Penman No. 135: Democracy and Cultural Expression

DSC_0024Penman for Monday, February 9, 2015

 

I SPENT the past two weeks as a Pacific Leadership Fellow at the School of International and Pacific Relations of the University of California, San Diego, and the highlight of my fellowship was a 40-minute talk I gave on the general topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting Modernization in the Philippines.” The PLF—usually a government or business leader from the Asia-Pacific region—is asked to make a public presentation to a large audience composed of academic and community representatives, to introduce and discuss major issues facing his or her society.

I felt it safer to presume that the non-Filipino members of my audience last January 28 knew very little about Philippine history and politics, so I began with a broad overview of that history, bringing things to the present and the medium-term horizon, considering both our strengths and resources—noting the robustness of our recent economic growth—but also the longstanding inequalities and structural weaknesses that continue to hold us back. Here’s a slightly edited excerpt from the rest of my talk:

We have to pause and wonder exactly what kind of democracy we have in the Philippines, and what needs to be done—particularly on the cultural front—to achieve a fuller sense of the word.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Philippine democracy a sham, because most Filipinos enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms absent in patently undemocratic societies—freedom of expression, of association, of mobility, of enterprise; the right to vote, and a presumptive equality under the law. But that presumption is also the weakest leg our democracy stands on, undermined by gross economic and social inequalities in our society showing Philippine democracy as more a democracy of style and spirit than one of substance.

Indeed, economically and politically, the Philippines has been ruled for more than a century by an elite, a roomful of families from the landed gentry and comprador capitalists who developed their wealth and power as agents and executors of colonization, and have taken turns at governing the country well into the present.

We cannot have true democracy without achieving a better balance in our economic and social structure, and its best hope in the Philippines could be in our enlarging middle class. They may not yet have the economic and political clout of the elite, but coming from the poor and aspiring in their own way to become more prosperous, they have the most at stake in creating a new regime of opportunity and fairness.

It is the middle class that has served as the voice of Philippine democracy, primed by its education to value freedom of thought and expression. It is the middle class that stands at the vanguard of modernization, having not just the desire but also the means—through education and entrepreneurship—to change the future.

… One out of every ten Filipinos now lives and works abroad in a decades-long diaspora that has kept the Philippine economy afloat through remittances amounting to more than $25 billion in 2013. But they bring home not only money but new ideas, and I feel confident that, in the long run and for all its social costs, this diaspora will have salutary effects because that domestic helper in Milan or plumber in Bahrain will no longer be simply a domestic helper or plumber when they come home. Tourists bring home snapshots of pretty places and exotic food; foreign workers bring home real learning, lessons in survival and getting ahead, and raised expectations of their local and national leaders.

This exposure to global culture and its elevation of local aspirations will be a major force in reshaping the Filipino future. And again, it is the middle class—the dwellers of the Internet and the Ulysses of this new century—that will lead in this transformation, just as they have led the most important movements for political and social reform in our history.

… One of the bright spots of Philippine society today is the fact that civil society is very much alive, constantly on guard against governmental or corporate abuse and wrongdoing, ever ready to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens and communities, and firmly rooted in those communities. It has stood at the forefront of the movement to fight corruption, which recently came to a new climax with the explosive revelation of a billion-peso pork-barrel scam going all the way to the Senate and even possibly higher.

One of the greatest challenges of our modernization may be that of electoral reform—not just a reform of the electoral process, but a reform of the voter’s mind—not to vote for popular candidates, but to vote wisely, to see the vote as a chance to short-circuit a historical process and to lay claim to one’s equality and patrimony.

And this is where culture comes in, as an instrument of social and political reform and modernization. If we look at culture more proactively not just as a way of living but a way of thinking, then there is much room for the promotion of true democracy through cultural expression.

By cultural expression I don’t mean simply the writing of stories, poems, plays, and essays, which is what I do most days, partly as my civic duty. I mean the use of all media at our disposal—the arts, the press, the Internet, whatever can influence the Filipino mind—to forge and sustain a set of core values, of national interests that cut across family, class, and region.

Of course, we can take “cultural expression” in its more popular and familiar forms—stories, poems, plays, music, painting, and dance, among others—as gestures toward the idea of a larger, national culture. After all, with every poem or painting, the artist seeks to palpate, from an audience of citizens, a sense of what is common and what is important—or to put it both ways, what is commonly important and what is importantly common. This has always been the social value and the political mission of art—not just as a means of self-expression, but of establishing, affirming, and promoting certain commonalities of thought and feeling.

