2011.12.31    Standard time

Countdown to the first minute of the New Year was a game that my children loved to play when they were younger.  The TV would be set to one channel where a digital clock shows the time.  The whole family would gather in front of the television, in its conferred role as god of time, and follow the flashing of the last seconds of the old year.  As the final seconds fade away, we seek each other out to exchange hugs and kisses in gratitude and hope.  But, one of the kids would then switch the television to another channel, where almost always another countdown is still going on.  For them this is the real one, and so they would go through another round of hugs and kisses.

2011.12.29    Rizal and modernity 

Jose Rizal, our national hero, is sometimes referred to as the “first Filipino”. Though his life was short, he was certainly a Filipino without equal in the varied gifts and talents that he possessed. He was thus truly first among equals. 

2011.12.25    Births and parenthood 

“Come and say hello to your grandson,” my daughter Jika beckoned to me the other day.  She was caressing her distended belly now fully occupied by the six-month old fetus growing snugly inside her. My wife put her hand on the spot where it moved beneath the skin, and asked me to feel it.  “Xavier, this is your Lolo,” Jika said, as I rested the palm of my hand on what could be the unborn child’s head or elbow.  It’s been a while since this youngest daughter of ours, soon to be a mother herself, was born.  But like a bolt of recognition, it came rushing back to me: that primal feeling of being swept when you hold a child in your hand for the first time. 

2011.12.21    A delicate time

Disasters in search of causes, victims in search of villains, and benevolence in search of recognition.  They are all part of the aftermath each time a natural catastrophe of mind-boggling proportions hits our country. It is when we are brought back to existential issues: the inexplicability of human suffering, the chaos of nature, the fragility of life.  We pause, and we are prompted to review our institutions, our beliefs, our manners. 

2011.12.17    What judicial autonomy means 

Some quarters have depicted the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona as an attack on the judiciary, a co-equal and autonomous branch of government.

2011.12.14    Separation of powers

That photo showing President Benigno S. Aquino III meeting with his allies in the House of Representatives just after a majority of its members signed the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Renato Corona might at first glance give the impression of a conspiracy hatched by two branches of government against one.

2011.12.10    Residencia 

In his famous essay, “The Philippines a century hence,” Jose Rizal alluded to a practice during the colonial period that somehow mitigated the injustices of colonial rule.  This institution was called the “juicio de residencia” or judgment of residence.  It required Spanish public officials to render a full account of their performance in office at the end of their term. 

2011.12.08     When the President critizices the Supreme Court  

In a political system like ours where governmental power is exercised by three co-equal and autonomous branches, disagreements are to be expected. That is how the system works.  Each branch of government functions as a check on the others.  But the manner in which this check is to be carried out varies from one branch to the other.

2011.12.04     Sybillana Rizalina    

When Dr. Jose Rizal was exiled to Dapitan in Mindanao from 1892 to 1896, he busied himself in community development, a vocation vastly different from the role of political ideologue usually associated with him. He built a hospital, opened a school, organized a farmers’ cooperative, introduced the European style of brick-making, built the town’s first dam and irrigation system, and developed the community park. In all these, he harnessed the energy and resources of the local residents, demonstrating a model of community life founded on the people’s own initiative.  On the side, his restless mind found time to invent a parlor game for young people.

2011.12.01    A people’s hero

Heroes are different from statesmen because while statesmen acquire their authority from political decisions, that of heroes comes from public esteem.  Heroes become the exemplars of civic virtue because they consecrate their lives to the pursuit of the common good.  For them, the purpose of politics is to form citizens who have the will and the capability to work for the future of an entire community.  Statesmen are often drawn from the ranks of heroes, but what ultimately sets them apart is not their heroic quality but their adeptness in the ways of modern politics.

2011.11.26    Equality before the law 

Those of us who have known what it is like to be at the receiving end of unjust laws and official tyranny can only marvel at Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona’s latest paean to liberty and equality before the law.  “We are a court of law,” Justice Corona sternly reminded Solicitor General Joel Cadiz at the presentation of oral arguments on the legality of the government’s travel ban against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  “It’s our job here under the Constitution to protect the rights of the individual citizen.  It can be GMA, Juan de la Cruz, or it can be Mang Pandoy.”

2011.11.23    Lessons from the Maguindanao massacre 

It has been two years since the gruesome mass murder that took place in a lonely dirt road in Maguindanao province shook and awakened us to the terrifying reality of local warlords who conduct themselves as if they were beyond the reach of the law.  Were it not for the fact that the majority of the victims were media people, the case against the Ampatuans might not have reached the courts.  Despite the ruthless manner in which the Mangudadatu women were killed, it is not unlikely that the perpetrators of this crime would have succeeded in localizing the conflict and eventually settling it according to customary rules.

2011.11.19    Rule of law and public esteem 

The arrest the other day of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on charges of electoral sabotage has been hailed by those who seek to make her accountable for her past actions as the triumph of the rule of law.  Her family, lawyers, and allies, on the other hand, have called her arrest a mockery of the law, drawing attention to the unusual haste in which the investigation was conducted, the charges were filed, and the arrest warrant issued.  Though they see differently, both perspectives proceed from a legal standpoint.  People think this is as it should be under the rule of law.

