Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Book Review: Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church

All hyperbole aside, the recently-released book, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church, should be an extremely important piece of investigative journalism. In its pages, longtime Church-beat journalist Aries C. Rufo lays bare some of the best-guarded and most downright scandalous secrets of one of the oldest existing organizations in the country, the Catholic Church of the Philippines, revelations which touch on ultra-sensitive topics such as sexual indiscretions and financial mismanagement, among others.

This compilation of reports is no string of blind items, either; Rufo gives very specific names, and dates and places, and whenever possible, his sources as well. From disclosing  the sexual improprieties of Bishops of Dioceses in Makati and Malolos to the financial depredations of Bishops responsible for large amounts of money, to allegations of corruption that go all the way up to the top, both of the Church and the Philippine government, Rufo pulls no punches whatsoever, and does not hesitate to point out the irony inherent to the Church's excoriation of corruption among government officials while it remains distressingly tolerant of similar, if not even more reprehensible practices among its own ranks. 

The book is told through a series of anecdotes regarding various parishes and Church offices, starting with the sexual controversies, following it with the financial scandals and the political scandals, and almost finishing off with a "best practices" anecdotal discussion on how cooperation between the Church and the government can actually work for the betterment of the public, and ending the main discussion with a chapter on how a bishop falsely accuses a nun of theft.

The book is a relatively slim volume, with only about 182 pages of content with the remainder disclosing Rufo's bibliography, which consists largely of his own work, but Rufo's anecdotes are well-chosen in terms of impact and relevance. However, it is precisely because the subject matter of this book is as important as it is to Philippine society that I cannot help but be particularly harsh on the manner in which it is presented.

Rufo's biggest problem in unveiling his stories is that for all of his declarations, and those of Rappler Chief Marites Danguilen Vitug to the contrary, the book reads, in many instances, very much like the demolition job of the Catholic Church that this book's detractors will no doubt claim it is. A lot of the stories in his accounts explicitly named eyewitnesses, including, in some instances, people directly involved in the controversies narrated, and their accounts are utterly compelling. I had heard some of the stories told in those pages before, some of them described abstrusely, but reading them here, with all of bloody details so to speak, was another experience entirely,  and were it not for the author's consistent need to interject his own opinion I would have been completely immersed in the text.

I find it regrettable that Rufo is not content to let the evidence speak for itself, which it does rather eloquently in many instances; he seems to feel the need to push things along with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He casually tosses around phrases like "throwback to the Dark Ages," and constantly chooses instead to skip to the conclusions to be drawn from the incidents rather than patiently build his arguments with his anecdotes. In short, he cannot help but  constantly dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s for his readers. "Hey look, everyone! These people are eeeeeviiiiil!" Though this book may be a work of non-fiction, it is still propelled by narrative, and as such Rufo should still respect the cardinal rule of effective narrative: SHOW, don't TELL.

Given that the book is written in English, it seems fairly clear that Rufo's intended readership is considerably more educated than the kind who get all of their knowledge from reading tabloids. For all of that, however, he does not seem to give his readers any credit whatsoever, virtually bludgeoning them with his constant editorials throughout the book that basically leave the reader very little room to make up their minds for themselves on the state of the local Catholic Church. Now, personally, I am not a fan of people dictating to me how to think, whether it's a priest or some journalist with an axe to grind, and so I could not help but take some umbrage at Rufo's attempt to manipulate my sentiments on the matter.

Ironically, it is in discussing the much-mooted Reproductive Health issue that Rufo actually goes relatively easy on the Church and instead insinuates that the Philippine government went the "extra mile," so to speak, to ensure the passage by the legislature of the RH Law. While he refrains from ascribing impropriety to the Church in this portion, he nonetheless remains decidedly unkind to their anti-RH stance. There's very little actual reportage here, and nearly everything Rufo says has already been amply covered by the mainstream media. This inclusion of this episode in the Church's troubled history, while admittedly important, nonetheless seems like an afterthought, or worse, like the act of kicking someone when they're down.

Worse still, Rufo completely wrecks the flow of his book, in which he discusses, in succession, the various scandals of the Catholic Church involving sex, politics and money, then offers a hopeful chapter on collaboration between the Church and the government, by ending with a chapter on a bishop allegedly harassing a nun whom he has accused of theft, which, on its face, is little more than a he-said-she-said account of a single incident involving two people. Considering that, in the preceding chapters, Rufo tackles issues involving institutional decay brought about by the alleged licentiousness and greed of Church leaders on an appalling scale, this relatively petty incident feels decidedly out of place and, again, like an afterthought. To my mind, it would have been better for Rufo to end with the chapter discussing the encouraging cooperative efforts between some local dioceses and local governments, but it is almost as if he suffers from some form of verbal diarrhea and cannot help but end the meat of his discourse with a cheap shot rather than words of encouragement.