… We need nothing less than a new cultural revolution—focused on the assertion of the ordinary citizen’s rights over power and privilege, on the importance of the rule of law, and on our understanding and acceptance of what it means to be a Filipino in this globalized world. Forging that sense of national identity is crucial to securing our future, again in a world and in a part of the world where the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Americans seem to have very clear ideas about their roles and capabilities. In this ocean of resurgent nationalisms, we Filipinos need to redefine ourselves as more than America’s students and surrogates.

In sum, much remains to be done to lend more substance to Philippine democracy in terms of addressing age-old economic and social inequalities. But the first field of battle exists in the mind and spirit, and the first campaign in this battle, the first declaration of freedom, has to be an act of the imagination.

I prefer to see democracy as a process rather than a product; the aspiration can be as powerful as its actualization. This democracy is first formed by its assertion: by seeking democracy, we begin to achieve it, and this assertion is the task of our artists, writers, thinkers, and opinion makers, the imaginative shapers of our national identity.

Penman No. 133: Revolution in the Time of Facebook

B75xPtWCIAEFJJ4Penman for Monday, January 26, 2015

 

I’M BACK in the US for a few weeks, to give a series of lectures on Philippine culture and politics as a Pacific Leadership Fellow with the Center on Emerging and Pacific Economies at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) of the University of California, San Diego. The PLF is a post usually reserved for senior government officials and business leaders engaged in economic and political affairs, and it’s the first time they’re bringing over someone from the humanities; some years ago, I was preceded in this fellowship by former Central Bank Governor and NCCA Chairman Jimmy Laya.

I have a major talk coming up this week on the ponderous topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting the Challenge of Modernization in the Philippines,” but last Wednesday, I sat down with a group of graduate students from IR/PS for a more personal chat. The general topic was “The Youth and Social Reform,” and I decided to share some of my experiences as a former student activist in the 1970s and to observe how protest movements and actions have changed since then.

I began by talking about the First Quarter Storm—our own version of Tiananmen, to use a metaphor more familiar to my audience, and the subject of my current research—my arrest and imprisonment in 1973, and the novel that I wrote about that experience. I recalled the many friends and comrades I lost, remarking on the ironic truth that “If I hadn’t been arrested that cold January evening, I probably wouldn’t be here, or be writing novels; I’d very likely have long been dead,” because I would have gone up to the hills and, being totally unprepared for the life of a guerrilla, would have made an easy target for the military. Here’s part of the rest of my short talk:

It would be nice to think that these horrors belong to the distant past, that the world has become more civilized in this new century of Facebook and social media. Indeed, authors like Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) have argued that the world is actually a much safer place today than it was centuries ago, in terms of casualties of war and homicides, among other indices. That may be statistically true, but our street-level perception must surely be different.

It may be bright and sunny here in Southern California, but the world is full of dark and dangerous corners where bombs get strapped to ten-year-old girls who then get blown up in public places. I didn’t even need to tell you that, because it’s all over the evening news, before it all too quickly—and with much relief—gets brushed aside by the latest antics of Kim Kardashian and the latest gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show. And why not? It seems grossly unfair in a way to be burdened by the misdeeds of others, by the ideological and ethical quandaries of a world one didn’t create, or even wanted to be a part of.

I’m not suggesting that young people today necessarily have it easier. Each generation has to confront its own demons, and those demons can be as large and as fearsome as you want them to be. You don’t have to live in Afghanistan with the Taliban or in Nigeria with the Boko Haram or in the Philippines with the Abu Sayyaf to know what terror is; you could be living in LA, New York, Columbine, or Ferguson to understand what fear or loss or danger means. In other words, we can never trivialize what other people may be going through.

But in another sense, youth and student activism today is rather different from what it was in my time, in my place. Today, people can pick their causes, instead of taking on the whole world. The starting point is the self, and what the self needs or wants, in a social and cultural climate that’s keenly focused on the here and now, with a very short attention span. Facebook promotes the self; Twitter and Instagram capture the unfolding present. We respond instantly to what we see, and do not necessarily work out of a comprehensive agenda for regime or global change. We don’t seek to save the world, but parts or aspects of it we care strongly about, whether it be whales and redwood trees or indigenous peoples or immigration reform or renewable energy.

In the Philippines, I’ve long maintained that the Communist Party lost much of the ground it had held back in the 1970s and 1980s not so much because of the success of the Philippine military on the battlefield, or even because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, but because of the emergence of workable options for idealistic young people desiring social and political change, not necessarily by violent means. With almost 70,000 registered NGOs, Filipinos have a lot of causes to choose from.