2011.11.16    How serious is GMA’s medical condition?

How serious is the former president’s medical condition? What are its major indicators? What is the typical outlook for cases like hers? These questions are best answered by medical specialists.  Though the answers may not be crucial to the legal issues submitted to the Supreme Court for resolution, they are relevant to the political questions now confronting P-Noy and his Cabinet. 

2011.11.12    Las Vegas

All eyes today are focused on a little boxing ring inside the humongous MGM Hotel in the pleasure strip of Las Vegas in the arid state of Nevada in theUnited States of America.  That’s where the boxer Manny Pacquiao, the greatest Filipino warrior of all time, and incidentally a member of the Philippine Congress, fights his latest Mexican opponent.  What he recently said in jest packs a lot of truth — that given the number of his fellow congressmen who have traveled to watch his fight, a legislative session could well be convened in one of the gigantic casino hotels after the fight.   

2011.11.09    Don Ramon and the Filipino family 

Don Ramon Revilla may be the archetype of Filipino machismo, having sired more than fifty children by different women.  He may have built a legendary movie career and accumulated a sizeable fortune as an actor and film producer.  He may have tasted political power and gained social stature by winning a seat in the Philippine Senate.  But, I am certain, only a few would care to trade places today with the old man, given the heart-breaking domestic problems he is facing.

2011.11.05    Faith and the Church

Faith is so intertwined with nearly every aspect of the daily lives of Filipinos that it is hard to say precisely where religion ends and the rest of society begins.  A quick look at our mass media and the way we conduct politics and business will show how blurred the boundaries are.  As a sociologist, I often find myself wondering if the strict differentiation of faith matters that is supposed to come with secular modernity will ever happen in our society. 

2011.11.03    Sinking deeper in poverty 

Almost exactly a year ago today (Nov. 3, 2011), I wrote about a young couple who had requested to live and do subsistence farming in a 1.5-hectare plot of marginal land on the slopes of Mt. Malasimbo in Bataan that I had planted to mangoes and coconuts (“Mired in poverty,” Inquirer, 11/11/10). Both in their mid-30s, Rosalie and Dodoy had four children.  Their eldest, a boy, was 14 and in third year high school, and the youngest, another boy, was about two years old. In between were two girls who were in grade school. At the time I wrote about them, Dodoy had not been sending money from Manila, where he moved and worked irregularly as an extra tricycle driver. 

2011.10.30    The art of dying

“If an old man has something to learn, it is the art of dying,” wrote the great French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau in one of his personal life accounts. What did he mean? Most of us would rather concern ourselves with the art of living on the belief that a meaningful life assures a meaningful death. One can only suppose that Rousseau meant the ability to face death not just with stoic resignation, but with a detached calm that permits one to observe his own dying as though it were happening to someone else.

2011.10.26    Mindanao from Moro eyes

A useful starting point for any analysis of the problem in Mindanao is the recognition that the Philippine government is not, and indeed has never been, in full control of Muslim Mindanao.  The ubiquitous checkpoints that dot the region, manned by forces belonging to traditional warlords and rebel groups, concretely attest to this. To all intents and purposes, Philippine laws and institutions have never defined the framework of political rule in these parts.  Periodic elections conducted by national agencies may indicate membership in the Filipino polity.  And the presence of state-run schools may suggest integration into the national culture.  But this is largely an illusion.

2011.10.22    Gadhafi’s death

As soon as there was positive confirmation that Libya’s dictator Moammar Gadhafi had indeed been killed shortly after he was captured alive, US President Barack Obama went on television to congratulate the Libyan people for their great victory. This supposed victory of the Libyans is, of course, as illusory as the promise that Libya will henceforth be a free and stable country. While it is true that Libyans rose up in arms against the despot who ruled their country for 42 years, it was actually the combined forces of the United States and Nato that toppled the Gadhafi regime.  It is they, therefore, who will decide the future of Libya, not the Libyans. The truth is that the Libyan National Transition Council was no more than a name. It failed to function as a unified command that could provide direction to the armed volunteers who seemed more adept at firing in the air than at the enemy.

2011.10.19    America’s autumn of discontent

There was a time in the early ’80s when, having lived through a decade of authoritarian rule, Filipinos began to accept the possibility of remaining under the Marcos dictatorship for a long time. Many liked the sense of security that a controlled environment offered. Others who understood the system and felt violated by it fled abroad or went underground. Those who, for a variety of reasons, chose to stay yet opposed the system waged a struggle not only against the dictatorship but also against pessimism and helplessness. 

2011.10.15    The generosity of experience

LOS ANGELES – When I retired from full-time teaching early this year, my brother, David, or Goli as we fondly call him, wrote me a warm letter from Los Angeles, where he now lives. He said that he had a gift for me on my retirement: he would like to treat me to a four-day motorcycle ride, with him as guide, through the scenic Pacific Coast of the United States. Only a fellow biker would think of a long drive as a gift. Goli rides a Triumph 1050 cc Speed Triple to work. And so I’m here in the United States, in the beginning of autumn, to claim my gift, as well as to visit my four siblings and their respective families who have immigrated to America.

2011.10.13    Children of the dew

They live underneath the rafters of the Guadalupe bridge that spans the historic Pasig River.  Right above them is Edsa, the busy highway framed by gigantic glittering billboards, where traffic famously crawls during the rush hours.  During the day, they sleep, or stare blankly at the muddy river, sedated by the vapor of solvent and glue that they sniff from hazy plastic bags.

