Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Jose Rizal wrote Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in Spanish, a foreign language to most indios in late 19th century Philippines. But Noli and Fili became an instant hit among the masa, and the two novels succeeded in inspiring many people to rise up against Spanish colonialism. It was much later before they were translated into Filipino and English and only a few hundred original copies were actually distributed in the country because censors immediately confiscated the books. So how did the people learn about the Noli and Fili? How did they know about the famous characters in the novels like Crisostomo Ibarra, Simoun, Maria Clara, Elias, Basilio, Sisa, Padre Damaso? Were they agitated by a book they didn’t read? Did Noli and Fili spark a revolution even if only few people understood their literary merits?

The novels were written by the genius Rizal but their dissemination, popularization, and conversion from social novel to revolutionary manifesto were achieved because of politics. Rizal was not the first to stir the nationalist sentiments in the country. That Rizal dedicated his novel to the memory of Gomburza, the three martyred priests in Cavite, reflected the turbulent political milieu that time which could also mean that the situation was ripe for a major, and even revolutionary shuffling.

Like other great works of art, Rizal’s novels mirrored social reality. But they also fanned the burning desire for independence. The decision of authorities to suppress the novels, and the anti-Rizal church sermons only managed to further arouse the interest of the people about the controversial books and their author. Unknowingly, the state and the church were the initial publicists of Rizal.

The novels then gained material force when people began to pick bits and pieces from the novels and reinterpreted them to rationalize their particular situation and justify the yearning for change. The ideas embedded in the novels became subversive in real life when revolutionaries invoked them to recruit and mobilize more people against the Spaniards.

In short, publishing the Noli was not the only radical act. To write a novel that accurately depicted the struggles between the old and new order was a bold political statement. But using the novel to spread or block an idea enhanced the political value of the material.

Art becomes more than an art if the people integrate it in their political struggles.

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A propaganda material is a worthless piece of paper if it didn’t reach its intended beneficiaries. But reproduction of materials is not enough. Sample ballots are printed in the millions but their volume doesn’t guarantee election victory. Politics is crucial to determine the effectiveness of propaganda.

Kalayaan was the official paper of the revolutionary group Katipunan. The journal was meant to inform the people about the anti-Spanish struggle, and to increase the membership of the KKK. But Kalayaan only had one issue and circulation was very limited. Most of the indios in 1896 Manila were unable to read the paper. But the single issue of Kalayaan is credited for the phenomenal expansion of the KKK. How was this possible?

Political organizing broadened the reach of the paper. The Kalayaan echoed the political sentiment of the majority which KKK cadres consistently and aggressively articulated in their community work. The illiterate indios if recruited by the KKK could easily understand the political propaganda contained in Kalayaan. The Kalayaan readers and the overnight radicals enlisted by the KKK are both informed of the objectives and vision of the coming KKK uprising. In this way, the Kalayaan rose to become a sinister political specter in the eyes of the Spanish bureaucracy. Its real threat was exaggerated as it became more dangerous in the eyes of the enemies.

The success of Kalayaan proved that the distribution of information in society is not solely dependent on the actual reach of mass media networks. Politics, political tactics, political work can significantly enhance the limited influence of a media statement.

The primacy of politics over media or the multiplier effect of politics in shaping public information is evident in Philippine history. The radio delivered the news about the resistance movement during the Second World War but it was the relentless struggle of the people’s army that ensured the country’s liberation. The perseverance of the so-called mosquito opposition press during Martial Law should be commended but news about the anti-Marcos struggle was more effectively reported to the people, especially those living in the remote villages, by the underground communist network. A radio broadcast first signaled the call to troop to Edsa in 1986 but the people’s organizations which have deeper links in the grassroots were able to mobilize the massive crowd in the streets that ousted the dictator.

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Today, politics is equated with conversations. Citizens who fight over politics are content to be netizens who fight over rhetorics, semantics, and even hashtags. Those who passionately rejected the weapons of mass destruction in the past are now willing victims of the internet, the world’s weapon of mass distraction.

Media worship is shamelessly practiced. Social media is hailed as the new political battlefield where the ordinary mortal has the power to engage, criticize, and embarrass the powerful elite. The duty of everybody is to participate in the conversations hoping that it would lead to better political debates. But most of the time, netizens who are bombarded with bits and bytes of trivial data merely reiterate the opinion of an opinion of another person. The lazy ones do not even bother to repeat a commentary; they simply ‘like’ the comment of a comment.

Nothing wrong if citizens are still trying to comprehend the political content of the Information Machinery. What is worrisome is that everybody is jumping into the information craze without being guided by a major political project or political goal. Opinion-making is heralded as the new politics. What happened to political actions that dismantle oppressive structures? After independence, after democracy, the next great political act is to rant for the sake of transparency and openness?

There is a deluge of information in society but politics is lacking. Information in search of politics. Politics-less Information. The result is an infinite exchange of unoriginal views while the traditional political structures remain intact.

Disturbing that the goal of well-meaning political animals these days is to launch a viral video, a sensational graphic, a witty one-liner, an explosive status update. The political moment is the launching of a new campaign page in a stylish website. Collective action is reduced to crowdsourcing. Fine. But where is politics? Information for what? Information for whom?

Related articles:

Hashtags and political blogging
Seeing and politics
Politics of communications
KKK or QQQ?
Perverse transparency

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