Writers and public intellectuals

Posted by LVTeodoro | Posted in Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 10-12-2012

WE ALL know who, or what, the writer is. He or she is a poet, a playwright, an essayist and/or a novelist. But he or she is also the writer of the editorials and columns, the investigative and explanatory reports that are among the many forms journalism has developed in discharging its public task of describing and interpreting the human environments and humanity itself. In the digital age, the writer is also the blogger who makes it his concern to gather and provide information on issues of citizen concern and to comment on them online.

Some argue that in the context of the “mainstream,” or more accurately, the dominant media’s inability to address  some of the most pressing concerns in a society and country that have been awaiting change for over a hundred years, in the category of writer we could perhaps also include even the habitual drafters of declarations, statements, and  manifestos, some of whom are also poets and essayists and aspiring novelists, anyway.

The writer is anyone who puts pen to paper—or encodes words on keyboard to monitor—to provide an audience information, ideas, analyses, or opinion—and who through poems and short stories, novels,  plays, and screenplays arms us with insights into the human condition. Inherent in what the writer does is engagement with the public, even if he or she almost always writes, not in isolation, but in seclusion.

On the other hand, the conventional image of the intellectual is that he or she is isolated in the ivory towers of academia. The image is the creation of societies hostile to the power of truth and knowledge to change the world. Unlike Filósofo Tacio, the intellectual cannot simply file away in some drawer what he has uncovered and understood, leaving it to the future to discover, without abdicating his or her responsibility in the making of that future, the foundations of which he can help construct in the present. The intellectual, like the writer, is necessarily public.


But of even more weight is the autonomy that helps assure the capacity to think and write independently of those interests, which in our time are most often political or economic, that can bind the writer to a predetermined agenda and compromise the basic responsibility of truth telling. In recognition of the imperative of the writer and the intellectual’s autonomy, the Philippine Constitution—a document drafted by writers and engaged thinkers—protects free expression, so important is independence and freedom to the writer’s mission.

But is the intellectual simply someone who survives through brain work rather than brawn—is he an intellectual for being an academic, accountant, or clerk?

Some 50 years ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills made a distinction between the intellectual worker and the intellectual on the basis of, among others, the degree of his or her independence. Corporations and governments employ armies of men and women upon whose brain power they depend, but these may be properly described as intellectual or brain  workers, said Mills. Intellectuals are those engaged in the necessary tasks of understanding nature and society as well as ourselves, and who, for that reason, must be free of the constraints of doing intellectual work for corporations and governments.

The intellectual, like the writer, is necessarily autonomous, not only because intellectual work in behalf of corporate and political interests would compel him to place his knowledge at the service of limited interests; he is also bound, in understanding the laws of motion of nature and society, to hurry change—the historical process—and authentic human development along. The writer as public intellectual is therefore independent of those institutions that have a stake in how they are perceived by the public. Involvement otherwise was less charitably described by Julien Benda in 1927 as La Traihson des Clercs—The Treason of the Clerks, or, as more loosely translated, The Treason of the Intellectuals.

Noam Chomsky describes the responsibilities of the intellectual as speaking the truth and exposing lies—responsibilities that in the Philippine setting, where lies are often mistaken for the truth, and the truth, because too disturbing, is made to seem like a lie, are particularly relevant. But the intellectual speaks the truth and exposes lies—to the end, we should add, of interpreting the world towards changing it. To achieve that end he must engage his fellow human beings through speaking and writing.

Intellectuals and journalism

Despite—or perhaps because of—the digital age, despite or because of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, journalism remains the most available means for the intellectual to reach his or her fellow humans. Many “creative writers” (a phrase our first National Artist, Nick Joaquin, disdained) discovered that truth in the turbulent sixties, when, confronted by the rapid march of events, from fiction and poetry they also went into the writing of magazine articles—into journalism—to help an entire generation make sense of often confusing events.

But the company they joined, those writers who are neither poets nor novelists and “only journalists,” are too often denied the distinction of being included in the August company called writers, the products of their craft being thought to be too ephemeral, too bound by time, and in some if not most cases, constricted as well by the interests, whether political or corporate, of the media organizations they write for.

Journalism is truly writing by the numbers, that virtue, if virtue it indeed be, being driven primarily by the need for information gathering skills. But journalism can be more than information gathering, as many journalists, among them Nick Joaquin, have demonstrated. The journalist who guards and fights for his independence and who is more than a gatherer of information can also be a great writer, if, as Joaquin warned, he approached every article as if it involved the parting of the Red Sea or the splitting of the atom.

