The Long View
MANILA, Philippines. Recently I made an observation in my blog (www.quezon.ph) that what has endured, and may even be said to have triumphed, is the Marcosian idea of a New Society. Even as communism has degenerated into a kind of religious cult, and democracy is floundering between the reliance of professional politicians on a cynical mass base while faced with their inability to motivate our professional classes, who are fleeing the country, the dominant desire seems to be: if only someone proposed a thorough reordering of our society, people would support it.
The idea that we could have a Year One, as the French might have had it, but without the guillotine, or without resorting to a Year Zero, which is what Pol Pot decreed as he emptied out the cities and embarked on exterminating his countrymen, is one that hasn’t lost its appeal. Which begs the question, of course, of just how thorough an overhaul can be, without watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, as Jefferson put it. But there is wisdom in recognizing the inherent preference of our people for avoiding wholesale slaughter.
The New Society was based on the idea that if only the Filipino could be purged, not necessarily of undesirable people, but undesirable characteristics in our behavior, then the nation could be great again, as Marcos famously declaimed. Rizal and Bonifacio both looked back to a Garden of Eden, a Paradise Lost as expressed in the martyr’s last poem and the place of happiness, prosperity, and unsullied innocence in the Supremo’s manifestos.
But it’s a contradictory desire. In theory, a thoroughgoing reordering of society is desirable; in practice, no one wants to go beyond the curious comfort offered by a dysfunctional political system whose ins and outs the public knows and can therefore live with. The pining for a return to lost innocence remains with us, a fantasy that provides satisfaction for bitching, as borne out by the perpetual cackling over a “Å“country run like hell.”
But as Teodoro M. Locsin once pointedly observed, having lived through the period, “The government run by Americans was hardly heavenly, what with its colonial economy and the Filipino people in their place as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water.’ The Army and Navy Club with the sign: ‘Dogs and Filipinos not allowed.’ And a cultural brainwashing that left the Filipino with one dream: to be an imitation American.”
We must evolve or perish and it was once in the hands of writers that evolution first manifested itself and then, in today’s terminology, turned viral. As Leon Ma. Guerrero famously proclaimed him, Rizal was the “first Filipino,” while Bonifacio had a different conception of our identity as a nation: “Tagalog” was, for him, not an ethnic group but an entire country struggling to be free. Both used their pens though they differed on the efficacy of using the sword. The foundation of our nationhood, then, is not blood, it’s paper; not battles in the field, but the battle of ideas.
The only question, for generations, was which kind of idea would prevail and which exponent would gain the most clout. The Rizalian model was that of the cultivated, shrewd, intellectual armed with a wit made even more biting by a tendency to alienate the less clever; that of Bonifacio, by the trenchant social critics who were self-taught: the autodidacts with a political bent and little affection for the socially advantaged.
The supreme autodidact -the ultimate self-made man, precisely because self-taught- was Adrian Cristobal, who served as an inspiration to all those who live by Oscar Wilde’s dictum that education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember that nothing worth knowing can be taught. In a nation where the fetish for formal education makes someone without a college degree only half a person, Cristobal achieved eminence despite -and perhaps even due to- his lack of a diploma.
Cristobal understood power because he’d worked in such close proximity to its most adept wielders. He wasn’t alone in gaining this heady, even corrosive, experience. State patronage of the arts was last taken seriously during the Marcos years, and by the arts we should include the liberal arts, both the ancient and modern meanings of the term, an irony considering the restrictive nature of the New Society. Scores of intellectuals were kept on the government payroll, and never before, or since, have so many men and women of brilliance been employed by, and achieved prominence in, the state. For such individuals, there was, for a time, the genuine possibility they could contribute to great things, rather than fleeing to the hills in pursuit of Maoism or abroad to devote their brain power to the improvement of other nations.
A heretical thought, but one that needs exploration, is that Cristobal may not have been so much on the wrong side of history, but instead completely correct because firmly grounded in a complex yet razor-sharp understanding of our society and its needs. The only problem was that the vessel in which he and so many others poured their talents was fatally flawed. After all, even Marcos’ bitterest critics said he could have been the greatest leader this country has ever known, if only he hadn’t succumbed to avarice, practiced nepotism with such enthusiasm, and, finally, had his legendary intellect and will sapped by disease.
Everything that Marcos claimed was the problem: a conceited yet essentially incompetent ruling class, a slavish society devoid of a sense of intrinsic self-worth, a society that required a firm hand to rule it -all continue to be said of ourselves, by ourselves, all the time. Whatever the infinite variation, the central theme continues to be that of the need for a New Society: it was precisely that, but without the Great Dictator, that even Edsa tried to accomplish, and which has been used as an indictment of People Power since.