Risk and responsibility

While his assassination, questions about which remain open to this day, has transformed him into a martyr of democracy, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., the scion of a prominent clan in Tarlac, was by no means the passive or peaceable figure that the idea of martyrdom tends to conjure up—he was very much the opposite, in fact. As Cory, his own wife, once wryly remarked: “I know he’d die if we led a quiet life.” When he first entered public life as an assistant to President Ramon Magsaysay, he was, as he recounted to National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, a “siga-siga“: cocky and tough, believing that offense was the best defense.

Such an attitude would serve him well as he rode his vaulting ambition all the way to the Senate, where he occupied a seat that was initially perilous. On account of his youth—at the time that the 1967 elections were held, he was 17 days short of 35 years, the minimum required age for a Senator—a protest was lodged with the Senate Electoral Tribunal in order to remove him from office. The tribunal eventually decided that the proper reckoning of age ought to begin on the day that the “the expression of the popular will” was ascertained—that is, the day that the final poll results were announced—and allowed him to keep his post. Long before the ruling was handed down, however, Ninoy had already formulated a strategy: attack President Ferdinand Marcos. “If I kept hitting at Marcos, any effort to get me kicked out of the Senate would become political persecution, pure and simple,” he said.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

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Something to remember*

Possibly my favorite anecdote about Cory Aquino is recorded in The Quartet of the Tiger Moon: Scenes from the People Power Apocalypse by Nick Joaquin, who wrote it under his journalistic nom de plume, Quijano de Manila. On February 25, 1986, some minutes before her inauguration as President of the Philippines in the Sampaguita Room of Club Filipino, Marcos defectors Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos arrived by helicopter and entered the hall, the former defense minister in a rose shirt with white stripes, and the military general in uniform. When she returned the salute that Ramos gave her, Joaquin recounts that “every Cory watcher fondly murmured: ‘She’ll have to be taught how to salute!’”

It had taken her years of hardship, prayer, and preparation to arrive at this momentous occasion, and yet, as the story has it, even on the cusp of power, the woman who would later be hailed far and wide as a champion of freedom, cited as inspiration for the various peaceful uprisings around the world that followed in the wake of the EDSA Revolution, mourned by millions both at home and abroad upon her death after a battle with cancer, and canonized by one American magazine as the “saint of democracy”, committed a protocolary lapse. It was a small one, to be sure, but the defectiveness of the gesture, observed and commented upon by many witnesses, underscores that aspect of Cory all too often overlooked or ignored, especially after she left us three years ago: her humanity, and everything that being human entails, which includes the capacity to rear and to raze, to scourge and to save.

Cory Aquino with children and grandchildren in her Times Street Home (1993)

Cory Aquino with children and grandchildren in her Times Street Home in 1993. Front, L-R: Miguel Abellada, Jiggy Cruz, Jonty Cruz, Kris, Nina Abellada, Viel, and Kiko Dee. Back, L-R: Pinky, Manolo Abellada, Noynoy, Dodo Dee, Ballsy, and Eldon Cruz. (Scanned from ‘In the Name of Democracy and Prayer: Selected Speeches of Corazon C. Aquino’.)

We are often exhorted against speaking ill of those who have passed away. This is not so much for their sake, as the deceased are obviously no longer capable of caring, but rather for us, because we would generally prefer to preserve pleasant, or at least not negative, memories of the dead. I am not certain, though, that placing them upon the possible highest pedestals that we can conceive of and construct is necessarily desirable. The tendency to deify people who have been significant to us, of which Cory is no doubt one, is likely informed by good intentions. To my mind, however, converting pivotal figures into icons and locking them away behind a kind of discursive glass, beyond the range of the critical heat and light of the present, serves no fruitful purpose. In fact, I would argue that such is fatal to the enterprise of excavating a usable past from which to draw out—to borrow from The Wasteland by the poet T. S. Eliot—the fragments that can shored against our ruins, for sacralization takes notable acts and events out of the ebb and flow of history, rendering them seemingly unattainable by any other.

We may well need our martyrs and heroes, but we must not forget that their accomplishments are within our own potential, particularly because our abilities as such matter less than the decisions that we make. Cory, a self-proclaimed “plain housewife” with no prior political experience—no experience, she once famously claimed in a speech, “in cheating, stealing, lying, or assassinating political opponents”—changed the destiny of our nation for the better when she made the choice to rise to the challenge of leading the movement to tear down a repressive regime, whatever else might be said of her subsequent choices when she ascended to the seat of power. Perhaps the best way to do her memory honor today is to remind ourselves that we, as agents of history, can and should also be catalysts of positive social transformation.

