Monday, May 29, 2006

'Tar baby': a lesson in etymology

The “tar baby” snafu by Tony Snow*, the new White House press secretary, at his first televised press briefing, ruffling some feathers in racial terms, confirms what many already know: English is a dynamic language. Illustrative examples of this dynamism that readily come to mind are: the lexical fall from grace of “Negro”; the 360-degree turnabout of “liberalism”; the judge-made augmentation of “free speech”; and now the creedal brew of “terrorism.”

The disuse of “Negro” is the result of the embrace of “Black” as the ethnonym for Americans who are of African origin although “African-American” remains in contention for the representation of what used to be the Negro. Even then the debate is still on as to whether Black, either as a noun or adjective, should be in capitalized form. (But “gay,” which has displaced “homosexual,” is still preferred to be in adjectival form as in “gay person” presumably to disabuse it of a largely sexual context.)

Early (or classical) liberalism is the philosophy which promotes the view that the individual should be free (liber) from the coercion of the sovereign power (or other individuals or groups) to realize his full potential whether in the political, social or economic realms. Adam Smith first articulated this thinking in the Wealth of Nations in which he advocated for economic pursuits free from government interference. The twin brother of liberalism is democracy which allows the people a certain degree of control over their chosen leaders through enumeration and separation of powers and the acknowledgement of certain fundamental rights as further limitation of those powers; thus, the coined words liberal democracy. Unbridled economic freedom has unfortunately resulted in the concentration of economic powers in the hands of only the few, a development that has been perceived as a threat to those individual rights and liberties which are essential in a democracy. This realization has given birth to modern liberalism (somehow the opposite of classical liberalism) which calls for government intervention in the economic sphere for the general welfare. Modern liberals have now appropriated liberalism whereas classical liberals have acquired the appellation of conservatives.

While first grappling with the “low-value” (e.g., lewd, libelous and fighting words) and “high-value” (e.g., deliberative expression) theories of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court now considers burning of the flag as constituting “expressive conduct” and exhibition of hard-core pornographic films as protected communication within the conception of free speech under the Bill of Rights. Today, constitutional debates on free speech run into more than one-quarter of constitutional law case books and are unlikely to abate.

“Terrorism” is still defined by Webster’s New International Dictionary as “a mode of governing . . . by intimidation” or “any policy of intimidation,” implying clearly that states are capable of committing terrorist acts. However, CIA’s Counterterrorist Center defines a terrorist act pursuant to Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d) as a “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience,” thus potentially excluding state actors from the definition. The current pejorative meaning of terrorism directly linking it to Islamism or to extremist contrarian tactic against the advance of liberal ideology is therefore of recent concoction.

By some broad strokes, there could be three political conceptions of terrorism: 1) insurrection against a legitimate government; 2) a policy of violence or acts of intimidation by a government in violation of human rights; and 3) warfare in contravention of universally accepted rules of engagement (See Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 16-17).

On the first conception, is a government that has cheated its way to power in a rigged election a fair game to a Lockean right of revolution? On the second, is the recent spate of violence (murders and assassinations) in the Philippines involving for the most part journalists critical of the Arroyo government and left-leaning activists considered terrorism by a state actor? When the justifications for waging a war are based on “sexed up” intelligence, is the resulting violence within the acceptation of the third sense?

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has given a parallel discourse in etymology. The root word of “pagan” according to Brown “actually reached back to the Latin paganus, meaning country-dwellers. ‘Pagans’ were literally unindoctrinated country-folk who clung to the old, rural religions of Nature worship. In fact so strong was the Church’s fear of those who live in the rural villes that the once innocuous word for ‘villager’ -vilain- came to mean wicked soul.”

Today, “America paganism” is less related to lack of religiosity than to evangelical faith in market sovereignty, which hearkens back to classical liberalism.

Well, “snafu” is good English only in the abbreviated form. Otherwise, it’s just another tar baby.