2011.10.08    The vision of Steve Jobs

The death last Oct. 5 of Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, at age 56, could not have come at a more ominous time. The day before, Apple fans awaited the public launch of what everyone expected to be an all-new iPhone 5 – the smart phone that could halt the advance of the rival Android-powered mobile phones and tablets that have recently flooded the market. Apple’s product launches have always been spectacular events largely because Steve Jobs himself presided over them. Charismatic, articulate and gifted with a flair for stimulating showmanship, he exuded the brash optimism of the digital generation.

2011.10.05    Disaster syndrome

The word “disaster” that is in everybody’s lips nowadays has its roots in the Greek word “astron,” meaning star.  A disaster literally is an event that is “ill-starred” – a way of saying that its occurrence is beyond human control.  By this definition, all disasters would be natural.  Yet, it is now usual to differentiate “man-made” from “natural” disasters, suggesting a readiness to think that many disasters could be traced to decisions or policies made in the past by communities, governments, or organizations.  If so, then they can be prevented by changing the decisions that led to them, and by opposing similar ones that are yet to be made.

2011.10.02    The Constitution and its context 

One cannot fail to be impressed by the swiftness with which the leaders of the two chambers of Congress have agreed to convene the legislature as a constituent assembly and begin the process of amending the Constitution. What a difference a disinterested presidency makes!

2011.09.29    Meditation on ‘Pedring’

As I write, a fast-growing tree I planted years back, whose name escapes me now, lies prostrate across my desolate garden, pulled out from its roots like weed by Typhoon “Pedring’s” furious winds.  Every year, someone comes to trim the trees in my yard and prepares them for the typhoon season.  But, the last time, I opted not to touch this nameless one as it seemed to have nicely rested its young crown on the branches of a strong mango nearby.  At the height of the typhoon, the borrowed prop promptly broke beneath the weight it had been made to carry.  There is a tacit ethics in Nature’s ways, and one might notice it in the manner in which the crowns of adjacent trees avoid touching one another.

2011.09.24    Education in a competitive world  

Not too long ago, the ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union structured the competition among nations.  The question then was: Which system promised the better life—capitalism or socialism? Today, political system hardly figures as a criterion in the classification of countries. And neither is the standing of nations assessed singularly by their present economic achievement. The key factor that now preoccupies governments that aim to succeed in an increasingly competitive world is the educational performance of their young people.

2011.09.21    The lure of authoritarian rule

At one of the medical missions organized by my brother Bishop Pablo David for the Aeta and indigent folks of a remote barrio in Bataan, I saw in a graphic way the different stages in which social order in our society is stuck. Young and middle-aged people jostled against one another to have their names listed at the registration desk.  Their inability to fall in line, wait for their turn, and observe simple rules defined their general behavior. At the outermost lane, a handful of senior citizens watched indifferently as they stayed in the lane reserved for them.  Quietly huddled in a corner, away from the bedlam, were about a dozen Aetas, kept close to one another by their leader, a woman, who spoke for the whole group.

2011.09.17   Befriending William

William Shakespeare is the English world’s greatest poet and playwright. Though he lived in the 16th century, his works have shaped the way students everywhere use the English language in declamation and think of drama as a literary form. His plays and sonnets are taught in high school and, whether or not they are correctly understood, every other line of English verse students get to memorize usually comes from Shakespeare. Yet, in many Filipino classroom settings, Shakespeare remains as distant as literature itself, and as intimidating as mathematics. Who is Shakespeare and why study him?

2011.09.15    Salonga and the Senate that said no

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 16, 1991, the Philippine Senate took a vote that forever changed Philippine-American relations. By a close vote of 12-11, a sharply divided Senate rejected a new treaty that would allow the United States to continue using its naval facilities in Subic for another 10 years after the expiration of the old colonial agreement. The Constitution requires the concurrence of at least two-thirds of the senators.

2011.09.10    9/11 and perpetual war

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the United States mainland had never been attacked by any foreign power. The closest to this was the bombing of the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 by fighter planes of the Japanese imperial navy. The attack led the United States directly into the Pacific and European theaters of World War II. America declared war on Japan the following day, putting to a close the domestic debate on the wisdom of openly opposing Japanese and German aggression. Three days later, for its support of Britain, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.

2011.09.07    Reading between the leaks

The publication of stolen documents purporting to be highly-classified cables sent by various United States missions from all over has fueled all kinds of reactions in the countries that are the subject of the reports. Some take the form of wounded pride, others of a sense of having been betrayed. Last Sept. 1, more than 2,000 cables sent from the US Embassy in Manila were released in one go by WikiLeaks, causing quite a stir in the country’s political and business circles.

2011.09.03    Failed institutions and the chopper scam

If you’ve been following the Senate investigation of the helicopter scam in which used choppers were passed off and paid for by the Philippine National Police as brand-new, you would likely welcome the filing of criminal charges against those who were involved in the deal. The case was filed before the Ombudsman the other day by the PNP’s own Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, using evidence mostly culled from the Senate hearings. Leading those charged with the non-bailable offense of plunder is Jose Miguel Arroyo, the husband of the former president. The charge sheet identifies him as the previous owner of the helicopters in question.

