Sunday, December 26, 2004

Religion, cinema and politics

Religion, cinema and politics

Updated 09:33pm (Mla time) Dec 25, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A11 of the December 26, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

OUTSIDE the church where his remains lay, Fernando Poe Jr.'s movies were being played for the common folk who lined up and waited for hours to take a last quick look at their idol. No scene more graphically captures the substance of Filipino culture. An FPJ movie has the same effect on his fans as a religious experience: the cleansing of the spirit and release from bondage. The actor has more in common with a prophet than with a politician.

They came not only to bid him goodbye. They were there also to thank him for his kindness, and to ask his spirit to continue to watch over them. In this manner do we, as Filipinos, accept the enigma of death. Death prompts us not only to recall where we have come from, but also to ask where we are going. The resolution of death's mystery constitutes the core of every religion.

Some observers have compared FPJ's funeral with that of Ninoy Aquino's in 1983. The crowds that attended the two events were comparable; FPJ and Ninoy were both heroic figures, but the similarity ends there. Ninoy's funeral was a political event that acquired religious meanings. FPJ's funeral, in contrast, was a religious moment that acquired political undertones. Ninoy, as a political symbol, gained in stature from the spiritualization of his death. His greatness has survived the failure of Edsa I. FPJ, as a cultural icon, stood to lose everything from the politicization of his death. His star would have dimmed if his funeral had sparked an Edsa IV.

A glance at the depreciation of politics in the eyes of our people would be enough to explain this phenomenon. So low has the image of the politician in our society sunk that hardly anyone who ventures into the world of politics today can hope to leave it with his name intact. It was for a good reason that Fernando Poe Jr. was a reluctant politician.

Some people have read political meanings into the passing reference made by Susan Roces to the way FPJ was unfairly treated during the presidential elections. But these statements must be taken in the context of the media interviews in which they were given. She was asked what she thought of the government's plan to honor her late husband by conferring on him a posthumous National Artist award and arranging for his burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. With admirable restraint, she questioned the integrity of this offer by comparing it with the foul manner in which her husband was portrayed during the election by the same administration that was now proposing to honor him. This great woman was determined not to allow her husband's death to be the instrument of anybody's political agenda.

Aware that these statements could easily be misreported as the launching of a political bid, Ms Roces stressed that she had no political ambition and would not run for any political office. But she also said that she would continue to champion the cause of the poor on whose behalf her husband had sought the presidency. This advocacy may inevitably cast her in a political role, but I believe her when she says that politics, as we know it in this country, is farthest from her nature.

If some politicians of the administration and the opposition thought that the grieving admirers of FPJ could be transformed into a raging mob and re-rerouted from the cemetery to the Palace, they were mistaken. They know nothing of the spiritual nature of mourning in our culture, a purgation rather than a loading of the emotions.

The Arroyo administration should be ashamed of itself for reacting the way it did during the funeral. Instead of maintaining a respectful silence in the face of the collective mourning for a fallen warrior, it called in the Armed Forces to fortify and defend the Palace against the assault of an imagined enemy. The justice secretary, Raul Gonzales, appeared on television to issue a warning against acts of sedition, forgetting that the Arroyo regime he serves was installed in 2001 by such acts of sedition. The state would be constrained to defend itself, he intoned. So it will--against the sovereign people. The secretary personifies the pathetic paranoia of a government that, because of its own duplicity, has become fearful of its citizens.

If this government falls, it will not be because of the anger of FPJ's grieving supporters. It will collapse from the weight of its own corruption, hypocrisy and incompetence. And, yes, from its own fears. President Macapagal-Arroyo would have learned nothing if all she saw at the funeral were the anti-government messages that some of the actor's admirers wrote on banners and manila paper. For the real message of the funeral was the deep affection that the simple folk lavished upon the man they regarded as a hero. If she had watched Susan Roces during all this time, she might also have learned a lesson on what it means to speak from the heart.

How sad that our politics should be discontinuous from our people's faith. How tragic that our nation's leaders should be the opposite of the movie world's heroes. Should one still wonder why our voters try to repair this weakness by turning to preachers and movie actors for leadership? We know, of course, that the solution does not lie in this, nor in the vain attempt to discredit preachers and actors who enter politics. The solution, reason tells us, lies alone in the urgent task of reforming and elevating politics itself.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the writer Judith Butler asked: "What, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war?"