For my generation, for all its flaws, we had only Marxism, which gave us a comprehensive world-view. Even though we felt in constant danger, that danger in itself was a comfort, an odd assurance or validation that we were on the right path, doing the right thing. It’s chilling to think that, while they may be very different in many ways, the young men and women joining ISIS today may be moved by a kindred spirit. There’s a frightening coherence and consistency to extremism, an inexorable logic strange to everyone else.

I ultimately opted out of Marxism because while we were convinced that everything was political, I came around to realizing that politics wasn’t everything. Also, as a creative writer, I could no longer abide by the need to observe the Party line.

What have I learned from all that?

First, compromise can be good and necessary. Second, I would not ask others to do what I could not do myself. Third, silence and reflection can result in better outcomes than strident shouting. Fourth, despair or cynicism is easy; hope is more difficult, and therefore the worthier challenge.

Indeed the darker aspects of life have never surprised me. It came as a deep disappointment to find comrades breaking under torture or other forms of duress, or even embracing outright betrayal for comfort and coinage—but that did not surprise me. It may have seemed very strange when I myself took up a job with the government shortly after my release from prison—but that, too, was almost inevitable, since all the old media offices had been shut down and the only real employer in town was the government. When people take the path of least resistance and adjust to new conditions to survive, I can understand that, having done it myself.

What keeps surprising me is courage, hope, goodness, and perseverance, which seem such old-fashioned notions but such necessary imperatives in these times. One no longer has to die for the things one values, but to live for them.

Even though, unlike most of my countrymen, I stopped going to church many years ago in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on many social issues, I was deeply moved, almost to tears, by the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, particularly to the areas ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan. His affection for the poor was palpable, but equally moving was the strength and faith manifested by the poor—one young woman who had lost her right arm in the storm had walked many miles to see him, and what she said with a smile stuck with me: “I am often sad, because I cannot find a job, but life cannot be all sadness all the time.”

For your generation, in your time and in your place, you will have to find your own pathways to social reform, which may have to begin, first of all, with a clarification of your own goals, although a deeper personal transformation will surely take place within the process of social engagement itself. Studying for professional success cannot ever be a bad thing; but it can only be better when all that sharpness of intellect can mean something to the lives of others.

Penman No. 57: On Politics in Fiction

BaldwinPenman for Monday, July 29, 2013

I WAS in Hong Kong last weekend to talk to an international group of graduate writing students about a subject that, I proposed, we were all acutely aware of and very likely had done something in, but rarely dwelt on in creative writing class (although we do discuss it a lot in a reading or critical context): the relationship between literature and politics, or self and society. I’d put together a module that explored the way various authors from different environments have dealt with political subjects, primarily in fiction.

The selections I chose—15 short stories and three novels from all over—covered a range of specific issues from race to sexuality, and also a range of approaches and techniques. We discussed these examples, paying close attention to how the authors drew attention to their causes and concerns in an aesthetically satisfying and politically effective manner.

My students came from the UK, the US, India, New Zealand, and Singapore, and many lived in Hong Kong or mainland China. Therefore, they represented a broad range of social and political experiences, which also informed their responses to the fiction we took up. (We Pinoys—at least the older ones among us—are relatively immersed in political literature and discourse, given our history and our circumstances; whether as readers or writers, we can’t avoid Rizal, and why should we? Despite more recent forays into postmodernism, speculative fiction, and other fresher approaches, our fiction remains stolidly realist in the mainstream, compelled to account for the harrowing truths that drip from our headlines.)

We opened by discussing three stories that dealt with the thorny issue of race—thornier, of course, in some countries and societies than others. Race may not be as visible and as contentious a political factor with us Filipinos as it is in, say, Singapore or Malaysia, not to mention the US and the UK, if only because we have assimilated the Chinese, for example, so well into our bodies and body politic that it will be nigh impossible to mount anything anti-Chinese without cutting off our own noses. That doesn’t mean that we’re above or beyond racism, regionalism, and ethnic bias; this will raise some hackles, but I suspect that we Pinoys practice a benign racism in insisting that all our PBA imports should be black. It’s for this reason, among others, that I make sure I cover African-American material in my classes.

The three race-related stories that I chose were James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Six Feet of the Country,” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Baldwin and Walker dealt with the African-American experience, and Gordimer with apartheid in South Africa. (I wish I’d found a Chinese or Malaysian story dealing with race issues, and will do that the next time I do this module.)

Not only were the Baldwin, Gordimer, and Walker stories gut-wrenchingly powerful pieces of prose. They also represented different approaches to the same presumptive subject of the search for racial equality and self-realization, and this was what I wanted my students to see: how you could be so potently political, so committed to your cause, and yet also so level-headed and so composed that you never lose control of your material, or otherwise strangle it with heavy-handedness.

