The Tyranny of Bad History and the Unmaking of EDSA


Destruction by Thomas Cole, 1836.


 

“So, while the Filipino has not the sufficient energy to proclaim, with head erect and bosom bared, its rights to social life, and to guarantee it with its sacrifices, with its own blood…while we see them wrap themselves up in their egotism and with a forced smile praise the more iniquitous actions, begging with their eyes a portion of the booty – why grant them liberty? With Spain or without Spain they would always be the same, and perhaps worst! Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” – Jose Rizal

In many ways, the Philippine historical experience is subsumed under an avalanche of perverted and subverted history. In other words, our understanding of self and past is controlled by bad history. Margaret MacMillan in her work “The Uses and Abuses of History” warns of history controlled by vested interests and describes the dangers of ‘bad history': “Historians, however, are not scientists, and if they do not make what they are doing intelligible to the public, then others will rush into fill the void. Political and other leaders too often get away with missing or abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know enough to challenge them. Already much of the history that the public reads and enjoys is written by amateur historians…Bad history tells only part of complex stories. It claims knowledge it could not possibly have, as when, for example, it purports to give the unspoken thoughts of its characters…Bad history can demand too much of its protagonists, as when it expects them to have had insights or made decisions that they could not possibly have done…Bad history also makes sweeping generalizations for which there is not adequate evidence and ignores awkward facts that do not fit…Bad history ignores such nuances in favor of tales that belong to morality plays but do not help us consider the past in all its complexity. The lessons such history teaches are too simplistic or simply wrong.”

There should be little doubt about the importance of history. History is the foundation upon which the present is built, it is the guiding hand that dictates how the future will flow. The examples of bad history in Philippine historiography are numerous, from the joke that was the Code of Kalantiaw, to the carefully crafted and edited American-era histories, to the political screes of Renato Constantino.

Now, we are faced with the specter of forgotten and grossly misrepresented history with the remaking of Ferdinand Marcos as some sort of misunderstood anti-hero and the unmaking of EDSA as ineffectual and unimportant. As MacMillan noted above, rigorously researched and crafted history is important in public discourse. It provides an understanding of today, it challenges erroneously held assumptions, and it helps in understanding the personal and national self. The use and abuse of history in the Philippine context can be understood through two examples, one provided by Jose Rizal and the other by the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

 

Reclaiming vs Rewriting the Past: A Cautionary Tale

The forgotten work in Rizal’s oeuvre is his annotated edition of Antonio de Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas. Surprising since the image of a diasporic Rizal, hunched over a writing table in the middle of the British Museum, painstakingly copying Morga’s work by hand, is almost romantic. It speaks to the scholar within Rizal, as well as a man driven to unearth his country. If Noli Me Tangere was about the present circumstances of the Philippines in his time, and El Filibusterismo spoke of one future path that would lead to failure, then Morga was his attempt at remaking the Philippine past. He took Morga’s Sucesos, a well-known work on Philippine history at the time, and basically tore it to pieces. In doing so, Rizal attempted to undermine the very foundation upon which colonialism rested. Spanish intellectuals at the time pointed to their ‘humanizing’ and ‘civilizing’ mission in the Philippines to substantiate their presence; a tactic that the United States would also use to defend their presence in the Philippines. By unearthing a new ‘nationalist’ Philippine history, Rizal was attempting to demonstrate that Spain was no longer necessary. By unmaking Morga, he remade the Philippines.

Rizal’s Morga speaks to the power of history. From a political and social perspective was daring and important at the time: A colonial subject was asserting the primacy of their indigenous culture over that of the colonizing power. In a sense, it was the first shot fired at orientalism. In combination, Rizal’s three books create what Father John Schumacher called a “road to nationalism.” The hope of the past, the iniquities of the present, and the potential of the future are all writ within the three works of Rizal. In essence, Rizal gives truth to the idea that he who controls history, controls the present and the future.

Frontispiece of Morga's Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas.

 

Taking that idea, it is then no surprise that one of the first acts of any dictator is to first eradicate public knowledge and rebuild it in his own image. History is knowledge, it is contextualizing and empowering. By controlling knowledge dictators and totalitarian regimes can control how people think; they can influence the way people think. In place of the complexities of history, those in power who desire that power will substitute simplistic tales of derring-do and self-aggrandizement. Heirnrich Heine famously wrote: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”

At the outbreak of Martial Law one of Ferdinand Marcos’ first acts was to muzzle the press. Journalists were rounded up, editors jailed, many who were not capture fled or went underground. Marcos went after knowledge. He well understood the power of the flow of information and the role of history in myth-making. One of the most notorious of Marcos’ rewriting of history was his forged guerillero record, complete with fake medals and all. One of the little remarked aspects of Martial Law was how Marcos embarked on a comprehensive rewriting of Philippine history. He infused the fabricated Code of Kalantiaw into history books and used it to support his Bagong Lipunan. Marcos even went so far as to hire Serafin D. Quiason to ghostwrite a massive nineteen volume historical encyclopedia; the sole purpose of which to demonstrate the Philippines must be ruled by a strong-man, like the fictional Datu Kalantiaw then and Marcos at the time. Marcos well understood that controlling history, rewriting it, would allow him to substantiate his role as undisputed and unquestioned leader of the Philippines. Sadly, many in the academe at the time collaborated in the endeavor. Marcos almost succeeded. He almost gained control of our past and present, the future naturally would have followed.

