Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sex, lies and videotape

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

We live in a world and at a time when everyone, it seems, thinks he or she is entitled to information; when the concept of privacy has become incomprehensible to many.

I guess this is to be expected given advances in technology. We have at our disposal all these gadgets supposedly designed to keep us abreast of everything that is happening around us, and elsewhere in the world, 24/7, and on demand. It doesn’t help that we’ve been conditioned to expect nothing less by the influential people in this country. Why, if Kris Aquino has no qualms about revealing to the whole world the most intimate details about her life including the indiscretions of her partners, then we should expect nothing less from others of lesser social stature.

We’re so used to people readily spilling the beans on whatever controversy they happen to be embroiled in that we seem to resent it when other people who figure in controversies choose to withhold information and ask everyone else to respect their right to privacy. As a consequence thereof, certain media people hound those involved in controversies citing “public interest,” “responsibility to the people” and “the need to uphold the truth” as compelling reasons for them to come out and brave public condemnation and judgment. It’s as if everyone owes the world an explanation.

And so, the woman who is at the center of the current controversy involving allegations of, well, sex, lies and videotape has been forced to come out publicly to defend her dignity and honor, or at least that seems to be what she is intent on doing. Sadly, there’s only so much one can do to defend one’s self if one is unprepared, unwilling, and unable to tell the truth yet. And then there is the matter of her choice of media channel—which so far have been celebrity gossip shows—which unfortunately, have not been known for being the benchmark in intelligent and fair dissection of public issues.

She has been vilified in various tabloids and in various Internet sites for reasons nobody has been able to figure out yet. And worse, for reasons no one seems to care about. She certainly didn’t call a press conference to accuse others of any crime. In fact, all the sordid details about the supposed incident that she figured in didn’t come from her or her lawyer—they all emanated from someone who also heard the story from someone else. She had been trying to keep the story under wraps for quite sometime until someone went to town with the salacious details.

Unfortunately, all the ingredients that make a controversy were present: The possible involvement of celebrities, sex, crime and videotape.

She said she didn’t really want to be controversial; that she precisely chose to keep her peace because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. She refused to provide details about what really happened on that fateful day of June 2, 2011 when sexual violence supposedly happened although it has not been disputed that something did happen. She refused to confirm or deny the rumor that she was sexually violated. But in the same breath, she and her lawyer, quite tellingly, have repeatedly made it known that they continue to study their options. Of course cynics construe the deliberate attempts at ambiguity as validation of their worst suspicions.

It gets complicated. Some reports indicated that she was willing to accept an apology although no one has been able to clarify what the apology would be for. The more riveting piece of information that has been the focus of intense guesswork is: From whom does she want the apology to come? The names of four individuals, some of the most popular and idolized figures in the local athletic world have been mentioned in various reports. She has refused to confirm or deny the identities of the supposed perpetrators or witnesses to what actually happened in June 2, 2011.

That hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from working overdrive, churning out non-stop all kinds of stories about what allegedly, supposedly really happened. It is alleged that a video exists somewhere, supposedly taken by one of the four people identified as having been present at the incident.

The word that is being tossed around so casually, the proverbial elephant in the room that is being obliquely referred to but never really acknowledged publicly, is rape.

It’s a big word that lots of people in this country try to discuss dispassionately but never really comprehend fully.

This is frustrating, but there are indeed people in this country who talk seem to think that rape is simply one of those unfortunate things that happen to “certain kinds of people” who are best advised to just cast it aside as one of those learning experience that they should simply learn from. There are those who seem to think that rape is not plausible if the alleged perpetrators are good looking celebrities who, theoretically, would not be wanting of sexual partners. Yes, unbelievably enough, there are people who actually think victims should offer thanksgiving masses for having been the victim of rape. I was aghast to read commentaries in certain blogs (supposedly made by women) that being raped by the celebrity athletes in question would have been dream come true for them.

And then there are those, people like me, who think that rape is rape regardless of who did it to whom, regardless of the stature of the people involved in the story. Rape is a crime, no buts or ifs about it.

I am not saying the woman at the eye of the current controversy has been raped. Nor am I saying that the people who have been identified as the perpetrators of the deed are guilty. I think that we can take the statements of the parties at face value—something happened and they are in the process of weighing the various consequences of whatever action they choose to take.

But if indeed rape was committed, then they parties would have to answer for the consequences regardless of who and what they are.

But there is no doubt that the whole issue could have been handled with a little more objectivity, maturity and wisdom rather than just as fodder for the gossip mill. There is very little doubt that the intense interest in the case has been fanned and driven by nothing more than sensationalism. It is also clear that politics within the football association was the impetus that turned the whole thing into a scandal.

As can be expected in cases involving sexual crimes, the victims—in this case, the woman and the alleged perpetrators —has been victimized over and over again in many ways. Their integrity and character have been put to question. A lot of unsavory descriptions have been appended to their public personas.

I empathize with the situation of the people involved in this latest controversy. I wish I can parrot what others say is the only refuge in situations like these, which is that the truth will set all of them free. Sometimes the truth is something we cannot nor want to handle. In situations like these, we can only hope that the people involved find the wisdom to know the course of action that would bring the most acceptable closure for themselves. And hopefully, we can all find the grace to respect their decisions.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wheel of fate

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

I am not surprised, although I must admit not being pleasantly so, that our senators and everybody else at the Senate gave the Catholic bishops reverential treatment last week.

