‘A mere aberration’

PGMA at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo delivers a speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast on November 26, 2009.

Based on several news reports, the death toll for the Ampatuan Massacre (also referred to as the “Maguinanao Massacre”) has risen from 57 to 64, though authorities have dismissed the new figure, saying that they had stopped the excavations yesterday.

It is unknown when the additional bodies were uncovered—or, as has been remarked, if these are in fact part of the current crime being investigated, considering that Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the alleged mastermind, is known to be a “hatchet man” (“chainsaw man” would not be inappropriate)—but the gruesome details remain the same: a group consisting of several women, among them lawyers and at least 30 media workers, set off in a convoy of six vehicles from Buluan on the morning of November 23, Monday, to witness the proxy filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial hopeful Ishmael Mangudadatu at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Shariff Aguak. The group had previously made separate requests to the army and to the police for a security escort, but had been turned down. The convoy, along with a carful of innocent motorists, was stopped by armed men, who, led by Mayor Ampatuan, Jr., abducted, tortured, and killed most of the members of the group, in one stroke shattering the traditional shields of the powerless.

No cases of beheading or rape, which were earlier alleged, have been mentioned by investigators yet, though practically all the women were sexually mutilated. A backhoe emblazoned with the legend, “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.”, which had been dispatched on a project some weeks before, was used to crush the vehicles and dig mass graves for the victims, some of whom were buried alive. (The operator of the machine is the subject of a manhunt.) Upon hearing that the military was approaching, the militiamen immediately fled, leaving the cover-up work undone, but the entire atrocity reportedly took little more than an hour to carry out.

Local and international organizations, as well as governments around the world, have condemned the massacre—a barbarity that could very well be, and hopefully is, the nadir of a political culture predicated on guns, goons, and gold—as a crime against humanity, and demanded the swift dispensation of justice. Public anger and despair at the murders continue to intensify, with various sectors holding vigils or rallies.

In view of the universal outrage at the carnage, it is inexplicable, unacceptable, and unconscionable that the government has been unwilling or unable to move quickly and decisively against the perpetrators, instead resorting to dissemblance, diminishment, and delay, perhaps out of the belief that people will fall victim to amnesia after having vented their spleens, as they have in the wake of other tragedies, or in the morbid expectation that an exponentially more horrific, and hence potentially more mediagenic, catastrophe will take place.

In dealing with the Ampatuan clan, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the current administration, the government has had its kid gloves firmly on from day one, resulting in strange contortions of rhetoric and action that would be funny under other circumstances. Malacañang conspicuously understated the massacre as “an incident between two families in Mindanao” with which it had nothing to do. Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Ronaldo Puno downplayed the expulsion of the Ampatuans from the ruling party by chairman Gilbert Teodoro as an expression of justified, but ultimately personal, outrage. For his part, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita could only muster an oblique plea, saying, “It definitely would help if, those who feel that they are already being considered as suspects, for them to turn themselves in and cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”

The police have also said that the backhoe and witness accounts are insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, the bodies are fast deteriorating, as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has not even used lime to preserve them.

Although Ampatuan, Jr. has been charged and is now in custody, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina was recorded as having backtracked from using the term “suspect”, and officials actually waited for the mayor to surrender last November 26, Thursday, instead of taking the initiative and hauling him in for questioning. (Department of Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera stressed that he was arrested.) And despite finally being tagged as the primary suspect, Ampatuan, Jr. was not handcuffed as he was brought to General Santos for an inquest, and then to Manila for detention.

Notwithstanding the self-professed exultance of the Palace at the news that the mayor was in custody, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo made a point of asserting that the order to nab Ampatuan, Jr. was not issued by the President, who will remain friends with the Ampatuans.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself did not even make a statement until two days after the crime, on November 25, Wednesday—and a most perfunctory statement at that:

Her speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast the following day, which she had designated as a National Day of Prayer and Mourning for the victims, was not a significant improvement, crammed as it was with vague and passive gestures toward God and justice.

It was perhaps the voluble—not to mention reliably inane—Press Secretary Cerge Remonde who, inadvertently or otherwise, best summed up the attitude of the present dispensation toward the Ampatuan massacre. On November 27, Remonde declared that, “It is said that the incident has few [precedents] in brutality, and for this we are condemned by the whole world. But let me assure the nation and the rest of the world that the killing of at least 57 people, including lawyers and media men, is a mere aberration” (emphasis added).

