Those itchy fingers

Today, I woke up to the news that US President Trump has withdrawn the US from the Iran nuclear deal reached during the Obama era with France, the UK, EU, China and Russia. This at a time when the US wants to talk to North Korea about denuclearization.

It seems Trump’s idea of a nuclear deal is a zero-sum deal where Iran or North Korea is expected to capitulate completely in exchange for no sanctions. That, or war…and Trump is on the record in saying he has the bigger button.

The same zero-sum approach has been used in the UN where its ambassador regularly reminds its allies and aid beneficiaries that it expects them to vote with the US on issues before the UN or Security Council. It has not always worked but they do it anyway.

For its allies, the US pulling out of its international commitments — the first being the Pacific free trade agreement followed by the climate change deal — gives them reason to doubt its ability to keep its word on anything already agreed on. The US still has influence, for sure, however, how much influence is up for debate. I wonder what the next administration will do to restore its credibility?

Then there’s North Korea. Seeing what it is seeing now, I wonder if it still wants to do a deal with the US.

With the US retreating into itself, Germany seems to be taking over the West. For the rest of world, it seems China is gaining ground. The world is indeed changing and it may not be for the better.

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Heroes in the age of populism

Marvel has just released its latest offering: Avengers: Infinity War, and it quickly earned the distinction of making the highest grossing opening for a movie ever. The one before that, Black Panther, is now the third highest grossing movie of all time. The thing about these movies though are not really the heroes but the villains.

Black Panther introduced Killmonger, King T’Challa’s cousin, who ruled Wakanda for a brief moment on the promise of making Wakanda/Africa great again. Sounds familiar?

The Avengers are facing Thanos, a galaxy traveling being bent on collecting the Infinity Stones for the purpose of killing half of all living things in existence for the sake of the other half. It is his belief that with the universe’s limited resources, he cannot allow life to continue running as is and deplete it or cause the ruin of entire planets. He has seen the effect on his home planet, Titan, and vowed never to let it happen again even if it meant killing half of those living. Again, sounds familiar?

What sets these villains apart from say the Red Skull and Hydra in Captain America: The First Avenger, or Aldrich Killian and Advanced Idea Mechanics in Iron Man 3 is that Killmonger and Thanos are more complex characters. You simply cannot label them as “evil” and leave it at that.

Killmonger believes that the resources of Wakanda should be used to better the black man’s plight and is willing to go to war for it. Anyone from Asia or Africa can identify with his cause. Indeed, we wonder what the world would have been like had Africa not been enslaved or Asia colonized.

Thanos, for all the blood he spilled across the universe, is actually torn by the sacrifice he has to pay to get the Soul Stone. A soul for the Soul Stone. Many lives are lost but one in particular is too costly even for the Mad Titan. His heart breaks but pays the price anyway.

The world today is filled with politicians with promises of a new tomorrow but none are more worrisome than the populists whose solution to anything and everything is war, death, destruction or exclusion, hyper-nationalism, isolationism, and protectionism. To some, these populists with their views are god-send. People who have suffered or felt excluded find their messages comforting. But what of the blood that is spilt in their path to this new tomorrow? Many turn a blind eye. Many stay silent. All for the hope that their lot in life will actually improve.

To some Killmonger and Thanos are the real heroes but that age-old adage that “the ends do not justify the means” loudly rings against such illusions. This truth should always guide us if we want a truly better world. The Good Book phrases it differently: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Killmonger lost his life pursuing a mad dream. The story of Thanos has not been finished. He achieved his goal of collecting the Infinity Stones and killing presumably half of all living things according to his plan. We have to see what it shall bring. We know that the Avengers will come avenging. What we don’t know is whether or not Thanos thinks it was all worth it.

One cannot escape comparing Thanos with the Christian God with the sacrifice of a child and what amounts to a judgment of those living but the good Lord does not kill half for the other half. The thing is, with all the Infinity Stones, his solution to kill lacks imagination. With the ability to bend reality or even time itself, there has to be a better way. There may be another motive behind his actions (if you want to know more, then read the comics/graphic novel version) but whatever else it may be, it can never reflect the love of the Father. Had we been stuck with the God in the Old Testament, then they might get away with it but the God of Love and Mercy is different.

Heroes are not only measured by their motives but the means they choose to achieve those ends. Life — all life — is precious. Saving our world cannot be at the expense of others. There is another way. Always. To close your mind to that makes you the villain.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Maria Lourdes Sereno is the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. She is also currently the subject of two proceedings seeking her ouster from office: first, impeachment before Congress; and, second, a suit for quo warranto before the Supreme Court itself.

