Red Flag vs the Redtag

The petition “Filipino communities raise concern about candidate for a Southeast Asian studies job at Berkeley,” which was able to gather 467 signatories from March 26 to May 31 this year, has become highly controversial among Filipino activists, writers, professors and academics in the Philippines and the US. It has so far provoked four articles in online newsite Rappler.com, many Facebook posts and comments, and numerous skirmishes in various comments sections.

The petition is about Lisandro “Leloy” Claudio, an academic who claims to be an historian, a writer-vlogger for Rappler.com and other publications in the Philippines, and the author of a few books. Having been informed that Claudio is being considered for a position at the University of California-Berkeley, the signatories ask the Search Committee of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies to “review [his] record carefully before proceeding further with consideration of his candidacy.”

The basis: Claudio red-tags various “organizations, leaders, students and ordinary activists” or calls them Communists or Communist supporters. In the Philippines, such an act has always put lives in danger, especially under the regime of Rodrigo Duterte – which has carried out the extra-judicial killing, abduction, arrest and detention, harassment and surveillance of numerous activists who are accused of being Communists or Communist supporters working in legal fronts. Indeed, as the petition states, “in the Philippines, red-tagging can lead to death.”

Contrary to the patently absurd claims by Claudio’s defenders that he does not red-tag individuals and organizations, the document presents clear, indisputable proof of his red-tagging via a selection of linked articles and posts. The signatories are voicing out their condemnation of such an act, especially amidst the dire human-rights situation – nay, crisis or emergency – in the Philippines at present.

Despite numerous criticisms thrown his way, including one written by this author, Claudio has carried on with his merry red-tagging ways, arrogantly defending the act in the name of “truth,” “democracy” and supposed “liberalism” – yes, in the time of an authoritarian and murderous president like Duterte. Anybody who is open-minded enough to recognize the connection between red-tagging on the one hand and human-rights violations and political repression on the other has every reason to feel bothered and concerned, even disgusted and angry. Duterte, for one, has publicly floated carrying out the “Indonesian solution” in the country.

Internationally-known academic Walden Bello responded to the petition by invoking “academic freedom” which he says must be defended “against political extremism.” He claims that what critics call Claudio’s red-tagging is just part of a “stimulating, indeed enjoyable, debate.” Claudio, he says, is not engaged in McCarthyism; it is the petition’s signatories, who come from the “extreme Left,” who are. In short, he absolves Claudio of any wrong-doing and takes advantage of the occasion to further demonize the country’s Left. Refusing to recognize the consequences of Claudio’s statements for people and organizations which are red-tagged, Bello exposes himself as an uncritical defender of Claudio and peddler of an anti-Left persuasion.

Also responding to the petition, academic Patricio N. Abinales asserts that the document “is notorious for violating an unstated norm among academic institutions that they respect each other’s hiring process.” Abinales is not only showing off his supposed knowledge about such norms but is elevating such norms to the level of a universal rule that is seemingly inviolable in the case, for example, of rapists or mass murderers. He faults the petitioners for not engaging with Claudio’s scholarship, a complaint which is wide off the mark because such scholarship will not change the caution being raised against Claudio. He dismisses the petitioners’ claim as mere “speculation,” again ignoring the very real dangers of red-tagging in the Philippines.

Denying that Claudio’s statements endanger the lives of activists, he claims that it is actually the petitioners who are endangering the life of Claudio – who he now pictures as “a possible subject for communist assassination.” While it is activists who are suffering the brunt of Duterte’s fascism and have done infinitely more to fight it, Abinales chooses to valorize Claudio’s consistent anti-Duterte stance – which is not unexpected from a consistent partisan of the Noynoy Aquino regime. In trademark Abinales fashion, he ends the piece with an attack on Jose Maria Sison, founding chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines. He says it was Sison who has red-tagged progressive organizations and not Claudio. Like Bello, Abinales exposes himself as an uncritical defender of Claudio but, compared to Bello, Abinales is a more rabid anti-Left commentator.