I want to stress though that I certainly didn’t expect and wouldn’t have wanted them treated the way other witnesses are usually treated in Senate and Congressional hearings, not necessarily because they are religious leaders but because nobody really deserves to be treated with the kind of disrespect that is usually characteristic of these hearings.

Three hundred years worth of Catholic guilt pretty much explains why we tend to tiptoe in the presence of religious leaders. We’ve all been conditioned to think of them as royalty. I came from a family of Catholic religious zealots and my grandmother had this thing about treating bishops and priests like they were higher species of nature and we were unworthy to even breathe the same air they were ingesting. Besides, it’s just unthinkable to imagine anyone trashing the same people who listen to our confessions and sprinkle holy water over our heads.

I am one of those who spoke harshly against Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of the Diocese of Butuan for openly soliciting a 4x4 vehicle as a birthday gift from former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. I will not take back my criticism of the bishop nor apologize for calling the bishop’s act shameless. What I riled about is not disputed, which is that de Dios Pueblos wrote a cloying letter to Arroyo asking for a birthday present worth around a million pesos.

What is currently furiously being “rewritten” and “reframed” for better context is the so-called social dimension of the donations of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office to the Catholic bishops (including those vehicles). I think Archbishop Oscar Cruz already provided the only suitable context to the whole issue: he refused offers of similar donations in the past because, in so many words, the end simply does not justify the means.

I am not buying all these recent attempts to paint the bishops and the Catholic Church as hapless victims of PCSO Chairperson Margarita Juico and the media. There is a Commission on Audit report which details the various donations of the PCSO to “preferred bishops and dioceses.” There is a smoking gun in the form of an official letter written by Pueblos. There are actual vehicles; they may not be Pajeros, but they are SUVs just the same. These facts were not and are not being disputed.

What the recent events have illustrated so clearly is that our bishops still wield formidable power in this country, or at least they are still allowed to project that impression in public. When it comes down to it, there are very few leaders in this country with the grit and gumption to stand up to a prince of the Catholic Church, again, at least publicly.

Thanks to a brilliant public relations strategy, our bishops are on their way to recovering whatever they have lost in the recent skirmish. Why, the campaign to raise money so that the vehicles they have returned to the PCSO could be replaced is gaining some ground—in a two days’ time they were able to raise enough to buy one SUV. The fact that the Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest social institutions in the country (for instance, they own a sizable block of shares in the Bank of the Philippine Islands for crying out loud), is being glossed over.

As my septuagenarian neighbor is wont to say—that’s how things are in this country, subject to the so-called gulong ng palad (wheel of fate). One day you are down, the next day you are up.

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte’s imminent exoneration is a classic example. Just two weeks ago, she was widely criticized for publicly pummeling Sheriff Abe Andres for not heeding her “request“ to postpone a demolition of a squatter colony in her city. People were talking about a possible suspension, even removal from public office and a possible disbarment from the Philippine Bar. Fickle public opinion has since then turned in her favor and there were even quarters that hailed her as a heroine.

Informed sources say that Duterte will probably just get a gentle slap in the hand and will be allowed to resume her post with a little admonition to manage her anger better.

And the same can probably be said of the fortunes of former President Arroyo who is probably the most vilified figure in the Philippines today. There is something that people should be cognizant about—there is only so much demonizing one can make, particularly if the object is a woman with a certain enigma. She is currently being painted out as a demon but given our relatively short memory—which probably explains why there is always new dirt being unearthed every couple of months - and the fact that Arroyo can easily package herself as an underdog (she catapulted to the top of the senatorial race on her first attempt at national politics on the strength of her physical resemblance to superstar Nora Aunor, remember?) raises possibilities of a political comeback.

I bet Arroyo’s camp is also biding their time. Given the rising levels of disillusionment towards the Aquino administration, it is just a matter of time before the Arroyo camp begins to go on an attack mode. And I have no doubt that they will when Aquino becomes vulnerable.

A measure of the growing disillusionment is the way pronouncements such as the ones made recently by Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas on leadership is poised to become viral. I was at a meeting last Saturday where photocopies of the Philippine Star article that quoted the Archbishop’s musings, widely regarded as a dig on President Aquino’s weakness, were circulated.

Speaking at a Rotary Club function, Villegas was quoted as saying that “leadership without vision is treachery to the governed. Integral leadership also means setting the path towards the future…. Those who set their hearts on the plow cannot keep looking back. Leadership is moving forward with excitement. The task of the leader is not only to stay clean and live by integrity,” he was supposed to have said.

According to Villegas “Integrity is a great capital asset in leadership but it is unfortunately not enough… The man of integrity must also be integral. Leadership is not just about moral ascendancy. It takes more than integrity of character to become a leader. Leadership is vision-setting too.”

Wishful thinking

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

At around four in the afternoon today, or thereabouts, the 15th President of the Republic of the Philippines, Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III, will deliver his second State-of-the-Nation-Address to Congress as prescribed by Article VII, Section 23 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

This year’s edition (some simply refer to it as the biggest fashion event of the season on account of the fact that our legislators and their spouses grab the chance to show off the abundance— or sadly, the absence—of fashion and common sense) is the much awaited political event of the season as the President is widely expected to use the occasion to reveal the most explosive revelations about what concrete damning evidence his administration has on former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her lackeys.

