Category Archives: Readings in History

On the level of craft alone, this movie is must-viewing

Respeto

I saw “Respeto” a second time last night, and it was even better than I remembered. Just on the level of craft alone, the movie is must-viewing: The actors do not seem to be performing at all, but only living out their portion of life. (Dido De La Paz is unforgettable as Doc; the rap stars Abra and Loonie are a revelation—but it seems unfair to point to individual actors when the ensemble acting is so fluid and generous and on point.) The story is gritty AF but punctuated repeatedly by genuinely funny moments. (In this sense, it is very much like the Noli.) The cinematography finds the hidden poetry of Manila’s ugly quarter (the tracking shots,  the chase scenes in what is our own flyover country, above all the calming, clarifying episodes in the cemetery). The writing is first-rate (and the English subtitles match it). Not least: the music! I am not a hiphop or rap fan, but I came away from the first viewing with a new respect for this nasty, brutal but legitimate art. (That the rap battles were improvised on set, as director Treb Monteras said in one interview, is another reason to respect this angry, difficult form.)

The theme is bleak, and the reality the movie gives vivid life to is as complicated as our own tortuous history. But that this independent movie even got made, and that it is so good, equal parts heart and craft, is both proof and source of hope.

 

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Column: The transformations of Rodrigo Duterte

Written on the day of the controversial second State of the Nation Address, and published on July 25, 2017.

Since I first met him in August 2015, I have tried to describe Rodrigo Duterte, the man and politician, as fairly, as completely, as I could. In this column and before various audiences—rule of law advocates in The Hague, student leaders on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, Asian news executives in Bangkok, campus writers in Legazpi, journalists in Perugia, even residents of my hometown of Cagayan de Oro—I have sought to give President Duterte his due.

I have always pointed out that, in private, Mr. Duterte is unfailingly courteous, and thoughtful and responsive in conversation. He makes bold statements (arguing, for instance, that the presidency is not powerful enough) but leavens them with an earnest mien, a healthy sense of humor, even a talent for mimicry. I’ve met him only thrice — a group interview at the Inquirer that lasted for about four hours, a chance encounter at the Naia 2 airport, a presidential debate — but my impressions have found an echo in the recollections of the senators and Cabinet secretaries I’ve interviewed since his election.

I have also always noted that Mr. Duterte is a genuinely charismatic personality; I have seen his effect on an audience of about 50 as well as a massive crowd (the thanksgiving rally in Davao City after his victory) of perhaps 500,000. There is really something there that many people respond to. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seen this charisma at work, not only in the President’s native Davao but in Tokyo, too, when Mr. Duterte came visiting. It is a mistake to dismiss this talk of mass appeal or reduce it to cult-like conduct. (To be sure, there is that, too.)

But put a microphone in front of him, and (time to look afresh at this tired phrase) all hell breaks loose. Continue reading

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Marcos was the worst (a series)

In the last four years, I’ve written four columns making the case that “Marcos was the worst,” period.

In September 2013, in “Marcos was the worst,” I argued that the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was the most corrupt man in Philippine history. “Compared to Ferdinand Marcos, however, [Gloria] Arroyo and [Joseph] Estrada were rank amateurs. Marcos institutionalized corruption on such a scale we continue to feel its effects today. In his 20 years in power, the country’s foreign debt metastasized from about $1 billion to over $25 billion; in a statement released last year, FDC repeats the estimate that as much as a third of all that debt, about $8 billion, went into his pockets or those of his cronies.” (I also argued that, measured against his own anti-communist standard, he was a colossal failure in containing the communist insurgency he said was the reason for declaring martial rule in the first place.)

In September 2014, in “Marcos was the worst (2): The SC,” I argued that Marcos, who prided himself on his legal acumen and painstakingly constructed a legal facade for his dictatorship, systematically subverted the Supreme Court and the rule of law itself. “Marcos, entering the second half of his second and last term, was anxious about how the Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of the suspension of the writ, which had been immediately challenged. So he did what came naturally to him: He subverted yet another democratic institution.”

In September 2015, in “Marcos was the worst (3),” I argued that the Marcos era represented the fourth occupation of the Philippines. “In 1981 Marcos inaugurated what he grandly called the Fourth Republic. But it is closer to the truth to say that his regime was, in fact, the Fourth Occupation. After the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese, Marcos used martial law to colonize the Philippines.”

