Once a week, Randy David gets up really early and gets on one of his motorcycles.
These days it’s either the 916 cc. Ducati Monster S4 or the 1190 cc. KTM Adventure—both big machines capable of reaching extreme speeds.
Carrying only a pair of binoculars, he heads north. The optics are for a more recent but no less consuming passion—bird-watching.
Depending on the season and his own inclination, he heads for the bird sanctuaries near the Candaba swamplands, or the more forested areas of the Bataan National Park, where the feathered creatures still roost in abundant numbers.
If it’s a clear morning and the traffic is sparse when he hits the SCTEX, he starts to push the throttle.
Clarity arrives once the speedometer hits 175 kph.
“You cannot be absorbed in thought,” says David. “There’s no room for error. You have to be engaged. If I lose focus even for a split second, my front tire could hit the mid-barrier. If you’re going 175 kph, tatapon ka. If you’re riding alone, nobody will see you. It’s an exhilarating thought.”
Not harboring a secret death wish, David tests his limits for only a few minutes, before easing the throttle back.
“What I really like is standing up on the bike and doing it slowly, less than 100 kph,” he points out. “The air is cool, there’s no one around, and you see the birds as if accompanying you on your trip, swallows crisscrossing, sometimes making the mistake of hitting you. It’s a different experience, a fascination with speed—I can’t describe it.”
Those few minutes on the edge seem to be a necessary counterpoint to a life spent largely in quiet reflection and analysis, a blood-cleansing surge of adrenaline that purges the detritus from the mind.
The need for speed satisfied for the moment, David takes his breakfast and settles in to watch the birds.
David’s curiosity about the pastime was piqued when two distinguished visiting professors, both formidable intellectuals, separately asked him about the local bird habitats. Both turned out to be avid bird watchers. After accompanying them, David found himself hooked as well.
“Bird watching entails a lot of walking, and to me walking is the natural companion of thinking,” he explains.
As professor emeritus in sociology at the University of the Philippines, Inquirer Opinion columnist for the last 20 years, and public intellectual at large, David thinks out loud for a living, and through his teaching and writing, shares his reflections on the human condition with a loyal core following.
Like the writer himself, David’s column is passionate without being strident, thoughtful without being cerebral, socially engaged without any gratuitous breast-beating or clenched-fist saluting.
His is a unique voice in the current media sphere dominated by ephemeral soundbytes, fragmentary chatter and received ideas masquerading as insight.
So unique, in fact, that one of his loyal readers, a Filipino-Italian based in California, has seen fit, on his own, to maintain a website devoted entirely to David’s writings (https://randydavid.webs.com/).
“I don’t look down on my readers,” says David. “If I were assailed by the thought that my readers wouldn’t understand me, I probably wouldn’t be writing.
“I think the proper role of any intellectual in any society is to disturb the existing way of thinking,” he continues.
“It’s to disrupt the complacency of consciousness, especially the dominant consciousness, to force us to get out of the conventional way of looking at things. It’s not even to propose a new way of organizing society; it’s simply to demonstrate to people that there’s another way of looking at things.
“But at the same time, it’s also to be able to show people that society is a living thing, it evolves. And the only way I can keep up with the changes in society and the way it’s evolving is by constantly questioning my own perspective.”
Now 69, David grew up in the small town of Betis in Pampanga, the eldest of a large brood of seven brothers and six sisters.
“Where I come from, that part of Pampanga, is the old Pampanga,” he recalls. “One became either a poet, or a musician, or a priest, in Betis. There was no divorce between everyday life and art, they are integrated into each other.”
As a child, David took up the banduria as a matter of course, but his real fascination was for the zarzuela, that form of musical theater that was the flower of the Capampangan literary renaissance in the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.
“Diosdado Macapagal and Rogelio de la Rosa were zarzuela stars,” he recounts. “I remember as a child seeing these politicians onstage on the campaign trail. Their oratory was exceptional, they could speak for hours and people were just mesmerized.”
It was an early introduction to the power of the spoken word, the well-articulated idea, and how they affect the broader arena of social and political life.
After completing high school in Pampanga, David was sent by his father, a lawyer, to the University of the Philippines.
It was an eye-opener, to say the least. Even in the early 1960s, Diliman was a world unto itself.
“I found UP liberating,” he notes. “I was 15 years old. I grew up in a tight-knit family in a tight-knit village in Pampanga, in a very ethnocentric culture, and suddenly here I was in a dormitory where my dorm mates were the children of hacenderos from the Visayas and Muslim aristocrats like the Abbas brothers and Nur Misuari. Nakakagulat.
“I asked my father, who was an Atenista, why he sent me to UP and not Ateneo. He said, ‘Even when we were in Ateneo, we were in awe of the free-thinkers at UP.’ I too was just as awed by the cultural diversity of UP and the intellectual adventurism of its professors, particularly in philosophy, political science and literature.”
The plan had been for David to become a lawyer, like his father, and possibly—in the grand tradition of Capampangan gentlemen poets/statesmen—start a career in politics.
Being of a writerly bent even then, he enrolled as an English major, with the vague idea of working as a journalist during the day and taking law classes at night.
“I loved literature, but literature didn’t love me,” he admits. In his third year, he decided to shift to sociology, a more practical preparation for law.
As he would later tell a graduating class of sociology majors:
“I instantly fell in love with sociology. It impressed me as positively down-to-earth and commonsensical… It was one of those contingencies that decisively shape one’s life. I met my future wife in my sociology classes, and my exposure to social issues completely changed my political outlook.
