep-sea organisms, and Calder mobiles. Being something of a self-taught snob (he had a degree in civil engineering, but had never built a bridge or even a bungalow after he married into his late wife’s family), he liked to play guessing games—observing objects without reading their captions, making inspired surmises about their origins or back stories. 

Once, staring at a death mask from the Lambayeque culture of Peru, he voiced his suspicion to the docent beside him that “The red paint on this mask could have been human blood,” to which the docent replied, rather dismissively, “A lot of people say that, but there’s no proof, so it’s likely just cinnabar.” Years later, he was overjoyed to find vindication in a scientific report on analyticalscience.wiley.com that “The blood proteins serum albumin, immunoglobulin G, and immunoglobulin kappa constant were all identified, strongly indicating the presence of human blood in the red coating of the mask….” Pepito wanted to print out that page and mail it to the docent—in a real, stamped envelope, so the poor fellow could appreciate the materiality of the truth.

He could have been a docent himself, of course—one of those doddering retirees with nothing better to do than recite memorized scripts to glaze-eyed visitors about patinated silver and the importance of ruffles to Elizabethan gentlemen—but he found more pleasure in trailing them and the tour groups they shepherded around museums to pounce on an overheard mistake or to add his own little flourish. “There’s no proof that Jesus was born on the 25th of December,” he told some Japanese tourists examining an 18th-century belen. “Scholars calculate that he was actually born between 3 and 6 BC—before himself!” He expected them to chuckle with him, but their interpreter seemed annoyed at his intrusion and kept quiet.

No matter; truly, he didn’t care what others thought. They were all opinions, from small, provincial minds. He declared the present uninteresting, a jiggly kind of frame for the past, and politics the folly of idealists who kept hoping that communal inventions like government would get better, against obvious evidence to the contrary. He had long resigned himself to accepting whatever came, keeping his head low, vanishing into the woodwork, luxuriating in his connoisseurship of the strange and wonderful. People came and went, but things survived, and the most interesting of them were to be found in museums.

When he received the hand-lettered invitation to attend the soft opening of the new Museum of Suffering in San Miguel, Manila, Pepito wondered if they had made a mistake. Although he had posted his museum sorties on Facebook and had amassed 31,629 followers (he accepted no friends), he did not think of himself as a social media celebrity. But with vloggers now covering the President in the Palace, he figured he had been found out and finally recognized for his expertise on—well, anything and everything.

He took a cab to the address indicated on the card—about 45 minutes through the traffic, according to Waze—and tried to guess what the Museum of Suffering might feature. Pepito had to admit to a special attraction to the grotesque—to medieval instruments of torture (Prague, Toledo, Amsterdam), medical curiosities (Philadelphia, Boston), and even cannibalism (San Diego, Onnekop). This new museum had to be something of the sort, in a Philippine setting—exhibits of massacres, famines, imprisonment, floods, volcanic eruptions, locust infestations…. He looked at his driver and saw the crusty scab on the man’s neck, which probably began as an insect bite. 

He was met at the door of the refurbished mansion by—of course—a docent, but a woman not a year older than he was, wearing a pink dress with a Chinese collar to go with her dimpled smile. “Mr. Tanglaw? I’m so glad you could come. My name is Winnie, and I’ll be your guide for this tour…. Oh, don’t be surprised, we arranged this just for you, given your followership. This way, please.” Pepito looked around, expecting to be led to a roomful of specimens under glass, but instead an apple-green Vios appeared at the driveway and Winnie led him to the back seat before sitting in front. “Tikoy, let’s go,” she told the driver.

“Where are we going?” Pepito asked as the Vios eased into the traffic. 

“To the Museum of Suffering,” Winnie said. “That was just our meeting point.”

“Is it far?” Pepito asked after they had crossed three traffic lights, headed south.

“We’re low on gas,” Tikoy butted in, and slid behind a long queue of cars and jeepneys at a gas station. “Prices go up tomorrow, so everyone’s here. It was on the radio.” He turned the radio on and settled on a program where the hosts discussed tax evasion. 

