Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Shape of things to come
A friend who is currently a graduate student in Bangkok has been asking for news on the early presidential intramurals here in the Philippines. So here it is:

The five leading candidates who have declared their intention to run for the presidency are President Arroyo, Raul Roco, FPJ, Brother Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement, and Panfilo Lacson. The front runner in some of the surveys Noli de Castro has announced today, ending months of vicious speculation, that he would be sliding down to run as the vice president of Arroyo's. There were many people who were hoping De Castro would decide to contest the presidency, give FPJ a run for his money and secure the presidency for Roco.

But such things are not meant to be. Questions of the motivations of Kabayan Noli are now moot and academic, but it would be quite interesting to find out: Was he simply too lily-livered to stomach a presidential joust or was he heeding an ABS-CBN memo ordering him to run as GMA's partner? (incidentally, Noli de Castro would be running against another ABS-CBN talent Loren Legarda)

The latest polls show that FPJ, Roco and GMA are in an statistical dead heat; nobody has a clear command of the field. Arguably, FPJ, having been late in announcing his candidacy, is still gathering momentum and can significantly increase his lead in the polls. But just how much moss FPJ's rolling stone can gather in the coming months is not yet clear. (Felipe Miranda of Pulse Asia though says it would probably not exceed +10%.)

There is much talk of the popular invincibility of FPJ, but the polls do not show that invincibility just yet. FPJ, in short, does not lead the pack of presidential candidates the way Estrada led it in 1998, that is, with a tight hold at the top spot. FPJ, contrary to what Estrada and Tito Sotto would have us believed, can be defeated.

Most of the media though are selling the story that FPJ is a virtual shoo-in to the presidency, and some people who are supposed to be in the political know seem to believe so. The media understandably subconsciously wants FPJ to win, because he makes for good copy and good copy means revenues. President FPJ will surely be more exciting than, say, President Roco, and probably we would have more of Estrada's kangkungan talk.

Because there is no clear candidate leading, the coming election in 2004 would most likely resemble the 1992, rather than the 1998, election, with machinery and money gaining hyper-critical importance and potentially spelling the winning edge. This is why people from the opposite camps want to see Roco lose his momentum in the pre-election polls so that businessmen supporting his campaign war chest would shift sides and look for more hopeful pastures. Although rumors circulate that Lucio Tan is backing Roco, the time is still too early for businessment to make irrevocable commitments. And Roco, without money and machinery, would probably be running again come 2010.

Lacson, even without the support of Estrada but running under the LDP banner, is adamant in taking a shot at the presidency, but his poll numbers simply do not add up. While quite a sizable number of Filipinos, especially taxi drivers, ardently support his candidacy, they are simply not enough to propel him to Malacañang. Unfortunately for Lacson, only the number of votes count in democratic elections, not the intensity of the voters’ sentiments.

Villanueva though is a bit of a downer for GMA. He has been a supporter of GMA until he suddenly announced his own candidancy. Although impossible to win the presidency himself, he is widely expected to draw out voters away from the president.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Young people turning red
The Inquirer reports on the claim of the National Democratic Front that the number of youth going to the boondocks to join the NPA is increasing.

A housemate of my sister's friend has also recently went underground to join the NPA somewhere North of Baguio, to the dismay and shock of her parents it turned out. The mother, who was understandably distraught, recently came to Manila to look for the daughter, but to no avail. She went back to Mindanao unable to see and talk with her daughter who did not even text her goodbye.

It is always sad to hear families being broken apart by ideological politics, but, what the hell, birds got to fly, fish got to swim. I just hope these young people turning red will survive long enough to realize their mistake or see the wisdom of their choice to go underground, as the case may be.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

UP Professor Walden Bello is interviewed by the New Left Review. Chalmers Johnson on the Japanese Looting of Asia during World War II. War historian John Keegan writing for Time magazine on the American G.I.

The Illiberal Naipaul?
A profile on the illiberal Nobel Prize laureate VS Naipaul on the Atlantic Monthly. I have read his A Bend in the River (gorgeous title) some months ago, and I was like what was the fuss all about. I don't really feel much enthusiasm for the book, but I can understand why people like Naipaull: he offers a totally alien perspective on the post-colonial experience of the Third World. Naipaul is after all a double-exile, from India and the Caribbean, and now residing in Britain. The protagonist in this particular novel feels that independence was much worse than colonialism. He felt more secure protected by the colonial interests, before African natives got it on their heads that they could be just like the Europeans. I did not really like the book ( I think Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was better), but still worth reading if only for its unique political perspective.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

THe American battle for same-sex marriage
US Judge Richard Posner, in an essay appearing on the New Republic, considers the wisdom of pushing the US Supreme Court to decide whether the right to same-sex marriage exists. The right of gays and lesbians to marry has taken the spotlight in the US lately with the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that such right does in fact exist. Posner argues that the court is the wrong venue to settle the matter, because if the US Supreme Court declares that such a right exists it will be making a discretionary moral judgment that is odious to American public opinion, which currently is adamantly opposed to same-sex marriages. Rather than judicialiazing the issue, a better alternative would be social experimentation, " the democratic way to handle this explosive issue, an issue intractable to legal analysis and inappropriate for judicial resolution." What Posner is recommending is that Americans should sit out the battle, observe first Vermont's (the only state with civil unions) and Massachusetts's same-sex marriages/civil unions and proceed from there. That rather than dubious legal reasoning from the federal Supreme Court, according to Posner, is the democratic way of settling the issue.

