Sunday, September 30, 2007

Conspiracy theories

Just got back from Cebu. Sorry this post is very late.

My column last Monday (It’s not just about the money) netted a number of reactions, which can be roughly categorized into three schools of thoughts.

First, there were those who agreed with me and said they were also, in the words of one J. Reyes, “disgusted” by the way this administration had not learned its lesson. Indeed it had, in a seemingly reckless manner, thrown away the chance of redemption that had been grudgingly offered to it in the aftermath of the destabilization plots and impeachment proceedings two years ago.

The informal consensus I got from the responses under this category of opinions was that while it may be difficult to prove the President’s direct involvement in the stinking ZTE deal, it would take a major effort to salve the feeling of betrayal and silent outrage.

I am afraid public opinion will not be on her side on this one. I strongly believe that while many will continue to prefer to gnash their teeth and seethe in private, the resentment will fester nevertheless.

There’s just too much bad history behind the tenuous relationship between this administration and the Filipino people, which makes the stink of the ZTE deal difficult to ignore.

But is it enough to finally oust President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from Malacañang?
Quite frankly, I don’t think so. A critical factor will be Romy Neri’s testimony at the Senate today. But even if Neri directly implicates the President, which I doubt very much given the pressures from both sides of the political divide weighing down on him—yes, I believe there is pressure from both sides—the House of Representatives will still have to impeach her. And as we all know, it can’t be done.

Our representatives may go through the motions of expressing disgust and outrage. At the end of the day, however, political loyalties will prevail. There are more than enough conspiracy theories that can be trundled out to explain why and how. There’s the theory that the Speaker of the House will guarantee that impeachment will not prosper as long as he retains his hold on the speakership.

There’s the other theory that presumably involves Pablo Garcia’s successful rise to the speakership, provided he can guarantee that impeachment will not prosper. And so on and so forth.

And then there were people who wrote in to taunt me for what they consider “last minute change of heart.” Someone actually had the audacity to accuse me of “shifting loyalties when it has become apparent that the Macapacal-Arroyo regime is already crumbling.” The writer did not specify the supposed benefits I would get from “shifting loyalties.” I am not a political figure and I do not have plans of running for public office. I also don’t have a great desire to be popular.
The general drift of these comments all hue closely to the same old refrain: Putting me to task for supposedly being the spokesperson of the “move on” pack.

I am actually immune to these kinds of reactions. The only reason I am bringing these up now is because I want to highlight the polarity of opinions out there. I get these kinds of comments in my Web log a lot.

Incidentally, let me digress a little bit and take this opportunity to inform readers of my blog (www.bongaustero.blogspot.com) that I still haven’t been able to fix the bug that disables publication of comments. I get to read the comments, I just don’t get to publish them in my blog.
That’s mainly because I just haven’t had the time to fix it due to heavy workload.
A friend of mine with an overactive imagination has forwarded this conspiracy theory that my blog has been hacked and that it is being monitored. Possible, but unlikely because I hardly update my blog. There’s nothing there that is worth the trouble.

Anyway. It is very clear that some people have already made up their minds on a number of issues a long time ago and are so convinced that their opinions are the only correct ones that everyone else who disagrees or possesses a divergent or contrary point of view is simply misguided.

These kinds of comments and reactions amaze me, not only because they represent this tendency to indulge in simplistic stereotyping and generalizing. They also remind you of the Darth Vader principle: If you are not on my side, you are my enemy. Even now that they perceive me as having “changed political loyalties”—a conclusion that simply floors me because I never had political loyalties to begin with —they still think of me as an enemy. This is funny because I never aspired to become part of any movement anyway. I have this natural aversion to any form of groupthink.

At any rate, I don’t know where people get this preconceived notion that all columnists are paid hacks or agents of the public relations machinery of government or big business. That notion is so outdated. I am a blogger who got invited to write a column in this paper. I am not a journalist, nor do I have a background in public relations work. I am a banker by profession and an academician by vocation. I do not socialize with politicians.

Which does not mean that I don’t take my role as columnist seriously. I am aware that peddling opinions out there entails certain responsibility. That is why I work hard at maintaining my independence. I guard my privacy. Fiercely.

And finally, there were these two people who wrote in to accuse me of abetting the “conspirators who are out to destabilize the government.” One of them, a person who goes by the handle “Gadfly” (the person can’t even be original, gadfly was Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s handle for a long time; but then again, I could be missing something here) directly accused me of having been “brainwashed by the continuous propaganda of the opposition whose motives are suspicious as they are only out to pander to their own vested interests.”

Gadfly then cited the picket held at Neri’s residence to “pressure the CHED chairperson not to accompany the President to the United States so he can be pressured to incriminate the President at the Senate hearing on Wednesday.” I did see that picket outside Neri’s house on the evening news and noted that the usual civil society groups were there. These people have not made secret their advocacy to oust Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. They have been at it for quite sometime now. What is so surprising about the fact that they are pouncing on the ZTE issue now?

What can I say, myopia is an affliction that is more prevalent than I thought; no political group has a copyright to it.

Let’s not obfuscate the issue. If that ZTE deal did not stink to high heavens, there would have been no bases for conspiracy theories, pickets or Senate hearings.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's not just about the money

This was my column yesterday at the Manila Standard Today. Sorry for the late post, I've been holed up in Cebu since Sunday.

Ten million dollars in commission just to “back off” from the deal. That’s almost half a billion Philippine pesos. Imagine what you can do with that kind of money.

