Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Why GMA Should Not Resign

"Write in heat." So goes that sage advice to writers. And that's precisely what I did last week, in those few hours after the explosion in Glorietta, when so very little was known and speculation was rife. The perspective is so much different when you get a little distance from the subject or the event, when you have a bit more space for objectivity.

Nonetheless, it was a revealing exercise in zeitgeist. Our initial reaction, understandably, was that it was a bomb. Understandably, there was shock and fear. But surprisingly, there was also a palpable feeling of disgust -- not just a vague and generic sense of disgust, but one with a very clear subject.

Was I alone in this manner of thinking? Apparently not. "My son was not a victim of an accident, but a collateral damage of a government who wants to divert attention from the present political crisis it's facing," said the father of one of the victims. And the family went so far as to actually refuse money and offers of assistance from GMA.

Of all the countries in the world, we are probably unique in yet another matter: that, in the event of a terrorist attack, the government is immediately one of the prime suspects in the public opinion. Truly democratic countries do not need to resort to such tactics, and truly authoritarian countries do not need to hide behind such subterfuge.

And yet, despite this state of affairs, we persist in hobbling on, unable -- or unwilling -- to seek real solutions.

Not long after I put up my previous article on my blog, two people wrote in with these comments:

"Not that I like this president but... who shall we ask to govern us...? Marcos loyalists? Estrada apologists? Ramos the not-yet-satisified...? Aquino the pure...?"

and

"Yeah, and who do you think should replace her? Judging from the current crop of politicians, they all look and smell the same to me."

There you go. The reasons behind why GMA should not resign. Not because of her economic brilliance, not because of her brilliant foreign policy, not because of her compassionate domestic policy, not because of her administrative effectiveness, and certainly not because of her moral ascendancy. Simply this: we don't see any other alternative, and therefore we are content with the best of the worst.

And therefore: GMA and her cohorts can lie to us, can cheat us, can steal from us, can kill us, can ream us, and we're going to continue taking it (and we better damn well be liking it!) because hey! the other guy is going to do it to us anyway.

Such brilliant and irrepressible Filipino logic!

P.S. So who do I think should replace her? That is not for any one person to decide. That is why we have presidential elections that are supposed to be honest and fair. And we all know what happened last time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why GMA Should Resign

Just so we're clear, this is not a call for sedition or revolution. Neither is this a demand for said resignation nor even a call for protest that would lead to such. This is -- at least I hope it is -- simply a calm, balanced, and rational exposition of why it is high time for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to resign from the presidency of the Republic of the Philippines.

As I write this, the flurry of the day's news is just winding down. It has been a grim day. Just a little bit after lunch on a Friday afternoon, a bomb exploded in a busy mall in Makati City. The death toll so far: 8 dead, more than 90 wounded. Some speculated that it might have been a gas leak, but no, the pictures of the damage point to anything but.

I do not know how to adequately describe the knot of pain that I felt in my stomach when I heard the news. Thankfully, I did not have any family in the vicinity at the time of the incident; but I do still have several friends who live and work in the area. Were any of them in the midst of a leisurely lunch in Glorietta when it happened? Were any of them just walking by that sidewalk when the bomb exploded? Some messages of reassurance have come in, and as for the rest, I continue to hope for the best.

Far more than the loss of life and property in upscale Makati is the psychological blow that this incident deals to the rest of the country. For all the pockets of violence that may erupt from time to time in the countryside, the posh Ayala area has in the past twenty years been the image of security, normalcy, commerce, and progress that the rest of us aspire to. But not anymore. If it can happen there, what about the rest of us elsewhere?

What does this have to do with Arroyo's resignation? Let me put it this way: one of the first things that came to mind was the thought that it was the Arroyo administration itself that orchestrated this carnage. Maybe it was just my pre-existing biases at work? But the more I listened and read, the more I found out that I was not alone in this suspicion. A normally apolitical friend voiced the same opinion. Please, tell me honestly, how many of you felt the same way?

Should Arroyo resign on these mere unfounded suspicions?

It bespeaks of something terribly, terribly wrong when common folk like me can even entertain the idea that their government would do such a thing. It means that there's a severe lack of trust, and more than that, it means there's fear. Yes, fear. I am afraid of this government, of what it is capable of, of what it has already done.

The explosion comes at a suspiciously opportune time when scandal after scandal hounds this administration. Last month, it was the anomalous ZTE-NBN deal and its twin sister the Cyber Education Project. This month, it's the P500,000 "gifts" to congressmen, governors, and mayors. (That's not counting all the rest that came before.) Could the bomb simply have been a "diversionary" tactic to draw our attention away from these scandals? The prospects, unfortunately, are all too plausible.