We expect to hear facts and figures, and more importantly, what exactly this administration has at this point, that will stand in court. We have seen in the last few weeks, all these frenzied efforts to summon renewed interest, perhaps even renewed outrage on the extent of corruption in the previous administration. Not that we needed to be reminded, of course. But generally, I think it is safe to assume that most everyone expects this year’s SONA to be a last hurrah of sorts.

There is a limit, after all, to how much we can keep on simply publicly whining and flaying around about the sins of the past. This is probably the last time President Aquino will be given some latitude for using the gambit as most everyone is tired of all these efforts to put all the blame for everything that is wrong in this country on the previous administration. At a certain point, President Aquino also needs to be made accountable for his own performance as President, particularly if he has sat long enough in office.

This early, even some of Aquino’s core supporters have already expressed impatience with the all-consuming preoccupation with “looking back” and the trial-by-publicity. At a certain point, and everyone hopes this will be soon after the SONA, cases will just have to be filed at the proper courts and the government will just have to begin focusing on how to move this country forward. We need to make Arroyo and her lackeys accountable for their misdeeds, yes, and that is what the courts are there for.

I agree that we need to start making leaders accountable for corruption, but this cannot be our all-consuming passion and preoccupation. We also need to move forward. We need to start managing for the long-term.

So I join everyone else in hoping that President Aquino will balance his SONA today with a presentation of a roadmap for the future, beyond efforts to put Arroyo behind bars.

But what exactly is the state of the nation today? There are the facts and figures and the scholarly rundown of the many indicators that supposedly describe the state of the nation. But statistics are gobbledygook to most Filipinos who don’t really need to be told about what is happening in their own real universes. Economic indicators such as improved gross domestic product figures and lower inflation rates are unintelligible to people who don’t have a roof over their heads or don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Rising incidence of employment at the national level doesn’t mean anything to the hundreds of thousands of nurses who haven’t been able to find a suitable job here or abroad. Figures that supposedly indicate overall improvements in the quality of life are irrelevant to the multitude that survive on scraps left around by others.

The real state of the nation is that many of our countrymen continue to languish in abject poverty.

Poverty remains our biggest challenge and no amount of correlating corruption at the top with poverty below will help because, whether we like it or not, or whether we accept it or not, corruption is also a system that feeds millions of people in this country, from the thousands of fixers who hang around government offices, to mulcting cops, to local executives who provide dole-outs and political largesse and all types of illegal employment in various ways.

The sad thing about highlighting the extent of corruption that happens at the top is that it emboldens those below to think of their own nefarious activities as insignificant and therefore less of a problem.

The sad thing also about solely focusing efforts on ensnarling the so-called big fishes is that it allows the many small fishes to go scot-free. It also allows those who are equally guilty at the higher echelons of power to escape persecution. It also stretches general tolerance for corruption; the benchmark for the kind and extent of corruption that could awaken our collective sense of outrage have become more selective and well, higher. Apparently, corruption that is kept within the single digit million levels is now considered almost insignificant. How many times have we heard people being accused of corruption exclaiming with misplaced moral indignation that if they did commit corruption, they would have had the sense to steal so much more than the amounts they were accused of stealing?

Poverty is exacerbated by corruption, yes, but it is also a widespread and chronic problem because, thanks to hundreds of years of conditioning, we have seemingly accepted the notion that we should be happy with whatever we have been “blessed” with.

This has partly legitimized and institutionalized the inequitable distribution of resources and consequently, opportunities, in our culture. It is not accidental that the greatest incidence of unemployment is among the poor, with only about 20% of families registering more than half of total personal income in this country.

Thus, despite what the Catholic Church says, poverty is linked to population growth. Given the institutionalized unequal distribution of wealth in Philippine society, population growth among the poor damns them to a life of even more wrenching poverty. The solution, obviously, is to manage population growth. Unfortunately, this has become a moral and religious issue.

It’s a systemic problem that needs a systemic solution, one that impacts on the various facets of Philippine society.

We need visionary leadership. We need strategic thinking. We need comprehensive solutions. This is what we expect the President to present in his annual SONA. And so far, these are not in the works yet.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Missing the point again

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

The cute little girl asks the cute little boy “Girlfriend mo ba ako?” (Am I your girlfriend yet?).

The cute little boy says “Ayoko nga, di pa ko ready eh. Demanding ng mga girlfriends! Gusto ganito, gusto ganyan. Ewan!” (I don’t want to. I’m not ready yet. Girlfriends are so demanding, they have many needs. It’s exasperating).

The cute little girl says coyly “Gusto ko lang naman ng McDo fries, eh” (But I only want McDo fries!).

The cute little boy’s face lights up and then reaches for change in his pocket “Talaga?” (Really?).

The ad was… cute. I have objections to it but they had nothing to do with what our bishops found objectionable.

If you haven’t seen the 30-second TV commercial or if you are wondering why you haven’t seen the ad being shown on TV since middle of last week, that’s because McDonald’s has already pulled it out after certain officials of the Catholic Church protested that it conveyed the “wrong message on relationships” to people. Thereupon, Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Yñiquez crowed “we are very happy that McDonald’s listened to our plea, that it agrees with the sentiment and the reflection of the church on the commercial spot.”

Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference Episcopal Commission on Family and Life was even more vitriolic in his criticism of the ad. He said that the ad was “very shallow” and “cheapened human relationships.” He also spewed quite a mouthful on what courtship and wooing should be between the sexes.

Perhaps the Church would have wanted the little children in the ad to declare their fidelity to each other, telling each other to wait until they were of the right age, etc? Would that have pleased the bishops?

And since when did unmarried, supposedly celibate, people (though I know many are not: one priest who continues to celebrate mass lives with a relative and they function as husband and wife and they have children!) become an expert in courtship and wooing and relations between the sexes?

The whole hypocrisy reminded me of a retreat on sex and courtship for young people conducted last week, supposedly in preparation for the Holy Week, by a priest in our parish. A neighbor who was there related that the priest shared “experiences” that he had prior to his becoming a priest, experiences that he said he regretted doing and which he discouraged the attendees from indulging in. It’s disturbing because any psychologist worth his name would easily tell you that kind of testimonial is the quickest way to encourage people to go ahead and try something. Do kids avoid the mistakes their parents made just because their parents said they regretted doing it?

Anyway. What annoyed me about the position of the bishops was that, as usual, they missed the more pernicious moral implication of ads that target children and use children as models.

They worried about what they children were playacting about. Let’s get real, guys. All kids do that kind of playacting; we build playhouses for children precisely so that they can pretend to be mother and father with their own set of children. Is there someone in this country who didn’t indulge in that kind of playacting when they were of a certain age? Of course children would playact about being husband and wife, or about being lovers —isn’t that the most important part of the whole social structure of our society? I think we are underestimating children and their ability to distinguish what is real from what is fantasy.

Parents tease little kids about having girlfriends and boyfriends—I have a six-year old niece who claims actor Enchong Dee is her boyfriend; she swears she will marry him someday, too. Her parents think it is cute beyond words when she seethes every time Dee is paired with another actress in television shows. I dread what Yñiquez and Castro think of everyone who finds the little girl’s fixation with Dee adorable. Do they think we are reprehensible and unfit to become parents? I wonder what they would think of my parents if they knew that my mom and dad overtly matched me up with someone when I was a little tyke.

But the Church once again missed the more relevant point by about a mile.

The Church gets riled up about the possibility that kids might see malice in a TV ad, or that they might think that it is okay to have girlfriends or boyfriends at an early age, or worse, that children might think that it is okay to go into relationships in exchange for material things such as French fries—logical acrobatic deductions which, really, are more “shallow.” The church, however, does not get riled up with the very real threat that fastfood chains are slowly making children sick.

This is the more important point: French fries are bad for children! They should not be hawking greasy food that has been found to be a leading source of obesity among children; food that will clog up arteries, cause hypertension and other lifestyle diseases eventually.

There’s a global movement against fast food chains, particularly those that target children as consumers. In fact, Ronald McDonald has been retired as the official symbol of the global fastfood chain partly because it is veering away from its old image and packaging and now moving towards being a café with a more balanced fare.

As can be expected, people could not help but draw a connection between this latest tempest in a teacup and the Willie Revillame child abuse issue, which incidentally the Church was noticeably silent on. Apparently, McDonald’s gave up the ad just like that because of the public outcry over the fact that a six-year old was encouraged to gyrate like a macho dancer on primetime television.

One wishes that Revillame and TV5 took the same tack. It would have been a lot simpler and they would have gained more brownie points if they acknowledged their grievous error: That Revillame simply made an error of judgment. They could have reiterated that they meant no disrespect to anyone, that they didn’t really know how to deal with situations like the one that happened, and apologized profusely.

But no, they have turned the whole thing into a battle of egos. Revillame even threatened to get back at everyone who he said “judged” him. My challenge to Revillame is: Go ahead, sue every columnist, blogger, and every citizen with a Facebook or Twitter account who expressed his or her outrage over what he did to that child. Let’s see if he has enough resources to run after thousands of people!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spare us the sanctimoniousness

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

The giant billboards showing members of the country’s rugby team wearing nothing but briefs and smug expressions on their faces have been removed from their strategic perch near the Guadalupe Bridge. The Metro Manila Development Authority also removed other billboards on EDSA last Monday, purportedly because the billboards in question were put up either without the necessary permits because they were morally objectionable. The billboards of Phil Younghusband (he is shown without a shirt on) and Angel Locsin (she showed off her leg) hawking canned tuna was one of the casualties of the newfound vigilance and sudden attack of moral righteousness on the part of our authorities.

Okay, I know that I have written many times in the past about the need to clean up our cityscape of those giant billboards. Why am I not happy?

Let me make myself clearer. As I wrote in this space last Monday, I am four-squares behind the campaign to remove all pesky billboards on EDSA and other major thoroughfares. Those giant billboards represent a real physical hazard. They can fall down during strong winds and kill or hurt people (such as what happened when typhoon Milenyo visited us a couple of years ago). They can fall down on structures as what happened when tarpaulin shreds from a billboard interfered with the electrical cables of the metro rail trains. They filter sunlight, they collect grime and dust, and they mar the landscape. They also distract motorists.

In a country like ours where traffic signs are regarded as suggestions and where people reinvent and circumvent traffic rules, distractions are the last thing motorists need.