* This was published in slightly different form in the 1 August 2012 edition of The Philippine Star in order to commemorate the third death anniversary of Cory Aquino.

Some notes on digitizing social change

What follows is a modified version of a talk that I, on behalf of The Pro Pinoy Project, delivered last 20 February 2012 in Saint Louis University, Baguio City, as one of the resource speakers for the Digital Technology for Social Change: Creating Impact in a Networked Society seminar series, a project of the British Council Philippines.

My fellow speakers were Niña Terol-Zialcita, Micheline Rama, and JP Alipio. Members of the British Council Global Changemakers network, namely Jecel Censoro, Joseph Mansilla, Anna Oposa, Dwight Ronan, and Ponce Samaniego, also talked about their respective advocacy projects.

Good morning. Thank you to the British Council Philippines and Saint Louis University for having me here, and to all the participants for the gift of your presence—or your tele-presence, for those of you watching the live stream of this session.

That the Internet has brought about, and will continue to bring about, wide and sweeping changes all over the planet would appear to be a matter already beyond question. In 2006, the print edition of TIME’s annual Person of the Year issue bore a shiny, reflective panel on its cover—the reason being that the Person of the Year was “You”. Lev Grossman, explaining the choice, wrote that one of the stories of 2006 was a “story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes”.

Grossman was referring to the dramatic impact brought about by Web 2.0, an umbrella term, that, following Prashant Sharma, covers online services that were built to facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, crowd-sourcing, and collaboration. And while Grossman did warn against romanticizing Web 2.0—despairing at, among other things, the hatred and the lack of spelling skills that many of its users seemed to have in abundance—he nevertheless asserted that it gave rise to the “opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person”.

Regardless of whether “You” was the right pick, it is worth pointing out that succeeding Person of the Year issues saw TIME recognizing people who, without the Internet, might not have otherwise been thus acknowledged. In 2008, the magazine selected Barack Obama, whose successful campaign to be the President of the United States of America was driven in no insignificant way by online support. In 2010, the recognition went to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of an immensely popular social networking company—you may have heard of it: it’s called Facebook, and it recently filed for an initial public offering (IPO) worth USD5 billion. Last year, TIME chose “The Protester” in view of the massive demonstrations that—with the help of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, among other tools—were organized and still roil across the globe: in Europe and North America, in the Middle East and North Africa.

Given the theme of this seminar series—“Digital Media for Social Change: Creating Impact in a Networked Society”—it might be the aforementioned protests that spring to mind when we, with an eye to our own history of revolutions, try to imagine what can be done in the Philippines today. Using digital media, can we bring about positive social change? Or—to paraphrase from the preamble of our Constitution, a document which is supposed to be an expression of our collective will as the sovereign Filipino people—using digital media, can we promote the common good? Conserve and develop our patrimony? Share and enjoy the blessings of independence and democracy? Establish a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace?

Yes. Yes, of course. If I didn’t believe that, I would never have come before you to speak at this forum. (Incidentally, the girl in the picture has “optimistic” written across her hand in Arabic.) And yet the previous questions were more than merely rhetorical ones. Social change must always be understood as taking place within specific constraints, and especially so when we seek change by digital means in these islands. Such constraints cannot simply be conquered or transcended by sheer force of will—they form part of the unavoidable “social thickness” that must be lived through and negotiated with.

It hardly needs saying that I am not a Luddite: I own a mobile phone, a laptop computer, and an e-reading device; I have been a user of the Internet since the late 1990s, a time when a connection speed of 56 kilobytes per second—torturously slow by contemporary standards—was considered acceptable; I have been blogging intermittently since 2001, starting with Blogger.com, when it hadn’t yet been acquired by Google; and I spend several hours a day online chatting with friends, looking at pictures, watching videos, reading articles, and broadcasting banalities via social media platforms.

My stance as regards the Internet, however, is principally a cautious one. I am wary, even skeptical, of the various claims that are being made for it, verging as some of these claims do on what I would call “digital evangelism”: a zealous, fanatical conviction in the transformative power of digital technology in general, and the Internet in particular. We must remember that the Internet is a relatively new development in the human story, and while many a commentator has declared that it will rival and eventually dwarf the printing press in terms of cultural impact, much of its potential, particularly in the Philippines, remains exactly that: potential. Digital change-makers who lose sight of this risk being engulfed by narcissistic self-regard.

