Interpreting the world: The writer as public intellectual


(Keynote speech at the PEN Philippines Conference, December 6-7, 2012)

Founding Chairman Sionil Jose, Chairman Lumbera, Members Of The Board Of Directors Of Philippine PEN, Friends, Ladies And Gentlemen:

A COLLEAGUE at the University of the Philippines thinks the phrase public intellectual redundant, and wonders who may properly be called writers in the Philippine setting. It would seem then that a few definitions are in order.

But we all know who, or what, the writer is. He or she is a poet, an essayist and/or a novelist, as the initials and acronym of this organization suggest. But he or she is also the writer of the editorials and columns, the investigative and explanatory reports that are among the many forms journalism has developed in discharging its public task of describing and interpreting the human environments. In the digital age, the writer is also the blogger who makes it his concern to gather and provide information on issues of citizen concern and to comment on them online.

Some argue that in the context of the “mainstream,” or more accurately, the dominant media’s inability to address some of the most pressing concerns in a society and country that has been awaiting change for over a hundred years, in the category of writer we could perhaps also include even the–how does one describe them?–the habitual drafters of declarations, statements and manifestos, some of whom are also poets and essayists and aspiring novelists, anyway.

The writer is anyone who puts pen to paper–or encodes words on keyboard to monitor–to provide an audience information, ideas, analyses, or opinion–and, of course, who through poems and short stories, novels, plays and screenplays arms us with insights into the human condition. Inherent in what the writer does is engagement with the public, even if he or she almost always writes, not in isolation, but in seclusion. Equally important is the autonomy that helps assure the capacity to think and write independently of those interests, which in our time are most often political or economic, that can bind the writer to a predetermined agenda and compromise the basic responsibility of truth telling. In recognition of this imperative, the Philippine Constitution–a document drafted by, among others, writers–protects free expression, so important is independence and freedom to the writer’s mission.

The intellectual is somewhat more difficult to identify, and the phrase public intellectual is often problematic. Is the intellectual, as he or she is commonly thought to be, simply anyone who uses brain rather than brawn in the daily labors of existence? Is he or she an intellectual for being an academic, or an accountant, office clerk, administrative assistant, or anyone else who survives by doing research, crunching the numbers, or sorting files?

Some 50 years ago, when the demand for the intellectual to go public was already the stuff of discussions in academic circles, the sociologist C. Wright Mills made a distinction between the intellectual worker and the intellectual. Corporations and governments employ armies of men and women upon whose brain power they depend, but these may be properly described as intellectual or brain workers, while intellectuals are those who’re engaged in the necessary tasks of understanding nature and society as well as ourselves, and who, for that reason, must be free of the constraints of doing intellectual work for corporations and governments. The intellectual like the writer is necessarily autonomous, not only because intellectual work in behalf of corporate and political interests would compel him to place his knowledge at the service of limited interests; he is also bound, in understanding the laws of motion of nature and society, to hurry change–the historical process–and authentic human development along. The writer as public intellectual is therefore independent of those institutions that have a stake in how they are perceived by the public. Involvement otherwise was less charitably described by Julien Benda in 1927 as La Traihson des Clercs-—The Treason of the Clerks, or, as more loosely translated, The Treason of the Intellectuals.

What Mills was saying was also close to Frederick Engels’ restatement of Hegel’s dictum that “freedom is the recognition of necessity”: that human freedom consists of mastering the laws of nature and society towards the realization of the human potential.

If he was leery of corporate and government involvement, Mills was equally hostile to the popular notion that the place of the intellectual was in the ivory tower from where, Olympian-like, he would observe with disinterested amusement the foibles of the lesser beings below while he occupies himself with the sciences and the arts. Mills was himself engaged not only in throwing light on the dilemmas of human existence in the belly of the imperialist beast itself through his work. He was also a political activist who disdained participation in the intellectual labors demanded by corporations and governments at a time when doing such work for intelligence agencies and the war industries had become extremely lucrative ventures for social and natural scientists and even those in the arts and the humanities.

The demand for independence proceeds from the intellectual’s being necessarily engaged in the concerns of his or her fellow citizens and fellow human beings–the vast majority who expect and deserve a better world. He is immersed in the public, among the people of which he is, after all, a part, if not in citizenship, by dint of the imperatives of common humanity. The conventional image of the intellectual as isolated in the ivory towers of academia is the creation of societies hostile to the power of truth and knowledge to change the world. Unlike Filosofo Tasyo, the intellectual cannot simply file away in some drawer what he has uncovered and understood, leaving it to the future to discover, without abdicating his or her responsibility in the making of that future, the foundations of which he can help construct in the present.

