Thursday, November 12, 2009

The art of obfuscation

In the nation’s necessary pursuit of happiness and justice and just a little bit of prosperity, this season of hopeful presidential and senatorial election campaigning can yet be said to be set in times of desperation inured by cynicism, being under a government (with a military and police and obviously co-opted Congress and justice system) widely perceived to be corrupt and abusive as well as inutile and ineffectual.
     Certainly within the last two years of finally realizing a change that has been long overdue, either intermittently or regularly a week of events (or singular moment) would surprise, shock, frighten, or inspire us. One such event may have been propounded by the emergence of a perceived hero-individual, and/or hero of a city, rising up to display resistance even for just a day or month. One such moment may have been manifest in the individual tragic flaw of a bad-man-gone-good named Jun Lozada, who claimed at a Senate hearing in 2008 that he could not bring himself to lie about a humongous presidential anomaly. One such moment may have displayed its worth in a city’s rallying around the funeral parade of a perceived heroine in Corazon Aquino in 2009. Such moments may have been flying by us on a weekly basis as little spurts of defiance or verbalized protest.

     And, in the wake of all these, someone who has gotten tired of the repetition may now ask: Will the most recent event and consequent expression of support for something, writ on paper or for the computer screen, spur change?
     Sadly, the usual reaction to this question on the table is numbness. The question is received as a quasi-cynical pronouncement that at first challenges, then pacifies through a hastened and final anger catharsis. Once the anger has been let out and named, we go back to the comforts of contentment, only to be led into this same scene of anger-to-catharsis route the very next week. In short, the answer to the query “Will that writing spur change?” finds itself living in an endless repetition of involuntary sighs.
     This is the psychological environment surrounding the constancy of daily news, an air of reactions to these news as the consequent verbalization or literary actions that seem never enough but that many hope will still lead to a climax. But, also, there is the fear that these self-same reactions will, like so many other rallies, fizzle out to become yet another mere historical footnote of forgotten literary and journalistic sighs. Here, in this psychological tension of divisions in the land is underscored the heat of a nation’s praying for either change or a peaceful status quo, both testing fate itself.
     The mood among the status quo’s following is dangerous fear, while that in the camp of change is clueless fear. And the latter’s question rings true in the repetitive tests of time and the apparent delays of deliverance: Will anyone writing, or anything written, spur change?
     Today, however, in the wake of this query, they come. They come: all sorts of election-season answers from all sorts of political commentary. Writers. And I’ve identified seven basic election-season approaches by some of our best literary giants and wannabe-future-giants. Here they are:

1. The Evolution Technique
In the midst of the desperation, there is a niche for the Evolution Writer, whose black sermons of faith and hope I really have no big problem with. The Evolution Writer writes thus:
     “As a believer of the ‘theory’ of evolution, not just in biology but likewise in astro-physics as well as in history, I regard change as certain. Slow to our eyes, yes, but certain. We in the communications industry and the thinking arts and the exact sciences may be impatient with the slow shaping of change, but as we wonder, history is already chiseling out its products into perfection. Certainly sometimes historical evolution would astound us after its processes, say, with an unexpected anti-virus, one that might itself be a kind of retro-virus. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was braird from beneath the soil of anti-Semitism, absorbing the sentiment to its ultimate shape and form to become the biggest bamboo reflecting the evil of the soil. But beyond this ultimate manifestation, lo and behold, Europe was finally cleansed of its little anti-Semitic purges. Hitler thus functioned like a Christ owning up Europe’s little sins by holding up the biggest mirror to the entire continent, reflecting the latters own once-popular anti-Semitism. We could go on and on with examples of historical retro-viruses. Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba grew a Castro, who in turn grew ... what?
     “In our shores, Ferdinand Marcos grew a Ninoy and Cory Aquino among the middle classes and Cory exposed in her turn our weaknesses towards such powers as creditor-countries. What was Cory all about placed in this national evolution? What was Fidel Ramos? Each leadership contributes to the shape of the clothing we’ll change into—a fragment here, a pocket there. Erap Estrada held up his own big mirror to the Filipino nation, exposing the culture of players and played-upon audiences. And we learned. Gloria Arroyo exploited all the loopholes available to man that Estrada failed to exploit. And here we are. So much the wiser, thanks to all of the abuses and more of those abuses to come. Will we awaken? As we ask this, history is churning out its own pills. And so, it would be wise for us to patiently wait for the next act, even as we sweat with blood and fight with our teeth biting the knife in the seemingly everlasting struggle, even as we play our own mysterious roles in the slow but certain, foresight-elusive but faith-invoking, historical manufacture of change. So let us go forward.”
     I love this approach. But it is too macro and ecological a view that it elides sorely-needed foci upon details that may provide micro-rationales for revolution.

