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. 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. 6: A Cultural Agenda

Hindsight for Monday, February 21, 2022

(Botong Francisco’s “Pista sa Angono”)

NOTABLY ABSENT from the platforms of nearly all candidates for the presidency is any mention of culture and the arts as a vital element in our quest of nationhood. Everyone has an opinion about the economy, the pandemic, corruption, peace and order, foreign relations, infrastructure, the environment, and countryside development, but you can hardly hear anyone speak—beyond the usual generalizations and platitudes—about what makes us Filipino, what it means to live as an archipelago with over 100 languages, and why and how we can be so similar in some ways and yet so different in others.

These are all matters of culture, which are often given tangible expression in the arts—the songs that make us weep, the paintings that brighten our walls, the stories that make us wonder about what’s important to us, the dances whose gestures take the place of words. At their best, culture and the arts rehumanize us, remind us of our truest, noblest, and also most vulnerable selves.

Unfortunately, we have been brought up to see them as little more than adornments, passing entertainments, intermission numbers to play in between presumably weightier and more consequential concerns. On an official level, culture has been treated as an adjunct of other ventures such as sports and tourism, culminating in beauty contests and street dances. 

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) have had active programs for funding the arts and for sponsoring performances and exhibitions, but despite many previous initiatives, efforts to set up a formal Department of Culture to oversee a broader cultural agenda have failed, again because of the low priority accorded to the sector.

Many studies have shown, however, that the arts—transposed into the creative industries that produce cultural products covering everything from books, movies, and TV shows to music, food, advertising, and advertising—create a large economic footprint.

Citing UNCTAD figures, a report commissioned by the British Council some years ago noted that “Depending on how they are defined, the Creative Industries are estimated to represent anywhere from 3% to 12% of global GDP.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P660 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from less than 5 percent in 2006 to more than 7 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to over 14 percent four years later. Surely these figures have risen much higher since then.

But the most important argument for a clear and strong cultural agenda remains the moral one. Culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

That understanding of who we are and why we think and act the way we do should be the end-goal of our education, grounded in an appreciation of our history. But as recent questions have highlighted, the DepEd’s decision to integrate Philippine history into other areas of learning effectively diluted and diffused its teaching in high school, a critical period in the formation of young minds.

For these reasons, a group of Filipino artists, writers, scholars, and cultural workers have organized the Katipunan sa Kultura at Kasaysayan (KKK) to present the leading presidential candidates with a cultural agenda for the next administration. The key items on that agenda include the promotion of a liberative, creative, and innovative culture; support for the study, appreciation, and critical interpretation of Philippine history; the promotion of cultural and creative industries, and Filipino products; the promotion of democratic education and programs to raise literacy nationwide; and serving the health and welfare interests of cultural workers. (Full disclosure: I work with National Artist Virgilio Almario in this organization.) We presented that agenda to all the leading candidates but heard back from only one, who endorsed it warmly: VP Leni Robredo. We were not surprised.

It’s not surprising, either, that those who understand Filipino culture best are those intent on exploiting its fractures and contradictions. The manipulation of public opinion and political outcomes thrives on knowing how people and groups behave, what emotional levers to pull, and which buzzwords to propagate. 

The confused and fragile state of our culture can be easily seen in how susceptible our people are to fake news. A recent SWS survey showed that 51 percent of Filipinos—every other one of us—find it difficult to tell real news from fake. The traditional sources of what most people have deemed the truth—the government, the Church, the traditional media, the schools, law enforcement, and even scientists—no longer carry the same trustworthiness they used to. Their places have been taken over by social media, cable TV, and micro-networks that can spread disinformation at lightning speed.

When I heard the New Society theme “May Bagong Silang” being played at Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s proclamation rally, I recalled how music, theater, and art were harnessed by the martial-law regime to create spectacle, a key instrument of enthrallment and intimidation, from imperial Rome’s circuses to Nazi Germany’s torchlit parades. That’s culture at the service of dictatorship, belying Leonard Bernstein’s claim that music was one art “incapable of malice.” 