2011.08.31    The national pastime

The issue first dawned on me many years ago when, in response to my criticism of billboards that have engulfed the city, people from the outdoor advertising industry told me that without them, Manila would be a very dark and unsafe place. Billboards, they said, are what light up the streets and enliven the cityscape. So, did the city’s dark and unlit avenues make commercial billboards a necessity? Or, has the proliferation of billboards relieved the government of its duty to light up and take care of public space? Which one is cause, and which one is effect?

2011.08.27    Libya after Gadhafi

Now that Libya’s dictator, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, is being hunted down by his own people, he must be wondering what went wrong with his calibrated program to re-invent his regime’s image. In the last 10 years, Gadhafi went out of his way to befriend the West. He tried to impress upon the world that he was steering Libya in the direction of an open economy and a modern constitutional democracy.

2011.08.25   Should government apologize to HK hostage victims?

Anyone who has ever gone abroad on a tour can easily imagine the terror, shock and trauma that the victims of the hostage-taking incident at the Luneta went through on Aug. 23, 2010. They had come for a holiday. Though brief and hectic, the trip afforded them a pleasant break from routine. But nothing prepared them for what happened on the day they were supposed to fly back to Hong Kong. The tour bus that was taking them around for a final glimpse of Manila was seized by an armed person in police uniform. He had grievances against his government and threatened to kill all of them if the authorities did not grant his demands. This was a nightmare they had seen in the movies, but now they were living it.  

2011.08.21    Jacinta and language         

My second grandchild, Jacinta, who turns 2 tomorrow, is taking her sweet time learning how to talk. She forms endless strings of sounds as she plays, but these are not recognizable as words or sentences. She babbles. Letters and numbers fascinate her no end. She calls out their names like friends when she sees them in the street. Yet, except for these and the terms she uses for her father and mother, Jacinta appears hopelessly trapped in a private and unshared language.

2011.08.18    When art irritates religion 

Mideo Cruz’s work “Poleteismo,” which was exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, has polarized public opinion so sharply that any commentary, if it is to have any value, is expected to weigh in on the pressing question of who is right and who is wrong. I hope that some room can be made for a non-moral, non-legal and non-aesthetic appraisal that looks at this controversy as symptomatic of the structural and semantic shifts that our society is undergoing in its transition to modernity.

2011.08.14    Katipunan blues

My granddaughter, 10-year-old Julia, jolted me the other day with a remark on the state of Quezon City where she has lived all her life. As we entered the narrow street linking the Marikina side of Aurora Boulevard to Katipunan Avenue, she glanced at the ongoing “SM Blue Residences” construction spanning the entire left side of that alley and grimly declared: “I am against more tall buildings like that.” It was a political statement from out of the blue – the first I’ve heard from the mouth of this babe.

2011.08.11    London’s looters

For three successive nights, mobs of masked looters stormed the streets of London, burning down buildings and vehicles, vandalizing and emptying stores, and then swiftly hauling away their loot in stolen cars. Residents and shopkeepers watched in disbelief as responding policemen, torn between containing the fires and going after the fast-moving army of rioters, found themselves hugely outnumbered. The same pattern of primal lawlessness, which the police have dubbed “copycat violence,” has spread like wild fire to other urban centers like Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham. In London alone, more than 500 people have been arrested in connection with these riots. Initial reports suggest that these are not politically motivated. If so, what drives them?

2011.08.07    The humbling of America

My youngest brother who lives in the United States regularly sends me pictures of his growing family.  Lately, these photos have been accompanied by links to articles dealing with the sorry state of the American economy.  He’s been trying hard, he says, to figure out for himself, where this complex economy seems to be going, and what he and his wife, who’s also working, must do to ensure the future of their two kids who are still in grade school.

2011.08.03    Dutiful silence 

Nothing perhaps more graphically captures the dysfunctions of government than the pathetic sight of senior police officials explaining how they failed to stop a procurement contract that was patently disadvantageous to government.  I refer to the ongoing Senate investigation on the purchase by the Philippine National Police of two second-hand helicopters that were passed off and paid for as brand new. If we can understand how such things happen, then maybe we might also begin to know how to prevent them.

2011.07.31    Moving on: the cult of forgiveness

Memory is so burdensome to many of us that moving on and not looking back has become a kind of value in itself. The argument is that responding to present challenges is demanding enough, we should not compound it by dredging the past. This attitude, so prevalent in our culture, typically rides on the religious notion of forgiveness as forgetting and freeing oneself of a grudge. I argue that while a sense of forgiveness may lead us to disregard a wrong, forgiving does not mean forgetting.

2011.07.28    State of our values

President Aquino’s second State of the Nation Address was a good speech, but not the kind that is expected at the opening of Congress. It was not so much a discussion of the state of the nation, as it was a meditation on the state of our values as a people. In this lies its power as well as its weakness.

2011.07.24    Solidarity as charity 

(Last July 21, the Ateneo de Manila University gave me, together with journalist Marites Danguilan-Vitug, the Ozanam Award for 2011.  Not being an Atenean, I had no idea who Ozanam was or what he stood for. Apparently, not many Ateneans did either. I felt a strong need to know, and what I soon found out about this man greatly affected me, and prompted the response I read last Thursday on being conferred the Ozanam medal. Allow me to set aside modesty and share the following abridged version of that meditation.)

