Category Archives: Politics

The First Glory Awards (2017): A Mini-Album

It’s difficult to tell a complicated story, especially one that involves a lot of other individuals and a major formative institution. This will be an attempt to recount a series of occurrences, some of them subjective in nature. It began when the Alumni Association of my alma mater, the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines, announced its own counterpart of the university-wide Alumni Awards. Since the event was sponsored by the family of the CMC’s founding Dean, Gloria David Feliciano (unrelated to me), it was going to be rather awkwardly named the Glory Awards. There were supposed to be ten selections for the first edition, and since I kept up with news about the college via social network, I caught the call for nominees the day it came out.

When a former editor and journalism-school classmate of mine contacted me about it, I was inclined to say no. I’d already been feted at the previous year’s FACINE Film Festival in San Francisco, and to me that was a signal honor. Several senior film critics from the Philippines hold loads of distinctions from all over, but none of their life-achievement prizes specified film criticism and scholarship, until FACINE’s Gawad Lingap Sining [Art Nurturer Award] spelled it out for me. I even prepared an extensive lecture, the festival’s first in nearly a quarter-century since its founding, delivered at the City College of San Francisco’s auditorium (famed for its Diego Rivera mural).

But my colleague, Daisy Catherine Mandap, told me to do it for the sake of old friends, since it would be an occasion to get our batch together at the UP Journalism Club. I said I’d do it mainly for her, gathered the materials, forwarded them, and forgot all about it. In late October I got word that I had won, and the number of awardees was reduced from ten to eight, making it an even rarer prize. I conveyed my willingness to participate, bought a roundtrip ticket to attend the November 11 ceremony, and tried to refocus on the several writing assignments that spilled over from the spring-semester half-sabbatical that made writing in Manila such a pain in the neck because of internet sluggishness, lack of support for authors, and overpriced cost of living. The motherboard of my three-year-old state-of-the-art laptop died from too many stops and starts and reinstallations, and I was reduced to making even older netbooks try to do the same tasks. (I could only buy a replacement machine in Korea, where my credit card could allow for installment payments.)

Three real-world factors blindsided me as I mentally conditioned myself for the awards ceremony. First, the faculty dormitory where I’d stayed since arriving about a decade ago for my tenure-track position announced that it was shutting down for renovation by the end of the year, and would be reopening as a university hotel. That meant I had to prepare to find my own housing for the first time in Korea, with all the concomitant complications that involved (starting with exorbitant down-payment fees). Then the results of my annual physical exam at the university hospital arrived, indicating that the gallbladder stone that I’d been, well, maintaining for a decade or so suddenly and inexplicably doubled in size, approaching what the doctor described as a “danger” threshold. My physician told me how fortunate I was that the condition remained benign through my sabbatical, since he knew the manifold troubles I would confront by requiring a surgical procedure in the Philippines.

The surgeon assigned to foreign-language patients responded to my request for a laparoscopy by specifying the day right before the Glory Awards event. It was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, but I couldn’t imagine myself rushing from the hospital to the airport, wounds still fresh, and going onstage and hobnobbing with folks while checking for bloodstains on my shirt. So I requested, urgently, a week’s delay at the hospital – then the third “development” occurred: the organizers of an out-of-town Korean conference on Asian culture, to which I had made a long-standing commitment to participate, contacted me to say that it would happen … during the weekend after the Glory Awards, the same period I had planned to have my postponed operation. When I revised my request for another hospital date, I knew that the staff could have taken this as another of my endless shifts in schedules, and hesitated to respond to my request, considering all the difficulties (from additional tests to scheduling assistants) that this particular arrangement entailed.

