Look ye mighty and despair
On September 28, 1972, five days after he announced martial law, Ferdinand Marcos held a press conference. He was in a confident mood, as you might expect.
Watch a clip from its start, courtesy of the Associated Press archives, and pay attention to two things.
First, from 0:08 (“I am happy to see…”) to 0:36 (“…an atmosphere of brotherhood amongst Filipinos…”) Here is vintage Marcos on full display. The sweeping gestures, the still-healthy baritone. The humblebragging. Marcos, we shouldn’t forget, prided himself in being a student of power. And he knew that the gamble he’d taken required the careful nurturing of the perception that it was about something greater than making himself president-for-life.
Now take a look from another portion of his press conference: from 3:40 (“We will uh, reform our society…”) to 3:56 (“It encourages revolution…”) Here was Marcos being remarkably prophetic about what would become the fatal flaw of his regime: corruption and how it made the reform of political institutions an impossibility because its lifeblood was plunder. What made the plunder so difficult to believe despite two decades of it was that Marcos himself was ostentatious only in terms of his intellect. In nearly every other respect, he retained simple tastes and maintained the kind of official decorum his office required. He left the high living to his wife and those who served him loyally. This meant that during the dictatorship, many people were able to reconcile his regime with the kind of comment the Germans used to say, when faced with the brutality and corruption of the Nazis: “Ah, if only the Führer knew!”
Oh, but Marcos knew. But he also knew the precise limits of what he could get away with. And for decades it worked. Until, of course, it stopped working. As it always does, sooner or later, so much so that for millennia, we have used and reused two concepts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks.
These ancients spoke of that particular flaw of the gifted and the great, which they called hubris: excessive pride and even defiance towards the gods. The ancients also believed in a goddess they called Nemesis –the goddess of indignation against, and retribution for, evil deeds and undeserved good fortune.
Writing in his own diary in 1972, Ferdinand E. Marcos, surprised over how easily he imposed martial law, made this observation: “Nothing succeeds like success!” In 1981, when Ferdinand Marcos reached the pinnacle of his power, he held a splendid inauguration in which Handel’s famous Hallelujah Chorus was performed. The chorus’ lyrics, “and He shall reign for ever and ever,” troubled some observers who saw it as hubris. I doubt if anyone dared, at that moment, to remind Marcos of the ironic, but humble, last words of the Emperor Vespasian who, as he lay dying, remarked, “Oh dear, I am becoming a god.”
If you want to find a single instance that best summarizes the dictatorship, then you only have to look as far as the story of the Manila Film Center in Pasay. It’s been brilliantly told in Rogue Magazine, and you should read it. Take a note of this: the Film Center was the first major prestige project of Marcos’ New Republic, inaugurated in June, 1981 with the inaugural of the film center due in January, 1982.
In broad strokes, the regime decreed a magnificent film palace to be built in record time. And it was done, at the cost of 25 million dollars, equivalent to over 62 million dollars today. To make this possible, the expansion of the Philippine General Hospital was put on hold, so that funds could be diverted for this purpose.
The building had to be completed in three months with four thousand workers in three shifts laboring 24 hours a day. At 3 a.m. on November 17, 1981, scaffolding collapsed, and 169 laborers fell into a pool of quick-drying cement. Some were pulled out. Others had the exposed parts of their remains removed, the rest left in the cement. But the show had to go on.
The Film Center opened. The stars were there. But the place stank, the cement under the red carpets was still wet, and most of all, the glitter of the dictatorship had been tarnished by the manner in which the story was officially suppressed, but whispered and talked about around town. Hubris was undeniable. Could Nemesis be far away?
Indeed, within two years, Nemisis would come in the form of an assassination in the Manila International Airport and the beating of ati-atihan drums as people took to the streets to face teargas and truncheons in 1983 until they faced tanks in 1986.
To be sure, we have had no shortage of other leaders demonstrating hubris and confronting Nemesis since. But in terms of sheer longevity, and thus, sheer scale, the story of Ferdinand Marcos and his dictatorship remains an epic one.
So as we mark the centennial of this man, of whom it can be said he remains great–either a great visionary for his admirers, or a great monster for his victims and critics—what can be said that remains unsaid?
In 1996, Ben Kingsely was filmed reciting a poem for use in a commercial. The title of the poem was “Ozymandias,” by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, about an ancient account of one of the monuments, now lost, of the pharaoh Rameses II. Here it is:
In Ilocos Norte, where the cult of Ferdinand E. Marcos never abated, it’s a holiday by presidential proclamation. His family kicked off the day with a Mass and luncheon in Taguig, where the dictator’s remains were interred last year. This was followed by the unveiling of a strangely un-Marcos-looking but at least new, monument in Ilocos Norte.
By these rituals, the once and perhaps future first family wanted to communicate that the restoration of their political fortunes and standing in society is nearly complete, thirty-one years after their fall from power.
They are celebrating in Paoay tonight. They foresee a glorious dawn in their future. For the rest of you watching tonight, let me close with what the the late, great journalist Edward R. Murrow used to tell his viewers. Good night, and good luck.