Irrational gift-giving
An Australian daily has an amusing article on the economic irrationality of gift-giving. Consider this: "... when I give up $50 worth of utility to buy a present for you, the chances are high that you'll value it at less than $50. If so, there's been a mutual loss of utility. The transaction has been inefficient and "welfare reducing", thus making it irrational. As an economist would put it, "unless a gift that costs the giver p dollars exactly matches the way in which the recipient would have spent the p dollars, the gift is suboptimal".

Lately, I have been thinking of this question: Which would you appreciate more, a gift you really like but which the giver thinks of no value, or a gift which you do not like but which the giver dearly values? I will be happy with the first, but touched by the kindness of the second.

The Weekly Standard disses The Return of the King
I have read rave reviews of the Return of the King, but this review by Jonathan Last on the Weekly Standard is the first one I have read dissing the last installment of the Tolkien trilogy. I have not seen it yet so I can not really comment just yet. Last though violently dislikes it.
Bad writing
Lately, I have taken a liking for the law commentaries of Jose Sison on the Philippine Star. They are usually insightful and concise in their presentation of legal issues, but today's column on the Leyte flood is terribly bad, I must protest. Had I not known it was Sison I was reading, I would have presumed that it was written by some high school student taking a jab at editorial writing. Two sentences are particularly jarring:

Countries, whether economically rich or poor, are endowed by the Creator with natural resources to be conserved and developed for the benefit of their own people. But in third world countries like the Philippines, this is not the case.

What did Sison mean by this? That the Philippines was not endowed by the Creator with natural resources? Surely he could not have meant that, but the juxtaposition of the two sentences suggests so.

The column could have used some editing. Alert: former Justice Isagani Cruz, here on exhibit is another instance of atrocious legal writing.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Edith Grossman translates Don Quixote
The literary world is abuzz with great excitement with the translation of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman, the woman who brilliantly translated Gabriel Garcia Marquez's works.

Earlier last year a poll of 54 writers from all over the world voted Don Quixote as the number one book of all time, with the remaining 99 books of the best 100 unranked. You can read here how literary critic par excellence Harold Bloom gushes over Don Quixote, stating with great conviction, as is characteristic of the professor-critic, that only--and only-- Shakespeare in all the western canon comes close to Don Quixote.

Edith Grossman was interviewed by PBS on her translation. Here is the transcript.
A math problem for the Christmas season
Britain's Telegraph has an amusing article on the song "On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, a partridge in a pear tree". Professor Marcus du Sautoy of Oxford asks just how many gifts did the true love send in all of twelve days. How do we compute for the total number of gifts given in any day without tediously adding them all up?

Our second-year math class was given the same problem as a homework. When the day arrived for the homework to be checked, it turned out nobody--except me--in the class figured out the formula: nx(n+1)/2, with n being the number of days. The teacher got so incensed with the class that he called me up at asked me to go to the blackboard and write my formula. Perhaps not knowing that I got the right one, she made the promise that she will give the highest grade of 95 on the grading card--effectively disregarding the rest of the student's performance in the class-- for that school year quarter to whoever will get the answer correctly. Boy, was I happy then.

How did I get it? For anybody with rudimentary knowledge of quadratic equations or mathematically brilliant like Karl Friedrich Gauss as the article points out, the problem would be a cinch to solve. Now I was neither of the two then (as now), but what I did was add up all those numbers and, by trial and error, practice different equations that might fit the total for each number of day. By staying up very late and waking up very early, I was lucky to find that nx(n+1)/2=total number of gifts was the equation that fits.

The teacher gave me the highest grade possible on that grading period. I was glad though that she did not ask in detail how I came up with the formula. I would have had to reply that I added all the numbers up and looked for a fitting equation, a roundabout time-consuming way that is hardly the mark of a numerate man.
Web sightings
Garbriel Garcia Marquez on Bill Clinton in a 1999 piece on Slate. The BBC on the history of the MP3 and how Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" was used as a model for the MP3 compression algorithm.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Finished reading Flannery O'Connor's collection of really tragic stories called Everything That Rises Must Converge.
The memorable title, according to Robert Fitzgerald who introduces the book, was from Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit philosopher. The short stories in the book are good and all tragic, all of them with one character dying at the end except for the two stories in the book.

Common among the characters in the stories is a certain trait of self-righteousness and a fastidious desire to reshape other people's characters according to one's conception of what is good. Driven and irritated by that feeling of insatisfaction with the characters of other people around them, the people in O'Connor's stories all ended up tragically, most of them dying.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

GMA gave Estrada a brand-new golf cart
Max Soliven shares this gossip in today's Philippine Star:

GMA had a couple of weeks ago sent Mr. Estrada a golf cart to enable him to get around (despite his frozen knees) his place of detention in Camp Capinpin, Tanay, Rizal, and navigate the grounds within his fenced-off compound. When it was pointed out that the golf cart was only "second-hand", GMA – again through Mike – sent a second golf cart, this time brand-new.

