Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The “Hoohah” Monologues, state censorship, self-censorship, freedom of speech...

Hoohah!!! Remember how Al Pacino’s Col. Frank Slade proudly spewed martial chic and gruff sophistication to the word (or was it a cuss) as he swooned and tangoed with fine wine and sweet women in “Scent of a Woman”? No wait, that was, “Whoa!” that he haughtily belted... I stand corrected.
Whatever it was, that movie was pretty cool stuff!
So what about “The Hoohah Monologues”? The first time I heard, “Hoohah!”—Mr Pacino crossed my mind, who else? A one-man gig for Michael Corleone, The Godfather, I thought out loud... No, I’m wrong again.
You must’ve already heard the story by now... A couple of months ago, a modified marquee in a theater in Atlantic Beach, Florida drew some attention. “Hoohah” replaced a word in a famous play after a female motorist complained about finding the previous wording offensive. Some thought “The Hoohah Monologues” was the name of a punk-rock or new wave band, or something – after all, said venue books acts of diverse musical genres. Meantime, I’m sure you’ve known of 80s acts with outrageous monickers, in the mold of Butthole Surfers and Piss Factory, right? Honestly though, I didn’t know what “hoohah” meant until my 9-year-old neighbor Colby The Dolby admitted that it actually meant “vagina,” or what he meekly muttered as, “that thing down there.”
“We got a complaint about this play The Vagina Monologues,” said Bryce Pfanenstiel, of the Atlantic Theater. “We decided we would just use child slang for it. That’s how we decided on Hoohah Monologues.” They did this after a driver who saw it complained to the theater, saying she was upset that her niece saw it.
The woman was reportedly enraged because she was forced to respond to her niece when asked what a vagina is. “I’m offended I had to answer the question!”
Uhh, I wonder... has anybody heard of an off-off Broadway play called, “The Penis Offensive”? It’s certainly not as famous and engaging as Eve Ensler’s Obie Award-winning episodic play, centered on various women’s views about the aforementioned part of their body... but, still, this “Penis” one-acter kind of courageously super-navigated “unexplored” terrains of the male genitalia like you’ve never imagined before. I tell you, it was obnoxiously nauseating!
Anyways... what the hell, right? The pristine beauty of living in the US of A—I dearly, deeply believe—is the fact that human beings are afforded the free will to say “Yes” or “No” to any given stimulus. Refuse or agree, conform or object. Or fence-sit, stay on the middle, it’s okay—that’s also a basic human right... But it’s all about Freedom.
But then, the word “vagina” flickering so proudly on a theater’s billboard, offensive? What about a giant full-color poster of half-naked Giselle Bundchen on super-tiny Victoria’s Secret underwear devouring a prominent spot at Times Square’s tourist belt? That’s a simplification, but—ah, contradictions...

