20 years of opinion

This week, “Public Lives” marks its 20th year. My first piece for the Inquirer saw print on July 9, 1995, a Sunday. I remember choosing a rather pretentious title, “In search of anonymity,” for a column that dealt with a trivial event, the arrest of the British actor Hugh Grant “for lewd conduct” while having paid sex in a parked car along California’s Sunset Boulevard.

The choice of topic for that maiden piece was my way of indicating what I originally meant the column to be—an exploration, as I wrote at the end of that piece, of “the art, the thrill, the anxieties, the complications, and the perils of living in the public eye.” I wanted the column to be a documentation of that fraught encounter between the self and the media, particularly as it concerns celebrities and those whose lives suddenly turn into objects of intense public scrutiny.

An essay titled “A family on trial” came next. It was about the tribulations of former senator Freddie Webb’s family, and I wrote it just a few weeks after the arrest of Hubert Webb in connection with the gruesome “Vizconde Massacre.”   This was followed by an essay about the catharsis of “Lola Juanita,” who, as an 18-year-old pregnant woman during the Japanese Occupation, was abducted by Japanese soldiers and detained as a “comfort woman.” She had kept “her secret” for more than 40 years until she heard the brave “Lola Rosa Henson” on television recount her experience of her own captivity as a sex slave of the Japanese during those dark years.

Then came the columns about “Mang Pandoy,” who became the face of poverty in the 1992 presidential election, and about Sarah Balabagan, the young girl who became the icon of the maltreated overseas Filipino worker.

Other fascinating public lives caught my attention during that period: Judiel Nieva, who claimed to witness the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Agoo; Oseola McCarty, the American laundry woman who surprised the world by donating her lifetime savings to a university fund to support the education of black women; and the former Korean presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo who broke new ground in South Korean politics by tearfully admitting their corruption on national television. In all these, lives lived in the public eye served as my entry points for discussing the ironies, surprises, and complexities of life in the modern world.

The nature of modernity, as a description of contemporary society, became an abiding question for me in almost all my writings. In the quest for greater clarity, my views on this issue have changed radically over the years. My early columns were burdened by normative judgments that were inspired mainly by German critical philosophy. The writings of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas initially shaped my thinking about modernity. Their works laid bare the tyranny of a form of rationality that had become encrusted in the institutions of modern society—a new form of totalitarianism that seemed impervious to communicative reason.

This attitude was just one step away from the ironic perspective of postmodernism, a philosophy that seemed appropriate to the era of failed revolutions. I devoured the works of the French poststructuralists Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard and Derrida, finding solace in the language of private perfection that resonated the contrapuntal voice of Friedrich Nietzsche. My columns in the late 1990s abundantly mirrored these influences.

Then, on a visit to the United States, I met the American neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, who was then teaching literature at Stanford University. We quickly became friends, and, in 1999, I invited him to come to the Philippines for a series of lectures. He paid for his own trip, asking only to have a chance to do some bird-watching while he was here. His book, “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” had such a profound impact on me that, in class after class, I tirelessly spoke about what it meant to pursue social solidarity without having to commit oneself to any metaphysics. Again, my writings in those years, the advent of a new millennium, reflected Rorty’s strong influence on my thinking.

By a strange alchemy, Rorty brought me back to the origins of my discipline, sociology. I realized how the American pragmatist tradition of John Dewey, William James, C.S. Peirce, and G.H. Mead had shaped modern sociology. I revisited the works of Talcott Parsons, reading them as accounts of modernity rather than as a general theory of society. This renewed interest in the emergence of modern society as a type of social system, in turn, led me to the ideas of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who had been Parsons’ student at Harvard.

I have found in Luhmann’s theory of modernity a useful lens through which to view the multiple crises of Philippine society. His influence is so palpable in my later writings that it is almost embarrassing. I still have no idea what an opinion column should be like. But, I have learned to withhold judgment in order to give full play to the kind of social analysis I do.

I continue to write about lives in their intractable variety and amazing capacity for self-invention. I do not look at people in their psychological or moral makeup. Rather, I look at them as they are shaped by their societies, and marvel at the way the best of them rise above the conventions of their time.

I have made many friends (and a few enemies) through this column. I thank one dear friend in particular: US-based Tom Leto, who has generously gathered all my columns from 1995 to the present in one place: www.randydavid.com.

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