1. Denying Discourse

    There are a number of traits inherent in Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s worldview that I object to; among them her denouncing of any belief contrary to hers and her proclivity for hate-mongering and insult-laden ranting. The impeachment trial has brought her many faults into sharp-focus, at least for those who look past the inherent entertainment value of her screeds and weigh the value of the content.

    If anything Senator Santiago has fully embraced her role as the loose canon of the Senate, and the Impeachment Court; playing and pandering to the less introspective elements of society, obscuring whatever intelligent and incisive commentary she has amid a cascade of blithering, blathering, and bombastic pronouncements. She has, in fact, become a court jester, a sad figure who relies on the volume and cadence of her voice to attract attention, rather than the probity of her opinions. Sad, because she offers a valuable viewpoint to the proceedings and public discourse at large.

    One of my favorite 20th century thinkers was Tony Judt, a man who lamented the deplorable levels to which public discourse has fallen in the West. Unfortunately, we in the East (and especially the Philippines) too often adopt the less admirable qualities of Western democratic discourse. We have a discursive problem, one that Judt described as, "Our discursive disability: we simply do not know how to talk about things anymore." While he was referring to our proclivity to reduce any discussion into economic components, the guiding idea remains the same: We are no longer capable of discussing. Our culture has become one where we are talking on differing levels, with different foundations for opinions, and with conceits that inform the idea that “I am right and everyone else is wrong.” The sense of self-righteous superiority that fills the air can become oppressive. People talk at length, but say little. We are not longer strangers passing in the night, we are strangers shouting to the side, failing to listen, learn, or explore (even respect) alternate world-views.

    Judt continued to discuss the breakdown in social imagination: "A closed circle of opinion or ideas into which discontent or opposition is never allowed - or allowed only within circumscribed and stylized limits - loses its capacity to respond energetically or imaginatively to new challenges." The side-effect of an elected representative of the people haranguing and denouncing any opinion contrary to hers is in fact creating an atmosphere of circuitous thinking, it denies the validity of any contrary opinion. The reducing of public discourse to snide commentary, insults, and ‘cute’ names is a disservice. When a Senator, one of the highest elected officials in the land, contributes on a daily basis to that reduction it is a travesty.

    Quite frankly, I care little for the reaction of Attorney Aguirre to Santiago’s rants. He broke court decorum, he essentially kicked mud in the eye of the Senate Impeachment Court. But, between a Senator referring to other elected officials and representatives of the Filipino people as gago (in essence, attacking other members of Congress and deriding the Filipino people whom they serve) she was creating a situation where-by someone was going too react to her ‘trolling’ and provocations. Let’s not pretend that there wasn’t good reason for him to act the way he did, there was. And the fact that there has been little blow back on the bully is disheartening. More to the point, the fact that the stance of the Senate has been to refuse to reel her in and attempt to add some decorum to the proceedings gives insight into how the Senate views this exercise. Or even how the Senators view the position that they hold. Between Sotto cracking jokes, Drilon playing the role of lead prosecutor, Joker Arroyo blithering on about half-baked conspiracy theories, and Santiago basically mocking the entire proceedings with her actions we have a very good idea how they view their position and responsibilities. This holds true too for the failures of the prosecution and the tactics deployed by the defense and their client throughout these proceedings. By the way, Judt commented on conspiracy theorists who go off half-cocked with nonsensical storytelling: “Those who assert the system is at fault, or who see mysterious maneuverings behind every political misstep, have little to teach us.”

    Eventually someone has to stand up to a bully, and Santiago has always been a bully. She relies on the sanctity of her elected position to bolster her opinions and shield her actions from criticism. Yet, by acting the way she has, she is inevitably (and consistently) debasing the august position that she holds. In no shape or form should it be acceptable for a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines to continually go off half-cocked hurling insults, ridiculing the intelligence and education of Filipinos who hold contrary opinions (as she has the last few days), and treating the position she holds as license to bully and deride.

    Miriam Defensor-Santiago is not the cause of our discursive issues in the Philippines. But she is a consequence, one that continues to sow the seeds for reductive and ill-formed discourse in the Philippines. Judt’s book from which I quoted is called Ill Fares the Land. I cannot think of a better description for the state of discourse in the Philippine sphere than that.


