Monday, April 25, 2016

Duterte as folk hero

Photo from
by Gideon Lasco

Whether or not Duterte actually wins in the coming presidential elections, he has already scored a victory by becoming a folk hero for many Filipinos: those who are disenchanted with our democratic institutions, those in Visayas and Mindanao who feel underrepresented by an “Imperial Manila”, those who are fed up with usual names in politics, and those who are searching for authenticity in our leaders: an authenticity they can relate to.

A folk hero is, as Cambridge Dictionary puts it, “someone who is ​popular with and ​respected by ​ordinary ​people”. Certainly, the inspired following of Duterte all over the Philippines qualifies him by this measure. Even before his “reluctant” candidacy, his name was been uttered by many a taxi driver, as one of them once told me: “If only Duterte were president, surely he can solve the traffic in EDSA!”

Folk heroes, furthermore, are, “ambiguous figures”. Australian folklorist Graham Seal points out that “Many folk heroes walk a thin and fuzzy line between the admirable and the rephrensible. This line is seen is seen most clearly…where the practicalities of defying the law are continually balanced by the injustices - real or otherwise - inflicted by those who control the law.” Like Robin Hood breaking the law to serve the poor in the time of King John’s tyrannical abuses, Duterte’s seeming willingness (by his own words) to resort to extrajudicial measures has alarmed many, but has, in equal measure, convinced others of his heroic qualities.

Sociologists point out that folk heroes embody cultural values - so much so that many scholars actually study folk heroes as a way of understanding the cultures where these heroes belonged. In looking at Duterte as folk hero, then, we can make sense not only of the appeal of his candidacy, but of values many Filipinos hold dear.

Part of Duterte’s appeal lies in his promise of doing things differently in government. Held in the context of the still-unresolved Maguindanao massacre and Mamasapano “misencounter”, his willingness to resort to extraordinary measures serves as a sign of his potential to break the status quo in many other areas. This anti-establishment posture resonates with many who believe that the present system needs changing: those who feel that the problem is Filipinos’ lack of disipline, those who lament the continuous degradation of our natural resources, those who have not felt “inclusive growth” despite claims of an improved economy.

Another part of Duterte’s appeal is in the way he represents Mindanao, Visayas, and the rest of the Philippines outside of Manila. Whether warranted or not, many feel left out, and think that someone from Davao would be more understanding about the concerns of Cebu, than someone from Luzon. Boosting this case is Duterte's espousal of federalism - something that many regions have long been clamoring for.

Duterte’s perceived freshness in national politics is also appealing. While Poe, Binay, Santiago, and Roxas are surnames that have held - or ran for - national positions for decades, this is the first time a Duterte will appear in a national ticket. While this does not mean that he is no political dynast (his daughter Inday was mayor of Davao; his father Vicente was governor of the then-undivided Davao province), at least in the national level he is perceived as new.

Finally, Duterte’s appeal lies in the way people can relate to him. Unlike the mansions (alleged or real) of his rivals, he has a modest house in Davao with a kulambo in tow. While pundits cry foul over his not-so-subtle allusions to womanizing, many actually see his womanizing as a sign of strength and authenticity (at least, the thinking goes, he is honest about it, unlike others who are hypocritical). While pundits cry foul over his use of swear words (something that he has disavowed), it is a language of the street that nether Mar Roxas, with his Ateneo and Wharton education - nor Miriam with her eloquence - can emulate. It is the language that makes people say that “he is one of us”.


Folk heroes, however, are the stuff of legend, not of reality, and Duterte is already taking on a legendary character thanks to his ardent followers, who have given him apocryphal endorsements coming from Stephen Curry, AlDub, and even the Pope (which the CBCP had to refute). It is to Duterte’s credit that he can inspire such tales, but what they construct is an image of an infallible leader that is unhelpful to Duterte himself as he needs to be pushed to become a better candidate - not worshipped for what he already is. Moreover, in the process of making someone a folk hero, people make villains of out his enemies, at times with outright lies (i.e. the fictional nurse who bashes Roxas’ Yolanda response). This is not helpful to our political process.

If he loses the elections, Duterte will still live on as a folk hero, and a potent reminder of people’s dissatisfaction about our democratic processes, of the need to pay attention to the entire country, and of people’s growing mistrust of old names in positions of power. He will inspire others to emerge and take up his double-edged sword of no-nonsense leadership.

If he wins, he can capitalize on his popular support in pushing for badly-needed reforms in government. However, with the very high expectations he has set (i.e. “Kill me if I don’t resolve crimes in 6 months”) in the performance of this folk heroism, will he be able to deliver on his promises?

Only the elections will tell if enough people are willing to give him a chance.