On top of all of this, it seems painfully obvious that this book was not properly edited or proofread, with Rufo mixing up the words "foresight" and "hindsight" and, much later in the book, actually inventing a President of the Philippines who never existed before: Ferdinand Ramos. Considering that the book isn't even very long, it should not have been too difficult a task to edit its content and catch gaffes like that.

To my mind, however the real tragedy of this book is that, when stripped of what distinctly feels like an anti-clerical agenda, it actually makes for some very engaging, and more importantly, informative reading.

Personally, I have long believed that the biggest problem of the Church was the presence of a few rotten apples in high places rather than flaws inherent to the institution itself. The Church has had its fair history of villains in its two millennia of existence--it is the only institution that I know of, after all, that actually put a dead man on trial, corpse and all--but it has endured all this time because it is bigger than any of its vicars or their foibles.  While it is true that institutions are formed by people, and the presence of arguably less-than-altruistic persons in the Church hierarchy may have, over time, resulted in some pernicious practices becoming fossilized, such negative institutions may likewise be demolished by people and rebuilt from the ground up, if necessary. All the Church needs to remain relevant, even in today's society, is the right leaders, as Pope John Paul II demonstrated after a fashion and as Pope Francis I is currently starting to demonstrate, particularly in this era where the Roman Catholic Church is finally starting to accept responsibility for the iniquities perpetrated by its clergy on the faithful.

The anecdotes Rufo shares with his readers, if one is able to see past his heavy-handed commentary which borders on pontification, shed light on the human frailty of several members of our local clergy, and hit home how important it is to shatter, once and for all the myth of the clergy's infallibility. Whether or not the Church and its apologists choose to accept this truth, the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church is an institution in dire need of repair, a former bastion of morality that has seen its moral authority erode considerably in the last few years in the wake of one scandal after another.  Like the rest of us, our priests are human, and their sexual and financial indiscretions should be measured and judged by the same legal and moral standards as those applied to the rest of us, if not more stringent standards altogether. More importantly, however, true healing between the Church and its disillusioned faithful can only begin with real accountability, not the summary sweeping under the rug that the Church all around the world has done with most, if not all of the indiscretions of its clerics.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this book should have been an important piece of investigative journalism, but because Rufo drops the ball on too many occasions, it just feels like a wasted opportunity. Fortunately for Rufo, deconstructing the Catholic Church is very much en vogue these days and therefore his book is quite likely to find an audience, one which, I hope, can grasp the important message diluted by his consistent soap-box lectures and his muddled prose.

Or in the alternative, one positive offshoot of this book could be that another, better-written one may one day come along.


Saturday, June 08, 2013

So the Cosmic Scheme...Makes Sense for Once?

I rarely find myself waxing existential, but two separate, unrelated events that made headlines this past week, one of which involved tragic, seemingly random death and the other of which involved what was arguably a near-death experience for several dozen people have really gotten me thinking about life and death.

The first event was the explosion of a condominium in Taguig, which blew out both of the unit's walls, one of which fell into the street below and struck a delivery van, killing its three occupants. Investigation of the incident is ongoing, but even granting that there was foul play, an angle which, right now, is looking less and less likely, there was no way that whoever was responsible for it could have possibly targeted the victims. They were simply, as the cliche goes, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The second was the botched landing of a commercial airliner, which skidded off the runway of the Davao International Airport, one which resonates a little more personally with me as I personally know one of the passengers of that ill-fated plane. It was a harrowing experience for everyone on the plane at that moment, and had one or two more elements gone wrong as well, it could have been their last experience on this Earth. As it happened, though, all of them survived.

Investigations of both incidents are ongoing, and it's not for me to say who is to blame for either of them, but  what I can't stop thinking about is how outrageously random the three deaths were, and how the survival of everyone on that plane was nothing short of a miracle.

I can't imagine that the people in the van that was crushed by the wall of the exploding condominium got out of bed that morning imagining that anything even remotely like that could possibly happen to them; considering what happened, and the way it happened they probably never knew what hit them. As sudden, horrifying deaths go it was probably one of the most merciful they could have experienced.

The plane ride was another story; one of the passengers of the ill-fated flight blogged about how things had already gone wrong before he even boarded the plane. Also, as a semi-frequent flyer myself I confess to have had more than one moment of fearing if the plane would ever land safely. No matter how safe today's aircraft are, the fact remains that flying travelers are suspended 30,000 feet above the air, something that becomes rather vivid when one looks out the window, and even more so when the plane flies through air turbulence, or in heavy wather. There's plenty of room for paranoia for people disposed to it.