Heck, I am not sure I am going to earn that much money in my whole lifetime even if I work 24 hours a day. Sure, I could probably earn that kind of money if—hypothetically, of course—I could form a company that would have no compunction about using influence to corner government contracts. But then, I don’t have parents who walk the corridors of power. And I probably would have to screw everyone in the process and I am not sure I have the gumption for that kind of complication.

But that’s just the point, I guess. Ordinary people like you and me don’t get opportunities to earn half a billion pesos to just back off from one deal. Nor do we get the pleasure of being able to sneer at the offer and say “thanks but no thanks, I’d rather take all of you and this stinking deal down.”

Of course, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that half a billion pesos was a piddling compared to the total booty at stake; that someone got greedy and wanted the whole lot instead of just half a billion pesos. It is possible that for people who are used to high-stakes wheeling and dealing, half a billion pesos is loose change.

As long as we are talking possibilities, let’s also consider another one. It is possible that money is not the issue here; or at least not anymore. I know that this is difficult to believe given the general cynicism over anything political in our country. It’s been quite a long time since the words honor, moral courage, even honesty, were descriptions one could use on a living politician.
Senator Joker Arroyo has a point, indeed, when he described the whole ZTE scandal as merely “a quarrel among fixers who, with the landscape getting clear, could not agree on the division of spoils.” That may be true; but moral dilemmas beg the question of what, or in this case, who, is the lesser evil.

So it really all boils down to who is more credible and, consequently, whose story we feel is more believable.

I don’t know Joey de Venecia. Until this whole sordid mess unraveled before our eyes, I haven’t heard about him. Truth to tell, I wasn’t even aware that the Speaker of the House of Representatives had a previous marriage, or had children from that marriage.

So all that muck that the administration is heaping on Joey de Venecia does not do anything to make me change my perception of the guy since quite frankly, he simply does not have the kind of public track record that make all those accusations believable.

It is even possible that Joey de Venecia has used his relationship with his father to corner government contracts in the past or to cover the fact that his company is undercapitalized for the ZTE deal (the paid-up capital of his company is only P25 million, not even a tenth of the total cost of the deal). These things are par for the course in this country. The point is that this is the first time that his name has surfaced in the national consciousness and there’s just no context with which to make a harsh judgment on the man. He gets the benefit of the doubt, particularly because the people on the other side of the shameful mess are beginning to resemble a gallery of rogues.

Oh please, Benjamin Abalos is not exactly an exalted public figure in this country. Every single time he appears on television to defend himself, his demeanor resembles someone who is sinking in deep waters, furiously flailing around.

Leandro Mendoza and the other retired generals who occupy government positions after their tours of duty in the military aren’t exactly endearing to the public eye either. The military in this country has not been able to shed its fearsome image even despite the fact that it has been almost two decades since the Marcos dictatorship. No sir, it takes more than a change in uniforms to break public image.

Is anyone out there buying Abalos’ futile exercises in logical acrobatics? He says that the fact that his meetings with Joey de Venecia happened in the places that he (Abalos) frequents only indicates that it was De Venecia who was pursuing him. What kind of defense is that? To begin with, didn’t someone already say that the meetings were mere cosmic phenomena; that the cast of characters in this sordid tale of bribery just happened to be in the same places at the same time? Besides, any sociology major can easily tell us that “seniority” is a major factor that influences the conduct of social interactions in our country. Of course De Venecia will defer to Abalos in matters of where, how, and when meetings are conducted.

And then now comes the rumor that Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri was offered P200 million to approve the deal (he was National Economic and Development Authority director-general at the time the deal was being finalized). The offer was allegedly made by Abalos himself. That’s significantly less than what was offered to De Venecia, but still a hell of a lot of money to pay for one signature. Exactly how many signatures and initials are on that missing contract? How much did each signature cost?

If the issue is going to be decided on the basis of the public image of the parties involved, there is just no way that the administration is going to win this fight. The comparison is a no-brainer.

As if in an effort to tilt public perception a bit in its favor, the administration has been desperately trying to impugn De Venecia’s credibility. The desperation has been evident in the way they even had to trundle presidential daughter Luli Arroyo, the only one so far among the Arroyos with a spotless public record, into the forefront of the battlefield. Presumably, the intent was to pit daughter against son, in this case, an “ideal” daughter versus a “profligate” son.

Unfortunately, the script was awful and the presidential daughter came out like a fishwife spoiling for a fight. Bad idea, very baaad idea. Not only did they not accomplish anything in terms of demolishing Joey de Venecia’s credibility, they tarnished the presidential daughter’s “I’m above it all” image.

All of these may seem water under the bridge with the suspension of the ZTE deal giving a whole new dimension to the admonition “back off.” The administration people are now saying people should back off already because the suspension has effectively brought closure to the whole stinking mess.

All’s well that ends well? I don’t think so.

The amount of money that is being bandied around and being offered as bribe is appalling beyond words (which is why I’ve used it as the main peg for this column —it’s something people can relate with). But damn it, it’s not just the money!


What really gets my goat about this ZTE mess is that it happened after this administration has already gotten what it wanted, which is the chance to redeem itself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Apologies

It is not censorship. Something simply went wrong with the template of this blog. Comments don't get published. They just disappear after I approve them. I am trying to fix it. Been trying to retrieve the comments that disappeared, but I guess they are already lost somewhere in cyberspace. Sorry.

Meantime, my apologies to those who have been trying to post comments, including my friends.