2. The Drawn-out Education Explanation
In these desperate times there is likewise a place for the social critic who blames the low performance of the voting majority against the elite. Rarely one with a PhD in Education, he/she is often a socialist; you know, the free-education-for-all, education-is-a-right crying type. I also find no fault with this type of writer’s lengthy, zigzagging lectures as he writes:
     “Beneath this failure to gather all wisdom and support for change is the reality bite of ignorance among a large chunk of our population. Over this, we must congratulate the country’s governments from the time of our supposed independence that perpetuated the education policy that we embraced and embrace to this day. For, within this education policy or absence of any policy, it is ignorance that is leading the widespread apathy, making of us all obedient, contented dogs on a leash.
     “The winner sons and daughters of the feudal and capitalist and mercantilist systems have realized a long time ago that the best way to colonize one’s own people is to keep it stupid. Thus, the majority still cannot see a connection between what happens to it everyday and a government official’s forgotten duties. Thus, elections here are not all about the details of the issues concerning projects and programs, it’s always about abstract promises like ‘poverty alleviation’ or the ‘environment’ which are fodder for propaganda and slogan spinners. Bombarded by abstractions devoid of details, therefore, the people can only lean back on faith, a faith on their candidate who knows he’s lying, as well as a faith in the other candidates’ hyped-up evil, even as this latter may in reality be the ones owning the Truth. In this arrangement, often it’s the best actor who wins.
     “And by education I do not just mean the schools. I also understand education to encompass the information that comes out of the media. And here, the information war is often won by the liars. Do the media play a role in it? Definitely.
     “For instance, you might notice that the only 17-hour news channel on free TV in the Philippines is the government channel, the others are most of the time devoted to the soap opera and so-called entertainment.
     “However, the hours of self-oppression by the commercial channels (which self-oppression may be deemed necessary to keep the apathetic ignorant from leaving the channels) also produce, in a sort of ironic twist, their own political charm via that kind of crappy programming. In effect, the meager hours of news and opinion sometimes become more believable to the people, who are receptive to the quite-different (from the soap operatic) angle or to the freshly shocking (shouted news). Still, government PR and arm-twisting behind and beyond the television camera can still get their way, through a subtle PR manager, for one; unless one leader chooses not to listen to his smart communications advisers and relies instead on his own gut feel (like Erap Estrada who, according to popular opinion, believed he had the PR ability to create a spin and either tried to do his advisers one better or totally ruined everything after the fact).
     “Over this behavior of the commercial channels towards an ill-motivated contribution to the masses’ education, we must congratulate the country’s television media themselves from the time of the first TV broadcast in this country that, either by the dictate of profit or license-keeping considerations, could not offer ample competition to the state channel on the massesfree TV band. The vicious cycle or interplay between the ignorant masses and market-reliant independent broadcasting continues to this day.
     “Television is not just entertainment outside of university. If universities teach us about life, scholars must allow that perhaps life itself can and does teach us about life more forcefully. Television is a large part of our daily lives, and thus plays a large, forceful role in our population’s educational uploads.
     “A scholar may consider, then, the amount of education a citizen culls from television in contrast to what he gets from university or college. It is never a surprise to witness neighbors who, in lieu of a quality understanding of government, have quality knowledgeakin to a review of a novelof the functions of the characters in a daytime soap opera and the symbolic function of a hyped-up movie or TV star in an ad endorsement. Meanwhile, the governance-interested populace have nowhere to go, as they surf the channels, but the propaganda press conferences of an Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita going live on a network of state-sponsored TV journalism (on Channels 4, and the sequestered-since-the-early-post-Marcos-years channels 9 and 13).
     “To this poverty of knowledge, add this: the threats of the new feudal system. In this system, the old feudal landlord-cum-warlord with his army has—looking forward—evolved a corporate feudal-like system of appointing warrior corporate executives to be mafia bosses. Under this forceful advantage, an unarmed citizenry can only learn to shut up and discover contentment with the daily poetry of their rice and dried fish, lest a former general sitting on a corporation’s board try to salvage a corporate reputation by savaging cases lost in the court of public opinion. Besides, as former coup d’etat leader Gringo Honasan and novelist F. Sionil Jose (in the latter’s vocal support of Honasan in Corazon Aquino’s time) rightly put it: only 10 percent or less of the country’s 70 million population would care to make a move (protest-rally, blog, whatever) against abuse.
     “Therefore, given this reality, an elite opposition would be the only possible instigator of efforts for change. And so, often the Left laments our past revolutions’ efforts, the turn-of-the-century Katipunan one and the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue people-power revolutions of 1986 and 2001, these having become elite-sponsored revolutions grabbed from the pioneering efforts of the leftist and left-leaning activist movements. The reality is, however, that these proto-revolutions by the Left would have gone nowhere without the interference of the middle class centers elite who knew (consciously or subconsciously) how to manipulate the media.
     “But speaking of the elite, there are in fact various ‘elites’: there is the book-carrying Communist Party elite, for one, and there’s the self-righteous military elite, and the criminal corporate syndicates, and the minority academic and journalistic intelligentsia. And so on. Whichever elite group one belongs to, the fact remains that if one is to win a battle, one has to first win it at the propaganda (otherwise known as the education and information) level. The Communist Party’s New People’s Army, for instance, has been losing this battle since Marcos’ fall. The middle class, often communicating their visions to the ignorant via English-speaking formats via the cable channel ABS-CBN News Channel and expensive broadsheet newspapers like the Philippine Daily Inquirerby their almost-monopolistic media presence gain successes, but are understandably are still having a hard time.
     “Given the present state of education in our country, therefore, it is no surprise to see officials get reelected despite recurrent faux pas or grave national sins committed by them, with everything going back to the root cause of it all: under-education and under-information that could easily be twisted by the PR genius of counter-education and mal-information within this divergence of languages. And remember, under-information is always fresh meat to the claws of ill-information, within which the under-educateds inability to tell the liar from the not can be glaring to the measurement of social science. Again, given all this, it behooves the land to deem itself immoral.”
     Although admirable and well-meaning, I see something missing in this journalistic approach. It gives us the big assumption that a big education, no matter how ideology-less or wisdom-poor, leads to a big awareness. This denies the fact that people with big awarenesses have chosen to dismiss their political and moral education. Also, it deems the blaming as an end in itself and fails to turn it into a further cause and materiel for a solution.

