Qwertyman No. 13: Something Good

Qwertyman for October 31, 2022

MINISTER QUAQUA was having a bad day—a very bad day, probably the worst since he was appointed to his post by President Ongong after they had finished two bottles of Balvenie Portwood, with boiled peanuts and chicharon bituka on the side. Quaqua had brought the chicharon bituka to the Palace as a gift to the President, ostensibly as a sample of his company’s latest R&D. A self-professed man of science, the President was known to be interested in cutting-edge research. 

Pork was highly coveted by Kawefans, but was now considered contraband, because of a longstanding ban on pork and pork products forced by the great swine flu epidemic of 1986. Some Kawefan families, including the Quaquas, had made fortunes by creating and marketing fake pork—veggie-based substitutes for adobo, barbecue, and sisig. Pork smuggling was therefore big business, and naturally the Quaquas had a finger in that pie, too. The anti-pork law allowed for a tiny sample of real pork to be imported for research purposes, for producers of the fake stuff to run taste tests of their bogus bolognas against. The rumor was that pork was coming into Kawefo by the ton, and even more alarmingly, that the Quaquas kept a top-secret pig farm in the distant province of Suluk-sulukan under armed guard, producing Chinese ham, chicharon bituka, and tocinofor the most select clients, including the First Family. 

Quaqua had come to the Palace not just to share some pulutan with an old friend, but to advise him against yielding to the strong pro-pork lobby, which argued for the legalization of pork, so every Kawefan could enjoy his or her rightful taste of inihaw na baboy. It was a popular initiative, certain to gain the ruling party more votes in the next election. But Quaqua had a strong counter-argument: legalizing banned substances not only negated decades of established jurisprudence (he was a lawyer, after all), but would put legitimate producers of healthy substitutes out of business—and, he didn’t need to add, abolish the black market in pork altogether. 

“Just look at what those fools in Bukolandia did with drugs,” he told Ongong as he poured the Balvenie. “To take care of the drug problem, they legalized drugs, so not only is the whole country now on a high, but the economy is down because there’s no business to be made, with people planting weed and cooking up meth in their own backyards. We can’t allow that to happen—imagine, if people bred their own pigs, how common the taste of lechon and chicharon would be. Fake pork can take care of that demand without turning our country into a stinking pigsty. True pork has to remain—” and here he munched on a morsel of bituka—“a restricted commodity.”

There must have been something more than MSG in what Quaqua fed the President, because he was appointed Minister of Justice on the spot, as he had been praying novenas for. Now, he could tell the Kawefan Bureau of Investigation (KBI) to spend its time on worthier pursuits like chasing after subversive authors and professors instead of bothering with peripheral issues like pork smuggling.

But barely had he warmed his seat when his first crisis exploded. One of the President’s peskiest critics, Dr. Fofo, a radio broadcaster from way down south, had been shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. That wasn’t the problem—after all, presidential critics died all the time. They should’ve read the news and shut up if they knew what was good for them. The problem was that Dr. Fofo’s killers stupidly got caught when a piglet sprang from out of nowhere—likely an escapee from an illegal farm—and enticed the duo to chase it, until their motorcycle hit a post. In police custody, the two boasted of their connections and were threatening to out their mastermind if they weren’t released soon. Social media was on their case.

“We can’t let these idiots cause a fuss,” Quaqua told his assistant, Vice Minister for Public Affairs Zhuzhu. “They screw up, they pay the consequences. That’s justice!… Hoy, are you listening? I just said—”

“Sir, Mr. Minister, we have a bigger problem!” The assistant was on his mobile phone and looked deeply worried.

“Why? What happened?”

“Sir—your wife—Mrs. Quaqua was just arrested!”

“What? Where? Why?”

“At the airport. They booked her for—uhm—stealing the silverware in business class. They say they found several pairs of spoons and forks in her handbag.”

“Are they crazy? Does that airline want its landing rights revoked? Taking home spoons and forks from airplanes is an old Kawefan custom! Get me the airport manager—”

“Uh, it wasn’t in our airport, sir,” said Zhuzhu. “Your wife just landed in Paris, to attend Fashion Week—”

Oooh, that’s right, said Quaqua to himself—they’d had a spat over his latest mistress Gigi, and he’d given her the usual blank check to placate her. Still, it was embarrassing.

“Then get me the French ambassador! Let’s see if they’ll risk diplomatic relations on account of some—some stupid cutlery!”

“Uhm, the spoons and forks are innocent, sir—they’re not sentient beings,” said Zhuzhu, his eyes downcast. “I learned that in our Employee Development Seminar on Eastern Philosophy, sir.”

“Tell them to have seminars on gun cleaning and pest control!” Quaqua made a note to himself: “I swear, Zhuzhu, as soon as this blows over, I’m going to get me a retired general to take your place.”

Zhuzhu held up his phone to show his boss a news clip from CNN. “It’s on CNN now, sir. They’ve even posted a mug shot of Mrs. Quaqua holding up the forks and spoons.”

“What?!” The justice minister fell back into his chair and looked out the window. “They didn’t even blur her face? The inhumanity, the incivility…. What has mankind come to? Where’s understanding and tolerance when you need them? Whatever did my dear wife do to deserve this?”

“According to the great masters, sir, we sow what we reap, our past actions affect our present ones, so Mrs. Quaqua did something, like for example, she married you—”

Just then Zhuzhu’s phone rang again and Quaqua couldn’t wait to hear the news. “Did they release her? Did they come to their senses? What’s up?”