This is a poisonous suggestion that must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. By inserting the slaughter of 64 people into a space of “mere aberrations”, Remonde is attempting to disengage the government from its responsibilities, and worse, to accelerate the process of forgetting, thus displaying a species of impunity no less dangerous than that of the Ampatuans. As tantalizing as it is to believe that the Ampatuan massacre is an event so terrible that it could not have been prevented, and, anyway, will never happen again—who would not want to believe this, after all?—the fundamental impulse behind it, as a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial points out, should be shocking precisely because it is hardly aberrant:

When unmarked, black-tinted SUVs wang-wang their insolent way through a city’s roads, when government officials who have no other source of income except access to public funds ostentatiously purchase the most expensive luxury items, when public servants swagger into a room with dozens of bodyguards, we recognize the seeds of future massacres.

“Should be shocking”, that is, unless one is a callous, charter-change monomaniac like Carmen Pedrosa, who readily exonerates the Arroyo regime so as to be able to annex the tragedy for her cause.

Speaking of disturbing familiarity, it is urgently necessary, I think, that a particular aspect of the massacre be examined more closely. It may be that the militiamen who committed the murders were marching to the tune of a warlord who could be described as “psychopathic”, “sadistic”, or “monstrous”, but what are the odds that nearly all of them were psychopathic, sadistic monsters? (Psychopathy, in the clinical, rather than the popular, sense, is estimated to manifest itself in only 1% of the population, though researchers have suggested that psychopaths are overrepresented in occupations such as politics, business, and entertainment.) The bigger picture is more abysmal.

According to “Boy”, the sole gunman on the scene who claimed he could not bring himself to participate in the killing, “Datu Andal himself said […] to us: anyone from the Mangudadatu clan—women or children—should be killed… We [didn’t] ask why, we just followed orders. “How many of us have found ourselves in exactly the same situation—one in which we, in spite of our moral convictions, failed to question authority and therefore suffered the perils of obedience?

In the early 1960s, perhaps inspired in part by the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann—also the subject of a book by philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she introduced the concept of the “banality of evil”—Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to test how far people were willing to obey commands from an authority figure. The volunteers, who had been recruited via newspaper ads, were made to play the role of “teacher”, and conducted simple memory exercises that a “learner” would provide answers to. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to administer progressively higher electric shocks to a “learner”, who was strapped to a miniature electric chair. There were 30 shock levels in all, from 15 volts to 450 volts. The electrocution was not real, but the learner, an actor, would express discomfort and pain, even scream, to convince the teacher that actual shocks were being delivered by the machine. Every time the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would prompt the teacher to press the switch.

In a poll that Milgram conducted among psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults, 100% of the respondents predicted that the teachers would defy the experimenter, and that few teachers would go beyond the mild shock levels. The results of Milgram’s first set of experiments proved otherwise: out of 40 teachers, 26 administered the maximum shock of 450 volts. He would go on to conduct 17 other variations on the experiment and compile the results in Obedience to Authority, first published in 1974. Below are selected paragraphs from the opening chapter:

Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.  […] The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation—a conception of his duties as a subject—and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

The difficult lesson that emerged from Milgram’s experiments is one of the lessons that we need to revisit and keep uppermost in our minds as we struggle to deal with the grisly reality and the grislier implications of the Ampatuan Massacre. Those among us who sow discord and commit acts of unimaginable cruelty may just be doing their jobs. The perpetration of evil need not be, and is in fact far from, a mere aberration.

The dangers of no-sweat journalism

What Domini Torrevillas wrote for today’s edition of The Philippine Star is, by any measure, a rather pitiful excuse for a column, consisting as it does of text practically lifted wholesale from three separate e-mail messages that her friends had forwarded to her. This is not a practice exclusive to Torrevillas, of course—one columnist in another major daily did this so frequently that the paper had to ask that person to leave. In all fairness—and the defensive self-importance of some writers notwithstanding—writing is difficult work, and cranking out anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 characters for a coherent, compelling column at least once a week is not a task to scoff at.