3. The Moral Position’s Lament
There is another writer who has been roaming this archipelago of desperation. He is the elegist. His pet peeve is religion. Believing there are places in the world devoid of religion that have displayed the best moral behavior, he declares that morality has been negated in our country by default. In other words, he blames the failures of religion. And although I would state here that his focus may be extreme, I nonetheless find his arguments to have some modicum of truth. He writes:
     “The Church, for instance, might share the blame on a resultant where it either plays a role or fails to play its role. Sure, some religious leaders actively voice out their political qua moral opinions, but the majority in the non-secular service—hypocrisies aside—still preach the virtue of ‘accepting God’s tests’. This majority believes that what happened to us with, say, typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) and Pepeng (Parma) was by God’s dictate and not by government’s shortcomings of lack of foresight.”
     I consider this approach extreme, as I said, because not everyone really has a religion, even those many who thought they had one. Not everyone who believes in God takes religion seriously, as even the most ideological in a secular ideology do not necessarily turn out to be the most loyal to their ideology. For one, the temptations of immorality visits even the most moral among us. Therefore, access to the codex of morality cannot be the end-all and be-all of issues. Oftentimes, reality (or pragmatism) would redefine moralities.

4. The Professorial Nationalist
Now, what about the academic intellectual?
     The Professorial Nationalist is often an academic nationalist who uses the most obscure words in the lexicon of thesis writing to contribute his thoughts to the desperation question. Although his heart may lean towards the people, his words prefer the audience of fellow professors and graduate students who conspicuously and inconspicuously read academic journals. Therefore he is not to be confused with the writer who writes for the political awareness of a wider audience. He is, rather, the writer who writes for the political awareness of the text itself, as though it—his writing—were a special art, to be appreciated by fellow artists in this genre who also write about their own political awareness as a form of esoteric art. He may be pro-people, but he’s also pro-professor. In his writing and literary preaching, he is primarily—nay, solely—pro-professor. Now, it would make no sense to mimic writing of this sort in our tensive times, since many of you might find reading one sample irksome, but I trust that you have already seen such writing somewhere. Let me therefore just provide here a quick anatomy of this writer.
     Only recently, I and my friend the political blogger Lila Shahani—who is quite adept at writing in either academic English or accessible blog-audience English—were discussing Herta Müller, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature awardee. No, we were discussing the Nobel Prize itself, in contrast to the character and characteristics of the other literary awards, including nationalist awards like the US’ Pulitzer and partisan ones like the Philippine National Artist Awards and the the ones with vague objectives like the Palanca awards/contest. And I expressed my amusement with the Nobel Prize for Literature as really being the Nobel Peace Prize In or For Literature. I did not say this to laugh at it, but to underline what I love about it and its roster of winners. For I have always been enamored with the enjoyable tug of war between writing about humanity/God/all things political and then writing for art. The Nobel Litt Prize seems to have kept that balance, so that it actually appears like an artist itself, trying to be both a propaganda-writer-cum-political-activist and a pioneering artist. So we scan the roster, and we find worth emulating not just the overt political contexts of an Herta Müller or Imre Kertész or Gao Xingjian but also the subtle politics or socio-psychology of such innovative writing as those by a Samuel Beckett or the global philosophizing about modern man by a J.M.G. Le Clezio or J.M. Coetzee.
     Also, Shahani and I agreed that all the Nobel winners had had an ample readership or patronage. Not exactly inclusive of the Stephen King crowd, you might say, but even parochial Seamus Heaney had an international audience. You get my drift. Their political or quasi-political or ethnic or nationalist or humanist writings were not meant for professors alone to esoterically enjoy.
     Still and all, the Professorial Nationalist is flaunted by their respective universities as symbols of superb intellection. And how is this?
