Revising history

More on the same subject, about the military’s vexing role in a rambunctious democracy.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an "unexpectedly disturbing" column by the eminent Randy David. I have made no secret about my esteem for the leading sociologist; like many others, I entertain the hope that he would write more often for my paper’s opinion pages. I have found his writing both learned and on-the-ground practical, essential reading in these parlous times. But his column of August 28 was profoundly upsetting.

In it, he praised the young who had taken the lead in the impeachment drive against the President. And then, in a fatal leap of misplaced faith, he wrote this:

Seven military coup attempts challenged the foundations of President Cory Aquino’s people-power regime. Those of us who had fought Ferdinand Marcos and joined the Edsa People Power revolution could only see in these attempted coups the hand of military adventurism. We did not hesitate to defend what we perceived to be the democratic gains of Edsa. But looking back now, and after having met young officers like Capt. Rene Jarque, who has died "without seeing the dawn," so to speak, I am convinced we were wrong to dismiss these coups as mere power grabs. The major ones of these coups were led by young officers who stood for genuine social change, and saw no other way of achieving it than by seizing state power. Young people in the military saw what the return of the old was doing to their own organization. They saw how the same politicians were reversing with impunity the spirit of renewal that Edsa had embodied for them. They could not bear to see all this and do nothing.

Let me borrow a useful conceit from literary criticism: David’s second look at recent history is a disturbing distortion, because it depends uncritically on the intentional fallacy. It mistakes the intention of some of the coup plotters for the reality of the coup they plotted.

There is no doubt that some, or perhaps even many, of the officers and men who joined the August 1987 and December 1989 coup attempts ("the major ones") were motivated by a sincere desire for "genuine social change." That fact, however, does not make the attempted coups themselves any less a power grab.

The object, in both instances, was to seize state power. That object was justified in the name of military reform (for some) and social change (for some others). But it was an object that first emerged during the bleakest years of the dictatorship. Thus, after democratic institutions were restored, the conditions for the seizure of state power had already changed. But the masterminds, the main coup plotters, thought otherwise.

David scores what "the return of the old [political traditions]" did to the military in the late   1980s. He also blames the politicians for reversing "the spirit of renewal that Edsa had embodied for them [that is, the military reformists]." These two assertions of fact imply that, if the renewal of democratic institutions had continued apace, the reformers in the military would not have attempted a coup.

I think this is a sad misreading of the true historical situation. The true leaders of the military reform movement wanted to seize power in February 1986; it was because Marcos preempted them that they found themselves holed up in Camp Aguinaldo. In other words, the military roots of the first flourish of People Power actually lay in a failed coup (the first, we note, in a long series of failed attempts).

After Edsa I, the true leaders found themselves increasingly out-of-place in a democratic set-up, like born-and-bred military fish out of roiling democratic water. And not just any kind of fish: They were spoiled fish, raised at a time when the military took an active part in running the country. It was natural for the likes of Honasan to see themselves as national albeit still-obscure leaders, favored by the gods of inevitability. It was only a matter of time before this once and future ruling class would attempt, again, to seize power for themselves.

The notion that this class had stepped aside after Edsa I, but at some time could no longer bear "to see all this and do nothing," is revisionist history. It may be motivated by a deeper appreciation for the nuances that led bright young men to launch destructive coups, but it is still revisionism.

The true leaders of the coups took advantage of their men’s sense of idealism. For them, the spirit of Edsa was not renewal, but interruption. That is why, even till now, personalities like Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile insist that the true anniversary of Edsa I is not February 25, when Marcos fled, but February 22, when the reformists first rose in arms. So much for idealism.

Surely there are other ways to praise the youthfulness and idealism of the political opposition, without turning yesterday’s coup plotters into today’s harmless do-gooders.

17 Comments

Filed under Readings in Politics

17 responses to “Revising history

  1. Resty

    I agree with this post. I knew Randy David said something wrong somewhere; I just couldn’t figure it out. Thanks for supplying the words. Randy David might as well praise the young members of the CPP-NPA. There’s not much difference there, see. 🙂

  2. Resty

    Hi, John, would you find a way to hide the email address of your commenters? I’m afraid of being overly spammed again because of the exposed email address. Thanks.

  3. I really find it ironic how the esteemed Randy David ressurected the villains he once abhorred into heroes of today. If deconstructed, David’s piece failed to appeal to some underlying cause thereby committing the fallacy of limited depth.

