Thursday, March 22, 2007

Heroes: A Sword to Protect

What makes the hero? A quick analysis of this question would reveal that in every hero story, there is someone who, sometimes by choice (like Achilles or Bruce Wayne) or by uncontrolled circumstance (like Frodo or Peter Parker), is forced to rise above the ordinary and go beyond the limits of those around him or her. A hero/heroine is someone who has dared to fly, to live for something greater. This is our common idea of the hero/heroine. Joseph Campbell, the guru of mythology studies, talks about the archetype "hero" in terms of a formula: the Challenge, the Journey, and the Return. The hero identity, according to Campbell, fulfills each step in this formula in one way or the other.

However, the question of "What makes a hero?" is, in my opinion, neither formula nor feat. At the core of every true hero is a driving force, a power behind the true Hero, that brings an individual to reach into the stars. It is the motive energy that fuels the feats of greatness that set the Hero apart from everyone else.

Himura Kenshin, fictional swordsman of the Meiji era. Unparalleled prowess in combat, he became known as the legendary "battousai" or man-slayer. But for all of his skill, Kenshin is not a hero simply because of the lightning speed of his sword. Behind that sword is a belief, a philosophy, a motive power.

Peter Parker, free-lance photographer for the Daily Bugle of New York City. Because of a freak accident of radioactive energy, Peter Parker gained the amazing powers of a set of super-spiders: a proportional strength, lightning reflexes, the ability to leap great distances, an almost psychic "spider-sense", and the ability to produce super-strength strands of spiderweb from his wrists (some people say its natural, others say Parker developed them artificially). But for all these fantastic powers, they are not the core of why Peter Parker believes that with great power comes great responsibility.

Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. At the end of the trilogy, Luke faces his father, now the twisted Sith Lord Darth Vader. The Emperor, Darth Sidious, watches the final battle between Luke and Vader with amusement: it is apparent that the Force is even stronger in Luke than in Anakin, and soon, Darth Vader is begging for mercy. The Emperor bids Luke to kill Vader, and complete his transition to the Dark Side. But Luke finds a strength within himself, a hidden power that overcomes the overwhelming influence of the Dark Side. Instead of cutting Darth Vader down with a final blow, Luke turns to the Emperor and throws away his lightsaber, the symbol of a Jedi's skill in combat and the constant conflict that rages between the Dark and the Light. He tosses it, and proclaims his identity as a Jedi, and becomes a hero.

I could probably go further with illustrations from heroes in pop culture (Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, Leonidas from 300, Al Simmons from Todd McFarlene's Spawn comics), but let's stop with the three I've already discussed.

It wasn't simple power or skill that truly made them heroic; even the bad guys have power and skill. Neither does ideology make a hero either: Kenshin had his philosophy of samurai honor, Peter Parker has the whole "with great power comes great responsibility" mantra, and of course Luke is a Jedi, a Star Wars Knight's Templar. My point is that anyone can develop a skill, and anyone can hold on to a philosophy. Something else is at work here, something deeper.

Kenshin fought, not because of his ideals, but to protect those he loved. Peter Parker, constantly leaping from his window, everyday comes back to Mary Jane. Luke, for the love of his sister and his father, found the strength to resist the Emperor.

It was because of a developed sense of selflessness and love that drove these characters to become great. Not everyone understands the concept of love; take Anakin, whose love was actually based on selfish possessiveness of Padme. It takes trial, it takes persistence and time for love to truly become the power behind the hero.

Love is ultimately the core of what makes the Hero different from any other great individual. The title of Hero is a title of someone who has done something because of love.


Politics by Lottery: A modest proposal

One of the first complaints to be heard by anyone familiar with the institution of Philippine government is that our government structure is simply borrowed from the United States, without addressing the peculiarities of the native Filipino culture. Of course, this disparity between our governance system and our local political culture has given birth to a web of corruption and inefficiency, a network of thieving bureaucrats and a properly sabotaged public trust. In thinking about ways to close the gap between the cultural norms of the Filipino public, and the expected attitudes articulated in our government’s constitution, we must examine what particular “pinoy” traits can be incorporated into our body politic. I have a modest suggestion.

Gambling is part of the national consciousness. From cockfights to sweepstakes, Filipinos love the uncertainty and excitement of a good bet. A deeply religious culture, the idea of swerte or luck in the Filipino mind is equated with either the blessing or curse of God. The national cliché of bahala na is a bright neon light displaying the national belief in the will of the Divine.

This gambling nature of the Filipino could be easily incorporated into the national election system for the selection of a President. How?

By using the randomness of the lottery machine. My proposal is as follows: after a normal election via popular vote, the COMELEC selects the top three contenders (three is a magic number, and much more diplomatic than a simple binary) whose names are put into a lottery machine, with all the little spinning plastic balls. Now, it’s a question of the will of God. Whoever gets selected in this final stage of the election can then truly claim that God placed her there, without all the hubris of self-proclaimed Divine will.

