Sunday, April 10, 2005



Posted 11:23pm (Mla time) April 09, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the April 10, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE MOST fascinating thing about the tributes and the media coverage that accompanied Pope John Paul II's death is the relentless message that this particular man's life will not be forgotten. Many are already calling him a saint. He is dead, but his spirit lives in the hearts of the many who admire him.

Such is the function of culture. It tells us that a life can be meaningful even if death necessarily punctuates it. It urges us to embrace life, not as the "one long illness" that Socrates called it as he lay dying, but as a chance at immortality. In fact, culture and all its activities-religion in particular-make us forget death, except as a prelude to the eternal life.

"Today I wish to add only this: that each of us must bear in mind the prospect of death. And must be ready to present himself before the Lord and Judge-Who is at the same time Redeemer and Father," wrote John Paul II in a 1980 addendum to his original last testament. "Accepting that death, even now, I hope that Christ will give me the grace for the final passage, in other words my Easter. I also hope that He makes that death useful for this more important cause that I seek to serve: the salvation of men and women, the safeguarding of the human family and, in that, of all nations and all peoples (among them, I particularly address my earthly Homeland), and useful for the people with whom He particularly entrusted me, for the question of the Church, for the glory of God Himself."

From the start, it was clear to John Paul II that he wished most of all to contribute to the peaceful resolution of the Cold War and the liberation of nations from tyranny. At the same time, he was also conscious of his duty to strengthen the institution that was entrusted to him, and to ensure its survival and relevance in the third millennium.

In all these intentions, he undoubtedly succeeded. Dictatorships fell not only in his beloved Poland but also almost everywhere he brought the message of freedom and human rights, including the Philippines. The end of the Cold War in the late '80s, which signaled the collapse of the Soviet Union, owes much to his efforts. What he may not have foreseen are the dangers of a unipolar world, a world dominated by one military and economic superpower that will not hesitate to trample on other peoples' rights in the pursuit of its interests. He was horrified by the American aggression in Iraq and used his moral authority to oppose the war. But he himself commanded no armies; he was powerless to stop the madness of US President George W. Bush.

He spoke for poor nations buried in debt as a result of exploitation and bad government, and endorsed selective debt cancellation as a moral option. The rich nations applauded him but completely ignored his message.

He spoke for the poor, the youth, the sick, and migrants all over the world, and championed the cause of the family as an institution. But he was unyielding on Church doctrines pertaining to the rights of women and gays, the issues of contraception and divorce. In trying to seek a balance between the Church's need to remain relevant in a changing world and preserving the institution's moral authority, he leaned on the side of conservatism.

The Church remains in crisis still, but if it is stronger than it was in 1978 when John Paul II became its head, it can only be due in great measure to his reaching out to almost every sector of the human family. Although he performed his duties faithfully as leader of the institutional Church, he was a priest to the end. He was effective because, more than any world leader of his time, he mastered the idiom of the modern media, consistently synthesizing his messages into powerful sound bites.

John Paul II is probably even more eloquent in death than in life. His final words, including his last testament, echo the lessons he sought to teach when he was alive. His death illumines his life. Young people remember him most because he gave them joy. He taught them not to fear.

The whole past week, television covered the Pope's death by following a simple formula-to make others talk about the man, their rare encounter with his presence, his impact on their lives. This is the way to immortality in the age of mass media. A few years from now, few will likely remember where this Pope precisely stood on the crucial questions of our time. It is the television persona that will prevail.

John Cornwell captured this persona so accurately in his book, "The Pontiff in winter": "There is no substitute for the living presence, the inclination of the head, the meeting of the eyes, the idiosyncratic gesture, the tone of voice." No other pope was quite like him. I never had the chance to meet John Paul II in person or to see him up close, but I can relate to this image of the man who, "deeply stooped and hugely broad-shouldered, his legs a little apart like a hill-walker steadying himself," seemed to carry all the burdens of the world.

The mass media routinely confers upon celebrities instant immortality. The more tragic and unexpected their death, the bigger they look. The cases of Princess Diana and of Fernando Poe Jr. quickly come to mind. But such media-based immortality seldom endures. A few hours after Pope John Paul II was buried, television's attention quickly shifted to the next celebrity happening: the marriage of the late Diana's former husband, Prince Charles, to his lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Neither television nor canonization can make John Paul II immortal. But a concrete change for the better in the life of the human family may.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Billboard nation

Billboard nation

Posted 09:32pm (Mla time) April 02, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the April 3, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN 1,500 parliamentarians from Asia, Europe and the Americas converge in Manila today for the 112th General Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), what first images will they have of the Philippines?