“Going to Meet the Man” was published in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights campaign in the US, and Baldwin—one of America’s most prominent black writers—could have written a typical story featuring a black character struggling against injustice and racial oppression at the hands of the white majority. All these elements are in the story, but James Baldwin does the daringly unexpected: for his narrator, he assumes the voice of Jesse, a white sheriff. The mild-mannered Jesse is a patronizing racist who can’t understand how blacks could be so upset with their lot that they would march in the open and disturb the peace, forcing him to take punitive action. Jesse also has a far more domestic problem: he can’t get it up for his wife, and the only way he can solve that is to pretend, strangely enough, that she’s black. But the story’s most horrifying moment comes from Jesse’s past, from his recollection of a childhood “picnic” that turns out to be the brutal lynching of a black man.

Nadine Gordimer’s story, first published in 1953—four decades before the formal abolition of apartheid in South Africa—is also told from the point of view of a white man, a landowner who albeit reluctantly takes up the cudgels for his black workers when the white authorities make a ghastly administrative mistake and return the wrong corpse for the man’s relatives to bury. (“There are so many black faces—surely one will do?”) The white protagonist here acts not out of politically enlightened outrage, but rather out of a deep annoyance with the bureaucracy, as if he himself had been personally offended. (And yes, before you ask, the tragicomic mix-up of bodies here would inspire my own Soledad’s Sister many years later.)

Alice Walker would gain fame for The Color Purple, a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters, but before that she wrote the story “Everyday Use,” which focuses on the home visit of a young, college-educated black woman to her poor mother and sister. Told from the mother’s point of view, the story shows how differently the educated and politically empowered daughter Dee now acts from those she left behind—she wants her mother to give her a precious quilt, a family heirloom, that she plans to use as a piece of décor, and can’t understand when her mother refuses to give it to her, since the quilt has been promised to her sister Maggie, who’ll be putting it to everyday use. Thus, no matter how much Dee may have gained in the city in political and cultural sophistication (she has even changed her name to “Wangero” in her own affirmation of black power), she has clearly lost touch with her own roots, no longer able to recognize the truly authentic and truly valuable.

What’s there to learn for writers from these three examples?

First, that good, sharp authors reject the obvious, and are willing to take risks with their material and their treatment. For his central character, Baldwin chose the antagonist, the one more difficult to portray with fidelity, if you’re on the other side; rather than demonize Jesse, Baldwin presents him with not a little sympathy, making him even more alarming. Rather than the victim, Gordimer chose to focus on the man in the middle, the individual caught in a moral dilemma; the man’s bravado is ultimately ineffectual, but his decision to act challenges the reader more likely to fence-sit in the same circumstances. Walker takes on the natural protagonist with her all-black cast, but also highlights the important differences between them, reminding us that “race” comprises individuals and great divergences of experience and belief.

Second, that they don’t come to easy conclusions, and allow for the complexity and even the complicity of their characters to come through. You don’t do characters and their readers a favor by creating flawless heroes and thoroughly hateful villains. Real life very often lies somewhere in between.

In other stories by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, and our own Merlinda Bobis, my students and I also saw how authors with very strong political messages to convey did so, more effectively, by employing restraint and ambiguity, rather than excess and unyielding certainty. In other words, the best writers trust the intelligence and the natural humanity of their readers to lead them to what is reasonable and just. If you want to write good political fiction, first create good art, and leave the sloganeering to the editorial writers.

(Photo from time.com)

Penman No. 25: EQ Yap, a Filipino Patriot

EQYPenman for Monday, Dec. 17, 2012

LAST DECEMBER 9 would have been the 81st birthday of a man named Emmanuel Quiason Yap—a name unfamiliar to most Filipinos, but who deserved more of his countrymen’s attention than they were able or willing to give him when he was around. Yap was one of the last in a distinguished line of nationalist Filipino intellectuals who emerged in the second half of the 20th century, a roster that included the likes of Renato Constantino, Alejandro Lichauco, and Hernando J. Abaya.

More than a year ago, I was asked by Yap’s family to write his biography, and I agreed—first, because he was the father of a former student of mine, and second, because I had met him earlier in the company of the Lavas, a family of committed revolutionaries whom I had also written about. (He was also a Yap, which is my mother’s maiden name, so we might have had a mutual ancestor somewhere back in Fujian.) I had heard of “Manoling” Yap’s own nationalist convictions, but had never really sat down with him to learn how he had acquired them.