     Well, certainly writers and their political contexts may be deemed used for an institution’s commercial or reputational image. The Swedish Academy itself would probably choose an author over another to service better geographic distribution, thus projecting an image of fairness or internationality, or to maintain a possibly correct perception in many quarters that it is an honor for authors’ political views or ethnic identity primarily and their literary achievement only secondarily (a point of departure dangled as negative by Americo-centric critics of the Prize who nevertheless prefer the Prize goes to an American author each year). Whatever the case, countries themselves wave their winning authors’ names like a party flag. Universities wave their intellectuals in the same fashion, inclusive too perhaps of these intellectuals’ political position, never mind if their political position is unbeknownst to the people they claim to represent.
     But, back to the Nobel, Müller belongs to a German minority in Romania, from a town in Romania where hardly anyone spoke Romanian. She was like a Chinese-Filipino in Metro Manila’s Chinatown who later thought of emigrating to, say, Canton and instantly blended in better, culturally and politically. Germany’s waving her like a flag this year is not much of a puzzle. For one, she is undeniably a symbol to Germans of Germany’s triumph over East European communism, particularly in relation to East Germany and East Berlin. This is so because people are nationalists by nature, as Manila yuppies are alma mater-ists when it comes to recruiting staff or fellow employees for company positions. But while Germany may have loved Müller’s writings for their content as well as their aesthetic worth, Manila schoolmates for officemates might later prove to be unfit for the job handed them. The Manila schoolmates were merely popular, or otherwise merely academic.
     We sometimes miss the difference between our known esotericism and our popularity. Consider the Filipino’s embrace of Lea Salonga. Salonga made it big in London and NYC through the hit musical play Miss Saigon, and thereafter went on to stay in the American theater and entertainment business. Now, Filipinos don’t give much of a fart about musicals, whether American, British or Filipino, even as musicals are what Salonga is all about. But still, Salonga was flown like a flag because she was a racial symbol of the Filipino’s potential in international waters. In the world of reading, too, Filipinos don’t exactly place Filipino writers above Michael Crichton and other popular novel writers from the West, but when Ninotchka Rosca and Bino Realuyo and other Filipino writers got rave reviews in The New York Times or The Village Voice and other US papers, every book lover in this country was suddenly aiming to say, “that’s my kababayan (countryman) up there.”
     Because of our obsession with popularity regardless of content, we use writers, athletes, singers, etc. who make it abroad as symbols. We might not give a damn about the things they do (their art or their sport), but they become inspirations of possible success in the international scene, and that is already quite a big emblem for us. The appropriation of the person-symbol becomes a vehicle for coping with the long history of imperialisms that taught us forever that we can’t be any better than our peasant fathers. So we celebrate a Filipino chef’s “triumph” in Washington DC—yes, all of us, including those among us who prefer to stay with the usual boiled chicken and scoff at HGTV cooking. After all, everyone wants to get out of this country. . . . But we digress.
     So, I was saying, it makes for a paradoxical picture, this social underdog of a professor being flaunted by his university as a king or queen of thinking. Like the expression of simple confidence or latent insecurity with one’s self-appointed superiority, as well as Fil-American nationalism or the Ateneo de Manila University or University of the Philippines (UP) intellectualism writing in journal English, the patronage towards the Professorial Nationalist continues to dangle the thought that only their universities can give a student the knowledge and training worthy of man. The Professorial Nationalist thus carries around with him this academic elitism that conflicts with his desire to be one with the people.
     The political folk singer-songwriter Gary Granada punched UP’s pride once during a concert at UP itself in saying: “ang hirap dito sa UP, mas hindi ka naiintindihan (ng tao), mas okey ka.”
     Still and all, the top universities advertising of such social-underdog writers-in-residence whose own students can hardly understand cannot be deemed offensive at all. In fact, ever since I was a student at UP, I rather regarded those writers as quite an interesting study. I may even accept that the Professorial Nationalist could very well be a literary giant. I just cannot accept, though, that he’d make for a significant element among the direct inspirers of a nation. . . .
     So, there you go. Now to the wannabe-giants.