2011.07.21    Institutionalizing slush funds 

Amid revelations of how lottery proceeds meant for charity were being dispensed by the past administration to purchase vehicles for the use of some bishops, the main goal of the ongoing Senate hearings has been snowed under. This goal goes into the very heart of what the government’s role should be, and what purposes should inform policy making. There are two questions for the Senate inquiry: (1) What is the nation’s policy on gambling and other games of chance? (2) Should the government be running gambling operations?

2011.07.17    Zaldy’s gambit 

Almost two years after his arrest in connection with the Maguindanao massacre, detained former ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan has yet to be arraigned. This means that the case against him, unlike that of his father and brother, has hardly begun. His biggest wish is to be taken off the list of the accused before he is formally indicted. That is his objective. All the talk about him offering to turn state witness so he might testify against his own relatives is a presumption made by others. His statements to media are neither here nor there. The only explicit thing he has said is that he had nothing to do with the crime.

2011.07.14    When bishops apologize 

No one saw it coming: the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines apologizing for causing pain and confusion among its flock over an issue in which some bishops have been implicated. Filipinos are so used to hearing public figures cynically offer implausible justifications for their actions, or throw back mud at their critics in response, that many anticipated a bruising battle between Church and State over the issue of using public funds to purchase vehicles for some favored bishops. The CBCP’s gesture of humility will not put closure to the issue. But it elevates it to a level that dispels antagonism and makes room for nuance and context.

2011.07.09    The costs to the Church

Although the Church draws its mandate from God, it remains very much a human institution. Its leaders are human beings like the rest of us, subject to the same desires and temptations that besiege ordinary mortals. Its structures likewise mirror the characteristics of the society in which it operates. But, as a religious institution, the Church offers a vision that transcends the world of the here and now.  It prescribes a mode of living based on faith that is different from, and at times opposed to, what is common or conventional. Herein resides its distinct societal role. This role is what is undermined when its leaders act like ordinary politicians or businessmen, seeking power or peddling influence, or trading for profit.

2011.07.07    State support for religion 

Today in Western Europe, fewer and fewer people go to church. Yet, many modern states in that part of the world continue to collect religion’s share of public taxes. Citizens are asked to indicate to which religious group they belong, and, on this basis, a percentage of the tax collected from them is turned over to their church. If a taxpayer signifies that he has no religious affiliation, the corresponding religious tax is not collected. This valuable tax support has, however, not been enough to keep many centuries-old cathedrals and monuments from languishing in neglect and disrepair. This situation has often forced governments to take full responsibility for their rehabilitation and maintenance in recognition of their historic and cultural significance. 

2011.07.03    Sara and the sheriff 

For punching a sheriff in the face in the middle of a chaotic demolition of squatter shanties in her city, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte faces legal sanctions. She may be reprimanded, suspended, or even dismissed from office for disorderly conduct and for obstructing the enforcement of a court order. Be that as it may, from hereon, it will be difficult to defeat her in any election for any public position in Davao.  She has become her own person, no longer just the stand-in for a famous father. The incident, epically captured by television, has been replayed countless times on the national news. Her feistiness and readiness to stake her personal authority on behalf of the poor will become part of political legend. This is how folk heroes in a pre-modern society are made. 

2011.06.29    Dealing with the new China

China is such a huge and complex country that it is never easy to know, at any given time, what it is doing or what it is saying, or even who speaks for it. Its pugnacious behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in recent weeks stands in contrast to its longstanding effort to reach out to the world with offers of generous loans and inexpensive technology. Are we seeing here a radical shift in policy? 

2011.06.26    Documentation and identity

One of the the most read articles in the New York Times online in recent days is the story “My life as an undocumented immigrant,” written by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino who came to America as a young boy, completely unaware that his documents were fake. This legal deficiency hounds him from the moment he learns about it and becomes conscious of its implications. 

2011.05.26    God in politics

God’s word was invoked several times in the session hall of the House of Representatives this week as legislators debated the Reproductive Health bill. The bill’s main proponent, Rep. Edcel Lagman, basically argued that the issue of the common good, which the bill purports to serve, is for the State alone to settle.  His interpellators countered that Congress must not ignore the religious sensibilities of its constituents because the Constitution itself states that we are “a nation under God.” 

2011.05.22    Family size

I belong to a brood of thirteen children. Maybe I can speak with some authority about the advantages and disadvantages of growing up in a large family.  It was fun, but it was very hard.  It took a while for me to erase the blind impress of past deprivations. Except for my brother the priest, we are all today married and have children of our own.  None of us however has more than four, and our average family size is less than three.  In itself, having more children is neither good nor bad.  A lot depends on what your goals and priorities are, and how you manage the situation.  

2011.05.19    Libidinal economy

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was plucked out of the first class cabin of an Air France flight by the New York airport police last Saturday afternoon, just minutes before the plane was to take off. The police arrested the 62-year-old “DSK” to answer allegations made by a hotel housekeeper that he sexually assaulted her that same day. In a hurry to leave the plush hotel in which he stayed, he forgot his cell phone in the room. He was going back to Europe, where, among other things, he had a scheduled meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the terms of a financial bail-out for crisis-stricken Greece.

2011.05.15    Debating the RH bill 

On so fundamental a proposal as the Reproductive Health bill (HB 4244), there is bound to be wide and passionate disagreement. The bill touches on matters that lie within the scope of three basic institutions: the State, the Church, and the family. Although differing views on such matters may not always be reconcilable, they can be made—in the spirit of democracy—to accommodate one another. 