In short, unlike the guys in the truck who were clobbered by a slab of concrete falling out of the sky, the passengers of the flight had plenty of time to contemplate their fate and to work themselves up into a proper panic.

I don't have answers, or even any particularly intelligent questions, but sometimes things happen in this world that really just get me wondering.  I do believe in God and if I ever professed that I didn't, it was more out of a sense of childish spite, a way of somehow getting back at God for not giving me what I was asking for at a given point in time, and declaring "this is how I hurt you: by refusing to believe in you." Even as someone who believes, and who is ready to interpret a given facts to support that belief in the same way that non-believers are glad to interpret the same set of facts to support the opposite, I confess I was utterly confounded by this series of events, and it really got me thinking that the Lord truly does work in mysterious ways, especially when he doesn't.

On the face of things, if God chose whom to take and whom to spare, it's more logical that three men should die, while the hundred or so people on the airplane should live, but considering how many people have died in airplane crashes, shipwrecks, or typhoons, it seems a little odd that God's apparent machinations were better suited to human understanding this time around. The slab of concrete could have theoretically missed the van had things been just the tiniest bit different, and the on the other any of a dozen different things could have gone wrong with the flight that would have ended with the plane crashing and the passengers all getting killed, but it was not to be that way.

From going all existential, I find myself waxing cliche because all things considered, there's really naught left to say but: when it's your time to go, it's your time to go.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Pinoy Humor"

The remarkable feat involved in the triumph of Senator-elect Nancy Binay is not that she got elected; her last name all but guaranteed her a seat in the Senate. The real feat was that of the multitude of idiots online who were able to drown out the voices of people trying to call the public's attention to Binay's utter lack of any experience that would make her suitable for the position for which she was running...all by harping on her skin color.

Apparently, it all started when some celebrity cracked jokes about Binay's skin color, and several people, probably too stupid to follow any intelligent conversation about her lack of qualifications for public service, dwelled on that instead, and as a result the whole conversation mutated into a diatribe on how Nancy Binay shouldn't be elected because she's dark-skinned and therefore ugly. Full stop. Internet memes on how the "black Nazarene" would assume public office became all the rage and in a twinkling Binay went from a woman with no notable achievement in public service to speak of who was coasting solely on her father's last name to an underdog being lambasted for the color of her skin. Filipinos love underdogs, and in her television interviews she played up that angle for everything it was worth.

In the end, in a perverse twist, Nancy Binay's apologists ended up hailing her as a champion for the masses, despite the fact that she had done absolutely nothing for them. The one chance people had of derailing her senatorial bid by asking legitimate questions was basically killed by morons who thought that crude jokes about her appearance was the way to bring her down.

We in the Philippines don't have a monopoly on jokes that appeal to the lowest common denominator, to be sure; it's all over the world. The problem with our brand of lowbrow humor is that a great many of our celebrity comedians don't seem to have any boundaries as to what the subject of that humor can be.

Recently, the same celebrity who started the ball rolling on Nancy Binay's skin color got in hot water for a highly inappropriate joke about rape, which is but one of many that have been cracked by various local comedians on different television stations. In short, while this celebrity reaped the whirlwind, many others have been sowing the wind for quite some time now, and I have to wonder when it's going to stop. A few months back I yelled at my son for laughing at the mention of the word rape, only to find out some kid in his school had gone around telling people that the word meant something funny.  Where that kid learned such a horrifying concept is anyone's guess, really, because as far as our local entertainment goes there are tons of places where he could have picked it up.

The ability to laugh is one of God's greatest gifts to us. It makes us feel good in just about every imaginable way, and it apparently has wonderful health benefits as well. Laughter comes naturally, but the choice of what to laugh at is a product of cultural conditioning. Save for perhaps the most rudimentary humor like slapstick, no one really knows what it is what he or she is supposed to find funny until his cultural environment conditions their minds.

Maybe it is possible to tell intelligent, genuinely funny jokes about something as heinous as rape. After all, grisly topics like murder, war, racism and pedophilia have been mined for some reasonably intelligent humor, although the spirit of the humor still retained some aspect of social commentary, rather than coming across as mean-spirited putdowns. In any case, however, humor like this is not the kind on which our children, incapable of understanding satire or nuance, should be raised, and yet it pollutes our televisions on a regular basis. The erring celebrity mentioned gave his act at a live comedy concert, so in a way he is excused from the charge of polluting kids' minds, but the same can't be said for generations of so-called "comedians" who have been around for decades, and some of whom, with due respect, are already even in their graves. A few months ago, another so-called comedian drew public ire for having a little boy gyrate on stage like a male stripper, to much bawdy laughter from the audience.