All the same, you would not be ill-advised to take my words—as the fantasy writer George R. R. Martin might put it—well-salted. It may interest you to know that one of the first skeptics about technology was Socrates. In Phaedrus, the Greek philosopher tells his titular interlocutor a story about the Egyptian god Theuth, who is credited with the invention of arithmetic, calculation, geometry, astronomy, draughts, dice, and, most importantly, the use of letters, or a system of writing. Theuth, desiring to make these inventions available for other Egyptians to use and benefit from, pays a visit to another god, Thamus, who is king over all Egypt, to show and explain each of the things that he has made. When they come to the letters, Theuth says that writing “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit”.

Thamus replies with a gentle rebuke: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates was not completely wrong about writing—certainly it had some of the effects on knowledge and memory that he had feared—but he could not have foreseen this: the world that the written word had made possible, as well as its attendant wonders, not least of which is our ability to revisit his thoughts, precisely because they had been written down by Plato.

The first part of my presentation is derived from an ongoing, if not entirely systematic, process of research into and reflection upon digital media and the ways by which it is reshaping our lives and labors, and my primary objective here is to raise to the surface questions and concerns that I hope will help all of us to gain a greater awareness of the context that we inhabit, and a better appreciation of the possibilities for action. The second part of my presentation deals with The Pro Pinoy Project, the organization that I represent, and some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for what may be called “participatory journalism”.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project]

Ressa’s reckless ‘rappling’ (Updated)

“Rappler”, a portmanteau word coined from “rap” and “ripple”, is the name of a fledgling web site that describes itself as a “a social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change”, and whose team promises “uncompromised journalism that—hopefully—inspires smart conversations and ignites a thirst for change”. Such statements betoken the hand of its CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist and the former chief of the News and Current Affairs Division of ABS-CBN, where her significant contributions included the citizen journalism campaign “Boto Mo iPatrol Mo”. If Ressa’s recent behavior is any indication, however, Rappler may not so much stimulate dialogue as stifle it. Although silence, in all fairness, is certainly an example of change in our generally disorderly democracy, is this the kind of change that is warranted?

Blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago had earlier published “Going to the dogs“, in which she stated her opinion on the discussion generated by a heated dispute between Rappler and the University of Santo Tomas (UST)—a dispute that was caused by a controversial story written by Rappler editor-at-large Marites Dañguilan-Vitug. Over the course of the post, Santiago raised what I believe to be important questions regarding the brave new world of online media and the directions that public discourse on such media needs—and has yet—to take. When said post was brought to Ressa’s attention via a Twitter update, however, Ressa did not only take exception to Santiago’s view that Rappler revealed a pro-administration bias by featuring the recently launched, meme-friendly tourism campaign, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” without investigating its costs, among others. In addition, Ressa pulled rank as a professional journalist and proceeded to imply that Santiago was guilty of libel: reckless moves that are utterly injurious to the digital citizenship that Ressa purports to be a passionate advocate of.

Surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that, in these islands, libel has all too often been used as a weapon with which to harass media workers—a notorious wielder is former First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, who, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), filed more than 50 cases against 46 journalists starting in 2003, before electing to drop all charges in 2007 as a putative gesture of peace toward the press—including her own Rappler colleague Vitug.  More to the point, surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that it behooves one to fully comprehend a text before rapping out statements rippling with ire: Ressa was offended—misguidedly so—by Santiago’s supposed suggestion that Rappler had been paid to do a story on “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, when in fact Santiago’s statement was, “Rappler has quietly revealed itself to be about helping out government instead of being a critical voice that at the very least asks: how much was paid [to BBDO Guerrero, the advertising agency behind] the campaign and is it worth it? I guess no questions like that for ‘uncompromised journalism’ now tagging itself as ‘citizen journalism’.”

Whether one agrees with Santiago’s attribution of bias—my own (perhaps potentially libelous) guess would be that Rappler was motivated primarily, if not exclusively, by a desire to drive up site traffic—this unfortunate episode bodes ill not only for the state of literacy in the country, but also for the future of the local mediascape. Can intelligent conversations and positive social changes possibly take place in an environment populated by denizens who, cleaving to Ressa’s inglorious example, refuse to read well, bristle at the slightest expression of disapproval, reject calls to become self-reflexive and accountable, and betray no qualms about ascribing malice to parties with whom they disagree?

The situation at hand becomes particularly interesting when one considers it vis-à-vis a recent piece by Ressa, in which she serves up the high “power-distance index” (PDI) of the Philippines as the reason that members of the intelligence community did not object to President Aquino’s initiation of countermeasures against a terrorist threat of questionable credibility. The PDI is a measure of the extent to which the less powerful in a given society accept and expect the unequal distribution of power. (It may be worth remarking that Ressa fails to contextualize the PDI within the larger theory of the dimensions of national culture formulated by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, or to acknowledge that said theory, in spite of its usefulness and influence, is hardly the last word in the study of culture.) Ressa asserts that the PDI of the country “helps explain why Filipinos have such respect for authority; why people ‘know their place;’ why true debate in an organization rarely happens if it includes the boss”.

