Where to, next?

This is a question posed by quite a few bloggers active in the effort to reverse the policy of imposing import duties on books.

La Nueva Liga Filipina has been the fiercest in insisting that the battle isn’t over yet, and that if political momentum has been generated, it must be sustained:

We now have the initiative. We have the enemy on the run. We must maintain the momentum and not let it go to waste. Guys, we have a good thing going here.

Entonces, I now recommend that we push on and now demand the resignations of Undesecretary Sales and Customs examiner Rene Agulan for embarrassing our country before the international community.

village idiot savant has a similar point of view:

Even its resolution calls for some pause. It looks and feels like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has struck a blow for book-lovers everywhere. Remember: it was her Secretary of Finance that imposed the tax in the first place, and being a cabinet position, it was, effectively, an extension of her office. If she caved, it was because it was an opportunity to look good, not to acknowledge the DoF’s and the BoC’s violation of the Florence Agreement. It cannot be properly called a victory without censure of these offices’ flawed interpretation of the law.

Both also say that it isn’t enough to identify problems, but that work needs to be done to propose solutions. He is not alone in pointing this out. 1ReAd2 says there remains the problem of public libraries:

There is still a need to develop other avenues by which everyone can avail of the book and one of this is develop our public library system. Promote and develop them.

Not everyone can afford to buy a book. Not everyone has a credit line to buy a book. This is where or this where a library, public or otherwise can fill the gap.

Or that returning to the status quo ante is not particularly something to cheer about, as My World describes it, lifting book duties will have an effect on prices that are still high:

A “really good (imported) book” in the Philippines, hard bound, excellent paper quality written by a noted author can command a price of upwards 2000 pesos. The paperback edition of such book with nice paper quality sells at around Php1500 to Php2000. A “good book” (one in which the author is not that popular) with a nice paper quality typically sells around Php1000 – 1500. Between Php800 – Php1000 are the “downsized” version of a typically good book or the so – called mass paperback copies. Below Php500 are books whose printed pages are of newsprint quality. By comparison, in China, a paperback edition book with nice paper quality costs around Php300 – 400 (converted already) tops. As a matter of fact, last December, during my vacation in China, I’ve bought 7 books for 341 RMB or roughly Php2500 total. Imagine 7 books for the price of 2 or maybe even 1 bought in the Philippines (the books I’ve bought in China are scholarly works on Chinese History). Now that is expensive. It is due to this high price of books that book buying and collecting is fast becoming an expensive “hobby” of the “well-to-do”. A “financially struggling” individual can’t “afford” to read and collect books even if he loves books. It is for this reason that an imposition of a few percentage points of custom duties on the cost of books would only make books more expensive and the matter worse. However, it won’t be that bad if we have a “functioning” public library system instead of a pathetic one that we have now.

School Librarian in Action noticed the lack of engagement by librarians, as organized professionals, in the issue, but takes a positive attitude:

I’d like to think that most Filipino librarians are battling their own professional issues and problems that to make a noise on the TGBB is just too much to do for now. I would like to think that somewhere out there, Filipino Librarians are quietly transforming their libraries into places where the public can freely access information from printed and online media.

Philippine Commentary would be somewhat pleased with the above, because in his view, the call of the times is to hasten the demise of the book and to encourage, instead, the consumption of books as digital files.

Indeed it seems to me that the healthy thing about online advocacy is that it helps cure -or remedies- a basic weakness of public causes and those involved in them, which is, the disinclination of many participants to take stock of what took place, so that lessons, hopefully, can be identified, learned, and institutionalized.

There seems to be a lot of angst in that the supposedly successful resolution of the whole campaign has revealed it to be a primarily Middle Class cause. As Cocoy put it in Filipino Voices:

Victory is sweet. Who would have thought we could change Government’s mind?

The sad part of it, as much of our people care more about Kho’s, Belo’s and Halili’s sex life. We won this victory without 95% of our people understanding why it was fought in the first place and why this is important. We fought this battle largely without network television and hardly any support from the daily newspapers. Heck, I don’t think they know it was fought at all.

The frightening and dangerous thought is that if this was won largely without popular support, in the next engagement, should we bother getting them onboard? That to build this nation, do we still need them? Are they immaterial to the larger war? Dangerous question, correct?

People saw the book blockade, this war on book taxes and duties as a war of the elite. How many people who joined this crusade who are actually multimillionaires but instead are ordinary people, living ordinary lives who love books?