This particular incident was thrust into the spotlight because of the sheer speed at which communications moves nowadays, and maybe this should cause the purveyors of crude humor here in the Philippines, regardless of their "home network" to take pause and reconsider the kind of jokes they've been telling, and if they really want the children of this nation to absorb their so-called "humor" without context or discernment. Not only that, but the worst part of this brand of jokes is how, even with context it tends to demean every conversation into which it is introduced. A stark example of this, again, is the Nancy Binay phenomenon, where the genuine desire for discourse on qualification for public office was basically squelched by internet memes about skin color.

The thing about us Filipinos is that we are actually very clever people. We can do satire and classy humor along with the very best of them. We can be self-deprecating and come up with humor that is uniquely our own, without having to be crude or crass.  This unique brand of Filipino humor may offend some people, but it doesn't have to be so universally offensive that it demeans not only the people we mock but us as well. We're better than Tito, Vic and Joey and their scores of imitators.

We can be genuinely funny.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Image and Likeness

I have, in the past, basically shouted myself hoarse over the virtual deification of the fair-skinned individual in this country, and though I have heard voices of assent over on social media, our collective self-loathing continues virtually unabated. I take some consolation knowing that some offensive advertisements and media, such as the series of commercials promoting a skin-lightening product for men some months back, as well as a cover for a racy magazine were pulled from the market following social media outrage, but the latest barrage of stupidity, this time from a TV network, has my hackles rising all over again.

This time, the guilty party is ABS-CBN, who will soon be launching a show in which the protagonist, a dark and therefore "ugly" girl, to be played by an actress in blackface, will be "beautified" by a magic candle which, surprise, surprise, will lighten her skin. Not too long ago, rival station GMA aired a whole slew of shows featuring several of its fair-skinned mainstays in various stages of blackface. One of the shows was even called "Nita Negrita" if you can believe it. While social media may kick up a fuss, ultimately, most people will probably watch this new TV show, and will probably even continue to buy the skin-whitening products that currently flood the market in the hopes that they can achieve the same effect.

Now, some people have dismissed this extremely unpleasant attitude as a case of the grass being greener on the other side, considering that many Caucasian people basically color themselves orange trying to get tanned, but I have yet to hear of a film or television show in the West starring Asians, Latin Americans or people of African origin playing "whiteface" and yearning to be darker-skinned, so basically our aversion to our own skin color still trumps theirs.

Instead of just joining the angry chorus this time (though I certainly "sang" in some people's "choirs" over on Facebook), I've given some thought to the obsession with lighter skin, and I think one of the biggest problems behind the whole phenomenon is that in this country, people worship a white dude.

The truly galling thing about the Catholic Church in this country and the images that adorn its churches is that they perpetuate the notion that Jesus was/is a white guy, in many instances with ivory skin, rosy cheeks and blue eyes, when in truth his ethnicity has been the subject of a heck of a lot of debate with no conclusive answer, although the fact that he lived in the Middle East would suggest that he is more likely to have resembled Osama Bin Laden than Brad Pitt. Heck, the black Nazarene may be a more accurate depiction of how he looked, though perhaps without the distinctly aquiline nose and other Western European features.

Worse still, a lot of the paintings that adorn our Catholic Churches in the Philippines depict God the Father as an old, white guy.

Now, I'm not an atheist by any stretch of the imagination, but I would think that an omnipotent being that is responsible for all of creation would choose to represent itself as something with a bit more vitality than a doddering, and in some depictions, bald old Caucasian. At least Zeus/Jupiter supposedly had huge muscles (even if many sculptors depict him as having a tiny weiner). Not only that, but there is NO evidence whatsoever that would suggest that God looks like that. I'm pretty sure the phrase "old white guy" is nowhere to be found in the Bible or even in any of our Catechisms, so that image was basically an interpretation of  the Spaniards who brought Christianity here and the local rubes who accepted their codswallop hook, line and sinker.

Finally, as far as Catholics go, it seems the standard image of Mary, the avatar of all that is good, pure and beautiful, is that of an unmistakably Caucasian girl, whose visage was probably borrowed from some Spanish aristocrat hundreds of years ago, notwithstanding the fact that in reality, Mary could just as easily have looked like Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory. Again, no historical records say she was, or even looked like a white girl.

If people argue that these images represent what is ideal, i.e. the appearance of Jesus and Mary in Heaven, rather than what was real, in Israel over two thousand years ago, then THAT is the problem RIGHT THERE: the belief that in Heaven, Jesus and Mary are white people.

Basically, we quite literally WORSHIP someone represented as a WHITE person. No WONDER so many of us want to be white!

