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.

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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.]

The abjuration of nostalgia

Into the darkness of a Carmelite monastery in Zamboanga did Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III retreat to pray for the light of discernment, and what emerged from that protected and protective space, that veritable womb, was a presidential candidate.

Unlike many a birth, however, that of Candidate Noynoy was met with less than unmitigated joy, though some reactions were certainly hagiographical in character. The neonate candidate also aroused in Filipinos trepidation, cynicism, outright hostility, and, I suppose, no small amount of befuddlement, especially among those who came into the world or grew to awareness after the EDSA Revolution.

As Manuel Buencamino has pointed out, Noynoy has not done too shabbily for a lucky sperm. He is at least as qualified as any other person who has declared his or her intention to run for president—and I do not refer merely to the requirements provided for in the Constitution—and his very entry into the race seems to have generated greater public interest in the 2010 elections as a whole. Nevertheless, I do not think it baseless or unfair to remark that, at this point, the energy animating and driving his pre-campaign (the official campaign period begins in November, after all) is primarily—though not exclusively—a longing for what once was.

I am not saying this to put down his candidacy. I do bear in mind that the presidency was probably not an office that Noynoy aspired to before the clamor for him to do so began, and that his choice was an extremely difficult one, flying in the face of financial and logistical odds, starting with the fact that he is standard-bearer for a badly fragmented party. And while Candidate Noynoy was unavoidably—perhaps even necessarily—born under the aegis of nostalgia, that is no reason to dismiss him. In his speech announcing his candidacy at Club Filipino, Noynoy recounted a conversation with a customs employee who, upon learning that Noynoy was running, said, “Salamat naman at pwede na po muling mangarap.” Furthermore, a recent SWS survey showed that 50% of respondents in vote-rich areas of Luzon were on his side.

The value of nostalgia is not that Filipinos have been given cause to look back on the past. Rather, they have been given cause to realize what could have been, and what could still be. From within the halls of memory, Filipinos can draw the resources to re-member what more recent years, particularly those under the present administration, have torn and broken—themselves most of all.

That said, nostalgia is rough magic that Noynoy must abjure in favor of a solid, compelling platform for the changes that he would see effected. The battle for the presidency, for the hearts and minds of the citizenry, cannot be fixed along the lines of Good and Evil. Already the permeability of these lines has been underscored by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, who have denounced Noynoy for his stand on the reproductive health (RH) bill, and whose self-proclaimed monopoly on Goodness is hardly unquestionable, as Ricky Carandang points out.

The shape and character of such an abjuration has to be defined very quickly. While, strictly speaking, Noynoy need not commit to anything specific until November, and it is reasonable to expect that he will not deviate significantly from his previously publicized personal and party positions, he is now under such intense scrutiny from all quarters that he needs to take the initiative in clarifying what he stands for and what he intends to do, and not merely speak out when criticized, attacked, or otherwise provoked. Although he cannot act preemptively at all times, allowing his opponents and naysayers to consistently set the parameters for what he can and cannot say is dangerous, and ultimately a losing proposition. “Be your own man” was doubtless a barbed exhortation, but it is also a challenge that Noynoy must answer with due force and speed.

A road yet untaken

Trite though the image may be, to say that the promise of change has been gathering strength and is blowing more mightily about us with each passing day would not be inaccurate. The void that ripped open within the heart of the nation upon the death of former President Corazon C. Aquino was also a window on the past, and the initial breeze that wafted in brought with it reminders of a time when the people of the Philippines toppled a dictatorship and regained their freedom: a time more hopeful and more exultant, a time full of possibility and a sense of community—a time, it must be emphasized, that will not repeat itself (one would be foolish, nay, downright insane, to think otherwise, as the incumbent head of state continues to prove EDSA II a debacle rather than a triumph), but whose spirit can nevertheless be revived, intensified, and deployed in the decidedly appalling present.