I DON’T REALLY intend to consume my time on such elementary, hypocritical discourse. But I’d like to talk about this thing called “censorship.” It’s a popular notion that censorship is usually, most likely imposed by governmental institutions. That is a given, I guess... but the deeper anomaly rests within our psyche’s workings. We—wittingly and unwittingly—excise ruthless, often wayward, awkward “censorships” upon ourselves by way of acquired racial bias, over-adherence to “political correctness,” ideological/political dogma, and cultural/religious bigotry, that don’t necessarily emanate from State-imposed mores and “moral” statutes.
Censorship is the removal or withholding of information from the public by a controlling group or body. Typically, censorship is done by governments, religious groups, or the mass media, although other forms of censorship exist. The withholding of official secrets, commercial secrets, intellectual property, and privileged lawyer-client communication is not usually described as censorship when it remains within reasonable bounds. Because of this, the term “censorship” often carries with it a sense of untoward, inappropriate or repressive secrecy.
I mean, do we get it? Official/legal definitions tend to appear more complex than the act itself... We are so consumed with extravagant wordplay and lush vocabulary that human reflex (or common sense) gets lost in the dizzying fray.
Meantime, yes—it’s true that media censorship as imposed by governments remains as the one most incurable poison to freedom of speech. Or, it’s the most “popular” form of censorship. In China or Nepal, for instance, a wrong caption equals a warrant of arrest, and until now, an open tirade or passing ridicule against/of a public official is synonymous to jailtime or death wish.
In Turkmenistan, for example... State television displays a constant, golden profile of President Saparmurat Niyazov at the bottom of the screen. Newscasters begin each broadcast with a pledge that their tongues will shrivel if their reports ever slander the country, the flag, or the president.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the ten most censored media in the world are those in North Korea, Turkmenistan, Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. This means that no one can broadcast or publish anything these governments consider to be “immoral” or “harmful,” or that threatens the countries’ “stability” (which usually means the government’s own power base). This is what we usually think of when we hear the word censorship.
Democratic countries, on the other hand, take pride in upholding the principle of freedom of speech. People are free to say and write whatever they wish, with some carefully defined exceptions.
In America, for example, we can always make fun of the President or any public official like it’s simply one insignificant practical joke, no big deal. But that’s not the real deal – the deal is, it’s FREEDOM. Sadly though, we oftentimes push that freedom to the limit because we have the best of it... and we savor it to the hilt. Sacha Baron Cohen AKA Borat makes it hip and cool, Sarah Silverman gets away with it because she’s “acting” vs a super-smashed Mel Gibson off-cam, but Chris Rock is the Master of them all—he makes fun of anything “white” and earns hefty paycheck for it. Who cares! It’s entertaining...
In the Philippines, it’s “different”—at least, when I was a student (during the Marcos years). One time, a student activist berated presidential daughter, Imee, when she spoke before a University of the Philippines crowd. After the event, Imee’s bodyguards simply grabbed the youngster and threw him out of the 9th-floor window of the building. But, of course, that’s just one of so many bizarre stories emanating from the dictatorship’s genocidal years...

IN A MARKET economy, there is another controlling power at work – the power of money. In North America, most mainstream publications depend on two income sources: subscriptions and advertisers. Both influence decisions about content. Readers must find the content relevant, interesting, tasteful, and entertaining, or they will drop their subscriptions. And advertisers will cancel their accounts if they consider the content to undermine or challenge their messages about the products they sell.
Consider the tobacco industry’s enormous advertising power in the US and Canada. According to the American Federal Trade Commission, annual advertising and promotions expenditures for the US tobacco industry in 2000 were over $9.5 billion. The advertising expenditures for Canadian tobacco companies in 2000, on the other hand, were over $19 million. Yet we all know that the tobacco industry’s economic clout goes beyond tobacco products.
Before it was bought out by British America Tobacco in February 2000, Canada’s largest tobacco company, Imperial Tobacco, was owned by Imasco Ltd – the same company that owned Shoppers Drug Mart and Canada Trust. RJR Macdonald, Canada’s second largest tobacco company, is owned and controlled by American-based R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, which also owns Nabisco foods.
Meantime, forty percent of Canada’s third-largest tobacco company, Rothmans, Benson and Hedges Inc., is owned by Philip Morris Tobacco – the largest tobacco company in North America. Philip Morris also owns Kraft Foods, the largest packaged food company in North America. This combination of tobacco and food products includes 91 brands with annual revenues of $100 million each, and 15 brands that generate annual revenues of over $1 billion each.
With these givens staring down like an imposing dark cloud of control, some media institutions easily succumb to “self-censorship.” The logic is simple—without advertising, there is no publication. No publication, no job.
According to a new study by the American Council on Science and Health, popular women’s magazines state that they have a commitment to general health coverage, yet they fail to cover the number one cause of cancer death in women—lung cancer. Women’s magazines continue to publish cigarette ads, but rarely include information on the negative health effects of smoking. Of the 2,414 health-related articles published last year, only 24 articles – less than 1 per cent – addressed the health effects of tobacco. Moreover, the image of female smokers as independent, attractive and lean (or sexy) was portrayed overwhelmingly in the advertisements.
In November 1983, Newsweek ran a 16-page special health supplement written by the American Medical Association. Although the original AMA manuscript included information on tobacco addiction, Newsweek resisted any mention of cigarettes. That issue of Newsweek had 12 full-page cigarette ads. This hasn’t really changed... Most networks seem to propagate health consciousness via talk shows and special features, yet commercials continually run ads by food products that only contribute to the growing rate of obesity, heart failures, respiratory problems, among others, in the country.
“Self-censorship” is also prevalent in writers and artists. Blogs, books, films etc are “censored” or “classified” by the authors out of deference to the sensibilities of others without an authority directly pressuring one to do so. Self-censorship is often practiced by film producers, film directors, publishers, news anchors, musicians, or authors.
Again, I digress...