Now there were those who were ambivalent about the issue from the very start, because of its bourgeois characteristics or, to be more accurate about it, at first blush (it seemed to me, anyway) because of their disdain for anything smacking of the bourgeoisie. This was clearly expressed in stuart-santiago and by caffeine_sparks in Filipino Voices (though she clarifies, in response to this entry, that she most definitely does not have an automatic disdain for things bourgeois), but the answer may be in another portion of the same entry by sparks:

“Did you see who carted away the books first?” I murmured a negative, having come a bit late. He motioned his head to the inhabitants of the Manila Bay area, skin darkened from sleeping underneath the naked sky. To be clear I said, “You mean the Great Unwashed carted most of the books away?” In a conspiratorial way only journalists would ever be able to manage, he murmured an affirmative. “You see, we the so-called enlightened ones like to assume the hoi polloi would never care for books. But right there, before my eyes, was proof that isn’t true.” Indeed. The printed word is a luxury for many. In our little enclaves we tend to forget the great privilege of being able to make sense of letters strung together. What jewels they must be for those whose precious monies must be spent on not starving.

Now this may or may not suggest by even the Divided Left had both its main branches speaking out against the book duties, but was it out of genuine concern for issue, or a desire to pander to the Middle Class, a manifestation of United Front politics? Nonetheless, Stuart-Santiago’s, caffeine_sparks’ point of view was also echoed by The Zeppelin’s Mezzanine:

But I just can’t help but wonder. If the power of the Internet-driven Pinoy community was that great, it’s a wonder people haven’t tried to levy for a decrease in gasoline prices via Facebook. Or they hadn’t called for the exposition of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo by Twitter. Heck, it’s actually a wonder that there aren’t any online petitions calling to end Jejomar Binay’s plans to run in the 2010 elections.

See what I’m talking about? The curious variable in this whole mess was that the only reason these guys went to the streets – er, what’s the Internet equivalent? — was because it involved something they held to be important. This only serves to point out the old adage of infernal dynamics: The energy required to move an object in the correct direction, or put it in the right place, will be more than you wish to expend but not so much as to make the task impossible.

Meaning people will only move when they think the cause is worth their while. But as to what my own demographic considers important, well. You could say that that’s a whole new ball game.

Personally, I believe our civic sense to have become so thoroughly enfeebled, that any small victory -and the victory, perhaps small though it may be and possibly even temporary, becomes a large one, if only because there have been so few instances where domestic public opinion actually led to official action and someone in officialdom relenting- is worthy of celebration in and of itself.

Also, surely it’s also worth considering the perspective that Middle Class empowerment is a good thing, and a necessary thing, if politics is to be about the national community and not just a winner-take-all battle between its constituent parts. If there is to be pluralism and not just triumphalism on the part of segments of the population, then the entire apparatus has to be seen as responsive to a Middle Class that has been so enfeebled, politically, as to have boycotted the country by voting with its feet and pursued permanent emigration abroad.

Now on to something else that Cocoy thinks, which is that,

This battle was won largely because the diverse group used cyberspace to get our message across. We were heard in the halls of the US Embassy. We were heard in twitter and facebook. We were heard in the UN. And those entities helped put in pressure on our government who would normally wait for the storm to pass.

The Internet isn’t just a delivery mechanism for sex scandals. It is a delivery mechanism to help change the world.

Perhaps a bit premature, methinks, and a tad colonial-minded in that “we were heard in the halls of the US Embassy” seems to be perceived as an achievement in itself. We do not know, and there seems no reason to think, the US Embassy lifted a finger in terms of this issue; although it is remarkable that the Americans -or, to be precise, an American in the embassy staff- told David Hemley that the issue made them reconsider their previous low opinion of the effectiveness of the Internet when it comes to mobilizing people.

I do believe that the the Internet made possible the story’s emergence in the first place. David Hemley -an American, one less inclined to take official impositions sitting down, which is what Filipino book importers were inclined to do- wrote about it online.

His story was tremendously easy to reproduce, because of that; and a constituency was revealed because of that story. More remarkably still, the story was enriched because of the initiative of blogs like Philippine Genre Stories that didn’t just take Hemley’s word at face value, but dug around deeper. The online buzz forced at least a token nod in the direction of all the online agitation going on, on the part of mainstream media, though I personally suspect mainstream media viewed the issue with ambivalence because it tends to view most things through the same Class Struggle lenses that made some bloggers ambivalent about the issue, too.

Anyway, if the story would not have otherwise emerged, if not for the internet; if the story wouldn’t have spread, without the internet; if the internet made possible people not only expressing personal indignation, but discovering they didn’t exist in impotent isolation, but actually formed a constituency, then the view of Cocoy is valid.

But I’d like to point out one shortcoming, and that’s of official perception and even, of what gets officials to act. In a sense, even as online media and organizing proved its clout with this issue, it also demonstrated the residual power of the traditional print media: if only because the ferocity of print commentary kept the issue from being totally shrugged off by both print reporters and radio and TV media.