Now, in other cultures, like in China, Korea, and Japan, in order to introduce Christianity, missionaries have had to adapt. Jesus and Mary BECOME Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese and their images, whether in paintings or sculpture, are adjusted accordingly. Many of these ethnically adapted images of the Virgin Mary and/or the Holy Family are quite lovely by the way. It's easy enough to find these images with a quick Google search. In contrast, a Google search for "Filipino Virgin Mary" will yield nothing but images of the Virgin Mary that the Europeans introduced to us nearly half a millennium ago. You will NOT see a brown-skinned Madonna wearing baro't saya or her brown-skinned husband and child wearing barong Tagalog.

The thing is, the devotion of Chinese, Japanese or Korean people is not in the least diminished by the appearance of these icons; if anything, it's enhanced by it, because they can identify better with God. God is one of them; they more easily embrace the notion that they came from God, not from some distant entity that looks nothing like them.

The Bible itself talks about the Pentecostal miracle; how remarkable it was that people of different nations could understand the Apostles, all of whom were from Galilee, because they spoke in the language of each of the people present. Adapting religious icons to suit cultures is, to my mind, an extension of this phenomenon.

For all of that, however, we choose to worship Jesus and Mary as filtered through European sensibilities, when there is absolutely nothing that compels us to do so.

I exhort the leaders of the Catholic Church: please take down your icons of lily white Jesus (adult and child versions) and Mary.  Put them in museums if you like.  Replace all of these instead with images of Jesus and Mary with black hair and brown skin, wearing our lovely national costumes instead of those ridiculously ostentatious, gold-trimmed outfits that I'm pretty sure would look just as laughable in Heaven as they do on Earth. Make Venus Raj or Shamcey Supsup your commissioned artists' model for Mary; I'm sure either of those faces will leave a much more lasting impression on people's minds than that of some anonymous white chick who's probably centuries in her grave.

I also exhort you to paint over your murals of old, white (sometimes bald) God. Instead of some decrepit white dude, make the image of God a huge, brawny-looking Filipino dude with long, flowing black hair and beard, and huge, brown muscles, like a hulking Bernardo Carpio, the kind of guy who could kick Satan's ass. Speaking of Satan, whom St. Michael the archangel is always depicted slaying, why not model him after somebody people love to hate, like Kim Kardashian? Or maybe people who are often associated with him, like Ozzy Osbourne. I'm sure he'd be tickled pink at the reference; it could be an extension of his cameo in Adam Sandler's Little Nicky.

This isn't about the RH bill or whatever your cause du jour is; it's about getting the Filipino people to be happy with the skin that God gave them, and to therefore be more grateful, loving and reverent towards God, and ultimately getting them to be better Catholics. Incidentally, it also can reduce the likelihood of any more of your priests getting in hot water for illegally importing ivory statutes.

I know this flies in the face of centuries of tradition, but I am sick of people's collective attitude towards brown skin...their OWN skin...and I know I'm not alone in this. I imagine it has already occurred to some people that worshiping a Caucasian God is part of the problem, but since I have yet to read such sentiments I would like to voice them myself.

Let's say it all together: God DOESN'T have to be a WHITE dude. God GAVE us Filipinos brown skin, and for that reason alone we should LOVE our skin.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Finding the Disappeared

The finding of the Court of Appeals that the military was responsible for the abduction of one Jonas Burgos, a suspected communist rebel, has resuscitated a story that has been dormant in the mainstream consciousness for some time now. Burgos was abducted in 2007 by suspected intelligence agents of the military in Quezon City. Burgos' mother sought relief in the Philippine courts, and obtained a Writ of Amparo directed at the military, which meant that the military had to either produce Jonas, dead or alive, or account for his whereabouts. Thanks to the glacial pace of litigation in this country, and to the 15-second attention span that mass-media has cultivated among the mainstream public, the average Juan son forgot about the case. Recently, with a determination by the Court of Appeals, to whom the Supreme Court endorsed the case for in-depth investigation, that the military was responsible for Burgos' disappearance, and the surfacing of a photograph that seems to strongly suggest Burgos was in military custody at some point, people are remembering him all over again.

The timing is good; now that there appear to be fresh leads in Burgos' case, the determination of his ultimate fate now seems to be within his mother's grasp, or at least, closer than it has ever been before. There is now a law that punishes enforced disappearance, and if there are those within the current military who know what happened to Burgos but refuse to 'fess up, the consequences for such individuals, if Burgos is eventually determined to have been in military custody, could be dire.

It is not really my place to comment on the Burgos case as I am neither a journalist nor a lawyer for either side of the controversy, but as a human rights advocate I would like to weigh in on why enforced disappearance, of all human rights violations, is arguably the most pernicious of the lot.