Given the foregoing, it is no wonder that the response of Jody Blanco, one of the petitioners – addressed to Bello, but in a way also to Abinales – reiterates the most dangerous in Claudio’s actions: “Claudio’s identification of students and student groups as extremist exposed them to added surveillance and possibly danger, given the current breakdown in the administration and enforcement of laws and individual rights and freedoms in the Philippines under the current government. That this allegation has come from students themselves raised an ethical concern that, I imagine, was shared by many colleagues who also signed the petition.”

Unconvinced by Blanco’s response, no less than Peter Zinoman, chair of the History Department and professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at UC-Berkeley, defended Claudio. Zinoman justified Claudio’s red-tagging on the basis of the need to expose the “dishonest recruitment practices of communist front organizations on college campuses.” He also talks about similar “deceitful efforts” being used to recruit “Phil and Phil-Am students” at UC. One wonders about these recruitment efforts. Were students recruited to the Disney Club or the Glee Club only to find out that they have become members of the Communist Party? Of course not. Many Communists will say the more logical thing: prospective members are asked point blank about wanting to become a member of an organization that entails “sacrifice, difficulties and even death” and are asked to devote many hours to collectively study the Party’s Constitution and Program, among other educational courses.

Zinoman says that Claudio never outed individual students as Communists. Maybe Claudio did not name them individually, but maybe Zinoman does not know how big a campus chapter of a party-list group looks like. It is composed of a minimum of 15 members, the leaders of which are often visible and easily identifiable on campus, especially the Ateneo de Manila University campus. Saying that a campus organization is a Communist front already puts its members, but especially its leaders, in danger.

Zinoman also displays an obvious disdain for the local Communist movement. He refers to “the inglorious and authoritarian record of the [CPP] under the leadership of its Chairman Jose Maria Sison” as if this is an indisputable fact and describes Claudio’s opposition to Communist recruitment practices as “even-handed.” He says that the CPP allied with Duterte “around the 2016 election,” when the close relations between the two happened after the election, and the Left never went silent about Duterte’s human-rights record, nor failed to oppose Duterte’s enactment of neoliberal and anti-people policies. He says Claudio is “superbly qualified” for the academic post, showing a genuine meeting of minds.

Here we have, on the one side, the petitioners, who consider red-tagging as wrong and dangerous. On the other side, Bello, Abinales and their ilk who refuse to recognize even a dint of red-tagging in Claudio’s statements and the dangers it poses to people and organizations. On the one side, the petitioners who signed a document to condemn Claudio’s red-tagging. On the other side, Bello, Abinales and their ilk who think that signing that petition is an error even more grievous than red-tagging itself. Based on how these camps responded to the petition, it is clear to see who is on the side of reason. There are none so blind as those who, because of their loyalty to Claudio and hatred for the Left, refuse to see.

There is, however, a need to further clarify the accusations being levelled at Claudio and the appropriate response – from a clearly socialist perspective. Socialists, after all, do not take accusations of being complicit with or responsible for death, harm and danger lightly; they take these seriously. Statement of fact: in the countryside, the act of supplying information to the military that results in the death of comrades or civilians is, for the New People’s Army, punishable with death.

Indeed, as my friend Raymond “Mong” Palatino argues, “redbaiting triggers the killing of activists in the Philippines.” It is not, however, a night in which all cows are black; some are more responsible than others. In the Philippines, the main proponents of red-tagging are the entites that actually inflict harm and cause death among activists: the government and the military. Anti-Left writers and intellectuals, by and large, have only amplified and legitimized this with their own red-tagging in their writings and social media posts. Saying “only,” is not to belittle the danger caused by red-tagging; this is only to clarify the primary and secondary responsibilities for the effects of the act.

Claudio’s red-tagging in his social media posts and writings choruses with the red-tagging by the military and the government. It legitimizes the latter, but its responsibility for the effects of red-tagging is merely secondary, not primary. Claudio’s red-tagging may be a notch worse than his run-of-the-mill anti-Left writings and those of other intellectuals in the country, but as far as actual impact or harm is concerned, it can still be clustered with the usual. It must be acknowledged that even if his statements certainly, even if inadvertently, gives legitimacy and credence to outright calls for harming suspected Communists, he – unlike Duterte, the military and Duterte’s influencers – does not openly advocate this. There is still a distinction, however threadbare.