I must say though, that I’m on shaky ground on this one, as I might simply be seeing this through the self-satisfied eyes of a print opinion writer. Though I was told that it was the direct challenges to UNACOM that prodded it into hastening the release of its statement, which the Department of Finance never wanted released at all.

There are officials, though, who are surely of the impression that the whole issue had nothing to do with the internet, or put another way, that the internet was irrelevant in the resolution of the issue. What resolved it was media noise, which gave one faction within the President’s official family, the nerve to challenge another; but that in the end it was a matter of getting the President’s ear, and her stepping in to stop the official squabbling.

But be that as it may, perhaps the celebrations and soul-searching are premature. See Gov’t urged to totally scrap tariffs on imported books in BusinessWorld. As The Grin Without A Cat says, vigilance!

Manuel L. Quezon III.

28 thoughts on “Where to, next?

  1. I think the deeper, more permanent goal of the Florence Agreement can be stated in a “technology-independent” form: that the Nations of the Earth agree not to impose taxes and duties on the MEDIUM through which the MESSAGES of human knowledge are distributed and transmitted. In 1950 that happened to be books printed on paper. But in the 21st Century this principle of promoting the freest expression and spread of human knowledge ought to be applied to the dominant channels of information presently employed by humanity. That isn’t primarily books anymore.

    We are adding 2 million new school age kids annually. No matter how honest and uncorrupt the government becomes, no matter how much priority we give the education budget, printed paper books are not a viable solution to provisioning their needs for textbooks and current information, from an ecological, economical and technological standpoint.

    The Great Book Blockade of 2009 represents a terrible thing. But the Great Digital Divide is much worse, and the Philippines must not slip into the wrong side of that divide.

    Taxation and fiscal and budgetary policy are the highest expression of a people’s aspirations because that is where they put their money where their mouth is.

  2. BrianB,
    I didn’t know we had so many “moral” leaders/individuals here in the Philippines. We should be so lucky! So many people coming out pushing for “moral” reforms, places like Bohol affirming their “religiosity” and moral standing “immoral people keep away!” I wonder where these moralists were when Bohol scandal videos came out earlier?

  3. Cocoy’s words are worth thinking about again:
    “The frightening and dangerous thought is that if this was won largely without popular support, in the next engagement, should we bother getting them onboard? That to build this nation, do we still need them? Are they immaterial to the larger war? Dangerous question, correct?”

    Of course, the answer is it depends. One can expect some participation from the classes C-D-E only if the next skirmish will be on an issue that they care about. Like, one would hope, the next 2010-Vice-President.

  4. The victory is only temporary but certainly last for a while. DOF even refused to monetize the loss of 5% custom duties. The noise and the pressure are both within, but the policy shift is clearly the result from the outside. The government policy on duties is unsustainable when it has just joined the UNESCO Executive Board in 2007 after 60 years of membership. UNESCO senior legal officer cited Philippines in breach of Florence agreement on duty free materials enjoyed by other state members. The government can revert to its previous policy when it is no longer in UNESCO Executive Board.

  5. Where to, next?

    Filipinos don’t know the Bill of Rights. Maybe an episode of The Explainer about the Bill of Rights can correct it. Put it on Youtube and send the link to everyone. Sending school libraries dvd copies of that episode would also help.

  6. The Palace again exploited its reversal policy by announcing that removing the duties is to make the books affordable to the common man and to foster intellectual formation.

    Silent is the government anti-poor policy in the past of depriving the Filipinos of duty free books despite being signatory of the Florence Agreement.

  7. The poor carted away the books to use them as fuel to make fire in their earthen stoves.

  8. Books are an elite concern because only the elite can afford them any more. It is the CDE classes who do not need the brave internet warriors, not the other way around — until they all must defend the paramount Right to Text!

  9. This is a welcome development. So the government can and will change its position on important issues given the right approach? All is not lost after all…

  10. “BrianB on Wed, 27th May 2009 6:59 pm: How the heck could you ban a fellow Filipino from any part of his own country.”

    This is a can of worms inside a pandora’s box discussion that we shouldn’t pry open because it will end in futile angst-filled ethnic piss contest and pointless debate about the existential nature or our republic.

    By the way, I ban all of you from entering Pampanga unless you recognize Lito Lapid as the greatest action hero this nation has ever produced.

  11. I am not entirely sold at the idea of the quip taken from [/b]My World[/b].

    Although brand-new books are exorbitantly expensive in the country, second-hand books (from romance novels to college texts to literary masterpieces) are affordable and can easily be bought along the dim-lit corners along Recto to the posh and air-conditioned halls of Trinoma (or any mall). They may not carry the lovely smell from a crispy page of a brand-new book, the ideas contain therein is far more valuable. Hehe all of my books are second-hand, except those which were given to me as gifts.