Why do I know this? My former neighbor businessman and industrialist I. G. Atendido is the one who makes those golf carts, and he confirmed to me he had sold one second-hand, and two brand-new golf carts to Defensor.
The Sandiganbayan changes its mind

I do not fully understand what legal jujitsu the Sandiganbayan undertook when it overturned its earlier ruling barring Estrada from seeking medical treatment abroad. The justification for that bar in the earlier Sandiganbayan decision was that doctors in the Philippines could very well provide the treatment being sought by Estrada abroad.

Those same capable doctors of the earlier ruling are still capable and are willing to provide Estrada with the treatment he needs. So what were the new things considered by the Sandiganbayan to warrant a reversal of an earlier decision?

The Philippine Star reports that what prompted the Sandiganbayan to overrule it earlier decision was the supervening possibility of paralysis:

In its 13-page ruling, which overruled objections from prosecutors, the court said it could not be "so heartless as to deprive Estrada his choice of surgeon and hospital this time around considering his deteriorating health which will lead to paralysis."

It said the possibility of paralysis was a "supervening event" that convinced the anti-graft court to reverse its 2002 ruling.

Now that supervening possibility of paralysis was right there last year. The facts then were quite the same as the facts now. The Sandiganbayan simply overlooked what it now takes notice of to justify its revision of an earlier ruling.

Estrada is intransigent in his decision to consult his doctor at the Stanford Medical Center, and in the face off such intrasingence the Sandiganbayan was the first to blink, hence the new decision. I have not read the decion (no copy can be found in any of the government's websites), but judging from the news accounts everywhere I can hazard a guess it was not so much the supervening possibility as the wish of the administration to get rid of Estrada come election season that was the motivating factor in the decision. With Estrada conveniently out of the way, there would be greater room for political maneuver for the Arroyo Administration. Estrada can still help FPJ, alright, but long distance calls are expensive (but then again, not that Estrada would mind the bills).

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Rites of acceptance

AR Santiago, the son of former Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, was reported to have been devastated by the cruel way he was interviewed by the UP College of Law panel which ultimately turned down his application. Some of the questions were said to be, “ How do you cope with your mother’s insanity?” and “Do you know how much your father bets in cockfights?”

Following the suicide of AR Santiago, some people began raising the issue of the appropriateness of the questions raised in that particular interview. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the interview panel went overboard and that the questions asked of AR were too personal and hard-hitting, and therefore have no place in an interview purportedly done to evaluate the aptitude of a person for law studies.

AR was treated shabbily, no doubt, but what most people do not know is that just about everybody else was treated the same dismissive way AR was treated. People are howling now simply because someone committed suicide afterwards; had there been none, the interviews would have peacefully treaded on till the next application season without so much an introspection among the law faculty in between.

Exactly what happens in those interviews? The applicant faces a panel of three or four people belonging to the law faculty. Questions are open-ended and could be anything under the sky. Some applicants would be asked to explain their thoughts on one particular thing and the panel would then proceed to skewer the sense of what the applicant has just said, taking pains to show the haphazard way the applicant thinks. It would not be a far stretch to say that the panel resembles the sophists as portrayed by Aristophanes in The Clouds in their enthusiasm to find holes in one’s statements.

The panel also freely dispenses with insults during the interview and it is not uncommon for an applicant to cry during the interview. In AR’s same batch of applicants, for example, one lady applicant was chastised for her odious brand of perfume. These unreasonable attacks are necessary because they supposedly show the applicants who can think on their feet under pressure.

People who never attended UP are naturally appalled at such displays of insensitiveness to other people’s feelings, but what they do not know is that such degrading treatment is quite de rigeur at the university when it comes to applications. The seeming callousness of AR’s interview reflects the larger organizational mindset that pervades the university.

The University of the Philippines hosts a lot of student organizations. Any student desiring to be accepted as a member needs to apply formally. The applicant is usually required to spend a required number of tambay hours at the organization’s tambayan, during which time he is supposed to ask all the members to sign on his so-called sig sheet. The sig sheet must be signed by all the members at the end of the application period. When an applicant asks a member to sign his sig sheet, he can be asked to do anything, say, crack a joke or tell who one’s crush is in the organization.

The real degrading treatment though comes during the talent night and the interview. In one regional organization’s talent night I was able to attend, the members of the organization, irked by the low production value of the applicants’ presentation, bludgeoned the applicants with insulting contumely. Some of the members of that organization are my friends, but until this day I cannot fully reconcile myself with how they treated those young insecure freshmen in such a cruel, insensitive way like vultures descending upon a dead carcass. (Or does the psychological insight of Hitler also works in this case: dress people in uniforms and give them roles to play and you will be able to unleash their cruelty?) When one lady began crying because of the invectives hurled upon her, one member of the organization had the graciousness to point out that in other campus organizations she would be treated far worse.

There are, I am sure, many such instances happening all around the campus. Also rumors of risqué rites especially in sororities and fraternities abound. I also have heard from one applicant that a certain Christian student organization regularly brings its applicants to girlie and gay bars purportedly to expose and inoculate them against temporal temptations. When I first heard of this particular silly application requirement, my first impression was why not proceed to other more damnable sins like, for instance, seducing one’s married professor or interning with a drug syndicate. Now those two will give one quite an exposure to evil.

