Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Spectator

by Gideon Lasco

It was a lie all along, but the truth must finally be told: We did not believe the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.

I was there when it happened—the emperor’s grand parade. Everybody was excited. Ever since the two tailors came, the town had been talking about it: the clothes made of the finest, most exquisite fabrics in the world; clothes that, rumor had it, were so lofty and noble that they could not be seen by the feeble-minded.

Looking back, nobody really asked why the emperor was so obsessed with clothes or parades. Nor did we ask why we ourselves were so excited. Perhaps we did not yet learn to question why we do the things that we do. All I remember was that everybody was talking about it. Even though, just like today, it was not easy to earn a living in those days, everyone—men, women, and children—wanted to watch the parade; and on the day itself, the whole city was full of people: the farmers let go of their plows and the fishermen their nets just to watch the spectacle.

Perhaps we all wanted to forget how difficult our lives were.

The parade started with much pomp and grandeur. The palace gates opened as the trumpets were sounded, and then marched the foot soldiers, the knights, the ladies-in-waiting in their beautiful dresses. Finally, accompanied by two handsome pages, came forth the emperor.

As soon as the emperor emerged, people gasped and sang praises of how beautiful his clothes were. To be honest, at first I really didn’t see anything; what I saw was his grotesque nakedness. But very soon—I swear—I thought I could see a faint veil enveloping him. As he walked across the moat towards the town square, I could even imagine a halo of gold surrounding him. And so I joined the crowd in amazement and wonder.

Then suddenly, a little child cried: “But he has no clothes!”

At first no one paid him attention: I only heard because I was close enough. I saw the fear in the eyes of his parents as they tried to hush him, but the boy was stubborn, and kept repeating: “But the emperor has no clothes!”

The crowd, unsure of what to do, fell silent, riveted by the boy’s words, partly out of astonishment, partly out of fear. The boy kept shouting, beginning to wonder why nobody would respond, let alone agree with him. The silence of the crowds only amplified his cries, until almost everybody could hear them.

Then, while we were still transfixed by what was going on, the royal guards came, and without saying a word, took the poor child away, muffling his mouth with their hands. His parents were too terrified to resist, and the best that everyone could do was to act as if nothing had happened. The parade went on; the crowd kept cheering, but I could sense that something had changed, and I did not dare look at the emperor, fearful of what I might end up saying or thinking.

It was only when we finally got to our homes that the people talked about what happened, and that we admitted to each other that the emperor had no clothes.

By then, we found out that the boy had been killed, but nobody dared ask why, or how. We were angry and anguished, but most of us remained silent. Only when the emperor dared to parade again in his repulsive nakedness did the memory of the boy inspire us to finally shout in unison the truth: a shout that would eventually lead us to the palace gates and finally into the throne room, where we, at long last, realized that we had been blind not just to his nakedness, but to his tyranny.

We knew in our hearts that the boy ought to be a hero; an example for generations to come. But we did not want to perpetuate the memory of our own guilt; the conspiracy of silence that would haunt us to our graves. Thus, we told the rest of the world that we had listened to him from the very start.

(Note: Essay; Originally published in The High Chair 22: July-December 2016)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

[Second Opinion] (Un)protected areas


by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Philippines is so rich in biodiversity that many species have not yet been discovered or documented. I realized this when, after blogging about my hike up Mount Mantalingajan in Palawan, a French scientist contacted me about one of the photos in my write-up. When I asked what’s so special about the picture, she told me it was one of the very few that existed of an orchid, which was so “new” it didn’t even have a scientific name!

Years later, when I was planning to climb Mount Victoria—also in Palawan—I was told by my birdwatcher-friends to be on the lookout for the Palawan striped-babbler, a bird found only on the island’s high mountains. Being a novice, I failed to spot it on our first day.

But the next day, just as we were ascending to the summit, a bird approached me: It was my friends’ prized find, with its distinctive yellow and gray stripes! I was dumbfounded as it came to within a meter of me, as if curious at the sight of a strange animal wearing a backpack. It lingered for a while, even following me for a short distance, until it flew away.

I was delighted at having seen the Palawan striped-babbler for the first time, but a greater sense of awe came to me when I realized the significance of the bird coming that close to me. Could it be that it had not yet learned to fear humans, and the place I was visiting was so remote that harmony still reigned between man and nature?

