Friday, December 28, 2007

People of the Year

Vladimir Putin is Time Magazine's Person of the Year, and I think that's okay. Al Gore and J.K. Rowling are among the runners-up, and I think that's okay, too. Hugo Chavez and Wesley Autry are in their "people who mattered" list, and of course I think that's okay as well.

I like looking over the magazine's "Person of the Year" lists and corresponding analyses, mind you. I find it nice to have a little retrospective over the events of the past year, and when that retrospective involves a great deal of discussion over who beats out whom for a certain top spot, then I'm likely to be there in a heartbeat.

This is not to say that I agree with all of Time's choices; in fact, the magazine and I rarely see eye-to-eye. I remember mentioning the novelty -- and then the absurdity -- of choosing "You" as their honored personality last year. (I mean, was there a poor selection of figures last year or something?) I also remember raising an eyebrow at George H. W. Bush ("The Two George Bushes", 1990) and Newt Gingrich (1995). Time magazine supposedly grants the honor to those people who did the most to "influence the events of the year," and that's usually where I have a bone to pick with them.

My issues with Time's selections usually lie along two lines of complaint: First, the magazine seems to favor an American context over a more appropriate world-view; and second, antagonistic personalities are usually left out of the running despite how much they may have influenced events during a certain year. I suppose that you could make a convincing case for the latter item -- you wouldn't want to give the impression of promoting acts of barbarism, hate or terror, after all -- but the first one is a little too hard to swallow in my book.

A quick look at their 2007 "people who mattered" list should show you what I'm talking about. Sure, Don Imus and Nicolas Sarkozy are there... but does Ron Paul have an impact on anything outside the United States? Did Robert Gates do anything truly distinctive, apart from take over from Donald Rumsfeld? And why are "Hannah Montana" and Britney Spears on the Time list while people like Pervez Musharraf (who's trying to hold a fracturing Pakistan together) and Cho Seung-Hui (who touched off a deadly school shooting at Virginia Tech) languish in the background?

The problem with building lists like these in an international publication is that the circle of candidates tends to be subject to local context. If you follow the American situation more closely than any other country, then the American luminaries are likely to be the first that come to mind. Similarly, a dedicated desire to promote the higher end of human behavior means that you're not likely to place murderers, terrorists, or similar personalities among your choices.

At some point I wondered if it was possible to construct a more personal list of "People of the Year" -- that is, a selection of personalities who were relevant to the Philippine context in 2007. I mean, we certainly don't have a shortage of news items in our corner of the world, and our point of view would almost certainly be different from that of the editors of Time magazine. At the very least, it would be another interesting exercise to look at.

I ended up mulling this selection over the course of a week, and the names below just happen to make up my personal list. My basic qualifications were as follows:

- I would choose ten "people", just because ten is a nice round number, and I happen to like nice round numbers.

- I would not necessarily focus on the political scene. Being Filipino is all about watching politics, true enough, but it's difficult to say that one scandal is more influential than another when there are so many of them marching by.

- I would automatically disqualify President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, because she would be too obvious a shoo-in for any such list in any year of her tenure.

- I would consider those people who were influential within the circles that I join or observe, or who performed prominent actions within the year, or whose actions caused significant ripples within the Philippine context. (That is to say, they affected Filipinos or the Philippines in particular.)

I'm aware that this might cause some backlash, but I've already said my piece for that: Lists like these are subjective. The selection below depends entirely on the Philippine environment as I see it. If you don't like the way I think, feel free to sound off in the comments below... or go to your own blog and make up your own list.

Sean's Ten People of the Year, 2007

1. The Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)
The OFWs have been a relatively silent -- though influential -- force even since last year, but it was this year that their combined remittances ended up having a staggering effect on the Philippine economy. It was an unholy combination of OFW cashflows, long holidays and weak foreign currencies that caused the peso to skyrocket to a P41.00:$1.00 exchange rate -- an event that left the Central Bank scrambling to impose controls and raised eyebrows across world currency markets. Ironically, this also meant that these same OFWs were getting less worth for the dollars in their salaries, but hey, nobody really saw this coming, did they?

2. Joseph Estrada, Former President of the Philippines
One day before the ruling on his plunder case, Joseph Estrada commented that he expected acquittal on all charges. One guilty verdict later, he was practically speechless. Here was a man who had been left high and dry by many of the people he had implicitly trusted -- by many of the systems he had implicitly trusted, mind you -- and he was still realistically expecting that the courts would let him pack up his clothes and go home. I saw little wonder in the way he jumped on his executive pardon like a starving dog does with a scrap of raw meat; I just hope that his entire ordeal has left him a wiser man, if not necessarily a smarter one.

3. Edita Burgos
Ever since her son -- activist Jonas Burgos -- disappeared in April 2007, Edita Burgos has searched relentlessly for his whereabouts. Never mind that her son was one of many outspoken militants or independent advocates to go missing or be killed; the elder Burgos's public demands forced an investigation that led to the implication of military forces in the crime. Eight months after her son disappeared, Edita Burgos is forcing the government to answer some very hard questions, and has become a rallying point for those militants who accuse the president of masterminding a series of human rights violations. This, interestingly enough, has made her a far more effective force of nature than her son Jonas ever was.