Many of those billboards just do not make sense and are so badly done; hideous beyond words, in fact. There are just too many of those darn billboards that violate our sense of aesthetics, which incidentally should have nothing to do with the state of dress or undress of the models hawking whatever products in those billboards. I’ve seen billboards that showed some skin but were done so tastefully, one doesn’t even notice the nudity. On the other hand, I’ve seen billboards that would pass the Taliban’s strict guidelines as far as skin exposure is concerned but are nevertheless trashy because the artistic standards were set below sea level.

So yes, I am happy that we are at least reducing the number of billboards on our thoroughfares. But I am not happy at the way our authorities have turned the issue into a moral one; why, many of our leaders have suddenly had an attack of sanctimoniousness spewing all kinds of gibberish about what is sexy and artistic.

Let me cut to the chase and say this: Our dearest politicians, before you open your mouths to criticize the artistic merits or moral implications of specific billboards, please make sure that you do not currently have, never had in the past, or does not intend to have in the future, a billboard proclaiming that you are your constituents’ messiah, all the while promising all kinds of false hopes to the people. Please also make sure that come Christmas, Valentines, Mothers’ day, fiesta, and during All Saints’ Day, you will not plaster every electric post in your area or hang from every tree and window tarpaulin banners containing sophomoric greetings complete with a cloying photoshopped image of yourselves flashing your pearly whites. Otherwise, please do all of us the favor of shutting up.

I would rather have ten giant billboards of Anne Curtis and Angel Locsin, or what the heck, even half naked good looking guys rather than those self-serving billboards of politicians boasting about whatever little they have done in the name of public service, or worse, promising Utopia. Politicians’ campaign billboards, particularly during elections are the worst, but you get the drift.

So yes, I am happy that we are removing billboards in EDSA but I am aghast that our authorities are singling out billboards that they have deemed “sexy” and consequently, immoral or at least promote immorality. Oh please, spare us the sanctimoniousness. There are far too many other examples of immorality in this country with far graver implications than the sight of men in their underwear; the mitshubishopand sapariscandal, for instance, or the ZTE scandal.

By all indications, the current preoccupation with removing “sexy” billboards is a populist move that is temporary. Therefore, we can expect these billboards to be replaced with other billboards, probably of people who are fully clothed to appease the moralists in this country. As usual, people won’t care if they pose serious hazards in terms of safety, or if the ads indulge in false advertising, or if the products being pushed are harmful to children or the environment. All they care about is that their notions of what is moral and acceptable prevail.

In fact, if it were not for the fact that billboards in general represent another kind of pollution, we should be thanking Ben Chan (the man behind Bench underwear) for taking our minds and eyes off the stink and the dismal condition of the Pasig River. There’s another obscenity our leaders are not doing anything about.

For example, my heart sank when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s election lawyer Romulo Macalintal joined the chorus of people condemning those Bench underwear ads Monday morning on television. In so many words, he said pictures of men and women in their underwear should not be allowed as billboards and then went on to pontificate about how underwear advertising should be done. I suggest Mr. Macalintal stick to lawyering because his opinions on advertising and social messaging were sadly off the mark.

Why should ads about underwear show people wearing underwear, was the oft-repeated question. Well, why the heck not—they are underwear for crying out loud. Why can’t we follow the example of Michael Jordan who hawked underwear by simply slinging one on his shoulder? Because while it may have worked for one Jordan ad, we cannot prescribe the same approach for all advertisements—can you imagine if all ads about underwear showed all models simply slinging underwear over their shoulders! And surely, there are already more than enough superheroes that wear their underwear over their pants. Why do they have to be sexy? Oh for crying out loud, we’re no longer in the Middle Ages when underwear was supposed to be just another layer of clothing. It’s supposed to be about feeling sexy inside and imagining that one looks like, well, the members of the rugby team even if one had a 42-inch waist. It’s supposed to make one feel good about one’s self. It’s supposed to be about self-esteem as well.

So yes, I hate the fact that billboards hinder our appreciation of whatever little is left of the Metro Manila landscape. I hate the fact that while traveling in the North Expressway my appreciation of the idyllic farmlands of Central Luzon is often rudely interrupted by a giant billboard selling fried chicken or hog feed. But guess what, I hate even more attempts at censorship and efforts to curtail freedom of expression under the guise of keeping intact the moral fiber of Philippine society.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Appropriate and misplaced outrage

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

There were four things that struck me last week as the allegations of the involvement of Catholic bishops in the illegal disbursements of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office funds came to a boil.

First, that there are people in this country who are still genuinely surprised at the level and extent of corruption that is happening here; and consequently, that we are still capable of feeling outrage at these shenanigans. Theoretically (and I must note that I am glad that this is not the case), we should have already become numb and immune to these things because, for crying out loud, we eat this kind of shocking revelations for breakfast every day.

Seriously, did we really think certain institutions are impervious to corruption just because they claim to have and therefore act like they have God’s private telephone number? To put it in better perspective, did anyone really think that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her minions committed ten years’ worth of tomfoolery without the complicity of various influential people and institutions? I have said this before and it bears repeating over and over again—it takes a whole lot of connivance to rob a people blind; it’s not something that is done by just a few people in power although it can certainly be argued that it is driven from there.

Corruption is a systemic problem in this country; it is deeply entrenched in every nook and cranny of the bureaucracy and in many facets of our culture. Therefore it cannot be eradicated simply by hauling some people over the coils of public opinion. If we want serious changes, we need to go beyond bursting a vein during Senate investigations and filing cases in court. We need to put in place systemic changes.