Cruelty, insensitiveness and degrading treatment of applicants are, mind you, all prohibited by law. Republic Act 8049, otherwise known as the Anti-Hazing Law, is unequivocal in its definition of outlawed hazing. Hazing, according to RA 8049, is “an initiation rite or practice as a prerequisite for admission…placing the recruit, neophyte or applicant in some embarrassing or humiliating situations such as forcing him to do menial, silly, foolish and other similar tasks or activities.” The law says that the applicants need not be whacked blue with a paddle in order to be legally considered as having been subjected to hazing. UP students do not realize this when they rail against fraternities hazing applicants. Hazing does not necessarily mean being physical; acting contrary to good morals may constitute hazing.

What is truly sad about this state of affairs among the university’s campus organizations is that it apparently elevates one’s being thick-skinned into a competitive edge, nay, even a desired virtue. Applications like this if left unchecked can degenerate into pakapalan ng apog. ( Perhaps this explains away some of the politicians who come from the university.)

A person’s pachyderm quality as an indicator of potential merit is misleading. It can sometimes be serviceable in separating the chaff from the grain, but it can also hurt other people deeply. Surely, the good minds at the University of the Philippines can devise something better than mortifying people.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Finished reading Joaquin Bernas's A living Consitution:The Cory Aquino Presidency today.

It is a collection of op-ed pieces written during Aquino's presidency. I wouldn't really recommend it for the general reader since the essays are all dated, but for anyone interested on the legal issues confronted during those times the book is an interesting read especially on the debates of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitutuion. Bernas was a member of the commission so he has an insider perspective.
Web sightings

New Yorker has an article on the debts of JRR Tolkien to Wagner. Alex Ross writes that although Tolkien vehemently denied any connection, one "could see 'The Lord of the Rings' as a kind of rescue operation, saving the Nordic myths from misuse—perhaps even saving Wagner from himself."

US News notes how Yale alumni are crowding the democratic presidential race in the US. They must be all encouraged by precedence. Come to think of it, Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr, all graduated from Yale. The candidates though never mention their having attended the preppy university, bad for masa credentials. Even the inimitable Howard Dean, I found out, come from Yale, or as he demurely put it, from a college in New Haven, Connecticut.

Asia Times reviews Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai, and sees parellelisms between Koizumi's Japan today and Japan three hundred years ago when it first opened up to the world. The review notes that
"Hollywood's East-meets-West samurai epic makes an attempt to detail the historical clash between Japan's traditionalists and its modernizers - a story still playing out today. But with its cliched dialogue and predictability, even Tom Cruise's good looks can't make this action flick-meets-historical drama what it should have been." Oh well. What can we expect? Even the trailer looked like B-moviesh, like those of another fading star by the name of Van Damme.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Ople eulogy

Barely had the dust settled on Ople's corpse than some people began raising doubts--and eyebrows--on the old man's legacy. The doubts were triggered by the president's calling Ople a hero and a statesman and the profuse euologies delivered in the Senate, where Ople was called inter alia a demigod.

Teddy Casiño has fired what I think would be a first salvo. In his yesterday's column on Business World, which unfortunately is unavailable online, he delivered a eulogy a la Mark Antony.

Ople did fairly well as foreign secretary. What especially endeared him to me was the strident representation made by the DFA at the ASEAN supporting the Burmese democracy movement. The Philippines during his term was the most vocal in calling for Burma's military government to engage with the opposition. (But then again others would point to his kowtowing to Bush for the war in Iraq.)

Ople though is criticized mainly for serving Marcos as labor secretary until 1986 when the regime was unceremoniously booted out. Ople was, more than any other person save Marcos, responsible for the brain drain in the country. It was during Ople's office at the Labor Dedaprtment that the policy of exporting the country's labor was first concocted to stave off popular unrest. By exporting the country's labor, the Marcos goverment got dollar remittances to stave off irreversible economic decline and, more importantly, got rid of the people who would otherwise constitute the politically modernizing class had it not been for their overseas jobs. It was a neat plan and it worked until 1986.

Who knows how long Marcos could have lasted without the safety valve provided by this policy of massively exporting the country's labor. Maybe shorter. A lot shorter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The young Ople

Teddy Benigno in his column reminisces the time he spent with the young Ople when they were both cub reporters.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Roco's platform

Roco's website made available online his Agenda of Hope platform. Click here. I will comment on it later in the day.
Death Penalty and the International Human Rights Day

We celebrate today the International Human Rights Day. Today has for its main editorial "the heightened threats to human rights" both locally and globally. THe editorial sadly notes that those new threats are coming at a time when human rights have been almost universally acknowledged:

Indeed, just when the sanctity of human rights has achieved near universal acceptance and absolute respect, fresh threats to them have emerged. But this time, the threat to and abuse of human rights no longer comes from or at the hands of agents of brutal elites, but from entire societies, two of them profoundly democratic, which have been so scared out of their wits and stripped of all sense of decency as to clamor like Old Testament savages for a bushel of eyes for an eye, and scores of innocent lives to get at the one or two who are guilty.

The editorial also takes a potshot at the recent decision of GMA to reinstitute the death penalty for kidnappers. Surely, the president could not have chosen a worse time to announce the lifting of the moratorium, with the International Human Rights Day coming and the Christmas Day just around the corner.