The thing about acts of enforced or involuntary disappearance that makes them worse than acts of torture or even killing is the uncertainty that accompanies them, or more particularly the uncertainty they create in the minds of the families of the disappeared. Of course, in all cases of human rights violations such as torture and extrajudicial killing the families have to live with the aftermath of the violation, but in the case of EID it is the families who have it worst of all, even, arguably, more than the disappeared. It is the families who have to live with both despair, as they try to steel themselves for the worst, and the hope that they can never fully discount. I can't but wonder if hope isn't an additional source of torment in such instances rather than a balm. How can one close the book and move on when one doesn't even know how the story ended, after all?

Also, more than any other human rights violation it just feels unspeakably cruel because it serves no other purpose than to torment. Killing supposedly punishes and torture supposedly leads to information or retribution, but to me it seems that the sole purpose of removing a person completely from the public and then to deny any knowledge whatsoever of the person's whereabouts is to strike terror and dread into people's hearts. It is a statement that says "this can happen to any of you; we can arrange it so that you cease to exist." EID is not really about the disappeared, it's about the persons left behind.

EID is in no way justified by the revelation that the disappeared were actual enemies of the state; there are plenty of remedies available to deal with such people. They can be tried in court and thrown in prison, or, in the context of actual armed encounters, be blown to kingdom come. To subject them to EID is a losing proposition all around; all it does is martyr them, visit untold agony on their families, many of whom may not even know about their lives as rebels, and reinforce the decades-old image of the government security forces as human rights violators. As with all other human rights violations there is no place for EID in any civilized society.

Another thing I've observed about the loved ones of longtime "desaparesidos" is how their hope dulls into resignation, especially when the persons disappeared, having been removed from the field for so many years, have quite arguably outlived their usefulness from an intelligence standpoint, and are most likely occupying unmarked graves somewhere. Then, the refusal to admit the whereabouts or fate of the disappeared at this point stems from a desire to evade liability for the persons' summary execution. One evil begets another, and in the meantime, those left behind live the rest of their lives without any real sense of closure.

Whether or not the Philippine military has or ever had Jonas Burgos in its custody, to my mind one thing has to happen: they have to do their part in healing the wounds that were opened during the days of martial law, when tens of thousands of people were, in effect, dragged off the face of the earth. A year or two ago the military declassified, for the first time in many years, several of the files that were kept during the martial law years, a significant gesture by itself but which needs to be followed through. The information contained in these files could be key to determining the whereabouts of at least some of the thousands of desaparesidos who disappeared in the 70s and 80s. In the years that have passed since then, the people principally responsible for these heinous acts have either died, retired, or otherwise faded into obscurity, and yet, the scars inflicted by them remain on the souls of the spouses, children, relatives and dear friends of those who were forcibly disappeared. With these decades-old dossiers having been disclosed it would probably go a long way towards our collective healing if all concerned, the security sector, the Commission on Human Rights, civil society and the families and loved ones of the desaparesidos worked together to piece together the information necessary to trace the whereabouts of the disappeared, even if that only means unearthing shallow, unmarked graves in the remotest areas of the country.

When that has happened, for better or worse, the families of the disappeared, many of whom have been waiting for the better part of four decades to learn the truth, will know with finality the fate that befell their loved ones, thus ending the greatest evil wrought by these atrocities and taking a significant step towards making EID a thing of the past.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Rewards of Zero-Sum

Recently I went to a bank to deposit some cash. I counted what I thought was a certain number of bills and wrote the number of bills I thought I was holding down on my deposit slip. I waited in line, then handed the bills to the teller, who counted them and told me I had given her one bill more than what I had intended to deposit. I very gratefully took the extra bill back and as I did I reflected for a moment on how good it felt to have someone treat me with honesty and decency.

I can be a very petty person, even when it isn't obvious to other people. There have been occasions in my life when I would give back change (though never anything as big as a five hundred peso bill), or give up my seat on the bus, or donate blood, or perform other small acts of kindness and for the briefest moment wonder about my cosmic reward, or, in other words, wonder what was in it for me, albeit after the fact. I can honestly say that I do not entertain these thoughts very often when I perform these acts, but they are there, as embarrassed as I am to admit their existence.

And because I am, or can sometimes be, a petty person, I found myself almost immediately humbled and shamed by this woman's no-nonsense act of decency. If she were of the same mindset as many, many corrupt individuals who pollute this country, she could have easily kept quiet, pretended that all was well, and then kept the extra P500 bill I had inadvertently handed her. I would not have known until probably much later, at which time I would have absolutely no way to prove my claim. She was actually nine months pregnant; goodness knows she could have used the money. The only thing that stood in her way of pocketing my money really, was an innate sense of responsibility. When she called my attention to the extra bill she did not hesitate, thereby making it clear that she never even so much as contemplated doing anything other than the right thing.