And yes, my apologies are also directed to people who were too happy to jump on this post and taunt me for what they see as my "belated awakening." It really amazes me that there are people who only see things as plain black and white. But go ahead if it makes you happy.

Truth is stranger than fiction

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

There are days when you sit in front of the television set with mouth agape and wonder if you have stumbled into a time warp and been transported into a parallel universe.

Watching the news last Monday night was an experience just like that. I went from utter bewilderment, to complete shock, to various shades of amusement, and finally to helpless mirth all within the span of 30 minutes.

The banner story was the First Gentleman’s early evening travel out of the country. I know that Mike Arroyo’s relationship to the President and previous accusations of his involvement in certain questionable transactions automatically makes anything he does newsworthy. What made this particular travel worthy of the screaming headline treatment was not expressly and directly articulated. But by golly, were they lathering the news story thick with insinuations and innuendoes as to the real reason for the supposed sudden flight, as if the guy was escaping from People Power 4.

Nobody really knew for a fact last Monday night if the First Gentleman was the powerful person who was supposedly present in those clandestine meetings that hammered out the fishy details of the national broadband deal. Still, the news story left no doubt whatsoever about Arroyo’s alleged participation in the whole sordid mess.

It was truly amazing how a simple story of a man’s travel out of the country can be tweaked, twisted and stretched into a matter of national significance, and without directly explaining why. It was astonishing to note the volume of information, accusations, and judgment that can be squeezed into a three-minute story over a seemingly mundane activity.

Of course, the story had to be followed by the latest updates on the current national nightmare that is the ZTE deal. What makes this nightmare more horrendous each day is that aside from the fact that it has all the trappings of a convoluted soap opera and slash thriller combined, we know that the bad dream is not about to end anytime soon and is in fact bound to get uglier and more horrifying.

But what made TV viewing surreal Monday night was that it featured some congressmen brazenly threatening the whistle-blower, who happens to be the son of the speaker of the House (I tell you the whole thing resembles a soap opera), that he can also be indicted because of the law that says relatives of the key officials of this country up to the third degree of consanguinity cannot enter into contracts with the government.

That cracked us up. Excuse me, but hasn’t it been made clear that the guy did not get the national broadband contract? He lost the contract, which is the reason why he is flailing around and singing like a lovelorn canary. The multi-billion deal was awarded to ZTE, thanks to frenzied maneuvering of a really powerful broker in dire need of a sizable nest egg, perhaps to cover impending legal expenses for the many cases bound to haunt him for the rest of his life. Unless of course the congressman is referring to other contracts that have been awarded to the speaker’s son in the past.

But then again, who among our top key officials do not have business interests that thrive on the unfettered access and proximity to the halls of power? Is there anyone among our top key officials who can honestly say that they don’t have spouses, children, siblings, or in-laws that do not leverage on the power of their political connections to corner government contracts?

And as if to illustrate that the House of Representatives does not have a monopoly of lawmakers going berserk, the news then moved on to report on how senators made mincemeat out of Vidal Doble, the controversial witness in the wiretapping controversy. It was truly a grisly sight, the way the irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago went after Doble with claws, fangs and chainsaw to rip, mangle and skewer the man’s credibility.

She also had help from her allies who were just as vicious, prompting Doble’s main handler, Senator Ping Lacson, to complain bitterly about the seeming unfairness of it all, which gave the whole thing a tragic comic twist. Lacson complaining about unfairness? It’s beyond hilarious.
The amount of savagery displayed should be more than enough to scare the wits out of anyone who continues to have illusions that those so-called “invitations” to Senate hearings is an honor.

The debate about whether Estrada should be given pardon or amnesty was given a new twist. In the end, everyone, including the newscaster, admitted that there really was nothing to it, it was all conjecture. In other words, they all came out like blabbering baboons.
And then the news suddenly became a lesson on body parts.

There was former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos declaring that she was healthy as ever and denying rumors that she suffered a heart attack. No, nothing is wrong with her heart, she said. And as if anticipating reactions, she poked fun at herself by remarking that even she was surprised to find that she has a heart.

And then the condition of her knees were discussed and eventually her feet. The doctors have prescribed that the madam needs to buy new shoes, ones that won’t aggravate her knee problem (she was also asked to lose weight), a prescription that sent her giggling. Of course, a woman can’t have enough shoes, she cackled. She thought she was being funny.

From hearts and knees, the news soon became about kidneys. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez was doing well, it was reported, after a successful kidney transplant. His system seems to have adjusted well to his new kidney although we don’t know if the kidney is doing the same; and I meant no pun in that last statement, I swear.

I don’t know if it is a reflection of his work ethics, or the man is just plain stubborn and eternally raring for a fight, but there he was being quoted as saying that he considers his hospitalization as incarceration. He says he can’t wait to go back to work.

Former Senate President Jovito Salonga, who resigned as member of Sigma Rho, the brotherhood of dubious distinction that is implicated in the barbaric murder of UP student Cris Mendez, was put to task by loyal members for slurring the name of their beloved fraternity. I don’t think anyone can do further damage to the name of Sigma Rho other than what the members who killed Cris Mendez have already done.

The very livid alumni Grand Archon had the temerity to demand that Salonga apologize to Sigma Rho for what he insisted was an insult to the fraternity and their brotherhood. Darn, some people just have a very twisted concept of brotherhood.