Engagement with the public is a choice that in our time is forced upon writers and intellectuals everywhere. Not all intellectuals can be novelists, but every intellectual has to be a writer. Communication with the public in the here and now through whatever means he or she chooses, whether through poetry, the essay, or the novel, or whether through manifestos and statements, or through op-ed pieces and analyses, is inherent in the life of the intellectual.

The perils of engagement

Journalism is the one vehicle that in the Philippine tradition has most quickly lent itself to the need of the intellectual for public engagement. But the Philippine experience has demonstrated again and again that public engagement can be extremely perilous for both writer and intellectual. The perils are not limited to dying in poverty under alien skies like Graciano Lopez Jaena, or execution through musketry like Rizal. During the martial law period, hundreds of writers were arrested and detained, and others killed in demonstration of how driven by violence is the authoritarian fear that information and insight are values too dangerous to tolerate in those who hold them.

Emman Lacaba was slain without the benefit of charge or trial for joining the army of the poor, departing thus from the conventional path of  middle class ease and the Bohemian excess usually—and mistakenly—associated with writers. The poet Lorena Barros was similarly executed—the exquisitely ironic term devised by the military is “salvaged”—while hundreds of intellectuals in academia and outside were arrested, others were made to disappear never to be seen or heard of again, or thrown into prison, as some of those present today were.

The country is no longer under martial rule. But today the journalist and poet Ericson Acosta is still in prison, sharing the fate of others in other countries where dictators rule.

And since 1986, 128 men and women who were “just journalists” have been killed despite the Constitutional protection that supposedly shields free expression. Gerry Ortega was killed for his environmental advocacy, while Marlene Esperat was in 2005 slain before her children for writing about the use of fertilizer funds in the elections of 2004. Although the Ampatuan town Massacre,  the worst attack ever on journalists—many of them writers of news reports, columns, editorials  and commentaries—and media workers took place in this country in 2009, that has not stopped the killings, which have continued since, eleven having been murdered since a new administration came to power in 2010.

Apart from the obvious failings of the Philippine State, the killings and the harassment of journalists including through such legislative initiatives as the Cybercrime Prevention Act continue because journalists, of all writers, have apparently been the most effective in providing the information and analysis that constitute the pieces out of which the larger picture, the mosaic, as it were, of what Philippine society is like is constructed in the public consciousness. That these pieces have often been focused on corruption and the misuse of power has been the primary reason why the killings and harassments are continuing. The abuse and misuse of power is the prime creator and sustainer of the kind of society that has developed in this vale of tears, which, as a consequence, defines, limits and shapes the human condition.

The crisis of poverty, injustice, and mass misery, for which the wealthy and powerful are often, and in most cases, justly, blamed, has thrust upon the country’s writers, whether  journalist, poet, fictionist, dramatist, or screenwriter, the responsibility of examining and making sense of what’s happening in the Philippines and to Filipinos.

Among journalists some have been more successful than others, and many have succumbed to the blandishments of wealth and power, serving as the spokespersons of local tyrants, business interests, criminal syndicates, the military and/or the police. But public intellectuals have nevertheless emerged among journalists despite the chaos in the communities, where warlordism and corruption, environmental degradation and human rights violations are most pronounced and occurring in the larger context of  the poverty and injustice that for centuries have afflicted that portion of humanity we know as Filipinos. These public intellectuals and writers have armed themselves, a out of  sheer necessity, with a coherent theoretical framework with which they examine and report events in behalf of the fundamental need to understand the roots of human misery.

Many are in military Orders of Battle and almost regularly receive death threats as the reward for their work. They write with the constant possibility of being ambushed and slain, in courageous affirmation of that commitment to “speaking the truth and exposing lies” Noam Chomsky declares is the intellectual’s responsibility, interpreting the Philippine world to their readers as  part of their contribution to the historic necessity to change it. In what is known as the alternative press, the same focus is as evident in the work of those who labor unrecognized but who have found among those Filipinos fighting for the change that for at least a century has eluded this land, the growing and appreciative audience that can do something about it.

Many journalists do manage to do their jobs despite death threats, libel suits, physical assaults, and the unresolved and unavenged killing of many of their fellows. As the majority sector of the writing community, the threats against journalists constitute a threat against the right to free expression all writers cherish.

Every writer and intellectual true to their calling can contribute, in these times of crisis, to the realization of that human need for coherence and understanding that can arm men and women with the consciousness and will to change the world. To interpret the world is to begin to transform it.


Excerpted and adapted from the author’s “Interpreting the World: the Writer as Public Intellectual” keynote address at the PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists) Philippine Chapter Conference, December 6-7, Cultural Center of the Philippines.