Pepito looked at the prices per liter and saw nothing but numbers. He watched a truck driver wiping his face with a soiled towel. Winnie was explaining something about rice importation, but all he could think of was the olfactory testing game he played at the end of his tour of the Musée du Parfum Fragonard. He struggled to recall the scent of Belle de Nuit. He wanted out of this place. “Is it far?” he asked, gasping. “Is it far?”

Hindsight No. 24: All Content and Settings

Hindsight for June 27, 2022

CHARLIE COULDN’T tell exactly what the phone was until he slid it out of its case and, even then, its other specifications—model and memory size, which would determine its price—could be known only once he turned the phone on and made it work. The problem, of course, was that it was locked with a passcode, and if you didn’t know your way around, it was easy to turn next month’s rent into a brick. 

There were other, more elaborate ways that involved cables, computers, and words like “jailbreaking,” “DFU mode,” and “GPP,” but they were Nick’s specialty, for which he had a stall in Greenhills. Charlie was smart enough to know what he was good at, which was thievery, and to stick to it. Had he gone past second year in Koronadal, he might have become a Nick, or even better, a Mr. Garcia, who bought whatever Charlie could sell with cold cash and then disposed of them online through aliases like “Triciababy” or “Sweet Loreen.” 

Charlie had spotted a Samsung Galaxy Note on FB Marketplace that was being sold by Triciababy with the story that she needed a kidney transplant, and he knew that it was one of his pickups because it had a tiny chip on the top right of its screen. Mr. Garcia had paid him 3K for it and was now posting it for 8.5, which seemed unfair but then he didn’t even know how to describe the phone, let alone make up a story. He scanned FB Marketplace to get some idea of what to ask Mr. Garcia for, but it always came down to what the man was willing to pay, because he could come up with reasons like “obsolete” and “digitizer,” which simply meant that Charlie could have chosen better if he wanted to get enough to buy a new bike with. It was easier to steal a bike than to get something past Mr. Garcia, which probably wasn’t even his real name. 

He could have told Mr. Garcia to try it himself to find out how difficult it was to pick a specific model—on most days. You had to be in the right place, with the right kind of people, to score something high-end, like an iPhone 13 or a Galaxy S21. You didn’t find those in the malls and markets Charlie felt comfortable in, in the shirt and sneakers that made him look like a college student waiting for a date or shopping for jeans on sale, especially when he carried a book or two. 

But the Kakampink rallies changed all that. It was a pickpocket’s dream—tens of thousands of people massed on the street, all wearing pink, which meant that all he had to do was invest in a pink T-shirt to lose himself in the crowd, going along with the chants and finger signs. Many of these people looked and even smelled like they had stepped out of a shower. Charlie didn’t pay much attention to the simpler folk who could have been his uncles or cousins, seeking out the clusters of privilege.

Charlie already knew who held which phone, and where they put them away when their hands were otherwise occupied. He had spotted the woman and her iPhone at least fifteen minutes before he moved in; her phone had rung and she tried to take the call but put it back in her shoulder bag when the noise made all talk impossible. Thirtyish and plain-looking, she didn’t seem particularly rich, but with the pink T-shirts you never knew.

It was during the candidate’s speech that everyone seemed most distracted. People cheered and raised their arms. Charlie had no interest in what they were all excited or angry about—like “martial law,” when terrible things supposedly happened, well before his time: killings, torture, rape, like some war movie, of which he had seen and enjoyed a few. None of that had anything to do with him. And if it was so bad, why did they keep coming back to it? 

It took Charlie no more than a few seconds to swipe the phone and to vanish into the monochromatic crowd. The woman never felt a thing. Charlie gave her a backward glance and saw that she looked ecstatic, swaying with both hands in the air, her eyes shut as if in prayer.

Back in his room in Paco, he turned the phone on—last among the four he had taken that day. A picture of the woman and a small girl filled the screen, typical wallpaper for people her age. It asked for a passcode. He had ten tries before it locked up for good, but Nick could take care of that, so just for fun he tried 1-2-3-4. It opened. People could be so simple. It was an XS, 64GB, a four-year-old model he could sell for, oh, 7 or 8K.