  2. We the People. We the Media.

    A couple of days Patricia Evangelista in her column wrote: More than anything, the impeachment court is an attempt at accountability, to take account of men who are invincible for the sake of those who are not. The court’s power emanates not from the people, but from the court itself, from the faith of the public who live in fear and awe of gavels and robes. Once that faith is shaken, even the most formidable of justices cannot hand down decisions and expect to be believed.” Taken at face value, or in its most superficial of meanings, this statement makes sense. As does much of her column, which makes some good points. Respect is based on perception. But on a deeper level this is a ridiculous over-simplistic statement that belies the actual relationship between the Court, the Constitution, and the People. It misses an opportunity to elucidate and educate in favor of a rabble-rousing slickly reductive soundbite.

    John Dunn wrote: “When we speak or think of ourselves as living a democracy, what we have in mind is something far different. It is that our state, and the government which does so much to organize our lives, draws its legitimacy from us, and that we have the reasonable chance of being able to compel each of them to continue to do so.” The Court itself holds little power other than what the Constitution and thus the People grant to it. It is not about how citizens perceive the High Court (or the power contained within the Court), but how they understand its role within a country. The Power of the Supreme Court is handed down and delineated by the Philippine Constitution, that is basic Civics 101. It is the Constitution that gives agency to these entities; it is the Constitution that the Filipino supports. Actions like impeachment are mechanisms for the People to assert their authority over constitutionally empowered individuals. In its most basic component, impeachment is the avenue where-by the People, through their elected representatives, can weigh and study the merits of an individual continuing in government service. It is not a mechanism for constitutional retribution or judicial revenge. Government service is not a right, it is a privilege, especially when it comes to some of the highest positions in the land. What we are basically evaluating is whether someone is worthy of continuing to serve the Filipino people. It is the assertion of the Filipino people’s authority over a government they themselves empower with vast responsibilities. Responsibilities that touch on every aspect of a Filipino’s daily life. We forget, but the role of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights is not only to define the role of government, but to protect a people from the potential iniquities of those who are imbued with vast powers and authority (think of the Magna Carta).

    Evangelista’s statement also reflects on on-going discursive issue in the Philippines: Our preference to reduce to issues to simplistic soundbites, Us vs Them; Transparency vs Impunity; Awe vs Derision. In the case of the impeachment, we not only get overwhelmed by legalese and details, we lose the import of the proceedings through reductive binary relationships. The mechanism of impeachment is more than transparency, it is more than accountability, it connects intrinsically to the role of the People in a country and the relationship between a citizenry and its government. Yet, the role of the People in this impeachment and the Constitution has been little touched on; other than a brief statement by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile in his opening remarks and a few statements by talking heads.

    The public framing, by both media and the government, of the impeachment has been a concern. Though there have been attempts to do so, it seems to fail to connect the Filipino people to the proceedings and instead leaves us to agentless by-standers. A common refrain has been that the ‘poor’ can’t connect to the proceedings. Another misguided assertion that ignores the importance of a government cognizant of its role and responsibilities in providing service to the People.  As it is today, governance seems to operate at a distance from the people. Again, this is more than accountability, more than transparency, it is linked deeply to the role of government in the lives of Filipinos and how we relate to that government. But just as importantly, the way that the impeachment is being handled by journalists gives insight into the relationship between media and the Filipino people. Should journalists be educational? Should they attempt to provide deeper meaning to proceedings such as this?

    In our system, media members have become public intellectuals. It is a burden that they must bear, a responsibility they should own up to. In this instance, I think Evangelista failed to live up to that responsibility. She took the slick simplistic way out. That does not mean that all media has, in fact I have been impressed with the quality of the coverage of the minutiae of the case. It is controversial issues such as this that allow us to see the quality of media. Unlike the Supreme Court, the Executive, or Legislative, media survives on the respect of the people. Their power is derived from their ability to remain ethical, cogent, and inspirational. Our clicks, our views, our subscriptions, are our votes. Much like politicians, media pandering for attention does little to educate, and far more to degrade discourse. That is a loss for the People too.