5. Writers of Passion
This being a country of political parties with vague ideologies, I’d say that though I already have a candidate I’m voting for, I still could change my mind anytime, depending on what I see in the coming days and months. But I am not necessarily what people would term a “supporter” of “my candidate.” By a supporter I mean one who has committed himself to becoming a partisan player in the service of the triumph of one’s candidate. I see myself as a mere voter, and though I may campaign for my candidate to my friends, I could also just as easily campaign against my candidate later should I see something I’d deem worse than another bad choice’s thing. Or I may opt not to vote.
     But this is not the attitude of many. Many voters who also happen to be writers become supporters.
     Many writers who’ve already made up their minds to vote for this or that candidate can also be very passionate about it, so much so that we can easily understand their cynicism towards their candidate’s opponent and towards that opposing candidate’s supporters. Supporting a political figure can have very deep personal roots, too, and in that sense can lead one to make up his mind through a sort of faith. If I were a poor German in the time of Hitler’s rise to power and had experienced a sort of oppression from a Jewish employer, regardless of whether that oppression was imagined or real, I would probably be emotionally sympathetic to the clamor for the popular racist economics quite trendy at the time, and thus by that sympathy put my literary faith in Hitler’s burgeoning liberation theology. In short, what I’m saying is, I would not take my writer-supporter’s sneering passions lightly, if I were you, dismissing it as a product of his simple choice to be offensive, as though it were merely akin to another young man’s choosing a tomahawk haircut over a neat one, just to be offensive. For even this last behavior may have pretty serious psychological-cum-political roots to it beyond a shallow fashion choice; and even “shallow fashion choices” are sociological positions, but we digress too far.
    But I am not saying that a writer’s political passion for a certain political position must be kicked out of any discussion about politics in this country. In fact, such passion must be understood. After all, who among us hasn’t experienced pain, or, for that matter, has not been at one point in his life felt a bit of pleasure at the thought of killing an object of one’s hatred or anger of the moment, even for just a second while daydreaming? Passion can get to that level.

