A reply to F. Sionil Jose
The National Artist F. Sionil Jose has been kind to me personally and professionally; “Manong Frankie” was generous enough to write the foreword to my first book, about Rizal’s place in Southeast Asian nationalism. He even trusted me to edit his foreword; to fit the space the Singaporean publisher allotted for it, I had to reduce his draft by about a fourth. He had no complaints about my editing; on the contrary, he said the edited version read better than the original. I remember this act of egolessness now, with anguish and disbelief, after reading his ungrounded, uncharitable, unbecoming criticism of Maria Ressa’s Nobel Peace Prize.
FSJ was one of the “Grand Old Men” who helped me think through my book, and I paid him tribute both on my blog
and in the book itself. That’s the reason why I witnessed his steady support for the brutal Rodrigo Duterte in the last five years in pained silence; I was moved by the notion, misguided but I hope sincere, that the best I can do to honor our relationship was to ignore his excesses, and remember him as he had been in our exchanges. I ignored his many invitations to join Akademyang Filipino, and avoided his columns. I struggled to preserve his good reputation in my own eyes.
But his screed on Facebook against Maria finally pricked that protective bubble. I am under no illusion that calling him out much earlier would have changed his mind; we shared a great love of Rizal, and I understood his lifetime literary project as continuing Rizal’s work in spirit, but I was in no position to influence him. (It is possible, of course, that this thought may only be a preemptive defense of my long silence. Unlike me, my friend Nash Tysmans called him out early, and good.)
The bubble burst not only because Maria is a friend, a colleague I’ve known and respected for almost 20 years, a fearless leader among journalists, and now my new boss; or also because Maria wrote an expansive blurb for the same book that FSJ wrote the foreword for.
It burst because the truth could no longer be denied: The pain I feel in seeing Manong Frankie support Duterte comes from a sense of betrayal. FSJ betrayed Rizal’s highest ideals—and our friendship shaped by those ideals.
Rizal would have resisted the vicious regime of Rodrigo Duterte; he would have understood the violent braggart from Davao City as the slave-turned-tyrant he had warned us about; he would have done all in his considerable power to expose the social cancer that Duterte, as President, had become.
That sense of betrayal is sharpened by the uses the defenders of Dutertismo have eagerly made of FSJ’s Facebook post. If for this reason alone, it is important to prove that his arguments, that Maria does not supposedly deserve the Nobel, are like that Augustinian friar who visited Rizal in Hong Kong and then tried to pull his ears: “coarse and cunning,” Rizal said; “stupid,” his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt agreed.
I count nine key statements that FSJ made in his Facebook post; let me answer them one at a time.
“I have criticized Duterte but not on press freedom.”
FSJ writes as though this positions him as an independent thinker and protects him from the charge that he is pro-Duterte; in fact, what it does is raise the inevitable writer-related question: Why ever not? You are an esteemed writer, and long the driving force behind the Philippine chapter of PEN. Why are you not criticizing Duterte on matters involving press freedom? As we will see, this is the crux of the matter, and why I think that, as a writer, FSJ is fatally compromised.
“The Philippine press is alive and well not because of Maria Ressa.”
This double assertion, as written, suggests that FSJ thinks (1) the Nobel recognizes a thriving press in the Philippines and (2) the Norwegian Nobel Committee attributes that state of affairs to Maria. As we will see, this is not in fact what he had in mind; but I find it telling, of his rush to write and his fatal rush to judge, that he could have quickly and simply fixed the problem but did not. (Placing “but” after “alive and well” would have done it.) As written, then, his main argument that all’s well with the Philippine press is obscured by the statement’s second assertion (“not because of Maria Ressa”).
“No writer is in jail. There is no censorship. Duterte hasn’t closed a single newspaper or radio station.”
Wrong, and wrong again, and wrong yet again. Frenchie Mae Cumpio has been in a Tacloban jail since February 2020, for the crime of being an alternative media journalist. Lady Ann Salem was in jail for two months, for the same non-existent crime. And Maria herself was arrested twice, and was initially denied bail in one bailable case, in an obvious attempt to make her see the inside of a cell. Self-censorship is rampant, as many newsrooms, big and small, feel the chill of intimidating conduct or outright hostility from the presidential palace and its agents. Rappler reporters have been banned from covering certain government events, another form of censorship. Concerted denial-of-service attacks against alternative media sites have been conducted by the Philippine Army. And of course the ABS-CBN network was shut down because President Duterte said so. To be so out of touch with what’s actually happening on the ground—that would be a fatal flaw in any writer.