Noam Chomsky describes the responsibilities of the intellectual as speaking the truth and exposing lies–responsibilities that in the Philippine setting, where lies are often mistaken for the truth, and the truth, because too disturbing, is made to seem like a lie, are particularly relevant. But the intellectual speaks the truth and exposes lies–to the end, we should add, of interpreting the world towards changing it.

Not as easily as it appears is the injunction observed. Intellectual workers are after all in the privileged position not only of getting at the truth through research and the rigors of their disciplines, in the process discovering not only outright lies propagated for the sake of preserving an unjust and even inhuman state of affairs or in furtherance of certain interests through the manipulation of information. As privileged as they are, in most societies including our own the intellectual worker has the luxury of choice denied the poor and the powerless. He or she can choose to hide knowledge of the truth from his fellow human beings to serve those who benefit from its concealment-—or he or she can choose to make that truth known, realizing himself thereby as an intellectual, though often at the risk of career, fortune, and even life.

As Chomsky puts it, intellectual workers do have the luxury of choice. But–

“If a person chooses not to be a writer, then (by definition) the person is choosing not to be engaged in an effort …to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them, apart, perhaps, from some circle of immediate associates. Whether the person should then be called ‘an intellectual’ seems to reduce the issue to a question of terminology. As for academics, I do not see why their responsibilities as moral agents should differ in principle from the responsibilities of others, others with a degree of privilege and power, and (who) therefore have the responsibilities conferred by those advantages.”

Mill’s definition, some of us may complain, is too stringent, or even too Marxist. Perhaps we could arrive at a less demanding definition: of the intellectual as one who has achieved a coherent view of that part of the world his interests and concerns, if not his discipline, compel him to understand, and who, as a result, has both knowledge and insight to offer his fellow human beings, and who proceeds to bring those truths to them by writing or speaking.

Not all writers are intellectuals, if, no matter how masterful their essays and how moving their poetry, if they lack a coherent sense of what the world is like and what it needs. About novelists we should probably make an exception, novelists being, more often than not, possessed of a coherent view of the world, the recreation of which, said Georg Lukacs, is indivisible from the art of the novel. Certainly we have seen, whether in Rizal, Lope K. Santos, NVM Gonzalez, Nick Joaquin, Sionil Jose, or Ninotchka Rosca entire worlds recreated and interpreted in that most social of all literary forms.

On the other hand those writers who are neither poets nor novelists and “only journalists” are too often denied the distinction of being included in the August company called writers, the products of their craft being thought to be too ephemeral, too bound by time, and in some if not most cases, constricted as well by the interests, whether political or corporate, of the media organizations they write for.

Journalism is on the one hand truly writing by the numbers, that virtue, if virtue it indeed be, being driven primarily by the need for information gathering skills rather than those of writing. But journalism can be more than information gathering, as many journalists, among them Nick Joaquin, have demonstrated. The journalist who guards and fights for his independence and who is more than a gatherer of information can also be a great writer, if, as Joaquin warned, he approached every article as if it involved the parting of the Red Sea or the splitting of the atom.

Despite the digital age, despite Facebook, Twitter and blogs, journalism remains the most available means for the intellectual to reach his or her fellow humans. It is a truth many of those present today discovered in the turbulent sixties, when, confronted by the rapid march of events, from fiction and poetry they also went into the writing of magazine articles to help an entire generation make sense of often confusing events.

It is a choice that in our time is forced upon writers and intellectuals everywhere. Not all intellectuals can be novelists, but every intellectual has to be a writer. Communication with the public in the here and now through whatever means he or she chooses, whether through poetry, the essay, or the novel, or whether through manifestos and statements, or through op-ed pieces and analyses, is inherent in the life of the intellectual.

Journalism is the one vehicle that in the Philippine tradition has most quickly lent itself to the need of the intellectual for public engagement. But the Philippine experience has demonstrated again and again that public engagement can be extremely perilous for both writer and intellectual. The perils are not limited to dying in poverty under alien skies like Graciano Lopez Jaena, or execution through musketry like Rizal. During the martial law period, hundreds of writers were arrested and detained, and others killed in demonstration of how driven by violence is the authoritarian fear that information and insight are values too dangerous to tolerate in those who hold them.

Emman Lacaba was slain without the benefit of charge or trial for joining the army of the poor thus departing from the conventional path of middle class comfort and the Bohemian excess usually—-and mistakenly–associated with writers, and instead joining the army of the poor. The poet Lorena Barros was similarly executed-—the exquisitely ironic term devised by the military is “salvaged”–while hundreds of intellectuals in academia and outside were arrested, others were made to disappear never to be seen or heard of again, or thrown into prison, as some of those present today were. The country is no longer under martial rule. But today the journalist and poet Ericson Acosta is still in prison, sharing the fate of others in other countries where dictators rule.

