Saturday, September 24, 2016

Of trolls and crabs

NOW on its 22nd year, the recently concluded Cebu Press Freedom Week always has a lot to offer. One of the most anticipated this year was the Sept. 21 forum organized by Sun.Star on “Trolls, Online Comments: Journalism’s New Challenges.”

Sun.Star Network Exchange (Sunnex) editor-in-chief Nini Cabaero spoke to a standing-room audience that turned out for the “Reaching Out to Future Journalists” forum at the Marcelo B. Fernan Cebu Press Center.

Joining her were Sun.Star Cebu columnists Anol Mongaya, Bobby Nalzaro, and Lorenzo P. Niñal, Sun.Star Superbalita (Cebu) editor-in-chief Michelle P. So, and Kevin Maglinte of

Ms. Cabaero’s talk was a reasoned argument to keep the digital public sphere clear for critical, impassioned discussion, minus the hating and bullying.

As Sun.Star Cebu editor-in-chief Isolde D. Amante noted in the closing address, the need for Netizens to respect differences of opinions and practice self-regulation was reinforced by the historical significance of the forum date: September 21, the 44th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, which suspended all civil liberties, including the right to freedom of expression, for nine years (1972-1981).

Ms. Cabaero struck a chord when she observed how the online trash talk jars with the countdown that has begun for Christmas.

Like a nightmare spilling from a tale by Kafka, the online heat/hate generated by the electoral campaign continues till now. Many remain blind to the difference between debate and the odium that hides behind online anonymity to threaten the unspeakable against those whose views are simply different from their own.

“Don’t feed the trolls,” advises Ms. Cabaero.

Choose one’s words, advised Mr. Niñal, citing how Twitter’s 140-character limit can unclog online traffic, as noxious as the highway version.

Mr. Nalzaro, known as “Super Bob” by the legions of followers of his newspaper, radio and online commentaries, hurled a challenge to trolls and would-be ‘tards: Use your real name online.

In his long media career, Mr. Nalzaro has mocked, cursed, named the unfortunates he disliked, called them names—but openly, never behind an avatar. For using his real name, Mr. Nalzaro eats libel suits three times a day, including merienda.

Cyberlibel may be the counter-curse for trolls.

As someone who writes and observes how words increasingly lose traction in a world besotted with images, I think we are in danger of losing our soul for lack of respect for the word.

When one hopes a critic of Mr. Duterte gets “ma-gangrape,” is the verb chosen for its power to do the most damage or for the images instantly conjured by rage?

“Words begin as description,” writes Susan Brind Morrow in “The Names of Things.” “(But) they are alive.”

Morrow’s memoir traces her journey from New York to the deserts of Egypt and Sudan in search for the “birth of language”. For those of us stuck in social media and trying to survive the next encounter with trolls, let her words serve as talismans:

“You could begin with the crab that scratches in the sand. The name of the animal is the action or sound it makes, or its color. The name parents other like meanings belonging to other things, leaving the animal behind: grapho (Greek—to scratch, and so, to write), gramma (the scratches), graph, grammar, grab.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 25, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 17, 2016


WHEN I ask my students to reflect on the person who influenced them most to write, many credit parents who read them to sleep or filled their hours and homes with books.

Teachers come close. Decades separate my generation from those of my students. Yet, almost as if we came to a tacit agreement, the popular choice of writing mentors was not among the brilliant, distinguished writers who cast their spell in college or writing workshops.

They were the ones who, in elementary and high school, made us look forward to making book reports and filled our hearts to bursting when they chose a poem or essay for publication in the school paper.

These early mentors had incomparable patience and wisdom because they saw past our misspelling, clichés and platitudes. “Juvenile” wasn’t a genre or a bad word to them.

After she received her first draft back from me, a student of mine became too disconsolate to come up with another draft.

Then she passed an essay about her high school mentor. After reading it, I realized that while Journalism emphasizes the rule of getting the story right the first time, mentoring is more about encouraging a person to want to get the story right.