What Claudio did in the AdMU in May 2017 – claiming that the progressive youth party-list whose chapter was established there is “associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines” and “receive[s] direct instruction from cadres and serve as tools for recruitment” – is so far the most serious or worst incident of red-tagging that he has done. It is yet a notch worse than his red-tagging in his writings and social media posts and directly endangered the lives of the students in the chapter of the party-list group. He deserves to be exposed, criticized and even shamed for this, and indeed he was by activists and sympathizers in social media.

Does this act, however, mean that socialists should be calling for his non-acceptance to a university post? Claudio has escalated his red-tagging attacks, but does this mean that socialists should escalate the level of counter-attacks, too? Had his red-tagging of students in the AdMU resulted in actual harm to the students – it pains one to even write this, even as a speculative exercise – it can be argued that an escalation is called for, but even then, concrete evidence of the harm having resulted from his red-tagging should be produced and examined.

Jose Maria Sison, whom Abinales depicts as a tyrant and the source of all evil, however, is on record saying: holding pseudo-progressive, counter-revolutionary or reactionary ideas or beliefs is no reason for anybody to be punished by the NPA. He says categorically that the revolutionary movement upholds the freedom of thought and expression and will only punish outright criminal acts like murder or espionage. The socialist policy towards reactionary, counter-revolutionary, or pseudo-progressive views is ideological struggle, not measures such as denial of a source of living or venue for speech. Mao Zedong states a similar view in the context of a socialist society. He says that people holding reactionary views should not be dismissed from school or sent to labor reform, must be allowed to explain their views, and must be engaged in a struggle at the level of ideas. “There can be teachers in opposition,” he says. The only threshold and warning he sets: “Only they should not kill.”

From the foregoing, the socialist approach to reactionary or counter-revolutionary beliefs or ideas, this writer thinks, is not to seek an escalation beyond ideological struggle, but rather to persist, as much as possible, within it. Sison talks about freedoms that the workers, masses and peoples of the world have fought for and that the bourgeoisie and the monopoly bourgeoisie have been forced to enshrine in their laws and declarations. These freedoms will be upheld, preserved, even expanded, under socialism. Upholding the freedom of thought and expression is an important socialist principle both in the oppressive present and in the emancipated future –something that is important for writers, academics and intellectuals.

Clarifying the socialist stand on intellectuals holding reactionary, counter-revolutionary, or pseudo-progressive views is also instructive amidst several contexts: the intensifying political repression and worsening human-rights situation in the Philippines, the persistent anti-Left or outright pro-government stands of some intellectuals, and forging of a broad united front against the Duterte regime.

In short, a socialist case could be made that Claudio’s actions and ideas still fall within the ambit of ideological struggle, despite his constant efforts to up his red-tagging game, as it were. Calling for his non-acceptance to a university post is an escalation, one that is not warranted by his statements or sheer obstinacy in making these. Claudio is clearly taunting activists and the Left, and the latter should not fall for his tricks. This is not a call to turn the other cheek; rather it is a call for tireless persuasion work, not with Claudio, but those who have the bad luck or the bad disposition of reading him.

One who has followed the anti-Left writings of Bello and Abinales and other writers and academics would notice that both the legal and the underground Left do not waste ink and time responding to potshots and tirades. For the Left, perhaps, they are just minor irritations, whose statements are better left to younger activists for whetting critical analysis and rhetorical skills. While Abinales, in particular, speaks as if he is being read by people he attacks, he is a nobody to movement leaders, activists and mass members.