* Tar baby is an American colloquialism which means a “sticky situation so difficult to extract one’s self from”. It has also been used as a pejorative term for very dark skinned people. During the press conference, Tony Snow employed the term apparently in the first meaning as an analogy.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Blind spots or blinders?

For someone whose views I personally regard as rather conservative in the ideological spectrum, the recent raves by Dean Jorge Bocobo (DJB) against Philippine mainstream media is uncharacteristically radical, if not extremist (to the Left). DJB posted the following obiter (to the main commentary on the “pigging out” incident in Canada involving the seven-year old Luc Cagadoc) on Newsstand, John Nery’s blog, after John had pointed out some supposed “blind spots” on DJB’s part:
You guys [DJB addressing John, a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorialist] aren’t REALLY free to do journalism as it can be done . . .wouldn’t touch some of the juiciest stories relating to Globe and Smart just because Mon Isberto, Gerry Ablaza . . . are more powerful than Isagani Yambot at PDI . . . . I have come to one conclusion: the MSM is incapable of MORAL CONSISTENCY because it is not so free as it pretends to be. Too many in the Main Stream Media in the Philippines are mercenaries, ripoff artists, opportunists, extortionists, or just plain ad-fillers . . . except within a very constrained and narrow range, you guys are actually gagged and compromised . . . .

I know the individual journalists may not want it like that, but they are part of an establishment -- the Media -- that is, in my humble opinion, a permanent, unelected part of NATIONAL GOVERNANCE in the Philippines, more so than most govt agencies and depts, and the equal of any of its political, judicial and legislative branches. Kinda like pravda and izvestia used to be, but even more influential in many ways. Like the old soviet press, the Philippines press is the only effective channel for communication between the govt and the people. In fact sometimes it seems govt doesn’t ever do anything but react to the media.

I know you folks laugh about this a lot -- that you actually set the nation’s agenda. But it’s Vanity. Blind, tragic vanity, John.
Regor Aguilar, also a blogger, thus thought a “real argument” was in the offing and appeared ready himself to jump in to spice it up. But John could only promise “to respond to [DJB’s] ‘larger’ point . . . perhaps later in the day” and seemed for now to have chosen to sit out the dare.

The rather equally uncharacteristically dismissive stance of John was noticeably in sharp contrast to the way he has weighed in with alacrity, in another entry subsequent to the one at bar, scoffing at the government’s “purging itself” theory to explain the assassination of over a hundred leftists in the Philippines. One act could either be a gentlemanly flight (and I do regard John as a thinker and a gentleman) or a strategic stalling; the other perhaps just another intuitive attempt to keep legitimating media’s so-called watchdog role.

As a matter of full disclosure first, at least here, here and here, I’ve have been as critical as DJB of the media in general and the Philippine media in particular and the consequent insult and assault to free speech.

If I may take the liberty to restate DJB’s position, when media ministers to private power, it loses its true office – basically that of telling as truthfully and ethically as possible what the emperor is wearing or not wearing. Not blind spots but self-imposed “blinders” have “gagged and compromised” the media in such a way as to render it as “not so free as it pretends to be,” to appropriate once again another no-holds-barred raps from DJB.

I would assume that media practitioners who out of practical convenience choose to sidetrack issues that really matter (i.e., those that pry on the very core of the dominant system) are likely to produce muddled exchanges in the public square. It could get even worse when the same people, arrogating their agenda-setting power, ultimately drown the disparate voices of the multitude which are deemed necessary for a healthy democracy to thrive. Wouldn’t journalism in the traditional sense suffer in the process the way the truthful recording of history get “compromised” through the self-serving selection of historical accounts by the victor in war as part of the spoils?

Political correctness on the part of individual journalists may actually amount to sheer submissiveness to the private power of the people running the media business who are for the most part into it for the money. In this respect, concentrated media power as anathema to the “free market of ideas” parallels the chimera of oligopolies as dregs of the free market society.

It then becomes easier for me to appreciate DJB’s motivation leaving the mainstream channel (DJB used to be an op-ed contributor to PDI) to experience the liberation in the blogosphere.

