Truth and lice

Whatever else can be said about the adoption of Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan (Makabayan) senatorial candidates Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza by the Nacionalista Party (NP), it is definitely nothing less than an event for the history books. After all, Ocampo and Maza are militant leftists, while the NP is a party headed by real estate mogul and presidential candidate Manny Villar, and also includes Bongbong Marcos, the son and namesake of dictator Ferdinand, in its line-up for the Senate.

If I understand the official statements on the alliance correctly, Ocampo and Maza, as well as the members of Makabayan, view it as a significant opportunity to shift their revolutionary struggle onto the center of the national stage and into the limelight of public affairs. It may be useful to frame the situation in classical terms: Ocampo and Maza constitute the Trojan Horse of the Left, with which the walled city of Philippine politics, sitting high on its dung heap of graft and corruption, and gleaming with impunity, will be infiltrated, conquered, and rebuilt anew. Of course, one must admit that such an explanation is not quite adequate: to resort to it is to elide the fact that Ocampo and Maza were already mainstream politicians to begin with, as both have been serving in the Lower House of Congress as party-list representatives since 2001.

In any case, already the horse has begun to roll forward, as the NP agreed to integrate the Makabayan platform into its own, leading to the production and release of the document entitled, “In Response to the People’s Concerns“—a document strangely unavailable on the official NP web site as of this writing.

Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond “Mong” Palatino, in “Misunderestimating the Philippine Left“, one of the more recent commentaries on the issue, put it this way: “Villar’s brave decision to openly embrace a platform-based unity with the left has smashed the taboo in Philippine politics. From now on, the participation of the left will be expected in future electoral contests for top political posts.”

That a taboo exists at all, as may be inferred from the assertions Palatino makes in the essay, has to do with how (orthodox?) leftists have been spoken of by various “academics and commentators”, “liberal right-wingers”, and “apostates”: demonized all and sundry as destabilizers and terrorists, leftists suffer from “not [being] recognized as legitimate political players who can use valid political practices in the electoral arena”. This is a claim not without merit: surely it cannot be just to refuse the left a seat at the table of democracy on the basis of what Palatino refers to as its “past mistakes”—ones, he adds, that the extreme left has apologized for. To reduce the left to its history of bloody violence is itself an act of violence—such an act condemns the left always and forever to irrelevance, death, or both, and denies the transformative possibilities of ideological difference.

That said, I have to take exception to how Palatino read the motives of those attacking the NP-Makabayan alliance: “The anti-left gang is mad not because the left endorsed a presidential candidate. They are mad because the left has refused to endorse Noynoy Aquino.”

Tonyo Cruz has said in his Asian Correspondent blog that, “It is a matter of public record that Noynoy Aquino shut the door on Ocampo and Maza, despite the Makabayan coalition’s earnest overtures.Manila Standard Today columnist Jojo Robles, who recounted how Ocampo described his meeting with Aquino, thought it was “unfortunate that Noynoy Aquino and his traditionally bourgeois collection of yellow-clad supporters may have missed out on this major political development.” How, then, can Palatino’s statement make sense? If (a) Aquino and the Liberal Party rejected the left, and (b) the anti-left “gang”—whatever that might be, as I am not convinced it even exists—supports Aquino, how does one arrive at the conclusion that (c) the anti-left “gang” is angry at the left for not endorsing Aquino?

Furthermore, anti-left sentiments are hardly exclusive to any one political group: BANTAY Party-list, to cite one example, was founded precisely on such sentiments, and its leader, Jovito S. Palparan, is running as an independent candidate for senator.

It may well be accurate to say that I am guilty of nitpicking, but one would be wise to bear this in mind: where there are nits, there are lice—which is to say that more than simple logic is at stake.

If, as Palatino says, the left is treated unfairly when it is conceived of as a monolithic, hence totally reprehensible, entity, is he not doing the same thing by speaking of an anti-left “gang”, which he then uncritically equates with the Aquino camp? Does not the lack of self-reflexivity in his argument—the same lack that he decries as the “pathological narcissism” of the anti-left—register as disingenuous, as an instance of victimage?