Now, it is understandable that this may seem a bit loony. But if we think about it, it actually begins to make more sense. The top three candidates are democratically chosen, by having garnered the majority of the votes. The policy of a gamble also ensures that candidates cannot guarantee their victory by simply spending more than their opponents; you can’t buy swerte. And last of all, it means that the deeply religious (perhaps even superstitious) Filipino public can trust that God was the final part of the decision of who is to become the leader of our country.

And of course, one cannot create an Opposition to the will of God.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Unity of Study

After briefly reading the first few chapters of a textbook on urban sociology (by Dr. Efren Padilla of California State University Hayward), it struck me on how the process of learning, particularly that in university, could be geared towards something more thematic rather than specialist. In Silliman University, where I'm studying right now, we divide the departments according to their different fields, such as engineering, history, computer science or management. Although this is a good model for producing engineers, historians, computer scientists or managers, it's not exactly the best arrangement to produce people who can integrate, innovate and basically move the body of knowledge further. What if an engineer understands how physical structures impact the social arrangements within a city? What if the historian can articulate a new paradigm of historical thought based on quantum mechanics? What if the computer scientist integrates biological principles into a program? What if the manager has a firm grounding on ethical philosophy and its relationship to public relations? What if students are constantly challenged to break through the limits of their fields of specialty and approach learning-- not as a rote discipline of mechanistic obedience to the doctrines-- but as a playground of ideas and a melting pot of exploration?

A unified approach to knowledge is more powerful, because it goes beyond the status quo. It gets people to change the way they think, to change their approach.

As a student in the College of Mass Communication, I've found myself trying to break through the barriers of my field. It's common enough to equate my college with journalism, but even this can be taken beyond its usual focus on training a "journalist". Communication is an exciting theme that invades so many other fields of thought: language, economics, philosophy, physics, computer technology, urban society, psychology and more. If I had to approach communication as an integrated course, i'd be enrolled in more classes than the students of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences. And at the end of my four years here, I'd be on the path to being educated, rather than having simply recieved vocational training.

To make knowledge relevant in this post-modern world, we need to integrate and unify, instead of remaining within the comfort of our little exclusivist niches of specialization.

- Quark

The Prestige (in a literary sense) and Neil Gaiman

Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.
Cutter, played by Michael Caine, from the movie "The Prestige"

In the same way, this is how speculative fiction works. I don't want to say much about other genres that I'm not familiar with, but the principle of The Prestige may very well apply to them. What I find interesting is that successful speculative fiction sets up quite similarly to a magic trick. Let's take an example from Neil Gaiman's short story about the Holy Grail from the book Smoke and Mirrors. He presents us with something ordinary, in this case, the old woman buying something antique. The turn comes from the realization of the fact that this is the Holy Grail she has purchased and it is being sought after by young Sir Galahad. But the prestige occurs when we, the reader's, realize that this whole story is simply one of a probably many, with the magic lamp hiding in the antique shop.

However, the truly beautiful prestige at the end of a story is a prestige that goes beyond mere entertainment or escapism. I believe that what makes a work truly great is the use of the prestige to articulate a deeply human truth, a philosophy of sorts. There is something a bit disheartening about the way Gaiman ends his stories, specifically Stardust and Neverwhere. At the end, when Yvaine is staring up into the skies, or when Richard Mayhew is completely cut off from his former existence and he turns back to the underground world, the reader is left with a sense of alienation, enstrangement and a sense of longing, as if the alieantion itself is a loss. Contrast this with Camus or Dostoevsky, where enstrangement is part of existence itself, to be wrestled with but not regreted (more Camus than Dostoevsky).

Gaiman's "prestige" is hollow in this sense, it doesn't fill the reader with a new insight, instead offering a look into the immersion of the subject in an escapist world.

I think that speculative fiction can be more than mere escapism or entertainment. Presenting something wierd and wonderful is cool, but not intellectual or fulfilling. To break into a more cerebral plane, speculative fiction must present a truth in the veil of fantasy.

I like the example on the blog of my friend "Trivial Inanities", the entry The Golden Stair. It's a statement about the uselessness of believing in fairy tales, about the futility of chasing ideals that really don't have a real end.

That's what fiction is about; it's presenting a sort of magic trick that, in the end, really isn't about magic at all, but about the audience, the reader.


Social Upheaval

This country is going to implode. If we examine the trend of how the socio-politico institutions of the Philippines are increasingly self-defeating and being mired in the tangle of corruption, the immediate future isn't exactly a nice one. Let's cut through the elaborate lines of bullshit the pundits, the government, the academe and the revolutionaries are talking about in the discourse of today's headlines. Let's cut it down to the simplest and stupidest message: our society does not work. Social injustice is socially tolerated, even accepted, even institutionalized. We have dedicated ourselves to the pursuit of truth and reason for only as long as they are our own truth and reason. This is our country, and its going to the shitter.
If i were to make an analogy, it's like a computer. Its software, originally intended to do something good has been corrupted by a virus. What was once a useful and operational program has been infected and is now destroying everything else, left and right. It is so deeply imbedded that the hard drive itself is gone. Anti-virus programs have been overwhelmed and incorporated into the evil-ware. What needs to be done is a complete overhaul of the programming. A wiping of the hard drive. Every symptom our country is experiencing, although not as bad yet, is pointing in this direction.