Manolo Quezon, though, worries about the constitutionality of a blanket moratorium on the death penalty. He seems to be of the opinion that commuting the death penalty should be on a case-to-case basis because it is founded on the executive privilige of pardon. Quezon writes that:

A president may, in his or her heart of hearts, take a moral position against the death penalty, but it is incumbent on that president to at least maintain the appearance of a personal intervention, a considered decision, by picking up the phone each and every time as the time of execution draws near, to tell the warden the execution has been called off. It reminds everyone concerned that the law was not being thwarted in a general sense, but instead, the maximum penalty substituted for another (death for life imprisonment) on an individual basis. A blanket moratorium is an expression of subversion -- subverting a law enacted by the representatives of the people.

I am not so much troubled by the constitutionality of a blanket moratorium. The constitution says the president may grant pardons. If she has the power to grant pardon to whomever catches her fancy; she has the power to grant it to all. Picking up the phone each time she wants to commute a sentence may be more appropriate but it is tedious and would constitute bad policy.

What is far more troubling is GMA's decision to enforce the death penalty only to kidnappers and not to the other convicts guilty of heinous crime. In GMA's previous blanket moratorium, there were no aggrieved parties among the convicts. Everybody, I presume, was happy to be spared the execution. In her selective policy of death penalty only to kidnappers, I can hear the grumbling of the kidnappers who may think they are not being treated equally by law and are being especially persecuted.

Such a selective enforcement of the death penalty may constitute, in my opinion, a denial of equal protection of laws. There is a denial of equal protection of the laws where persons subject to legislation are not treated alike, under like circumstances and conditions, both in privileges conferred and liabilities imposed ( Toledo v Dones, December 7,1973). By selectively imposing on the kidnappers the death penalty, the president may be, in effect, imposing upon them special liabilities.

Monday, December 08, 2003

First chapter

If you are like me who hasn't yet taken hold of Garcia Marquez's first installment of memoirs, you can read the first chapter here.

New Yorker's David Denby reviews Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai.
Best books chosen by the New York Times

The New York Times has chosen what in its opinion are the best books this year. They are:

THE BOUNTY: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. By Caroline Alexander. (Viking.) Relax! The movies didn't lie to you -- not entirely. Fletcher Christian really led a mutiny on the Bounty in 1789; and Captain Bligh and 18 crewmen did sail 3,600 miles of the South Pacific for seven weeks in a 23-foot open boat to reach safety after the mutineers tossed them overboard. Caroline Alexander's threatening subtitle simply means she sets out to prove that we have never understood these two men and hadn't a clue about how Bligh, a caring officer, became the heavy in the legend or why Christian, who was detested even by his fellow mutineers, became a sympathetic character to later generations. Her dramatic presentation of the court- martial of several mutineers leads to a subtle investigation of how the interests, and the political influence, of several families of minor gentry who wanted to save the neck of one mutineer bent the law and the rules of the British Admiralty. We hear them questioning one another and government officials, suggesting interpretations of disputed testimony and spinning the story one way and another while Bligh, confident of his probity and his lifetime record of naval service, could not recognize that history, and his rightful reputation, were being stolen from him.

BRICK LANE. By Monica Ali. (Scribner.) Leaving home is a journey without end in this novel about Bangladeshi immigrants in London's East End. The story turns on itself like a winding spring. An 18-year-old woman from Dhaka in an arranged marriage with a man of 40 is practically immured in their flat, with only one neighborhood friend, bearing children and listening to her husband's dreams of being a success and then returning home. But her sister's letters from there tell her, in hints and silences, that the Dhaka of memory is gone. Her husband's loss of work, and then of his savings to a moneylender, forces her into garment making, and she falls in love with the man who delivers and collects her piecework. In the deep background, scarcely mentioned, Islamic culture is challenged by Western values and personal choice battles fate. It is the emotional force of the woman's brief affair that releases the spring, and the deep tensions of the story erupt in front of us. When the husband returns to Dhaka, resigned to failure, she stays on with her daughters, learns English from them, and by the end seems to be sailing out into the universe on her own. The expansive generosity of the last pages is a remarkable achievement, especially in a first novel.

DROP CITY. By T. Coraghessan Boyle. (Viking.) Is T. C. Boyle mellowing? Well, the debris left scattered up the entire West Coast of North America in this novel is as frightening and spectacular as any he's ever dropped on his readers -- wasted people, bears, goats, wolverines, dogs, a horse, bulldozed houses and wrecked rolling and flying machines. ''Drop City'' is a 1970's California commune of hippies who migrate to Alaska believing that the lawless tundra will let them live high as kites forever. Of course, it takes only a few months of early winter to make flower power fade to black. But Boyle's compassion for the oddballs, and even a few losers, is striking; he has not often achieved such emotional complexity. At the heart of this novel are two love stories: one involving two middle-class newcomers to the commune and the other a solitary Alaskan trapper and a woman from Anchorage who seeks him out as the only safe haven in a world melting down. The cranky, passionate attachments of these couples spread warmth through the book; Boyle's joy in sharing the music of the age gives it a nostalgic tone; and his delight in evoking the effects of a rainbow of narcotics endows it with authority -- he's obviously no amateur. (The music and dope seem to have inspired him to coin a witty word, one spoiled by a typographical error in the book. We find spacey hippies ''dancing like moonwalkers to the drugged-down testiduneous beat,'' when surely what he wrote was ''testudineous.'' You won't find either word in your dictionary, but look up ''testudo'' or ''testudinata'' and you will catch his intention.)