  3. So says Jose Rizal.

    Over the last few weeks I’ve been caught in some long-going discussions on the role of history in nation-buildilng; and the form that history has to take. The consensus so far has been that the prevailing historical narrative is so fundamentally flawed that it inevitably undermines attempts at cultural commentary.

    How valid is cultural commentary on history if the basis around which it is built is erroneous?

    Rizal faced that head on; he defended his misreadings of history as necessary to meet his day’s propaganda needs. But, does that defense suffice anymore? Can we fall back on the old axiom of the ends justify the means, when the very way that we read history injures?

    I know we like to project what Rizal believed then today; mostly erroneously, to often with our own beliefs in place of his. So forgive me for this, but I suspect, I believe, that he would not appreciate what we have done with our history; how we have misread it. Most especially in how we consider his period. I don’t think he would recognize it at all.


  4. ellobofilipino:

    Been several weeks already since tabloids had their front pages splashed with headlines saying that some members of the Philippine National Football team or the Azkals were involved in a rape incident.

    Four members of the team were named by the tabloids as well as some mainstream news media…

    Thank you for this perspective! Interesting as always.

    I do agree with you, right now we really have no idea what happened, if anything happened. But what this does is gives us insights into a wholly depressing and anger-worthy concept in this country. This does give us the opportunity to discuss rape culture in the Philippines. Something, I am sure you agree with me, sadly flourishes.

    Granted, this is hardly a problem unique to the Philippines; most country’s still struggle with the perception that women are to blame for rape.

    I was listening to the news this afternoon and some of the comments from hosts and the public were frankly disgusting, predicated on the idea that she was raped: She deserved it because she’s a model (some even hinted she was a prostitute). She deserved it because she put herself in that situation (what situation?). As if rape is an eventuality, as if men do not have a choice to rape. Please, that attitude is not only insulting, it is degrading. Essentially people are saying that men are nothing more than base animals, ungoverned by reason and only driven by their dicks and the imperative to hurt women or even other men.

    This rhetoric is basically the same for any case of rape. If a woman is going to be blamed for being raped, if the first instinct is that it is her fault and deride her for it, how many rape victims are going to come forward?

    We erroneously think rape is about sexual satisfaction for the raper. Far from it. Rape is about power, it’s about control and humiliating the raped. There is nothing more irritating than hearing “How can you rape a prostitute?” WTF is that? Of course you can rape a prostitute; the minute they cannot consent and sexual relations, they are being raped. That means drugging someone (whether through alcohol or pills) and engaging in sexual relations with them while they are incapacitated is rape. Non-consensual sexual relations are rape. Period.

    I think that is what disgusts me so much when it comes to rape in this country is the lack of responsibility put on the raper; usually men. It is as if because a woman acts irresponsibly its ok that a man forces himself on her. “Oh its the woman’s fault she was raped.” Bullshit. It’s the man’s fault. It’s the fault of the person who FORCED THEMSELVES SEXUALLY ON SOMEONE ELSE (whether man or woman). What do we think a woman want’s to be raped? That they court it? By wearing skimpy clothes, hanging out, and drinking? That is some of the most asinine, unintelligent and ludicrous lines of thinking I have ever heard. It’s victim blaming at its most heinous. That right there is what they call rape culture.

    I have no idea what happened in the situation with the Azkals, and I am not commenting on this situation at all. What I am criticizing is the public perception of rape in this country. A perception that is completely and totally at odds with one of our ‘points of pride’: Our upholding of women and children’s rights.

    Rape culture flourishes in this country, and with it an environment that puts our women and children at risk. This does not mean we should blindly believe every accusation of blame. But it does mean that we should treat each case, each situation, with the respect and decency it deserves. That means investigating the situation and avoiding knee-jerk and heinous victim-blaming and vilification.