I’ve often noted, in my talks on this topic, how ironic it was that the only presidency that put culture and the arts at the forefront was Marcos Sr.’s, and today even the staunchest of Imelda’s critics will grudgingly acknowledge the value of the CCP. But there was an ulterior agenda to that, which makes it even more urgent to promote a culture that will uphold truth, reason, and justice as a basis for national unity, instead of being used as a glitzy curtain to mask wanton murder and thievery.

The President We Deserve

I GREW up a Marcos believer.

He was the guest of honor at my grade school graduation in 1966. Newly elected, he looked every inch the hero he said he was—handsome, dashing, gifted with a golden tongue. Watching him I thought that a President was a great man, greater than all of us.

Just seven years later, I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison. I was there because the President I admired as a child had lied to me. He said he wanted to make the Philippines great again. Instead he acquired more power and more wealth, for which he stole from both the rich and poor, and punished those who opposed him. 

That included young students like me. They called us “radicals” and put many of us in prison, and many of my friends suffered horrible deaths. Sadly, many more Filipinos didn’t care. Happy to see new roads, they did not know that billions that should have gone to their food, housing, and education went to secret bank accounts abroad.

I was at EDSA when Marcos left, and I was overjoyed that a good and honest woman would now bring change. But even Cory couldn’t do it alone. The system was too strong. Many Presidents followed Cory, some better than others, but the lust for wealth and power did not leave with Marcos. And instead of being remembered as the man who destroyed Philippine democracy, Marcos became a model for some of his successors, who not only buried him as a hero but who now want to resurrect him in his son.

When VP Leni Robredo offered herself for the presidency and said “Mas radikal ang magmahal,” I had to think long and hard about what she meant, and what kind of difference she would make in our lives and futures. Was she asking us, like Jesus, to love our enemies? After all the evil—the corruption, the oppression, and the despotism—we have been through, could we find it in ourselves to love those who clearly do not love us?

And then I remembered what another visionary, Martin Luther King, preached on the same subject. He said: “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems.”

And that’s when it struck me that the real enemy is not people, but the “evil systems” that have created and supported the Marcoses among us. It is not one man or family we must vote against, but what they represent.

The easy temptation is to focus on personalities and their shortcomings. The harder option is to fight for the good and the positive.

These are the values and ideals that many of our national leaders, by their speech and behavior, have forsaken over the past five years. These are what VP Leni reminds us are worth loving and living for. And in today’s environment of violence, fear, and falsehood, to love them is to be radical indeed:

God. Country. Freedom. Justice. Peace. Truth. Life. Beauty.

Big words, they take big hearts and minds to accommodate. If I can find that largeness in me, then I can be a radical again, and instead of imprisoning us, our new President will free us from our past to become the nation we aspire to be. And that President—the President we deserve—can only be as great as we ourselves can be.

(Photos from ph.news and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.)

Penman No. 232: The Other Leni

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Penman for Monday, January 2, 2017

 

PROMPTED BY the rumors swirling around Vice President Leni Robredo and her possible replacement in that post by Sen. Bongbong Marcos in a January judicial coup, my ruminations drifted over Christmas to the Marcos legacy, and how differently Filipinos see it, and why. At my usual poker table, for example—where I face millennials more than fellow seniors—a question I often hear whenever the Marcoses come up in conversation is, “Why, were they really that bad?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a 30-something, but it’ll typically come from someone my age or older, who lived through the same period—or did they?

Those of us who worry about the historical revisionism or amnesia that seems to have overtaken us may be forgetting something else—that, just like in Hitler’s Germany, the dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted that long without some significant degree of popular acceptance or complicity. One of my pet theories about our martial law experience is that those of us who fought it were in a distinct minority, still are, and will be again. Most Filipinos never had the Metrocom or the ISAFP breaking down their doors; most Filipinos never had a son or a daughter shot or raped or imprisoned because of their beliefs; most Filipinos were already too poor to feel they had been stolen from. Many seniors—with understandable appreciativeness, especially at this point of their dialyzed and hypertensive lives—will remember only the medical complexes that Mrs. Marcos built.

If the present administration felt confident enough that it could get away with the Marcos burial, it can only be because it thought this way as well, and gambled on it. It understood that for far too long—and in the increasingly rare instances when it was even brought up in school—martial law, Philippine-style, had been depicted as a war between President Marcos and the communists, not as a systematic campaign of oppression and plunder waged by a dictator against his own people. Now that the CPP-NDF was having coffee in the Palace, what was the problem?