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday.) Everyone seeks his own Garden of Eden, but who would think to find it in a single block of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, in the 1970's, when New York City was going down the tubes? In Jonathan Lethem's new novel it is there for Dylan, a white geeky boy, and his friend Mingus, a hip black neighbor. These boys' knowledge of life comes in piles of hoarded comics; graffiti, which they streak together as if by a single hand across the borough; unending black and white confrontations of will on the street; and black music, from jazz and blues to hip-hop. If Dylan, who seems to be Lethem's alter ego, looks like the threatened outsider among the black kids on their street, what he gets from them makes him a prophet of cool among whites he later meets in college, but since he ends up a pedantic music critic, the cool must have worn off. It was Mingus who was the outsider all along; from Day 1 he had a lashing knowledge of the great world and he emerges out of a long silence at the novel's center as the tragic figure of the book. If at times this sometimes disheveled novel strikes one as a meander through memory, magic and regret, his fate gives it a bitter bite.

KHRUSHCHEV: The Man and His Era. By William Taubman. (Norton.) Nikita Khrushchev left a deep imprint on the first 47 years of the Communist era, almost two-thirds of its whole history. He was involved in Stalin's collectivization program that destroyed millions of peasants and the bloody purges of the late 30's. He supervised the arrests and executions of thousands in Ukraine in 1939. After World War II he was one of the three Soviet leaders closest to Stalin, and after the dictator died in 1953, Khrushchev outmaneuvered the others and took control in 1956. That year he made the famous ''secret speech'' to the Communist Party Congress, denouncing the crimes of Stalin in vivid detail and setting loose forces that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union. Before he was toppled from power in 1964, he also nearly caused a nuclear war over Russian missiles in Cuba, but he also arranged the first detente with America shortly afterward. William Taubman presents this sweeping history, and Khrushchev's explosive, vulgar, warm character, unobtrusively but not without measured judgments. And he never tries to explain the inexplicable -- how a man so deeply complicit in political crimes that were almost immeasurable could then have done so much good so courageously when the chance came.

THE KNOWN WORLD. By Edward P. Jones. (Amistad/HarperCollins.) What makes this novel so startling is that the situation Edward P. Jones imagines was reality in parts of this country in the 1850's: there were black slave owners, more than a few, and a few were pretty well heeled. Jones's story, centered on one such man in Virginia, exposes the heart of slavery; there are few real villains in this book, because slavery poisons the entire society, white and black, and for the same reason there can be no real heroes. Until now Jones has been a writer of short stories, and this first novel often reads like an assemblage of stories within stories. But he has a sharp ear for speech and a gift for spotting individualizing gestures; ''The Known World'' is crowded with individuals who refuse to get lost in the vast picture of humiliation and disgrace it presents. Jones knows how to create dramatic confrontations that appall us and will not let us escape, as in the treachery of a traveling white con artist who returns a freed black man to shackles by a despicable trick and thus sets the novel on a course to its tragic end. The book has an epic feel, and the seductive force of folk tales.

LIVING TO TELL THE TALE. By Gabriel Garc�a M�rquez. Translated by Edith Grossman. (Knopf.) At 76, Gabriel Garc�a M�rquez has the comforting confidence of a man unafraid to tease his admirers. This memoir, the first of three planned volumes, takes him to his early 20's, before he leaves his country as it sinks into violence. As the fantastic landscape of the Caribbean region of Colombia, where he grew up, passes in front of us, occupied by eccentric and, in some cases, bizarre members of his family, we realize that a good part of the ''magic realism'' in his novels was not so magic after all. A ghost who walks in on a family at dinner, a man who breeds a platoon of devoted bastards right across the country, a family that takes an exhumed corpse with its belongings when it moves -- such experiences make for great fiction. His parents and grandparents are masterpieces of memory infused with insight and sad humor. The middle of the book may be opaque to North Americans, who will not know the importance of many of his associates, but the first 100 pages and the last 50 make it all pay off. And there is a powerful moment so quietly stated that its meaning takes time to register: Garc�a M�rquez was in Bogota in 1948 when the murder of a popular liberal political leader just down the street from him ignited the civil war that continues today to tear Colombia apart.

RANDOM FAMILY: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. (Scribner.) The detail in this extraordinary feat of reportage can be intimidating at times -- the etiquette of prison visits, techniques of cutting dope, rituals of dance clubs, people's clothes, voices, smells and hairdos. The sensuous detail makes reading about the lives of members of a loosely defined Bronx family through 10 years like watching Seurat add specks and daubs until crowds of Parisians rise living from his canvas and walk along the Seine. The people Adrian Nicole LeBlanc gives us are not so fashionable. She focuses on two Puerto Rican girls: one who has a baby by one man and twins by his brother before she's 19 and then ties up with a heroin kingpin and lives lavishly for a few years before going to prison; and another, who has two babies by the first girl's half brother and three more by three other men but who remains so vital and good-humored she lifts a reader's spirit at every encounter. These women, and the scores of relatives, friends and rivals who orbit them, go nowhere; they return repeatedly to the same ruts. The author seldom judges anything they do; they speak for themselves. And yet they are fascinating. It can be tough to read 400 pages about blight and struggle. But these people are such memorable personalities that you can easily read a short section and after you have put it down for some days you will not have lost track of who they are or what they are up to. This book took 10 years to report and it may well stand 10 years of reading.