And in September 2016, in “Marcos was the worst (4),” I argued that Marcos succeeded in imposing martial rule because he had manipulated, intimidated, or incentivized the business community into supporting what he called the New Society. “But the Marcos regime lasted as long as it did, not only because Marcos’ Ilocanization of the military had turned it into a pliant tool, but also because many businessmen believed political stability was in their best interest; the Americans, too, found his anticommunism appealing.”

This is the same man a majority of justices on the Supreme Court allowed to be buried at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, the very same man honored by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines with a monument and by President Duterte with a province-wide holiday.

For shame.

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Column: If Taruc is a hero, what?

Published on July 4, 2017, but perhaps apropos reading for yesterday’s celebration of National Heroes Day. 

The honors paid last month to Luis Taruc, cofounder of the Huks, invites us to think, again and with a greater sense of complication, about our notions of heroism.

An Inquirer editorial tried to anticipate the public’s response to the unveiling of a historical marker at Taruc’s place of birth and to the statement of recognition from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines “that Luis Taruc is a hero” by identifying three types of possible reception. “This pronouncement may strike some as belated but deserved recognition; others may criticize it as insufficiently historical or an affront to the memory of other heroes; still others may wonder what all the fuss is about.”

If not indifference, I would venture that wonder at what all the fuss was about was the majority reaction — but I did see criticism of the Taruc pronouncement. Inquirer columnist Manolo Quezon was one of those who showed his disagreement by circulating a Philippines Free Press cartoon listing Taruc’s many iniquities. I respect Quezon’s position, not only because his grandmother Aurora Quezon was assassinated by the Huks in 1949, but even more so because his work is shaped by a deep understanding of Philippine history.

Recognition of Taruc’s heroism, however, forces us to take a closer look at the different, even conflicting, narratives of heroism we have learned to tell. To make a nation, it takes all kinds of heroes. Continue reading

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Column: What would Rizal say (to Duterte)?

The 2nd In the Shadow of the Dragon forum, held at the auditorium of the De La Salle University Rufino Campus, in BGC.

Published on June 20, 2017.

At an Inquirer forum on Philippine independence and the rise of China, the young historian Leloy Claudio said something in passing which generated some Twitter attention. “If Rizal were alive today, he’d be ‘dilawan,’” Claudio said. He was referencing Rizal’s struggle for civil liberties as an indication that he would be, in today’s reductionist, polarized setting, not a Duterte supporter but an Aquino reformist—that is, a “Yellow.”

We mark Rizal’s 156th birthday at a time when the incumbent President is seeking to overhaul Philippine society itself; as Claudio’s remarks suggest, Rizal today seems more indispensable than ever. I think I know why: He reminds us what it means to be Filipino. Continue reading

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Epitaph on a Tyrant

Always ahead of the curve, Lourd de Veyra circulated this six-line poem some time ago; it is a reflection on the nature of tyranny. (W. H. Auden wrote it in January 1939, and I believe was referencing Adolf Hitler.) We can listen to Auden himself recite the poem, here.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

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The 7 No’s of Dutertismo

Saguisag 060817

On June 8, I joined a “forum on civil liberties and democracy” at De La Salle University on Taft Avenue called “Gathering Hope”—and came away a little more hopeful. Part of the reason I showed up was to see Rene Saguisag, the great civil libertarian of our time, in action again. I was fortunate to sit beside him, and took a couple of pictures of him in mid-speech (at that point when he was recalling an old story about a mischievous boy and a grandfather figure, whose moral the grandfather summed up in the following wise: “The answer lies in your hands”). Continue reading

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Column: ‘Why prefer a dictatorship to freedom?’

The second column prompted by the IJF17 panel discussion on “Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism.” Published on April 18, 2017.

As it turns out, more research exists on authoritarian followers than on authoritarian leaders. I do not know this paradox for a fact, but I believe someone who does: the psychologist who is a leading scholar on authoritarianism, Bob Altemeyer. I was led to his work by a presentation Alexa Koenig of UC Berkeley made at the International Journalism Festival two weeks ago; I have since read his “The Authoritarians,” available for free online. It makes for instructive reading. It helps explain our experience under martial law, and why we may yet again find ourselves on the road to authoritarian rule.