This September, which is Literacy Month, I pay tribute not only to parents and mentors in Language and Reading. Librarians share the stake in keeping open for every child the portals for discovery and escape.

A library card was to my generation what a smart phone is to this generation. Perhaps, the digital generation may not even know where to find a brick-and-mortar library in the campus.

In my time, the library towered over the life of the mind. Vladimir Nabokov, D. H. Lawrence and J. R. R. Tolkien were not required in high school. But I knew where their books were shelved.

More importantly, no librarian in our all girls’ school considered a book too dangerous for a young girl to take home. A librarian ferries readers to the heart of a library, as I rediscovered in Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Night Bookmobile.”

A young woman comes upon a library on wheels while aimlessly walking the streets at night. She accepts the invitation from an old gentleman, who is the librarian of the Night Bookmobile, to check out the collection.

Inside the library—which “smelled of old, dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog”—she discovers that the entire collection contains everything she has read, “from Jane Austen to Paul Auster,” including the “ephemera—cereal boxes and such”.

The reader requests to borrow the diary she kept as a child. The librarian sticks to the rules: no borrowing, closing at dawn.

She returns the following night, expecting to be reunited with “the perfect lover”: “a portrait of myself as a reader”. But the library and its librarian never materialize.

Over the years, when she looks for it, the Night Bookmobile never shows up. When she least expects, it does.

Why do we pine for the past? Where will our desires take us?

When I came upon the first drawn panel of the bookshelves, I automatically craned my neck to read the book spines: which ones did the Reader and I read? Which ones to hunt for?

Returning again and again to the unforgettable last panels, I imagine how the smell of “old, dry paper” conjures many forms of escape. Only some lead to freedom.

(For Janicah and Danielle)

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 18, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 10, 2016


A PUBLIC relations veteran and I shared a sense of impending disaster when we separately heard the reporter in Davao ask President Rodrigo Duterte how he would respond if U.S. President Barack Obama questioned him about the extrajudicial killings in the War on Drugs.

The answer sent a shudder around the world.

Much of the commentary over the incident and its repercussions has focused on President Duterte’s failure again to calibrate his language.

“Words matter” was the U.S. advice for Duterte on the future of Philippine-U.S. ties.

Duterte has earned the notoriety of a dirty mouth. He called Pope Francis a “son of a whore” for congesting the streets in his 2015 papal visit. After he was criticized for trivializing rape and degrading women, Duterte catcalled U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a bitch”.

Yet, on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by the al-Qaeda group in the U.S., the rhetoric of political correctness (“words matter”) must be seen in context.

Review the footage of the Davao City presscon on Sept. 5. Duterte vented after the reporter asked the question, with its implication that he would be like an errant pupil chastised by a teacher with a lecture on human rights.

“I am no American puppet,” said Duterte. “I am president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people.” These statements are frequently left out in reports about Duterte’s name-calling of Obama as a “son of a whore”.

Last year, I watched “Heneral Luna,” a movie about another hot-headed leader, Antonio Luna. As portrayed by John Arcilla in the movie, Luna was unrelievedly foul in temper, speech and action.

Yet, Jerrold Tarog’s oeuvre attests that the man who asked, “Bayan o sarili (country or self)?,” was not just toying with rhetoric.

According to Ria Limjap’s “Heneral Luna,” which is based on an interview with Dr. Vivencio R. Jose, author of “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna,” Jose’s research led him to conclude that Luna “was the best general in the Philippine-American War.”
However, he fell victim to the intrigues spun between his enemies and the country’s first president, General Emilio Aguinaldo, who had already plotted and carried out the murder of Andres Bonifacio, another rival in Aguinaldo’s “boundless appetite for power”.

Here is Jose’s take on why the Filipinos lost in the revolution against the Americans: “The Revolution failed because it was badly led, because its leader won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts, because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy, identifying the aggrandizement of the people with his own, he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him; and, anxious to secure the readiness of his favourites to sacrifice themselves for him, he was tolerant even of their transgressions.

