Column: ‘You can’t go back again’

Published on February 4, 2014.

The Akbayan party-list group invited me to speak, as “an outsider looking in,” at its 16th anniversary program last Thursday. I began by adverting to what I supposed was “a time of mixed emotions” for the party I had occasionally voted for, following its entry into mainstream politics and its mingled success and failure in last year’s election. Then I offered three points for reflection, as follows:

You cannot go back again.

By that I mean that now that you are part of mainstream politics, you can no longer act as though you are an alternative political party. At least, public opinion won’t allow you that leeway…. Let me explain with an example from a previous political crisis.

In August 2005, a month after the so-called Hyatt 10 resignations helped bring the Arroyo administration to the brink of collapse, Dinky Soliman, for whom I have nothing but the highest admiration, wrote a long letter explaining her decision to resign. It was a candid, soul-baring letter, intellectually searching and morally courageous, but like many other readers, I also found it unsatisfactory for a particular reason.

I wrote then:

“Participation is the language that civil-society leaders and organizers like Dinky and Ging Deles started to speak when they joined government service. It is the rhetoric of engagement (and hence compromise)…. Perhaps people sense that, having mastered the language of participation in the last four years… civil-society gurus like Dinky and Ging now have a marked, disconcerting accent, when they speak the language of protest… ”

I think this limitation now applies to Akbayan as well. Having practiced the language of participation in the last four years, you can no longer speak the language of protest with the same kind of credibility as in the past…

Please note that I did not say that you can no longer act as alternative politicians. You certainly can, and you should. To use language older than those of participation or protest, you must serve as a leaven. Personal integrity is important, but the real need is for the embrace of the true foundation stone of a republic: public virtue. A corps of political activists dedicated to the honor and glory of the country, consumed with the ideal of public service, will raise the quality of mainstream politics.

You cannot go back again, but at the same time you must find your way back—all the way to the beginning of our history as a nation.

The roots of your politics lie entangled in the freedom struggle during the martial law years, and it is only right that your political statements, your party positions, reflect that background.

But is it possible that your references are too limiting, your sense of history too, well, recent?… You might want to consider integrating your political program into a historical framework that goes beyond the First Quarter Storm.

In the first quarter of 2011, Social Weather Stations asked voting-age Filipinos who, in their opinion, were the country’s true heroes…. Rizal, Bonifacio and Ninoy Aquino were top of mind.

Across the board, about three-quarters of all respondents named Rizal as a genuine hero: 74 percent in Metro Manila, 79 percent in the rest of Luzon, 78 percent in the Visayas, 68 percent in Mindanao—75 percent throughout the Philippines.

Bonifacio was a consistent though distant second: 47 percent in Metro Manila, 34 percent in the rest of Luzon, 35 percent in the Visayas, 25 percent in Mindanao—and 34 percent throughout the Philippines.

Ninoy ran third in the people’s list: 33 percent in Metro Manila, 18 percent in the rest of Luzon, 20 percent in the Visayas, 15 percent in Mindanao, 20 percent in the entire Philippines…

What do these numbers tell us?

I am happy to note, first, that the martyrdom of Ninoy Aquino has found its place in the national narrative of heroism. The survey includes some surprising findings. In class ABC, for instance, the same proportion of respondents, 23 percent, included Bonifacio and Aquino in their lists. And in Mindanao, Cory Aquino outpolled Ninoy, 19 to 15 percent.

Second, the preeminence of Rizal is overwhelming and, to those of us who went to college under the steady influence of Renato Constantino’s selective and misleading reading of Rizal, somewhat surprising. But there is truly something we can all learn from Rizal and the so-called Generation of ’72: the youthful cohort who were traumatized and politicized by the gratuitous execution of the priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora. The true beginnings of the Filipino nation can be traced here.

In eight years, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the imposition of martial law. Your constituents will fully expect you to mark this national tragedy with the appropriate initiatives, perhaps even lead the nation in vowing, “Never Again.” But the same year will also mark the 150th anniversary of the Gomburza execution. You might want to take part in the commemorative rites too.

But enough of the past.

You must go forward, and take full part in the defining struggle of our time: the fight against inequality.

Corruption is the familiar dragon that we seek to slay, but there is a bigger monster lurking in the background. We often define this behemoth in economic terms, in terms of the widening gap between the richest and the poorest. But in truth, inequality rears its ugly head in education, in business, in culture, in religion, in politics.

Difficult times lie ahead. In part, the difficulty lies in the terrain that you’ve chosen to put your stake in, towards the political center. That is, I suspect, where most Filipinos would place themselves, if asked. But standing out, cutting a profile, is easier when you’re standing on one edge, leveraging the extreme. But governing—governing is hard work indeed.

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