And just when we thought things could not be any more surreal, they showed the clip of Filipino singer Christian Bautista mangling the Philippine National Anthem during the boxing exhibition between Gerry Peñalosa and Bernabe Concepcion in Alabang held last Sunday. He abbreviated the national anthem by omitting two lines (buhay ay langit sa piling mo/ aming ligaya na pag may mang-aapi), directly going to “ang mamatay nang dahil sa ’yo” from “Lupa ng araw, ng luwalhati’t pagsinta.”


It’s forgivable of course, but unbelievable until you witness it. It’s surreal, but it happens.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Let's not bungle this up

Damn it, damn it, damn it!

Just when you thought people have learned their lesson and mended their ways while people were in a forgiving mood, you get slapped with this new revelation that is simply stupefying beyond words.

Some people are simply, incorrigibly beyond hope and redemption.

I just hope that those who are in a position to do the necessary, do the right things right this time around. Instead of strutting around and playing to the cameras to get media mileage, I hope that they do their homework well instead so that the bastards are nailed effectively.

Let's do this right this time around.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The death of innocence

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

Despite his continued defiant attitude and his vehement protestations, it was very easy to empathize with former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, his family and supporters last week. And not only because it is truly difficult to rejoice at the misfortunes of others, but more because despite the swagger, the bravado, and the many blunders, there is no denying that Estrada strikes people as a man whose heart is in the right place.

There is a part of me that takes some measure of relief that this country’s justice system has been able to take on the supreme challenge of making a former president face up to crimes committed while occupying the highest seat of power.

Thus, I agree that to a large extent, the verdict was a triumph of the Philippine justice system, if not of justice itself. Of course, this point is lost on Estrada’s son, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who lambasted the wisdom and impartiality of the judges and the decision, and yet nevertheless celebrated his acquittal from the same justices and the same judicial process.

There is a part of me that takes pride at the fact that we were finally able to make someone powerful accountable for wantonly violating his oath of office.

Thus, I agree that the verdict is a wake-up call for those who abuse the power of their office. I agree that the verdict sends a strong message to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the powers-that-be of this administration whose running tally of questionable transactions now reaches outrageous proportions. If a popular former president could be tried, found guilty, and meted out life imprisonment, the odds of these happening to an unpopular president are even greater.

There is a part of me that takes comfort in the validation that justice in this country is not subject to external pressures.

I know that there are people who continue to insist that the verdict was a result of the manipulative hands of some unseen powers, presumably from the current occupants of Malacañang. But if we come down to it, the tremendous popularity of the accused and correspondingly, the immense unpopularity of President Arroyo, not to mention the possibility of a backlash, could also be construed as external pressures that could have weighed down on the crafting of the verdict.

I have said this many times in the past and I will say it again now: I am not a fan of former President Estrada’s. I have never written his name on a ballot. However, one does not have to be a diehard Estrada fan or an ardent loyalist to feel sad at the man’s downfall from grace.

This is, after all, a man who offered a lifeline to the poor and the downtrodden, a man who offered himself as a hero to the masses. Estrada was a President who rose to power on the wings of hope and the promise of change and redemption. Those who have had the privilege of interacting with him personally swear by the man’s inherent charisma, of his gift for engaging people, of being touched by the man’s simplicity and supposed sincerity.

Estrada was the President who could have made a difference in this country. And I mean this in a positive light, not as someone who will be held up as an example of what awaits those who are found guilty of plunder.

Estrada may still win on appeal, get pardoned, or manage to stay out of jail. He may take comfort in empty declarations of having been vindicated on the bar of public opinion, even take the higher moral ground and wear his conviction as a badge of honor. He and his supporters might take consolation in the assertion that because Filipinos are a forgiving people noted for short-term memory, the stigma will eventually fade.

But there is no escaping the stark naked truth: He has been convicted of a major crime. He will go down in history as the first President of this country with a disgraceful footnote attached to his name.

There are many facts that are beyond debate. Even his most ardent supporters no longer hinge their cause on the veracity of the accusations. Their lamentations are now grounded on two other major points that, to their mind, indicate guilt on lesser crimes. That the millions of pesos in question were not government funds (and therefore not covered by the law on plunder) and that others are more culpable of similar, if not graver, crimes. In other words, Estrada’s most grievous mistake was that he got caught. That he was mortal.

I know this borders on the melodramatic, but to some extent, Estrada’s conviction represents the death of innocence. Estrada’s assumption to power—and his eventual fall from grace —is not just a tale of one man’s travails but of a people’s betrayal.

It reminds us that even the purest of hearts and the noblest of intentions cannot be justifications for greed and recklessness. Estrada and his supporters continue to believe that Estrada’s most grievous mistake was that he was very generous and trusting, that there was no malice or intent to defraud, that he was a victim of circumstances. Perhaps.

Perhaps these explain the utter recklessness and brazenness that permeated the whole sordid chain of events—from the way economic decisions were supposedly finalized over bottles of $1,000 Chateau Petrus by members of a shadowy midnight cabinet, to the way the construction of those mansions in Wack Wack and New Manila were so shamelessly flaunted.

It reminds us that it takes more than an iconic image, charm, and street sense to become an effective leader. Being President goes beyond championing the cause of the poor through empty rhetoric.

There is no denying or escaping the facts have been laid bare for all of us to see and evaluate from the time of the impeachment trial, to Edsa 2, to the recent events. Of Estrada’s disdain for the day-to-day tasks of running the government. Of his utter inability to differentiate presidential obligations from his personal lifestyle. We may have forgotten the many embarrassing details of Estrada’s lack of management skills, focus, and discipline.

