The work of a columnist

Without mentioning my name, but quoting liberally from my column last Sunday, my friend and fellow Inquirer columnist, Amando Doronila, takes issue (PDI, 02/01/06) with me on my criticism of Consultative Commission Chairman Jose V. Abueva and newlyappointed Presidential Adviser for Electoral Reforms Hilario G. Davide, Jr. I welcome Doro’s defense of Abueva and Davide. In the spirit of public debate, of which there is so little in our society, I will respond to his rejoinder.

He thinks that in criticizing Abueva and Davide, I have made “judgment calls that clearly lack academic detachment.”  So far as I know, “detachment” is a posture that has been questioned even in academe.  If “academic detachment” were my goal, I would not write an opinion column.  I would write dull monographs for specialists, in a language stripped of social judgment. Surely, Doronila does not believe that academic treatises, written in the dry dispassionate style of scholars, are the only justifiable statements that can be made about the world we live in. I have precisely kept one foot in media while continuing to teach at the university because I refuse to be trapped in academic debates that have little to do with the social reality of ordinary people.

Of course, this does not mean that a columnist is free to make irresponsible statements.  I do believe that, harsh as it may seem, I am justified in my assertion that Dr. Abueva has lent himself as a “prop to a moribund presidency.”  Doronila himself concedes that “the regime that appointed them (Abueva and Davide) faces a crisis of legitimacy.”  He forgets to add that it is a regime that refuses to confront the issue of legitimacy head-on and instead props itself up by the cynical use of the power of appointment and disbursement.

I disagree that the issue here is simply that of accepting an appointment from a “polluted” presidency. Important positions in the government bureaucracy become vacant every day and they are routinely filled by the president as the appointing authority.  So long as they went through a credible search process, no one questions these officials’ acceptance of their appointments.  Indeed many of them become exemplary civil servants.

But the positions of Dr. Abueva and Justice Davide are of a different kind.  A “Consultative Commission” for charter change is not provided in our Constitution or in any of our laws.  Neither is the office of a “Presidential Adviser on Electoral Reforms.”  These are not neutral or regular positions. These are ad hoc tools of an administration that is waging a desperate struggle for political survival. Their functions are compromised by the necessities of the highly partisan process in which they are embedded.

Before his appointment, Dr. Abueva was doing excellent work on leadership and governance at the University of the Philippines. His contributions are important and they have been acknowledged.  As a colleague and friend, I was disturbed when he accepted the position of lead convenor of a consultative assembly that was designed to hasten the shift to a parliamentary system, and I shared my misgivings with him. I told him that charter change at this time was meant to side-step the crucial issue of presidential legitimacy. My worst suspicions have been confirmed. When the “no-election” provision was appended to the draft, I expected Dr. Abueva to quickly distance himself from the project. But, to my disappointment, he did not.  As Manolo Quezon graphically put it, “still he wags his tail.”

Sometimes the call to public service is better answered outside government.  After retiring from a distinguished career in the public service, Chief Justice Davide could have been an effective and credible advocate of electoral reform if he had set up his own center or institute, and used his stature to obtain useful information and mobilize other well-meaning citizens to help put together a plan to cure the defects of our electoral system.  He forfeited this opportunity by opting to take his orders from Ms Arroyo.  Does he really believe Ms Arroyo is committed to electoral reform?  That’s the only question he needs to ask himself.

If my friend Amando Doronila thinks that raising such questions is to mount a “high horse to pontificate on political morality,” I wish all of us would soon find our respective horses.  For I see no way we can transform the way we live as a nation except by judging things from the higher vantage point of what we hope to be.

Doronila attacks me for once “giving intellectual legitimacy to the presidential bid of former President Joseph Estrada.”  I never campaigned for Estrada in any election.  But, yes, I welcomed his election to the presidency in 1998.  I saw it optimistically as paving the way to the re-insertion of the poor into the circuits of our national life.  Doronila got it wrong when he claims that I withdrew support from Estrada only “when he ran into serious political problems.”  I criticized Estrada long before there was any call to impeach him.  I opposed the Visiting Forces Agreement forged under his administration.  I objected to the all-out war he launched against the Muslim guerillas in Mindanao.  And in 2001, I acted on my beliefs by joining my students at Edsa to demand his ouster.  I do not regret any of these.

The work of a columnist or any public commentator, as I see it, is to interpret events — to give them meaning in the light of what we can be as a people.  I approach this duty, never as a detached academic, but always as a citizen fully engaged in the task of creating new forms of solidarity.

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