Watching Janet

The Inquirer periodically hosts no-holds-barred sessions with people in the news who seek to air their views on current issues.  On such occasions, newsmakers get to meet the paper’s reporters, editors, photographers, and columnists like myself who sometimes write about them.  A mutuality of interests drives these discussions.  The newspaper gets an exclusive close-up snapshot of the person and the chance to ask questions on a broad range of topics.  In turn, the guest is more or less assured of a prominent space in the paper for his/her advocacy, cause, or side in an issue.

Because these sessions are typically held late at night, after the paper has been put to bed, I have missed most of them. But the invitation to meet Janet Lim-Napoles, the figure who has been in the eye of the news for about a month now, struck me as particularly important.  I didn’t want to miss it even if it meant driving across town on a rainy night.

I wanted to see Ms Napoles in person. I had questions to ask, but I was also keen to see for myself if she was the sort of person I might deal with if I were a congressman or senator with a pork barrel allocation to spend.  I thought it was awfully brave of her to come to the lion’s den and meet the Inquirer’s editors and writers. When I saw that she had come unaccompanied by her lawyer, my first estimation of her turned positive.

There is a subfield in sociology called “micro-sociology” which deals with the rituals of face-to-face interactions.  It is dominated by Erving Goffman, one of the most original thinkers in American sociology.

Goffman wrote the classic “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” in which he argued that ideas borrowed from the theater, when applied to the most casual social settings, can unlock the most amazing insights about human behavior.

We are all actors on a stage, he said, echoing Shakespeare.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all wear masks, we assume certain roles, and we deliver performances.  We know that the audience out there is not just listening to the lines we speak. It’s also watching every move we make, actively forming impressions about us based on the cues we give off. Rather than leave these to chance, we all try to manage those impressions.  It is an art.

Janet came into the editorial room looking haggard.  She awkwardly scanned the place and found no familiar face.  The size of the audience clearly unsettled her.  She kept touching what looked like a golden scapular around her neck. But she managed an uneasy smile as she shook the hands of the people around her.  I had a feeling she was looking for a way to exit gracefully from the scene.  This wasn’t her crowd. I didn’t think she knew exactly what to make of the situation. She looked for cues from the lone companion who came with her, a friend of hers she introduced as Louie Cruz, who tried to comfort her by giving her a glass of wine from a bottle he had brought.

Despite the heroic effort of Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan to maintain a modicum of order in the discussion, the event quickly became an unstructured question-and-answer exchange which I found useless from the standpoint of journalism, but fascinating from the perspective of micro-sociology.  I thought Janet’s lawyer would have been proud of her.  Throughout the evening she remained evasive in a naïve kind of way.

She gave hints of what she knew, but stopped short of giving facts and naming names.  Not once did she allow herself to be cornered.  Her demeanor was one of folksy chumminess.  If she was irked, she didn’t show it.  Whenever she could, she took the offensive against those who she said never bothered to get her side.  She appealed for fairness, as an ordinary businesswoman and as a mother, saying that her children had been emotionally scarred by the reports.  The Inquirer has decided to publish the full transcript of the discussion.  Here, I will only discuss my impressions of her.

Janet struck me as a street-smart impresario of the improbable who is unfazed by wealth or power or social status—someone endowed with the right personality for navigating the underside of public life. But, if she is all this, I have to say she masks it well with the deferential bearing of a subaltern who can discreetly dissolve into the background if necessary.

She tried to warm up to her audience by calling columnist Winnie Monsod “Ma’m Winnie” and Inquirer editor in chief Letty Magsanoc “Ma’m Letty,” while addressing everybody else, particularly the reporters and photographers, as “kuya” and “ate.”  This approach failed to disarm the gathering, but I thought it nearly drained the encounter of any distance or seriousness.  I personally found her story of how she accumulated so much wealth totally unconvincing. She could not give the name of her supposed coal company in Indonesia, nor could she say how many metric tons of coal the company was shipping every month to China and Pakistan.  She could have impressed us with an intimate knowledge of the global coal market and the swings in commodity prices.  But she seemed clueless about the coal business.

“I read your column regularly, sir,” she told me as she shook my hand at the end of the session.  I doubt that she does, but I felt no resentment toward her.  If it is true that the bulk of her wealth came from the conversion of pork barrel allocations, then the bigger crime must lie with the legislators who knowingly used her services.  It is they who should be the primary target of public anger.  I wish that Janet would tell us what she knows.  Alas, my impression is that she is not the type who would blow the whistle on any politician.