Zhuzhu looked sad. “I’m afraid it’s about something else, sir. About those two suspects in the murder of Dr. Fofo? I’ve just been told that they’re both dead. They had an argument and—well, they strangled each other to death in their cell.”

Quaqua’s eyes lit up. There was a God. “Then I must have done something good in my past life, Zhuzhu!”

“What about the madame, sir?”

“Alas, it’s beyond our jurisdiction,” Quaqua sighed, thinking of Gigi’s perfume. “Let French justice take its course.”

(Image from eatlikepinoy.com)

Penman No. 13: Random Reflections on Martial Law


Penman for Monday, Sept. 24, 2012

LAST FRIDAY marked the 40th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in the Philippines by Ferdinand Marcos, and the occasion gave rise to much reminiscing among those of us who went through that dark period. I myself was interviewed by a TV station and asked to speak at a forum at the University of the Philippines about my experience with martial law, which I fictionalized in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992).

Of course I’ve never really stopped thinking about martial law all these years, but not until this anniversary did I force myself to sit down and write what martial law really meant to me and what it taught me—the “me” being no longer the 18-year-old boy who was arrested for “subversion” and detained for seven months in Fort Bonifacio, but the 58-year-old man who managed to live far longer and to see more things than he expected.

What I will write down here are entirely my own impressions and conclusions as a private citizen. I am not a political scientist or an ideologue, although I did work as a journalist, and, ironically, as a government PR man in the late 1970s, when there were few other jobs to be had, after my release from detention. I’m sure that some readers and even my friends will find something to quarrel with in these observations, which will be good, because I don’t think we ever really sat down and summed up what that period meant to us, beyond saying—as we should—“Never again!” So, herewith, my random reflections on martial law:

1. It wasn’t as bad as what the Argentines and Chileans went through in their darkest days of state terror. But that comparison’s pointless and even cruel when it’s your body or that of someone you love being laid out in the interrogation room, when it’s your family desperately seeking an abductee, running from prison to prison. The government called it “smiling martial law,” but don’t be fooled—horrific things happened to ordinary citizens in those camps and prisons. It may have been good for business—at least at first—but it was an unmitigated nightmare for designated enemies of the state.

2. An armed forces cannot be at war with its own people. Martial law irreversibly politicized if not corrupted the military, so that it has had to be re-indoctrinated to support the people rather than the ruling elite. I don’t know how far it’s come along in this respect.

3. America can be a great friend, but it will always look out for its own interests first, and those interests don’t always coincide with ours. American politics is coldly opportunistic; the rhetoric of freedom and democracy can easily be used as window dressing for American commercial policy. Ferdinand Marcos and martial law wouldn’t have lasted that long without America’s imprimatur; even though some insist that it was the Americans themselves who took him out—that EDSA was a CIA plot—it was American support that entrenched him in the first place.

4. It takes a people to build a nation—not one leader, certainly not one despot and his cohort. Martial law turned us into blind followers, trusting the leader to make crucial decisions for the rest of us. Except for those who resisted the dictatorship, the rest of us were complicit in it; we wanted it to work and gave it our tacit approval, because it seemed to offer a simple and efficient solution to age-old problems. It also takes a thorough process—not quick fixes like martial law, street revolts, or coups—to secure deep and enduring change.

5. The Church can be a potent and progressive political force when it wants to. Much as I may be dismayed by the intransigence of the Church on social issues such as the RH bill—and indeed I no longer consider myself a practicing Catholic because of this—I acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of many religious workers to the fight for freedom.

6. We all have our weaknesses and our limits. I saw how people who spoke big words could fall silent at the merest hint of torture, and how even the toughest ones could break at the edge of the unendurable. I have since learned not to demand of others what I could not demand of myself. At the same time, I saw that ordinary people can also be capable of extraordinary courage. Their heroism has made me wonder if I who survived was worthy of it.

7. On a purely personal level, one of post-martial law life’s most awful discoveries was that, incredibly, there were worse things than martial law, worse pains that one could receive, or inflict on oneself and on other people. A government can do only so much evil; the rest you can do yourself. But redemption is always possible for the self-aware, and I suppose that’s what many of us have been striving for these past 40 years.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF September 21, that was also the day last week when I failed to attend an important book launching in Makati because I was teaching my graduate class in Diliman at that same time. The book was Marites Danguilan Vitug’s Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court (Clever Heads Publishing, 2012), which I copyedited, along with its predecessor, the acclaimed and bestselling Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court (Newsbreak, 2010).

It’s a copyeditor’s great privilege to read a book—and even reshape it to some extent—before anyone else does, aside from the author and the book designer. With Marites—with whom I worked for many years on Newsbreak—I always know that I’m in for a political junkie’s treat, as she will patiently go behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of our most important yet also most inscrutable institutions, like the Supreme Court.

Without spoiling the suspense, here’s what I can say about Hour Before Dawn and why you should grab it before they run out of copies: if you’ve ever really wondered why Chief Justice Renato Corona had to be impeached and what the Supreme Court was like under his watch, read this book. If you’ve also wondered what Lourdes Sereno is really like and what kind of Chief Justice she’s going to be, read this book.

As its full title suggests, Hour Before Dawn offers both darkness and light, ample cause for both dismay and hope. It demystifies the Supreme Court and the Justices who preside over our fates, showing them to be as fallibly human as the rest of us, and yet also mindful of the higher judgment of history.

I don’t know if this book is going to earn its author another slew of death threats and libel suits, but I think it should be required reading for every law student, lawyer, and judge in this country—make that every citizen-at-large who hasn’t given up hoping for impartial justice.