Redrawing the circle

To entrench oneself in a position diametrically opposite to that occupied by a ideological adversary may well be a significant demonstration of whatever convictions one holds dear. That said, the problem with such a move, however ferociously or passionately undertaken, should be obvious enough: it merely reinforces the area and the circumference of the already existing discursive circle. Moreover, antipodal antagonism confirms, if not intensifies, in the foe the power that one is trying to deny it.

Thus, no matter how many individual skirmishes or battles one claims as triumphs, the war itself cannot be won—the terms of the conflict only ensure the maintenance of the status quo, which is to say endless and unproductive enmity, rather than victory, which is to say any hoped-for change: the expansion or contraction of the circle, or its transformation into a different, more feasible shape.

Within such a scheme of struggle, the question of strategic value is often elided or ignored, because the effect and defect of committing to diametrical distance, to absolute opposition, is the reduction of one’s vision—if vision it can indeed be called—to a narrow set of premises, which in turn lead to action that is limited in scope and efficacy. It should be unsurprising that agitators of this stripe tend toward maneuvers that are predicated less on dignity, respect, or logic than on puerility, sanctimoniousness, or auto-eroticism.

One such agitator is Carlos Celdran, a tour guide and an advocate for the immediate passage of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill—a bill that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is strongly against.

Let us call a spade a spade: Celdran’s recent disruption of an ongoing mass at the Manila Cathedral by holding up a placard emblazoned with “Damaso”, yelling at the assembled bishops, and—according to a report from The Philippine Star—later goading police officers on the scene to arrest him is an act not of subversion in the vein of José Rizal, regardless of Celdran’s attire—or utterly destitute notions of Rizal and heroism—but of perversion.

If with his gimmick Celdran had intended to catch the spotlight of national attention, he has certainly succeeded brilliantly. But now that he has drawn our collective notice, I have to ask: So what? Or, perhaps more crucially: Now what?

Perversion, admittedly, has a long and honorable tradition of being deployed in the name of critical commentary. For example, Diogenes of Sinope, perhaps the most famous of the Cynics, deliberately behaved like a dog in order to foreground the falsehoods of civilization and uphold the virtues of asceticism. To my mind, though, Celdran’s publicity stunt partakes of the same kind of perversion that motivates a child to sneak cookies before dinner, draw on the walls with crayons, or grab the shiny new toys of another: for the primitive pleasure of being able to do something that is conventionally forbidden.

Insofar as Celdran can be described as a cynic, it is in the modern sense of word, because if the manner in which he chose to make his protest is any indication, he seems to believe the only way to forward his cause is to sensationalize it, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to frame a complex matter in the crudest and most simplistic of ways: by stoking the fires of generic underdog rage. Perhaps the bishops did need “to hear what the Filipinos are saying“, but Celdran’s objective did not appear to be so much clarity as it was blasphemy.

Whatever Celdran thought he was doing—in his own words, he wanted to give the bishops “a dose of their own [medicine]“—I have serious doubts that his stunt has helped matters any, chiefly because he and like-minded ilk missed a very important point: engaging the CBCP on the RH bill is an exercise in futility, because, as an institution of the Roman Catholic Church, it cannot and should not be expected to take a stand that runs counter to official Church teachings or defies the Holy See. For better or for worse, the Church accepts as axiomatic that artificial contraception is evil, and the actions of the CBCP with reference to the RH bill proceed from that same premise. Given this, it must be understood that there is no room for negotiation at all.

Nevertheless, it is exceedingly evident that what the CBCP thinks, says, or does as a body clearly does not have much of an impact on the general populace, considering that several surveys have already shown that a majority of Filipinos—including Catholics—favor the passage of the RH bill. Furthermore, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Catholic doctrine allows for the possibility of dissent if that is what one’s conscience dictates. Going head-to-head with the bishops, therefore, is myopic and wasteful, even gratuitous: one might as well bash one’s head repeatedly against a wall for all the good that arguing with the CBCP will do, even if cracking one’s skull open is “gutsy” and “bad-ass”—oh, and, of course, thoroughly mediagenic.

In the realm of public opinion, church and state are already separate, so why bother to fight the CBCP and accord it more power, more influence, and more exposure than it ought to have, entitled though it may be to a voice in the peanut gallery of our rowdy democracy? Enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom of expression, which necessarily includes the freedom to ignore. The battle for the passage of the RH bill, at this particular juncture at least, is not with the bishops, but with the nominally honorable members of Congress. As blogger iwriteasiwrite has suggested, dialogue with the Catholic Church can—and should—resume after the bill has been passed into law.

