The Long View
The perils of loyal opposition
Every appeal to government for redress of grievances is a loyal appeal, a humble appeal. So far, this has been how most people infuriated by the Department of Finance’s imposition of customs duties on books have approached the issue. But Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., in a recent conversation, pointed out that bombarding officialdom with petitions would do no good because the amor propio of officials is already at stake.
Although not everyone in officialdom is dismissive of public opinion. And while the UNESCO Philippine Commission still seems to be (spectacularly) AWOL on the issue, there have been officials aplenty who’ve expressed concern and outright opposition to the DOF’s scheme. Foremost among them is the National Book Development Board, whose chairman, Dennis Gonzalez, has forcefully, and eloquently, spoken up against the book tax.
Gang Badoy tells me that Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo has also expressed interest in the case, and I can only assume he is attempting to do something in his quiet and smooth manner.
Locsin himself is banking on his being in good odor with the Palace and assumes President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will favorably consider his loyal appeal for her to restore the status quo ante.
Still, he is enough of a pragmatic politician to recognize that unless the President can be convinced public opinion has been aroused, there will be little incentive for her to reverse the DOF’s mutation – and mutilation – of the law. He believes the issue must sizzle for a few more weeks if there’s to be any hope of presidential action. And the sizzling must take place in the media.
Which means a lot still has to be done.
Columnists have come out swinging and the roll of honor includes the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s own Amando Doronila and Conrado de Quiros, Jullie Daza in the Bulletin, Jarius Bondoc and Jessica Zafra in Philippine Star, Jojo Robles in Manila Standard Today, Libay Linsangan Cantor in Sunday Times, and Elfren Cruz in BusinessWorld. The nation’s leading weekly news magazines, The Philippines Free Press and the Graphic have called attention to the issue. Louie Jon Sanchez, in particular, reported on the efforts of Bicolano novelist Abdon Balde, and educators like Dr. Elizabeth Morales-Nuncio, to spread awareness of the issue.
This newspaper, in an editorial, has come out strongly against book importation duties; but its news side has basically chosen to ignore the issue. Only the Philippine Star has undertaken fairly sustained news coverage, followed by Business Mirror. There has been a smattering of coverage on radio talk shows (radio jock Mojo on 89.9), and a rare report or two on the evening news (24 Oras), but that’s it.
Writers are up in arms; educators are up in arms; librarians are upset, citizens in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao are outraged. Still, public opinion, so far, has mostly been ventilated on line, which is both a blessing and a bane. A blessing because people have found ways to organize themselves, primarily to express common feelings of indignation; but also a bane in that it’s proving difficult to figure out what to do. Or what can be done.
A good way to achieve a consensus in this regard is to join RockEd’s Sunday activity at the Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard, from 3 p.m. to sundown. Booklovers are asked to bring 3-5 books they’d like to swap or give away, as an act of solidarity with fellow booklovers. Perhaps this will also provide a venue for discussing, and committing to, future courses of action, such as asking for a rally permit on the steps of the DOF.
If the President won’t act, then what? Litigation will be the only path to pursue. Litigation is precisely what DOF is hoping, because it will allow them to continue collecting duties on books while tying things up in court.
A Filipino writer overseas believes that if officialdom’s petty amor propio has committed it to defying public opinion, the public on the other hand, must view failure in this issue as not an option. “Winning this battle is not just a victory for the middle class literati, but has a lot to do with proving that social networking and new media is not toothless when it comes to ‘real world’ movements,” he said.
Neither does the writer seem inclined to support proposals to fight DOF’s illegal behavior by guerrilla book-peddling: “Circumventing rather than battling the customs taxation is only going to perpetuate the practice; I would even say that the problem stems in large part to booksellers willing to capitulate to negotiations [when the real question is] should the booksellers be taxed because they are making money? No, because it is illegal to do so. And for every copy of ‘Twilight’ they sell they also provide the availability of reference material for engineers …”
At the heart of the officialdom’s inflexibility is the dangerous distinction it believes it is entitled to make “between good books and bad books, between books that are useful and books that make money. Making distinctions like that is what eventually leads to book burning.”
A blogger has identified a different path of resistance altogether: for the citizenry to wield the power of the purse by refusing to buy any book that has been subjected to book importation duties. Locsin says booksellers have declined to take the lead on this issue because it would “appear self-serving,” which seems a cop-out. Everyone is in it, together, on this one: and the blogger’s proposal zeroes in on the disinclination of booksellers to join readers for whatever reason (which includes an understandable disinclination to invite retaliatory Customs and BIR “inspections”).
It hasn’t come to that, yet; but it may. So let’s start by seeing each other on Sunday; and please write to your favorite media outlet to demand coverage of this issue.