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.]

Sifting through the wreck: Should Carandang take the blame?

Political commentator William M. Esposo, who is not known to mince words, took up his metaphorical chair of rage in order to wreck it against Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Secretary Ricky Carandang in the September 7 edition of his The Philippine Star column, tagging Carandang as “terribly wanting” and ultimately liable for the “substandard flow of communications during and after the hostage crisis”. Did the facts justify the energy and space involved in the destruction of (imaginary) furniture?

Esposo ticked off a list of issues that he believed Carandang had mishandled, which follows verbatim below:

  1. The “Where was P-Noy?” issue was raised on the day after the hostage incident and Carandang failed to immediately quash this mistaken notion. It took a full week for Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda to disclose on ANC Talkback what P-Noy was doing during the crisis. That time gap is unacceptable. This issue could have been easily dispelled on the day when it surfaced by narrating the president’s hour by hour activities during the crisis.
  2. The issue of Hong Kong Administrator Donald Tsang’s call to P-Noy was not properly addressed and it made the president look like he was not in charge. Carandang did not even cite that the call to P-Noy was a violation of protocol and therefore we have nothing to be defensive about for not taking it.
  3. The issue of draping the flag on the casket of the hostage taker was not immediately and properly addressed—thereby adding to the bad impression which reflected on the president. The Messaging Secretary should have immediately clarified that this was neither inspired nor committed by the government and that people here freely place the flag on the caskets of those who have been public servants.
  4. Again, the issue which was raised by the Journalist Association of Hong Kong that P-Noy should not blame the media for the bungled rescue was not immediately and properly addressed. Clearly, P-Noy merely cited media for having added to the problems but never did he attempt to put the blame solely on media. Carandang should have taken the Hong Kong journalists to task for raising a falsely premised issue.

Esposo then went on to say that, in spite of the toll that the mismanaged hostage crisis took on the “prestige and public confidence” of the Aquino administration, it nevertheless represented an opportunity for the President to surround himself solely with faithful appointees and rid himself of the company and the service of “stray dogs”, a rhetorical maneuver that conflates incompetence with disloyalty,  and insinuates that Carandang, among other people, is guilty of both. Unless Esposo knows more than he is telling, and can back it up with proof—in which case, he ought to be more explicit, for the sake of the citizenry—the conflation appears to be illogical and unfair.

There can be no denying that great lapses in communication occurred during and after the crisis, and those accountable for such lapses should be dealt with accordingly. A pertinent question, however, would seem to be this: Among the issues that Esposo raised against Carandang, which actually fall under the jurisdiction of the latter as Secretary of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO)?

According to Executive Order No. 4, which took effect on July 30, 2010, the functions of the PCDSPO are as follows:

a. Coordinate the crafting, formulation, development and enhancement of the messaging system under the Office of the President;
b. Design and recommend responses to issues that arise on a daily basis.
c. Ensure consistency in the messages issued by the Executive Department;
d. Assist in the formulation and implementation of new media strategies for the Office of the President;
e. Assist in research and development of new media instruments;
f. Liaise with the Malacañang Records Office;
g. Control and supervise the conduct of market research, monitoring public opinion, and gathering, use and analysis of other relevant data as may be necessary;
h. Formulate editorial guidelines and policies for state media;
i. Ensure consistency in the implementation of the corporate identity of the Executive Department;
j. Act as custodian of the institutional memory of the Office of the President, which includes the supervision and control of the Presidential Museum and Library, and liaison with the Malacañang Records Office;
k. Perform editorial functions for the Official Gazette; and
l. Perform such other functions as may be directed by the President.

These, on the other hand, are the functions of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), which is headed by Secretary Herminio “Sonny” Coloma:

a. Develop and implement necessary guidelines and mechanisms pertaining to the delivery and dissemination of information relating to the policies, programs, official activities and achievements of the President and the Executive Branch;
b. Develop, manage and operate viable government-owned or controlled information dissemination structure / facilities to provide the Office of the President in particular, and the Executive Branch in general, access to the people as an alternative to the private mass media entities;
c. Set up and maintain local and international field offices, where necessary, to ensure that accurate information from the President and the Executive Branch is promptly and efficiently relayed, delivered and disseminated to intended target audiences;
d. Manage, control or supervise, as may be necessary, the various government agencies and offices involved in information gathering and dissemination;
e. Coordinate and cultivate relations with private media;
f. Manage and administer the OP Website and the Web Development Office; and
g. Perform such other functions as the President may assign from time to time.

In view of the language of the Executive Order, the two communications offices, their different responsibilities notwithstanding, are intimately, even inextricably, bound up with one another, as the PCDSPO crafts the material that the PCOO circulates. At the risk of oversimplification, one might put it this way: Carandang creates the message, after which Coloma sends the message.

How, then, can Esposo assign blame wholly to Carandang, while avowing that Coloma was the “least accountable” for any communication problems that arose during the crisis?