Since 1986, 124 men and women who were “just journalists” have been killed despite the Constitutional protection that supposedly shields free expression. Gerry Ortega was killed for his environmental advocacy, while Marlene Esperat was in 2005 slain before her children for writing about the use of fertilizer funds in the elections of 2004. Although the Ampatuan town Massacre, the worst attack ever on journalists-—many of them writers of news reports, columns, editorials and commentaries—-and media workers took place in this country in 2009, that has not stopped the killings, which have continued since, twelve having been murdered since a new administration came to power in 2010.

Apart from the obvious failings of the Philippine State, the killings and the harassment of journalists including through such legislative initiatives as the Cyber Crime Prevention Act continue because journalists, of all writers, have apparently been the most effective in providing the information and analysis that constitute the pieces out of which the mosaic, the larger picture, of what Philippine society is like is constructed in the public consciousness. That these pieces have often been focused on corruption and the misuse of power has been the primary reason why the killings and harassments are continuing. The abuse and misuse of power is the prime creator and sustainer of the kind of society that has developed in this vale of tears, which, as a consequence, defines, limits and shapes the human condition.

The killing of journalists is confirmation of the power of the journalistic enterprise, the journalists slain having discovered some anomaly or the other, and were likely to discover, and to report and comment on, still others. Ninety percent of the journalists killed for their work, a 2006 study by the Center of Media Freedom and Responsibility found, were exposing, writing about and/or commenting on local corruption and the activities of criminal syndicates. Indeed, despite the many difficulties for journalists in a situation in which reporting accurately and fairly is often impaired by low or even no wages, corruption, conflicts of interest, bias, and low skills levels, what continually surprises is that the information the public needs somehow manages to reach it.

Instinctive in the Philippine news media is the drive to get at the truth somehow–and to be critical of those in power. The determination to get at the facts, and, what’s assumed to be an even more basic responsibility, to expose wrongdoing among those in power, are presumed even by the untrained to be the beginning and end of authentic journalism. It suggests a view of the Philippine world of some coherence, based on the common disappointment with those in power.

The crisis of poverty, injustice, and mass misery, for which the wealthy and powerful are often, and in most cases, justly, blamed, has thrust upon the country’s writers, whether journalist, poet, fictionist, dramatist or screenwriter, the responsibility of examining and making sense of what’s happening in the Philippines and to Filipinos.

If poets and fictionists have responded to this responsibility by representing their interpretation of the human condition through metaphor and fiction, among journalists the response has been to provide, as much as possible, a literal description and critique of the environments, whether natural or social, in which Filipino lives are lived.

Some have been more successful than others, and many have succumbed to the blandishments of wealth and power, serving as the spokespersons of local tyrants, business interests, criminal syndicates, the military and/or the police. But public intellectuals have nevertheless emerged among journalists despite the chaos in the communities, where warlordism and corruption, environmental degradation and human rights violations are most pronounced and occurring in the larger context of the poverty and injustice that for centuries have afflicted that portion of humanity we know as Filipinos. These public intellectuals and writers have armed themselves, out of sheer necessity, with a coherent theoretical framework with which they examine and report events in behalf of the fundamental need to understand the roots of human misery.

Many are in military Orders of Battle and almost regularly receive death threats as the reward for their work. They write with the constant possibility of being ambushed and slain, in courageous affirmation of that commitment to speaking the truth and exposing lies Noam Chomsky declares is the intellectual’s responsibility, interpreting the Philippine world to their readers as part of their contribution to the historic necessity to change it. In what is known as the alternative press, the same focus is as evident in the work of those who labor unrecognized but who have found among those Filipinos fighting for the change that for at least a century has eluded this land, the growing and appreciative audience that can do something about it.

If I have been, perhaps disproportionately, focused on journalists, it is due to both my appreciation of the work many journalists do despite death threats, libel suits, physical assaults and the unresolved and unavenged killing of many of their fellows, and the reality that, as the majority sector of the writing community, not only do the threats against journalists constitute a threat against the right to free expression all writers cherish, they of all writers have also borne the brunt of repression in this rumored democracy.

Every death indeed diminishes us all, but every writer and public intellectual true to his calling can contribute, in these times of crisis, to the realization of that human need for coherence and understanding that can arm men and women with the consciousness and will to change the world. To interpret the world is to begin to transform it.

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