From the moment they step out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they will see a nation hopelessly scarred by billboards. As they pass Metro Manila's slums, they will form an image of an impoverished people drowning in advertisements for material goods they can only fantasize about but will likely never acquire in their lifetime. They will also note the urgent signs and streamers that Filipino politicians have put up to keep in touch with their constituents: "Congratulations to the graduates of 2005" and "This project was made possible by the joint efforts of President So-and-so, Congressman So-and-so, and Mayor So-and-so." Our visitors will think they have come upon a picture-book society that equates economic growth with consumption-fixation, and governance with political promotion.

We like to think we have a beautiful country. But over the years we have done everything possible to make it ugly and unlivable. Its overall shabbiness directly conveys not just our poverty but our loss of pride and self-esteem as a people. Edsa, Metro Manila's principal corridor, is possibly the most poorly maintained city avenue in all of Asia. Its surface, an unsightly skin of cement and asphalt, conveys at once a terrible image of the caliber of the road engineers we have and a graphic picture of the extent of government corruption and neglect.

The 1986 People Power Uprising gave Edsa a touch of history. Many of our visiting parliamentarians will probably want to see that patch of the highway where it all began. They will need to use their imagination to visualize what we have buried. Today, Edsa is nothing more than a long corridor through which one can see billboard after billboard. We are indeed a strange people.

If our public officials think they have made commuting in the city more bearable by allowing outdoor advertising companies to clutter both sides of our major thoroughfares with outsized billboards, they ought to have their heads examined. These are forms of sensory assault that cannot be turned off. They are, as someone put it, "the last unavoidable medium." They endanger motorists and they slow down traffic. But more importantly, they degrade the landscape.

In a landmark case upholding the cause of aesthetic regulation, United States Chief Justice Pound wrote: "Beauty may not be queen, but she is not an outcast beyond the pale of protection or respect. She may at least shelter herself under the wing of safety, morality, or decency."

Public highways were built with taxpayers' money; they were meant for transportation, not for advertising. In the United States where citizens' groups in various states have opposed the abuse of the landscape by outdoor off-premise advertising, the owners of the space on which these giant poster panels are located routinely invoke the inherent rights of private property. The courts, however, have consistently upheld the rights of citizens and declared billboard advertising in crucial locations a form of public nuisance. Detailed ordinances regulating billboards are now part of the law in many states. And in at least four states-Maine, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii-there is a total ban on billboards. These are places whose scenic beauty is the main reason tourists come to visit.

A foreign guest's first impressions of a country are typically of its natural landscape and infrastructure. The former shows what has been preserved of Nature's gifts and shielded from the greed of commerce and the evils of government. The latter showcases the industry of generations. One wonders what kind of mastery over these islands our billboard economy suggests to our visitors. A nation's heritage cannot be invented or made presentable overnight. Discerning guests can tell at once what is phony and what is real, what is suffered and what gives people pleasure and pride of place.

Because of the carpet bombing that took place toward the end of World War II, Manila is no longer the beautiful Hispanic city it once was. But its natural beauty can easily be recovered by peeling off the fa‡ade of superficial modernity that the billboard industry has plastered upon it. The splendor of Manila's sunset is undiminished. Thank God the billboards have not yet encroached on the shoreline of Roxas Boulevard.

By now we should realize that the exquisite beauty of our country resides not only in our people but also in our natural landscape. This is a land blessed by a bright tropical weather which brings out the magnificence of our countryside. An hour's ride out of the metropolis, either going South or North, brings the traveler to a magical place of verdant farms and majestic mountains. The newly rebuilt North Luzon Expressway, notwithstanding the phenomenal rise in toll that the operator has started to collect, is truly a world-class highway that has made Central Luzon's fabulous towns very accessible. Traversing that portion of the highway leading to the Candaba viaduct is sheer pleasure.

On a clear day, a flock of languid egrets cuts across mystical Mt. Arayat on the horizon. It is a rare calming moment that is, however, rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a wall of billboards. I often wonder why we allow a few people to do this to our country.

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