The intellectual is political

Nothing perhaps more bluntly shows the present government’s authoritarian bent than the recent filing of rebellion charges against former University of the Philippines President Francisco Nemenzo.

In both its legal and ordinary senses, rebellion means taking up arms against the government.  Nemenzo has not taken up arms against the state, nor has he advocated its forcible overthrow. Dodong, as his UP colleagues fondly call him, has indeed questioned the legitimacy of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency.  And he has joined demonstrations calling for her resignation or ouster. Yet no fairminded judge would take these as acts of rebellion.

Even so, it won’t be surprising if the Department of Justice, which is conducting the preliminary investigation, finds “probable cause” to file the case in court. Its current head, Secretary Raul Gonzalez, is hardly the paragon of fairness.  He was the co-chair of the congressional canvassing committee that is widely perceived to have railroaded the proclamation of Ms Arroyo as winner in the 2004 presidential race. Sec. Gonzalez does not hide his intense dislike for UP.  He once called the university a “breeding ground for de-stabilizers,” asking by what right an institution funded by the people’s money should criticize government.

Nemenzo will be arrested the moment the rebellion case reaches the courts. He will be detained and denied bail. A trial of this sort can drag on for years even as the accused languishes in jail for an offense that has yet to be proven.  As a trained political scientist, Dodong is only too familiar with the manner in which the immense powers of the state can be exploited by a sitting president for the narrowest objectives.

He opposed Marcos, and went underground when Martial Law was declared.  He spent some years in jail without charges. On his release, he was warmly welcomed back to the university, where the faculty voted him dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.  As dean, as UP Visayas chancellor, and later as UP president, Dodong sought to remake UP not only as a center of academic excellence, but also as an oasis of freedom and critical thought.  He encouraged nonconformism in every discipline, and provided a secure place for fearless dissenters and eccentric thinkers.

His concern today is not confined to Ms Arroyo alone.  Dodong’s interest is no less than the political order itself. He believes that the country is in crisis because the existing order has betrayed the fundamental interests of the Filipino masses, particularly the young people.  He questions the government’s priorities and has called for a debate on the nation’s present directions.

On his last year as UP president, Dodong launched a project known as “A blueprint for a viable Philippines.”  The idea came from a brainstorm with another social activist, Renato Constantino Jr, now also facing rebellion charges.  The main goal of the project was to draw a comprehensive picture of where the country stood and what alternative direction a reform-oriented government might pursue to arrest the drift towards further stagnation.  Experts from academe and non-university based scholars and practitioners were asked to prepare papers on various policy areas with the aim of provoking discussion.  Individuals from government, civil society, and the business sector were invited to join the roundtable discussions where these papers were presented.

In a society that offers little room for real debate on basic policy issues, the blueprint seminars drew considerable public interest.  The basic outline of an alternative program of government emerged from these discussions and was posted in the Internet.  As expected, this was praised, criticized, celebrated, dismissed and sometimes ridiculed by various commentators. The more important thing is that it broadened the scope of public discourse by encouraging people to think of the nation’s problems as interconnected and as contingent on a combination of factors specific to our society.

Professional and business groups requested briefings on the “Blueprint”.  Young officers from the armed forces who had earlier written their views of the country’s problems in a well-circulated pamphlet asked to be part of the ongoing debate on the nation’s direction.  Nemenzo obliged by meeting with these young soldiers, aware that such gatherings could be misrepresented as conspiratorial.

In a statement distributed at the hearing last week, Dodong described his young interlocutors thus: “These are not the stereotype soldiers who blindly follow orders.  These are intelligent officers who dare to ask if the regime deserves the risk to their lives and the lives of the men under their command.  With RSBS sponged dry, they also worry about the survival of the families they might leave behind.  In a brazen display of hypocrisy, their star-spangled superiors invoke the doctrine of ‘political neutrality’ to whip them into line….These soldiers who now stand accused for violating ‘political neutrality’ are trying to redeem their profession from ignominy, by aligning themselves with the people.  They seek to transform the armed services from a tool of elite rule and an instrument of deceitful politicians into a force for genuine democracy and social reforms.”

Dodong knows whereof he speaks.  The doctrine of political neutrality is repeatedly invoked in academe as well to discourage intellectuals from speaking on political questions. It is a myth. Every intellectual is political, whether he realizes it or not.


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