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But this was not entirely the reason I felt inclined to postpone my roundtrip to Manila. As the day of the event approached, the reality that the institution I used to work with, from which I felt estranged, crept up and slowly, steadily engulfed me. The fact that Daisy Mandap considered my nomination and win her personal mission as a friend was key to this sentiment. A few years earlier, the college called for nominees for its ballyhooed Gawad Plaridel [Plaridel Award] for the category of community journalism. The last time I worked with Daisy (who’d gone to law school after journalism), at the now-defunct Business Day, she assisted in the collective-bargaining efforts of the employees’ union, continuing to represent them even after they decided to go on strike. As a new hiree, I could not qualify for union membership – and needed the income to repay my undergraduate student loans. Daisy told me it wouldn’t be an issue for her and her allies, which was all the assurance I could ask for. I wound up leaving anyway, because of an exploitative arrangement that a TV host had with the publication, cornering me as a personal researcher while plagiarizing my reports wholesale – including weird structural touches I would introduce to see if the program would still follow, and of course it did (the fact that the episodes I wrote won various local and global awards for the host was instrumental in developing my contempt for pretentious, privileged, hypocritical socialites).

Business Day solved its union troubles by shuttering the newspaper and reopening it under a different-though-recognizable name, BusinessWorld, but Daisy found herself blacklisted by the publishers of major local dailies, including the very person who became the first winner of the Gawad Plaridel. She and her husband, Leo Deocadiz, left for Hong Kong, and set up The Sun, a publication with its own foundation aimed primarily at assisting Overseas Filipino Workers. I managed to convince her that we could argue for OFWs as a transient, foreign-based community, and she responded with plans of how to use the Gawad Plaridel prize money for the education of OFW members and their children. She of course became the frontrunner for that year’s award, but after the deadline for announcing the winner came and went, I knew (from a couple of decades of working in the college) that something unsavory was afoot.

A few days later the evidence rolled out. All the nominees were declared undeserving, and a new category (in fact an old one), print journalism, was announced, immediately after which a winner – a friend of mine and, more significantly, of the college officials – was declared. I would not begrudge anyone a prize that she or he deserved, but I also believe that those who’ve had their share of recognition don’t need to be grasping for more. The officials happened to belong to an award-giving organization masquerading as a film critics group, and the Plaridel roster wound up affirming the same set of winners that the supposedly separate group (whose chair that year was also dean of the college) had selected. Something like saying that my mother’s choices are excellent because my father opts for them too, although it’s best if you don’t realize that they’re married.

This was the reason why the acceptance speech that the Glory Awards organizers asked me to draft kept detouring into a rejection announcement. In the end, with my surgery schedule still unresolved, my exchanges with the awards team approaching conflict territory, and my admissions of dismay worrying my closest friends, I decided to cancel the trip and pay the penalty fee that the airline warned me it would charge. The ceremony went well, from all appearances, and I was deeply moved by friends’ expressions of support. I may be able to admit that I might have been glad to attend, but I’m even surer that, with my killjoy mind-set, the people at the event were much better off without me. I only note here what I told some social-media friends: that unlike Daisy and many others, I’ve been too good at bridge-burning, and a day for reckoning with all that will surely come my way in future. The college, to begin with, is and is not its alumni association, although to my mind, several people now considered senior faculty deserve as harsh a treatment as history will be able to bestow on them – with Daisy’s Gawad Plaridel case just one in a long list of depredations.

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Meanwhile, to fulfill the post’s title, here be the (unnecessarily extensive) nomination document, as well as a few highlights from the event (kindly click on any of the pics for an enlargement):

Philippine Star announcement (above, left; photo by Jun R. Cortez); Pelikulove greeting (above, right; courtesy of Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil).

Personalized notebooks from Ruby Villavicencio Paurom.

Present Glory Awardees (above, left; photo by Joy Buensalido); absent Glory Awardee’s friends (above, right), comprising, left to right, Leo Deocadiz, Daisy Mandap, Ruby Villavicencio Paurom (photo owner), and Bayani Santos Jr.

Lower set of pics above, left to right: Martin Posadas Marfil, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Bayani Santos Jr., Marianne Dayrit Sison, Ruby Villavicencio Paurom, Daisy Catherine Mandap, & Reggie Madriaga Capuno (all photos by Tita C. Valderama).

