We never learn from history. Or we tend to remember only events and personalities that appeal to our baser instincts. We recall only those we would like to hear.
Take, for example, a recent conversation I had, or perhaps more of a disagreement with someone on her interpretation of the Marcos dictatorship and the insignificant role of a certain fraternity from the University of the Philippines in the struggle against the oppressive regime. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll call her Ms. D. Inglesera for her self-declared impeccable grasp of the English language. By insignificant (my word, not hers), I mean from the point of view of the overall Marcos protest movement, which takes into account the greater and more direct role played by nationalist, student, labour, and civil society organizations, more particularly the hundreds of thousands of nameless ordinary people who braved the sun and rain and bullets and brutality of the military and police riot squads during those tumultuous years.
Fast forward to the present, more than 28 years after Marcos was driven out of Malacañang, this aforementioned Ms. Inglesera would only remember the more famous among the members of that UP fraternity whom she claimed bravely stood up to their fellow fraternity brother who hijacked the presidency of the country for more than twenty years. As if their participation which is highly suspect was the turning point in the people’s ultimate rejection of the Marcos regime, thus leading to the restoration of democratic rights, albeit in their most basic form.
It is common for the powerful to write history, according to American author and cultural critic Greil Marcus. He said that “events that do not change into power or that take place outside of the normal circuits in which power is exchanged, outside of the institutional distribution and control of social goods – such events, in certain ways, do not make history at all. They are resistant to history, because history does not know how to account for them, and history resists them, because it can get away with it.”
This is true in the case of traditional and bourgeois interpretation of history, or of Philippine history, for that matter. Accounts of the 1896 Philippine revolution and the ensuing Filipino-American War from 1899 to 1902 focused on the exploits of so-called leaders and less on the contributions of ordinary folks and soldiers who had remained both faceless and nameless throughout the armed conflict that resulted in more than 20,000 Filipino deaths. The name of Emilio Aguinaldo was mentioned in most of these accounts perhaps by well above a significant number of times than Andres Bonifacio who was acclaimed the leader of the Philippine revolution. Naturally so because in the context of power and social status, Bonifacio was illiterate and was born to a poor family. Whereas Aguinaldo was educated and a member of the landed gentry.
During the resistance against Japan, General Douglas MacArthur and the US military were remembered as the significant personalities in the liberation of the Philippines, with little highlight given to the Hukbalahap and Filipino guerrilla movement. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Filipinos died during the Japanese occupation, yet written history glossed over this fact and focused most entirely on the return of General MacArthur during the liberation period as a bigger than life hero.
The same is true with the expulsion of the dictator Marcos in 1986. After the downfall of the dictatorship, glowing accounts were written about the martyrdom of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. and some members of his UP fraternity, singling out their supposed objection to the repressive rule of their fraternity brother. Except for the assassination of Senator Aquino who was Marcos’s formidable political opponent at that time, the alleged contributions of the rest or other members of their college fraternity in disposing Marcos were overrated and perhaps simply the handiwork of the Philippine media which they had great influence over.
The German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke of such events as an attempt to “seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” Because such moments do not turn into history, they lose their shape, and turn into stupid self-parodies, legends, nonsense or old stories told by cranks.
The re-election of Marcos to the presidency in 1969 signaled the stirrings of a dictatorship in the making, which became apparently clear when he declared martial law three years to his second term, thus paving the way to his unchallenged stranglehold of political power. Our friend Ms. Inglesera who sang praises to the dictator’s fraternity brothers failed to mention that the said fraternity or its more famous members she singled out never led, planned, or conspired a robust and widespread challenge, whether on the streets or the illegal underground. It was left to national democratic organizations which were declared subversive and illegal associations at the time to plant the seeds of resistance that culminated in the 1987 EDSA Revolution. Here again was another historical anomaly – the people’s success in driving the dictator out of the country was snatched by the powerful oligarchs and their friends in big business and newly-minted allies in the military establishment.
In writing about the history of the people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, ignorance of things past seems to be the easier tendency, thus sustaining the earlier argument made by Marcus that power writes history. That is exactly what Ms. Inglesera did, by cherry-picking on better-known personalities of the time who incidentally were members of a leading UP fraternity and intentionally ignoring the nameless but true heroes of the revolution.
I had very close friends who were killed in the prime of their youth during the oppressive years of the Marcos dictatorship, two former companions in the struggle who were recently detained in peace time by the military for sticking to their political convictions, and met hundreds of thousands of nameless fellow marchers in street rallies against Marcos, but alas they will be continually ignored and forgotten as mere part of the landscape of protests and demonstrations.
So unlike Ms. Inglesera’s favourite names from the past whom she would display in her pedestal of fame: the fateful fraternity brothers of the dictator who did nothing close to the sacrifices of the faceless genuine makers of history. Since she assumes that she is entitled to her own opinions, she can choose or name people she believes made or are making history.
American writer and former editor of Harper’s Magazine Lewis H. Lapham wrote: “History is a work in progress, a constant writing and rewriting as opposed to museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble.” Every era changes its interpretation of the past to fit the present context. It is the task of the historian to find the facts that will prove the truths of his or her interpretation.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in On the Use and Abuse of History that while we need the services of history, we must also accept that an excess measure of history will do harm to the living. This is particularly true when talking about distortions or misunderstanding of history, in the sense of being restrained by the past in current action, which has a limiting effect on the intellect.
By deftly cataloguing her sources to puff up the deeds of the band of fraternity brothers Ms. Inglesera has chosen to pay homage to, she has fallen to the similar ploy taken by others who simply regurgitate the events of the past and nothing more. Old news, as someone would be apt to say. How we define the past, not to simply glorify a particular few we personally like and want to be on our side, is a matter of importance because it points to the future we are trying to construct.