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

  • Guest ,

    Shouldn’t we also question romanticized narratives ofEDSA even as we resist attempts to rehabilitate the Marcos regime? Isn’t it equally “perverse” and ahistorical to construct the pre-Martial Law years as some kind of Golden Age in the Philippine politics, gleaming with promise? As if the rapaciousness of Marcos were somehow discontinuous from that of the politicians who preceded him? Shouldn’t we be skeptical of the likes of Quezon and Locsin and other pro-EDSA bourgeois intellectuals, whose origins are hardly immaculate if one reads deeply enough about their families? Isn’t forgetting as great a crime against the past as misremembering?

    • Nik ,

      1. Pretty much said that in the piece.
      2. Didn’t touch on that nor did I refer to pre-ML as a Golden Age. It wasn’t, nor though, was it some cesspool of iniquity. There were serious social issues that a shrewd politician like Marcos was able to take advantage of.
      3. Never said he was.
      4. Bourgeois doesn’t mean bad. Almost all revolutions rest on the middle class. Bonifacio was bourgeois for his period, as were many revolutionaries around the world. The social context in which a person was born does not dictate whether they will be ‘immaculate.’
      5. Yes. Never said otherwise.

      • Guest ,

        My apologies. Wasn’t so much questioning your piece but a certain EDSA narrative that, once upon a time, in that never never land that was pre-Marcos Philippines, “we” were second only to Japan, etc. Had Marcos not intervened, “we” could have been as prosperous as Singapore. And it is in that Singaporean Dream that the fantasy lives of pro and anti EDSA commentators, YouTube crackpots and Inquirer columnists, promiscuously intermingle. The problem is that our more prosperous neighbors had gone through worse times and far worse suffering, and yet… And yes, there wouldn’t have been a Philippine Revolution without the bourgeoisie. It would be criminal to endorse determinisms of that sort. The problem is when pro-EDSA bourgeois intellectuals engage in rehabilitation projects of their own, whitewashing obscure corners of Philippine history at the same time as they expose the depredations of the Conjugal Dictatorship.

    • J_ag ,

      From the fall of the absolute autocrat to the re-emergence of many autocrats. During the time of Marcos all forms of corruption was centralized. Today there is massive competition for the graft. 

      I just read the announcement page of SIR Kokoy Romualdez’s death. How he got that title I do not know. 25 years after this guy fled into exile there are full page ads celebrating his life. What a shame. One other interesting argument in the impeachment court is the question of the power of this court.   In this context there is no separate but equal distinction.During the investigative process prior to the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton no other branch of agency of the government was immune from the subpoena power of the investigator. If the impeachment court backs down from summoning even members of the SC in this trial the ultimate power of the people will be subverted. Cromwell said it then when he expressed his view that parliament was the conscience of the people. He then answered King Charles directly when he said that the King is not England and England is not the King. 

      • Nik ,

        True. Though, I would point out that many of the autocrats were emboldened by Marcos. His concentration of power at the core had the by-product of destabilizing localities, which allowed local power blocs from his regime (or, to be fair, much earlier) to remain entrenched. Of course, there are the politicians who became corrupt post-ML; sadly, some were stalwarts of the anti-Marcos movement and supposedly pro-HR.

        “The People rules in all Governments, for even in Monarchies the People Commands; for the People wills by the will of one man; but the Multitude are Citizens, that is to say, Subjects. In a Democracy, and Aristocraty, the Citizens are the Multitude, but the Court is the People. And in a Monarchy, the Subjects are the Multitude and (however it may seeme a Paradox) the King is the People.” – Hobbes.

        The concept of political theory and philosophy acting as the foundation for beliefs and policies today is sort of…missing. That is one of the key flaws in public discourse today, I would argue. The foundation for political thought is missing.

      • Manuelbuencamino ,

        Timely reminder, Nik.

        • Nik ,

          Thanks! Got a kick out of your post on EDSA. That is one thing many forget, red was nowhere to be found during that time.

        • GabbyD ,

          very interesting…. but tell me; did no one clean up after EDSA2? why call cleaning up afterwards a miracle? the word miracle means a supernatural (not natural) occurrence. i dont know if thats a wise or true characterization of it. 

          unless you and roces both think filipinos are incapable of cleaning up; hence when it happens, its a “miracle”.

          but i do agree about the symbolism of cleaning up. but i hesitate to describe it as a miracle…

          • Nik ,

            Now now, no trolling Gabby, you know Anding and I don’t think that.

            I’ve always looked at it somewhat as a secular miracle, and I think when Anding was telling me that story that is how he was interpreting it. There wasn’t a concerted effort to get people out to clean up (maybe there was and he just forgot), but the fact that people went out and helped tidy things up after the big awe-inspiring four days of People Power is special.

            • GabbyD ,

              nik, i do believe you believe you/anding were paying people/masa a complement by calling it a miracle (secular). however, you cannot escape the fact that the word miracle means an unusual circumstance;something that doesnt happen naturally/normally.

              [the exception– if it used poetically. “the miracle of your beauty”]

              now if cleaning up after one’s self is a miracle, then cleaning up after one’s self is un-natural/not normal.

              thats my point. its simple. i’m merely informing you of the implications of calling it a “miracle”.

              now, if what you mean that cleaning up the road is a SYMBOL of the cleaning up of government, and is the SYMBOL for the meaning of edsa, i’d agree 100%.

              • Nik ,

                No, that is not what I meant. And I can see how the use of the term can be misconstrued for sure.

                I think the sense of miracle (secular) comes with the idea that in a way people coming to streets to clean was almost as unique as people massing in the streets to overthrow a dictator. But the might be a bit of an odd position to take.

                However, you are absolutely right, symbolic sense is what I was driving at.

              • GabbyD ,

                one last thing on the word “miracle”.

                religious people say “its a miracle” and means it was the intervention of god that allowed it/caused it.

                again, the same issue remains. i dont think this is what you meant either.

            • Anonymous ,

              BongBong Marcos has been persistent in his defense of his father’s name.  In 2017, Pinoys should not bve surprised when BongBong orchestrates the search so expect things to happen about answering the question “…. who masterminded the assasination of Ninoy Aquino???”

              • Nik ,

                He’s a dutiful son. Will never deny that. Though, he isn’t as clean when it comes to the sins of his father and mother as he and his loyalists try to portray him. Let’s not forget, he was supposed to be front and center when JPE’s misguided coup was going to be put down.

                As to who killed Ninoy, I would like to know that as well. But somehow, it’s importance because less as time goes by. Maybe more emphasis needs to be placed on what Filipinos did after his death, and less on him dying.