April 2016

Duterte as folk hero (
Tough love for Duterte (Philippine Daily Inquirer)
Social media advice for Mar Roxas (Philippine Daily Inquirer)
The presidency of the forests (Philippine Daily Inquirer)
The politics of physical appearance (Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Desensitized to beauty

by Gideon Lasco

With all the beautiful images we see on social media, not to mention on travel blogs, websites and TV shows, are we at risk of being desensitized to beauty?

When star trails began appearing in my Instagram feed, they were a novelty, possible only through a meticulous setup of an SLR mounted on a tripod and set to a very long exposure, together with of course an increasingly-elusive clear night sky. But, thanks in part to the proliferation of GoPros, everyday I see star trails and I’m not so enthused to “like” them anymore.

There is much historical precedent for photographic developments losing their novelty, including the birth of photography itself. When National Geographic magazine was first launched in 1889, it sufficed for them to draw illustrations of peoples and places. But since 1905, photographs have taken a leading role, and they have became an integral part of the narrative.

Then came colored prints in the 1930s, which, after some resistance, rendered the black and white photos obsolete – save as an art form or a way of conveying a feeling of nostalgia.

Today we can capture the world in ultra-high-definition, and visualize its entirety, from the ocean floor to the lofty Himalayas. They’re all accessible from our laptops and smartphones, not to mention the more famous ones that we have been seeing since chilhood: By the time I saw the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and even the Grand Canyon, they were already strangely familiar.


Doubtless the proliferation of images is changing the way the we see the world. Are we then still able to apprehend beauty?

Perhaps visual imagery will diminish in potency as images become even more high-definition. Once when we came upon a mossy forest while hiking in the southern Philippines, one of my companions gasped, “It’s like Lord of the Rings!” The imagined worlds – more vivid and accessible to our eyes – have become the standard against which the real is judged.

But beauty goes beyond what we see. The pictures of the Swiss Alps do not convey the cold air, the scent of pines, the cry of the condors. There are “4D” cinemas that try to add sounds, scents, and movements, but there will always be a demand for the “real”.

Our response, then, is to go beyond the visual in the way we define our experiences. Do we remember sounds, scents, tastes, sensations just as vividly as images? The power of music in tapping into our deepest emotions and the power of scents in transporting us through time should convince us of the possibility of a fuller experience of the world through the engagement of all our senses.

This is not easy to do because we have accorded the distinction to sight of being the “noblest of senses”. But perhaps the overload of imagery should force us to rethink our engagement with the world. When confronted with a beautiful sunset, we rush to capture it with our cameras, but what of the tropical breeze, the scents and sounds of the seas, and the feeling of lying on the sand? Perhaps we are missing half of the world not because we’re not looking hard enough, but because we’re not closing our eyes.


Can beauty be diminished by dilution? Will each and every one of a thousand Liza Soberanos be as beautiful as the one that is unique? This is a philosophical question, but it draw parallels with the question we are trying to grapple with: Can the multiplicity of beautiful images threaten the beauty of the images themselves?

Possibly. But again, only if we are relying on our sense of sight. Even if a thousand persons looked the same, they may have different voices, and certainly, different personalities. That, too, is beauty.

By moving away from the visual, perhaps we can find a complexity in the world that cannot be reduced to images.

Bringing in the element of change, moreover, can allow us to respond by questioning the very possibility of repitition. Put in another way, we can argue that because the world is always in motion, it continuously defies capture and therefore its possibilities for something new can never be exhausted. This is perhaps a lesson that Icelanders can teach the world: Situated in a country that is full of wonder, they never grow tired of exploring their mountains, glaciers, islands, and  fjords. As the Northern Lights danced above us in that magical night in Thingelvir – site of the ancient Viking parliament – our guide exclaimed: “We are actually just as thrilled as you are, because they’re different each time!”

This temporality further clarifies our conception of beauty – not just one that goes beyond the visual, but one that rests in its ephemeral character: The cherry blossom is at its most beautiful at the moment when it is falling, but has not yet fallen. The Northern Lights dance differently every

Thus we must not fear for beauty: it will endure, like truth and love. And knowing this, we should still heed Mark Twain’s call to “explore, dream, discover”. To explore is to go out of your comfort zone and venture into the unknown; to dream is to let your imagination guide you, and to discover is to learn something new in the process. No matter how many people have come before us, there is still much to gain from traveling, not only because every person sees the world differently, but because the world itself is different each time.

Indeed, we may be desensitized to visual imagery, but for as long as we engage all our senses, and as surely as the world is alive and ever changing, there will always be moments that will that take our breath away.