I had several meetings with him and had begun on the book—which I’m now a week or two short of finishing—when he suddenly died in September 2011. Thus I begin the book this way:

“When Emmanuel Quiason Yap died all of a sudden on September 26, 2011, very few Filipinos knew what they had lost. It was almost as if a stranger had walked into a sleeping household, had left a precious gift in their midst, and had walked away; waking up in the morning, the family members see the object and wonder what it is and who brought it there, but they cannot recognize its value, and put it aside.

“His peers and colleagues would recognize and refer to him, even within his lifetime, as a visionary, an astute student and critic of his nation’s political and economic fortunes, a shaper of minds whose firm nationalist beliefs might have led the Philippines on to another track of growth and progress. He was an adviser to Presidents, senators, and congressmen; for a time, he headed an economic planning office for the House of Representatives; he helped to foster stronger diplomatic ties between the Philippines and socialist countries; and he founded a popular movement to promote patriotism among Filipinos. In various venues over many decades, including a newspaper column, he campaigned strenuously for a more independent foreign policy, a more self-reliant economy, and for greater justice in a society riven by exploitation and oppression.

“Manoling Yap, in other words, was a reformer, a man who never tired of thinking how life might yet be bettered. And he was no armchair dreamer, but someone who took his battles to the political arena, risking his life and freedom in pursuit of his principles. But as many if not most reformers soon discover, Manoling Yap would often find his idealism opposed, rejected, or even taken advantage of by others resigned to a more pragmatic view of things.”

Few may remember it now, but Yap—born in Angeles, Pampanga to a family of lawyers and entrepreneurs—was instrumental, along with Mayor Rafael del Rosario, in achieving cityhood for Angeles in the early 1960s and for planning its modernization. However, their plans ran afoul of the rackets being run by the notorious Kumander Sumulong, who issued death threats against the mayor and Manoling.

Trained as an economist, Manoling later went to Georgetown for graduate school with the encouragement of former President Jose P. Laurel, who urged him to go to America “to learn how the Americans are fooling us.” Yap took the admonition to heart—this was the time of parity rights—and came home an even more ardent nationalist. He taught at the Lyceum, then a bastion of radical thinking.

He set up the Congressional Economic Planning Office—a forerunner of what today is the National Economic and Development Authority—and worked with the old man Laurel’s son, Speaker Jose B. Laurel, in crafting the Magna Carta for Economic Freedom and Social Justice, which argued strongly for a more independent economic policy and for vigorous industrial and agricultural development. The Magna Carta was signed into law by Marcos in 1969, but languished in implementation, and Speaker Laurel himself fell from power soon afterwards—the victim, Yap was convinced, of imperialist machinations (as was, Yap would later believe, Marcos at Edsa).

Yap was also instrumental in opening diplomatic and trade ties with the socialist bloc in 1967—surprisingly, even as anti-Red rhetoric was escalating along with the Vietnam War, and well before Richard Nixon undertook his own diplomatic initiative toward China. He accompanied Rep. Manuel Enverga, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, on a grueling three-month journey behind the Bamboo and Iron Curtains. Years later, he would also advise Sen. Leticia Ramos Shahani, when she chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and help her draft a more independent foreign policy moving away from the traditional Philippine-US alliance to stronger ties with our neighbors in the Asia-Pacific, and with countries in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Central Asia.

In the last decade of his life, Manoling Yap devoted much of his time and energy into setting up and promoting the People’s Patriotic Movement, an effort to unite Filipinos from all backgrounds and persuasions behind the fundamental need for a sense of nationhood. “Together,” he wrote, “we will rediscover our common historical truth, rectify the errors of our colonial past, muster the national will to reconstruct the Filipino nation into a strong nation-state which can adequately feed, educate and protect its own people by the sweat of its brow and not from mendicancy and subservience to other nations, and ultimately assure a better future to all our children.”

As with many intellectuals, he was a man of ironic contradictions—an Atenean who sang Latin hymns as a boy with touching fervor, but one who grew into a brooding skeptic; a civil libertarian, but one who imposed strict family discipline; a seeker and defender of freedom and a friend of known Communists, but one who appreciated Ferdinand Marcos as a progressive nationalist; and an astute analyst who predicted the end of the Cold War but who blithely ignored the signs of his own failing health.

Emmanuel Quiason Yap was a complex man; his burning idealism often met with disappointment and disenchantment, and in the end he had very few friends left to talk to—among them his cousin the historian Serafin Quiason Jr., the painter Dan Dizon, and my fellow STAR columnist Billy Esposo. But he had his country at heart and died a patriot, joining the privileged company of his heroes—Rizal, Mabini, and the old man Laurel.