OVER-ADHERENCE to political-correctness is another example of self-censorship that isn’t just confined to media circles, but to educational institutions, as well. Political correctness makes people stupid, said Elizabeth Kantor of The Boston Globe.
After interviewing 14,000 undergraduates at 50 colleges across the country, researchers from the University of Connecticut have determined that “seniors actually know less about American history and government than entering freshmen.” That’s because they spend four years with professors who no longer teach them English literature, the classics, or any of the other pillars of Western civilization, Kantor claimed. If modern college students study “dead white men” such as Homer, Lincoln, and Shakespeare at all, it’s to expose and condemn their patriarchal oppression, racism, and imperialism, she added.
A new book by University of Pennsylvania professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, for example, attacks “Macbeth” for promoting “the domestication of women.” Not a word about the beauty of Shakespeare’s language, or his “peerless insights into human nature.” Ms Kantor adds that colleges now prefer to give courses in comic books, “queer theory,” pornography, or Erica Jong. These days, we tend to easily reject a reading material, film craft, or musical effort—if they do not conform with our political beliefs or sexual orientation. Forget about good writing... Or, well, “good writing,” I guess, has to be politically-correct. Then, again we have to define what “political-correctness” is.
One other very significant and powerful “self-censorship” is done in historical circles. Until now, the world recognizes a hero that “colonizers” imposed in a “colonized” culture’s mindset. University scholars and history researchers in respected educational institutions recognize, for instance, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo as THE hero in the Philippine-American War. Volumes of documents obtained by the University of the Philippines’ cultural anthropology department contend otherwise.
Aguinaldo, who ordered the execution of revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio, “represented” the Filipino people in selling (or “ceding”) the islands to the US for a mere $20 million under a Treaty of Peace between the United States and Spain on December 10, 1898. Bonifacio and his brother Procopio were slain by Aguinaldo’s men because they objected to the treaty that were forged following the defeat of Spain by the US in the “mock” Battle of Manila Bay.
I don’t think that “censorship” of historical records will ever be corrected, at all, though. Day after day, the so-called media cover political and cultural upheavals all over the world—and fed to the unsuspecting public like tobacco or paracetamol. Over and over again... After all the hundreds of TV hours that major networks spent on Anna Nicole Smith, we may never know the “truth” behind her untimely death. What we get are the sweetened fillings and deodorized morsels that litter the periphery of her glamourized ruin. Or how one souvenir photograph by Joe Rosenthal—iconized as the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima—could alter or blur valuable pages in World War II history.
Most of the time, it only takes common sense to find out why “censorship” of the truth continues to exist unabated. In my novel, “Waiting for Winter,” I touched several significant events that took place in the Philippines from 1980 to 1992 that I wasn’t able to fully explore because of “state censorship” and my own, admitted “withholding of facts” because these could put the so-called revolutionaries in a bad light. Still, I was called a “revolutionary journalist” by my peers back home.