The underground Left, in particular, has focused instead on anti-Communist right-wing ideologues who are actually responsible for repressive policies and therefore the harm and death befalling activists: the likes of social-democrats Norberto Gonzales and Romeo Intengan during the regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. They do not have books or publications on which to display their so-called “expertise” or mastery of the “body of knowledge” on certain topics, but they have greater responsibility for policies that are repressive of the Left. Under the Duterte regime, the likes of Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, who just came from a trans-European red-tagging junket and repeatedly spews anti-Left venom in her social media posts, is deserving of critical attention.

With this, I delineate my stand from that of my fellow activists and other good-hearted people who signed the petition. I have many friends, comrades, mentors and idols who are among the signatories and I trust that they will understand the position I am taking. This is not about personal views, but about striving for the fidelity of our political stands to the socialist principles that we share. Despite this difference, I consider the signatories as comrades, friends and allies.

I also aim to show the reality: that despite the solid unity in major issues, there is a diversity of ideas within the national-democratic Left on many topics. This diversity is not considered by the Left as a weakness, but a source of strength. Its critics love to portray the Left as a dictatorial, monolithic organization, but for many of its members and activists, it is a venue of popular rule and vibrant democracy like nothing else in Philippine society.

Contrast this with the mindless and almost fanatical closing of ranks of Claudio’s defenders behind their poster-boy of anti-Left punditry, with nary a whimper of recognition that red-tagging is wrong and dangerous to activists. Not seeming to recognize at all that activists are crying foul over Claudio’s red-tagging, they held a red-tagging and Left-bashing feast in their Facebook posts and comments sections. Saying “Guys, lives are actually at stake here” will not mean anything to them because they are frothing in the mouth against the Left and seem to be fighting for the generational continuity of their politics and schools of thought.

Bello and Abinales are not new to red-tagging; they have done it before and it is predictable that they are defending it. Bello engaged in it in 2005, when he claimed that a diagram created by the Left is a hitlist, and in 2013, when groups were seeking the disqualification of his erstwhile partylist group Akbayan from the elections. He projects himself internationally as red, but in the Philippines, he is merely pink, who often attacks the red. Abinales on the other hand has made a career out of red-tagging activists, leaders and organizations and spreading rumors, half-truths and lies about the Philippine Left since the 1990s. His statements on the Left are so wildly untruthful and malicious that one cannot believe anything he writes on other topics – even in his so-called scholarly works. Lacking theoretical vigor and engaging in crass anti-Left tirades, he is in reality Claudio’s intellectual father.

In social media, most notable in red-tagging and anti-Left potshots are the following: Sylvia Estrada-Claudio, the mother who is always there to save the day for her controversy-thirsty son. Invoking the instances that she helped the Left while keeping silent on the more numerous times that she sided with its enemies, she is now inventing categories to try to demonize the Left. Vicente L. Rafael, who was known for fine-grained readings of texts, use of fashionable theories, and supple prose, but who is now displaying a crude Cold War-era understanding of the Left and frankly anti-Communist politics. Ninotchka Rosca, whose mission in life seems to outdo her record as an erstwhile progressive with her record as an anti-Communist and pro-Yellow social media troll.

While of course believing that they have the knowledge and status to engage in this issue, these illustrious writers and academics do not seem to see it beneath them to engage in public social media gossip about the dark ways of a supposedly authoritarian and murderous organization which, unlike a broken clock, never even gets things right twice a day.

It is in this context that one should examine the statement in the petition that should UC-Berkeley hire Claudio, its “prestige would give weight to language that can limit and endangers legitimate activism and protest in an already dire Philippines.” First, the socialist stand of insisting on ideological struggle in relation to writers and academics simply promoting reactionary or anti-Left views holds whether one is talking about UC-Berkeley or the University of Caloocan City. Second, because while the Philippine Left has many adherents and allies in prestigious universities, many of its most vocal critics also find their home in the same universities. Have these critics adversely affected the Philippine Left in any significant way? Have the likes of Bello and Abinales, who hail from prestigious universities abroad, prevented the struggle from soldiering on and gaining strength? Hell, no.

And so we say to Claudio and his defenders: Stop the red-tagging, but criticism is fine; it is par for the course in waging a revolution. Bring it on!

11 June 2019
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