A source with the presidential communications group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity owing to lack of authority to comment on the matter, had a different story for The Pro Pinoy Project, saying that the PCDSPO had fulfilled its role and prepared the necessary messages, but the PCOO, which is specifically tasked with media relations, had been unable to disseminate such.

The Pro Pinoy Project was only able to make preliminary contact with Coloma via e-mail and text message, and he has not made any statement as of posting time.

It is worth noting that the elevation of Carandang to his current post had previously prompted Esposo to write a piece questioning the former broadcast journalist’s fitness for the rank—a scathing article that exceeded, both in tone and in apparent intent, other publicly expressed apprehensions about the viability of the presidential communications group: Amando Dornila’s invocation of the image of the Lernaean Hydra, for instance, could be interpreted as a compliment, albeit a rather backhanded one, attesting to the efficacy of people involved in the group, as the hydra is, if nothing else, a powerful creature.

Why, one is moved to ask, is there no love lost between Esposo and Carandang? What motivates all this chair-wrecking? How much of it is driven by national concerns, and how much by parochial ones? Is the fact that Esposo’s column saw print on the same day that Carandang took his oath of office merely a coincidence?

It is no secret, after all, that Esposo is, at the very least, associated with one of two contending factions within the Aquino camp that have been at war since the presidential campaign kicked off last year—the so-called “Samar” faction that reportedly includes Maria Montelibano, a cousin of the President who handled media relations during his campaign, not to mention Coloma himself.

Of course, these factions no longer officially exist, and ought to stop existing unofficially too, as is proper, because infighting only wastes time and resources that could be used productively elsewhere.

[This also appears in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Try to understand Ramon Tulfo

There can be no doubt that assorted self-righteous women’s groups and bleeding hearts were outraged—or will be outraged, once they have moved on from the virtuous cause du jour—by the latest installment of “On Target”, the Philippine Daily Inquirer column of Ramon Tulfo.

Entitled “Try to Understand Chavit Singson“, the article is an admirable attempt on the part of Tulfo to enlighten and educate otherwise undiscerning readers on the factors that led Deputy National Security Adviser Luis “Chavit” Singson to beat up his common-law wife, Che Tiongson, and her lover—a decision, it must be empahsized, that was generous in the extreme, for, as Singson himself pointed out, he could very well have killed them instead.

***

Tulfo makes a point of saying that he does not necessarily condone what Singson did—a nuance that will likely be lost on the School of Sanctimonious Sympathizers—and thus strengthens his case with compassion. Rather than condemning Singson outright, Tulfo exhorts his readers to bear in mind two important things.

***

First, given that Filipino society is inherently macho, Singson was only acting according to the time-honored standards of genuinely masculine behavior. Singson would have been violating custom, itself a source of the law, had he chosen to tolerate the infidelity of Tiongson. He had already forgiven her twice before, and would have lost much face if he continued to be merciful.

If anything, he had actually saved her from an inferior penis: her lover, based on what Singson saw for himself, is so unfortunately endowed as to qualify for the Guiness Book of World Records.

***

Second, while this apparent bias in favor of men is unfair, which Tulfo readily acknowledges—yet another subtlety that will escape the generic agitators and malcontents—this bias is nevertheless so pervasive and so enduring, finding as it does expression, perpetuation, and reinforcement in all aspects of life, including the law. How, after all, does one argue with tradition? The present generation must learn to live with how things are today—it is the task of the next generation to usher in change.

***

I am not saying that Tulfo is right, but we should understand him in the context of the fact that he has no balls.

For all his bluster and swagger, for all his bravado and braggadocio, and for all his promiscuous, public, mediagenic ejaculations, Ramon Tulfo might as well be a eunuch.

***

Tulfo has no balls because he believes that doing harm to another human being can be justified, depending on the circumstances in which such harm was inflicted, when no such circumstances exist.

Tulfo has no balls because he sees no need to question cultural norms, practices and activities, regardless of their actual consequences. A mindless automaton, he is content to comply with such norms, practices, and activities, secure in the belief that these have been handed down through the ages, and are right by virtue of their age and their ability to survive.

Tulfo has no balls because he does not take responsibility for his existence and act as an agent of positive social change. He assumes that the generations after him will effect it, heedless of the fact that the change is needed now, at this moment in the history that he unwittingly helps to form—or deform, as the case may be.

***

Singson and other men who include violence toward others under the general rubric of “manliness” are of a piece with Tulfo—or perhaps I should say similarly lacking in pieces.

Let us try to understand them. Let us be better than them.

A road yet untaken

Trite though the image may be, to say that the promise of change has been gathering strength and is blowing more mightily about us with each passing day would not be inaccurate. The void that ripped open within the heart of the nation upon the death of former President Corazon C. Aquino was also a window on the past, and the initial breeze that wafted in brought with it reminders of a time when the people of the Philippines toppled a dictatorship and regained their freedom: a time more hopeful and more exultant, a time full of possibility and a sense of community—a time, it must be emphasized, that will not repeat itself (one would be foolish, nay, downright insane, to think otherwise, as the incumbent head of state continues to prove EDSA II a debacle rather than a triumph), but whose spirit can nevertheless be revived, intensified, and deployed in the decidedly appalling present.