To make such a concession, however, is not to excuse the writer from accountability. While the writer may not have to come up with anything especially original—whatever this might mean in the 21st century—it behooves him/her to ensure that the information he/she is disseminating is accurate and reliable, a notion that unfortunately does not seem to occur to or is dismissed by many journalists because of laziness, ignorance, or both. (A recent demonstration of these vices occurred during the furor over President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s lavish dinner at Le Cirque: a theoretical bill posted by Manuel L. Quezon III in his blog became reported as the actual bill by several media outfits.)

In the third section of her column, Torrevillas cites an e-mail from a friend—hardly a credible source—on the supposed dangers of using antiperspirants: antiperspirants are allegedly “the leading cause of breast cancer” among women. This claim is based on the following premises: first, that sweating allows one to purge toxins; and second, that an antiperspirant prevents one from sweating, and therefore from purging toxins.

In addition, men are supposedly less prone to cancer from antiperspirant use because the antiperspirant chemicals “are caught in their hair and are not directly applied to the skin”, while women who apply antiperspirants right after shaving increase their risk “because shaving causes almost imperceptible nicks in the skin which give the chemicals entrance into the body from the armpit area”.

That antiperspirant use leads to cancer has been floating around the Internet at least as far back as 1999, but no causality between the two has been firmly established up to this time. A fact sheet on antiperspirants and deodarants by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) identifies three separate studies on the presumed relationship:

  • A 2002 study by Dana K. Mirick, Scott Davis, and David B. Thomas did not show any increased risk for breast cancer in women who reported using an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant. Nor was there  increased breast cancer risk for women who reported using a blade (nonelectric) razor and an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant, or for women who reported using an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant within one hour of shaving with a blade razor.
  • A 2003 study by Kris McGrath [PDF] suggested that underarm shaving with the use of antiperspirants/deodorants may be related to breast cancer, but failed to demonstrate a conclusive link between these underarm hygiene habits and breast cancer. (The McGrath study was used as a reference in a 2006 CBS news investigation [streaming video].)
  • A 2006 study by S. Fakri, A. Al-Azzawi, and N. Al-Tawil found that the use of antiperspirants had no association with the risk of breast cancer, while family history and oral contraceptives use were found to be associated.

According to the NCI, “additional research is needed to investigate this relationship and other factors that may be involved”. A 2003 monograph by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), which established conditions under which over-the-counter (OTC) antiperspirant drug products are generally recognized as safe and effective and not misbranded, did not rule out the possibility of a link between antiperspirants and cancer—or indeed other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease—but generally found that data pointing to the link was, at best, inconclusive.

Torrevillas does say that her readers should check with their respective doctors regarding these claims, but if she had bothered to do even the most perfunctory online research after checking her e-mail, she could have provided much better information and raised actual awareness instead of stoking unwarranted fear among women. She did not even have to wade through highly technical literature—all she had to do was review the entry on perspiration in Wikipedia, a resource that her colleague Carmen N. Pedrosa so loves. She would then have found out that sweat does not contain “toxins”, that oft-abused term of pseudo-medicine, at all. If toxins enter the body, it is the job of the kidneys and the liver to get rid of them—one cannot sweat them out. (On a related note, those popular “detoxifying” foot patches do not work, because such a manner of detoxification would involve what is thus far only fit for science fiction: turning one’s feet into a pair of auxiliary livers.)

My impression—which I wish were wrong—is that articles on beauty, health, and wellness tend to be particularly soaked in sloppiness, which is certainly the case here. Whatever the merits of scaring people into taking care of themselves may be, that journalists, especially lifestyle writers, settle for what is essentially paranoia-mongering instead of public enlightenment is irresponsible, unethical, and thoroughly deplorable.

Should Pedrosa be fired?

Eric Tomas of Daily Musings apparently wrote to The Philippine Star when he caught Carmen N. Pedrosa plagiarizing Dave Berman back in 2006, but to no avail. He also believes that Pedrosa should leave the Star, comparing her case to that Hilarion “Larry” M. Henares, Jr., whom Philippine Daily Inquirer sacked back in 1990 when he was caught plagiarizing from the International Herald Tribune. (Funnily enough, Manila Standard, now Manila Standard Today, praised Inquirer for “upholding the standards of professional journalism“, then hired Henares shortly afterwards. Would it be a stretch to say that this move presaged the reinstatement of Malu Fernandez?)