But we do know this in our heart of hearts: Despite his compassion and his many personal gifts of character, the fact is Estrada was simply unprepared and unqualified for the highest post in the land.

Estrada’s conviction is therefore a bittersweet event for many reasons. On one hand, it gives us occasion to pat ourselves on the back presumably for the powerful lesson that can be extracted from it. But on the other hand, it also reflects on our dismal failure as a people to produce and nurture the right leaders to lead us.

I know I am going to get a lot of flak for saying this, but the whole Estrada phenomenon is our creation as a people. I know a number of people who blame the whole fiasco solely on the people who supported and voted him into office. I refuse to ascribe Estrada’s ascension to power only to the people who voted him into office. Estrada became President because we made him President. We created the conditions that made him President.

It is my hope that the death of innocence paves the way for more maturity particularly in the selection of leaders.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Judgment day

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

Today, the Sandiganbayan hands down its decision on the cases involving former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

We know about it because almost everyone in media has been trying to rouse public interest and attention toward it for quite some time now. For instance, one television network has been repeatedly showing that video clip from Estrada’s presidential inauguration where he intones the infamous line “walang kaibigan, walang kapatid…”

It’s riveting and I am sure it affects people emotionally in different ways, but at the end of it all, one can’t help wondering what the motivations of the station are for repeatedly airing that clip.
I know that Estrada’s trial and his subsequent conviction or acquittal have serious implications in this country.

I am aware that history is being written today over at Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City. Estrada happens to be the first President of this country to be put on trial for alleged sins committed during his presidency. That Estrada continues to have a strong following among the masa adds gravity to the whole proceedings.

But do we really have to turn the whole thing into a circus? Are all the screaming, huffing and puffing and flailing around really necessary? Can’t we cover the event and present the issues in a sober and dignified way befitting Estrada’s stature as former president of the Republic?

Can’t we just sit still and wait until the verdict is announced and then discuss intelligently and objectively afterwards when the facts are clear and the basis for the decision are made public?

Unfortunately, that’s not the way we do things in this country. Everything is a media event and we all know what happens when media is in charge. Everyone jumps the gun and everything is reduced to a scoop that people fight over for. When competition gets into the picture, fairness, decency, civility get forgotten.

And so, it has become almost ludicrous, the way certain sectors in media have been tripping all over themselves in an effort to deliver what they deem is “better coverage” of the whole thing.

In an effort to provide better context to the whole coverage, some networks have gone as far as allowing their news people to become the subject of the news. A newscaster got into an altercation with police and military people at the Sandiganbayan over security issues and the whole thing was reported as news, never mind the fact that the newscaster in question came out arrogant and overbearing in the process.

At least one newspaper has been using those controversial mug photos of Estrada which were taken many years ago when he was arrested, the ones that got his supporters in uproar. The newspaper editors can hem and haw and cite all kinds of justification for their decision to use those photos but they cannot say that there is no subjective intent in doing so. Those pictures send a subliminal message to people.

Many have been issuing appeals for people to be calm and to accept the verdict, whatever it may be. The other night, Estrada was shown on television hounded by cameras and reporters. Estrada very calmly announced that he had accepted his fate and that people should also do so.

In so many words, he appealed for calm and sobriety and asked people not to go a rampage and instead to just pray for him. Too bad his message was lost in the pandemonium around him, created by the reporters themselves.

We’ve been told not to indulge in speculation and that it is quite futile to do so because nobody, aside from the justices themselves, know what the verdict is going to be. But really now, who is doing the speculation? Who is rounding up supposed experts and pundits and putting them in front of cameras to pontificate and present all kinds of doomsday scenarios? Who is running after Estrada loyalists to interview them about their impending mass actions?

I don’t hear of ordinary people demanding that these be done, that these issues be explained to them in such a highly partisan manner.

We’ve been continuously told not to panic because there is no basis for widespread fear. But who the heck is making a heyday out of all the gory details about the number of soldiers being deployed and where?

Quite frankly, I think most people would rather sit it out and wait for the verdict to be made.

I was in a cab yesterday morning which, unfortunately, happened to be tuned in to an AM station. The hosts of the radio show were presenting all kinds of possibilities as far as the verdict on the case was concerned. It was surreal. Truly a little knowledge is a dangerous thing to have for people whose job is to pretend that they know everything. I am not a lawyer but I know when people are guilty of violating this country’s laws on sub judice and the hosts were not only violating the law, they were wantonly trampling it.

They first presented what they thought was the most likely verdict: a conviction on the plunder case. The hosts’ take on this conclusion would not have irked me as much if only it was based on, at the very least, appreciation of the merits of the case and of the evidence presented. Unfortunately, the hosts premised their conclusion on the supposed relationship between Estrada’s case and the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration.

According to the hosts, a verdict of not guilty would seriously imperil the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration and pave the way for Estrada’s claim to power. This line of reasoning has been flaunted many times last week prompting Estrada to denounce any plans of going back to politics.

Duh. It is as if the Supreme Court has not already ruled on the issue of the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration. Besides, the insinuation that the justices of the Sandiganbayan can be influenced by Malacañang makes a mockery of the whole justice system. There simply is no evidence so far that those three justices can be bought so it is completely unfair to keep making the connection. But then again, fairness has never been one of our strongest virtues as a people.

The hosts presented two other scenarios: Acquittal and a verdict of guilty on a lesser crime, supposedly graft and corruption instead of plunder. But the conclusions were based on the same gobbledygook that just did not make sense.