SAMUEL PEPYS: The Unequalled Self. By Claire Tomalin. (Knopf, cloth; Vintage, paper.) Claire Tomalin rescues Pepys from his own diary, and a much larger figure he is outside it. For 10 years starting in 1660, when he was 26, Pepys wrote in his diary everything he experienced every day -- his countless romantic encounters, fights with his wife, talks with the king, dreams, the plague, the fire of London, work, nights in the theater and at concerts -- in shorthand, or in a pidgin of Latin, French and Spanish. It is the most voluminous account we have of life in the 17th century. Until the 19th century it was hardly known, and from then on was celebrated mostly for its sexual episodes; almost no one now reads the entire six volumes of the diary. But Pepys lived 70 years and became one of the greatest civil servants in British history; his organization of the work of the admiralty is often taken as having given Britain the ability to rule the world's oceans. And his times were as dramatic and dangerous in politics as any in British history. Tomalin resurrects the times vividly and puts him in the center of them. If some of her claims for his eminence as a writer or for his place in human psychology are a bit extravagant, well, Pepys is so captivating and her picture of his Britain so brightly drawn that you can ignore her theses and still hugely enjoy her book.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Abetting human rights violations

Time reports in this week's issue that UNOCAL is in court in the United States, accused of abetting and aiding human rights abuses committed by Burmese soldiers. The abetting happened when UNOCAL decide to undergo projects in Burma and allegedly turned a blind eye on the use of slave labor. The Burmese regime said they were volunteers and apparently UNOCAL took the regime's word for it despite massive evidence to the contratry.

The case is of paramount importance not only because it will pave the way for other similar cases, but because, in a sense, it makes globalization accountable. If the case is successfully prosecuted, it will show, as Joanne Mariner opines in a Findlaw commentary, that "one country's gross human rights abuses might be of legitimate concern to an outside forum, and that international human rights standards might be legally enforceable, rather than merely hortatory."

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Best books of the year

The Economist and the Guardian have chosen their best books of the year.

On politics and current affairs, the Economist chooses the following books:

America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. By Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay. Brookings Institution Press; 245 pages; $22.95

President Bush is widely seen, abroad if not at home, as a bonehead. This view is rubbish, argue Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, both scholars at American think-tanks. Mr Bush is his own man; he sees himself as the chief executive officer of a huge enterprise and acts accordingly; he has a world view and a clear idea of how America should fit into it; and he is no fool.
Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. By Clyde Prestowitz. Basic Books; 336 pages; $26 and �16.99

Clyde Prestowitz's book must be commended for the effort he has made to listen to those who are troubled by the political uses and limitations of American power, and also for the clarity with which he explains, particularly to American readers, how the United States and its foreign policy are all too often regarded by others.
World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. By Amy Chua. Doubleday; 352 pages; $26. William Heinemann; �12.99

Do not be misled by the over-excited title. This is a serious, sober and well-written analysis of the challenges to peace and prosperity posed by the phenomenon of economically dominant ethnic minorities. No anti-globalist tract, it nonetheless gives globalists plenty to think about.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Scribner; 416 pages; $25. Flamingo; �17.99

Adrian LeBlanc spent ten years interviewing two Latina women from the Bronx as they made their way in and out of public housing, emergency rooms, prisons and courts; a startling portrait of how demanding it is to be poor.
The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands. By Aidan Hartley. Grove/Atlantic; 432 pages; $24. HarperCollins; �20

An African-born reporter with a lyrical gift muses on his homeland, his rage at its horrors and the fatal attraction of its wars.
The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment. By Franklin E. Zimring. Oxford University Press; 272 pages; $30 and �13.99

Franklin Zimring, one of America's leading criminologists, rises above the cacophony of comment from politicians and campaigners with a thought-provoking and genuinely original book.
The Dark Heart of Italy: Travels Through Space and Time Across Italy. By Tobias Jones. Faber and Faber; 266 pages; �16.99. To be published in America North Point Press in June 2004

Tobias Jones casts a chilling light on the government of Silvio Berlusconi, the corruption that continues to undermine the country and the canzonissima culture he so vividly personifies.

Best dictionary to buy

Slate has an article on which is the best dictionary to get. It is the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, now on its eleventh edition. According to the article, the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is "the aristocrat who can afford to be a Marxist." Nice way of putting it.
Whichever way the wind blows

The Inquirer reports that GMA will enforce the death penalty beginning next year:

"I shall no longer stand in the way of the executions scheduled by the courts for January," the President said at a press conference in the Camp Crame national police headquarters. "Much as I am averse, as a matter of principle, to the taking of human lives, the President must yield to the higher public interest when dictated by extraordinary circumstances."

GMA is lifting the moratorium on executions ostensibly because public interest demands it. But just last Nov 25, she said that the death penalty is of no use, and the Inquirer reports that:

"We have had executions in the past and these have provided a steam valve to vent the public's ire against hardened criminals. But these executions did not stop heinous crime," she said in that statement 11 days ago. "Executions may give us some form of emotional release and a transient sense of retribution and security, but the more effective solutions lie in fielding the entire criminal justice system against criminals, so that we can effectively curb kidnapping, robbery, murder or rape."