For the members of any given minority to strive to overturn the regime that tyrannizes them is perhaps understandable, and yet what is gained if and when they accomplish exactly that? To succeed in turning over structures of oppression is certainly to redistribute power, so that what once was reviled becomes revered, but by no means does the oppression dissipate—rather, the instruments of torture simply change hands. To seek a reversal of terms is merely to honor, reinforce, and perpetuate such terms. Therefore, when a political project remains trapped in old categories, how can it claim to be truly revolutionary?

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

On forgiveness

Toward the end of the third chapter of Noli Me Tangere, Crisostomo Ibarra barely avoids a quarrel with a combative Padre Damaso, and manages to make a hasty exit from the dinner party of Capitan Tiago. As he begins to wander the streets of Manila in the next chapter, he is accosted by an old lieutenant, Señor Guevara, who warns the young man to learn from the example of his deceased father, Don Rafael.  Upon realizing that Crisostomo does not even know that his father died in prison, Guevara endeavors to tell him the details. Among other things, Don Rafael had somehow earned the ire of Padre Damaso: the Franciscan friar accused his former friend of failing to go to confession. Such an accusation meant that the soul of Don Rafael continued to bear the burden of his wrongdoings—that he existed in a state of disgrace, that he had not been forgiven.

Forgiveness tends to be a recurring theme during the holidays, because, whatever else can be said for the shrill décor and the manufactured cheer of the season, family and friends do come together, and in so gathering, each of us is given cause to consider the quality of his or her life in the context of his or her relationships with others, as well as with time. Where interpersonal fractures and burns exist, these intensify, become more deeply felt, and, when coupled with a renewed awareness of mortality—especially keen when one is in the presence of children—may well produce the urge to grant or seek forgiveness, to promote a general healing of divisions, to infuse the word “reunion” with fresh energy and significance.

Guevara then recounts to Crisostomo what Don Rafael once said on the issue of confession: “‘Take this example: if I have killed the father of a family, if I have made of a woman a sorrowing widow and destitute orphans of some happy children, have I satisfied eternal Justice by letting myself be hanged, or by entrusting my secret to one who is obliged to guard it for me, or by giving alms to priests who are least in need of them, or by buying indulgences and lamenting night and day? What of the widow and the orphans? My conscience tells me that I should try to take the place of him whom I killed, that I should dedicate my whole life to the welfare of the family whose misfortunes I caused. But even so, who can replace the love of a husband and a father?'”*

This is not as unorthodox as it may seem at the outset. The Roman Catholic Church itself teaches that while confession leads to absolution, it is penance that satisfies divine justice. Thus, what Don Rafael proposes after his hypothetical murder is that he must undergo penance, albeit in a manner different from what a priest might usually prescribe.

Forgiveness, then, results only in the cessation of hostilities, the repudiation of acrimony, and the restoration of peace between the wrongdoer and the wronged. It does not exempt the offender from responsibility for his or her actions. Rather, forgiveness opens up a space within which the true penitent, liberated from the anger, hate, and bitterness of those who have been wounded, is obligated to mitigate, if not undo, the harm caused, and to ensure, as much as possible, that he or she will no longer inflict harm in any way, shape, or form. Penance, in Catholic theology, functions both as an act of reparation, and as an act of preservation—it is supposed to help prevent the further commission of sins.

Nor does forgiveness excuse the victim from vigilance. Although conventional (un-)wisdom has always posited that forgiving should be followed by forgetting, granting forgiveness does not—should not—mean that one automatically forfeits the right to require meaningful change, when it has yet to take place, or the right to demand justice, when it has yet to be served.

Letting go and moving on from an instance of abuse without a sustained call for restitution or reform is to tread down the path of self-destruction. This kind of uncritical, empty-headed forgiveness rewards the transgressor for his or her evil deeds—in the absence of consequences, he or she can be expected to commit exponentially worse acts. Consider, for instance, how far our ever hardworking and prayerful president has come: from breaking a promise not to run in the 2004 elections, all the way to the unconstitutional imposition of martial law against a monster that she herself created.

In her Christmas message, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo exhorted the country to “remember the lessons that we learned this year”. As we enter a new year, if there is one lesson that we must take with us from the annus horribilis that was 2009, it is this: to forgive is not to forget—not when there is still so much that the current regime has left unaddressed, not when there are still so many wrongs that it has left unredressed.

*This quotation is taken from the Charles Derbyshire translation of Noli Me Tangere, which is entitled The Social Cancer.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]