The more things change

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

I HAVE been away for a month, and for the first time since I started my journalistic career I decided not to write anything for my paper while abroad. This was most unusual, but there’s an explanation for it. I wanted to give my readers and myself a badly needed break; I also wanted to see if an enforced silence by an active participant in the national dialogue would have any effect on the public exchange of ideas.

Would anyone at all notice that at least one voice, one distinct perspective had ceased to be heard?

Day after I took off for the cold American Midwest, I received a very kind and totally humbling email from the highly celebrated Miguel Syjuco, MFA, PhD., the 2008 Grand Prize Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize for the novel Ilustrado, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice, Literature and Creative Writing at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

“I read recently with great admiration your last column before you take a breather,” Syjuco said. “I want to thank you for giving us your service, perspective, bravery and inspiration. To citizens, and writers like me, your example is one we eagerly follow. God speed and thank you, sir.”


Nothing had prepared me for this praise. It was all the more appreciated because I had long admired the writer although we have never met. Some other readers, though, must have thought I had decided to ditch my column, and urged me to hang on, despite the perils and pain of speaking like a voice in the wilderness when even one’s best and learned friends choose to froth with utter nonsense.

I sometimes long to be able to write for some deeper human purpose instead of merely critiquing the Duterte presidency, which tends to limit and marginalize one’s intellectual range. But as every writer writes for his readers, what readers would I have, if I gave in to such deep longings? So, my indefatigable Times editorial assistant kept on messaging me, “when are you going to resume your column?” And in the end, she prevailed.

The gifts of winter
I have not known many winters, but this was the coldest and longest I have known. It’s still going on. My wife and I left Iowa by small plane on January 9 to visit an older relative in Chicago before the snow covered the streets and airstrip at Burlington, but my two daughters Erika and Gabie, who were traveling with us and were supposed to meet us at O’Hare airport on the 12th, got stranded after virtually all locomotion in the city stopped.

In any case, the winter, which allows plants to grow inside them while covered with snow, had some good things stowed for this ageing writer. Caught in freezing weather, with nothing to light me up except the songs and stories of four extremely talented and entertaining grandchildren, I had to do something useful. I immersed myself in some solitary literary labor.

I resumed work on my long delayed memoir, and revisited The Last Holocaust, an unpublished novel, which had been in the pipeline for sometime now. A few years ago, in Ottawa, I shared the speakers’ dais at an international family life conference with Michael O’Brien, author of Father Elijah and many other masterpieces, and, to many, the greatest Catholic novelist writing today. I asked him how he would treat a literary temptation that insists on being born, despite its failure to stand up to one’s creative standards. He said some of his novels had taken him 17 years to write, so his advice was to hold on to it, and nourish it with patience and prayer.

I sat down and worked on my manuscript, and when I was done, I asked my young grandson, a 16-year-old prodigy, who has been admitted to workshop with professionals at the Iowa Writing College, one of the world’s three famous writing colleges, (the two others being in Ireland and in Australia), to copyread my work. If it passes the young editor’s standards, then I could be looking at an international novel in the next few months. The memoir should follow soon.

This new creative labor has left me little time to pay closer attention to President Rodrigo Duterte, or President Donald Trump, despite the Internet and world television. Or even to keep up with the news concerning my closest friends. Two close friends died in my absence—Silver Sarmiento of our Tuesday Club at EDSA Shangrila Hotel, and my old Philosophy and Letters classmate and friend Amado “Jake” Macasaet, owner of the newspaper Malaya; and all I could do was offer my belated prayers. I even missed the arrival of my own eleventh grandchild, Pablo Leoncio Tatad King, who insisted on being born to my daughter Michaela and her writer-husband Philip King on the 8th of January instead of a few days later.

The big picture
So how goes the big picture? As the French like to say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or despite appearances to the contrary, nothing really has changed.

*President Duterte and his minions in Congress are still pushing for their inverted and highly questionable federalism, despite the fact that everything constitutional and rational argues against it, and no one has bothered to show what democratic structures and values it would build rather than destroy.

*Donald Trump has provoked a global storm with his reported statement about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries being “shithole countries” whose nationals should never have been allowed to migrate to the United States as children.

*Some Americans and their media allies have begun talking of the black entertainment celebrity Oprah Winfrey as a possible presidential candidate after a speech she gave upon receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes.