  5. Useless: A Story about Philippine “Intellectuals”

    It is generally accepted that the Martial Law period politicized and corrupted the military. As well, there was a subversion of civil society leadership at the top of the socioeconomic foodchain. The art of capital cronyism, the repayment of support and favors through preferential treatment in public-private accommodations, undermined Philippine business. It concentrated assets, via government mechanisms of transfer and intimidation, in the hands of a few; a carefully selected and groomed cadre of men and women. Loyalists, who still maintain their patronage ties to the past. We still find visible and passionate defenses of that failed regime and its perverse ideas today. Defenses and gross misstatements that go unchallenged in the public sphere.

    As well the fourth estate, the social mechanism that is supposed to act as both the people’s voice and a check and balance to excess and abuse, was subverted. One of the first orders that went out was to round up journalists who were critical of the Marcos regime. And then jail them. Newspapers were shut down, writers intimidated and jailed. Editors went into hiding; along with some well-regarded and high-profile columnists. The intelligensia was under attack. And in muzzling their ability to speak, to criticize and explicate, to disclose and detail the indiscretions of the prevailing power bloc, one of the safeguards of the people was eliminated. When media and the ability of a country’s intellectuals to speak is controlled, the flow of information, the engagement of ideas, the forms of education are controlled as well. The best, the most effective way to rule with an iron fist, is to manage what people learn; what they discover and understand about themselves. It is part of the reason why an independent art and culture community, a vibrant one at that, is so important. Without it, sans those divergent and clashing views that exist in a dynamic society, a people stagnate. That is what happened during Martial Law. Eventually though, a people find new footing; it rediscovers its soul and voice. Broad response and reprisal follow soon after.

    That is one of the enduring lessons from that period, and any like it in world history. Effective and stable governance is not found through fear and intimidation, it is not found in the continuing miseducation of a people. In the short term, keeping a population compliant through intimidation and ignorance may work. In the short term. But over time, eventually, human spirit rebels. As Edward Said has aptly demonstrated, sometimes the soul of a people is defined in opposition to repression. Art and literature show the way. That is the reason why so much great literature, so much important art, is produced during times that try men’s souls. But the cultural and social process that births voices like Tagore or Rizal takes time. It is not instantaneous by any means. That though is in the case of colonialism from without. What of colonialism from within? What then when a people are trod under by their own?

    The same holds true. However, I truly suspect the process is accelerated in cases of internally imposed totalitarianism. At least initially. Once those early voices are silenced, and the mechanisms for public criticism sealed off, I suspect it takes time for new voices to find their bearing. Control in an authoritarian or imperial environment then does not just derive from political and economic means, it is reinforced through oversight of the intelligensia. That is the untold story of Martial Law: The subversion of the academe and the collaboration of public writers with the Marcos regime. 

    There were historians, columnists, social and cultural commentators, filmmakers, and artists who became part of the ruling elite during the Marcos years. They are still active today; fancying themselves social sages and purveyors of enlightened wisdom. And, in part, this helps explain why so much of the excess and abuse remains untold, unexplained in the public sphere. We still lack a comprehensive and cohesive tale of Martial Law; the reason is the people, the writers and storytellers, who are in the best public position to create it, collaborated. For every F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin or Alejandro R Roces, or Pete Lacaba (public writers and social stalwarts all), who spoke and fought against the defilement of their country, you have even more who joined forces under some sort of ‘nationalist’ claim. In supporting the very regime that denigrated their countrymen, they made a mockery of the term ‘nationalist.’ One prominent example is Rio Alma. A man who fancies himself as a modern day avenging angel of Tagalog-ccentric nationalism; yet he was a speech writer for Marcos. A man who set-up a rival writers guild to PEN, under the aegis of Marcos. He is by no means an exception. Other so-called nationalist social commentators were working hand in hand with Imelda Marcos during those years. Benefiting from that relationship. Is it any wonder that members of our art and culture community frequently shy away from pointed criticisms of Martial Law?

    It was a storyline that played out yet again during the GMA years. The NCCA and NHI were brought inline with GMA’s interests. A negative artistic word was never allowed. The culture institutions were controlled and muzzled. The sad part is some people who were anti-Marcos ended up collaborating with GMA. They committed the same sins decades previously they had spoken out against. There is a lesson to be found here in the damage that results from allowing unfettered power and weaknesses in our institutions to continue.