Instinctively he went for the photos. There was always something interesting to be found there, sometimes embarrassing secrets the owners would have been happy to pay for, so Charlie thought he was doing them a favor by wiping their phones clean and erasing the past. There didn’t seem to be too many pictures on this woman’s phone. One of her with a man, posing in front of a fountain, obviously shot from an old photograph. Many shots of a baby girl, the girl and mother, girl, girl, girl, mother in a bank teller’s uniform, girl in fairy costume. Here and there, office excursions, Hong Kong, Taal, Baguio. Third birthday party, then suddenly, girl in hospital bed, closeup of girl sleeping, closeup of girl’s hand, then a flower arrangement beside the girl’s framed picture. And then the girl with eyes closed, a dozen of them from different angles, because the light kept bouncing off the glass. He remembered the mother at the rally with her eyes devoutly shut; they looked alike. 

Charlie had lost his father when he was a boy and his mother was back in Koronadal grinding corn. He had not seen her in five years, but now and then he sent her pictures of himself through a cousin’s phone, posing in shades before a new car and on the Dolomite Beach. At least she knew he was alive.

He knew enough to wipe the phone; Mr. Garcia wanted them clean and usable, and doing it himself instead of Nick would save him money. But when his finger hovered over “Erase All Content and Settings,” he paused, and wished the passcode had been something other than 1-2-3-4.

Hindsight No. 23: An Unsolicited Draft (2)

Hindsight for June 20, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

LAST WEEK, I indulged in some wishful thinking to imagine what a truly different and refreshing BBM presidency would be, with the rosiest inaugural speech I could confect. This week, as we edge closer to the real inauguration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as our 17th president, I’m going to try my speechwriting hand one more time at a grimmer version of what he might say. 

Again, friends, this is all fun and games, a finger exercise, not to be confused with the real draft that a roomful of gifted (and expensive) wordsmiths, some of whom I probably know, are probably toiling over this very moment. (For those who missed last week’s installment, again, please look up what “satire” means, and smile.) This is what you get from a fictionist posing as a political pundit, with no spicy gossip to share and no entrée to the corridors of power. 

And so, meaning no disrespect to No. 17, here we go with the kind of speech his most ardent followers, some more BBM than BBM, might want to hear. His language won’t be this fancy, of course—his dad’s would have been—but since this is make-believe, let’s turn up the volume.

My countrymen:

Let me thank you, first of all—the 31 million of you, most especially—for entrusting me with this loftiest of honors. Not too long ago, our opponents laughed when one of you presented the prospect of my presidency as “an act of God.” 

I seem to hear no laughter from that corner now. Instead I hear the anguished sobs of defeat from those who cast themselves as the angels of the good, and us as evil incarnate, an army of witless orcs streaming across the plain. Why, they may be asking, has their God forsaken them? Could it be that in their self-righteousness, they forgot that pride is the most capital of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it usurps God’s judgment and arrogates unto oneself the inscrutable wisdom that He alone possesses? 

How could they have presumed that they were right and we were wrong—that you, my faithful friends, were  bereft of all moral discernment in selecting me as this country’s leader for the next six years? Put morals aside—they called you stupid, unthinking, unable to make intelligent decisions on your own behalf. 

But let me ask anyone who cares to answer: is it not a supreme form of intelligence to vote to win, to choose someone who offers the best hope for your survival, to cast your lot with someone who has proven his ability to endure, to bide his time, and then to seize the right opportunity and prevail over a motley legion of adversaries? With this victory—our victory—you have vindicated yourselves, and you can stand proudly before anyone—before any priest, any professor, any employer, anyone who ever lectured you about right and wrong, or pushed you down to your humble station—and declare: “You have nothing to teach me. I won.”

And let me tell you something else: it is not only the unschooled, the hungry, and the unshod that I have to thank for today. All over the country, I found doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, and community leaders who may not have been as vocal in their support, perhaps for fear of persecution by the pink mobs, but for whom the name “Marcos” promised the return of discipline and progress to our benighted country. Now I say to you, my dear brothers and sisters: “Step out. Step up. We have a Strong Society to rebuild, and you will be its vanguard.”