“Because he thus neglected the people, the people forsook him and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fail like a waxen idol in the heat of adversity. God grant that we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learnt at the cost of untold suffering.”

In a dirty world—post-First Philippine Republic, post-9/11—a dirty mouth is the lesser evil.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 11, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 03, 2016


LAST week’s column (“Parsing Cebuano”) stirred up a hornet’s nest in the family.

After I posted on Facebook the article, first published in Sun.Star Cebu last Aug. 28, my sister and aunts reacted to Cebuano words for garden fauna.

One lives in Sydney; another in New Jersey. However, our mother tongue remains a puissant link across time, place, and even communication platforms.

The contentious stemmed from the disrobing of the familiar. When I wrote last week that “alindanaw” translates to dragonfly, an aunt expressed her confusion over the Visayan folk song, “Ako’y Pobreng Alindahaw”.

Many Cebuanos, or at least those of my generation, grew up hearing the lilting lyrics and melody of an “alindahaw” flitting among plants and flowers: “Ako'y pobreng alindahaw/ Sa huyuhoy gianod-anod/ Nangita ug kapanibaan, Ahay!/  Sa tanaman ug sa mga kabulakan”.

Based on the context of the song, I always assumed the song was about butterflies. Writer and fellow teacher Lilia Tio pointed out that “alindahaw” means a drizzle. Google validated with several articles and even a book that referred to an error that still flits across generations.

I wonder how Tomas Villaflor, credited in the Philippine Music Registry website as the song’s composer, immortalized the wrong word.

Yet, listening to a version sung by the Mabuhay Singers and uploaded on YouTube, I feel that the slip, though linguistically unfortunate, doesn’t mar the nostalgia that warms the heart of those who remember and often yearn for the Cebu of old—“ang kinatam-isang Cebu”—before traffic, Oplan Tokhang, and the unofficial but more feral Toksil.

Recalling how our family scrambled over the Cebuano words for spider, butterfly and moth, I remembered Lily’s observation that Cebuano is an earthy language.

Not only are many words in the vernacular rooted in agriculture and nature, our mother tongue is as uninhibited and robust in its literal and symbolic associations with desire, procreation and regeneration.

Listen to blogger, poet, and fellow teacher Jona Branzuela Bering’s dirge to the late Temistokles M. Adlawan, part-time “habal-habal” driver, “balak” poet and recipient of the First Taboan Literary Awards, along with Erlinda K. Alburo, Merlie M. Alunan, Resil B. Mojares, and Rodolfo E. Villanueva (also known as Renato E. Madrid).

In the second stanza of “Sa Imong Pagbiya (Alang Kang Nyor Tem),” Jona writes: “dinhi/ ang katri nakadungog / sa imong gipang-agu/ samtang gadamgog ugdo/ hamis, dughan, sampot”. And she concludes in the final stanza: “dinhi/ ang abog nahimong/ kabahin sa tanan/ ang tanan nahimong/ kabahin sa abog.”

In five short stanzas, the speaker invites the listener to revisit the latter’s home before departing. Only Cebuano can turn a short circuit of the earthly abode into a meditation on desire and decay, the fleeting and the enduring: “ayaw kalimtig tan-aw/ ang sulod sa imong payag/ hinumdomi, kini ang nag-inusarang/ saksi sa imong kaugalingon.”

“Sa Imong Pagbiya” is taken from “Alang sa Nasaag,” “balak” written by Jona from 2008 to 2015, published by Bathalad Inc. and launched last Aug. 27.

Thanks to her many lovers—Lilia, Jona, Nyor Tem, Bathalad, and—Cebuano endures and transports a yokel like me to appreciate the sublime nuances of sound and sense: “tam-ison (sweetish),” “tam-is (sweet),” “tam-is-tam-is (sweeter),” and “kinatam-isan (sweetest).”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 4, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”