It is a question we might ask ourselves in this season of tragedy and grace.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The immortal FPJ

The immortal FPJ

Updated 02:29am (Mla time) Dec 19, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the December 19, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN a man as popular and as deeply-loved as Fernando Poe Jr. dies, we can be sure that many will try to claim him as one of their own. But FPJ always knew where he belonged-with the masa. Da King is not dead; he lives in their consciousness.

He was their hero, their benefactor, their protector and friend. He gave them hope for a better life, but above all, he showed them what a Filipino in these times could be. Loyal, kind, brave and strong.

Every society in every age projects a model of the national character. In Europe, it was the educated aristocrat who lived for the arts. In Latin America, it was the cavalier, the gallant horseman who personified courtesy and nobility. In Japan, it was the warrior who lived by a strict code of chivalry. In the Philippines, it is the quiet ordinary man who never bothers anyone, keeps his emotions in check in the face of provocation, but stands as a pillar of strength against abuse.

FPJ portrayed that kind of man in the movies, even as he strove to live his life by that same ideal. He didn't talk much in his films or in real life. He preferred the casual conversation of his loyal buddies over the rituals of social gatherings. He avoided the limelight not out of snobbishness, but out of shyness. He put a distance between him and those who would peer into his private life. In a world that made it its business to report every detail of an actor's life, FPJ remained an intensely private person. As an actor, he shunned all media interviews. He never promoted his own films. To solicit votes as a candidate and court media approval would have been, for him, the most arduous thing he had ever done.

Individuals like him measure their worth not by the amount of money they have but by the fidelity of their friends and followers. To the needy, they give not out of pity, but from a deep sense of duty. They expect nothing in return. Their power over their men is not based on acquired or inherited rights but on the grace of their charisma.

Though they are leaders of men, it is camaraderie they seek more than sheer power. They themselves avoid being beholden to the wealthy and powerful, though the latter may often seek their friendship. Respect is the tribute the powerful pay to such natural leaders.

These are not feudal lords; they are rather the present counterpart of our pre-hispanic tribal leaders. They eat and drink with their men. They fight the same battles, share the same jokes and sing the same songs. They wear the same clothes, eat the same food and wipe their faces with the same cheap towels permanently slung over their necks. But the hierarchy is inviolable and it is affirmed by the ultimate responsibility the leader takes for the actions of all his men.

So immense is this responsibility that the leader instinctively thinks first of the welfare of his men before he would ask them to do anything for him. Wisdom overrides pride. Restraint is the rule. For the leader is aware of the high cost of impulse.

The responsibility comes with the territory. FPJ's charismatic authority extended beyond his studio. He was the entire movie industry's leader, a role he shared with his bosom buddy and fellow actor, Joseph "Erap" Estrada. These two men were passionately protective of the industry and knew its vital role in the lives of the ordinary people who watched their movies. They felt answerable to them.

FPJ and Erap were a category by themselves. By the time they migrated to the world of politics, their stature in the eyes of the masa had gone beyond the movie roles they played. This was especially true of FPJ, whose distance and reserve in real life closely paralleled the traits he personified in film. The mystique of FPJ was larger than Erap's. He evoked awe where Erap elicited comradeship. The masa loved Erap, but they revered FPJ.

FPJ was too pure for politics. His charisma clashed with the requirements of political battles. There was a real danger that politics could dissolve the very things that the masa valued in him-his remoteness from all ambition, his disdain for power, his decency and his independence. The political arena forced him to articulate his ambition, to explain his quest for power, and to risk his integrity and independence by the alliances he had to make. He was already king in the hearts of the masa. People who admired him asked why, in heaven's name, did he aspire to be a mere politician.

His charisma was his weapon, but it was also his vulnerability. From day one, the enemy's artillery was aimed at demystifying him. They questioned his citizenship, they dug up his private life in order to cast doubt on his integrity and most of all, they belittled his intelligence by pointing out his limited formal schooling. Through all this, he kept quiet, staunchly refusing to retaliate in kind. The media mocked his reticence and equated it with ignorance.

Even as Congress was locked in a highly disputed canvass, he remained a responsible leader till the end, carefully skirting the dangerous path to demagoguery. He kept the flames under such a tight lid that his opponents thought he had no fire in the belly when he refused to lead his supporters into the streets. How badly they misread him!