“Sure, he influenced Congress but the real issue against ABS-CBN as I have pointed out is not press freedom but money, politics, power and its abuse by the Lopezes who own the TV network.”
The proof of presidential intervention in the ABS-CBN shutdown is so stark that FSJ is forced to acknowledge it, but only as a form of influence on Congress. That he would stop at this suggests, not naïveté, but an unwillingness (fatal in a writer dedicated to the truth) to follow the evidence where it leads. President Duterte has never been coy about his hatred of the Lopez family or his desire to deny a renewal of the network’s legislative franchise. “I will see to it that you are out” next year, the President warned ABS-CBN in December 2019—one of many such threats he made. In the face of such clear instructions, FSJ’s unwillingness to confront reality becomes willful blindness. (Groping in the dark, he thinks that sharing the President’s hatred of the Lopez family is enough to justify the shuttering of the network.)
“Sure, journalists have been killed in the Duterte regime just as it was in past administrations. But those killings cannot be laid at Duterte’s door.”
Another necessary acknowledgment, another glib concession. “Sure,” the Duterte administration is just like any other administration, FSJ reasons. (I have argued against precisely this line
of thinking.) But not even the dictator Ferdinand Marcos publicly threatened ALL journalists. “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” Duterte said in a press conference a few weeks after he won the election. The deliberate ignoring of the gravity and the very real consequences of these remarks is fatal in a writer who seeks to be faithful to the power of words.
“The real test for journalists was made during the Marcos dictatorship when he imposed censorship, closed all media and jailed journalists.”
This sounds like historical perspective, but in fact is only personal pride. So FSJ survived the Marcos dictatorship (and helped journalists in that perilous time); does that experience mean that today’s journalists are not facing a “real test” too? It would be a sheer failure of the imagination, fatal in a writer who writes fiction, to think that such a real test today would necessarily take the same form as half a century ago. Shortly after ABS-CBN was shut down, the President took to the stage in Jolo and boasted that he had beaten the “oligarchy” (by which he meant the Lopezes), even “without declaring martial law.” (Authoritarians, innovating.)
“Now, let us look at Maria Ressa’s credentials.”
It is revealing that, in this passage, FSJ applies to Maria the same lens that some of his critics have accused him of applying to himself, in a way fatal to a writer’s critical reputation: namely, credentialism. It is not wrong to want to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, or to count the number of translations of one’s books. I am reminded of Asa Bascomb, the octogenarian poet in John Cheever’s magnificent “World of Apples,” who wonders why he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize. At least he finds an earthy redemption. But the Nobel Peace Prize is not for “credentials,” however impressive they may be. In the exact same way that one of the free press champions FSJ names, Inquirer founder Eggie Apostol, was honored with some of journalism’s highest awards not for her writing or reporting but for supporting and sustaining fearless journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov were recognized “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.” To mistake the Peace Prize for a literary or journalism award, like it was the Pulitzer on steroids, is to disregard the facts. Surely the explanation from the Norwegian Nobel Committee is clear as day.
“Duterte was not serious with Maria Ressa, else he could have nailed her like he did with Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Serena and Senator Leila de Lima.”
Of the troubling statements in FSJ’s Facebook post, this is the most disturbing. First, he tries to belittle the ordeal Maria is going through—which includes about a dozen lawsuits, an attempt to revoke Rappler’s corporate license, sustained and continuing harassment, hundreds of thousands of abusive comments, the very real prospect of spending years in jail—as “not serious.” This denial of another person’s reality, this diminishing of a woman’s successful resistance, is fatal to a writer’s sense of empathy. Perhaps he does not realize it, but FSJ is actually paying tribute to Duterte’s iron fist. “If Duterte were only serious, he would have smashed Maria to pieces,” he thinks. FSJ won’t be the only writer who turns out to worship at the altar of violence, but that suggestive word “nail” carries a whole lot of baggage, yes? Then, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, he offers two examples of Duterte nailing it: The unconstitutional removal of a woman Chief Justice, the politically motivated legalized harassment of a woman senator of the Republic. These are outrages that a writer of FSJ’s stature should denounce, not reference approvingly.