But let us be magnanimous in triumph. To anyone who voted for someone else, even the most rabid of my detractors, I offer the hand of unity. “Unity” was the overarching—indeed the only—theme of my campaign, and I pledge today to ensure that it will be far more than a vapid slogan. 

National unity is every Filipino citizen’s choice: you are either for it, or against it. Any Filipino who rejects our generous invitation to unity and insists on treading the path of unbridled individualism and anti-authoritarianism will only have himself or herself (note how we observe gender sensitivity in our Strong Society) to blame. Self-exclusion by these disuniters—let’s call them DUs—will mean their willful abdication of social services and other resources that can be better devoted to patriotic citizens.

To this end, I am creating a National Unity Council—to be chaired by the Vice President, with representatives from the DND, DILG, NTF-ELCAC, CHED, DepEd, and NCCA—to formulate a National Unity Program that will be undertaken at all levels of government, from the LGUs and the military to our schools and cultural agencies. Its aim will be to forge and promote a truly Filipino culture, based on a truly Filipino ideology, that de-emphasizes conflict, promotes discipline and conformance, and upholds respect for duly-constituted authority. For this purpose, for example, we will practice mass calisthenics, sponsor competitions for patriotic songs extolling unity and discipline, and conduct workshops and seminars for the proper identification of DUs at the barangay level and their subsequent re-education and reintegration. We will review our curricula and our educational materials to ensure that they contain only our best stories as a nation, to instill pride in our people and to remind ourselves that, as my father said, this nation can be great again. 

Half a century ago, we stood on the edge of that destiny, in a bold experiment that would have transformed the Philippines into a bastion of democracy against communism and a beacon of development in Southeast Asia. That dream was thwarted by a perverse alliance between the CIA and the communists and their Yellow cohorts that resulted in my family’s forced exile. Today we resume that march to greatness, and we will brook no more interruptions, no more distractions, no more needless delays. A society’s strength radiates from its leader, and I vow to be that leader for you, so help me God.

Hindsight No. 22: An Unsolicited Draft (1)

Hindsight for June 13, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

HAVING HAD a hand in crafting presidential speeches and messages for many decades now, I thought I would give it the old try and produce an unsolicited draft for our presumptive President’s inaugural speech, just in case he wants to broaden his options. 

In fact, I’ll write two drafts: (1) for this week, the win-them-over version, representing a radical departure from what his detractors expect from him, a total refashioning not only of the Marcos image but of its substance as well; and (2) for next week, the thunder-and-lightning version, which those who dread the imminence of another Marcos presidency probably hear in their nightmares. (And before the trolls feast on me, kindly look up “satire” in the dictionary and double your erudition in three minutes.) So here we go.

My countrymen:

I acknowledge that I have come to this high office with much to prove, not only to the 31 million who have invested their hopes in my presidency, but also, and just as importantly, to the 81 million more who could not and did not vote, or preferred another candidate. Having chosen “unity” as the theme of my campaign, I am now obliged to realize that ideal and to take concrete steps that will prove the sincerity of my ambition.

Many of you know me only as “the dictator’s son,” a privileged wastrel who squandered your hard-earned money in youthful frivolity, a man bereft of substantial ideas and a genuine vision for our country’s future. Today I shall aim to correct that impression, with the adoption of several key measures that should smoothen the road to national reconciliation. 

As far as I am concerned, the time for rancor and divisiveness ended on May 10. I take the overwhelming mandate you have given me not as a license to persecute my enemies, but rather as a vote of confidence in my dream of unity. I will use this historic opportunity to address and reverse the injustices of the past, to chart a new course for our people and for my family, and to direct the energies and talents of my supporters to positive, nation-building pursuits. At the same time, I ask my detractors and former opponents to set our differences aside, and judge me for what I will do, and not what you thought I could not.

I am under no illusion that the measures I will announce will please everyone, not even within my own family. To those who were expecting a shower of favors and largesse, that will not happen. Henceforth we shall eschew political patronage and favoritism, and adopt merit and performance as the measure of one’s fitness to serve, which I hope will compensate for any personal shortcomings of mine in this respect.

Today I am announcing seven important measures that should set the tone for my administration.