In death, FPJ has finally prevailed. As president of this country, he would have governed for at most six years. Part of him would have died during that period. But now he lives forever in the memory of the masa to whom he will always be the kind of human being they want him to be.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

The instinct for honesty

The instinct for honesty

Updated 00:44am (Mla time) Dec 05, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the December 5, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

I'VE sometimes wondered why "corruption" is the word used for acts of dishonesty committed by people in positions of trust. Corruption means debasement, decay, deterioration, weakening. These terms are usually applied to metal and, in particular, to living matter. So, what is it that decays, deteriorates, or weakens in corrupt people?

Is it morality? Virtue? But these are notions that change over time. I think that what corruption signifies when applied to human behavior is the weakening of instincts-in this case, the instinct for honesty. On this simple instinct depends many of our social institutions. Instincts are sources of energy, and corruption is "energy in decline."

The phrase comes from Nietzsche, who wrote: "For there to be institutions, there must be a kind of will, instinct, imperative, which is anti-liberal to the point of malice: the will to tradition, to authority, to centuries of responsibility to come, the will to solidarity of generational chains stretching forwards and backwards in infinitum." When a person violates the trust that is lodged in his social role in a moment of opportunism, he weakens the institutional chain of which he is a vital link.

It is in this sense that one might explain the harshness with which US Army authorities at the Infantry School in Fort Benning treated 2nd Lt. Rolly A. Joaquin after he was caught switching the discount tags for merchandise at the school's commissary. The misdeed involves the glorious sum of 50 cents. That was what Lieutenant Joaquin, the brightest of his Philippine Military Academy class, stood to gain. In the context of Fort Benning's jealously protected institutional pride, dishonesty is not defined by the amount of money that is stolen. It is defined by the act itself-the breach of trust. Ambassador Ramon J. Farolan, himself a former military man, made a similar point in a previous column on this page.

It is a point that is largely forgotten in today's world, where the gravity of an act is typically reduced by referring to the material insignificance of what is gained or taken. We know it is against the rules-it is not supposed to be done-but since the value is petty, it is therefore not really wrong. This mode of reasoning is only one step removed from other common techniques of neutralization, such as: "The value is small compared to what the government or the company earns," "I am entitled to it because I have paid for it," "No one gets hurt," "Everyone is doing it anyway," or "The rules are stupid."

The other day, after I spoke at a teachers' congress, somebody slipped me a note about high officials in state universities and colleges who abuse their privileges by habitually filling up their private vehicles with gasoline paid for by the government. The practice, I'm afraid, is as rampant as the unauthorized use of public vehicles for personal purposes. Petty as they may seem compared to large-scale graft, such practices constitute the model for more serious offenses in the bureaucracy.

What is this model? Even if we know it is wrong, we do it anyway because it is easy, and because it would be stupid not to do it. We don't even have to summon willfulness to do it. All that is needed is weakness, a lack of self-esteem and pride. Similarly, we do what is right not out of a sense of duty, or conviction, or instinct, but simply out of fear or lack of opportunity to do otherwise. These are symptoms of a culture in decline.

Natural calamities may often challenge our will to live, but if they don't kill us, we might emerge from them stronger and more united. But corruption is something else. Its danger is insidious. It weakens the whole community and its effects are passed on across generations. In this sense, the fury of a thousand typhoons is nothing compared to the demoralization and cynicism that corruption in the military has brought upon the nation.

Discipline and duty are the hallmarks of the armed forces. No other institution draws its purpose more from the nation than the military. Thus, when the rottenness in the armed forces is exposed, what does this signify for the nation? It can only mean we have hit the limit, beyond which we cannot go further without calling into question the nation's very reason for being. At that point, we would do our people and the world a great favor if our leaders openly admitted failure and allowed the United Nations to supervise our affairs.

Although many of our people are leaving this country in desperation, I refuse to think we have already crossed the line in our seemingly irresistible drift toward decay. Yet the current situation is urgent enough to warrant a close examination of what the crisis of our institutions is telling us.

To my mind, it is warning us of the exhaustion of the sense of responsibility for the future. This is manifest in the growing inability of our young people to identify with anything worthy beyond themselves and their families. The Filipino nation as a collective undertaking seems so remote from their everyday concerns. National pride has become pass‚. For many, there is hardly anything left in which to anchor a sense of personal honesty.

In times like these, heroic figures with immense energy usually come forward to revive the flagging spirits of a people. The slightest most accidental stimulus can often bring them out, says Nietzsche. I think we need not wait for a Filipino Napoleon to get us out of the doldrums. The power of consistent example in daily life by those whose instinct for honesty remains strong should turn the tide.