Truth and lice

Whatever else can be said about the adoption of Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan (Makabayan) senatorial candidates Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza by the Nacionalista Party (NP), it is definitely nothing less than an event for the history books. After all, Ocampo and Maza are militant leftists, while the NP is a party headed by real estate mogul and presidential candidate Manny Villar, and also includes Bongbong Marcos, the son and namesake of dictator Ferdinand, in its line-up for the Senate.

If I understand the official statements on the alliance correctly, Ocampo and Maza, as well as the members of Makabayan, view it as a significant opportunity to shift their revolutionary struggle onto the center of the national stage and into the limelight of public affairs. It may be useful to frame the situation in classical terms: Ocampo and Maza constitute the Trojan Horse of the Left, with which the walled city of Philippine politics, sitting high on its dung heap of graft and corruption, and gleaming with impunity, will be infiltrated, conquered, and rebuilt anew. Of course, one must admit that such an explanation is not quite adequate: to resort to it is to elide the fact that Ocampo and Maza were already mainstream politicians to begin with, as both have been serving in the Lower House of Congress as party-list representatives since 2001.

In any case, already the horse has begun to roll forward, as the NP agreed to integrate the Makabayan platform into its own, leading to the production and release of the document entitled, “In Response to the People’s Concerns“—a document strangely unavailable on the official NP web site as of this writing.

Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond “Mong” Palatino, in “Misunderestimating the Philippine Left“, one of the more recent commentaries on the issue, put it this way: “Villar’s brave decision to openly embrace a platform-based unity with the left has smashed the taboo in Philippine politics. From now on, the participation of the left will be expected in future electoral contests for top political posts.”

That a taboo exists at all, as may be inferred from the assertions Palatino makes in the essay, has to do with how (orthodox?) leftists have been spoken of by various “academics and commentators”, “liberal right-wingers”, and “apostates”: demonized all and sundry as destabilizers and terrorists, leftists suffer from “not [being] recognized as legitimate political players who can use valid political practices in the electoral arena”. This is a claim not without merit: surely it cannot be just to refuse the left a seat at the table of democracy on the basis of what Palatino refers to as its “past mistakes”—ones, he adds, that the extreme left has apologized for. To reduce the left to its history of bloody violence is itself an act of violence—such an act condemns the left always and forever to irrelevance, death, or both, and denies the transformative possibilities of ideological difference.

That said, I have to take exception to how Palatino read the motives of those attacking the NP-Makabayan alliance: “The anti-left gang is mad not because the left endorsed a presidential candidate. They are mad because the left has refused to endorse Noynoy Aquino.”

Tonyo Cruz has said in his Asian Correspondent blog that, “It is a matter of public record that Noynoy Aquino shut the door on Ocampo and Maza, despite the Makabayan coalition’s earnest overtures.Manila Standard Today columnist Jojo Robles, who recounted how Ocampo described his meeting with Aquino, thought it was “unfortunate that Noynoy Aquino and his traditionally bourgeois collection of yellow-clad supporters may have missed out on this major political development.” How, then, can Palatino’s statement make sense? If (a) Aquino and the Liberal Party rejected the left, and (b) the anti-left “gang”—whatever that might be, as I am not convinced it even exists—supports Aquino, how does one arrive at the conclusion that (c) the anti-left “gang” is angry at the left for not endorsing Aquino?

Furthermore, anti-left sentiments are hardly exclusive to any one political group: BANTAY Party-list, to cite one example, was founded precisely on such sentiments, and its leader, Jovito S. Palparan, is running as an independent candidate for senator.

It may well be accurate to say that I am guilty of nitpicking, but one would be wise to bear this in mind: where there are nits, there are lice—which is to say that more than simple logic is at stake.

If, as Palatino says, the left is treated unfairly when it is conceived of as a monolithic, hence totally reprehensible, entity, is he not doing the same thing by speaking of an anti-left “gang”, which he then uncritically equates with the Aquino camp? Does not the lack of self-reflexivity in his argument—the same lack that he decries as the “pathological narcissism” of the anti-left—register as disingenuous, as an instance of victimage?

For the members of any given minority to strive to overturn the regime that tyrannizes them is perhaps understandable, and yet what is gained if and when they accomplish exactly that? To succeed in turning over structures of oppression is certainly to redistribute power, so that what once was reviled becomes revered, but by no means does the oppression dissipate—rather, the instruments of torture simply change hands. To seek a reversal of terms is merely to honor, reinforce, and perpetuate such terms. Therefore, when a political project remains trapped in old categories, how can it claim to be truly revolutionary?