Why is it like this? Does it have to be this way? The posited idea comes from G.F. Hegel. If we have to analyse this dialectically, the status quo is actually breeding the very forces that will bring about its destruction. The very instability that the Administration is railing against today is actually their own creation, with their inability to face the light of sincere governance.

It's not a question of whether there will be a fall or not, or even when it will happen. It's going to happen, and it's going to happen sooner than later. The question is, how violent will the upheaval be? And how long will the violence last? And how widespread will the violence be?

These are the question of someone who sincerely doubts a positive near future for the country.

However, that's not to say that our country is doomed; because the clash of paradigms, the conflict that brings about the downfall of one order creates a new one. But there must be a conflict and a shift first. We cannot go on with the status quo, and the upheaval is simply part of the overall evolution of our society. Painfully, dangerously, but life goes on. There will always be a Philippines, but as with every other nation in the world, it will have to go through some very acute growing pains. We, as a nation, must struggle with ourselves.

But I also see an alternative to this violent upheaval. However, this alternative is merely part of an exploration of historical possibility rather than historical consequence of present realities. My alternative is one of dissolution and an enlightened dismanteling of the present institutions in favour of new ones. It is only possible when people with sincere intentions of finding solutions to the problems of our country start to act, not as part of any ideology or movement, but with academic neutrality and careful, systematic methods. It requires a setting aside of personal ego in favour of finding something truly good for society. That's something I would like to see. That's something I dream about. When people are bound, not by statute, tradition, societal norms, ideology or economic interest, but by reason and a desire to do something right. Of course, such complicated ideas as "reason" and "right" are still so fuzzy and philosophical, but by struggeling with these, we know that we are on the path towards them.

But whatever model we follow, violent upheaval or enlightened change, there will be a change. The status quo, by its very unintended consequences, will dissolve, and change, and only then will this country move forward.

-9th Wanderer

The Low-Down on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is probably one of my most accessed sites, if not the most accessed site (aside from my email account). For the past three years of college life, i've relied on Wikipedia to help me find more information on what I need. More than once, i've praised its example of free information, and the theory of user-generated/regulated content. But what if, its not all that? What if i'm being misled?

We live in a world of information, i've said it time and again. It's the real currency of our lives. In my life, which is being geared towards an almost fanatic pursuit of information, it is vitally important to be as sure as possible of the integrity of information. Intellectual honesty, now more than ever, is the primary value in my career. No student worth calling herself a student would willfully be haphazard about research and the sources she uses. Once its on paper, once its published, that's it, its out there and it's attached to the writer's name. A single lie, a single slip, and no one will believe your work. No university (at least the ones that matter) will work with you. In this business of science, truth, information and publication, I firmly adhere to the belief that integrity is the ONLY value. Make mistakes because your human, but at least be honest about them. An honest mistake is better than a dishonest success.

A lot of students, in all levels, use Wikipedia. The problem is when they use it as a source in their research. Wikipedia just isn't reliable enough. I got the idea from Ian Casocot, Palanca awardee and a teacher of research writing here in Silliman. He said that there have been instances where information taken from Wikipedia either was wrong or outdated. What solidifies this allegation in my mind is the human element that really is the core of Wikipedia. And people make mistakes, individually and collectively.

I guess the whole point i'm trying to build up to here is that Wikipedia isn't an end source. Its a jump-off for research, giving you ideas of what to look up. The most reliable internet sources remain those with a .edu attached to their URL. Wikipedia provides links to these, and that's where the endeavoring student needs to look.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Blazing Glory

Wow. When it comes to hair-brained schemes, this one really worked. The old cliché of “That’s so crazy it just might work,” was brightly illustrated in flaming highlights with the fire that consumed the COMELEC building yesterday early morning.

One of the first things that popped into the minds of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward when they were investigating the burglary at the Watergate Hotel was that there were just too many coincidences. In the same way, the burning of the COMELEC building last Sunday is peppered with coincidences.

The very first is the proximity to the elections in May. In the politically-charged atmosphere, it’s not too much of stretch to imagine those in power going to great lengths to protect themselves.

The second is the convenient destruction of all the controversial documents and evidence pertaining to the 2004 elections, as well as the automated election machines that were to help counteract the effects of cheating in the upcoming elections. Millions of pesos in tax money quite literally went up in smoke.

The third is the disappearance of the Marine security detachment assigned to protect the building two hours before the fire started. This was reported in the Philippine Daily STAR.

The fourth, as reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was the delay of the fire-fighters whose station was mere blocks away from the building. Apparently, they “received the call too late.”

And now, the very first to pipe up with the need for a speedy investigation is the Palace. Who will conduct the investigation? People appointed by the Administration.

Now, I don’t want to pre-empt any official decision, but this situation is VERY controversial because of all the coincidences attached to it. By no means can it be left to only a single sector to examine. There needs to be an independent, truly independent investigation by several sectors, to counteract the effects of politics. If the government had even the slightest hand in this burning issue, the implications could be the very thing that will bring the flaming sword of truth to our shadowy and untrustworthy government.