Column: Down from the hill

Published on November 25, 2008

I received about as much feedback on last week’s column about Sen. Joker Arroyo’s exclusivist approach to the interpretation of law as I usually do from columns on religious issues or political topics viewed from a religious perspective. One of those comments is on the Letters page this Tuesday; I hope it gives other readers a sense of the spirited public reaction that came my way. The email from Harley Barrales in New Jersey is representative of all but one of the letters I got. Unlike most of the other letter-senders, however, Harley is a lawyer. Good for him.

* * *

When I first heard of Jose de Venecia’s upcoming and already controversial biography, I knew it was the real thing from the title alone. “Global Filipino: The Authorized Biography of Jose de Venecia Jr., the Visionary Five-Time Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines”—doesn’t that carry the authentic bombastic touch?

But will De Venecia turn out to be President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Chavit Singson? (The question assumes that the analytical template to follow is the one that led to EDSA People Power II.) The answer must depend on other factors, including lengthy hearings in the House, televised live. But I still think the better framework for analysis is the run-up to EDSA People Power I: The opposition must prepare first to ensure that the 2010 election pushes through, and then to win it. Those dreaming of a resounding Obama-esque victory must organize like Obama.

* * *

Forty years ago this week, the most famous manifesto in Ateneo de Manila University’s history appeared on the pages of the college newspaper, the Guidon. It asserted (as other manifestos in other schools had done) that “a revolutionary situation” existed in the Philippines, and then urged the radical renewal of the Society of Jesus and the “Filipinization” of the university.

“The history of modern political nationalism/activism in the Ateneo is usually traced back to 27 November 1968, the date the famous essay ‘Down from the Hill’ appeared in the Guidon,” writes former Ateneo de Manila professor Susan Evangelista.

Five undergraduates had gone up to Baguio City to write it: Jose Luis “Linggoy” Alcuaz, Gerardo Esguerra, Emmanuel “Eman” Lacaba, Leonardo Montemayor and Alfrredo Navarro Salanga (although this must have been before the late poet added the second “r” to his first name, I suspect). When the essay was published, its impact (in a pre-PC, pre-SMS, pre-WiFi age) was practically immediate.

Its most damning passage reads: “We find the Ateneo today irrelevant to the Philippine situation because it can do no more than service the power elite. Its academic community is unresponsive to the needs of the Philippine situation … We therefore maintain that the Ateneo as a university has not exercised its moral and intellectual obligations of service to the oppressed masses but instead has catered exclusively to the oppressive power elite.”

* * *

When colleague Howie Severino reminded me of the manifesto’s 40th anniversary, I looked up my copy and was struck by how dated it all seemed. By that I mean that many of the issues it raised have become obsolete: its call, for instance, for the Philippine Jesuits to “undergo a renewal in the spirit of the Rio de Janeiro statement of May 1968”; its recommendation “that future policies of the universities [here including Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro] be determined entirely by Filipino Jesuits and laymen”; its appeal that faculty members “involve themselves directly with the Philippine situation by taking positions in Philippine problems.” (Reproductive Health Bill opponent and famous autodidact Francisco Tatad, however, may feel differently about the sometimes high-profile involvement of Ateneo de Manila faculty.)

All this is a measure of the manifesto’s success, that many of the dramatic changes it called for are now, and have been for a long time, in place; many, in fact, are simply taken for granted. This is not to lay all the blame (to use the Jesuits’ own ironic use of language) at the foot of the five essayists. In many ways they were a true vanguard: they heralded the change that was to come.

* * *

The political and cultural awakening that shook the Ateneo de Manila in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose fitful beginning we can date to the publication of “Down from the Hill,” changed everything. And yet, the jaded French are happy to remind anyone, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Consider Mikey Arroyo, the President’s son who is the current and intemperate kingmaker in Congress. Or consider (to offer another example) Jinggoy Estrada, another president’s son who uses the pulpit of the Senate to exact revenge on political enemies. I do not know if Montemayor (who graduated summa cum laude from Ateneo, worked closely with farmers, then served as agriculture secretary to President Arroyo) would agree with me, but don’t Mikey and Jinggoy belong, perhaps even define, this generation’s “oppressive power elite”?

Indeed, “Down from the Hill” grounds its analysis of the university experience on a reading of the national situation that remains relevant today. “These are self-evident. That a power elite controls government for its own interests over and above those of the great majority of our countrymen. And that this same power elite maintains an unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth, which action is unjust because of the great disparity existing between the rich and the poor.”

Perhaps it is time for another group of undergraduates to take that long, pensive ride up to Baguio.

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