Hindsight No. 18: Wisdom from Suffering

Hindsight for Monday, May 16, 2022

(Image from tunedinparents.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight No. 17: The True Winner

Hindsight for Monday, May 9, 2022

(Photo from lumina.com.ph)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight No. 16: The Long Game

Hindsight for Monday, May 2, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

NOT SO long ago, before the groundswell of popular support grew into a towering pink wave behind the presidential candidacy of Vice President Leni Robredo, it seemed like she had embarked on a quixotic quest. For a moment back there, even her running was in doubt, spurred on only by the encouragement and faith of a coalition of upright citizens seeking a way out of the darkness of the past six years. 

In front of her was ranged a phalanx of formidable and even monstrous adversaries, flush with money, dizzy with power, armed with the most sophisticated weaponry on the market—data science and mass communications in the service of disinformation. The surveys declared her candidacy dead from the get-go, her campaign futile; her ceiling was this low, and she was bumping her head against it. For her enemies, it was enough to brand her a “woman” to render her incapable: “As a woman,” said the trolls, “she cannot be trusted with the responsibilities of the presidency. She is weak, and she cannot think for herself. She will always be subject to manipulation.”

It is not difficult to find parallels in history and myth for Robredo’s crusade. The foremost image that comes to mind is that of an armor-clad Joan of Arc, riding off to battle against those who had turned their backs on France to support the English. There is a long, long list of women who took up the sword to fight for freedom and justice. In 1521, after her husband fell in combat, Maria Pacheco took charge of the defense of the Spanish city of Toledo in a popular uprising against the monarchy; later that century, Guaitipan or La Gaitana led Colombia’s indigenous people against the invading Spanish; the 17th century is replete with accounts of women going into battle dressed as a man, so they could join the armies. And of course we cannot forget our own La Generala, Gabriela Silang, who fought the Spanish after her husband Diego was assassinated in 1763.

(Illustration by Francisco V. Coching)

But many if not most of these stories end with defeat and death for the heroine, as it did for Joan of Arc and Gabriela Silang. They are immolated, hung, imprisoned, abused, punished in the most horrific ways for the temerity to rise above their lot as mothers, wives, daughters, and servants. It would seem as though the lesson after all is not to rebel or resist, or otherwise be punished.

But martyr or not, the effect has only been to inspire emulation all the more. That Joan of Arc died at the stake at age 19 makes us, in our senior years, ask if we have achieved something even barely comparable—to live, and live on after death, as a symbol of resistance to tyranny.

If Leni wins on May 9, it will be a historic and hard-won triumph, but one that will be immediately fraught with danger, as she will now have to fend off a spiteful and tenacious many-headed hydra that will not slink into the shadows. Her enemies will hound her every day of her presidency, bark at every move she makes, make it extremely difficult for her to govern properly, so they can substantiate their portrayal of her alleged inefficacy.

If her adversary musters more votes, she will have lost a battle, but not the war this has become. Mind that just having celebrated her 57th birthday, Leni Robredo will only be 63 in 2028—younger than even Marcos Jr. is today. If she loses this election, it will not be the end, but only the start of the next stage of a protracted campaign to bring us back to good and honest governance. 

Six years may seem a long time, but it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when Rodrigo R. Duterte came to power. These past six years have been among the most difficult and dismaying we have had to endure, not only because of the pandemic but also because of an equally devastating malignancy at the heart of government—leadership by fear, terror, and impunity; the patronage and enrichment of friends; the repression of dissent; and the subornation and corruption of the uniformed and civil service. 

In another six years, should the Marcos forces now prevail and if they stay true to form, they will have unraveled and self-destructed. We will not be surprised, but their followers will be, when the promised manna never rains, when the Palace is ruled by incompetence, indecision, and intrigue, when No. 2 chafes at her humble station, when China attacks and the First Family rushes off to Paraguay with half the treasury (nothing is too absurd in politics today), when citizens cry out for simple answers to urgent questions and are told, “The President is busy,” in a dull echo of his excuses for avoiding the debates. 

But guess what—here we are; we endured, we survived, and we fight on. The ones behind us are even much younger and stronger, and more knowledgeable about the intricacies of digital and house-to-house persuasion. “Pink” is already being demonized as some mutation of the Reds and Yellows, but it will not fade away. Unless they are outlawed, or painted over by the newly reconstituted Kabataang Barangay, the “Kulay Rosas ang Bukas” murals will stay on as reminders of what could have been and could yet be. There may not be an EDSA IV—having once lost to peaceful protest, they will not hesitate to arrest and fire at the slightest signs of a new uprising—but the Internet will not be muted, nor will the mounting clamor of the disappointed poor.

The Marcos forces have waited almost forty years for this moment. What would six more years be to a resurgent opposition? We can play the long game.

And then again, we Filipinos just might surprise ourselves next Monday, and decide that the opportunity for change, for a real “moving on,” is not to be delayed but to be claimed at once. That will be sweet victory for the woman they made the mistake of calling “incapable.”

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. 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. 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. 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. 

My Wishes for the New Year

EVEN AS we all wish for a more benign 2022, free of Covid and conflict, we know deep within that our biggest battles lie ahead in the war between good and evil that it has always been—not between parties nor personalities nor platforms, but between those who will lie and steal and kill, and those who will fight for truth, justice, and prosperity for all.