  4. Hi Resty. A quick note. While I’m checking with the help desk at Typepad, to see how we can hide the email address, maybe we can do the following for the moment? (Assuming you’ll still want to leave a comment!) If you include the URL of your blog when you Post A Comment, that’s what will appear, not your email address, when someone clicks on your name in the comment thread. Hope this helps.

  5. mail

    I have to disagree with you regarding the coup people. In a way, Randy is right.

    We are really in a very grave situation now. No window for real change thorugh democratic processes. That is bad. We are vulnerable for another one. That is why the battle cry ” make the supreme sacrifice. restore faith in democracy” is very apt.

  6. John,

    Could this be a sign that Prof. David is at his wit’s end?

    At the rate the opposition is taking its sweet time to consolidate and harmonize its various positions, is the article an oblique invitation by Prof. David to the military to lend support to another People Power?

  7. Jojo

    John, with certain exceptions, sociologists often do not make good historians. Perhaps Randy David should look back at some of the articles published in the late 1980s in Kasarinlan, the journal of the UP Third World Studies he once headed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He seems to have forgotten pieces like those of Francisco Nemenzo that described the RAM and other coup plotters as “neo-fascists.” And it is also clear that Randy has not read Al McCoy’s Closer than Brothers (Anvil) which is, by far, the best narrative about RAM’s autocratic and militaristic streak.

    (Would “does not read” be more appropriate? A quick review of Randy’s columns will show he prefers quoting Max Weber and Nietsche more than a Filipino or Philippine scholar)

    Randy David’s likewise mistakes the erudite blah blah of young politicians for a principled position. He seems to conveniently ignore the origins of their wealth and power. Surely Cheez Escudero did not reach the halls of power simply by his intelligence and sheer brilliance. There was always Daddy Francis who worked energetically for the Marcoses. Same goes with the Cayetanos, the Angaras, and the Remullas (On the latter, check out also an Al McCoy edited volume Anarchy of Families published by Ateneo).

  8. manuelbuencamino

    good point.

  9. Erwin Rafael

    If you sincerely feel that Mr. David’s stand is wrong, I think he is more than open to the idea of discussing it. He has a published e-mail address, and he does reply to comments. He never failed to answer any of the e-mail I once sent to him.

    I don’t think Mr. David is at his wit’s end. If anything, I think he’s quite frustrated and tired already with what has happened to our country 20 years after EDSA.

  10. Jojo

    Hi Erwin. Good suggestion, although to be frank, I remain skeptical. I have yet to see or read any column-writer in the Philippines admitting that he or she was wrong in his or her punditry. One can write letters expressing disagreement to our popular pundits, but one doubts whether once proven wrong, they would admit their pitfalls.

    Randy David is no exception, the hestitation/recalcitrance/refusal (take your pick) to admit an erroneous analysis made more difficult by the fact that he is a professed academic. And you know how academics are: creatures of the ivory tower, they often think theirs is the last say on everything.

    Finally, it is one thing to be frustrated; it is another thing to then propose a major revision of a history that showed military rebeles for what they were: torturers, killers and people desiring to overthrow a democratic regime (no matter how imperfect it was) and not creatures of the moral and political high ground.

  11. mojo

    Jojo, you should read Winnie Monsod. That is the worst crap. That is one big headed ivory tower.

  12. acidboy

    randy david, winnie monsod, conrad de quiros, armando doronilla, alex magno, jarius bondoc, rina david, bobby tiglao…

    imho, i may not agree with their rhetorics sometimes, and a considerable portion of our opinion writers are full of crap anyway, but at least reading them creates discussion. if i wanted stale columns and fence-sitting opinions i wouldn’t have stopped reading the classified ads, i mean, manila bulletin when i i was taught to analyze what i read back in school.

  13. Jojo

    Mojo and Acidboy, the equally interesting question to ask is how many people really read these pundits (you have any sense, John)? And by read, really pore over their arguments and not just glance at them as one is into his first cup of coffee. If we go by the number of letters-to-the-editor sent in response to what these pundits wrote, then the readership is actually very small. Radio punditry probably has a bigger audience. It is probably also the smallness of this audience that enables people to go about revising the past…

  14. My apologies for the late reply. The last few days (yes, the weekend included) were quite tight.

    Thanks, Erwin, for the suggestion to correspond with Randy, but it is a suggestion I won’t be able to accept. I’ve said more than once that keeping this blog allows me to think things through (to be completely candid, the sometimes lively comments were an unexpected boon); if I were to stop the process and correspond with the subject of a post, I would be back to doing reporting, not (at least as I think of it) analysis-in-the-making.