At the end of the day, THIS is the reward, mine and everyone else's, for being honest and forthcoming with each other: a society where no one screws other people over, where everyone gives everyone else his due, and no one gets ahead by stepping on other people's heads. Strictly speaking, we don't "get" anything for being the decent people we're supposed to be in the first place, but if it means a society where we don't have to worry every other minute about getting shafted, then that is reward enough, as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Weeding Out an Anachronism

With social media demigod-cum-tour guide Carlos Celdran having been convicted for violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines titled "offending religious feelings," and having been sentenced to a jail term ranging from two months to a year, there has been a lot of talk on the social media-sphere, talk about what horrible people the local clergy are, talk about whether or not Celdran deserved it, and talk about how ridiculous and antiquated the law is.

I'm particularly interested in the last bit, because it reflects an overall trend in criminal law nowadays, what with discussions on the de-criminalization of libel also making waves lately. People can post diatribe after diatribe against the church for pursuing its case against Celdran (whatever their pretensions to the contrary) but at the end of the day, the law was there for them to invoke.

For me the bottom line is this: the RPC is in dire need of a thorough overhaul. The reasons why could cover an entire series of blog posts, or even a book, but I'm nowhere near scholarly enough to devote the energy needed for that sort of enterprise.

Now, the option is definitely on the table to have the provision of the law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and there seems to be every indication that this is the tack Celdran's lawyer, Marlon Manuel, intends to take.

My idea, which may be a little more radical (though I know I'm not alone), is that Celdran should do the time.

My theory is that there are few things that could more effectively hit home the absurdity of the notion of doing prison time for an offense that 1) can easily be settled by mediation and 2) may well have been overtaken by no less than the Constitution, than the image of someone actually doing the time. Celdran's picture in a Manila jail cell, wearing his Jose Rizal outfit and a wry smile, is virtually iconic in social media circles and one could argue it stirred up so much outrage that it helped the Reproductive Health Bill become the Reproductive Health Law. If such an image could help create a law, then it's reasonable to believe that a whole string of such images could help tear a provision of law out of the statute books to which it no longer belongs. If Celdran dropped his appeal and served his prison sentence it would be legally correct (as the law is valid until found unconstitutional), but morally abhorrent.

The media coverage of Celdran's trip to New Bilibid alone would be a circus, and in the age of social media and the internet he would probably be the first celebrity since Robin Padilla to have protracted media exposure while in prison. Padilla shot a movie during his abbreviated sentence in Bilibid (for illegal possession of firearms) back in the 1990s; Celdran's supporters would probably hold both an actual and online vigil and a social-media based countdown of his term. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Celdran got his own year-long reality show while on the inside. He could share Filipino culture with the prisoners and be one of the boys, assuming he doesn't become anyone's "wife" while he's there.

But then, if he suffered while in our notoriously hellish, septic prison system, the effect on the public psyche would be all the more profound. All the time he'd be in there, without even opening his mouth he would be declaring to the world: "I'm in here because someone insisted on implementing an archaic law that punishes hurting people's feeling with a prison sentence." That's the kind of imagery that would stick to the public consciousness for a long time. What better way, after all, to show the excess of the penalty than by actually enduring it?

If that doesn't get this batch of legislators scrambling to revisit the RPC and all of its forgotten antiquities (e.g. "dueling") then at least it will be on the minds of the next batch of legislators after this year's elections. If absolutely nothing else, Celdran could most likely get a presidential pardon.

Maybe, if the attempts to invalidate portions of the Cybercrime Law don't pan out, indignant citizens whose internet posts fall within the purview of the law can march to prison for "cyberlibel" as well, as prisoners of conscience. Just a thought.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


This blog has remained inactive for months, despite the fact that on numerous occasions I have sat down to draft numerous posts about issues burning the headlines. Still, I could not think of anything to say that had not been said quite exhaustively elsewhere and so, discouraged, I would abandon the posts and do other things. I no longer review movies here, whether it's to heap praise or scorn upon them; for that I now have Jim's Film Ramblings. I no longer review comic books or ruminate on TV shows here; I have Jim's Pop Culture Window for that.

To what, then, should I devote this blog?

Well, this blog is called "The Tantrum" and as it so happens, there are a lot of things wrong with society today, and a lot of tantrums waiting to be thrown.

I'd rather not write about things like the RH law or the Cybercrime law because that's pretty much being done to death elsewhere, by people whose actual job it is to write about these things.

No, my little diatribe will be about something with which many residents of Quezon City are no doubt familiar: the flyover on Commonwealth Avenue across Tandang Sora.

By way of a little background, Commonwealth Road is a major traffic artery which connects Novaliches, Fairview and several other communities in between to the rest of Quezon City. It starts at the Quezon City Elliptical Road and ends somewhere in Novaliches. At its very widest, Commonwealth Road is eighteen lanes wide, with each side having nine full-sized car lanes. It is reportedly the widest road in the Philippines. The flyover that traverses Tandang Sora is four lanes wide, in contrast, with two lanes on either side.