To be fair though, it must be stressed that not all Catholic bishops seem to be involved in the current mess. It is probably not fair to make generalizations at this point although the attempts of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to downplay the issue by insisting that the whole thing is political motivated seem suspect. The CBCP did deny the allegations in the beginning, insisting that not a single Catholic bishop received such donations.

Second, and this is related to the first point above, there really must be some truth to the claim that we are among the “happiest” people in the world because we continue to see the funny side of even the gravest of situations. At the height of the senate hearing last week on the use of the charity funds of the PCSO to buy favors from local and religious officials, the sound byte that stuck in people’s minds and which spread faster in the rumor mill were the newly-minted phrases mitsubishop (a play on the words mitsubishi and bishop) and Sapari (safari and pari, vernacular for priest). I tell you our sense of humor is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it often enables us to reduce issues to the barest essentials; but on the other hand, it reduces the most significant of issues to a joke.

Third, some people we should hold in high esteem not only have feet of clay they are also downright reckless and shameless. If you think the two descriptions are a tad cruel, consider the first word I wanted to use which was stupid. What kind of a religious official —a bishop, no less—makes official the act of groveling for a birthday present that is worth almost two million pesos?

Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos actually wrote the following in a letter that bears the stamp of his Diocese: “…I am asking a favor from your Excellency. At present, I really need a brand-new car, possibly a 4 x 4, which I can use to reach the far-flung areas of Caraga. I hope you will never fail to give a brand new car which would serve as your birthday gift to me. For your information, I have with me a 7-year-old car which is not anymore in good running condition. Therefore, this needs to be replaced very soon. I am anticipating your favorable response on this regard. Thank you very much. Be assured of my constant support and sincerest prayers to your Excellency.” cloying phrasing leaves a bad taste in the mouth and it’s the least offensive part of the letter.

And fourth, I was struck at efforts to link the whole controversy to the Aquino administration’s supposed efforts to pass the reproductive health bill. I dare say supposed because to my mind the President has been blowing hot and cold on the RH issue. To begin with, there is no obvious concerted effort to pin down the whole Catholic hierarchy; in fact, if we are to give in to our inherent cynicism what seems more relevant in the whole thing was the recent stinging criticism of the Butuan bishop directed at the President. Second, it seems far-fetched to imagine the complicity of the chief author of the RH bill, Representative Edcel Lagman, given the fact the he is a staunch defender of Arroyo and is practically persona non-grata as far as this administration is concerned.

Of course everything is political. I suspect that all these is somehow linked to talking points of the President’s second State-of-the-Nation Address which is due in two weeks—something about there being no sacred cows in the pursuit of the straight and narrow path.

I make no bones about the fact that I fully support the passage of the RH bill and I decry efforts to obfuscate the clarity of its message and urgency. The Catholic bishops have been vociferous about their objections to the bill on moral grounds and it is tempting to point out just how hypocritical the bishops’ advocacy has become given this current controversy.

If we take out all the static about lack of propriety and political ties, the basic issue that needs to be pointed out is that the two issues have converged on a critical point: The need to uphold the constitutional provision on the separation of the Church and the State. If we are outraged over the use of PCSO funds to favor a specific religious sector, then we must also draw the line at the involvement of the church on government matters such as providing basic and necessary services related to reproductive health.


And still on the subject of outrage, I am amused at the misplaced outrage of Mandaluyong Mayor Benhur Abalos over those giant billboards at the banks of the Pasig River near the Guadalupe interchange showing members of the country’s rugby team the Philippine Volcanoes in Bench underwear. Abalos said the billboards were “inappropriate,” and even cited a complaint made to him by Valenzuela Mayor Sherwin Gatchalian who supposedly covered the eyes of his nephews and nieces while driving in the area so they wouldn’t see the billboards.

I am amused at the sudden attack of “selective morality” of the two mayors. They have not been complaining about the more suggestive billboards showing women in various forms of undress that also litter our major highways nor have they spoken against the various other forms of “immorality” in their respective cities such as drug abuse, poverty, or even the sad state of the environment. Even more strange was the way Abalos tried to frame his objection to the billboards. He said he didn’t ask that the billboards be torn down (pinapaalis), he said he just ask them to be removed. Go figure.

I have written in the past about the need to remove billboards in our major thoroughfare because of the physical danger they pose to the general public and because they violate aesthetics (many of them are just plain nonsensical). It just seems extremely hypocritical that we get riled up on morality when the real issue is even more basic and more urgent. We’re missing the whole point again.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Skyflakes and catfood

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

My friends in the theater were hopping mad last week over what was referred to derogatory, mean-spirited, insulting comments made by indie film director Rafael “Rafa” Santos. I meant to write about the issue but the Sara Duterte issue came up and, well, that issue pretty much wrote itself out. I am writing about the Rafa Santos incident now because as a former theater actor (ahem) and an avid follower of the arts scene in this country, I feel that it is everyone’s responsibility to propagate appreciation for what theater artists do for the sake of their art. I also feel there are valuable lessons that can be learned from this incident.