We must all rise above our lowest intellectual predispositions. Leaders of nations, first of all. It is never too late to learn, especially for those who believe their duty is to teach others.

The learning period is not over for anyone; it may have just begun.

For DU30, federalism is a great concept, which has worked wonders for many federal unions. Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, etc. provide the most obvious examples. But they started as separate and independent or semi-independent states, provinces or regions, which decided to come together into one federal union. This is the only correct and legitimate concept of federalism. Independent unitary states, like today’s Republic of the Philippines, do not break up into separate and independent parts and then coalesce again, to form a federal union. Once a unitary state breaks up into several parts, chances are it would remain broken—“balkanized”— forever.

If DU30 and his minions would like actual proof, they could put their money on Catalonia separating independently from Spain.

Void ab initio
But the whole process is void and execrable from the very beginning. The process entails not just a mere amendment but a total revision of the Constitution. This is a prerogative reserved to the Congress as legitimate and functioning representatives of the people, and to the people themselves in the direct exercise of their inherent right as sovereign. This prerogative is denied to the President, who has no constitutional role whatsoever in amending or revising the Constitution.

Yet the push for inverted federalism is coming from the President himself, through members of Congress, acting as his agents, rather than as representatives of the people. If ever they had the right to speak for the people, they lost it when they abandoned their political parties under which they had been elected and joined their new party of convenience. In some countries, an elected lawmaker loses his seat the moment he changes his party affiliation.

There is no authoritative proposal that spells out the details of the proposed inverted federal union. There are many different proposals, all still under wraps. The clearer idea is not really about inverted federalism, but about a proposed shift to a French-type presidential system, with a unicameral parliament headed by a prime minister. Former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is increasingly being mentioned as the incoming prime minister. No doubt she is qualified to be PM—-some will say she is even better qualified than DU30 to be the president; but the same objections raised against the push for inverted federalism will have to be raised against this proposal.

How democracies die
All these moves are calculated at concentrating naked and absolute power in one or a few powerholders. No military coups are needed anymore, just the manipulation of power initially won through elections. In Jacob Talmon’s “totalitarian democracy,” the people still elect their leaders, but are completely excluded from all decision-making. According to a new book—How Democracies Die, by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt—this is how democracies in many countries are dying right now. These include the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Peru—and the US?

Trump’s many problems have refused to go away. And to these has been added the latest episode during his last meeting with some Democratic congressmen in the White House when, referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and some African countries, he reportedly said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here? Why don’t we have immigrants from Norway instead?” He wasn’t talking to the media or to the public, but just some Democratic congressmen who fed the media with his reported quote. Then the major US print and TV networks made a federal case of it.

Not only did the TV networks report in full Trump’s “unexpurgated expletive” as some Democrats allegedly heard it; more than that, The New York Times reported how the networks reported it.

This is what The Times reported on Friday:

*Lester Holt, NBC Nightly News on Thursday carried this parental warning: “This may not be appropriate for some of our younger viewers.”

*David Muir, ABC World News Tonight, reported Trump as “using a profanity we won’t repeat.”

*Jim Acosta, CNN chief White House correspondent, told network anchor Wolf Blitzer as he delivered a report from Washington, ”I noticed Wolf, you hesitated to use that word. I hesitate to use it myself.”

Before this, the media normally spelled profanities in asterisks, such that the word “shit” would be spelled as “s***”. CNN’s Acosta, according to the Times, was the first to broadcast the term without asterisks. The vulgarity has now entered the standard media vocabulary.

Some Filipino Americans I spoke to in Chicago said Trump’s real problem is the press: he could have avoided the latest blast, if the mainstream US media were not biased against him from the very start. They recalled that during the presidential campaign Hillary Clinton called some of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” but the media simply glossed over this slur.

But this has gone beyond the media war. The UN spokesman has weighed in, calling Trump’s statement “racist,” and the African Union is demanding not only an apology but a retraction of the President’s alleged statement.

There’s an obvious sentiment in the US media in favor of shutting down Trump, a reality TV star before he became president. But some of them seem to be looking at another entertainment celebrity as a possible president after Trump. That could not be any better than having someone like the boxer Manny Pacquiao sit in Malacañang after the former mayor of Davao steps down.

fstatad@gmail.com

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