I posted my entry on Pedrosa primarily out of pique, not realizing the extent to which the problem of plagiarism pervades Philippine journalism. (Consider, just as an example, this article by Hector Bryant L. Macale of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility). That it is apparently rampant should be disturbing, at the very least, because, as pointed out on Eye on Ethics: Asia Media Forum, “The practice of journalism involves the use of power: the power to influence the way people look at themselves, their societies, and the world; the power to help shape the attitudes and values of others; and the power to help liberate men and women from the shackles of ignorance so they may exercise their sovereign human right to decide their destinies.”

I suppose it would be trite to quote Ben Parker, but great responsibility does come with great power. And the journalist who plagiarizes, as David Plotz of Slate puts it, “is the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague”.

On a lighter note, I found some indescribably lovely photos of Carmen Pedrosa, courtesy of Joe Galvez.

Carmen N. Pedrosa, serial plagiarist?

As I suspected, given that plagiarism all too easily develops into a bad habit, Carmen N. Pedrosa’s plagiarism of a Wikipedia article in her 20 June column is by no means an isolated incident.

A Google search led me to the blog Daily Musings, whose author, Eric Tomas, reads Pedrosa’s column regularly in order to “see what counter-arguments can be readied against her [pro–charter change] assertions”. (There are, in fact, several posts that specifically mention Pedrosa.) In a post entitled “Postnote to Pedrosa Article“, Tomas points out that Pedrosa’s 5 November 2006 column lifts a sentence directly from “Advocacy Journalism, The Least You Can Do, and The No Confidence Movement“, an article by Dave Berman, without any acknowledgement.

It may be observed that the same article–the same sentence–is properly quoted by the Wikipedia page on advocacy journalism. (The 16 October 2006 version, a copy of which I have uploaded to Scribd and included below, would have been the latest Pedrosa could have–and probably did–read prior to the publication of her column.)

Tomas, toward the end of his post, asks, “How can she rail about the lack of integrity that she perceives in the Supreme Court for trashing the Sigaw ng Bayan petition, when she herself doesn’t practice integrity in her writing, in this case, giving credit where credit is due?

How, indeed? Does she think that she is somehow magically exempt from acknowledging her sources–akin, perhaps, to how she seems to think that the parliamentary system is a magic bullet against the problems of the country?

Citations needed, or: Plagiarism and Carmen N. Pedrosa

This post was initially conceived as an attempt to respond to Carmen N. Pedrosa, who of late has been again advocating charter change toward a parliamentary form of government in “From A Distance”, her column in the The Philippine Star.

Yesterday’s installment caught my attention because she began by characterizing the choice between charter change now or presidential elections in 2010 as a catch-22. That she subsequently spoke of charter change as the better option—as the way out of this supposed double bind—seems to speak of a turn of mind that is rather strange, to say the least, considering that a catch-22 is supposed to be irresoluble.

Even stranger to me was this statement: “Changing persons without changing the system means more of the same in our flawed presidential system.” After all, are not the persons in any given system, political or otherwise, themselves the causes and/or perpetuators of flaws? Can a system and the persons that animate it and circulate within it indeed be separated, not merely for theoretical purposes, but for pragmatic ones? And simply appalling to me was this: “The question boils down to this. Who should be followed? It is not about rightness or wrongness.”

Bearing these thoughts in mind, I decided to review Pedrosa’s earlier columns [registration required] in order to better understand her position. I also decided to consult a few online sources regarding the presidential and parliamentary systems of government, among them Wikipedia.

Notwithstanding the criticism against the community-generated encyclopedia—which, naturally, is documented in a Wikipedia page of its own (a page that, also naturally, has been flagged for questionable neutrality)—I have found it to be a valuable resource. I would not set much store by its reliability or its appropriateness for research, but it serves very well as a primer to the veritable swamp of information that is the Internet. It is even gaining slow acceptance in journalistic circles. It was also here that I found the actual subject matter of this post: plagiarism.

Plagiarism, derived from the Latin plagiarus (literally, “kidnapper”)—which in turn is derived from plagium (literally, “kidnapping”)—may be defined as follows: an act or instance of stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s won; using a created production without crediting the source; committing literary theft; or presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

Plagiarism, as far as I am concerned, is the kidnapping—and mutilation—of ideas. It is akin to kidnapping the child of another, hacking off its limbs, and sewing these limbs onto one’s own already horribly deformed infant, creating an even worse monster than what one had to begin with.