In short, the president will send the convicts to their execution simply because there is a demand for it. What happened to her prior reasoning against the death penalty? Is the president too much an economist that she is willing to supply whenever she sees a demand ?

This reversal in the president's position is not so much a yielding to public interest as a spineless betrayal of moral principles. Now, this is the reason why people simply cannot get to like GMA. Who, I ask, can genuinely like a leader who will do whatever her people bid her to do even if it means going against her conscience?

The president is too nebulous; you never really know her. This week she is this, the next who knows? With Estrada---he may be corrupt, unreliable and all--but you somehow have a feeling of what you are gonna get from him.

This recent volte-face on the death penalty shows how the president is vulnerable nowadays and is willing to play for an audience as minuscule as the Filipino-Chinese community. Given her lackluster popularity as evidenced by the recent surveys, she must have realized that she will need every single vote she can get come 2004. After all, there is no harm in hoping.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Bush's fake turkey

Just when you wonder how mendacious the Bush administration can be, here comes the report that the golden-brown turkey Bush was supposed to have served to the American troops in Irag during Thanksgiving Day was a fake and was only meant for the cameras.

According to the Washington Post, the 600 soldiers present never ate Bush's turkey and were, in fact, served from cafeteria-style steam trays.

Thursday, December 04, 2003


A previous entry from this blog has been published by Youngblood here.
Understanding the Bush Doctrine

Robert Jervis writes in the most recent issue of the Political Science Quarterly about US President Bush's national security strategy of pre-emption.

ROBERT JERVIS argues that the Bush doctrine presents a highly ambitious conception of U.S. foreign policy. Based on the premise that this is a period of great threat and great opportunity, the doctrine calls for the assertion and expansion of American power in service of hegemony. He concludes that this assertion and expansion is not likely to succeed.
Dolphy for president

Marvin Aceron wants Dolphy for president. And why not? Dolphy, after all, is a bigger star than FPJ.

Dolphy would be such a big hit in campaign sorties and speaking engagements, (not to mention that Zsa Zsa would be in constant tow). Dolphy can sing, dance and crack jokes. That could be just the qualifications to make a president.
Politics of indolence

Felipe Miranda bewails in his column what he calls a politics of indolence. According to Miranda, it is unfortunate that even today the only block of electoral support that a candidate can expect to rely upon is the ethnic vote. There is no political constituency that can meaningfully deliver votes except the regional ethnic vote.

(Raul Roco, for example, can count on his fellow Bicolanos to elect him as their choice for president. Six out of ten Bicolanos are just about ready to go to the polls and vote for Roco.)

The absence of any other constituency, says Miranda, is lamentable because it reflects the indolence of our politicians. They are too lazy to organize sectors dying to be organized. Miranda further opines that:

The consequences of dedicated indolence by this nation�s politicians are readily apparent. To date, one finds no organized labor vote that any politician can tap or rely on. A similar dearth is noticeable among sectors that are practically begging to be politically organized and delivered to those who would take the trouble of articulating, aggregating and dynamizing them.
Battle between the big screen and the television

The Inquirer, the Philippine Star , the Daily Tribune, and Today all front with the latest SWS survey registering a surge in FPJ's popularity and a neck-and-neck competition with Noli de Castro.

While most of the dailies hype the now number one standing of FPJ, the narrow lead of one point is statistically insignificant given the plus or minus 3 % margin of error. The number one status of FPJ is not secured just yet.

The survey was conducted before FPJ announced his decision to run so he can be expected to gather more points in coming surveys.

If the present trend will continue (FPJ surging, Roco sliding), the coming elections will be a battle between the big screen and the television as FPJ and Noli de Castro fight for the people's votes. Noli de Castro has a significant thing going for him though. While FPJ probably cannot manage to release a new movie come election season, Noli would probably still be on air doing his TV Patrol on ABS-CBN.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

FPJ and Erap

Teddy Boy Locsin compares Erap and his friend FPJ in his Today column:

Add to those circumstances the fact that FPJ lacks Erap�s quick wit that can turn any insult around to his advantage. Make fun of FPJ for dropping out of school because a death in the family left them penniless, and he doesn�t bounce back with a quip. What happens is you almost see him flinch and his lovely wife�s eyes drift off in sadness.

With Erap, the general reaction was a grudging admiration for a lovable rascal who could hold up his own. With FPJ, the hurt just cuts deep all around those who went through the same things.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Roco's aspirations for greatness

Raul Roco has formally launched his campaign for the presidency. Numerous dailies today had as banner headlines his declaration of candidacy. What struck me in his speech is his vaulting ambition. He said that if he were elected president, he would outperform Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Mahathir. The Philippine Star reports that:

If chosen to lead one of Asia�s most vibrant democracies, Roco boasted he will outperform Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew and just-retired Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, both highly credited for modernizing their economies and incidentally, both strongmen who ruled for decades.

"Ten years from now, they (Singaporeans and Malaysians) will all say how we wish we had a Raul Roco in Malaysia and Singapore," he told business leaders on the eve of his announcement.

Now, I cannot help but compare this to President Arroyo, who, in her early days as president, was quite emphatic about her non-desire to be a great president. She said then that she just wanted to work quietly as president and that she harbored no desire for greatness.

Is Roco overshooting now or was GMA being falsely modest then?