Sadly, most other species have very bad experiences with humans. Proof of this is the ever-dwindling number of Philippine eagles, whose lives have been a great escape from hunters and lost habitats.
We need more protected areas—a designation that will provide resources to safeguard endangered species and protect whatever habitats they have left from destructive activities like logging and mining. According to Dr. Mundita Lim, director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Biodiversity Management Bureau, only 93 of the Philippines’ 228 “key biodiversity areas” enjoy some legal protection.

The case of Cleopatra’s Needle in Palawan is an example of just how difficult the process can be: It took several years and painstaking work initiated by the Center for Sustainability, a local NGO, to have it designed as a “critical habitat.” Unsurprisingly, many land developers and politicians get in the way. On this note, I am heartened that the Senate just passed the expanded Nipas bill authored by Sen. Loren Legarda; I hope the House will follow suit.

But legislation is just the first step. Many areas, like Ipo Watershed near Metro Manila, have been declared “protected” but encroachment continues. Forest rangers are outnumbered and underpaid, not to mention vulnerable: In 2011, Jojo Malinao, a ranger who fought illegal logging on Mount Makiling, was shot dead by an unidentified man. Alas, it is just not the biodiversity areas that need protecting but also those whose job is to protect them.

President Duterte and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu can prove their commitment to the environment by pushing for more protected areas and giving teeth to the many laws that exist. As for individual Filipinos, the least we can do is to develop an appreciation for our protected areas by actually visiting them—and demanding that our leaders do more to protect them.

In our age where pragmatism seems to trump long-held principles, perhaps some will dismiss my call as naive. But isn’t the naivete on their part? The bird I saw in Palawan is not just alive, it also gives life: It participates in the ecosystem of the forest. The forests, in turn, sustain us by maintaining water stores, preventing floods, sequestering carbon emissions, providing livelihoods, among others. When Nueva Ecija was flooded by Typhoon “Lando,” farmers pointed at the scarred mountains of the Sierra Madre. One of them told me: “If only they didn’t destroy the mountains, our rice fields would not have been devastated.”

His message, like that of our scientists, is clear: Our mountains, our forests, our mangroves and our coral reefs—they have long been protecting us. But they can only continue to do so if we protect them, too.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 25, 2017: http://opinion.inquirer.net/104271/unprotected-areas

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Doctoral defense speech: On the meanings and materialities of height

by Gideon Lasco

(Doctoral defense speech delivered at the Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam, 14:00, 23 May 2017)

To my esteemed opponents; supervisors, professors, colleagues, and guests, thank you for gracing my doctoral defence ceremony with your presence.

In my research, I sought to understand the ways in which height figures in Philippine society. What is the role of height, and height differences, in the everyday lives of young people?  And more broadly, how has the dimension of the vertical structured human experience?

These questions tap into very heart of the anthropological tradition, and the enduring debates in our discipline. Looking at humans as objects that occupy a certain amount of primarily-vertical space, but nonetheless retain the subjectivity to reflect on this spatiality interrogates the division between subjects and objects. Relevantly for medical anthropology, the undeniable physiologic and anatomic reality of height, as well as its genetic and nutritional basis affirm its biological contingency, but one that is always predicated on socio-economic factors - not just in its making, but in its measuring, and consequently, in its meanings and materialities.

For a long time, tallness has been associated with superiority. Aristotle saw the unique stature of humans as a mark of divinity. A century ago, physiognomists who believed that intellectual capabilities can be gleaned from physical appearances ascribed superior virtues to tall people, and undesirable ones to those who are short. Economists and psychologists today speak of a height premium, presenting empirical data that suggests that tall people have certain advantages - better jobs, higher salaries, longer life, more sexual partners. The measured body has consequently emerged as a metric of comparison at the level of nations.

Some biologists theorize that tallness was an evolutionary advantageous trait, although studies on islands also suggest that shortness or insular dwarfism can also be adaptive. These studies, however, constitute tall and short people as groups or populations; and do not look at individual experiences that surely differ: not all tall people are successful, just as not all short ones are truly underdogs. With all its tensions, contradictions, and complexities, the topic can surely profit from being approached ethnographically.

***

In thinking about height, certain premises quickly emerged and found ethnographic footing. The first is that height is always relational: people measure their height not just according to a ruler, but with each other: boys according to other boys and also girls; children according to their parents; individuals according to their peers. I am tall in my field site, above average in my home city of Manila, but short here in Amsterdam.  n the other hand, one of the Dutch tourists I met in my field site complained about the size of the tricycles and the jeepneys, lamenting that “the Philippines is not built for tall people”.