There is a part of me that disagrees with the Sandiganbayan on its decision not to allow live television coverage inside the courtroom today when it lays down the verdict on Estrada. But given the foregoing, I think there is some wisdom there.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Beauty and madness

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

The television ad for this brand of shampoo begins with a voice announcing that no makeup was used in the commercial. It then moves on to display lush, midnight black, straight, and tangle-free hair on four individuals whose faces are turned against the camera.

Nothing new there; it is still the same tired old pitch for this rather ridiculous notion of what is supposedly the “ideal” hair, which as we all know has no semblance whatsoever to reality. There is no way that anyone’s hair will ever come close to looking like those without the aid of industrial grade blowers, special lighting, and computer graphics softwares. And certainly not just by using a particular shampoo no matter how many gallons of the stuff is slobbered and lathered on one’s mane.

But one-by-one, the “models” turn around to reveal the twist: The models are people who don’t conform to the standard definition of beauty as dictated by advertising agencies and by media. One of them is in fact a man, and hardly the Aga Muhlach or Sam Milby type.

There is another version of the ad, but it pursues the same inspired idea and features the same bunch of “ordinary” people.

Several months ago, a number of billboards sprouted along major thoroughfares advertising the search for, believe it or not, “Miss Ugly No More.” The title of the search already gave us a hint of the special qualifying criterion required in terms of aesthetic attributes. The giant pictures did not disappoint; they showed the most unflattering mugs conceivable of the four finalists.

Apparently, no one complained of political incorrectness. The people behind the search, which is a cosmetic surgery and skin center, succeeded in their quest as billboards of the winner eventually replaced the old ones.

The ads do not detail what exactly was done to the finalists to deserve the privilege of being called Miss Ugly No More. But one can safely assume that developing self-esteem intrinsically was not one of them.

Of course, Dove pulled the rug from everyone else when the makers of the soap launched their global “Campaign for Real Beauty” last year.

The campaign aimed to challenge the common stereotype and in its place present a broader more democratic picture of beauty. Thus, for a change, we saw pictures of women of all ages, shapes, and ethnic backgrounds flaunting their various imperfections in those billboards instead of the usual bevy of the perfect blemish-, cellulite-, and flab-free women.
Brave attempts at challenging the stereotypical concept of beauty?

Are we finally witnessing a counterculture movement where beauty is being positioned as a construct that is free from the pressures of commercial considerations?

Can we all now heave a sigh of relief at the thought that people can celebrate individual uniqueness as individuals?

Are advertisements finally teaching people that beauty is really and truly only skin deep?
I am afraid not.

These and the handful of other similar ads may feature people who defy the common conventions of beauty, but they are far from empowering.

Take the case of the shampoo ad. The real intent of the ad, other than to sell shampoo, is debatable. There are those who are offended by what they consider as brazen exploitation and mockery of the physical attributes of the people featured in the ad. And then, there are those who see healthy humor in the whole thing and accuse those who take offense as uptight reactionaries who can’t take a joke.

The ad is probably meant to be cute and funny and I am sure there are those who do find it as such; never mind if the amusement is at the expense of those people. True, the ad does not make a direct commentary on the facial attributes of those people. But the way those people are presented together says a lot. It can even be argued that the choice of those people, individually and as a group, is an exercise in reverse discrimination.

Those people, and the contestants in that quest for Miss Ugly No More were not deliberately picked and lumped together to bring home the message that it is okay to look “just the way you are.”

They were picked to perpetuate the notion that beauty is about enhancing certain attributes through the use of certain products whose real value is questionable.

So in the end, it really is just another creative way of selling a product and the use of those people is just another ingenious way of attracting attention. Put another way, the whole thing is driven by greed and profit.

And, for crying out loud, can someone please tell me what is the connection between the facial attributes of a person and selling shampoo? I still have trouble seeing the connection between Piolo Pascual’s perfectly sculpted body and coffee, between Roxanne Guinoo’s red bikini and whiskey, and between Anne Curtis’ pretty face and beer.

Unfortunately, we’ve all been conditioned to associate pretty faces and beautiful bodies with advertising. If we are to push the envelope further, we’ve even been conditioned to accept partial nudity as a valid form of selling products even if the connection between the scantily and provocatively clad human being and the product is a stretch.

The Dove campaign tried to ignite a debate about what comprises real beauty by asking people to vote through texting on the question. I never really got to find out what the final results were and if the campaign succeeded in challenging the stereotype, but the makers of the soap have gone back to featuring the same perfect-looking specimens of humanity in their new ads. I guess we can presume that the campaign was simply what it was—a marketing trick that eventually ran its course.

My friends in the advertising profession tell me that they are just giving in to the demand, that that is the concept of beauty that sells. They tell me that even media is guilty of perpetuating the stereotype. I agree. Another friend who works as producer in a television network told me that they have strict marching orders to pick celebrities, models, and good-looking people as guests in their shows. Even in variety shows, cameras do tend to scan the audience and zero in mainly on good-looking people.

We do have a distorted concept of beauty and we continue to fortify this distortion in various ways.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Wowowee Controversy

This is my column today.

Senator Mar Roxas’ call for a Senate investigation on the controversy was definitely an overreaction. I am sure our senators have better things to do than look into allegations of cheating in a noontime television show. As a contender for the 2010 presidential race, Roxas’ motivations may also be questionable.

But Roxas has a point and one that got lost in the din and dynamics of the hysterical protestations that came in the wake of the controversy. “Wowowee” and ABS-CBN need to explain what happened.