But here’s the rub. Can there be a mainstream media if no voices are marginalized? If DJB (he claims he’s just “a human being with a blog”) is able to engage John Nery (a professional journalist, also with a blog) in an open debate for instnace on the very issue of proper discourse in the public square, DJB’s position becomes, in effect, contradictory; after all, he has effortlessly helped himself to a public and free-for-all discussion with someone who is a mainstream media practitioner, for a major Philippine newspaper to boot.

Still, the saving grace for DJB’s position is probably the realization that, at least in the Philippine setting, blogging as a medium of exchange remains marginalized as yet. If we believe however the claim that blogging is also elitist in many ways, doesn’t the contradiction return?

Now take note: In John’s blog, voices from the powers that be come astray sometimes (I recall at this juncture the highly discursive calls in Newsstand of presidential men like Bobi Tiglao and Ricardo Saludo in the run-up to President Arroyo’s impeachment proceedings) and anyone can join in retort anytime (as I’ve done a number of times even while I’ve been in pajamas). Indeed, the process, as we bloggers know, could be very empowering.

Apparently in the vast ocean of public discourse through blogging, the divide between mainstream and the side stream could be blurred where every one willing to dare can just test the waters, swim to his heart’s content among the fishes and all the sea monsters or drown upon his own weight (unless someone like Sassy sets up enclosures, of course).

I myself find blogging to be therapeutic. Thanks John for daring to keep your blog.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The other hocus pocus

When A tells B “Insofar as your looks are concerned you are a woman” is that an affirmation of B’s womanhood? Or isn’t A really telling B “You are only a woman insofar as your looks are concerned but otherwise you are not” or, simply, you are something else?

So, when the Supreme Court in David v. Macapagal-Arroyo rules that “PP1017 is CONSTITUTIONAL insofar as it constitutes a call by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the AFP to prevent or suppress lawless violence” is not the Court in fact holding that the disputed presidential proclamation is, for all intents and purposes, unconstitutional?

Why couldn’t the Court simply call a spade a spade?

The basic principle to consider in David, it seems, is: The “prerogative” of the president as the executive and as the commander in chief of all the armed forces to “call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion” is never doubted with or without the express recognition of such prerogative in the Constitution. Therefore, if the only (lawful) purpose of Presidential Proclamation 1017 is to restate or affirm a presidential prerogative, then its issuance was as superfluous (or “an utter superfluity” to borrow the description of Justice Tinga) as the so-called “calling-out” clause in the Constitution is an expendable verbiage.

Unstated but inevitably evincible from the decision is the ratiocination that the issuance of PP 1017 has been dictated by no other purpose than to serve as a clever cover (a “legal hocus pocus” according to the concurring opinion of Chief Justice Panganiban) for the contemplated exploitation of the presidential prerogative. The prerogative was in fact misused by the Malacañang draftsmen who contrived PP 1017 and by the officers of the executive branch who subsequently enforced it and whose zealous if otherwise harsh and wrongful executions of the proclamation within days of issuance (such as the arrest without warrant of UP professor Randy David, one of the petitioners in the case, and the raid at The Daily Tribune) were never earnestly countermanded by the President.

Indeed, while the president may have the prerogative to call out the military under the circumstances enumerated in the decision, there is clearly no justification for issuing PP 1017 in a manner detrimental to civil liberties based on the dubiety of the language of the proclamation (lifted in form as it was from the infamous Marcosian Proclamation 1081 which placed the Philippines under martial law).

It is now incontrovertible that both Marcos’ Proclamation 1081 and Arroyo’s Proclamation 1017 served as basis, at the very least, for condoning warrantless arrests, the banning or dispersal of public assemblies, the curtailment of free press and speech, the takeover or seizure of media establishments and the issuance of orders that have the force of laws.

What took the Court so long to make up its mind promulgating a needlessly long-drawn decision considering the Filipinos’ not too far-flung painful and humiliating encounter with Marcos despotic rule?