But height is also a ‘body project’; it is not perceived to be certain nor inevitable especially for young people. This lack of finality gives rise to possibility, hope, and a lot of interest in products and practices that are perceived to make children grow taller. Even among adults, one’s height can be modified, and today I am wearing shoes that make me three inches taller; shoes that make my height up to par with the Dutch average of 6 feet. Its mere availability in Philippines shopping malls speaks of how marketable - and commodified - height has become.

Finally, height has value depending on its context. Context, of course, is both ethnographic and historical and I found it necessary to preface my research with a historical chapter. I identified the American colonial period as a significant moment in history where height mattered. Americans and Filipinos, who were called by the colonial power as "little brown brothers”, were juxtaposed as a way of legitimizing the “civilizing mission". Height provided a physical framework by which colonizer and colonized measured each other. Government positions, civil and military, had corresponding height requirements, giving economic value to tallness.

My other chapters looked at the life stages of young people: from child rearing where we see parents’ attention to height to schools where height begins to emerge as a organizing principle - and employment.

“My life would have been very different if I were a few inches shorter,” says a beauty queen who attributes her escape from poverty to her tallness - a tallness that allowed her to be “discovered” by a talent scout and eventually led to her college education.

“I would have gotten an athletic scholarship in Manila, if only I were 5’7 and taller,” laments a basketball player whose incredible skill, unfortunately, was not matched by a height that could overcome the very material limits of the architecture of a basketball court. “We can teach basketball, but we cannot teach height,” explains a basketball coach.

“I would have wanted to be a flight attendant but I couldn’t because I’m short,” says a teacher who also complains that the taller students bully her.

But it is not all resignation; people challenge. “I may be short, but people listen to me because I have leadership skills. They look up to me even if I’m the shortest in our college” a student leader tells me. “Height is a structure,” she adds unintentionally invoking an sociological concept as we chatted in the Palawan State University.

By thinking with the vertical we can gain so many insights about how people see themselves in relation to others and the physical environment. But aside from calling for a broader consideration of what an embodied approach to anthropology might look like, and providing an ethnographic response to views of height as deterministic or a mere metric, my study also hints at the troubling picture of people being made to aspire for something literally beyond their reach, and how height differences may not just reflect -  but also reinforce - societal inequalities.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

[Second Opinion] What Ginebra taught me about fanaticism

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

When we were in grade school, my classmates and I were largely divided between Ginebra and Alaska, the rival PBA teams of the 1990s.

I was a big Ginebra fan. On Sundays when my family would visit our grandparents in San Pablo, Laguna, I would watch games with my Lolo Basilio, who rooted for the same team. The next day, I would excitedly discuss the game’s results with my classmates—and if Ginebra won, we would gloat at our pro-Alaska classmates. Although the ensuing argument would sometimes escalate to verbal and physical scuffles, it generated mostly laughter as we tried to outinsult each other’s favorite players and coaches—our favorite target being Tim Cone (who, ironically, is now Ginebra’s coach).

It was the height of Robert Jaworski’s coaching career, and the Ginebra lineup was led by the likes of Marlou Aquino and EJ Feihl (the “Twin Towers”), Noli Locsin (“The Tank”) and Bal David (“The Flash”). Providing comic relief was Dodot Jaworski, and The Big J himself (he was a playing coach, after all). When the outcome was certain, they would bring in Dodot, and his moves—whether good or bad—were gleefully received.

One of the high points of my Grade 5 days was being brought by my dad to Araneta Coliseum to watch a PBA game. In that memorable game where Ginebra won, I joined the crowd in cheering for Gordon’s Gin (as the team was then known) with the unbridled excitement of a 10-year-old.

The referees were a big part of the narrative; there were times when we felt they were being unfair. But they would also make decisions that were favorable to Ginebra’s “never say die” tactics, to which we were happy to turn a blind eye. No matter the outcome, no matter what Jaworski and his boys did, we stuck with them. Win or lose, Ginebra pa rin!

My devotion to Ginebra faded with the disappearance of that legendary team: Jaworski eventually ran for the Senate (where he didn’t have as much impact); Vince Hizon was pirated by the MBA, that fleeting rival to the PBA; the others eventually retired. But the idea of a “Barangay Ginebra” lives on, and Gary Granada’s anthem continues to resonate with many Filipinos:

Kahit hindi relihiyoso
Naaalala ko ang mga santo
O San Miguel, Santa Lucia
Sana manalo ang Ginebra!