“I think my life would have taken a different turn if I had become a lawyer,” he reflects. “I would certainly have become a politician, since I had a broad background in student politics. My contemporaries were Frank Drilon, Miriam Defensor, Ronaldo Zamora, Jejomar Binay. Nur Misuari and Boy Morales were just ahead of me. Most of those people ended up either working for government or going underground. Those were your choices at the time. Kung malikot ang isip mo, you either joined government or joined the revolution.”
Even at that stage, however, David was suspicious of any form of orthodoxy, even the national democratic ideology of the Kabataang Makabayan that was coming to dominate the discourse in UP in the mid- to late-’60s.
When he decided to make a run for the student council, much to the dismay of his Alpha Sigma fraternity brothers, David spurned the “natdem” party and threw his hat in with the party supported by the Upsilon Sigma Phi—then much maligned as Ferdinand Marcos’ frat.
For a supposedly “progressive” UP student, it was heresy.
“In a sense, if you stay in the university you have no choice but to be a heretic, because you’re constantly questioning your own ideas and commitments. That’s what I like about sociology—it’s an endless process of self-questioning.”
The other thing David liked about his course was a fellow sociology major named Karina Constantino who, in short order, became comrade, girlfriend and wife.
“It was a golden period of UP—it was the best time to be a UP student, to be a student in any university,” he says. “It was the year of the global student revolt. The long and short of it is, I did not become a lawyer.”
After tying the knot in 1968, the couple went to England where both had obtained scholarships for postgraduate studies in sociology at the University of Manchester, in preparation for permanent teaching positions in UP.
Their studies were interrupted, however, by the birth of their first child, whom they decided had to be born on Philippine soil.
Meanwhile, David’s father-in-law, the eminent nationalist historian Renato Constantino, was deep into writing what was to be his magnum opus, “The Philippines: A Past Revisited.”
“We were his research assistants,” recalls David. “We had to write the first rough draft. We were assigned chapters, but before we could do that we had to go through all the material. Every evening, we had to give a report, as if we were taking a class. He was a teacher, even at home. It was a deliberate, conscious effort to counteract American social science. I had to read Marx, Engels, Maurice Cornforth. Mabuti na lang, because when I returned to England, if I had to rely just on my UP education, I would have gotten lost.”
“Looking back, he was a very demanding teacher,” David adds. “Thoroughly Marxist. But he was very well-read, and he was very patient as a teacher and not at all selfish.”
Project of nationhood
The clampdown on the UP campus following martial law had its effect on the couple’s early family life.
For a time, Renato Constantino was placed under house arrest while Karina had to dodge the military because of her involvement in a militant teacher’s organization.
(As a side note, my first encounter with Randy David was during this period. I was enrolled in Karina Constantino-David’s Sociology 11 class when she had to go into hiding mid-semester. There was a flurry of excitement among my female classmates when Randy David showed up as substitute teacher. Tall, slim and already sporting his trademark moustache, David cut a dashing figure on campus that had coeds swooning over his easygoing charm. There was a discernible groan of disappointment among the same female classmates when Karina showed up some weeks later to resume the class.)
“The project of nationhood was so strong, so compelling for our generation,” he says. “I don’t think there was anyone at UP at the time who thought only of his own self-advancement. There was always a commitment to something bigger than you. We thought of ourselves not just as a future generation but as the future leaders of the country.
“So there was that sense of romantic nationalism that gripped every student of our generation, which I don’t see as passionately present today.”
As things settled down, David also settled into the more sedate rhythm of academic life, with the occasional foray into political action.
In the ’80s, he and former UP president Francisco Nemenzo formed the socialist alliance Bisig, which eventually evolved into the Akbayan political party.
He also embarked on his long-delayed second career as a journalist, first on television with the talk show “Truth Forum” in 1986, and “Public Life with Randy David” until 1995, when he began writing a weekly column for Inquirer which was also called “Public Life.”
UP has been his home for the past 55 years, ever since he arrived in Diliman from Betis as a starry-eyed teenager. The father of four is now awaiting the arrival of his fourth grandchild.
Having retired as a salaried professor when he reached 65, David is now professor emeritus at the Department of Sociology, which basically means he can teach what he wants when he wants.
This semester he’s teaching a graduate course in “Modernity”; next semester it will be an undergraduate course.
“In the last 10 years I have been writing about modernity,” he says. “It has served me well as a prism through which to understand what is happening to a society like ours that is painfully transitioning from a very feudal, hierarchical social order to one that aspires to be more modern.”
Not for David the nostalgic attachment to the glorious days of the First Quarter Storm.
“We tend to romanticize the past,” he says. “There’s a way of doing that without being explicitly committed to it. The solutions of the past were solutions to problems of the past. The problems of the future are vastly different… We must look to the future because the future is very interesting, rather than always measuring ourselves in terms of an imagined past.”
Is there a place for this kind of thoughtful discourse in the age of Twitter and social media, where attention spans are measured in mere kilobytes?
“Definitely there are more voices, and critique is no longer the monopoly of commentators and opinion makers,” he says. “The Internet and social media have provided a lot of room for diverse voices—the word they use is polyphonic. But in terms of quality I’m not so sure, because given the nature of social media and the Internet, there is less reflectiveness in these opinions. They’re in a hurry, quick to condemn or to praise, to like or dislike, to thumb up or thumb down. It’s the nature of the medium.”
With the recent passing of fellow columnist Neal Cruz, and the hiatus in the writings of Conrado de Quiros, Joaquin Bernas and Juan Mercado, David is acutely aware that he is one of the last men standing, part of a generation of columnists fading away, and he wonders whether it is time to turn the reins over to a younger generation—the millennials, perhaps?
We certainly hope not. Now and then, a little heresy is good for the soul.