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The intellectual bankruptcy of UP ‘activism’

/ 12:08 AM September 26, 2014

Nothing demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of today’s self-styled activists more than their physical attack on Budget Secretary Butch Abad at the University of the Philippines after a budget forum. The assault was nothing short of the “blow to UP’s honor” vocally decried by its economics professors.

“Assault” is no exaggeration. The professors’ statement documents how protesters began “physically laying hold of him, grabbing his clothing to prevent him from leaving.” The UP School of Economics Student Council additionally condemned how a staff member and student were hurt.

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Of all the paintings by UP contemporary artist and social commentator Emmanuel Garibay, “Tibak” has slowly grown on me. Inspired by a 2012 Cultural Center of the Philippines retrospective on martial law art, it depicts a protester in front of a line of riot policemen and Malacañang.

One realizes that the protester is absorbed texting and self-conscious of his red Che Guevara T-shirt, fashionable sunglasses and cutesy little placard with “Ibagsak” with an “@” written on it. How today’s militants are puro porma, walang laman (all posturing, no substance) is a running Garibay theme, their being reduced to making noise bereft of coherent ideas.

“Tibak” is mirrored by the clash of narratives in Garibay’s alma mater as it recalls the Sept. 21 anniversary of martial law’s declaration. The professors’ statement, signed by no less than professors emeritus Winnie Monsod and Gerardo Sicat, powerfully invoked UP’s academic freedom. Beyond the right to teach what one sees fit, they issued the reminder that academic freedom constitutes a university as a forum for diverse views and grants “safe passage” to the unpopular.

Beyond “hooliganism,” they criticized how intimidating “bearers of contrary and unfashionable ideas” can only result “in an impoverishment of intellectual life and a reduction of debate to a monologue among the already-converted.” Thus did they articulate a deeper assault on the very essence of a UP “where debates are won … not by shouting down but by speaking up.”

The unsigned counterstatement by the Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (Contend) frustratingly discarded academic freedom. It superficially chided the word “hooligan” as the same used by President Ferdinand Marcos to dismiss student activism. It squeezed in an astounding number of highfalutin’ clichés: “rotten culture of bureaucrat capitalism,” “liberal bourgeois values,” and “liberal tolerance… the weapon of the ruling class to contain social unrest through sterile debates.”

Contend’s narrative is that UP students have a duty not just to protest but also to riot and fight “toe-to-toe with the established order.” In doublethink that would make George Orwell proud, it explains: “We should never be afraid of debates. We do, however, refuse to engage in talk that will only lend credence to the facade of democracy and academic freedom we currently have.” Thus did they conclude that academic freedom has no value because truth is found only outside the classroom, and UP professors abet “state repression” when they restrain a mob.

Sadly, the long-winded counterstatement only admits that today’s militants so sorely lack intellectual grounding that the only way they can debate a Garibay or a Monsod is to shift the arena from learned discourse to a fist fight in the parking lot. Because they have run out of ideas, they trumpet an anti-intellectualism fit for the Cultural Revolution. Because they cannot gain traction in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s marketplace of ideas, they agitate for a command economy of thought.

In this context, UP is indeed a microcosm of society. Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello is an esteemed voice of patriotic economics and his colleagues have gained much respect for the progressive Left by participating in government. On the other side of the Left, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate successfully and soberly raised press freedom against the “anti-selfie” bill. But frustratingly, it remains more common for so-called activists to provide law professors with over-the-top lecture examples whenever they present their ideas.

Some militants claimed that their impeachment complaints against President Aquino were unfairly blocked, yet an Inquirer editorial dismissed their flimsy legal basis and how they cited Supreme Court cases that had not yet been finally ruled upon.

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Some militants claimed that a people’s initiative can pass an irrepealable law, a claim prominently rejected by San Beda law dean Fr. Ranhilio Aquino in the national media as having no basis. Some militants sued to declare the Cybercrime Law and the Electric Power Industry Reform Act unconstitutional, yet the tapes have them answering justices: “I’m not very good at the Internet,” “I am not familiar with the technology,” “I’m not very familiar with Epira,” and “I’m not familiar with gaming the [electricity] contracts.”

We the youth cannot allow our narrative to be hijacked by extreme voices that clearly do not represent us. We must support the UP School of Economics Student Council in reasserting UP’s integrity as an academic forum. And we hope that our self-styled activists find leaders with the depth of a Lean Alejandro, an Edgar Jopson or an Abraham Sarmiento Jr. who can make more meaningful contributions to society beyond perpetually disrupting it.

In the meantime, I am rooting for Monsod and Garibay.

Oscar Franklin Tan (@oscarfbtan) cochairs the Philippine Bar Association Committee on Constitutional Law and teaches at the University of the East. “Tibak” and the statements cited are found at www.facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: Budget Secretary Butch Abad, Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy, Contend, economics professors, Emmanuel Garibay, Ferdinand Marcos, Gerardo Sicat, intellectual bankruptcy, self-styled activists, University of the Philippines, UP academic freedom, UP activism, UP School of Economics Student Council, winnie monsod
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