2011.05.12    A turning point in Singapore 

Singapore held its general election last Saturday, May 7. But even in our politically obsessed society, hardly anyone took notice. This indifference is understandable. Filipinos are generally uninterested in the politics of other countries, except the United States. Singapore is also one country that most people do not associate with politics. After all, this city-state has been ruled by the same party, the People’s Action Party, since it became self-governing in 1959. One cannot expect to find meaningful politics in a situation like that. 

2011.05.08    Making a difference

A morning radio program the other day asked its regular listeners to phone in their opinion of President Aquino lll’s performance. Taking off from the Social Weather Station’s recent report of a steep drop in the President’s ratings, the hosts posed two questions: “Based on your own personal expectations, is President Noynoy’s performance work ‘over’ or ‘under’? What should he do to gain public approval?”

2011.05.05    Avoiding a clash of fundamentalisms

Soon after United States President Barack Obama personally announced that US Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden, Americans exploded in triumphant patriotic celebrations. They gathered in public places rhythmically chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” No doubt, they saw the killing of the world’s most wanted person as a major victory in the US-led war against terrorism. But, if Bin Laden portrayed himself as the face of militant Islam, what image does America effectively project when it goes into frenzied celebration like this? 

2011.05.01    The taming of organized labor

There are more workers today who work for wages than was the case 50 years ago. And yet, ironically, the increase in size of the working class has not increased the ranks of organized labor. Workers’ unions today have considerably less power over the conditions of production. Indeed, one can go further and say that countries like the Philippines have less control over the fate of their own economies than before. It is important to ask why as we go through the rituals of another Labor Day. 

2011.04.28    Popes and princes 

The royalty and the papacy in the modern world no longer wield substantial political power, yet the beliefs surrounding them have remained as vibrant as ever. So compelling are these beliefs even today that modern media find themselves ineluctably drawn into the swirl of royal and pontifical events. In the process, they sometimes become the unwitting purveyors of the same royalist and theocratic mindsets that they oppose in the name of modernity and democracy. 

2011.04.24    Noli me tangere

Most Filipinos will recognize the Latin phrase “Noli me tangere” as the title of Jose Rizal’s first novel, rather than as a biblical line from the gospel of St. John (20:17). In English, it is usually rendered as “Touch me not.” This was what the risen Jesus told the startled Mary Magdalene when she tried to approach him after he had called her name. The meaning of this utterance has been the subject of much dispute, not least because it appears only in John and not in the other gospels. 

2011.04.21    Light riders

We all feel a need, at a certain point in our lives, to share our blessings with others. Philosophers sometimes call it the obligation of solidarity. But two things often deter us from taking the first step. One is the thought that whatever we do for others, our effort is but a drop in the bucket. We don’t change anything. The other is the fear that the small initiatives we take to lighten the burden of others usually only mask the urgent need for enduring social reforms. These apprehensions are not without basis. But if we give in to them, we could find ourselves easily justifying our own smugness.

2011.04.17    To God what is God’s

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This is Jesus’ reply to a tricky question that an audience of Pharisees and Herodians threw at him. It is quite possibly the first ever statement on the separation of church and state. The religious and political leaders of his time had been trying to entrap him as he went about preaching. They waited for him to say something subversive, blasphemous, or shallow, that they could use against him.

2011.04.14    Every picture tells a story

That picture of a maid, possibly a Filipina, walking behind a tall Singaporean young man in military camouflage and carrying his big rucksack while he fiddles with his cell phone, has sparked a lively Internet debate. The comments it has generated are fascinating in themselves, reflecting a wide range of concerns and standpoints. Hardly anyone spoke for the maid. 

2011.04.10     Poverty and distributive justice 

The latest Social Weather Stations survey figures on hunger are truly alarming. More than 20 percent of Filipino families (or more than 4 million families) have reported experiencing involuntary hunger in the first quarter of 2011. Though the number is slightly lower compared to a year ago, the March figures nonetheless show a steady quarterly rise from the 15.9 percent of September last year. The problem, says SWS president and Inquirer columnist Mahar Mangahas, appears to be concentrated in Luzon, where hunger has risen to a new record level of 25 percent. This is quite puzzling—and it is worth figuring it out—for there has been no major natural disaster in Luzon during the first quarter that might explain it. 

2011.04.07    Gadhafi’s sons and Libya’s future 

In view of the current stalemate and worsening civil war in Libya, the quest for solutions has turned to the prospect of a political settlement that will drive Moammar Gadhafi into exile while making room for one of his sons to sit in a transition government. This possibility has focused world attention on the eccentric dictator’s seven sons. 

2011.04.02    Willing victims

THIS IS not about the three Filipinos who were put to death in China the other day for heroin smuggling – though it may well apply to them. They were victims of drug syndicates, of a harsh justice system, and perhaps of a desire to find a quick way out of poverty. They most likely knew what they were getting into. In that sense, they were willing victims. 

2011.03.31    The Flor Contemplacion syndrome

Many reasonable people do not understand why the resources of the entire Filipino nation have been mobilized to persuade China to spare the lives of the three Filipinos who were executed on Wednesday for the heinous crime of drug trafficking. They ask: Why are we spending precious diplomatic capital to plead for the lives of three convicted criminal offenders? Are we not being selfish in thinking only of our own nationals? Can we not also sympathize with the nameless individuals whose lives have been ruined by the drugs regularly brought into China by drug mules? 