First, I am directing the abolition of the PCGG, because it will no longer have a function, having been created to go after the assets of my family said to have been ill-gotten. Here before you today, I am signing a check to the Philippine treasury in the amount of P203 billion that should settle our tax liabilities once and for all. (Pause for ceremonial signing and applause; hold up signed check for cameras.)

Second, I am directing the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC, and replacing it with a People’s Peace and Development Council that will coordinate with NEDA and be its citizens’ arm in the planning and implementation of community-based development programs. All funds appropriated for the NTF-ELCAC will be transferred to this council. I am also pleased to announce that this PPDC will be headed by none other than my esteemed fellow candidate, former Vice President Leni Robredo, whom I thank deeply for responding positively to my invitation. (Pause for VP Leni to rise and acknowledge the crowd’s applause; go over and shake her hand for photo opportunities.)

Third, I am asking Congress, as their first priority, to pass a law abolishing political dynasties. My relatives to the third degree now occupying elective office will not serve beyond one term. None of my relatives to the third degree will be appointed to any government position, in any agency or GOCC, under my administration.

Fourth, for greater transparency and accountability, I am directing the immediate release of the SALNs of all government officials, both elective and appointive, above Salary Grade 28 or bureau director. My own SALN will be published in all major news media and online within 48 hours. I am also granting a blanket waiver to enable the appropriate government authorities to access information on all my personal accounts.

Fifth, as a gesture of reconciliation, I am directing the immediate release from detention of former Sen. Leila de Lima. Her persecution has gone on long enough. Furthermore, I will direct the Secretary of Justice to review all cases of political detention and to expedite the release of the individuals concerned. National unity cannot be achieved if those we wish to unite with have to speak through prison bars. 

Sixth, I will adopt a pro-Filipino foreign policy that will assert our sovereignty over what has been rightfully ours, and resist all encroachments in unity with ASEAN and our other multilateral partners. My first visit will be to China to impress upon their leadership the seriousness of our intentions. Incidentally I am appointing former Justice Antonio Carpio as our ambassador to China, given his mastery of the issues and his desire for their peaceful resolution.

Seventh, I am personally guaranteeing the academic freedom of the University of the Philippines and of all other universities and colleges in the country, toward which I am directing the establishment of a P100 billion endowment fund for UP that will help ensure its fiscal autonomy and help it achieve even greater excellence. In token return, I will request our esteemed historians and political scientists from that university to write a revised and updated Philippine history that will faithfully and factually record the period of martial law, leaving no stone unturned, as well as the aftermath leading to my election. This history will be taught in all high schools. 

Unless our people fully understand our past—and unless I myself confront and accept its dark reality—they will not appreciate the significance of what I am doing today, in the spirit of reconciliation, restitution, and redemption. Never again, so help me God.

Hindsight No. 21: Mr. Secretary

Hindsight for Monday, June 6, 2022

(Note: This could be the strangest thing you will ever see on an Op-Ed page, a new genre I’m going to call “editorial fiction,” observations of the current scene rendered as short stories. No direct references are intended.)

THE CALL came at a little past one in the morning, well after bedtime for George and his wife Trina. Trina stirred in their bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulder in a gesture of irritation, but as soon as she gathered whom George was speaking with, she froze and tried to capture every word that was being said, over the hum of the aircon and the occasional screech of late-night traffic along the boulevard twelve floors below. She had wanted a unit as close to the penthouse as they could get, but the price was just beyond their reach, so they settled for a 14th-floor corner suite—the 13th floor, of course, was non-existent for superstition’s sake—with a broad view of the bay on one side and a long thread of highway on the other, fading into the southern suburbs.

George should have been annoyed as well to have been called so late, but he was not. He had not even been asleep, having watched an episode of The Blacklist without paying too much attention to what Raymond Reddington was whispering into Elizabeth’s ear. He had been swilling his Cragganmore, not bothering with his usual routine of adding a few drops of water to unravel its complexity; his taste buds felt dull and flat. Life itself suddenly seemed tentative and purposeless. He had been staring at his phone for an hour, checking its battery status, thumbing through his messages to make sure he had not missed anything important. 