6. Those Absent Emotion
Now, that being said, not all political-writing positions displaying passion are products of passion. Some display this passion because it is their job to display it. They get paid to do it.
     Most recently, the United States health insurance industry and the Republican machinery spent millions of dollars to hire all sorts of intelligent people to peddle lies about the health care reform program of US President Barack Obama’s administration—disperse news, that is, about “pulling the plug on grandma” while injecting viral advertising about how Obama is a racist/socialist/Nazi/and so on. Anybody reading this blog who has had the experience of working in the PR or ad industry or under a Malacañang executive secretary would know what I’m talking about. PR work can be very dirty work, dirtier than a plumber’s work for Malabanan septic-tank emptying services. Political propaganda warfare is a significant part of any kind of warfare and we should get used to it already. Some of us become “sensitive” to it when it’s coming from the other side, even as we practice it ourselves towards the other side.
     Daily, we blindly experience this passion absent emotion on free TV, though not all of us might see or suspect the PR or campaign staff’s hands behind one bit of news or one bit of a show. In which case, we might be seeing the passion, not knowing the absent emotion. It must be told that the passions of Fox News in the United States, for example, are not that of a news channel—well, many of us know that—, they are rather those of a Republican PR channel (mostly of the ultra-conservative wing) that draws those passions on charts and boardroom tables. The same with Rush Limbaugh, who is not so much a commentator as a wrecking machine. But that’s his job. A Malacañang press secretary’s work is not to essay on what’s wrong or right, his job is to tell the President’s truths and lies. Propaganda (clean or dirty) is part of political campaigning. And this being the election campaigning season, a bigger circus of propaganda writers and literary wrecking machines is about to begin their work, if it has not already begun.
     Now, certainly those among us eager for—because used to—discussion may want to solicit context from the passionate-absent-emotion opinion writers and bloggers for or against a candidate. But oftentimes context cannot be squeezed out of the politically passionate, especially those passionate without emotion, the professional cryer. It’s impossible. The passion is the message, period.
     But somebody one knows may neither be the passionate kind nor the passionate-absent-emotion kind. But if the first, then the person’s context may elude us and himself, by virtue of a trembling passion that may assume everything to be supposedly obvious to everyone, according to his faith in these “obvious things” and in the people witnessing these obviousnesses. If the second, however, context is definitely what he would avoid, his job being to obfuscate context, lose context, destroy context, and replace it with the utopia of a new design of truth, a “pulling the plug on grandma” kind of truth-cum-context.
     Context must therefore derive from the person looking, not the person being observed. For instance, asking a passionate supporter-writer unwilling to divulge his candidate might get us nowhere, as it may not be in his job description to bring it out. So we’d have to look for context ourselves. Why does the supporter-writer refuse to talk about his secret candidate and wish only to talk about the “ills” of the candidate at the end of his gun? You know the answer. Therefore, context must become the responsibility of those who want to seek it, not by those who want to hide it.

7. Obfuscation by Conscious Selection
There is, however, a third kind of wannabe-a-giant that is neither a writer of passion nor a wrecking machine absent emotion. He/she believes in his/her candidate and tasks him/herself the closer examination of his/her candidate’s opponents. Otherwise he/she has no candidate at all, yet would still task him/herself the destruction of those leading the polls. He/she approaches a subject not with the theorizing eye of a scientist but with the lens of a biology student excited with a first microscope while looking at her supposedly gluttonous-bullfrog-of-a-politician first catch.

     Well, I find that there is method to this madness of practicing journalistic opinion-making that zeroes in on an object and dissects that object to make sure it is a bullfrog (or some other elusive frog able to jump from one ideology to the next). The conclusion that the writer and the readers get is that we are fortunate to have that object exposed as that kind of frog born into a family of gluttons. Yellow, maybe, whatever that means, but still a bullfrog. This approach-cum-journalistic-attitude somehow evades the possibility that if only one started with a para-journalistic approach of considering a hypothesis first, then perhaps the writer might have avoided focusing on an object but rather on the whole garden of potential objects who might all be of interest to the hypothesis. We must not hurry and crash into an object on the road that we suddenly discovered, by some epiphany, to have the appearance of a frog. We must be certain first that we, along with our alternative favored candidates, are not frogs ourselves equally to blame for the frogfulness in our fields. Then, we might discover our favored candidate to be a bigger, greedier bullfrog, in the final analysis.

     Corollary to one
s use of a hypothesis might be a more admirable modesty of self-examination that asks oneself whether the theory that one holds, that all bullfrogs are evil, for instance, is such a sound theory. For we cannot all be croaking like journalists and bloggers unconsciously hired, virtually useful as wrecking machines, in being able to select our prey with the poison of articulateness. We might as well put down our silly pens and fingers and tongues and allow ourselves to be used as snakes.

Journalism and political science are far too precious and useful to be any of those above. They must neither look at things from afar nor from inside ones head or heart, nor from a singular telescope or binocular or microscope or magnifying lens focusing on a theme or a target, nor from a certain aesthetic utopia of writing, . . . they must seek out the truth from all these possible angles and more. Failing that dynamism, the heartless intellectual and soulless truth-teller shall be giving us all the angles that by their quantity and rich vocabulary alone would seem to deliver to us the convincing truth. [END]

Illustrations courtesy of Marcel Antonio (© 2009 the artist. All rights reserved)


  1. The frog blog: again, you’ve done an excellent job, covered all the bases, laid every brick in place, curved the arch majestically and set the keystone in place. I’m going to be forced, therefore, to respond to your blog a bit differently this time. I’m going to refuse to be systematic, I’m going to eschew obfuscation and write as much as possible in the terms of lore—-which is what I really love. First, I’m going to take your frog out of the zip-lock plastic bag and turn it loose in the garden.