2011.03.27    Marcos and memory 

The corpse of Ferdinand Marcos, who died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, lies unburied in a family museum in Batac, Ilocos Norte. Imelda Marcos, now a member of the House of Representatives, insists that she will allow nothing less than a hero’s burial for her husband’s waxen remains. More than 200 of her fellow representatives have signed a resolution asking President Aquino, whose father was murdered by the regime, to authorize the late dictator’s burial at the nation’s Libingan ng mga Bayani. 

2011.03.24     A world without borders

Worried that they have not been able to contain the threat of nuclear radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency recently re-classified the situation to a level 5 nuclear event. This means that the risks it poses are no longer just local; they are likely to spill beyond Japan’s borders. The wind and the sea could carry radioactive material to distant parts. Japan’s nuclear crisis has thus become the world’s own. 

2011.03.20    Coping cultures

“There has been an extraordinary demand for more Masses,” my brother Bishop Ambo told me. “Some people go to church twice on Sundays. The churches are packed, and we don’t have enough priests to minister to everyone’s spiritual needs.” I saw what he meant when I visited him the other day, a full week after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan. Every seat was taken and many people were standing on the aisles as he said Mass. The collective praying and singing filled the cavernous Holy Rosary Church with resonant voices that rose to the heavens like smoke from burning incense.

2011.03.17    Risk and danger in nuclear power

Our sensitivity to risk is not constant. It is always shaped by events happening around us. Twenty-five years ago, in November 1985, we were ready to fire the first nuclear power plant in the Philippines. A fateful, last-minute check demanded by international inspectors showed a few minor deficiencies in the provisions for an emergency, significantly delaying the operation of the plant. Three months later, Edsa people power happened. 

2011.03.13    High school reunions

Like most people now in their mid-60s, I recently joined my high school classmates in a series of reunions to mark the golden anniversary of our high school graduation. There is something extraordinary about meeting one’s classmates after 50 years. You wonder how they have changed and in what ways they have remained the same. You wonder too what vivid memories about you they have kept, if any. Compared to 25th anniversary reunions, golden gatherings are warmer and kinder. There is genuine interest in the other person and a readiness to share in his or her achievement, or misfortune. Everyone is invited to bask in the gentle glow of a shared humanity.

2011.03.10    Impeaching the Ombudsman 

Can one be political and fair at the same time? More precisely, can one be a fair-minded politician in this country? The answer, of course, is yes. But it is the uncertainty of the answer we usually give to this question that provides Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez the warrant to denounce the case against her as nothing but the product of partisan politics. She courts public sympathy by exploiting the Filipino’s generally negative view of the country’s politicians. Ironically, by routinely asserting that impeachment is a political exercise rather than a judicial proceeding—a game of numbers rather than a matter of justice—our politicians unwittingly play into Gutierrez’s hand. 

2011.03.06    World opinion and Gadhafi’s Libya

World opinion, mainly shaped by Western media, is swiftly moving in the direction of an armed international intervention in Libya. All eyes are focused on the United States. In a recent statement, President Barack Obama declared that Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi “has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave.” While making it clear that the United States will act only in concert with the international community, Obama has ordered the US military to prepare itself so that it has “full capacity to act, potentially rapidly.” What we must prevent, he said, was “a situation in which defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger.” 

2011.03.03    Freedom and its contingencies 

Any Filipino politician, or diplomat, or journalist, or academic who claims to have foreseen the rapid deterioration of the political situation in Libya today must indeed have extraordinary perceptual, analytical and predictive powers. He or she could make billions advising the United Nations, the United States, China and all the global corporations that control the world’s economy today. Not even the US, with its unrivalled intelligence system, has been able to anticipate the complex events that are now swiftly unfolding in North Africa and the Persian Gulf. 

2011.02.27    People power the day after

EDSA I had two crucial moments. The first showed the people in the streets asserting themselves as a sovereign political force. The second belonged to the lawyers who worked behind the scenes to draft a new political order. The people authored the series of protest actions that successfully drove away the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. But it was the lawyers who formulated the framework that justified Cory Aquino’s assumption of the presidency on February 25, 1986. 

2011.02.24    Modern revolutions and the mass media 

Karl Marx, the ideologue of communism, did not think that the peasantry could be a force for socialist revolution. There were two reasons. First, since their quest was limited to owning land, peasants tended to be politically conservative. Second—and I think this was the more important point—the peasants in their farms, unlike workers in factories, were typically isolated from one another, and therefore unable to form the class consciousness essential to a revolution. 

2011.02.20    Perfect drug mules

How have we become the world’s favorite transshipment point for opium, cocaine and heroin? How have Filipinos become the favorite couriers for such high-value drugs? The reports say that as many as 630 Filipinos are being held today for drug trafficking in various jails all over the world. Of these, 205 are detained in Chinese prisons alone. These are alarming figures by any measure. Who are these Filipinos? How did they get into this criminal trade? 

2011.02.17    Politics of the extraordinary

Philippines February 1986, Egypt February 2011—both are examples of contemporary political upheavals that social scientists now call “extraordinary” moments in politics. They signal a departure from “normal” politics—from statist politics, from institutional procedures and rituals of representation, from government by political elites and professional bureaucrats. Such moments point to the promise of a new beginning, of a “founding” event that restores to the people their sovereign right to self-determination. 