The paradox can be explained simply. As Altemeyer writes: “The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom? So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem.” Continue reading

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Column: Why Marcos IS the dividing line

Published on December 6, 2016.

In recent weeks, I had a chance to meet with student leaders involved in organizing the mass actions to protest the Marcos burial, and I came away deeply impressed. One group, in particular, stood out for how they embraced the complexity of the issue (it wasn’t simply the Marcoses trying to deceive the Filipino people again, although there was that); they understood that President Duterte was pivotal (none of the other post-Edsa presidents had green-lighted the burial), but intuited that Gloria Arroyo was also possibly another, crucial factor.

They were clear about the help they needed, especially in processing the terabytes of information they were receiving, both online and off. But one of the students shared an organizing principle that helped guide their decision-making process on Nov. 18, the day the Marcos family carried out the burial. “At what scale,” he said they had found themselves asking, “will we make an impact?”

We didn’t ask penetrating questions like these when it was our turn to take to the streets a generation ago; I believe this generation is in very good hands. Continue reading

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Column: Why we MUST protest

Published on November 22, 2016.

We should join the mass actions to protest the Marcos burial—especially the ones called for Nov. 25 and Nov. 30—because the times call for it. Our dignity as free Filipinos has been challenged, our sense of heroism, of honor even, has been gravely insulted; the democratic project itself is under threat. Allowing the dictator’s remains to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a national shrine, undermines the constitutional order.

We must show up in force in protest sites across the country.

We should protest the miscarriage of justice that is the Supreme Court decision in the Marcos burial cases. It is an abhorrent outcome not because it favors the Marcoses but because it is manifestly unjust; it disregards settled jurisprudence, minimizes the import of history, bends over backward to accommodate the incumbent President, and above all self-emasculates the judiciary, in order to favor the Marcoses. I have criticized the careless thinking and cowardly positions of Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s unfortunate majority opinion, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa’s comprehensive rebuttal (every point of Peralta’s is dealt with, decisively) ends with the following deeply moving reflection. Continue reading

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Column: The unfortunate Justice Peralta

Published on November 15, 2016.

There is none so blind as he who refuses to see. Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s ponencia in the Marcos burial cases will go down in history as the cowardly rationalizations of a willfully blind man; he deserves the opprobrium coming his way. He still has six years to serve in the Supreme Court, but his legacy will be forever defined by this badly written, ill-thought-through, deliberately obtuse majority decision.

Peralta’s opinion begins: “In law, as much as in life, there is need to find closure. Issues that have lingered and festered for so long and which unnecessarily divide the people and slow the path to the future have to be interred. To move on is not to forget the past.” This New Age-speak is nonsense, misleadingly so, because closure does not come from any Court ruling but from a ruling that is truly just.

The opinion ends with a similar lame attempt at an overview: “There are certain things that are better left for history—not this Court—to adjudge. The Court could only do so much in accordance with the clearly established rules and principles. Beyond that, it is ultimately for the people themselves, as the sovereign, to decide, a task that may require the better perspective that the passage of time provides.”

That squeaking you hear? That’s the sound of Peralta and the eight justices who joined the majority trying to fit their bottoms on the fence they’re sitting on. The people had already decided: They ousted Marcos, supported the restoration of democratic institutions, overwhelmingly ratified the Constitution. It takes an extra amount of determination to ignore history.

Continue reading

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Column: The Supreme Court vs the Marcoses

Published on October 18, 2016.

If the Supreme Court did not exist, an Inquirer editorial once argued, it would be necessary to invent it. We can add a corollary: If an occasion demanded its invention, it would be the series of legal issues arising from the Marcos dictatorship. Ferdinand Marcos rose to power through skillful use of the means of democracy—the same democracy he and his wife then subverted when he imposed military rule and assumed absolute power.

The Marcoses, to steal one of Philip Larkin’s unforgettable opening lines, “they f*ck you up.”