    The shortcoming of your representation of the evolutionary view is that you portray evolution as somehow self-activating—-a force of nature, so to speak, untouched by human hands. There have been many geological epochs where that was exactly how evolution worked. But, without telling us, you’ve thrown that purely biological form of evolution (the form for which there is the most convincing physical evidence) into the cauldron of social, historical & political evolution. It just doesn’t work that way, because those things, though susceptible to a form of evolution, all depend very much on human action.

    But let’s go back and have a look at the frog in the garden. Mary was quite contrary, and it was well to inquire of her, “How does your garden grow.” What do you do about the weeds? Who eats the bugs and caterpillars? What are you trying to grow there anyway?

    Now, just from the standpoint of lore, there are several things going on here at the same time—-and you are correct in saying that there is a lot of “obfuscation” going on—-for we find it difficult to see it all. Ah! The frog eats the bugs—-but we’re going to need more frogs! Some of the frogs are going to get eaten by the snake. Some of the ungrateful critters may hop over to the neighbor’s garden (especially if there is a princess—-or even a good looking lady frog—-living there. Who knows, some academic type may wander through your garden one day and take a particularly unfortunate frog back to the lab for further “study.” (We and the princesses next door better hope it’s not the “prince” frog that gets taken.)

    Now, your gardener may prove to be weak, or wanton, or inutile. She or he may be inept, or provide too many “loopholes” for weeds to thrive in and suck up the nourishment of your crops. If your gardener proceeds along these lines there will be just the kind of “spurs” for change that you so aptly wrote about. Who knows, a good enough writer may happen along and take note of this sorry state of affairs and bring so much pressure to bear that the unfaithful gardener may mend his/her wanton ways and take temporary action. Will our garden then bear fruit? I doubt that any amount of faith will change the result. Why? Because, from the standpoint of lore, we’ve left out too much.

    What, in the first place, was planted? Did our gardener eat too much of the seed stock before it even came time to plant? Were the right crops chosen? And on and on. But there’s nothing we can do about that now, is there? So, let’s assume the whole garden wasn’t planted in apples and pecans—-because they’ll never bear fruit here. Let’s say instead that a few appropriate crops were chosen. But look! The frogs are doing a fine job of keeping down the bug population, but the whole garden is clogged with weeds.

  2. We come at last to my point: It doesn’t matter what kind of writer we bring in. We can call in a propagandist to write persuasively that the weeds are actually quite tasty, if you know which parts to eat. The academic can enumerate the Latin names of the weeds and direct our attention to the fine collection of such plants exhibited back at the university. We can hire writers to condemn the weeds as totally useless or even poisonous. (Or, perversely, we could hire them to sell the same bill of goods against the tomatoes.) Why, some of them may not even be native weeds—-they may be exotic weeds brought here originally by some colonial power (for no doubt devious & exploitive purposes). But, praise be to God! At least a few of the plants in our garden will produce tasty fruit! Bad seeds of one sort or another may have been planted in the past (though not by writers, I fear) but a few of the good seeds got planted as well. It is not totally hopeless.

    But just as the planting of those good seeds required some human action, if we are to save the garden, there’s nothing for it: we’re going to have to find a gardener who is willing to pull those weeds, toss them out into the sunlight to dry and hack them up on the compost heap (where they will be useful as green manure). That is not a job for a writer, sad to say. That requires real human action!

    The best service a writer can provide is to, as well and as honestly as possible, point out the difference between the weeds and the crops that will bear fruit. There is one of the prime values of lore—-a lorist knows a weed from a tomato. If that kind of writer can just be clear about which is which, we’ll all get to have supper—-even the frogs.

    One last bit of lore. The “spur” is not enough. The weakness of negative reinforcement, as you ably pointed out, is that since it’s unpleasant, we delight in forgetting it. What’s needed for lasting change is positive reinforcement. Nobody wants to give up what’s good. The trick is to pull up enough weeds that we manage to have plenty of tasty tomatoes.