But let's say it's not the Arroyo administration that orchestrated the bombing. Let's say it was the equally plausible Jemayaah Islamiyah, or even the MILF, or even political enemies and rogue military elements. What then? Should we also hold Arroyo responsible? The very same Arroyo who promised "total war" where she would crush the insurgency "in three months' time?" (Remember: it's always in "three months' time", which is about time it takes for us Filipinos to forget promises.)

And really, there you have it. On the one hand, there's the devious, callous, and self-serving logic; and on the other, there's overall incompetence and dishonesty. In either case, there's the greed, corruption, and moral bankruptcy. Oh, let's just call it for what it is: that offensive, choking, rotten stink of decay that follows her wherever she goes.

Such a person does not deserve to govern.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

DIY Booklet

For some reason, the professor of my Creative Writing and Short Story classes chose me to compile our combined submissions for this semester into a book. It was additional work that I could have done without, but at the same time, it proved to be a pleasant enough diversion, so I took it.

And today, I got the finished product out.

Okay, so it was more of a booklet than a book, but at close to 120 pages, it's still a formidable booklet. It was fun figuring out ways in which to get it to print right.

For simplicity, I laid out the whole book in AbiWord. Not nearly as full-featured as OpenOffice.org or Scribus, but for what I needed, it was the easiest way to get things done.

From AbiWord, I printed out to PDF.

I then processed the PDF file using a nice utility called page-crunch. page-crunch is actually the front end to psutils, a set of command line tools for PostScript processing.

page-crunch is nifty because it allows you to regenerate a PDF document two pages to a sheet. However, it's not perfect. It has a "Produce a Book" option but it only rearranges the sheets so they come out as leaflets.

Since I wanted a center-stapled book, I had to enter the order in which I wanted the pages printed. Sounds difficult for a 120-page book? It is! That's why I wrote a Python script to generate the correct page ordering for me.

So anyway, I printed all the pages back to back and they came out okay. Next were the table of contents and the cover, then off to our friendly neighborhood printer to get it center-stapled and cut.

Voila! I'm a publisher now!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fr. Gabino Olaso Zabala

Much will be made of the pending beatification of Fr. Gabino Olaso Zabala, one of the 428 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War who will undergo the process on October 28. The issue at hand: Fr. Zabala was known to have actively encouraged the torture of Fr. Mariano Dacanay, a native Filipino priest suspected of supporting insurrectionists, way back in 1896.

Before we engage in our new favorite national pasttime, it behooves to ask:

Is Fr. Zabala being beatified for that act of torture against Fr. Dacanay? Or is it for his act of blood witness some thirty years later?

To be sure, participating and encouraging the forced confession of Fr. Dacanay was an appalling act, but does this invalidate whatever acts of heroism he might have performed much later on? The point of many objecting to his beatification is precisely this blight -- a big blight, not a small one -- in his past. "It sends the wrong message to the world today," so they say.

I beg to differ. It's precisely the right message that we need to hear: that despite whatever dark pasts and unspeakable crimes, there's still hope for salvation and for glory. It's an echo of an earlier time, as documented in the Acts of the Apostles:

But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed at him with one accord. They threw him out of the city, and stoned him. The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. They stoned Stephen as he called out, saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Saul was consenting to his death. A great persecution arose against the assembly which was in Jerusalem in that day. They were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except for the apostles.


The objections, too, are another prediction come to pass:

"Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? Take that which is yours, and go your way. It is my desire to give to this last just as much as to you. Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I want to with what I own? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen."


Poem: In the Garden

In the garden
where we once held
our midnight trysts
under the glow of moonlight
and the perfume of roses
in the shelter
of the gazebo
now stands
surrounded by
poppies
carnations
and lotus flowers
a row of picket fences
painted white
like the perfect teeth
of a polite smile
(but their tips
are filed to a point)

of rosebuds there are none
only brambles.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Filipino Science Fiction, Part 2

Let's tackle the technological angle, a class of plot device that, as said earlier, is deemed difficult to write for. Is it really? Consider this thought experiment: imagine yourself to be an uncannily prescient Filipino scifi writer in 1977.

You might write about a future where everyone who wanted to could start their own interactive TV channel. Let's say that everyone is happily minding their own business. And then an insensitive journalist says something bad about Filipinos. How do the Filipinos react? They flood their personal TV channels with insults and death threats to the point where the journalist has to kill herself. The story wouldn't be so much about the personal TV channels as it would be about our own hypersensitivity to criticism, and how we react to it.

Or you might write about a future of self-contained megacities, floating up in the air, where one could get anything one heart desired: food, clothes, education, entertainment, etc. And yet, at the end of the day, the Filipinos who kept it running still had to go back down below to their dirty, crowded, and crime-widden warrens. The story wouldn't be so much about the floating megacities as it would be about the social imbalance and cultural heritage that forces this status quo.

Fast forward to 2007 and the parallels should be clear. Now: Do you really need to know the inner workings of the Internet and blogosphere to write the first story? Do you need to know about the economics of malls in order to write the second?