Most see this as payback against the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, commonly referred to as PNoy (short for President Noynoy). CJ Sereno was Aquino’s choice as Chief Justice and whose appointment ignored the age-old tradition of choosing among the eldest sitting justices as the next Chief Justice. Not only that, she took over from former Chief Justice Renato Corona who was himself impeached and removed from office by people close to PNoy. Former CJ Corona was considered close to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was also charged with plunder by the PNoy administration in connection with the ZTE Broadband deal with the Chinese. Unlike Corona, however, she managed to finish her term, skip incarceration by being confined in a hospital, and successfully had the charges against her dropped for lack of evidence. She is also back in power as a Member of the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress. It is also said that Arroyo was instrumental in getting former Davao Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte elected as President. So, the wheel turns and Digong’s people are now after PNoy’s people.

Senator Leila De Lima was first to be targeted. Newly minted as a Senator, she immediately managed to piss off Digong. During PNoy’s time, she was the Secretary of Justice who ran after Arroyo, even disallowing Arroyo from boarding a flight to seek medical treatment despite the fact that Arroyo got the Corona Supreme Court to issue an order restraining De Lima from preventing Arroyo’s departure. The current Secretary of Justice charged her with involvement in the illegal drugs trade when convicted felons alleged that they paid De Lima in order to keep their illegal drug trade going even while incarcerated in the New Bilibid Prison (“Bilibid”). Evidence seems week judging from the evidence presented during Congressional hearings but they charged her anyway. She is now in detention.

The funny thing about this is that the illegal drugs trade is still flourishing at the Bilibid despite the change in administration and despite the vows of Digong and the new SoJ to end it. If De Lima is now detained, one wonders who is running things now. If De Lima was blamed for the illegal drugs trade because, among others, she was the SoJ who had jurisdiction over the Bureau of Corrections, the guys overseeing Bilibid, then shouldn’t the current SoJ also be charged for the same offense? A question for another time I guess.

Next was the Ombudsman, former Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, who was also a PNoy appointee. Well, they tried but, so far, nothing has come out of their efforts.

So we now come to CJ Sereno. The charges were based on hearsay as the person who filed it in the House did not have personal knowledge of the facts alleged. It should have been dismissed outright for lack of substance but Digong’s people decided to gather evidence themselves. They seem satisfied with their work (never mind that they disallowed the lawyers of CJ Sereno from disputing the allegations) and the majority voted to impeach the CJ but they held off sending the articles to the Senate (the upper house of Congress who is supposed to sit as the Impeachment Court) pending the resolution of the quo warranto proceeding filed by the Solicitor General against CJ Sereno.

A quo warranto proceeding seeks to remove a public officer from office because he does not have the qualifications for said office. It is alleged that CJ Sereno failed to submit all the requirements when she applied for appointment to the Supreme Court. So, the theory is she can be removed from office via a quo warranto proceeding.

Most lawyers would laugh that off because the Constitution says that Members of the Supreme Court, among others, “may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust” (Article XI, Section 2, 1987 Constitution). A quo warranto suit is, therefore, not a proper proceeding for the removal of the CJ from office.

It must be noted that the evidence against the CJ appear flimsy. They failed to show partiality or interfering with lower courts. The tax charge is questionable and so is the SALN thing. It should also be pointed out that pissing off sitting justices by skipping over them and being chosen as CJ despite being a relatively new SC appointee is not an impeachable offense. If it is, then that should be taken against the appointing power, PNoy, and not the appointee. Too late though, PNoy has completed his term as President.

So, impeachment is iffy and quo warranto is doubtful. Plan C is now in effect and that is to pressure judges to force CJ Sereno to resign “to save the office of the CJ from indignity” and so on. Of course, the CJ retorted with “ano sila, sinuswerte?” (That’s hard to translate into English but, in essence, it means she won’t make it easy for them.)

Indeed, a number of people have already questioned the motivation of those behind this move because, they point out, that if anyone caused the dignity of the office to be tainted, then it is those who allowed themselves to “testify” against the CJ before the House hearings and diminishing the independence of the judiciary by allowing themselves to be subjected to questioning by the House.

So, after all this, how do you solve the problem? If we believe in the Rule of Law, then, by all means, let her have her day in Court. Give her due process. Be it impeachment or quo warranto, let it run its course before the appropriate forum and let her stand or fall by the evidence adduced by both parties. It’s that simple…if we still believe in the Rule of Law that is…

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Unwrapping Rappler

The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s certificate of incorporation. Rappler is a Philippine media organization that, in the Philippines, is required to be 100% Filipino-owned and controlled. However, it needs money to continue as a going concern and most of the money are in the hands of foreigners. How now?

It seems that other media organizations found the answer: Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR). I am no expert on this and what I know about them comes from reading two articles, both from the Inquirer. In simple terms, it is a participation in profits. The shareholder allows third parties to purchase a share in the profits earned by his stocks in the media organization. In this manner, the legal requirement on Filipino ownership is not breached because the stocks remain in the name of the shareholder. The investor only gets a part of the earnings (dividends) earned by the stock; so, they could not even participate in the management of the media organization. That’s the theory at least.