When the phone rang he had to gulp down the whisky with which he was simply wetting his throat, utterly without pleasure, but instantly he straightened up in bed and took the call, curling a conspiratorial palm over his mouth, as if a spy lived on the 15th floor.

“Good evening—good morning—sir!… Oh, no sir—I was still awake—I mean, I read the newspaper and was surprised to see my name there, but…. Yes, of course, I mean, I wasn’t expecting anything, since you know how I feel about—well, about… things, things that happened in the past…. The future, of course, the future, I agree…. I appreciate that, I honestly never imagined that I would be talking to—oh, no, sir, no ‘doctor’ or ‘professor,’ please, just call me George, George is fine, everybody calls me George…. Haha, yes, I’m older than you by four years, but you’re the president! Or will be—I mean, in a few weeks…. I’m deeply, deeply honored, sir, of course I am….Uhhh…. Sir, could you maybe give me some time, a couple of days, just to talk it over with Trina?”

At this point, Trina had dropped all pretenses of trying to sleep and was watching George intently, making words with her mouth that George couldn’t be bothered to read. But George looked in her direction and continued talking as if she wasn’t there. In the background, at the other end of the line, he could hear people laughing and shouting, and the pounding rhythm of a Village People tune. His friend Estoy who had texted him earlier to expect a call was probably there; Estoy had been a consistent flunker in college, but now he seemed unusually adept, even prescient. 

“Yes, sir, Trina, Katrina Palileo, the sorority sister of your cousin Angie…. Our two children are both in the States…. She’s retired now but still consults for—oh, no, no, I don’t think it will be a problem…. 48 hours, thank you, sir, I’ll talk to her and get back to you…. Many thanks again, sir, and good morning!”

George slumped into his bedside chair, threw his phone on the bed, and poured himself a fresh shot. He grinned at the hapless Trina, waiting for her to pop the question.

“So? So what did he say? Did you get the position?”

George tried to put on a straight face, without much success. “I said I would think about it—I said I would ask you first.”

“Idiot!” Trina said, laughing, and threw a pillow at him, almost hitting his shot glass. “You call him right back, right now, and tell him I approve! Of course I approve, 110 percent!” She picked up his phone and held it out to him. “Call him now, while he’s still awake, and before he changes his mind!”

George brushed the suggestion away, turning pensive. “No, no, I shouldn’t look too eager, like I really, really want it—”

“But you do, right? I mean—a week ago I never would have thought this would happen, but when your name came up in the news, I thought, oh my God, really?”

“That’s what I’m asking—why. Why me?”

“And why the hell not? Nobody knows the field more than you, you’ve published zillions of academic papers, people hold you in enormous respect, you’re better appreciated in London and Geneva than you are here, and you were never known to be his flunkey!”

“No,” said George, “I never was. That’s why I think he wants me. Maybe I could change things.” He looked at Trina, who was about forty pounds heavier than when they first met, across a barbed wire fence in martial-law prison. He himself had been thin as a rake, having had very little to eat in their Marikina safehouse. He took it as a blessing to have been arrested in a raid; there was more food in prison, and he would have died within a week of scaling the mountains. And there was Trina, whose pageboy bob had been replaced by shoulder-length curls dyed some shade of sunset. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to forget what she had gone through, and he never brought it up. To survive and to live well—that alone was sweet revenge.

“We used to talk a lot about the future—is this it? How did this happen?”

She put her arms around him and pulled him back to bed. “You think too much,” Trina said, and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “Congratulations and good night, Mr. Secretary! Let’s call the kids in the morning!”

Out the window, the lights of a tanker flickered on the pitch-black bay, the only way to tell that there was a horizon.

Hindsight No. 20: Mindfulness and Memory

Hindsight for May 30, 2022

(Photo from toolshero.com)

WHEN I I unexpectedly slipped into a black pool of anxiety and depression a couple of years ago—another unwitting casualty of the pandemic—I learned a new word from my psychiatrist: “mindfulness,” defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

It’s a therapeutic technique to keep your mind from straying into dark forests and crevices, focusing instead on the pen in your hand or the chunk of melon you’re about to swallow. Accompanied by meditation and measured breathing, it slows and calms you down just long enough for you to understand that you’re alive, you’re safe, and you will be well. It puts you back in control of your runaway thoughts and emotions, giving you back the composure you need to face your problems for the day.