***

My memories of being a Ginebra fan resurface today as I try to make sense of the fanatic nature of our political engagement. Much as we rallied behind the charisma of one Robert Jaworski, no matter what, many people today are rallying behind political figures with as much passion and zeal.

Much as we insulted other teams with glee in the past, there is also the tendency today for political rivals and their partisans to resort to vilification and name-calling. At some point the attacks turn foul.

To some extent, a certain amount of fanaticism is to be expected: It is a well-documented phenomenon in psychology and the social sciences. Belonging to a team provides a sense of identity—one that empowers people to behave in ways they wouldn’t as individuals. When their team wins, they bask in “reflected glory,” but loyalty is not always tied to victory. Significantly, sports fans are known to exhibit a lot of cognitive bias—the tendency to rationalize defeats by blaming it on others, not on their own teams’ mistakes, while taking full credit for any form of triumph.

The same goes for politics: Just as it is natural for us to idolize sports stars, it is also natural for us to idealize politicians as heroes or saviors, to defend their every move, and to turn a blind eye to their faults.

Even so, I hope a sense of sportsmanship would prevail in our politics, which, like sports, can only work if we all respect the rules of the game. Indeed, just as a true basketball fan’s loyalty should be to basketball itself, and not to any player or team, a Filipino’s loyalty should be foremost to the country and our rules of law, not to its political players.

But who, you may ask, will blow the whistle, call the fouls, and implement the rules? Aside from well-behaved teams and fans, our political system badly needs one other thing: unbiased referees.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 18, 2017: http://opinion.inquirer.net/104086/ginebra-taught-fanaticism

Thursday, May 11, 2017

[Second Opinion] Make Duterte great again

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Contrary to the creative imagination of fake news websites, Nasa never said Rodrigo Duterte is “the best president in the solar system.” I wasn’t informed of any survey undertaken to reach that conclusion, and, I suspect, neither were the Martians.

But who wouldn’t wish for a Philippine president to gain such a distinction? Even when the competition has weakened in the age of Donald Trump, it will still be a great honor that not even the medal-loving Ferdinand Marcos ever received.

Some, of course, would say that President Duterte is the great leader we’ve been waiting for, while others would argue, with as much passion, that he was never great to begin with. (The idea of “making Duterte great again” was just a provocation that was never intended to satisfy partisans of either side.)

Those of the first persuasion point to Davao City as living proof of Digong’s greatness: a city that he lifted from chaos and poverty into orderliness and prosperity. But others beg to differ, citing the testimonies of Edgar Matobato, Arturo LascaƱas, and, long before them, the jeremiads of Fr. Amado Picardal.

Personally, I think the fact that Mr. Duterte was able to win a broad coalition of support in the presidential election—across social classes, regions, and political affiliations—is an undeniably great accomplishment. He has gained such a devoted following that he joked once that he can already establish an “Iglesia ni Duterte.”

He was so popular at the dawn of his administration that he could have moved us away from partisan politics, simply by fulfilling his Trudeauesque vow of appointing a diverse Cabinet. Unfortunately, despite inspired choices like Judy Taguiwalo and the unfairly caricatured Gina Lopez, he has not been immune to the favoritism that undermined previous administrations, as evidenced, most recently, by his brazen appointment of Mocha Uson as assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations office.

He could have, moreover, followed up his call for unity by reaching out to his political opponents, including Vice President Leni Robredo who went out of her way to find common ground despite being unjustly vilified. Instead, he resurrected the Marcos specter by allowing the burial of the dictator’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

He could have embarked on a bold and inspiring rhetoric of national renewal and solidarity. Instead, his speech has been marked by invectives worthy of Hugo Chavez—and an obsession with the “war on drugs,” informed by the misguided idea that drug users are beyond redemption—and the dangerous notion that the police must be defended regardless of their actions.

And for all the promise it evokes, his “independent foreign policy” has been characterized by kowtowing to China: a disappointing act, coming from our commander in chief. While his outreach to neighboring countries and his special attention to overseas Filipino workers are commendable, surely he can do better on matters of national dignity and sovereignty.

As Mr. Duterte’s first year in office draws to a close, he must channel his political capital to the many other issues our country faces today; he must do so in an inclusive, not divisive, way. Drugs, of course, remain a serious problem, but the problem should be addressed comprehensively and humanely. Importantly, it should not be used as a pretext for impunity or authoritarianism.