    The fact is, in so many ways, our intellectual and academic communities in the Philippines have let the country down. They are supposed to be detectives and storytellers. The men and women who not only unearth social ills and iniquity, but are challenged to heal those wounds; to show ways out of the morass in which the country has found itself. Without public writers and artists digging deeper and creating new perspectives a country, and its people, will never evolve. That is the situation the Philippines finds itself in today. Our public writers and historians, with a few notable exceptions, are caught in some sort of cycle of pseudo-intellectualism and perversely twisted and superficial nationalism. Their changeability and lack of intellectual integrity comes most to the fore when commenting on political situations. Very few actually write from positions buttressed by research or even organic philosophies. More than anything, so many writers and historians are bound by ties of ideology and patronage. Those ties also encompass student-teacher relationships. One of the key issues in our historical community is the sheer reverence in which older historians are held. To write an opposing view, or critically of their positions, is almost forbidden. At the very least, it is frowned upon. 

    World views that are so bound by personal relationships or ideology result in almost worryingly limited commentary on all issues. It is the same when it comes to understanding history. It results in superficial understandings of the self and nation; past, present, and future. There are current examples of this limitation. For example, the on-going PCSO expose is one. There are many who glommed onto the pronouncements of Manoling Morato with nary a critical question asked or evidence-backed substantiation requested; yet remain curiously silent concerning the Commission on Audit reports detailing the excesses and errors of previous PCSO leadership. Well, except in the case of attacking wayward bishops. Consistency and constancy are in short supply sometimes.

    Even more amusingly, there are those who spoke glowingly and in whole-hearted support for Jose Rizal and his philosophies; describing in detail how he was their hero, and how his words and deeds were inspiration. Yet, defend warlordism as not only necessary, but appreciated. Our own history belies the very idea that concentrating power in the hands of a select few (and allowing political dynasties to flourish) is worthwhile. This distressing mutability in the basic philosophies results in almost humorous inconsistencies in positions on issues. And publicly, the act of framing and contextualizing issues is quite rare. More often than not, analysis, and criticisms there in, occur almost in a vacuum. Multi-disciplinary thinking remains elusive. And that is a continuing failure of our education system.

    The burden of not only identifying, but offering avenues to repairing, extant social ills falls most heavily on the art, culture, and intellectual community. The reason is simple: They have the ability to do so. In accepting the mantle of being a public historian, writer, artist, or journalist they are dedicating themselves to a higher calling; to national service in a sense. That is the reason why arts and culture are usually among the first civil sectors that are silenced in a totalitarian regime. In driving them underground, the public mechanism for ideas and resistance is abrogated. What else is art, but subversion?

    And that is what concerns me the most, on an intellectual level. It is not just how broken the system is, or the type of people who inhabit it. It is the fact that the road to redemption for the Philippines has become muddied by the very people who should be shining a light and creating paths out of our current situation. Instead of being the backbone of a strong, informed, and dynamic intellectual community, they have become withdrawn, elitist and even intellectually incestuous in a way. Their ideas of what it means to be Filipino are stagnant and old-fashioned. Instead of discovering new perspectives on the country, the same old hackneyed ideas are repackaged in pretty, albeit superficial, forms.

    But, serving the public good does not necessarily mean always being against government. What it demands is something far more difficult than that; because let’s be honest here, the easiest path is just to always be contrarian, to always try and tear down and criticize. Instead it demands adherence to a core set of beliefs; ideas and philosophies from which all personal ideas and positions derive. That means not allowing things like private relationships to influence. It means focusing on issues of content, and not personal likes and dislikes. I remember one writer telling me that he was most proud of the fact that he angered his friends and opponents equally during his career. If everyone agrees with what you have written, then what you wrote is meaningless.

    That is the challenge for the next generation, our generation, of artists and writers. To break the shackles of repressive historical and social thought and the strictures of perverse ideology. In other words, to come up with new meanings on what it means to be Filipino. For me, that starts historically. But for others? It has to begin where passion is found and where new ideas can flourish. Else we are failing ourselves and we will continue to stagnate.

    In a sense, we are even worse off than when we were colonial subjects. At least then there was fire and passion and energy to discover and create a new and cohesive nation. Verve that today seems to be in short supply.