I use the present tense, because even though Marcos himself died a quarter-century ago, many parts of the legal and political and cultural edifice he built persist to this day. So yes, the Marcoses continue to mess with our mind—and proof lies in President Duterte’s unrepentantly legalistic view that nothing bars him from ordering the burial of the dictator’s remains at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (and honoring his campaign promises).

It’s a narrow interpretation of a tenuous legal principle, against the whole weight of history. This is Marcosian in both inspiration and execution, a privileging of the created legal order at the expense of national experience and the public interest.

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Column: Marcos was the worst (4)

Published on September 20, 2016.

On Monday, one of the honorary chairs of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry stirred some controversy when he spoke on President Duterte’s war on drugs. CNN’s Claire Jiao tweeted two of businessman Sergio Ortiz-Luis Jr.’s statements. First: “Foreign investors go to a country for income. They don’t care if 50% of Filipinos are killing each other.” And second: “We have declared a war on drugs. The deaths are just collateral damage. We have to accept it.”

The current chair of the country’s largest business association, Benedicto Yujuico, expressed the same view. Jiao tweeted the PCCI executive’s statement, too: “Most Asian gov’ts think our war on drugs is good. It’s the Western nations bringing up human rights.”

All these make for dismaying reading, because in a previous life I worked closely with PCCI staff, and in the late 1980s even sat in on a few PCCI board meetings, when it was under the leadership of the redoubtable Aurelio Periquet Jr. I found the directors amiable, public-spirited, forward-looking—not the crass caricature that their recent statements make Ortiz-Luis and Yujuico out to be.

The two PCCI officials’ views are shocking in absolute terms: Aside from the sheer stupidity of asserting that a civil war or dramatically high crime rates (“50 percent of Filipinos killing each other”) will not adversely affect foreign investor interest in an emerging economy like the Philippines, they must be called to account for their calculated amorality: How can 3,000 killings of suspects and not a few innocents in less than three months be called mere collateral damage?

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Imagining Independence

Rooting through my files yesterday, I found the presentation deck I prepared for the first of my two lectures at the Yuchengco Museum in 2011. I remember the thrill of the moment — it was among the first public lectures I gave after I had written my book on Jose Rizal’s influence on Southeast Asian nationalism — but I had all but forgotten the slides.

I started with a famous painting, zoomed in on a much less famous but illuminating illustration, and discussed three episodes tracing Rizal’s influence. (I included possibly the most celebrated example of all.)

I’ve attached a PDF version of the slides — all 48 of them!

imagining-independence

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Column: Bonifacio’s blank stare, Agoncillo’s ‘friendly hostility’

Published on October 20, 2015.

BONIFACIO BEGAN to eat his simple fare, and while thus employed he heard a rifle shot that made him start. He put down the bowl and looked blankly at his uncle-in-law. His heart beat loudly, savagely against his breast.

“What was that, Uncle?” he asked, fidgeting nervously. “Did they kill my brother?”

“No, my son,” the old man answered laconically.

“Well, how is he doing? Please feed him, too,” he implored, fearing that his brother was suffering from hunger. Continue reading

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Column: Miseducated by Constantino

Published on October 13, 2015.

If Teodoro Agoncillo was the Moses of the class-conflict theory of the Philippine Revolution, the historian Renato Constantino was its Joshua—he led their followers into the promised land. Since the late 1960s, the rich-versus-poor theory has become mainstream fare, even conventional wisdom; despite the efforts of the director and the cast of “Heneral Luna” to add layers of nuance to their interpretation of history, for instance, the movie’s narrative momentum leads easily to a confirmation of the Agoncillo-Constantino thesis. It is the frame that fits most conveniently.

To Agoncillo’s pioneering work, Constantino added structure and consistency; unfortunately for the Philippine revolutionary experience, it was the structure and consistency of a Marxist ideology. In groundbreaking, icon-shattering lectures and essays such as “Veneration without Understanding” and “The Miseducation of the Filipino,” and in forceful textbook-length arguments like “A Past Revisited,” Constantino advocated, in the words of his most perceptive critic, “the importance of the correct understanding of the Filipino past in order to have insight into the problems of the present.” The scholar John Schumacher, SJ, summed up the historian’s driving impulse: “[H]e has expounded on the pernicious role that the official view of the Filipino past inculcated by colonial historiography and the American educational system has had in disfiguring in the minds of Filipinos the true story of their past.”