“Those Nobel judges were taken for a ride by western media hype.”
Finally, the obligatory statement relieving the “Nobel judges” of their responsibility, and putting the blame on Duterte’s enemies in Western media. Like the President he admires, who attacks the United Nations and the European Union for supposedly falling for his detractors’ propaganda, FSJ acts as though the members of the international community have no multiple and independent means to verify what’s happening in the Philippines for themselves. The international community IS in the Philippines; the Philippines IS part of the international community. This sense of reality-denying isolation from the world is startling and, in a writer, also fatal.
IN SUM: It is clear that from his position of privilege, F. Sionil Jose does not share the experience of a great many journalists in the Philippines who struggle with the effects of democratic decay almost every day: newsrooms intimidated by Duterte’s violence, reporters who work with public officials who internalize Duterte’s bias against the press, audiences that have turned aggressively hostile under Duterte’s influence, subjects and sources (especially those from outside the administration) who have been demonized by Duterte and his many agents. That is why FSJ can say that the Philippine press is alive and well. Like a disengaged spectator watching the entrance to a designated Covid hospital from a distance, he mistakes the constant bustle and the blinking lights for a party. He doesn’t realize people are dying.
A semi-random column or post from my Newsstand blog, or an old story from my files.
This little note posted in 2009, which contains an extended quote I had copied into a notebook “just about 20 years” before posting, is my aspirational ideal (“at once inside and outside”) for political and social criticism.
Something about this nuanced formulation [about “the proper task of the (social) critic”] struck me in the gut when I first read it, years before I became a full-time journalist. Indeed, the phrase “at once inside and outside” stuck in my head, as a noble ideal of writing and a neat summing-up of the writer’s ideal life. I still think the same way today.
Excerpts from and a link to last week’s Newsstand column, as published in Rappler (and then amplified elsewhere).
My first Rappler column
ran on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. I had wanted to know whether Duterte voters would vote for Vice President Leni Robredo, and it turns out that millions already had—in the 2016 elections. “The Filipino as cross-voter” extrapolates findings from the Social Weather Stations 2016 exit poll to determine how “cross-voting” shaped the last presidential elections, and how (despite the increasing political polarization of public discourse) it might complicate the next.
Marcos, on the other hand, received 14.1 million votes. That suggests that over half of his supporters also supported Duterte; about 6.6 million of his voters voted for someone else. Who did they support?
The exit poll data shows that half of Santiago’s 1.5 million votes, half of Jojo Binay’s 5.4 million votes, and a third of Grace Poe’s 9.1 million votes came from those who voted for Marcos as vice president. This suggests that, in 2016, Marcos’ appeal was broader than simply anti-administration or (secretly, winkingly) pro-Duterte.
As for Poe, her votes were evenly split three ways, among supporters of Marcos, Robredo, and her running mate Chiz Escudero.
That means about 3 million Poe voters (and, from another data point, over 700,000 Binay voters) joined some 2.5 million Duterte voters in supporting Robredo.
A few more notes: links, points, other stuff.
- As it happens, “inside-outside” is also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s movement-driven approach to politics. A HuffPost story from 2018 sums it up well: “Ocasio-Cortez’s efforts to marshal activist energy on behalf of a policy agenda epitomize an ‘inside-outside’ approach that seeks to leverage activist energy ‘outside’ of government to create the conditions for politicians ‘inside’ a lawmaking body to advance a broadly shared policy goal.”
- The first episode of Participate’s Kamag-anak Inc. mini-series on political dynasties is now up. View the 4-minute video, “Fats and Figures,” here: https://youtu.be/DLkhPJNFUkw
- Starting in July 2016, I co-hosted a weekly radio program on dzIQ that covered political issues and ran for about 40 episodes. I chanced upon our very first show, a 50-minute interview with Sen. Joel Villanueva, on YouTube. The first half of the show should be of particular interest now, as we start the election season in earnest. Villanueva, who is running for re-election next year, shared some of the campaign strategies that powered his remarkable victory in 2016 (he placed second, and got about 18.5 million votes). Most important takeaway: You won’t believe the number of radio interviews he did every single day of the campaign. https://youtu.be/ns7DkssuVZ8