Every morning throughout the working days of the week I drive along Commonwealth on my way to work and on my way to take my son to school, and whenever I am about a kilometer or so away from the flyover crossing Tandang Sora, I see the two innermost lanes of the road backed up with cars. As I draw closer to Tandang Sora, I see a much larger swarm of cars veering left from the next two innermost lanes of Commonwealth and converging on the two innermost lanes, many of them cutting or trying their hardest to cut in front of the line of cars already positioned in the two innermost lanes. By the time I am a few dozen meters away from the foot of the flyover, the number of lanes containing cars trying to cut into the innermost lanes has doubled, with four lanes full of cars trying their very damnedest to bulldoze their way into the two innermost lanes, and with many of them succeeding at the expense of the people way in the back who actually opted to use the innermost lanes in the first place, as they should be doing. There are traffic aides near the foot of the flyover who attempt to control the chaos, and indeed there are even concrete barriers a few meters away to prevent the most abrupt possible cutting into the flyover lanes, but there is precious little any of these people or physical obstacles can do against such an overwhelming tide of selfishness and stupidity.

Every morning I see this spectacle. I see a less extreme, but similarly annoying version of it at night, but in the morning it is simply atrocious.

Every time I see it, I think to myself that if everyone simply used the innermost lanes to begin with, traffic along that flyover would proceed quite smoothly. The problem arises when one, then two, then dozens of motorists feel they can't be bothered to wait in line and decide to cut in front. Sure, there is an issue with the flyover being a bit of an anachronism; at the time it was constructed, Commonwealth Avenue was probably roughly half its current width, and it was a huge convenience.

Now, however, it is patently absurd to see cars from five or six lanes jostling for position on two lanes. This happens every day. The worst part is that many of the rude drivers prevail at the expense of the ones who actually followed the rules. The cars that actually make it to the flyover actually travel rather quickly, even though the struggle to get there can take anywhere from five to fifteen extra minutes compared to waiting for the ninety-second stoplight below it. The drivers of the cars on the bottom are apparently too important to be held up by the stoplight, so they cut in front of the people who bothered to get in line. Every morning, it's the same thing, without fail.

This traffic situation is a microcosm of what is truly wrong with the people in this country.

This is the attitude that permeates the psyches of everyone from manual laborers to white-collar workers to so-called public servants. What is well and truly wrong with our society doesn't have anything to do with who's in public office at any given time.

"I'm more important than you are, so it's my divine right to cut in front of you."

"I'm more important than you are, so I'm going to cheat on my exams."

"I'm more important than you are, so I will screw you at work for my own convenience."

"I'm more important than you are, so it's my right to steal millions of pesos from your taxes."

"I'm more important than you are, so it's my right to have you gunned down like an animal in the streets, or shot and buried in a jungle, or abducted by the military, never to be seen again."

So many evil acts stem from the same impulse that prompts motorists to cut in front of their fellow motorists; pure and simple selfishness. The only difference is that unlike the thieves and murderers, the motorists on Commonwealth flaunt their acute sense of self-importance in broad daylight.

The solution is simple, really; punish selfishness, at least on Commonwealth Avenue.

If history is any indication, in a few years' time, nobody will really give a damn about Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo going to jail or Renato Corona being kicked out of the Supreme Court; given our ridiculously short memories probably the only thing that will really remain in people's consciousness will be the politics of it all. I'm fairly sure none of the errant motorists on Commonwealth think that what happened to Corona or GMA could ever happen to them, because they're just motorists, after all.

Bringing the law and its enforcement down to the ground level, however, will be another story altogether. By punishing the rude "Commonwealth choppers," whether through fines or the inconvenience of having to recover their driver's licenses from City Hall, one could leave a lasting impression on motorists. Punish lawbreakers even with minor penalties, and people will start obeying laws. If implemented consistently and diligently, such punishment could really change things in the long run.

A good example of this can likewise be found on Commonwealth Avenue itself. When the government imposed a 60 kilometer-per-hour speed limit on Commonwealth a few years back, owing to the frequent occurrence of fatal road accidents, things actually changed for the better. Even before I moved to the area, I had been consistently driving up and down Commonwealth in the years since the speed limit was imposed, and I have observed that things have gotten genuinely better. The vast majority of motorists actually manage to keep their speed below 60kph, and not just because of the traffic. I think it's because people are actually afraid of being caught (which leads me to assume that violators have been apprehended).

Traffic rules are not a bad idea. They can save lives. Also, if people can only divorce themselves from the mindsets that push them to violate traffic in the first place, they can save souls as well.

(By the way, it would probably also help if they widened the flyover, though I'm no engineer and don't know how they would do that).