University of the Philippines Journalism Club circa late 1970s (from the collection of Martin Posadas Marfil).

Video prepared by Alex Arellano;
soundtrack by Noisy Neighbors Inc.;
narrated by JB Tapia


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President Duterte’s War on Drugs

pspd-announcement PSPD announcement

I’d like to thank all of you who made time to be here to listen to this short lecture on a major development, possibly the first turning point, in the Philippines’s history in the twenty-first century. Thanks as well to the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy for having the patience to stand by when I said earlier this year that I didn’t feel prepared to talk about my country’s newly elected President, Rodrigo Duterte. That was because I remained in Korea for most of the previous winter break to be able to work on a book project, and returned to the Philippines during summer to get a feel of ground-level sentiment. I still don’t feel fully confident about what I can say about the current presidential regime, but I might be able to have a better sense now, about a few matters that might remain intangible even to native intellectuals.

The so-called War on Drugs by Mr. Duterte has been attributed to a number of causes, only one of which can be confirmed with finality. That single cause would be the psychological reason, and like all psychological case studies, it is framed by a narrative: Sebastian, or Bastê, the younger son of Digong (the nickname of Mr. Duterte) was supposedly seriously addicted to illegal drugs and almost permanently ruined by his habit. Upon witnessing Bastê’s suffering, his father decided to wage a merciless battle against drug personalities – providers, suppliers, even addicts – until the problem would be exterminated from the face of the earth, or at least the city of Davao when he was mayor, and now the Republic of the Philippines during his presidency.

Like most originary narratives, this tale has a legendary dimension to it, and this quality serves to invest Mr. Duterte’s anti-drug campaign with the aura of a crusade: not merely a war, but a just and holy war. But legends in modern contexts also allow leaders a significant amount of leeway, if they manage to convince their followers of the legend’s righteousness and provoke a sufficient degree of cultural anxiety: witness the panic over racial impurity propagated by Adolf Hitler, or the worry over big-government intervention stoked by Ronald Reagan, or the decline of American supremacy proclaimed by Donald Trump. About a hundred miles away in this same peninsula, we have Kim Jong-un, whose very existence is premised on an assumption of a legendary, or maybe even super-legendary, persona.

The implication we can derive from these examples is that originary narratives are useful in seizing the imagination of a leader’s followers, but any political problem that results from it cannot be solved on the level of cultural resistance alone, by demolishing or deconstructing the legend, for example. In the case of Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, we are confronted by a number of predicaments, and I wish to focus on three of these, each one related to the others, and all of them involving the Duterte administration in confrontation with a small but articulate and well-publicized opposition:

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First, the unsolved killings that have resulted, more than half of over three thousand as of last count and still rising, are declared as extrajudicial and state-sanctioned by the opposition, while the Duterte administration denies its involvement in them and declares these cases as “under investigation”;

Second, the human-rights issue in the killings is considered fairly cut-and-dried by the opposition, wherein the murdered individuals are deprived of due process and are therefore victims of human-rights violations; the administration’s apologists, on the other hand, are reaching for essential redefinitions of the term “human rights” to cover the rights of upright citizens against criminal violations, as well as the applicability of human rights to developed situations only; and

Third, the rash of killings is regarded by certain sectors of the opposition as one element in a larger schema, one where the administration promotes peace with armed rebel groups, pivots away from the country’s long-term Western alliances to turn toward China and Russia, and forms a largely unopposed and popular dictatorial government. This return of repressed tyranny, according to this scenario, is strengthened by coalitions with orthodox Communists, Islamic militants, and business figures, distinct from the oligarchic families that once agitated for the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos thirty years ago.

From my semi-amateurish observations of social media and occasional dialogues with sensible figures on both pro-administration and opposition sides, I would say that the opposition has more solid footing in the case of the first two issues, involving the legality of the killings and their human-rights component. The administration may deny that it had approved some or even all of the killings, but Mr. Duterte had gone on record, during his campaign and after he became President, that he wanted to see all drug personalities dead. This sweeping statement definitely included addicts, regardless of the conventional perception that, like his son Bastê, they may have been merely victims of drug lords and pushers. In terms of human rights, the administration’s supporters tend to suffer from a fanaticism and/or euphoria that affects their ability to follow rational and critical thought processes. This accounts for their unnecessary complication of the concept of human rights – a concept that has been and should be formulated as simply as possible in order for it to be universally applicable.

