Risk and responsibility

While his assassination, questions about which remain open to this day, has transformed him into a martyr of democracy, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., the scion of a prominent clan in Tarlac, was by no means the passive or peaceable figure that the idea of martyrdom tends to conjure up—he was very much the opposite, in fact. As Cory, his own wife, once wryly remarked: “I know he’d die if we led a quiet life.” When he first entered public life as an assistant to President Ramon Magsaysay, he was, as he recounted to National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, a “siga-siga“: cocky and tough, believing that offense was the best defense.

Such an attitude would serve him well as he rode his vaulting ambition all the way to the Senate, where he occupied a seat that was initially perilous. On account of his youth—at the time that the 1967 elections were held, he was 17 days short of 35 years, the minimum required age for a Senator—a protest was lodged with the Senate Electoral Tribunal in order to remove him from office. The tribunal eventually decided that the proper reckoning of age ought to begin on the day that the “the expression of the popular will” was ascertained—that is, the day that the final poll results were announced—and allowed him to keep his post. Long before the ruling was handed down, however, Ninoy had already formulated a strategy: attack President Ferdinand Marcos. “If I kept hitting at Marcos, any effort to get me kicked out of the Senate would become political persecution, pure and simple,” he said.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

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Something to remember*

Possibly my favorite anecdote about Cory Aquino is recorded in The Quartet of the Tiger Moon: Scenes from the People Power Apocalypse by Nick Joaquin, who wrote it under his journalistic nom de plume, Quijano de Manila. On February 25, 1986, some minutes before her inauguration as President of the Philippines in the Sampaguita Room of Club Filipino, Marcos defectors Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos arrived by helicopter and entered the hall, the former defense minister in a rose shirt with white stripes, and the military general in uniform. When she returned the salute that Ramos gave her, Joaquin recounts that “every Cory watcher fondly murmured: ‘She’ll have to be taught how to salute!’”

It had taken her years of hardship, prayer, and preparation to arrive at this momentous occasion, and yet, as the story has it, even on the cusp of power, the woman who would later be hailed far and wide as a champion of freedom, cited as inspiration for the various peaceful uprisings around the world that followed in the wake of the EDSA Revolution, mourned by millions both at home and abroad upon her death after a battle with cancer, and canonized by one American magazine as the “saint of democracy”, committed a protocolary lapse. It was a small one, to be sure, but the defectiveness of the gesture, observed and commented upon by many witnesses, underscores that aspect of Cory all too often overlooked or ignored, especially after she left us three years ago: her humanity, and everything that being human entails, which includes the capacity to rear and to raze, to scourge and to save.

Cory Aquino with children and grandchildren in her Times Street Home (1993)

Cory Aquino with children and grandchildren in her Times Street Home in 1993. Front, L-R: Miguel Abellada, Jiggy Cruz, Jonty Cruz, Kris, Nina Abellada, Viel, and Kiko Dee. Back, L-R: Pinky, Manolo Abellada, Noynoy, Dodo Dee, Ballsy, and Eldon Cruz. (Scanned from ‘In the Name of Democracy and Prayer: Selected Speeches of Corazon C. Aquino’.)

We are often exhorted against speaking ill of those who have passed away. This is not so much for their sake, as the deceased are obviously no longer capable of caring, but rather for us, because we would generally prefer to preserve pleasant, or at least not negative, memories of the dead. I am not certain, though, that placing them upon the possible highest pedestals that we can conceive of and construct is necessarily desirable. The tendency to deify people who have been significant to us, of which Cory is no doubt one, is likely informed by good intentions. To my mind, however, converting pivotal figures into icons and locking them away behind a kind of discursive glass, beyond the range of the critical heat and light of the present, serves no fruitful purpose. In fact, I would argue that such is fatal to the enterprise of excavating a usable past from which to draw out—to borrow from The Wasteland by the poet T. S. Eliot—the fragments that can shored against our ruins, for sacralization takes notable acts and events out of the ebb and flow of history, rendering them seemingly unattainable by any other.

