Friday, August 12, 2011

The Ghost of Marcos

The premature closing of the Kulo exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) has found its way into the world’s media not so much for its questionable content but for the fact that it was closed due to the intervention of the Philippine President.

The open sentence from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) website says it all “An art show featuring a poster of Jesus Christ with a wooden penis glued to his face was closed Tuesday after President Benigno Aquino intervened amid threats, vandalism and claims of blasphemy.” (Emphasis mine)

The outrage that flows from artist’s poking their tongues out at the religious establishment happens on a fairly regular basis. Last year a woman in Colorado attacked Enrique Chagoya’s "The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals" with a crowbar because it depicted Jesus receiving oral sex.  In 2005 we saw the furor that erupted over the publication of an unflattering series of cartoons depicting the the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” has been physically attacked with blunt and not so blunt instruments when exhibited in both France and Australia. But the head of a country stepping in, now, that is a first in quite some time and a cause for concern.

A group exhibition, Kulo, opened on June 17 and was scheduled to be on show until August 21. A week ago a TV crew did a story on the exhibition and in the best “if it bleeds, it leads” tradition focused on the naughty bits. The aforementioned poster of Jesus Christ with a wooden penis glued to his face and a second depiction of the Christian deity with a clown’s nose and the Disney rodent’s ears. They are two small parts of Mideo Cruz’s  “Poleteismo” which translates as ‘many beliefs’ or ‘many deities’ and is a three-wall installation with a large variety of images. 

Prior to the President’s call, the CCP had been staunchly defending the exhibition citing the country’s constitutional right to free speech as their rationale. The day following the presidential call the exhibition was closed. A statement justifying the closure said "With an increasing number of threats to persons and property... the board of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines has decided to close down the main gallery." 

Yeah, right. 

The President may not have said jump, although it is reported that he told the CCP staff “he opposed the artwork” sight unseen, as far as one can tell. The CCP’s timing suggests they have guessed how high.  

As worrying as this censorship is, President Aquino’s interpretation of constitutional rights is a cause for greater concern. Whilst in general terms he is correct when he states “There is no freedom that is absolute” the freedom of speech has been constitutionally enshrined so that offensive statements can be made. It is a freedom that underpins the influential 19th Century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mills’ words “. . . there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered."

With the freedom of speech being amongst the first casualties in a totalitarian state and in the light of the Philippines’ recent history many with an attention span that extends past the next commercial break will be wondering if the leopard has indeed changed its spots.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Eloquence of Silence

In May, racism in Australia once again made its way into the world’s headlines. Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights Commissioner was reported by the China Daily News, amongst others, as saying there was a strong undercurrent of racism in Australia. "There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as (the) rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences, racial, colour or religions," China’s largest English language daily reported her as saying.

Four days before the end of June, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) online Opinion page, The Drum, published an article which inadvertently provided a clue to the depth of this undertow that pollutes the perception of the Land Down Under around the world in general and Asia in particular. In an article about the National Broadband Network, The only NBN monopoly seems to be on ignorance, its author, Stilgherrian stated “There will still be cheap ISPs offering over-crowded international links and a call centre in the Philippines that might finally answer your call after an hour on hold, only to present you with a human who barely understands what email is.”

The extent of the ignorance that underscores this statement is only exceeded by The Drum reader’s mute acceptance. With over 12 million more internet users than Australia, it should come as no surprise that the average urban Filipino’s IT knowledge and hands on experience encompasses all levels of society.

I live in the inner city suburb of Poblacion, a stone’s throw from the central business district of Makati. The compound I call home has four houses with seven computers connected to the internet of which only one is owned and operated by the Kano (foreigner). A five minute walk from my front door, in this un-gated working class suburb, gives me access to half a dozen internet cafes which at 20 pesos (a little under 50 cents) an hour is an affordability that attests to their sustained popularity.

Recognised as the world’s third largest English speaking country, a second language about which the Philippine Government claims 75% of the country’s 99 million inhabitants are fluent, Call Centers have been a major growth industry for the last decade. Unlike Australia where the admission of being a call center agent is mumbled into a beer followed by a quick change in the conversation, in the Philippines it is job that often evokes envy.

My nephew-in-law, Rod Corpuz, who has a BSc in Agriculture, works the grave yard shift for one of the bigger call centers. He says “the money is too good to ignore.” And he is not alone. A graduate teacher can earn double the teacher’s wage on a call center’s base salary and for a top performer the performance bonuses can almost triple the teacher’s stipend.

Stilgherrian’s piece attracted a goodly number of comments, 173 before being closed, which argued the merits and otherwise of the NBN along with displays of ideological bias that underpin many of the stances this strangely controversial topic attracts. But, amongst them all, not one challenged the racial stereotyping inherent in the underlying assumption that Filipinos are computer illiterate especially in comparison to their Australian counterparts.

This silence gives eloquent support to the China Daily’s reading of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s comments about the undercurrent of racism exists in Australia. A mise en scène about which the American writer, Mark Twain said “that eloquent silence, that geometrically progressive silence, which often achieves a desired effect where no combination of words, howsoever felicitous, could accomplish it.”

But, perhaps the final word should be left to one of the first to comment on the article, the “VillageIdiot”, who said in part “Thanks for a clear, balanced & factual article.”