Good and evil is as stark and simple as it gets, and no amount of spin or sophistry and certainly no surveys will change that. Even one good person in a roomful of the malignant and misled will still be right, and worthy of our praise and emulation.

And whatever happens in May, our struggles will not cease. Evil is a virus with infinite mutations. Our corrupt and power-hungry politicians are worse than Covid, and have infected the masses of our people with their lies and false promises. But they can be arrested and contained, with vigilance and resolve.

For myself, I cannot be a friend to anyone who willfully supports and benefits from those who will plunge our country into another six years of moral and economic ruin.

I look to 2022 as an opportunity to stand up and be counted among the forces of the good, whatever my personal faults and impairments may be. The only survey or judgment that will matter will be God’s, and I would like to be able to tell my Maker that I did the right thing when it mattered—that I managed to remember the difference between good and evil, and chose rightly.

I can only wish you feel the same, so we can have a truly happy and liberating New Year!

(Image from candles.lovetoknow,com)

Penman No. 427: Lights and Loudspeakers

Penman for Monday, November 8, 2021

THE ELECTION season is upon us, and for Pinoys for whom Christmas begins in September, November 15 can’t come soon enough to start figuring out who they’ll be voting for on May 9, a full half-year down the road. That date should really have been October 8, the official deadline for the filing of candidacies, but given our penchant to further complicate the already-complicated, we just had to set the stage for the last-minute substitution dramas we expect to happen by next Monday.

What couldn’t wait for November 15 or even October 8 was the onset of the propaganda war—the long series of campaigns and battles for our hearts and minds, with the prize being the right to seat someone you think you know and who thinks they know you in the Palace by the Pasig. And if there’s anything we can depend on to display Pinoy character and creativity at their best and worst, it will be a political exercise like a presidential election, during which people who had been largely content with watching telenovelas, munching sweet corn, playing pusoy, and sharing some kakanin with the neighbors suddenly rediscover their convictions, prejudices, longings, and peeves, and jump onto one bandwagon or another, many with knives drawn. (Of course, there are others who had been suffering in silence and gritting their teeth for the past five years, just waiting for the trumpet to sound from the top of the hill.) 

As a boy in the 1960s whose father kept getting roped into some politico’s campaign, I reveled in the hoopla that heralded every election. The contending parties held rallies in the plaza or the bukid (depending, I guess, on whose side the incumbent mayor was), and places more often attended by dog poo and carabao dung were transformed into one-night circuses. 

The stages were festooned with banderitas, and the lights and loudspeakers promised an evening of entertainment, at least from the movie stars, singers, and comedians whom the people really came for, before the real jokers running for congressman or mayor came onstage. Bands played as pickpockets worked the crowd. They gave away fans, hats, key fobs, stickers, and anything they could stamp a candidate’s face on, and if you were lucky you got a T-shirt—flimsy as hell and reeking of paint thinner or whatever it was they used for silkscreening. I’m sure some folks got more than that, but being too young to vote, I missed out on the serious stuff backstage.

The speeches were loud and bombastic, and you stood in rapt attention, feeling like a droplet in a huge surging wave about to engulf the nation. (Decades later, someone would call this “astroturfing.”) One particularly artful speaker might weave a tale of woe, of how the people had only themselves to blame for all the misery they had sunk into, because they had cast their lot with the other party in the previous election. (Decades later, someone would call this “gaslighting.”) Every candidate promised the moon, the stars, and a galaxy or two of blessings dependent on his or her election: more artesian wells, more puericulture centers, free dental clinics, free coffins, and a lechon for every barrio’s fiesta (loud applause). At some point, some bags of rice and boxes of milk might even go around, the word “RELIEF” overstamped with its new donor’s name.

No self-respecting campaign today would not claim a party color or motif—pink, white, blue, checkered, etc. (What was that? Pink as well? Maybe I should have said “No self-respecting campaign today would claim another party’s color.”) Back in the day, this didn’t seem to be a big deal. The Nacionalista Party’s colors were red, white, and blue, while the Liberal Party’s colors were—well, red, white, and blue. At least, if you were a Liberal today and a Nacionalista tomorrow, which sometimes happened, you didn’t have to change your wardrobe or your paraphernalia.

Neither do I recall proprietary hand signs then, like the Cory-Laban “L” that helped to overthrow her predecessor, and FVR’s jaunty thumbs-up. Ferdinand Marcos flashed the “V” sign, but that had been around for ages, and is now more widely associated with young girls in white socks trying to look their cutest for the camera. I suppose it stands for “victory,” although the “V” word that springs to mind most quickly when I hear that particular name is “vaults.” (Is there such a word as “villions,” like a billion billions?) Mayor Isko has appropriated the “No. 1” sign, with the forefinger pointing up, as if to suggest he has nowhere else to go. (That other mayor who became President, which must inspire Isko, prefers raising the next finger.) 

Frankly Leni’s hand sign remains a bit of a mystery to me, and I haven’t seen one from the boxer and the police general. At any rate I doubt this election will be won with carpal contortions. After all, there are only so many things you can do with your fingers, and the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” hand salute is difficult enough to master.

The fight, as everyone says, has gone to the Internet and the airwaves, and while we may like to believe that everything has changed in half a century, the very players on the field tell us they haven’t—only the lights and the loudspeakers have. So now, as ever, truth, reason, and justice will remain the underdogs, and those who root and clap for the jokers will end up getting their pockets picked.

(Photo from asiatimes.com)