NewsfeaturesTHE WRITER AS PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL

THE WRITER AS PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL

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By Elmer A. Ordoñez
The Manila Times.net
Published on 11 August 2012

Prof. Elmer Ordoñez: Undoubtedly, Jose Maria Sison’s Struggle for National Democracy (1967), a collection of speeches / lectures (including one delivered at the Philippine Military Academy) and Philippine Society and Revolution, 1970, had made him, according to Teodoro Agoncillo, one of the three most influential revolutionary leaders, after Andres Bonifacio and Crisanto Evangelista.

The Philippine PEN will have “The Writer as Public Intellectual” as the theme for its conference in December this year.

A definition of terms is expected at the gathering of writers who come from various disciplines or backgrounds. PEN was founded in the ‘20s by literary people like poets, essayists, and novelists. The acronym stands for these three genres they represented but there were also playwrights so PEN membership is not that limited. For one, the essay form is an open field and journalists, academics, editors and others have become members. Evidence of publication is routinely asked from prospective members.

The notion of public intellectual has to be established. Who is a public intellectual? Alan Lightman, a physics professor at Harvard, said that he was inspired by Carl Sagan at Cornell, and began to write popular articles about science in magazines. Many other scientists have gone beyond the cloistered academic life and made their ideas known to the public at large.

Lightman cites Ralph Waldo Emerson whose Phi Beta Kappa lecture on “The American Scholar” which defines the intellectual as one who is not bound by books but communicates his ideas to the world and not just to fellow intellectuals. Emerson’s intellectual is also a man of action.

MIT’s linguistics professor Noam Chomsky (who topped a recent poll of public intellectuals) has written as an activist for civil rights, against the US’s imperialist wars, and for human freedom around the world. The political tone is also noted by Lightman in Edward Said, Susan Sontag, and John Updike among others who had written for various causes through mass media.

Edward Said, a Columbia professor of literature (and a Joseph Conrad authority), noted that the public intellectual’s mission was to advance human freedom and knowledge. He was active in the Palestinian cause.

Pre-war Filipino writers who were public intellectuals mostly came from literary background, i.e. they majored in English or literature like Fred Mangahas, Jose Lansang, Salvador Lopez who regularly wrote columns or editorials for broadsheets with a distinct thrust or desire for social justice and reform. They were considered left-leaning. Besides the broadsheets (e.g. Tribune and Herald) they wrote for the National Review that twitted the dictatorial tendencies in the Commonwealth administration.

In the US their contemporaries were the New York-based intellectuals like Walter Lippmann, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, and Max Eastman who wrote not only for mainstream journals but also for little magazines like New Masses and Partisan Review.

After the war, Lansang continued his progressive writing in the Philippines Herald and other publications while Mangahas and Lopez joined the government. Lopez became president of the University of the Philippines while Mangahas became vice president of Silliman University. Lansang later joined Lyceum as dean of journalism and influenced young intellectuals like Jose Maria Sison and Satur Ocampo.

Sen. Claro M. Recto, who wrote poems and plays in Spanish, was a leading public intellectual inspiring the Second Propaganda Movement among the young. His UP commencement address in 1951 “Our Mendicant Foreign Policy” had become a touchstone for the student radical movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Renato Constantino, pre-war Collegian editor, worked closely with Recto in developing a nationalist and anti-imperialist consciousness. His essays were put together in Dissent and Counter-Consciousness and history books like Our Past Revisited. Angel Baking, a geodetic engineer and former Collegian editor, was sought after as a speaker in student conferences after his release from prison as a former politburo member. “Revolution, Anyone?” had become an iconic speech among activists for national democracy.

Undoubtedly, Jose Maria Sison’s Struggle for National Democracy (1967), a collection of speeches / lectures (including one delivered at the Philippine Military Academy) and Philippine Society and Revolution, 1970, had made him, according to Teodoro Agoncillo, one of the three most influential revolutionary leaders, after Andres Bonifacio and Crisanto Evangelista.

What about public intellectuals of the conservative or “reactionary mind.” Historically there were Edmund Burke who wrote against the French Revolution and Matthew Arnold whose “Cultural and Anarchy” was a plea for the “great tradition” as social stabilizer. F. R. Leavis adopted the “great tradition” for the title of his book which dominated critical thinking in literature until Raymond Williams (cf. Marxism and Literature) came around and influenced new left critics like Terry Eagleton (cf. The Function of Criticism).

William Buckley was regarded as an able defender of conservative values to a point that Gore Vidal in a talk show called him a “crypto-Nazi” whereupon Buckley retorted, “Don’t call me that, you faggot.” One must admit that Buckley (when not provoked) can engage the reader for the elegance of his writing. Gore Vidal who died recently at 89 is an example of the literary intellectual who commented on culture, politics, and the genocidal wars waged by the US in the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq.

During the Cold War the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom sought to counter the public intellectuals on the left by setting up Radio Free Europe and worldwide little magazines that attracted writers who were liberal and anti-Stalinist. One such magazine was Encounter that included in its editorial board poet Stephen Spender who like George Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War on the republican side. Spender eventually discovered the provenance of the journal’s funding, and he resigned.

Other little magazines were available like Dissent which several of us (G. Burce Bunao, Alex Hufana, Frankie Jose and myself) thought we could replicate with Comment but only in format and masthead. We were not concerned with the Trotskyite politics of editor and critic Irving Howe but with what Leopoldo Y. Yabes called the prevailing conformism and fear of ideas. Our aim then was to provide an outlet for Filipino intellectuals in developing a nationalist consciousness in the ‘50s.

(To be continued)

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