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

To vanquish a hydra

On December 1, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo formalized her 2010 bid to represent the second district of Pampanga in the Lower House, Fr. Roland Moraleja, who delivered the homily at a special concelebrated mass, made the now-(in)famous comment likening Macapagal-Arroyo to Jesus. Although Pampanga Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David called the comparison blasphemous, it was again invoked, albeit in a more subdued fashion, by Press Secretary Cerge Remonde in a Malacañang press conference last Sunday, nearly two days after the hardworking and prayerful President issued Proclamation No. 1959, which declared a state of martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in most of Maguindanao.

Asked for a reaction regarding the outcry against the proclamation, Remonde said that Macapagal-Arroyo was “ready to be crucified” by public opinion on the matter, and would let nothing stop her from doing what she needs to do, as she has the best interests of Maguindanao at heart. (Due to a clerical error that Raissa Robles has already discussed, it seemed for a while that the best interests of Maguindanao were mysteriously linked to the establishment of a village school in Zamboanga del Sur.)

The vacuity and spuriousness of the comparison of the President to Christ notwithstanding, I am willing to concede that it can be upheld on one point. Consider this excerpt from the speech she delivered on December 30, 2002, the 106th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jose Rizal:

However, we also know that we will soon enter the political period leading up to the elections in 2004. My reading on the political winds tells me that the 2004 election may well go down in history as among our most bitterly contested elections ever. This is because of the deep social and political division that we now have.

If this is true, then sincere efforts to launch programs will run the risk of being derailed by political fighting leading up to the elections.

The government in place after 2004 may merely end up inheriting a country as deeply divided as ever. Consequently, we may end up stalling national growth for a few years more as a result of lost momentum.

In view of all these factors, I have decided not to run for President during the election of 2004.

When she reneged on this last statement by entering the race, and emerged victorious, she reinforced, even exacerbated, the very divisions that she had initially claimed to be wary of, especially after she was beset by allegations of having cheated her way into power, sparking a controversy that still smolders, unresolved. This brings to mind what Jesus said in Luke 12:51-53:

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

As a holiday bonus to Macapagal-Arroyo, I am further willing to concede that, just like Christ in his time, she is widely distrusted, if not downright reviled.

Where the analogy ultimately fails is the idea of resurrection. Macapagal-Arroyo, despite being the “luckiest bitch around“, despite the performance of self-serving “miracles”, has yet to prove that she is capable of rising from the dead, although her ability to avoid (political) death is certainly nothing to scoff at. Anyway, in the name of authenticity, she would first have to be willing to be whipped, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, force-fed vinegar, jabbed with spears, and generally jeered at until she expires.

What I find to be the most useful image with which to make sense of the present dispensation comes out of Greek mythology: the Lernaean Hydra. A fearsome, serpent-like beast that dwelt in the swamp of Lerna, the hydra was known for preying upon cattle and terrorizing nearby villages, and was extremely difficult to kill. It possessed nine heads, eight mortal and one immortal, and once a mortal head was cut off, two more would grow in its place.

Apollodorus tells us that Herakles himself, though blessed with superhuman strength, would not have been able to slay the hydra without assistance from his young nephew: “…[Herakles] called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus.”

My point here is that the administration of Macapagal-Arroyo has displayed a talent—if talent it can indeed be called—not for solving problems but for multiplying them. By consistently framing national affairs in the language of war, by cultivating an environment of apparently ceaseless chaos, the regime renders the formation of a broad, durable opposition almost impossible—worse, it induces in the majority a sense of utter helplessness, which lends itself so easily, as seen in the wake of the Hello Garci scandal, to willful myopia, to cynicism, to the belief that it is more enlightened to forgive and forget. Never mind that all moral responsibility is relinquished, that the grievous wounds to the body politic continue to fester and putrefy beneath the Band-Aid of “moving on”, that the hydra is allowed to grow in strength and impunity.

With Proclamation No. 1959, the ridiculous, error-riddled report that purports to justify it, and the pathetic performance of Macapagal-Arroyo’s cabinet officials at the joint session of Congress, the price of moving on should be crystal-clear: moving on allows evil to become ordinary. Every time the public fails to muster the strength to be outraged, it becomes complicit in the commission of ever more outrageous deeds. Every time the public agrees with the Palace mouthpieces—experts at victimage and little else—that the President is attacked no matter what she does, it gives her license to do whatever she wants—and this is a President who seems determined to try everything, including the creation of the very same monster that she now claims to want to destroy: her erstwhile allies and still-good friends, the mass-murdering members of the Ampatuan clan.

Last July, in her State of the Nation Address, Macapagal-Arroyo challenged her detractors, saying, “Do not tell us what we all know, that democracy can be threatened. Tell us what you will do when it is attacked.” In the face of this state-sponsored attack on democracy, how shall we, the people, act?