4. Armando "Jun" Ducat
The way it seems, Armando Ducat loved the kids in his day-care center so much that he threatened to blow them up unless somebody could guarantee a full education for them. That's a twisted sort of logic right there, and exactly what it means depends on how you feel about his actions. It's your call, really: Either he's a genuinely caring man who gives in to moments of complete irrationality, or he's an incredibly impulsive hostage-taker who just happens to like kids. In short, he was a prime representation of just how absurd the Philippines could get as a result of our unique set of circumstances -- all that, wrapped up in a good-sized straitjacket.

5. Fr. Ed Panlilio, Governor of Pampanga
If there has been any man who could make a convincing argument against the separation of church and state, it would be the honorable Ed Panlilio. For starters, he actually managed to win governorship of the province of Pampanga -- no easy task, considering that the position had fallen under the same political family for the last twelve years. But his shining moment came when he refused to accept a five-hundred-thousand-peso "contribution" allegedly given to politicians in order to drum up support for a scandal-plagued government project. Would the money have gone unnoticed if Panlilio hadn't brought the matter out into the open? I think so. The man simply refuses to fall into our traditional negative impressions of local politicos, and I do hope that he keeps it up.

6. Carlo Cruz
It all started with a man's letter asking for personal leave from his employer. The circumstances, however, were unique: The man's name was Carlo Cruz, and he had just lost his wife Leslie to one of the most distinct events of the year -- a massive explosion in the upscale Glorietta shopping mall. The letter -- a short, carefully-written piece about his relationship with his wife and their daughter -- somehow got forwarded outside the walls of his office, and within days became the most widely read e-mail in the metropolis. It gave a very human face to the tragedy, and pointed out that not all casualties can be identified with newspaper statistics.

7. Jason Drilon

I've never made a marriage proposal to anyone yet, but I can imagine how difficult it is. So if you're a guy who manages to pull one off, then you're already okay with me. If you manage to do it in a very creative fashion, then that earns you a few points in my book. But if you somehow manage to get Neil Gaiman, of all people, to give you a hand; and if you somehow manage to do the whole thing in front of hundreds of people at the biggest writing event of the year without losing it, then you da man, dude.

8. Malu Fernandez
The embattled People Asia columnist doesn't make this list for her notoriety; rather, she makes this list because of the incredible Internet backlash against her. Malu Fernandez's piece on the habits of OFWs drew the ire of Filipinos across the World Wide Web, who immediately retaliated by spewing hate-filled messages, relentless attacks, and disgraceful parodies on her personality. The fact that Malu Fernandez's initial reaction showed little remorse only fanned the flames further... until a notice that she had (allegedly) resigned finally mollified the online public. At last check, Fernandez was still writing for the paper that chose to defend her with silence. Perhaps she came away with some heavy insights after her ordeal.

9. Mariannet Amper
Mariannet Amper made headlines when she hung herself at the ripe old age of 12, proving once and for all that there are no age limits to suicide. Exactly why she did so is a matter of debate; however, critics of the Philippine situation have seized upon her death as an example of the poverty and desperation that plagues the country. The deceased 12-year-old has since been used as a rallying cry for social change, for anti-corruption drives, and even for anarchistic action... consequences that Mariannet most definitely did not expect when she slipped the rope around her neck. Exactly who she was in life is no longer of relevance, not when the forces surrounding the country have found such profit in the circumstances of her death.

10. Sen. Antonio Trillanes
The lieutenant-turned-rebel-turned-senator seemed to have it all. One moment he was on trial for staging a mutiny that paralyzed the main business hub of the nation; the next, he became the first senator ever elected in a campaign run straight from his prison cell. And then, in one critically mistimed and ill-organized decision to hold another mutiny, it all came crashing down. A public that once saw Trillanes as an agent for change now sees him as a major screw-up, and agitator who puts little thought into what he does and why he's doing it. It will obviously take the man years -- or some fortuitous miracle -- to repair his reputation; exactly what he plans to do now is a matter of conjecture. Hopefully he puts a little more thought into it this time.

That's it, everyone. For what it's worth, those are the ten people who made 2007 what it was for me. If there's anyone who you expected to see on this list but is nevertheless missing, I must admit that I had a long list of honorable mentions who didn't quite make it.

I know that Time magazine gets quite a few letters of dissent for their choices, and I'm fully expecting to get some for this one. But you know what? This is my list. I'm not telling you to swallow it like some matron and a bottle of foul-tasting medicine. I'm just giving the facts and the analyses as I have them.

Plainly speaking, the ultimate arbiter of any "People of the Year" list is us. A magazine shouldn't be able to tell you otherwise, a hard-luck writer/blogger shouldn't be able to tell you otherwise, and a tap-dancing Chihuahua shouldn't be able to tell you otherwise. Just so you know, that's all.

So... who's on your list?

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