AH, DAMN, I talk too much, don’t I? I was just going to rant about “Hoohah” when all these just came out of my head. As if you don’t already know about all these that I just babbled about...
Oh well, this is the pleasure of self-publishing, I guess. I can always write and write and write—as long as it’s within the legal boundaries of whatever I am wading on. I don’t even know... I may get a letter from Immigration one of these days for being too “political, radical”? Or my purportedly quiet benefactors may cut their contributions to this madness—because I just printed a “politically-incorrect” story? I don’t know. Freedom in America is still very beautiful and glorious to me—such a gift. This, coming from a survivor of a regime that shoots down, literally, a hardheaded fool who dare question an “official” pronouncement from the hallowed halls of power.
I really don’t know. Tell me if I am pushing my acquired freedom too far. All I know is I am writing, and it’s cool. I am safe... Am I? You see, my subject isn’t even about a vagina.


Bad News, Good News

“When a dog bites a man, that is not news... but when a man bites a dog, that is news.” My Journalism 101 professor of three decades ago declared, pushing her eyeglasses up snug the bridge of her ridiculously humungous nose, like she’d just concluded a malevolent oration of “The Gettysburg Address.” Then, as she tried to repeat it, making sure that we, clueless little souls, may not forget, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news... but when a man...” I interrupted, “Madam!” She eyed me with piercing suspicion that burns the flesh like coal, a-la Judge Judy, “What, Mr Pascua?” I cleared my throat and, with a super-confident girth that is only, usually attributed to either Beavis or Butthead, I asked, “What if a man eats a dog, is that news, Madam?” (Well, what do I expect, I got kicked out of the classroom again... what else’s new?)
But, hey, that was the good ole days when NEWS meant Watergate and “Nine Dead in Ohio!” or “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” The days before supermarket tabloid juice becomes front page banner, before a trio of macho losers fighting over millions that could be squeezed out of the corpse of one Anna Nicole Smith becomes the most “important” news of the month, before countdown of wartime body bags becomes a most numbing prozac pill against a sorry generation of utter disconnect, before news got swallowed and devoured by reality-tv escapism.
News... until now, many years since I kind of hanged up my gloves (or newsroom typewriter?), the mystery behind that insatiable thirst for a story that’s unique, uncommon, weird, shocking, revolting — remains dark and cold, unexplainable and distant. Or, in the context of the present times, ridiculously strange.

LIKE AN obedient soldier who gallantly went to war in pursuit of something that I can’t really define or physicalize, I headed out onto life and living’s open range littered with volatile substances such as society, government, politics, and pop culture – endlessly, tirelessly looking for my almighty scoop. But why? What’s up, what’s behind the story? “Damnit! You don’t justify your story. Just state the facts, that’s it!” My editor would roar from across the hallway as he mercilessly tossed my piece straight down into the dead-cold trashbin. Rejected again, I bit my lips like an orphan urchin who just lost his slice of leftover bread...
“When a man bites a dog...” I kept on repeating—day in, day out—so I may not forget. It evolved to be my little life’s “battle mantra.”
Until one summer’s weekend, in a tribal village up north of Manila, called Ifugao, I found my “man bites dog” story. I covered animist rituals of warriors and hunters who frantically sucked fresh blood oozing from wild canines’ bloody skulls as cure for respiratory ailments. In a way, I wondered out loud, that could pass as a “men biting dogs” story—true to my little hack reporter’s mission’s quest... Alas, though—the most that I could bargain for at the City Desk was page 16 of the Provincial Section, in tiny 8 almost unreadable font types. Ah!
Then one day, during a campaign trail by a wealthy society matron who was running for Governorship of a southern province, I got my front page story. But, ironically, it was a “dog bites man” story—but since it went with a bizarre twist, I thought, it could probably be a “good” piece of news. The “scoop”? A tiny, malnourished dog bit the magnificent butt of a bejeweled prima donna as she strode by a half-flooded barrio, wooing votes like a sequined vulture pecking ice cream icings amidst a mosquito-infested swampland. Her awestruck coterie of umbrella-hoisting alilas (nannies) and armalite-wielding alalays (bodyguards) didn’t see the coming of the irate dog as it lunged at the politica’s massive behind.
NEWS! Dog bites (wo)man. Front page.
And so it became clearer and clearer to me what “news” was all about... Three decades hence, the story remains the same.