If we’re talking about educating Filipinos—and not just millennials—about martial law, the case will have to be made that it was an economic, political, and moral disaster for all Filipinos—not just for the Left, not just for some businessmen, and not just for some rival factions of the same elite. We were all materially impoverished and morally compromised by it—and continue to be, despite EDSA’s flickering promise. (And if you still don’t know or can’t remember exactly what the Marcoses did, here’s a report from The Guardian to refresh your memory.)

I’ll let that contention simmer for now, because what actually led me to write this column, my very first of the new year, was an essay on another Leni that I was reading online, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” written by the late Susan Sontag and published in February 1975 in the New York Review of Books.

It must have been the image of some black-shirted (but surely well-intentioned?) young men giving clenched-fist salutes in front of the Rizal monument that led me to revisit the Hitler Youth and Nazi iconography—less to condemn it (let’s give the trolls a rest) than to see why it was so effective and appealing. There’s a scene from 1972’s hit movie Cabaret that might suggest why fascism, as Sontag says, can be so fascinating even and especially to ordinary folk, and you can watch that clip on YouTube here. It’s that of an angelic boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—at least it starts that way—and it’s masterful moviemaking, showing within minutes how something so bright can be so chilling.

And speaking of moviemaking, this brings me to the other Leni—the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who directed the seminal Nazi propaganda films Triumph of the Will, about the party’s mammoth Nuremberg rally in 1934, and Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Her work would be hailed as technically brilliant and she herself as “an artist of unparalleled gifts” even by American critics—given especially that she was a woman trying to succeed in a male universe—and after the war, conveniently “de-Nazified,” she became something of a media darling, claiming that she had been politically naïve and knew nothing about the Nazis’ war crimes; she even joined Greenpeace and released a dreamy underwater movie on her 100th birthday.

triumph-of-the-will-leni-riefenstahl

(Photo from kinoimages.com)

But in her powerful essay on fascist aesthetics, Sontag cuts Riefenstahl no slack, painstakingly proving that contrary to Riefenstahl’s later assertion, she was a willing and willful collaborator of Hitler and Goebbels. The essay is a marvel both of scholarship and insight, something many writers today—who wrap themselves up in opaque critic-speak but yet fear or disdain to take a clear moral stance—can learn from. The full text can be found here.

This next leads me to a confession I’ve made before: that as a young screenwriter, I too was complicit in the making of a monumental film which would have been Marcos’ answer to Riefenstahl’s myth-making epics. It must have been around 1978 when I got word from Lino Brocka, with whom I had just begun to work, asking me to accompany him to a meeting called by Mrs. Marcos. It was the peak of martial law, and no one could say no, unless you were prepared to go to the hills or to march in the streets, as we obviously weren’t—not yet.

As it turned out, Imelda had summoned seven other leading film directors and their writers as well, and we were assembled at the Goldenberg mansion in Arlegui near Malacañang. Our marching orders—as Imelda would explain to us over the next many hours alongside her aesthetics of cinema (“No shots of squatter shanties!”)—were to produce an eight-part filmic history of the Philippines from Magellan to Marcos. Lino and I drew the Gomburza episode. We ended past midnight, after a personally guided tour of the premises and their precious artifacts, and were sent home with curfew passes.

The film was shot in pieces and later stitched together by the National Media Production Center—there’s a reference online to a “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” film being entered by the Philippines to an international film festival in Tashkent—but I never saw it and had no idea where the reels were kept until a friend told me a couple of years ago that they were stored somewhere in the offices of the Philippine Information Agency in Quezon City. In a sense I was glad that for some reason the film never hit Manila’s screens (at least not that I know of), as it would only have added to the perpetuation of a fable.

But then again, with a restoration underway (and I’m not referring to crumbling celluloid), it might yet play in your friendly neighborhood theater—and worse, in the blinding daylight. Like I texted a friend, somehow 2017 feels like 1971, all over again.

bn-mt815_0225ph_p_20160225035224

(Photo from wsj.com; photo of Hitler and Riefenstahl above from documentary.org)