2011.02.13    The ideology of love 

To call love an ideology would seem to trivialize what is generally assumed to be a deeply personal and indescribable experience. The word “ideology” is normally associated with politics. It suggests a particular vision of the world, a set of concepts, and a proposed way of acting that is consistent with this vision and illuminated by these concepts. But, recent writings, like Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful book, “Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy,” are blazing new trails by precisely examining love as an evolving form of communication—one that is informed by a distinct semantics or ideology of love. 

2011.02.09    Politics and suicide 

Suicide is a complex phenomenon. It is both a deeply personal act that is almost inaccessible in its meanings, and a social phenomenon that mirrors significant shifts in the life of a society.

2011.02.06     Between chaos and change

Between the promise promise of change and the threat of chaos lies the wish for an orderly transition. The old order is dying but the new cannot be born. Even before the first flush of victory starts to fade, anxiety grips the forces of change. Suddenly, the road ahead appears complex and uncertain. This crucial moment of hesitation is all that the conservative forces need to justify moderation. Instead of the total obliteration of the crumbling order, the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power is offered. 

2011.02.03    The origins of graft 

The word “graft,” now only rarely used, is probably more descriptive of illicit office practices found in transitional societies like ours than “corruption,” its semantic cousin. The term comes from horticulture. Here is how Dictionary.com defines it: “A bud, shoot, or scion of a plant inserted in a groove, slit, or the like in a stem or stock of another plant in which it continues to grow.”  “Graft” is also used in surgery to refer to the transplantation of living tissue from one part of a body to another, or from one human being to another. 

2011.01.30    A tradition of graft 

At the Senate investigation into the plea bargain agreement between the Ombudsman and the former Armed Forces comptroller, retired Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia, the inquiry last Thursday turned to the entrenched system of graft inside the military. A retired budget officer, Col. George Rabusa, who used to work at the comptroller’s office, testified in detail to the existence within the AFP of a traditional practice of building up a slush fund from which all kinds of illicit payoffs are made. 

2011.01.27    Moral panic 

Anyone who reads or tunes in regularly to the mass media nowadays cannot fail to be gripped by a sense that Philippine society is headed for a systemic breakdown.  Criminals appear more brazen.  The police seem more helpless, or in cahoots with the criminals themselves. Prosecutors are unable to pin down the guilty; the courts are not trusted. Journalists are murdered.  Politicians are beyond the reach of the law.  The metropolis has become the hunting ground of carnappers, terrorist groups, mobile phone muggers, and motorbike-riding holduppers.  Criminal syndicates dealing in drugs, human trafficking, and kidnap for ransom operate with impunity.  And the whole government itself seems powerless to combat corruption.

2011.01.23    The things that matter

I HAVE always been fascinated by the special role that taxi drivers play as observers of their own society. Their interaction with a wide variety of people, including foreigners, in the course of a day’s work gives them a unique vantage point from which to view their lives. They also tend to be amazing communicators, performing a function that door-to-door salesmen of an earlier era used to perform—that of news bearers and cultural interpreters. This is the same role that the “jueteng cobrador” or bet collector in our society still plays.

2011.01.20    Reclaiming the Constitution

Charter change is in the news again.  No one is sure who or what is driving it.  But, definitely, the writing of a new constitution is being projected as something that is both timely and urgent.   

2011.01.16    Modern but out of place

SINGAPORE. I am in this finely-manicured garden city to participate in a conference that aims to figure out what modernity has meant for people living outside the Western world. The West has always been the referent for the Modern, because it is where it all began. But Singapore is the perfect venue for something like this because while its modernity is beyond dispute, this is a country that is self-consciously asserting both a global and an Asian identity. 

2011.01.13    The Filipino’s religious devotions

IT IS one of those enchanting events that vividly encapsulate the Filipino’s idea of what it means to live in this world. I refer to the annual procession of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo. But we may point to other equally popular religious devotions, like the fluvial procession of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, that have produced echoes in many nations, wherever Filipino migrants have found a home. 

2011.01.09    Just retiring

At the beginning of the year, I received a heart-warming e-mail from one of my former students who has kept in touch. Having heard that I would be officially retiring from teaching soon, she wanted to know if she and another classmate could attend my “last lecture.” I thanked her for her thoughtfulness, but told her, partly in jest: “Sorry, I have not prepared a final lecture; I’m just retiring, not dying.” 

2011.01.06    Popular opinion and the law

Following the release from prison of people who had figured in highly publicized cases, a morning radio program recently conducted an interesting opinion survey. Listeners were invited to share their views on the question: whether the authorities did the right thing, or committed an error, in freeing the principal figures in four celebrated cases. The four cases were those of Sen. Antonio Trillanes, Hubert Webb, the “Morong 43,” and Carlos F. Garcia.  

2011.01.02    Amor fati

On a day like this, the beginning of yet another year in time’s eternal stream, we may be forgiven for indulging in a bit of philosophical musing. Not everyone may be inclined to write the customary list of personal resolutions for the New Year. Others prefer to take stock of the year just past—in other than political terms. This is particularly true perhaps for those who, like me, are getting on in years. At a certain point, you stop trying to change yourself. Instead of wallowing in regret and resentment, you accept who you are, and you try to reflect this in everything you do.