While Ressa’s conclusion to her article seems to show that she frowns on the character of the relationships that a high PDI tends to produce—she warns those in authority that they need to “gather information and guard even more against [their] knee-jerk reactions and biases” because their subordinates “will rarely contradict [them]—even if [they’re] wrong”—Ressa herself appears to be the best illustration of the Philippine PDI, or, more accurately, what happens when heretofore unchallenged PDI assumptions are suddenly breached.

*

Update (16 Jan 2011; 10:29 PM GMT +8): Angela Stuart Santiago believes that a “public apology via social media is in order” but doesn’t know if Ressa is up to it. Read her take in “Calling out Ressa“.

Journalism as barbarism

The furor that continues to rage around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, and specifically Mideo Cruz’s installation Poleteismo, one of the works featured in said exhibition, has taken the form of a battle between blasphemy and censorship—an unfortunate development, in my view, as both positions seem predicated on a clear-cut, straightforward duality between how the public has responded to the work and how it ought to respond to the work. Whether the situation will shape-shift into something more capable of accommodating a greater, more complex range of possibilities remains to be seen, but that it has been reduced to such crude terms can be attributed in part to the manner that the mass media thoroughly maltreated the relevant issues.

It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.) As someone who has seen Poleteismo for himself, I find that interpretation completely untenable: the only element of the work that could be said to have a connection to the bill would be the condoms, and I saw no compelling reason to draw that connection—not least because the proposed measure is concerned with more than just prophylactics.

But the burden of the blame for the frenzied character of the dispute is not only for Webb, “XXX”, or ABS-CBN to bear. Understanding, no doubt, that anything related to the controversial piece of legislation would serve as a reliable magnet for rapid, even rabid, reactions, which would then translate into increased ratings, several prominent members of the fourth estate wasted no time jumping into the fray in order to whip the public into a state of hysteria.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Mulling over “Kulô”

Art, all art, as the British writer Jeanette Winterson would remind us, is a foreign city, which is to say that it is fluent in tongues and steeped in traditions that inevitably require no small degree of adaptation and acclimatization on the part of those who seek a meaningful encounter with it. To behave as though art bore the onus of conforming to and confirming beliefs and expectations long held and cherished is to act like the boorish tourist who assumes, nay, demands that the locals speak his or her language, indicating a fatal combination of arrogance and ignorance that ought to be despaired at and deplored. And yet it is that very combination with which the past several days have been marked when one examines the clangorous—I hesitate to use the word “popular”—discourse that has erupted around the now-closed Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, which, in addition to 31 other works of art intended to play off the convergence of the sesquicentennial of national hero Jose Rizal and the quadricentennial of the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas, features Poleteismo, an installation by Mideo Cruz that is both fulcrum and field for what been not so much a debate than a protracted shouting match, with terms yanked out of context for maximum incendiary effect: “blasphemy” and “terrorism” on the one hand, and “moralist hysteria” and “religious myopia” on the other.

[Read the rest in Interlineal.]

Honor vacui

Imelda Marcos kisses the coffin of her late husband, the dictator Ferdinand

That Vice President Jejomar Binay, who was tasked to confront the vexing question of where and how the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos should be laid to rest, has been quoted in Manila Bulletin as calling his recommendation to bury Marcos in Ilocos Norte with full military honors a “Solomonic solution” indicates, at the very least, that Binay’s understanding of the Bible is deficient in the extreme. Were he to review the relevant passages in the Old Testament, Binay would discover that the judgment of Solomon—who, by virtue of divine munificence, is supposed to be one of the wisest men in the world—does not result in a formulation that either satisfies or gives justice to no one.

According to the story, which is told in the first book of Kings, Solomon is asked to preside over a dispute between two women, each of whom claimed to be the mother of an infant. Both women lived in the same house, and each, within days of the other, had given birth to a boy. One of the babies, however, died in the night, prompting his mother to switch the corpse for the still-living son of the other woman, who was asleep. As there were no witnesses to the substitution, the women are reduced to trading accusations before the king.

After a moment, Solomon calls for a sword and orders that the remaining infant be cut in two, in order that each mother may receive half, thus settling the issue. It is when one of the women protests at the verdict that Solomon’s true intention is revealed: by threatening the destruction of the child, the king is able to determine which woman is the real mother—the one who would rather see her baby alive, if brought up in the care of another, than killed. “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother,” Solomon declares.

[Read the rest in the YCC Film Desk Tumblr.]