What Rappler offered its investors to their PDRs was a bit more than the regular PDR. They actually allowed the PDR investors to have a say if Rappler was ever inclined to amend its Articles of Incorporation or undertake some manner of reorganization. Under the Rappler PDR, you can’t do that unless the PDR investors says its okay to do so. Boom. They’re dead.

According to the SEC, that provision effectively gives the PDR investor a measure of control over the media organization, and if the investor is a foreigner — anyone other than a Filipino — you just violated the legal requirement of 100% Filipino ownership and control. The SEC, therefore, cancelled the PDRs. Makes sense to me.

Here’s where it doesn’t make sense: not happy with just cancelling the PDRs, the SEC went to the max and cancelled Rappler’s certificate of incorporation because it violated the legal requirement to be 100% Filipino. Why did they impose so extreme a penalty as cancelation of its certificate of incorporation? Many suspect the hand of the Government of which Rappler has been critical of. To be fair, Rappler was also critical of the previous administration but the current one, with its controversial war on drugs and cozy relationship with China, has been a far more frequent subject much to their discomfort. People, therefore, see this as payback.

As I noted before, PDRs are not unique to Rappler. Other media organizations like ABS-CBN and GMA have also issued PDRs, and some have been bought by foreign investors. However, the SEC points out that these PDRs do not have the controversial provisions that the Rappler PDRs have. Nevertheless, it was pointed out that PLDT, a telecom company also required by Philippine law to be 100% owned and controlled by Filipinos, also violated the 100% Filipino requirement when it issued its PDRs but they were allowed to rectify their mistake and PLDT still exists today. Why was the SEC then so harsh with Rappler?

The Commissioners of the SEC were appointed by the previous Administration; so, there are those who do not see this as payback. How could it be when these people are Aquino appointees but, in the Philippines, everything is possible and political butterflies thrive in great numbers. Perhaps they do not want to share in the fate of other heads of commissions and government agencies and instrumentalities who were unceremoniously kicked out for one reason or another. In this administration, a “single whiff” of corruption is supposed to be enough to have your head roll (but it also depends on who is doing the sniffing and who is being sniffed at as it appears that friends of the administration usually gets a free pass and just gets shuffled around the vast governmental bureaucracy). Are there skeletons in the SEC closet that could cause them their heads?

Or did the SEC just make an honest mistake when it imposed the ultimate penalty? It said that Rappler can still operate and it does have the right to ask the SEC to reconsider its decision and, failing that, appeal the same all the way to the Supreme Court, which, unfortunately for them, are majority pro-government. This Government in particular; so, good luck with that but at least there’s a chance no matter how slim, and with litigation cases moving at a snail’s pace in Philippine courts, they may even survive this Administration and get a reprieve in the next.

The Inquirer articles on the PDR says in Rappler’s defense that the controversial provision is just a measure of investor protection; however, if that protection also grants them some control over the company, and the investors are foreigners, then that still violates the legal requirement to be 100% Filipino-owned and controlled. The Rappler’s lawyers should have carved that out; and investors are left with the choice of take it or leave it. It should be noted that other Rappler PDRs were not cancelled because there was no control granted to holders of those PDRs.

For now though, some people suspect that there is an attack on the free press with the Government setting its eyes next on the Inquirer. For sure, the Administration has not been happy about the coverage it has been getting from these two but, usually, governments just let it slide. It is after all the hallmark of a healthy democracy to have a free press. With populism so very in these days, however, democracy seems so last century.

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Contra Mundum

Once in a while, you get to see a beautiful story play out before your eyes. In this case, all your senses are piqued by an amazing film called Ang Larawan (The Portrait) a work of art by three of the Philippines’ best artists: Nick Joaquin, Rolando Tinio and Ryan Cayabyab.

The story is about a renowned artist and his family facing the many changes challenging each of the characters. It is the story of their ancestral house and its uncertain future in a changing world. And all of that is captured in a painting we can only see glimpses of but never the whole.

And that is where the fun is in this film. People’s lives can only be glimpsed in parts but the whole will sometimes surprise you. The film which deals with these people’s lives, on the whole, is a masterpiece. There are bits and pieces here and there that appear off: a song better left unsung (dialogue would have done); a miscast character; and a song line that is forced into the melody, but the film is so awesome these irritations quickly pass.

Before we saw the film, we heard that it was being pulled out of some theaters, which is unfortunate. This may be an artsy film but it is the artsy film people should see. That may be an elitist thing to say but this world needs more artsy films. It’s the kind of film that can make you reflect on your life and where you want to go with it. That we all need to do not only because a new year is just about to roll in but the world today just needs more thinking people in it. That is the challenge of the film: seeing the world as it is, do we have the guts to go against the world? Contra mundum.