Rizal and Marcos understood the power of history and the importance of reclaiming it to guide the future. The difference was one wanted to harness that power to create a new society, one free from the shackles of tyranny and oppression. While the other attempted to rewrite history to institutionalize tyranny.

 

Remaking EDSA

“The people do not complain because they have no voice, do not move because they are lethargic, and you say that they do not suffer, because you have not seen their hearts bleed. But one day you will see and you will hear, and ah! Woe unto them that build their strength on ignorance or in fanaticism; woe unto them who are engaged in deception and work in darkness, believing that all are asleep!” – Jose Rizal

Today is the twenty-sixth anniversary of EDSA I and the war for the historical soul of the Filipino still rages. Recent history remains under attack and the tools being wielded are familiar ones: bad history, propaganda, simplistic narratives, and a reliance on half-truths and base innuendos. That is the allure of bad history, just how easy it is to follow. Bad history plays on emotions, it relies on the reader, or listener, being ill-equipped knowledge and skills wise to combat the gross exaggerations and blatant misrepresentations contained within. Taken in a vacuum, Marcos declaring himself a World War II hero is acceptable. However, studying World War II, reviewing the war records and reports, and being able to critically analyze the claims, leads to a simple conclusion: Marcos lied.

EDSA lies at the center of most ‘historical’ attacks these days, from bully pulpits in the Senate to online forums that thrive on half-truths and creating ideology bound visions of the past. Videos, blog posts, and declarations from the family circulate throughout the public sphere. In a history starved nation, they are all too quickly taken as truth. One of the most popular, even warranting a mention by PCIJ and rapid dissemination by various ‘legitimate’ blogs, was produced by “PinoyMonkeyPride.” The narrative is simple, the premise rudimentary, and the ‘history’ reductive. The video preys on emotions by presenting a simplistic tale of ‘good vs evil,’ playing up rumors and innuendo, while decontextualizing quotes and historical events. Deconstructing the video is outside of the scope of this essay, but historian Michael Chua does a fairly effective job of that. While sources like Chronology of a Revolution: The Original People Power Revolution by Angela Stuart-Santiago takes the reader through EDSA and dispels much of the egregious myth-making that is extant. Manuel Quezon III offers a comprehensive list of EDSA I remembrances, along with his own insightful essays. While historians like Alfred McCoy have unearthed the numerous human rights violations of Martial Law. Like Rizal’s house of cards, bad history is easily dismantled. All it takes is a little knowledge. All it takes is a little research and the tools to needed to critically analyze PR declarations.

The subversion of EDSA for vested interests remains a serious concern. No matter what Marcos loyalists try to claim, or doddering old men who had to beg for civilian intervention to save their lives will assert, or ex-military men who failed at grabbing power for themselves like to say (as Anding Roces at the time called them “toy soldiers playing at war…” asking for ‘civilians to save their asses’), EDSA was of the people. That being said, our understanding of EDSA is flawed, it is limited by our historical knowledge of the period. By failing to understand the iniquities extant during the Marcos era, we are being to lose to importance of EDSA. That is bad history in and of itself. But the response is not to critique public understanding by peddling outright lies. It requires the rigorous application of historical methodology to expand our understanding of the past.

EDSA is and always will be of the people. It was the culmination of twenty-years of civil society struggle against the Marcos-military hegemony. That struggle ebbed and flowed, it took different forms, and remade itself at different turns. At one point it was a noise barrage, at another it was the fight for free elections, at another it was an angry roar over a daylight assassination. EDSA can not, should not, be reduced to and encapsulated in those four days in February 1986. EDSA was a process, an unfinished one at that. Curiously enough, its importance is probably better understood abroad than here. Our example touched off a firestorm of people power uprisings around the world; EDSA’s echoes are still heard today in the Arab Spring of last year.

The power of well-written and researched history, by professional historians aware of their vast responsibilities, is that provides the tools needed craft a better future for all. In Margaret MacMillan’s conclusion in The Uses and Abuses of History she wrote “…a citizenry that cannot begin to put the present into context, that has so little knowledge of the past, can too easily be fed stories by those who claim to speak with the knowledge of history and its lessons.”  That is the situation extant in the country today. It is a situation that fuels many of the social, cultural, and political problems that we still face. Because of the things that history teaches is to challenge dogmatic and sweeping generalizations, especially those that purport to have all the answers, to be the one true interpretation of the past.  History provides us with the tools necessary to question and question some more, while bad history (and its application) does little more than mislead and obscure; usually for purely political or selfish interests.

EDSA is one of those historical moments that can easily be abused, as we have seen. An understanding of EDSA that tries to incorporate its complexities and context can only help inform who we are as a people and how we can grow together. Last year I offered one potential interpretation of EDSA: The importance of EDSA is not found during those fiesta tinged four days, but on the fifth day. Anding Roces once said that it was one the fifth day that a miracle happened: Filipinos came out en masse, into the streets, and began cleaning up the detritus left behind. Maybe that is historical lessons that has resonance today. EDSA becomes less about changing a government and more about a people demonstrating the will to clean up a nation. Considering where we are today, it behooves us to stop looking for short term fixes and start thinking about sustainable long-term solutions. To accomplish that a firm and well-founded grasp of our history is paramount.

 

Image sources:

Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, courtesy Wikipedia

The Course of Empire Destruction, courtesy Wikipedia.

Nik (5 Posts)

Nik writes primarily about Philippine culture and history. His twitter account is @iwriteasiwrite and his primary blog can be found at www.iwriteasiwrite.tumblr.com


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