It works. Of course I still take my nightly dose of sertraline (your doctor might prescribe something else; don’t take my word for it), but even just the awareness that you can, on your own, stake out a little zone of peace and quiet around yourself is liberating. Paradoxically, it allows you to deal with the stress of the moment by putting you in the moment. It’s the anticipation of terrible things about to happen—especially bad for imaginative minds—that brings on the fear and anxiety. Mindfulness snaps you back from that bungee jump to despair.

I thought about this last week as I encountered many friends online still in shock and grief over their electoral loss, brimming with agitation over what political atrocities could be forthcoming, and eager to begin the campaign for 2028 pronto. The trolls are gleefully feeding this anguish: one prayed that VP Leni’s plane would crash, another declared all Kakampinks “enemies of the state” who deserve to be hunted down, and yet another—despite doing it herself—faulted the Robredos for the crime of taking graduation pictures. 

When I realize that this is the world we now live in, roiling with nastiness, idiocy, and barbarity, I feel like reaching for something stronger than Zoloft to ward off the bad vibes (I also have a prescription for Xanor, but haven’t touched it for a year). But then I remember the old Jedi mindfulness trick, take a few deep abdominal breaths, think about places the ogres can’t reach, and soon enough I’m functional again, capable of absorbing the absurdities and ironies of the hour.

One more thing about mindfulness: it works well with daydreaming of the positive and wishful kind. The writer Sam Brinson quotes the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman: “A wandering mind is more creative, better at future planning and goal-driven thought, and helps with memory consolidation.” Kaufman argues for a balance between focusing your thoughts and letting them stray, which is relaxing, and a relaxed mind is better at making creative connections.

I don’t know if you could call it daydreaming, but lately my mind has drifted back to my own “golden era”—a time when things felt good and I felt good, when the country was in a bouncy mood and seemed to be going in the right direction: the mid- to late 1990s, the FVR years. We had a lot of problems—a rash of brownouts among them—but you could sniff the optimism in the air. (Full disclosure: I was one of FVR’s speechwriters, so it’s possible that I drank the Kool-Aid and fell for my own prose.) 

Beng and I got ourselves a decidedly downscale apartment close to West Avenue where huge rats scurried overhead at night, and we bought our food from the talipapa down the street. Having brought up that memory, I realize that we like thinking and talking about the past mainly for the fact that it’s over, it already happened, which means that whatever it was, we survived, presumably for the better. I’m sure it wasn’t as rosy as I now make it out to be, and that I’m blocking out the less pleasant parts. But that’s the way the memory works, the way it protects us from pain and provides us with some sense of certainty, some clear point of reference, in these nebulous times.

Just recalling how it was ten, eleven years ago fills me with a combination of wistfulness and regret. It was a time when despots around the world—Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Khaddafi, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il—were being toppled or dying; Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were still something of a joke; China was being rocked by pro-democracy protests; and a new platform called Friendster made waves on the Internet, where there were still pockets of innocence and honesty to be found.

It was a time when people and politics still retained a modicum of civility and intelligence, when the truth was nothing but the truth, when human rights were not to be cursed or spat upon, when bad leaders got their due, and when God seemed to be awake most of the time, sending a bolt of lightning here and a swath of sunshine there. It was the world before Covid, when all our friends and loved ones were still alive and laughing over their beer and sisig, when face masks were for the sick, when people danced and even kissed and made love without fear. The future sounded like it would be a wonderful place; technology and human genius would make sure of it.

When I woke up last week to the news that 19 schoolchildren and two teachers had been massacred in Texas, I tried to imagine what a mother there must have felt, how she would have given her own life to turn back the clock just one day. I was only beginning to be inured to the savagery in Ukraine, and now I saw that it was always possible for evil to become even crueller. For a minute, the aches left by May 9 felt dull and trivial.

There are things that Zoloft will not banish, but I know that mindfulness and the memory of a saner past can give me the cool head and steady heart that I will need for the long fight. Bring it on; we will survive, if not prevail.

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.