The Wikipedia page on the presidential system was last edited on 15 June 2009, 11:14 AM, by user Reub2000. (Below is a copy of the aforementioned version of the Wikipedia page uploaded to Scribd.)

One will find it interesting to juxtapose the section discussing criticism of the presidential system to Pedrosa’s 20 June article, which is entitled “Gridlock rears its ugly head“.



Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:

  • Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists say that presidentialism is not constitutionally stable. According to some political scientists, such as Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted.
  • Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics argue that this creates undesirable gridlock, and that it reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
  • Impediments to leadership change — it is claimed that the difficulty in removing an unsuitable president from office before his or her term has expired represents a significant problem.


Political scientists agree that gridlock is a major disadvantage of the presidential system. There are others — the tendency towards authoritarianism. Because the presidential system is not constitutionally stable it easily deteriorates into authoritarianism. According to Fred Riggs, a political scientist, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in every country it has been attempted, except the United States.



Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize. A prime minister who does not enjoy a majority in the legislature will have to either form a coalition or, if he is able to lead a minority government, govern in a manner acceptable to at least some of the opposition parties. Even if the prime minister leads a majority government, he must still govern within (perhaps unwritten) constraints as determined by the members of his party—a premier in this situation is often at greater risk of losing his party leadership than his party is at risk of losing the next election. On the other hand, once elected a president can not only marginalize the influence of other parties, but can exclude rival factions in his own party as well, or even leave the party whose ticket he was elected under. The president can thus rule without any allies for the duration of one or possibly multiple terms, a worrisome situation for many interest groups.


The presidency by the nature of the system is “a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize — unlike a prime minister, who may have to form a coalition. The president and her/his party can rule without any allies for up to six years. That becomes a threat for other interest groups.



Presidential systems are said by critics not to offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or Congress to escape blame by blaming the other.


As mentioned earlier the separation of powers in a presidential system is a disadvantage rather than an advantage. The presidency and the Congress as two parallel structures inevitably create gridlock and make it often impossible to govern. Worse it reduces accountability because the president and Congress end up blaming each other for perceived wrongs.



Juan Linz argues, “The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate… losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.


“Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate. . . losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization,” argues Juan Linz.



Ecuador is sometimes presented as a case study of democratic failures over the past quarter-century. Presidents have ignored the legislature or bypassed it altogether. One president had the National Assembly teargassed, while another was kidnapped by paratroopers until he agreed to certain congressional demands. From 1979 through 1988, Ecuador staggered through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations that created a near permanent crisis atmosphere in the policy.


Ecuador is cited as a good example of democratic failures with a presidential system. Often, presidents ignore the legislature. Things got so bad that one president was driven to teargas the National Assembly.

The country went through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations from 1979 to 1988.



In parliamentary systems, unpopular leaders can be quickly removed by a vote of no confidence, a procedure which is reckoned to be a “pressure release valve” for political tension.


This would not have been necessary in a parliamentary system when an unpopular leader could be removed by a vote of no confidence. This is a device comparable to a “pressure release valve” in a country besieged by political tension.



Finally, many have criticized presidential systems for their alleged slowness in responding to their citizens’ needs. Often, the checks and balances make action extremely difficult. Walter Bagehot said of the American system “the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others [and not itself] will suffer the effects”.


Finally, the presidential system by its nature is slow to respond to citizens’ needs. Often, the “checks and balances” make action extremely difficult.

Since the Philippines followed the American presidential system, let us hear what one constitutionalist said of the American system: “the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others will suffer the effects.”


The sixth provision of the Journalist’s Code of Ethics as adopted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is, “I shall not commit any act of plagiarism.” The necessity of this provision should be obvious enough. How can a journalist be considered credible when he or she steals ideas from others? Or, as in this case, when she lifts and paraphrases, without proper citations, entire sections of a text that is governed by a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License?

More significantly for Pedrosa, how can she endorse a form of government that she believes is more accountable and more transparent to its citizens, when she herself is evidently unwilling or unable to be accountable and transparent to her reading public? Perhaps she ought to ask herself the question that she posed last 17 May: When is change real change?

For the record, I am not wholly or fanatically against amending the Constitution or shifting to a parliamentary system. And yet I think it is fair to expect that a person who supports a cause for ostensibly moral reasons, the tack that Pedrosa seems to have taken in beating the drum for charter change, ought to be himself or herself beyond most, if not all, reproach.