What shows up in these two problems are characteristics that mark both Mr. Duterte and his followers, and make any attempt at evaluating contemporary Philippine politics convoluted and probably impossible to resolve – and even more difficult to confront directly, as US President Barack Obama found out when Duterte lashed out at him. We have what appears to be a predilection for contradictory statements expressed with expletives and obscenities on the part of the President, and echoed in many of his followers, who it seems derive license and inspiration to also be rude and illogical in their encounters with less-devoted observers.

The third issue is where the differences between the administration and the opposition acquire some historical resonance. When oppositionists warn that Duterte may be laying the groundwork for the declaration of martial law, they are raising the specter of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, whom Duterte considers the “best president” the country ever had. Here we may argue that Duterte is outright deluded, unless by “best” we mean the ability to plunder the national economy while depriving entire sectors of society of not just their basic freedoms, but sometimes even their lives. Duterte made this statement during his campaign, so it may have been possible that he was courting the support of the Ilocano-speaking northern provinces. From his mother’s record as anti-Marcos activist, he may have had enough awareness that the Philippine experiment with dictatorship was the only instance in Asia where a once-prosperous country had wound up impoverished as a result. Even Indonesia, which supposedly had a worse case of plunder during the term of Suharto, managed to join the Asian developing nations’ circle while he was still in power.

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Explanations for the Philippines’s developmental travails are more complicated than simply stating that the country had a rapacious and self-deluded tyrant at the helm, but that should be a topic for another session. The real issue in terms of the irreconcilability between Duterte’s followers and his critics is the same entity that provided the first and most sustained opposition to Marcos before and during martial law: the Philippine Left, which used to be unified under the Communist Party and its legal organization, the National Democratic Front. After the Party found itself marginalized by the people-power uprising that ousted Marcos, internal criticisms directed at its leadership intensified and came to a head when the Party members were divided between those who supported the founding leadership, called reaffirmists or RAs, and the rejectionists or RJs.

Both sides had their party-list candidates as well as prominent personalities who participated in the post-Marcos electoral processes. But during the presidency prior to Duterte’s, the RJs aligned themselves with social democrats and became identified with the winning candidate, Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III. In a dramatic political turnaround, the RAs cast their lot during the previous election with Duterte, who won by castigating Aquino and his party for their anti-people policies. In many ways, the residue of this mutually destructive struggle between Left-identified groups dominates the responses to Duterte. The reaffirmists are being upheld by the present administration via the nearly concluded peace talks, while the most extreme among the rejectionists argue that Duterte is unsuited for the presidency and that the Vice President, Leni Robredo, should be upheld in his stead. (To her credit, Robredo maintains critical support for Duterte and repudiates the clamor to install her as Duterte’s replacement.)

Thus the prevailing attitudes toward Duterte disavow any middle ground. The few people I know who come from either the pro-Digong or anti-Digong camp, who opt to criticize Duterte without advocating for his overthrow, get shouted down, sometimes abusively, by their own friends, and get accused of selling out to the other camp. On my own Facebook posts, I get identified sometimes as a Duterte supporter or “dutertard,” other times as an apologist for Aquino’s yellow-wearing Liberal Party or “yellowtard.” In terms of the killings, one could not argue for long that the President should reverse his policy and attend to the other demands of his office. Either you accept the President and agree that all the killings are justified, or you denounce the killings and automatically conclude that this President should be replaced.

This is ironic for Left-leaning individuals, who should possess the capacity for critical thinking and complex analysis, but that is the point where we find the state of Philippine politics at this time. Thank you for listening, and I hope to be able to find possible insights and solutions from your responses.

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