For those who inhabit a universe where noontime shows are irrelevant, here is the story: A couple of weeks back, ABS-CBN’s noontime television game show Wowowee, (yup, the same show that tries so hard to acquire a philanthropic image) launched a new game entitled “Wilyonaryo.” The title of the game gives you an idea of the rather egotistical nature of the show—it’s really all about the host and his ideas of what charity and giving means.

Wilyonaryo, or for that matter even the games of its main competitor “Eat Bulaga,” is anything but new. It is the same template that has worked so many times in the past in terms of giving people a false sense of hope. It is the same tired and tested formula designed to get people to believe that a stroke of luck is all that’s needed to change one’s fortunes. Hey, if it can happen to someone, it can happen to anyone. It’s the same twisted logic that created that unfortunate stampede at Ultra.

Eat Bulaga does it tongue-in-cheek with the hosts making it very clear that it’s all a game and that it is just another form of entertainment.

Wowowee, however, puts a social spin to what they do, which is why I am writing this piece.
Wowowee makes it appear that what they do is philanthropy; that the show exists primarily to help the “poor.” The host of the show uses this spin (sometimes accompanied by shameless caterwauling) to justify everything—the tragedy at Ultra, the lapses in the show’s content, even the latest controversy which involves accusations of rigging. Going by the host’s twisted reasoning, the fact that they give thousands of pesos everyday to a handful of Filipino poor already excuses them from public scrutiny.

I do not presume to know what is in the hearts of the show’s hosts and producers. It is possible that they are really convinced that what they do is philanthropy. But we all know that Wowowee is first and foremost a moneymaking venture. Wowowee exists to compete for ratings. It is a show created for profit.

But let’s go back to Wilyonaryo and the controversy. As in other similar games that promote a “get-rich-quick” mentality, contestants go through a qualifying round until only one person is left standing. This person is given the chance to win the pot money; in the case of Wilyonaryo, P2 million. One wins by guessing correctly where the pot money is and therefore picking the correct “contraption” that contains it.

Pepe Pimentel, who started it all with his trademark “Kwarta o Kahon” used an ordinary kahon. Other shows have since then introduced variations of the concept including a bayong.
In the case of Wilyonaryo, the contraption is a wheel-looking device with a pull-out mechanism at the back. When the mechanism is pulled out, the face of the box displays the amount of the pot money. The goal is to pick the wheel that contains the number 2, which will indicate that the contestant has won the pot money of P2 million.

To generate more excitement, contestants are engaged in a bidding contest where the hosts offer money in incremental amounts in exchange for whatever is in the contraption.

Last Aug. 20, the last remaining contestant forfeited her chances of winning the pot money by opting for the cash bid of P100,000 (she had already won P37,000 in the qualifying rounds). As a result, all the other wheels were opened, each of which revealed a zero inside. The implication was that the contestant actually picked the correct wheel and could have won the pot money of P2 million if only she held her ground and stuck it out during the bidding process.

With a flourish, the hosts of the show then pulled out the device behind the last wheel to reveal… alas, not the number 2, but yet another zero! At which point, the host hastily pulled out another strip of paper at the back of the same wheel with the number 2 in it, trying to laugh off the whole snafu by saying he made a mistake.

One fact is very clear and can be seen in all the videos of the incident that are circulating in YouTube: The last wheel contained both the numbers, 2 and 0. It should have contained only the number 2, but it contained two numbers. The conclusion that people have drawn from this fact is logical—the game was rigged. The ruse was inadvertently exposed when the host pulled the wrong device. Instead of pulling out a 2, he accidentally pulled out the 0.

In short, winning the pot is not a matter of picking the right wheel, it is a matter of being at the right place at the right time, which is when the show decides to grant the pot money. It is still about luck, but unfortunately it’s the kind that is subject to the business goals of the show and the station.

The people behind Wowowee initially refused to issue a statement, except to deny the accusations. A subplot involving an on-air exchange between the host of Wowowee and another host of Eat Bulaga momentarily deflected focus on the main issues of the controversy. But more people have since then joined the fray including some congressmen, at least one other senator, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the chairman of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. A citizen’s group has filed a complaint with the DTI.

One of the executives of ABS-CBN finally issued a statement last week. But instead of putting the matter to rest, the explanation only invited more suspicion. ABS-CBN continued to deflect the issue by saying that it was merely a “mechanical glitch.” And then the executive spewed paeans about how the station is such a firm believer in fairness and transparency, how the show is such a great act of philanthropy, how the host of the show deserves to be nominated for sainthood, blah, blah, blah (I am exaggerating of course, but that’s the general drift). In short, the executive did a snow job.

They have been unable to explain how two numbers could be in the same contraption. This cannot be a mechanical error.

Of course we all know that cheating is not something new in this country. The difference here is that ABS-CBN claims to be against any and all forms of cheating. The station regularly drags across the coils of public opinion public officials suspected of committing irregularities. The station makes big lectures and homilies about the values that the station espouses. The station exposes all kinds of anomalies allegedly done by others. If the Wowowee controversy were something that happened in another company or in government, ABS-CBN would have had a field day with it.

ABS-CBN needs to come up with a satisfactory explanation to the Wowowee controversy. Otherwise, it risks losing moral ascendancy in this country.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Senseless, brutal, barbaric

This is my column today at the op-ed pages of the Manila Standard Today.

Last week, Cris Anthony Mendez or CA to friends, a graduating student of the College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines Diliman paid the highest price possible for the privilege of being called a “brod:” his life.