We may well need our martyrs and heroes, but we must not forget that their accomplishments are within our own potential, particularly because our abilities as such matter less than the decisions that we make. Cory, a self-proclaimed “plain housewife” with no prior political experience—no experience, she once famously claimed in a speech, “in cheating, stealing, lying, or assassinating political opponents”—changed the destiny of our nation for the better when she made the choice to rise to the challenge of leading the movement to tear down a repressive regime, whatever else might be said of her subsequent choices when she ascended to the seat of power. Perhaps the best way to do her memory honor today is to remind ourselves that we, as agents of history, can and should also be catalysts of positive social transformation.

* This was published in slightly different form in the 1 August 2012 edition of The Philippine Star in order to commemorate the third death anniversary of Cory Aquino.

Against a non-partisan People Power

Speaking at the ceremony commemorating the 24th anniversary of the People Power Revolution, our hardworking and prayerful President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, bemoaned the “partisanship” that the notion of “people power” has acquired through the years, and arrogated unto herself the authority to define it: “It is not about whose politics one supports. It’s about the heroism of the many who held strongly to their faith in the Filipino and who have sought a new Philippines that stands proudly beside any free nation in the world.” She further claimed that one of the goals that she had set for her administration was to heal the wounds that the revolution had opened, a goal at which she had partially succeeded.

This is the same tune Macapagal-Arroyo has been singing almost all throughout her scandal-plagued and controversy-ridden regime—a regime made possible by the spirit of the same revolution she has since disgraced—and yet constant repetition has not robbed it of its deadly and deadening allure. In many respects, it is a siren song, rendering the listener mad with desire—the desire, in this instance, for the cessation of conflicts, deployed in the interminable themes of “moving on” or “moving forward”. The cessation of conflicts, however, is not the same as their resolution: the latter requires attending to the tensions and contradictions with which the arduous process of change is engendered, while the former forecloses the possibilities for just such a process, instead promoting paralysis, petrification, and putrefaction. To choose the former path is to be non-partisan, which is to say, finally, non-human.

If every nation is to be understood, in Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, as an “imagined community”, then memory can only play a central role in the formation of any given nation, for imagination draws its energy not only from lived experience but also from the wellsprings of memory. A relatively wide, shared understanding of the past and what it means is necessary in order to establish bonds of affection, to generate duties and responsibilities, to construct and reinforce a sense of self.

The place of memory, however, is not upon a candlelit pedestal and behind glass, as though it were a santo in a viriña, protected from the ebb and flow of history, but within the minds and hearts of human beings who exist in and encounter a world that is ever in flux, a world that is contested at all times and in all places. Therefore, the act of remembering is always already political. For a nation, memory is both an adhesive and a solvent, prone to uses that are, on the one hand, ancillary, adventitious, and indifferent, and on the other, vital, vigorous, and transformational. Consider: what is the point of the “greatness” of Filipinos that Macapagal-Arroyo extols when such greatness is confined to an elegiac enclave, never to be thrust into the light of the present, and restored to life and warmth?

The difficult realities with which our lives are fraught and wrought oblige us to take on the burdens of intervention—of doing something about the world. We cannot disavow accountability or remain above the fray: each of us must decide where his or her values lie, and be ready to take up and defend the position that resonates with those values. To do otherwise—in the name, perhaps, of that oft-abused term , “public interest”—is to betray a mindset that sees the world as natural, as neutral—and thus, ultimately, amoral. In other words, each of us must be partisan: as human beings, as agents of history, as catalysts of change, as people with the power of revolution.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

To vanquish a hydra

On December 1, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo formalized her 2010 bid to represent the second district of Pampanga in the Lower House, Fr. Roland Moraleja, who delivered the homily at a special concelebrated mass, made the now-(in)famous comment likening Macapagal-Arroyo to Jesus. Although Pampanga Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David called the comparison blasphemous, it was again invoked, albeit in a more subdued fashion, by Press Secretary Cerge Remonde in a Malacañang press conference last Sunday, nearly two days after the hardworking and prayerful President issued Proclamation No. 1959, which declared a state of martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in most of Maguindanao.