Picture that.

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Fathers and their Daughters

‘Twas the week before Christmas…and drama was in the air. No, this isn’t a story of a young couple looking for an inn a couple of thousand years ago. This is the Philippines in December 2017. Two stories grabbed the headlines: the first is about the very public squabble of a father with his daughter over social media; and, the other, the mysterious disappearance of a young lady from a mall.

We are given tidbits about everything but never the whole story. One day we just stumbled upon a father ranting against his daughter. Apparently, the daughter had previously posted a blind item against her father and here is the father hitting back. Piecing the story might be a case of hit or miss but it would seem that the father had beaten someone who was close to the daughter. The father responded that he won’t hesitate to protect his daughter even if others, including the daughter or her mother, doesn’t do anything about it. Seems that the daughter doesn’t appreciate her father’s actions and declares that her father always spoils Christmas for her and the father replies that she is free to change her family name if she wishes. A very public spat indeed as mainstream media picked up the story from social media and brought the story to those offline.

As serious as the situation above was, most I think viewed it as nothing more than entertainment. Something that feeds our inexplicable need for voyeurism. It was, however, quickly followed by one even more serious. This one started with an appeal for help to find a missing sibling that went viral over social media. The father is a lawyer so there was speculation that the disappearance was connected with his work. CCTV footages showed her trying to break a thousand peso bill then…poof! Gone. Things worsened when it was reported that her belongings were left at the coffee shop. A couple of days later, however, the daughter was spotted in another mall and was soon in custody. It seems that the father had scolded the daughter a day or two before her disappearance. Some speculated it was all a sick social media game. Then there’s the official line that she may be depressed.

Two things stood out for me in both stories: first, the role of social media; and, second, the father-daughter dynamic that is so complex that, sometimes, I’m glad I don’t have one but at the same time regret that I don’t have one.

There is a third: that whatever else that may happen, these people deserve some privacy. Yes, even the father-daughter tandem who brought their spat to the public through social media. Like I said, I cannot imagine what must be going through their minds when these people — all of them — did what they did. It doesn’t matter what theories we put out there about why things turned out the way it did. In the end, it’s none of our collective business. The important thing is that, in the case of the missing daughter, we helped getting her back to her family; and, in the case of the daughter in the middle of a public spat with her father, we are witnessing what some of us may be going through on a daily basis. In either case, it is not for us to look further. We simply take it as it is, and if you’re lucky (or unlucky?) enough to have a daughter of your own, then this should be a reminder that you have a lot to do in building and keeping a relationship with your daughters and, indeed, to everyone. Good luck to us all on that.

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The Last Jedi

I think I understand why some fans are so against this episode: we all grew up on the Skywalker myth that Anakin, then Luke, would bring balance to the Force. Luke even thought that Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia, would follow him as the next great Jedi. Instead, we see the bloodline turn to the dark side with the rise of Kylo Ren and the light relying on a host of nobodies: Rey from nowhere and a poor stable boy.

We also saw a changing of the guards. Han has died. Luke too. Leia is sure to follow since Carrie Fisher has passed away and Disney is not inclined to digitally resurrect her for the final episode. We are left with Poe as the leader of the rebellion and Rey possibly the last Jedi. It is not certain that she will call herself that after all this. Kylo Ren himself has not taken the Darth name although that would not be unusual since other Sith have used titles like Count and General rather than Darth. In any case, Kylo Ren himself is against being called a Sith because he wants the old ways gone, killed if necessary. No more Sith or Jedi. Again, it all drifts away from the familiar galaxy we knew.

Then there’s all the confusion about who was what. Before, we understood that the Republic became the Empire until Luke & Company destroyed the Empire and restored the Republic. What remained of the Empire became the First Order and where they still operated, there arose a rebellion. We learn in this episode, however, that the First Order destroyed the Republic and is now in control with whatever remaining resistance scattered in the outer rim. The Skywalker rebellion was in fact a failure. Nobody even came to their rescue even if Leia herself made the call. Again, how so not the Star Wars of old.

But that is the beauty of this episode. It does not concern itself with Jedi or Sith, Republic or Empire. There is simply the Light and Dark, and the way Rey moves between both sides makes it appear that she, not some Skywalker, will bring balance to the Force. If anyone was attentive enough to note that Rey has the Jedi scriptures in the Falcon, then one can surmise that it is she who will finally give meaning to those books. The next generation of Force users may not be called Jedi but they will certainly be the future of the franchise.

Then there’s Luke. Jaded but a child of the light he will always be and, in the end, fights for the light. Luke’s story may have ended but hope still burns brightly for the galaxy.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do an awesome second episode to a trilogy.

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