THERE IS another angle to the “news” story though...
The surreal contradictions of news-gathering. The hunger for blood—splattered all over creasy note pads... echoes of tormented souls’ voices imprisoned in stacks and stacks of cassette tapes. Without the hellish stench and the gruesome ruin, news was bland... a reporter’s “day in the life.” We wanted more dark, more cold—without these, we were failures, like soldiers ready for war but there were no enemies at all. Boring.
Then somewhere, sometime—I covered the monstrous aftermath of a landslide that killed close to 5,000 villagers in the coastal city of Ormoc in the Philippines in 1991. Dead human flesh, rotting cavaders have caked with mud and rocks... words were insufficient to describe the horror. I had to gulp in two bottles of gin, threw up for almost two hours, before I could muster the energy and courage to file my story. Forget the “drama,” I just had to file a story.
Five thousand impoverished human beings got wasted. Illegal logging was the obvious culprit, hence illegal loggers—but the Governor of the province rejected that “theory.” That “fact” wasn’t going to get to newsroom. That wasn’t news enough to get the newspaper to live longer... That subtle deduction pierced like bullet to the head. “Men can always bite dogs”—but, this time out, we weren’t allowed to report, “Why.” Somehow, within and around the miserable journey of a journalist—a willing witness to life’s doom and dirt—I wanted to be a “superhero” and save humanity from further negotiating life’s road to ruin with just the quiet glory of a newspaper’s weekend edition. I had to fight to deliver that “news” that says “why”? By knowing “why dogs bite men,” we could probably fix the situation and live happily ever after.
Alas, life is no fairytale. I had/have to live with the dark side. Take it or leave it, do it or die.

TWO WEEKS before deadline, a chartered bus bound for Atlanta crashed, killing several high school baseball players from Boston. The aggrieved, tormented faces of the young survivors were flashed on national TV, for several minutes—over and over and over again. But we never get details of the story, “Why? What really happened? Why did the driver take that deadly turn?” We may never know, maybe we know, maybe the reporters knew—it’s just that the network gods don’t see any point in having us know why. Advertising sponsors want three hours more of Anna Nicole Smith’s soap opera... That “news” is sure to save more network hours, more advertising sponsorships—hence the news station lives longer.
There are times when we simply get so tired by what we hear. But then we can’t close our eyes—we live in this world, this is our life’s residential address, there’s no subway ride or American Airlines flight to Uranus or Jupiter yet.
There are people who don’t want to have TV, avoid media, and so they stay up in the perch of their “peaceful world,” musing “What do I see on TV, anyway? It’s all lies, it’s all bad news, it’s all bullshit. I’d like to protect myself from the evils of this world...” So they hide up there or down there and change their names to Starlight Dancer or Ocean Blue and then they utter “peace” and “love” to the wind and the rain, and then declare themselves The Immaculate Souls of Humanity.
But is that what life’s all about? It’s sad that the world is so bad sometimes, but this is our earth and we are living in it—with all its trials and tribulations, lies and stuff. Living a life is our gig, so it follows that we gotta know what’s going on with our little piece of existence to be able to breathe and carry on.
Watching the news is part of my role as a writer, as a human being—I can’t close my eyes and choose my reading materials, I can’t go out there and choose my company and then say, “I gotta write something, this is what I choose to write, only this!” What is there to write? The things that I don’t see or touch, or the spirits that inhabit my tortured soul? Who cares. The world at-large, wounded and wounding (not the “world inside my crude lump of brain tissues”) is the diesel and fire, hurricane and sunshine that make me get up, write, and rock `n roll. With that, I am alive as love and hate, joy and pain.