Asked for a reaction regarding the outcry against the proclamation, Remonde said that Macapagal-Arroyo was “ready to be crucified” by public opinion on the matter, and would let nothing stop her from doing what she needs to do, as she has the best interests of Maguindanao at heart. (Due to a clerical error that Raissa Robles has already discussed, it seemed for a while that the best interests of Maguindanao were mysteriously linked to the establishment of a village school in Zamboanga del Sur.)

The vacuity and spuriousness of the comparison of the President to Christ notwithstanding, I am willing to concede that it can be upheld on one point. Consider this excerpt from the speech she delivered on December 30, 2002, the 106th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jose Rizal:

However, we also know that we will soon enter the political period leading up to the elections in 2004. My reading on the political winds tells me that the 2004 election may well go down in history as among our most bitterly contested elections ever. This is because of the deep social and political division that we now have.

If this is true, then sincere efforts to launch programs will run the risk of being derailed by political fighting leading up to the elections.

The government in place after 2004 may merely end up inheriting a country as deeply divided as ever. Consequently, we may end up stalling national growth for a few years more as a result of lost momentum.

In view of all these factors, I have decided not to run for President during the election of 2004.

When she reneged on this last statement by entering the race, and emerged victorious, she reinforced, even exacerbated, the very divisions that she had initially claimed to be wary of, especially after she was beset by allegations of having cheated her way into power, sparking a controversy that still smolders, unresolved. This brings to mind what Jesus said in Luke 12:51-53:

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

As a holiday bonus to Macapagal-Arroyo, I am further willing to concede that, just like Christ in his time, she is widely distrusted, if not downright reviled.

Where the analogy ultimately fails is the idea of resurrection. Macapagal-Arroyo, despite being the “luckiest bitch around“, despite the performance of self-serving “miracles”, has yet to prove that she is capable of rising from the dead, although her ability to avoid (political) death is certainly nothing to scoff at. Anyway, in the name of authenticity, she would first have to be willing to be whipped, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, force-fed vinegar, jabbed with spears, and generally jeered at until she expires.

What I find to be the most useful image with which to make sense of the present dispensation comes out of Greek mythology: the Lernaean Hydra. A fearsome, serpent-like beast that dwelt in the swamp of Lerna, the hydra was known for preying upon cattle and terrorizing nearby villages, and was extremely difficult to kill. It possessed nine heads, eight mortal and one immortal, and once a mortal head was cut off, two more would grow in its place.

Apollodorus tells us that Herakles himself, though blessed with superhuman strength, would not have been able to slay the hydra without assistance from his young nephew: “…[Herakles] called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus.”

My point here is that the administration of Macapagal-Arroyo has displayed a talent—if talent it can indeed be called—not for solving problems but for multiplying them. By consistently framing national affairs in the language of war, by cultivating an environment of apparently ceaseless chaos, the regime renders the formation of a broad, durable opposition almost impossible—worse, it induces in the majority a sense of utter helplessness, which lends itself so easily, as seen in the wake of the Hello Garci scandal, to willful myopia, to cynicism, to the belief that it is more enlightened to forgive and forget. Never mind that all moral responsibility is relinquished, that the grievous wounds to the body politic continue to fester and putrefy beneath the Band-Aid of “moving on”, that the hydra is allowed to grow in strength and impunity.

With Proclamation No. 1959, the ridiculous, error-riddled report that purports to justify it, and the pathetic performance of Macapagal-Arroyo’s cabinet officials at the joint session of Congress, the price of moving on should be crystal-clear: moving on allows evil to become ordinary. Every time the public fails to muster the strength to be outraged, it becomes complicit in the commission of ever more outrageous deeds. Every time the public agrees with the Palace mouthpieces—experts at victimage and little else—that the President is attacked no matter what she does, it gives her license to do whatever she wants—and this is a President who seems determined to try everything, including the creation of the very same monster that she now claims to want to destroy: her erstwhile allies and still-good friends, the mass-murdering members of the Ampatuan clan.

Last July, in her State of the Nation Address, Macapagal-Arroyo challenged her detractors, saying, “Do not tell us what we all know, that democracy can be threatened. Tell us what you will do when it is attacked.” In the face of this state-sponsored attack on democracy, how shall we, the people, act?