It is a profound irony, then, that Constantino sought to recover that “true story” using a Marxist framework, which the revolutionaries themselves did not use and which the revolutionary experience disproved.

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Column: Miseducated by Agoncillo

Published on October 6, 2015.

The most influential Filipino historian of the 20th century was the formidable Teodoro Agoncillo, who wrote “The Revolt of the Masses” and changed our view of history. Not all of his influence, however, was salutary or, in truth, properly historiographical. He wrote some bad history.

As the provocative success of the historical epic “Heneral Luna” should prove, his driving idea that class conflict defined the Philippine revolution and explains its ultimate failure has come to be so dominant, so second-nature to any discussion of Philippine history, that it has even come to wrap one historical figure he did not deem heroic in the one-size-fits-all mantle of class-conscious heroism.

I mean Antonio Luna, of course. In the course of a series of conversations with Ambeth Ocampo, which Ambeth has been kind enough to recall in these pages, Agoncillo once waxed eloquent against Luna’s betrayal of the first phase of the revolution (“Luna not only did not join the Revolution of 1896, he was a traitor!”) before reaching a thundering conclusion: “As a matter of fact, I do not consider Luna a hero. How did he become a hero? He never won any battle, papaano mo sasabihing hero iyan [how can you say that’s a hero]?” Continue reading

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Column: What we (still) don’t know about Antonio Luna

Published on September 29, 2015.

In “Heneral Luna,” the actor Alvin Anson portrays Jose Alejandrino—the revolutionary general whose memoirs serve as a supplemental source for the acclaimed movie. Those memoirs, published in 1933 and translated into English in 1949, offer the fullest portrait of his good friend, the mercurial Antonio Luna. It gives us vivid impressions (to borrow Luna’s favorite literary style) of his student days in Europe, his tumultuous year with the Army of the Malolos Republic—and, in 1896, his hour of treason and cowardice.

A two-paragraph section in Alejandrino’s “The Price of Freedom” and titled “Antonio Luna in the year 1896” makes for necessary reading.

“It appears in official documents that in this period Luna committed the greatest error of his life in denouncing the existence of the Katipunan and in revealing, during his imprisonment after the first outbreak of the rebellion, the names of some of his friends affiliated with the Society. Later, he explained however to me his aforesaid acts by saying that with the physical and moral tortures which he suffered during his imprisonment, and upon being assured by the Spaniards that he had been squealed upon by his own friends, denouncing him as an accomplice in the rebellion, his violent character made him lose his better judgment. And having fallen for the scheme woven by the Spaniards, he declared that those who had denounced him were more guilty than he.

“The events of 1896 separated us from each other, he having been prosecuted and later on sentenced to suffer imprisonment in Spain, while I left the country for China and Japan [on official missions for Emilio Aguinaldo to procure arms for the revolution]. We were able to see each [other] again in Kabite toward the month of July, 1898. He was returning home after having served his sentence in the Model Prison of Madrid, and he brought with him in his baggage books on military strategy and tactics and treatises on field fortifications. Above all, he brought with him a desire to atone for his past mistakes.” Continue reading

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Column: Apolinario Mabini vs General Luna

The first of five columns provoked, or inspired, by two viewings of Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna.” Published on September 22, 2015. 

Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” is a masterpiece of filmmaking; we should all see it. But it is, primarily, art; only, secondarily, history. Learning to distinguish one from the other is an exhilarating, necessary, education.

The “but” in the lead is a testament to the movie’s persuasive power. Much of this power lies in the astute casting, in the sweeping cinematography, in the compelling pace of the storytelling; some of it rests on the familiar structure of the narrative: of one against many, of country before self, of nation above class, of good versus evil.

The movie begins, and ends, with a disclaimer about creative license. Tarog’s reimagining of parts of Philippine history has inspired spirited discussion in the classroom or animated conversations over coffee or beer, about the shape of our history and about our own role in the shaping. (I overheard one conversation between early-twentysomethings; they were hoping that, perhaps, just perhaps, box-office results would lead to a trilogy of movies—a trilogy about Philippine revolutionary heroes, not comic-book or Young Adult characters!) Continue reading

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A revolutionary movie

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