The Santos and Duterte incidents both deserve our attention as they are classic examples of why people should act more responsibly and be more particularly careful about what they say or do in public. It’s now a lot easier to record and spread in the Internet damning evidence of carelessness or lack of judgment and even easier for people to register their indignation or outrage. Actress Angelica Panganiban learned this the hard way when she made a hasty comment on her Twitter account about Phil Younghusband’s supposed entry into acting. The President had to suffer the brunt of angry Hong Kong citizens when he was seen smiling at a press conference after that tragic hostage-taking incident last year. Actor Bayani Agbayani and fashion designer Boyet Fajardo were excoriated when video footage of their angry outbursts flooded the Internet. There are more examples from recent history but you get the drift.

One can always claim being misunderstood, or assert that one’s statements or actions have simply been taken out of context. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to argue with groupthink, particularly one that has been given birth to by outrage. Also, it is difficult to argue with emotions as obviously people are entitled to their feelings—telling someone he shouldn’t feel hurt is tantamount to rubbing salt on an open wound.

Santos’ film Samarito is an entry in the 2011 Cinemalaya Film Festival. Ironically, his film (as can be gleaned from documents released by the filmfest) is presumably a treatise on the forces that compel a person to come to terms with the issue of personal salvation in the face of an unexpected ethical dilemma. What can I say, life is oftentimes stranger than fiction.

In a recent television interview the filmmaker was asked, in so many words, if he truly preferred working with theater actors rather than with big names in the industry. It was a wonderful opportunity for Santos to extol the virtues of theater people in this country. Alas, he angled for a witty reply: “Personally I find that theater actors are better to work with because they don’t complain. You can feed them Skyflakes three meals a day and pay them in cat food, basically. They’re never late and they cry when you want them to cry. Other actors, kasi, you have to hit them first. “

And in four sentences, he managed to earn the ire of the whole artistic community in the country. In just one television appearance, the poor guy plummeted in most people’s estimation from being a potentially promising film director to being one of the most hated personalities in the country; not that the two are irreconcilable of course.

But as can be expected, the outrage was immediate and, well, passionate. Filipino artists from Lea Salonga to Jose Javier Reyes to Eugene Domingo to Joel Trinidad to Ricci Chan issued statements in their Twitter or Facebook accounts or in various media platforms condemning Santos for the careless remarks that everyone believed, in their heart of hearts, was insulting to theater actors.

There were those who excoriated the 25-year old director for insensitivity, cruelty, snobbishness, etc. Some accused him of deliberately trying to be controversial to draw attention to his film. Joel Trinidad officially asked the Cinemalaya committee to withdraw Santos’ film from the festival. Others called for a boycott of the film. Some asked for a public apology, which Santos issued middle of last week but which certain theatre actors found unacceptable because it was issued to the wrong audience. Actor Paolo Contis even challenged people to mob Santos at the screening of the latter’s film; Contis was joking of course, but the joke was just as inappropriate as the one he was protesting about.

Was this a case of something that’s just been taken out of context and blown out of proportion by our legendary amor propio? I don’t think so.

I think it is a foregone conclusion that Santos meant what he said as a joke and I think we can honestly agree that we saw it as a joke. The issue is that the matter was really no joking matter because everyone knows that theater actors are paid ridiculous rates in this country, compared to, let’s say celebrities. We don’t make jokes about something that stings nor do we make disparaging remarks about something that people passionately care about. And certainly, we don’t use metaphors that clearly denigrate one’s status in life such as telling people they can be paid in cat food – it’s just culturally unacceptable to put together people and cat food in one sentence.

For the sake of people who continue to be baffled at why people took offense at the joke, let me draw a parallel. When I was in college, I had a friend whose family had fallen into bad times. As a result my friend was often unable to eat decent meals in school; we often had to chip in to buy him a full lunch when we ate together. Although my friend was aware that we knew about what he was going through and the difficulty he was experiencing, we never really talked about it openly. There was this one time though when we were having such a blast trying to recall funny experiences in high school and one of us became careless—he remarked to my friend that he probably needed to start re-learning how to start building a fire from scratch and eating from tin cans. The remark was clearly meant as a joke and it was made amongst friends who cared for each other. But we saw how our friend’s face fell and no amount of apologizing could erase the fact that one of us had hurt him by making fun of a situation that was all too real.

Santos made an inappropriate, inexcusable, bad joke. But he is young and needs to learn a lesson or two about humility and discretion. I draw the line at boycotting his work or burning the man at the stakes; I think we should be mature enough to make certain distinctions and to make allowances for human frailties. In the words of Lea Salonga, “clamor for a public apology to the community of actors that he’s inadvertently offended is a good idea, but please, no collateral damage—to boycott his movie is to also boycott the actors that put their hearts and souls into the film they worked on.”

While character is infinitely more valuable than talent, we should still be able to judge artistic work objectively. We may not like Roman Polanski as a person, but there is no doubt that his work is brilliant. Moreover, certain statements, no matter how hurtful, cannot and should not be construed as categorical judgment of a person’s total character or fate.

Santos can all take comfort in the fact that while we are a people with a legendary sense of outrage, we also happen to have a very short collective memory. We are a forgiving people. My best guess is that while we may hate him now, this is certainly not the end of his filmmaking career. Of course, he needs to show that he is worthy of redemption. In the end, he needs to learn that becoming a good film director necessitates becoming a good person as well.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Simply wrong

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

I think it is important to make sure that this point is put forward clearly, repeatedly, even more assertively, above the din and dynamics of the debate: What Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte did last Friday was wrong. Punching someone is wrong. It doesn’t matter what the provocation was. It doesn’t matter if Duterte is mayor. It doesn’t matter if she was under so much stress, or that she was a woman whose authority was undermined. It doesn’t matter what cause she was fighting for or what her motivation was. What she did was wrong.