THE DAILY circulation of the Soviet newspaper Trud exceeded 21,500,000 in 1990, while the Soviet weekly Argumenty i fakty boasted the circulation of 33,500,000 in 1991. Meantime, Japan’s three daily papers —the Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun— have circulations well above 4 million. Germany’s Bild, with a circulation of 4.5 million, was the only other paper in that category. In the UK, The Sun is the top seller, with around 3.2 million copies distributed daily (late-2004).
In India, The Times of India is the largest English newspaper, with 2.14 million copies daily. According to the 2006 National Readership Study, the Dainik Jagran is the most-read, local-language (Hindi) newspaper, with 21.2 million readers. In the U.S., USA Today has a daily circulation of approximately 2 million, making it the most widely distributed paper in America.
Imagine all these volumes and volumes of paper that we writers consume to write our news. Does it matter whether the news is written via the internet or delivered by way of New York Times? If Internet is better, more environmentally-sensitive/politically-correct, then we can start counting the barrels and barrels of oil that we consume so we can have electric power to keep our Dells and IMacs “alive” 24 hours a day... Whatever we do, whatever we use to physicalize whatever we do, we consume them.
I digress...
The internet technology is a body of electronic bits and pieces that should offer a credible, truthful, and honest sets of information—in the same way do newspapers. Web-based publishing vs. traditional publishing, does it really matter?
Everybody seems to be more concerned with profit than news these days. In the past, newspapers have often been owned by so-called press barons, and were used either as a rich man’s toy, or a political tool. More recently in the United States, a greater number of newspapers (and all of the largest ones) are being run by large media corporations such as Gannett (the largest in the United States), The McClatchy Company, Cox, LandMark, Morris Corp., The Tribune Company, etc. Many industry watchers have “concerns” that the growing need for profit growth natural to corporations will have a negative impact on the overall quality of journalism. “Concerns”?
Let’s face it, despite these conjectures, news has become more entertainment, fodder to a numbed human psyche, nothing significant. We still chase the “man bites dog” story but after we’ve splashed that eerie rage in man’s fang burying deep down a “dog’s neck”... it’s all over. We don’t care. It’s entertainment. It’s better than Vicodin or bourbon, at least.

A LONG TIME ago, I dreamed about an Ernest Hemingway who covered the war as journalist and took home shrapnel wounds and morphine needles deep inside his mind, I amused myself with a Hunter S. Thompson who juggled BS and reportage like a stoned sorcerer... I have dreamed of covering Beirut, digging in bat caves in Peru, scrounging through brushes in Myanmar, hiking foothills in Tibet. I have dreamed of invading those seemingly private or forbidden rooms of humanity’s soul—via my pen and notepad. Until the dream got exhausted, and here I am just a beaten man.
A beaten man, still wondering why did the “man bit the dog.” What happened, really.
Ah, news! It seemed simple sometimes... Simple premise, like—what’s going on inside an average family’s house in America? I think we know why funk seeps through the failing winter heating... We have spent a total of $100.60 for every $100of our take-home-pay this past six months almost. That gives us an idea about what’s going on with national debt situation while the trillion-dollar war in Iraq rages. It seemed so easy to ask ourselves why, if only to console us that, yes, there is hope that change is gonna come. At least, we know.
At least we know that the value of annual production of marijuana in the US outclasses the country’s other cash crops. The total value of all the pot grown annually has been calculated to be just less than $36 billion—compared with $23 billion for corn, $18 billion for soybeans, and $12 billion for hay. This raw data gives us an idea how life flows and ebbs these days, these make us question, “Why? How come?” These valuable figments of truths that a grainy shot of Britney Spears’ hoohah at YouTube or Ms Smith’s boob-tube soap only blur and trivialize.
We want to know why a news becomes news—why a bus jumps out of the wrong Exit turn, why debt-ridden youths sign up for war tour of duty, why Nike factory jobs are all flown to Indonesia, why the “dog bit the man.”
Do you know? You tell me... Paris Hilton’s skinny butt has just been bitten by her Chihuahua? I bet, you wanna know more. Come on!


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