    The sad thing is, a huge chunk of the populace is not entirely enamored with book-reading, hence the limited circulation of important books available for second-hand reading.

    Perhaps the DOF-BOC decision was borne out of the pressure to improve tax-collection and saw the huge cash potential that taxing entertainment books have. I dont know, I just have this hunch that this measure was poorly thought by staff in the DOF, maybe one of the myriads of suggestions that they thought were ‘seemingly small’ things that may be tapped to improve revenue.

    But anything that puts a penalty on the encouragement of book-reading, whether its in the form of entertainment(which comprise the bulk of all commercially-sold books in the country; textbooks are a given) is just, well, stupid.

    @ the cyberspace-factor:

    I do not see the internet as the MEDIUM that brought the protest to the Government’s doorstep but rather the AVENUE by which those concerned were able to communicate with each other and consolidate their individual efforts into a powerful lobby that have influenced and fortified the opinion of those who are in the position to suggest changes.

    Gratzis on the victory!

  12. Hi, Manolo. First of all, happy birthday! Second, thank you very much for the most generous billing. It blew me away and I really appreciated it.

    I’m also very glad that there are others who share my concern. To all of you, thank you. I’ll be knocking on your doors from time to time to ask for your help in my reform advocacy (wwww.lanuevaligafilipina.wordpress.com). Take care ya’ll.


  13. I don’t know what to do to make sure our ‘victory’ becomes permanent. All I know is the feeling I felt when I gave away books to those people. It felt amazing, like I know that I’m making a difference in my little way. I’ll continue to fight a rearguard action against illiteracy by sharing books, encouraging more and more of people I know to read even just a little. It’s a hard struggle but we have to start somewhere right?

  14. taxing book importation is not stupid, it’s actually quite brilliant from the pov of a government wanting to keep its citizens ignorant. yes, maybe they do want to discourage reading, anyone thought about that? (not as if Filipinos need any help in decreasing their literacy rate)

    anywhoo, anyone who loves to read will find ways to read books the inexpensive way. we still have public libraries in our country (though highly underfunded and under stocked) incidentally, if you want to help, you can donate books you don’t use anymore to public libraries.

    for those on the hunt for cheap books, there’s booksale. i find books here generally cheaper by about 50-70% compared to books sold in NBS or powerbooks. and if you really scour the entire branch, you can find great buys; like hard to find books which are sold for only 30 pesos (maybe booksale doesn’t know its true value, lol)

    i think more than anything, what we need is a gigantic campaign to translate all the great books of the foreign world into tagalog and even down to local dialects. and have those translations published in massive quantities and distributed to schools and libraries nationwide (and posted on the web)

    i’d sure like to read Shakespeare or the Iliad in Tagalog or even Bikol.

  15. Yeah, only stupid douches like to read brand new, shiny books (on the beach, in cafes) and collect them to show off to friends (like that ugly bitch Jessica Zafra who has substituted penis interaction with hardbound paper).

    Me? Meh. I borrow from friends, read them in bookstores, illegally download ebooks, print them (in our office using company ink and paper).

    I spent zilch on books. The money I save from not being ripped off from publishers I spend on more important stuff, like food, vacation, my condominium mortgage, clothes, etc. With spiralling inflation you have to scrape whatever you can.

    So I’m really disappointed this tax was or will be stopped. Now the cash-strapped government has to find revenue sources to subsidize our corrupt politicians and millions of poor countrymen.

    Hopefully, they tax stuff I don’t consume/invest in/are sources of my income.

  16. Oh yes they are. But I’m happy they are coz it saves me money.

    We all can’t be penny-pinching savers. Some, well most, of us have to be zombie consumerists. The few intelligent ones, like moi,-savers, thrifters, investors, are the beneficiaries of people like my friends who buy stuff.

    I’m so disappointed this tax law will be suspended. Someone has to take the slack. I hope it’s smokers. Tax those fucking cigarettes. They should just legalize prostitution and whore fuckers.

  17. They could also legalize and tax marijuana. I’m a weed phreak. But I think legalizing it will ultimately drive down the price. At the moment, growers are playing a cat and mouse game with the military and police when they burn down those fields in the Cordis. It’s not cost efficient, which translates to higher price for weed.

    If Lucio Tan will be allowed to grow Marijuana fields in Ilocos and La Union, economies of scale can be achieved. Call it Fortune Marijuana (pack it in sticks of 20 like cigarettes). Sell it for 200 pesos per pack. Government gets 50 bucks per kaha. Users get to smoke guilt free. And they’ll helping fill our government coffers too!

  18. Suggest you do a show on legalizing marijuana on the Explainer. I could be your guest, and slug it out with that DJB (I think he might be anti-weed). Toss in a bishop too to represent the church. It’ll be a great show.

    Give me a call.

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