It is wrong to punch someone, period.

We are not even talking about why it is wrong for a public official to do that to another official who ranks lower in the bureaucracy. We are not yet talking about why it is wrong to do something like that in public, in full view of thousands of people including children who tend to idolize action figures who deliver justice swiftly by taking mattes into their own hands. And we are not yet talking about why it is wrong to resort to violence as a form of justification to stop a situation that was on the verge of becoming violent.

It is important to stress this message because what happened last Friday is bound to shake and perhaps even reshape notions of what is acceptable behavior for leaders in the current milieu. But first, let us come to terms with this basic undeniable fact: it was wrong.

There is a part of me—admittedly a minuscule part—that wants to jump up and shake the mayor’s hand for sheer chutzpah on her part. It’s not every day that you see a female mayor, heck, any mayor for that matter, show that kind of decisiveness, that kind of dogged determination to stop a situation from degenerating into total mayhem. The videos of the incident that have become viral in the Internet show just how the mayor put herself right in front of the very tense confrontation without care for her own safety—striding into the scene with grim fortitude and a don’t-mess-with-me countenance, and commanding everyone to stand down. They all did.

One wishes many of our leaders are able to show that kind of boldness in the face of confrontation. Imagine what someone like Duterte could have done at the Quirino grandstand during those fateful hours of that bungled hostage-taking incident last year. She probably would have marched right into the front of the bus and demanded that the hostage taker stand down right that very moment.

What Duterte did was undeniably worthy of our attention, probably because we have become used to having leaders that ensconce themselves in control rooms, donning bulletproof vests, or simply not being where the crisis is. But it still was wrong, simply wrong for her to punch Sheriff Abe Andres!

There are those who believe that the issue acquired deeper significance only because of the mayor’s gender. An emerging point of view is that if Duterte was a man (the image of her own father, former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte himself a man renowned for his no-nonsense and take-charge leadership stance), the issue would not have been such a big deal because it is presumed that kind of male assertiveness would have come with the territory.

We should reconsider our stereotypes of women leaders and certainly, Sara Duterte can be credited for achieving in barely a few minutes what the likes of Miriam Defensor Santiago (who once flaunted a gun on top of her desk and dared authorities to come get her) or Lorna Kapunan (who reported to Congress in the eighties brandishing an Uzi at the height of yet another coup d’etat) has so far failed to do.

What the incident illustrated was that a woman can just be as gritty as a man; and sadly, just as rash and obstinate. But what Duterte did was still wrong; we need to be clear about this.

Duterte is being proclaimed by some quarters as ultimate champion of the poor and downtrodden and her behavior last Friday is being hailed as heroic. It is sad that issues like this are exploited to further polarize the rich and the poor in this country. I am not sure Sheriff Andres represents the rich; we certainly can surmise that Duterte lives a comfortable life. But Duterte’s behavior last Friday was not symptomatic of the behavior of the rich, the poor, or the champions of either. It was just plain human behavior; which in this particular instance was not appropriate and therefore wrong.

There are those who offer the justification that the sheriff showed disrespect and an utter lack of judgment when he pushed through with the demolition despite a request from the mayor to hold off the demolition for two hours. Parts of Davao City were still reeling last Friday from the aftermath of a massive flash flood that demolished villages and killed a still undetermined number of people. Surely, a simple request from a harassed mayor could have been granted. It was also learned that Duterte herself had met with the squatters a day before to assure them that they would be relocated and given assistance.

It is possible that the Mayor was suffering from too much stress and the display of insolence and the brazen effort to undermine her authority proved too much for her frail nerves. Tao lang (she is just human) sounds like a sensible justification but it still doesn’t make what she did right. It was still wrong.

I am not going to give a lecture on why public officials should conduct themselves in a manner befitting their stature as people who command respect and are worthy of emulation for being the epitome of probity and sound judgment. There are leadership styles and there are leadership styles and prescriptions are only applicable in theory. At the end of the day, the effectiveness of a leadership style is best measure by the results it produces. Davao City today is a far cry from where it was two decades ago—a city at the brink of utter collapse as various forces threatened to tear it apart with their own vested political interests.

But I don’t quite buy the assertion that the matter is only relevant to the people of Davao City. The people of Davao City can very well judge for themselves whether Duterte’s actions last Friday should be forgiven or punished. That can be settled in a few years through elections. But Duterte should be made to account for her behavior as a local official who swore on a bible to uphold the laws of the Republic of the Philippines. Davao City is not a fiefdom or at least that is what we want to believe. She is still answerable to certain standards as a local executive.

We can debate about the social, cultural, anthropological implications of Duterte’s rash actions last Friday. But all these should not, must not deflect from a very basic truth, which we should never ever gloss over. The behavior was wrong. The behavior was inappropriate. There is no excuse that can justify what she did. It was wrong and she should apologize and make amends.

As to the appropriate punishment for her actions, that is something that the appropriate authorities and the people of Davao can very well decide for themselves.