    Let me put it this way. If I were writing a news story about a possible revision in Randy’s published and much-publicized views, an interview with him would be first on my to-do list. But all I wanted to do in this post was comment on what he had written; and so comment I did. Multiply your suggestion by all the subjects I think-through about (what’s good for Randy should be good for, say, Chiz or GMA too), and I won’t have any time left to write. This is, at least, the way I see it, and I hope that you’ll find it makes sense too.

    Thanks, Glenn, for dropping by. (I should have linked to your site a long time ago.) I agree with you: I was taken aback that the same people I thought Randy had allowed us to see clearly some time ago were now being written up differently, in a somewhat muddled way.

    Thanks, Dawin (again!). I agree with Erwin, though. I do not think Randy is at the end of his considerable wit. He may (and I stress “may”) have been led to that saddening conclusion by the premises he had started out with: about the youth as agents of change, about idealism as a motive force in history, and (possibly not least) about the Nietzschean will to power as a justification in itself. This may (and again I stress “may”) have led him to somehow, and perhaps only in an attempt to test the limits of thought, posit the coup plotters as Nietzschean supermen, creating their own morality. (Whew!)

    And finally, thanks, too, and as always, Jojo. I’m not sure if I can share your conclusion about sociologists being bad at history. I think the sociologist Raymond Aron (sorry, another foreigner!) was an unqualified genius, but in historical matters too he displayed a sure touch. I would classify Tocqueville (there we go again) as a sociologist; his historical observations, by and large, have stood the test of time.

    But I do share your main point. It is one thing to be frustrated; another to revise recent history in order, possibly, to determine the shape of the near-term future.

    As to readers: We’d all be surprised at the numbers. Of course, with very few exceptions, radio anchors and TV presenters influence more people. But I subscribe to a dualistic theory about how to reach critical mass in public opinion: There is the crucial many, and then there is the central few. Some of the best-read print pundits belong to the few, whose views reach a smaller, but much more influential circle.

    The numbers from Inq7.net are interesting; unfortunately, I am not in a position to share them. Suffice it to say that columnists like Randy David are read by many thousands. Every now and then, we also do a readership survey of the newspaper itself; while columnists like Mon Tulfo expectedly top those surveys, someone like the erudite Amando Doronila can land in the Top 10 too.

    Lastly: By now it is obvious that I allow, even welcome, anonymous comments, but I make it a point not to reply to the commenters. It strikes me (whose real name and real job are identified in this blog for all to see) as, well, a little like dancing with ghosts. I have two left feet, and I don’t particularly relate well with ectoplasmic apparitions. But about the comment on Winnie Monsod I’ll make an exception. I think she is writing from the exact center of Philippine politics. I find her scrupulously fair; I think that is one reason why, at least for me, whose instinct is always to roll to the center, she makes eminent, almost perfect sense.

  15. Jojo

    Hi John: a quick response. De Tocqueville and Aron were two of those sociologists I had in mind who were exceptions when it came to appreciating history. There are a couple of others, but no need to mention them here. What is notable (alarming?) is that none of our Filipino sociologists ever think like Aron or De Tocqueville. And thanks for the hint on readership. What of letters to the editor, though? Who gets most of readers’ responses?

  16. Hi Jojo. I do see now, upon rereading your earlier comment, that you had made an exception for certain sociologists. But maybe because I don’t know too many sociologists, I am not in a position to agree with your generalization.

    Letters to the editor? In the good old days, when people sent their letters via the fax machine, I used to be able to get a very good idea of what the letters were about; the machines were right beside the news desk. Now that we’ve encouraged email submissions, I have, well, not as good a read into what exercises our readers, enough to trouble themselves into writing letters to the editor.

    But our columnists get their own mail too; that makes the job of estimating even harder.

    No question about it: radio anchors and TV presenters reach the critical many (that is why we should encourage people like Joel Reyes Zobel of dzBB and Anthony Taberna of dzMM, or Kaven Davila in her late afternoon program and Ruth Abao in her mid-afternoon show, to keep up the good work). But columnists like Fr. Bernas, for example, do reach the central few.

    Who gets the most response? I am not sure what the answer is, but Conrad de Quiros should be at or near the top of the list.

  17. Jojo

    Thanks for the info John. I guess Conrad gets a lot of the email. His brand of advocacy definitely will solicit different kinds of responses.

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