At this point, it seems widely believed that the avatar of this spirit is Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who is, after all, a descendant of two heroes—his mother, Cory, the reluctant president, and his father, Ninoy, the fiery senator—and a presumed legatee of the principles that they held dearly, the values that they lived and died for. Few accidents of birth have ever been or will ever be as onerous, particularly in view—or perhaps I should say within earshot—of the growing clamor for Noynoy to run for the highest office in the land in the 2010 national elections. How popular this clamor really is cannot be determined until the next round of surveys—that in any case may not be entirely reliable—is completed, but the idea of Noynoy entering the race has certainly soared from the moment William M. Esposo of The Philippine Star and Conrado de Quiros of Philippine Daily Inquirer gave it wings and flung it into the air of public consciousness, over which it currently dominates, in their respective columns—Esposo last August 9, and De Quiros last August 10.

True to Filipino cultural form, the notion has begun to acquire a mystical dimension: the presidency is not a competition among flesh-and-blood candidates standing firm upon specific platforms and pursuing concrete agendas, but an all-out war between the cosmic, contentious, capital-letter forces of Good and Evil. If Cory, the queen of the people and the saint of democracy, has followed her husband to a higher plane of existence, then it falls to her son to take up rosary and yellow ribbon in order to do battle with the ignoble, ignominious, inglorious Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her maleficent minions—as well as with some of her opponents, who are as odious as she is.

Consider, for instance, what happened at Club Filipino yesterday, on the 31st of August, a day dedicated to the memory of all our national heroes. Sonia Roco, widow of former Senator Raul Roco and chair of the Aksyon Demokratiko party, had this to say to Noynoy: “You are this Chosen One, the Anointed to run for president of this ailing country. It is very clear. See the hand of God in the events that have transpired recently.” Nostalgia for EDSA, grief for Cory, and the concept of filial duty—these elements have converged and delineated an economy of enchantment that will remain robust at least until the end of this month, although Noynoy is likely to announce what he has decided about his political future very shortly after the 9th of September, the 40th day following the death of his mother.

Should Senator Noynoy declare himself Presidential Candidate Noynoy, the game, as so many have already pointed out, will change significantly. Even now the landscape is in a state of flux, unsettling and resettling and unsettling again, for no one could have foreseen that these weeks leading up to the start of the campaign period in November would be anything other than predictable. Coalitions are being re-cobbled, slates are being reshuffled, and press statements are being re-worded, all because of a heretofore unassuming man. An oddity among the avaricious, grandstanding, scandal-ridden specimens of officialdom, Noynoy, armed with integrity, an indisposition to grab for power, and illustrious parents whose cause he must not betray, could well be the president that the country needs to redeem itself. As for the deficiencies identified by his critics—inexperience, say, or lack of charisma—he can overcome them with a sufficiently united, organized, and massive base of backers.

And yet, and yet—if the winds of change are indeed upon us in our yellow neck of the woods, more than one road diverges here, and at least one other is just as fair as the road that may lead Noynoy to what will doubtless be the most difficult job in the Philippines. It must be acknowledged, however grudgingly, that the entry of Noynoy into the game has the potential to set in motion one more truly horrific sequel to the People Power Revolution, rather like a film franchise that refuses to put itself out of its own misery simply because the original performed well at the box office. The temptation is to cast Noynoy as Cory, Macapagal-Arroyo as Marcos, Mar Roxas as Doy Laurel, and so on, but that would be lazy and dangerous, not to mention ominous, for then Noynoy should expect to face a coup d’état or two—or seven.

Much has been made, and will continue to be made, of the prospect of Noynoy as king. What about the prospect of Noynoy as king-maker of the Liberal Party? In some respects, this is the more difficult choice for Noynoy, especially given the calls that have been made for him to run, and his familial past offers no good portents: Cory’s anointed successor, Fidel Ramos, did not win by a majority vote. But joining the presidential race buoyed by a tide of public support is not the only move that can bring about change. If Noynoy situates himself at a remove from the political arena—for which his personality may be better suited anyway—he gains the capacity to critique buttressed by (relatively) untarnished moral authority, with which he can keep the new administration in check, particularly if his chosen candidate is victorious. This is no small thing: with the Catholic Church brought to heel by the Arroyo administration, and with the opposition perpetually divided by internecine struggles even as its members claim to be united, there is much that Noynoy can accomplish outside Malacañang—it is not only in the palace of power that power can be found and used to make a difference.

A nation of idiots

The Philippine Daily Inquirer publishes an editorial on the book blockade today. In part, it says:

Either the distinguished officials of the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Finance think it is an objective of the Arroyo administration to turn the country into a nation of idiots, or they think we have already taken that turn some time ago.