The sage of Siquijor
What was the title of a piece on Akbayan — “Impossible is not so easy” — became the title of a book, “because in many ways Akbayan is representative of many of the ‘projects’ I’ve engaged in,” wrote Joel Rocamora. Though Rocamora prefers to be coy about what exactly those projects were, he did go on to describe them as “Tilting against powerful political enemies, mobilizing people long mired in passivity…” He concludes with the observation, “But hey, if it’s easy, it would be boring.”
Joel Rocamora may be many things to friend and foe alike, but boring isn’t one of them. In nearly 20 years of seeing him hovering in the midst, and at the periphery of, many of the most tumultuous political goings-on in our country, he has always stood out as one of the few men (or women) capable of finding something funny in every situation. As a result, more often than not, when you spot him, he’s smiling at you, at others; and laughing, along the way, at you, at others, at himself. In contrast, he pithily — and pointedly — refers to former comrades (the National Democrats, as they like to be called, or the communists, as I think they should be called) as “the unsmiling ones,” which says it all, really. I have heard it said, “Never trust a thin chef.” On similar, common-sense principles, never trust a politically active person who lacks a sense of humor.
As he turns 80, Rocamora has put together a book, divided into three broad parts. The first is on Rodrigo Duterte, comprising his commentaries on the President from his assumption of power to his midterm. The second is a compilation of his commentaries on federalism, which at first seemed to be the most institutionally earth-shaking advocacy of the present dispensation. The third part, which includes the think piece on Akbayan which gives the book its title, tries to provide explanation for the circumstances and realities that keep our politics what it is. Each section has a short, witty, pointed introduction, which more such books ought to have. Each piece in each section is worth the price, as they say, of admission (in this case, the cost of the paperback edition published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press).
Because writers are paid so poorly, and thus have to churn out one article after another to make a basic living, few writers have the time to really distill their thoughts and experiences into a meaty book on one topic. Instead, they put together collections of articles in the hope that the few who bother to read will, in a sense, read between the pieces and figure out not only how they fit together, but are of a piece. In the case of Rocamora’s book, his commentaries on Mr. Duterte are a crash course in national versus local and traditional versus modern forms of leadership (and followership), and why the traditional, time after time, trumps efforts to introduce something new.
The second part of his book dissects how proposals for something new, such as federalism, can oftentimes simply be the same dog in a different collar, with the public turning away in disgust every time it’s offered a new pet, only to see how obviously it isn’t. It is also a crash course in the limits of public discourse when it comes to the public digesting, and then debating, any idea.
The third part is rich in history and lore — here is an elegy to the various crimson threads of activism, much of it red and raw from the blood of comrades killed by comrades — and punctuated by heartache and heartbreak, yet filled, stubbornly enough, with hope.
Most of all, here are the collected experiences of one life lived as much in the line of fire, within the lethal radius of a truncheon’s swing or a tear gas canister’s trajectory, as it is in the Machiavellian halls of academe or the plushly carpeted hallways of the boardrooms of the rich and infamous. Here is a man cleverer than most, honest and humble enough to say he hardly has any of the answers — and yet who keeps seeking them out of an obstinate refusal to settle for the status quo. To read this book is to see who we are as a people, and why.
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