At this point, it seems widely believed that the avatar of this spirit is Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who is, after all, a descendant of two heroes—his mother, Cory, the reluctant president, and his father, Ninoy, the fiery senator—and a presumed legatee of the principles that they held dearly, the values that they lived and died for. Few accidents of birth have ever been or will ever be as onerous, particularly in view—or perhaps I should say within earshot—of the growing clamor for Noynoy to run for the highest office in the land in the 2010 national elections. How popular this clamor really is cannot be determined until the next round of surveys—that in any case may not be entirely reliable—is completed, but the idea of Noynoy entering the race has certainly soared from the moment William M. Esposo of The Philippine Star and Conrado de Quiros of Philippine Daily Inquirer gave it wings and flung it into the air of public consciousness, over which it currently dominates, in their respective columns—Esposo last August 9, and De Quiros last August 10.

True to Filipino cultural form, the notion has begun to acquire a mystical dimension: the presidency is not a competition among flesh-and-blood candidates standing firm upon specific platforms and pursuing concrete agendas, but an all-out war between the cosmic, contentious, capital-letter forces of Good and Evil. If Cory, the queen of the people and the saint of democracy, has followed her husband to a higher plane of existence, then it falls to her son to take up rosary and yellow ribbon in order to do battle with the ignoble, ignominious, inglorious Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her maleficent minions—as well as with some of her opponents, who are as odious as she is.

Consider, for instance, what happened at Club Filipino yesterday, on the 31st of August, a day dedicated to the memory of all our national heroes. Sonia Roco, widow of former Senator Raul Roco and chair of the Aksyon Demokratiko party, had this to say to Noynoy: “You are this Chosen One, the Anointed to run for president of this ailing country. It is very clear. See the hand of God in the events that have transpired recently.” Nostalgia for EDSA, grief for Cory, and the concept of filial duty—these elements have converged and delineated an economy of enchantment that will remain robust at least until the end of this month, although Noynoy is likely to announce what he has decided about his political future very shortly after the 9th of September, the 40th day following the death of his mother.

Should Senator Noynoy declare himself Presidential Candidate Noynoy, the game, as so many have already pointed out, will change significantly. Even now the landscape is in a state of flux, unsettling and resettling and unsettling again, for no one could have foreseen that these weeks leading up to the start of the campaign period in November would be anything other than predictable. Coalitions are being re-cobbled, slates are being reshuffled, and press statements are being re-worded, all because of a heretofore unassuming man. An oddity among the avaricious, grandstanding, scandal-ridden specimens of officialdom, Noynoy, armed with integrity, an indisposition to grab for power, and illustrious parents whose cause he must not betray, could well be the president that the country needs to redeem itself. As for the deficiencies identified by his critics—inexperience, say, or lack of charisma—he can overcome them with a sufficiently united, organized, and massive base of backers.

And yet, and yet—if the winds of change are indeed upon us in our yellow neck of the woods, more than one road diverges here, and at least one other is just as fair as the road that may lead Noynoy to what will doubtless be the most difficult job in the Philippines. It must be acknowledged, however grudgingly, that the entry of Noynoy into the game has the potential to set in motion one more truly horrific sequel to the People Power Revolution, rather like a film franchise that refuses to put itself out of its own misery simply because the original performed well at the box office. The temptation is to cast Noynoy as Cory, Macapagal-Arroyo as Marcos, Mar Roxas as Doy Laurel, and so on, but that would be lazy and dangerous, not to mention ominous, for then Noynoy should expect to face a coup d’état or two—or seven.

Much has been made, and will continue to be made, of the prospect of Noynoy as king. What about the prospect of Noynoy as king-maker of the Liberal Party? In some respects, this is the more difficult choice for Noynoy, especially given the calls that have been made for him to run, and his familial past offers no good portents: Cory’s anointed successor, Fidel Ramos, did not win by a majority vote. But joining the presidential race buoyed by a tide of public support is not the only move that can bring about change. If Noynoy situates himself at a remove from the political arena—for which his personality may be better suited anyway—he gains the capacity to critique buttressed by (relatively) untarnished moral authority, with which he can keep the new administration in check, particularly if his chosen candidate is victorious. This is no small thing: with the Catholic Church brought to heel by the Arroyo administration, and with the opposition perpetually divided by internecine struggles even as its members claim to be united, there is much that Noynoy can accomplish outside Malacañang—it is not only in the palace of power that power can be found and used to make a difference.