Hindsight is 20/20, one might say, and prognostication is easier in the reverse. So how about something more fanciful? How about that other staple of scifi, an alien invasion?

If you were writing with a Western bent, your protagonists will repel the aliens with guts and technological knowhow. But what if you were writing with a Filipino slant? The story might train the spotlight on the Filipino leaders scrambling to curry favor with the new alien overlords. It might examine the fawning hero worship of the aliens by the general population. It might end with the Filipinos coopting the invaders by mating with them. It's not very flattering, but the depiction rings far truer than if we have the Philippine Air Force sending their Broncos to bomb the mother ship.

If my take on Filipino science fiction seems a bit too much a reflection of Filipino society, it's because in any genre it is impossible to write decently about the Filipino-ness of a protagonist who is in all aspects divorced from Filipino society.

Take Johnny Rico, for example, the hero of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and arguably the first protagonist of Filipino heritage in any science fiction story. What made him particularly Filipino, aside from Heinlein's last-chapter revelation? That he was a Filipino was simply a tacked-on by-the-way. The way he was written, he could just as easily be replaced by a blond blue-eyed Aryan. In the movie version, he was.

That leads us to the corollary to criteria 4:

4a) Filipino science fiction is essentially social science fiction

This, I suspect, is true of any science fiction story -- or for that matter, any story -- in which one insists on imposing some national or cultural boundary.

To this, there are two other corollaries that follow from this:

4b) There cannot be only one Filipino character in a Filipino science fiction story.
4c) Satire forms an important component of Filipino science fiction.

The proof of these is left as an exercise to the reader.

Filipino Science Fiction, Part 1

What makes Filipino science fiction Filipino? Does such a classification even exist? These are questions that form part of an ongoing online discussion about the nature of Philippine speculative fiction. While the topic sounds frivolous, delving into the answers may reveal insights not only in the genre but about the nature of our Filipino-ness.

Three obvious criteria immediately spring to mind:

1) science fiction stories written by Filipinos;
2) science fiction stories written in Filipino; and
3) science fiction stories with Filipino protagonists

We could quickly and vigorously assent to these concretely qualifiable distinctions and be done with it. But such simplistic definitions are feel shallow and unsatisfactory: they stem from mere accidents rather than from the core essence.

Suppose a Filipino writes a compelling and scientifically feasible story about the society of our evolved human descendants, say, in the year 40,000. The setting is so far into the future that, if the story is well-written, there would be no traces of existing cultural idiosyncracies. There would be nothing uniquely Filipino about the story other than its authorship. If this is the only criteria to call this science fiction story Filipino, then we're done.

Authorship alone isn't as neutral as we think, however. The problem with the year 40,000 is that its too far off as to be safe and sterile. If we bring the time frame closer to the present, we'll find that nationalist sentiments, no matter if they're misplaced, eventually come to play. A Filipino who writes a well-researched and well-executed story about American scientists fighting an alien virus in New York City will likely be derided by his peers as derivative.

Suppose, then, that that Filipino writer rewrites his story in Filipino, Filipinizes all his protagonists, and relocates the alien virus outbreak to Makati. The translation does not add anything new to the story. His characters and setting will simply be tacked on. Worse, the story loses its authenticity to Filipino readers who, in general, think so little of their country's own scientific and technical capabilities.

This lack of confidence in Filipino scientific capability is perhaps the reason why what few Filipino science fiction stories there are often encroach into the territory of fantasy for their plot devices. Some Filipino writers justify this shortcut on account of our supposedly dismal science education, but this is a lame excuse for poor storytelling. Scifi stories that were part physics and chemistry lessons had their heyday in the juvenile literature by Asimov and Heinlein. These days, its sufficient for the science to be plausible only as far as to support the readers' suspension of disbelief.

Science fiction, after all, is not about the science but about the fiction. Good fiction comes from good plot, good narrative, and ultimately, good characterization. Good fiction has something to say about the human condition. It may use an alien virus as an allegory for our primal fear of death and disease; it may use our descendants in the year 40,000 from now as stand-ins for us to reexamine our notions of justice and mercy.

Good science fiction uses some jarring strangeness, explainable by science, to put the human condition into stark relief.

Applying that notion to the more particular Filipino science fiction, we arrive at the hopefully more satisfactory criteria:

4) science fiction stories that express some fundamental truth about Filipinos

But what fundamental truth, exactly? And more importantly, how do you marry its expression with some strange but plausible conjecture? This is what makes good Filipino science fiction particularly difficult to write -- it requires both an intimate understanding of one's culture, as well as wild and playful leap of the imagination. Then again, that's the case with all good science fiction.

Update: I've changed criteria 2 from
science fiction stories set in the Philippines;

to
science fiction stories written in Filipino;

because setting is far too close to character (criteria 3). I've also removed some lines to correct an inadvertent tautology pertaining to the central argument.