Reykjavic, Iceland
April 13, 2016

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Smoking marijuana in Amsterdam

Photo from
by Gideon Lasco

Smoking marijuana in Amsterdam
by Gideon Lasco

AMSTERDAM - The distinctive aroma of cannabis is unmistakable, and there are parts of the city  center where, even with my eyes closed, I could tell that I’m in Amsterdam.

For four years now, I have kept coming back to this city for my graduate studies at the University of Amsterdam. Before our university moved further away from the city center, our department building was right at the red-light district, and when I had not yet mastered my way around the confusing streets and canals that look the same, I would sometimes end up in alleys where sex workers have their glass cubicles - or where coffee shops are suffused with the unerring vapor of the weed that is inexorably associated with the city itself.

As any local would point out, however, the monicker “Weed Capital of the World” is a misrepresentation of Amsterdam itself - a city that many of its residents love for its “small town” feel, and pragmatic sensibility. And while many in the city capitalize on its reputation by selling marijuana-themed souvenirs like cannabis leaf-shaped magnets, the Dutch government has actually introduced restrictions on marijuana use in recent years.

Yet it is still very acceptable to smoke cannabis here, and if I were to smoke a joint in Dam Square or the Museumplein - home of Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum - no one will notice, let alone arrest me. The city’s official website states that: “those aged 18 and above are permitted to smoke cannabis outside as long as doing so does not create nuisance to others.”

In one of his imaginative pieces in the Inquirer, Ambeth Ocampo interviews Jose Rizal, and gets the national hero to admit that he tried marijuana (a fact supported by Rizal’s own diary). If our national hero used marijuana, why couldn’t I?


Smoking weed, of course, has become morally and politically contentious in ways Rizal never anticipated (he, like many youths today, was most likely just “trying out stuff”). A series of legislations starting in the early 20th century turned marijuana into a forbidden substance, even as its very forbidden-ness increased its appeal (“Masarap ang bawal”). By 1972, following the US-led “War on Drugs”, the Dangerous Drugs Act (RA 6425) classified marijuana as a “prohibited drug” - making it even more forbidden than shabu.

Supporters of this drug regime justified these draconian measures by asserting that marijuana is “gateway” drug that could lead to “hard” drugs such as shabu and cocaine. Thereafter, the war on drugs was taken for granted as the righteous thing to do, and it was anathema to even question it. Politicians readily took up the cause, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo even made the penalties harsher in 2002 with an amended Dangerous Drugs Law that imposes 12 - 20 years of jail time to anyone in possession of less than 300 grams of cannabis. In 2005, a man found in possession of two hand-rolled sticks of marijuana got sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Dutch, on the other hand, took an entirely different approach, changing its policies on marijuana in 1976. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t actually legalize marijuana (it’s still technically illegal until now), but they made a sharp distinction between “hard drugs” like methamphetamine and “soft drugs” like marijuana for which they pursued a policy of “non-prosecution”. Instead of looking at these drugs as a criminal problem, they saw them as a public health concern, and focused on reducing the harms associated with drug use. By permitting “coffee shops” to openly sell marijuana, for instance, Dutch policymakers felt that they were isolating users from dealers who would also be selling cocaine alongside marijuana. Importantly, they were not alienating drug users from society, welcoming them to avail of medical and rehabilitative services.

Forty years later, despite these policies, the lifetime drug use prevalence in the Netherlands is no more than that of neighboring countries, and it has the lowest rate of injecting drug use in Europe. Meanwhile, in the US where billions of dollars have been spent on a “War on Drugs”, states like Oregon and Colorado are beginning to legalize or decriminalize medical and recreational marijuana, following the Netherlands’ lead.


The Dutch context, of course, is very different: euthanasia, abortion, and same-sex marriage have been legal here for decades - and what has worked for them may or may not work for us, given our own sociocultural, demographic, and economic circumstances. The Dutch drug policy, moreover, is not without its problems and challenges - such as dealing with increasingly more potent varieties of cannabis, and the tenacious presence of an illegal drug trade.

Nonetheless, the Dutch experience on drugs should call into question the policies we have been unreflectingly following all these years. If, as a Mayo Clinic study demonstrated, marijuana poses less risk (9%) in developing dependence compared to “legal addictions” like nicotine (32%) and alcohol (15%), why impose such a heavy penalty for its users? If, as Canadian researchers have found, it is a safe and effective treatment for chronic pain relief, why ignore its potential health benefits?

We need an open and vigorous conversation about drugs. Not because someone like me can freely smoke marijuana in Amsterdam, but because many are smoking it in the Philippines, and they - along with those who seek its potential health benefits - are needlessly suffering the consequences of laws that don’t make sense.