The circumstances around his death remain sketchy, as those who are in a position to shed light on the tragedy are still not talking. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he died from one of the most barbaric displays of power. He was hazed while trying to gain admission into a fraternity.

CA’s body bore the telltale signs of hazing. A doctor friend (who, incidentally is a fratman himself who has been a victim of hazing) told me that it is quite easy to spot bruises that come from being assaulted repeatedly by a paddle. The pattern of events also closely mirrored previous similar incidents. The victim was surreptitiously brought to a hospital by people who subsequently refused to talk and quickly fled the scene.

Personal accounts in many blogs, particularly those of UP students, converge on the same conclusion. CA was a trophy candidate for fraternities who prey on the young and the promising to add to their roster of would-be illustrious brethren. He was a student leader. He told his friends that he was being aggressively recruited to join Sigma Rho, one of the dominant fraternities in UP. He was last seen talking to the president of his college’s student council, a member of the Sigma Rho fraternity, presumably the person who recruited CA to join the fraternity.

As can be expected, Sigma Rho vehemently denied involvement and even went as far as to brazenly declare it does not conduct hazing on their neophytes. But many UP students, specially the friends of Mendez, tell a different story. They are understandably indignant and the blogosphere is ablaze with fiery denunciations directed at Sigma Rho.

One doesn’t have to know CA personally to grieve and be outraged that something so senseless, so brutal, and so barbaric could befall someone who represented hope, both for his family and this country.

But the loss of the life of a promising young man at the very hands of people who offered enticements of lifelong brotherhood and affinity is not something new. The long list includes people like Lenny Villa and Alex Icasiano. And I am afraid that until more concrete actions are taken, CA won’t be the last.

CA died a senseless death because of the culture of violence that is deeply imbedded in fraternities and in other organizations that continue to blindly adhere to a barbaric tradition—one that has been scientifically debunked many times over by behavior experts—of inflicting physical pain to strengthen loyalty, commitment and fraternal bonds.

This culture of violence has to be stopped and now is a good time for everyone to come together to admit that we have a serious problem in our hands and that the solution will require multiple responses from everyone. Hazing is a social problem.

Hazing is not a phenomenon that is limited to the enclaves of academe. Hazing incidents have been frequently reported in the police and military, in athletic teams, religious cults, and other types of clubs and organizations that aspire for social status by making admission to the group difficult.

I have not been a victim of hazing because I had the good sense to quit an initiation rite when I was in college, when the fraternity masters became abusive. To this day, I still could not reconcile two facts: The fraternity aggressively recruited and in fact practically begged me to join and yet were poised to humiliate, abuse, and physically hurt me at the same time. It just didn’t add up because any relationship, much less a brotherhood, is a sham if it is founded on violence and humiliation.

But I admit culpability on one other occasion. I had a cousin who joined Tau Gamma and two years ago, he sought my help to get medical attention for the bruises and welts he got from initiation rites. The bruises were truly horrifying, the kind that become permanent marks on one’s body. But my cousin begged me to keep the matter from his parents, and I acceded to the request out of a mistaken sense of relief that at least he survived the incident. On hindsight, I could have spoken out about the barbarity. But I chose to be silent then and I admit my mistake.

Hazing and the culture of violence that fuels it continue to happen because of many factors. But the code of silence is an integral factor in the whole scheme of things. As what is happening now in CA’s case, very few are coming forward to shed light on what really happened and who were responsible. No one is admitting responsibility.

The officers of the fraternity and the initiation-mates of Mendez are not talking. Reports say that the fraternity has alumni in high places and are presumably not beyond using their connections to buy silence. And this is another problem. As has been shown in previous cases, the illustrious and often fiercely loyal alumni of a fraternity always choose to condone murder and participate in covering up the grievous mistakes of their fratmates instead of making a principled stand.

And then, there is the other aspect of the culture of silence—denial. Many among us continue to believe in the myth that hazing strengthens bonds and that it is essentially harmless; that death, such as in the case of CA, is an exception. Many try to justify the act by asserting that no malicious intent is present.

Well, it is time to call a spade a dirty shovel. Hazing is really nothing more but a savage display of power and control.

No amount of persuasive gobbledygook can dispel the fact that forcing a person to perform an embarrassing or humiliating act or submit himself to torture can strengthen bonds. Psychological literature says that hazing only results in a deep sense of violation that leads into feelings of resentment that fester inside a person and which eventually surface later on in uglier forms such as retribution. There is no psychological literature that classifies hazing as a valid form of team building. There are many positive alternatives to foster bonds and unity.

Fraternities should come to grips with this inescapable fact: Death by hazing is never accidental. It is premeditated. It is intentional. It is one of the highest forms of victimization.

And so what if the victim agrees to participate in the activity? In many cases, waiver forms are signed freeing perpetrators from supposed legal responsibilities. I doubt very much if anyone grants permission to be mauled and killed.

My heart bleeds for CA’s parents and those of the other kids involved in the tragedy. I can only imagine the emotional turmoil they are currently going through. I am sure that covering up their children’s grievous mistakes was not among the responsibilities they aspired for when they sent their children to college.

This is a cliché, but really, the senseless death of Cris Anthony Mendez should serve as a wake up call. It is time to review the Anti-hazing Law. It is time for university administrators and academic communities to join forces to finally end the culture of violence. It is time for alumni of fraternities and parents of fratmen to provide a stronger moral compass to their younger brods and children.

Hazing is senseless, brutal and barbaric. There is no place for it in our society.