Now it cannot be denied that this administration has some great ideas. I, for one, am looking forward to badly needed infrastructure projects and tax reforms. I am still hopeful that peace with the communist and Moro rebels will come to fruition. If Mr. Duterte is what it takes to address Mindanao’s historic grievances and make its people feel part of the nation, surely that has to count for something. But all these—and indeed his entire legacy—can be eclipsed by his broken promises and the deadly war on drugs.

So how do we move forward? The President’s “climate change of heart” leaves the door open for future turnarounds, but much will depend on his supporters and close allies. Who among them will have the courage to acknowledge his mistakes—and tell him to change course?

Greatness has been waiting, but alas, Digong is riding a jetski toward the opposite direction.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 11, 2017: http://opinion.inquirer.net/103895/make-duterte-great

Thursday, May 4, 2017

[Second Opinion] More expensive in the Philippines

by Gideon Lasco 
Philippine Daily Inquirer

For music fans, Coldplay’s recent Asia tour was a reminder that it’s more expensive to attend live concerts in the Philippines than in other countries. My friend who went to Taipei pointed out that the expenses for her trip—hotel, airfare, and a VIP ticket—came out even cheaper than buying an equivalent ticket in Manila.

I could live without watching Coldplay in Manila and, I imagine, so could most Pinoys. But it is not just music concerts that’s more expensive in the Philippines; I worry more about those that are closer to our everyday lives.

Medicines, for instance. I cannot forget the account of a lymphoma patient when I was training in the Philippine General Hospital: The patient’s family members would fly to India just to buy Mabthera (Rituximab); it was cheaper to go there—airfare and all—and buy the drug for around P30,000 a vial, than to buy the same vial here for P90,000.

Today, a 20-milligram tablet of Adalat (Nifedipine) costs around P40 in our drugstores—but the exact same brand or preparation only costs P2 in India and P5 in Malaysia: a dramatic difference for hypertensives who take it daily. Despite the passage of the Generics Law, pharmaceuticals in the country—branded and generic drugs alike—remain among the most expensive in Asia.

Then there’s electricity: We have one of the highest power rates in the world. Despite our vast potential for clean energy—geothermal, hydroelectric wind, solar—the fact that our power rates are second highest in Asia is both ironic and tragic, even as the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant continues to mock us.

Telecommunications, including internet, are also pricier in the Philippines. In Singapore, MyRepublic’s monthly plan for 1 Gbps costs around P2,100; Globe Telecom offers a similar plan for P9,499.

Finally, tax rates in the Philippines are also among the highest in the region. If your annual income is P500,000, the tax rate here is 32 percent compared to just 10 percent in Malaysia and Thailand. That the Duterte administration is looking at tax reform is a welcome step—but what of reforms in the pharmaceutical, power, and telecommunications sectors?

In an Esquire Philippines article, Maan d’Asis Pamaran explains the steep price of the Coldplay tickets by drawing from an industry insider. She writes of a baffling host of fees: On top of bringing in the artists, securing a venue, and giving royalties to local music associations, “there is also an entertainment tax, a local government tax, working visas—and yes, believe it or not, barangay and police clearance!”

In a way, a similar piling up of costs can also explain the steep cost of medicines. As a longtime regulator tells me, the high prices are not just because of the manufacturing and research, but also because of retailers who pursue profit maximization, celebrity endorsers, ads with catchy jingles, a battalion of medical representatives, and, of course, doctors, some of whom are provided incentives (free meals and conferences abroad): an inconvenient truth for the medical profession.

As for electricity, experts point to the privatization of power (beginning in the late 1980s and culminating in the Epira Law in 2001), kilometric red tape, as well as our lack of energy diversity, among the reasons for high cost. Alas, the overlapping oligopolies that control our power and telecommunication sectors have done nothing for our cause, even as they themselves have earned massive profits.

Unfortunately, we have taken the high cost of these things for granted. When a poor family cannot afford medicines, we think it is because they are “poor,” forgetting that it can very well be because the medicines are expensive—unnecessarily so. We have gotten so used to Meralco’s price hikes that only groups like Bayan Muna routinely react to them with outrage.

Moving forward, I think we need to first realize that this is not normal; we need to get to the bottom of why this is so—and hold to account the people who have benefited from the status quo. The ensuing loss of competitiveness, and more importantly, the toll on ordinary Filipinos, is a price we shouldn’t have to pay.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 4, 2017: http://opinion.inquirer.net/103710/more-expensive-in-the-philippines