Out of context

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

One of the great mysteries of life in these 7,000 islands is how and why people who haven’t seen the inside of a library or even read a book in their entire lives, and who think that the last word on anything is Google search, can hold all sorts of opinions about any subject known to man or beast — and what’s more, are prepared to defend them with all the curses, insults and expletives in their painfully limited vocabularies.

I’m not referring solely to those social media and blog rants that, on the 40th anniversary of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.’s assassination on August 21, 1983, seem to be based on nothing more than supposition, bias, and “information” from self-serving sources (such as the Marcoses and their surviving cronies and apologists).

Also in ample evidence are the letters to the editor, text messages, public declarations, and even interviews on this or that subject (the RH bill, Freedom of Information, divorce, same sex marriage, the martial law period, etc.) by various individuals and groups. And let’s not forget those broadcast journalists who won’t let the facts interfere with their opinions and who inflict them on the rest of us via their daily network programs.

For this epidemic of incoherence the Internet is being blamed for having nurtured the illusion among a generation of computer café habitues and schoolboys that access to a laptop makes them the intellectual equals of theoretical physicists.

It’s more likely the consequence of the failures of an educational system that aside from providing its products a smattering of (mostly ungrammatical) English, doesn’t provide much else, least of all a sense and understanding of the history of their own country and of the society that, without their being aware of it, is eating them alive. After all, it’s not just computer geeks who’re too quick with their opinions in this country. Everyone else including your barber or gardener is too, and it’s hardly a new phenomenon.

What’s more surprising is that, for a people who have gone through one political upheaval after another, a sense of history’s one of their outstanding defaults, despite George Santayana’s often quoted warning about the fate of those who can’t or won’t remember the lessons of the past. (They’re condemned to relive them.)

The consequence of this is that, as the years pass, the memories of even those who lived through such events as the declaration of martial law and the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship, the war in Mindanao, Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, Corazon Aquino’s presidency, etc. dim, assuming they were even aware of what was happening in those times. Meanwhile, as it takes over in both the public and private sectors, the new generation has so little, or even no inkling of the meaning of those events, they dismiss them as irrelevant to the present and their meaning exaggerated.

On the other hand, the spate of negative comments on Ninoy Aquino in the past week is already illustrative of a lack of respect for the facts. But what’s even more disturbing is the patent absence of the framework from which to interpret events, which itself is an aid in asking the right questions and getting the answers. Crucial to the latter is an examination, first of all, of the context in which certain events occurred.

In recent years, Ninoy Aquino has been the recipient of such oddly personal attacks as that he was “greedy” and even “insane” — attacks that are beyond the pale of reasonable argument and which can therefore be summarily dismissed as of no consequence. But Aquino has also been described as no more than a traditional politician who, from day one of his public life, was already aspiring for the Presidency. He has also been dismissed as just another member of a political dynasty.

Aquino did know early on what he wanted to be, and that was President of the Philippines. Prior to the declaration of martial law, he was more widely known as a glib, fast talking senator who knew how important the media were to his ambitions, and who made sure to cultivate media attention for his own ends. As for being part of a political dynasty, that was a fact about him too established to argue against.

In an era when surveys were almost unheard of, Aquino relied on public opinion polls to guide him in addressing the issues that most appealed to the majority of the electorate. Not only the surveys guided him in the enterprise of stoking his popularity, however. He also had the sound instincts for the public pulse of someone who knew how to use current sentiments to his advantage.

This meant, between the years 1967 and 1972, active criticism of Marcos, who knew even earlier that Aquino was not only his worst, because most popular critic, but also his most formidable political opponent. On the eve of the declaration of martial law in 1972, Aquino, reelected senator in 1971, told an interviewer that Marcos, for most of the electorate, “had become the issue” according to the surveys he had commissioned. That was why, he told the same interviewer, it was as a critic of Marcos that he was likely to gain the Presidency.

In terms of class origin, ambition, and tactics, Aquino was thus no different from any other politician of his time. But during the late martial law period, after his imprisonment and exile, his decision to return from the US despite the risk of imprisonment or death, and his subsequent assassination, made him both martyr and hero. Although it would take three more years before the overthrow of the Marcos government, his assassination in 1983 so accelerated the pace of events that they inexorably led to the regime’s collapse, and to the restoration of the institutions of liberal democracy in 1986. Warts and all, dynast and former trapo, Aquino was nevertheless an authentic Filipino hero.

In addition to his martyrdom’s being a proper occasion for remembrance and celebration, Ninoy Aquino’s story is also a lesson in how great events can awaken the best instincts of even the most seemingly unlikely men and women. The conventional concepts of the hero as one born heroic and untarnished by human flaw are themselves fatally flawed. Rizal after all had a girl in almost every port; Bonifacio was not immune to the ambition to be President of a future Philippine Republic; and Antonio Luna had such a volatile temper it cost him his life.

Absent in the attempts to minimize Ninoy Aquino’s role in the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship and what that meant is an understanding of the context in which Aquino lived and died, as well as that respect for the facts that’s the stuff of history and journalism, among other human disciplines.

The same disrespect and decontextualization are evident too in public discourse on even the most crucial public issues. The consequences of these failures are evident in the constant threat of the restoration of authoritarian rule, and what’s worse, the country’s being caught in a state of inertia and stasis so severe it has resisted acceptance of even the most minor changes.

Comments, blogs and other columns: www.luisteodoro.com, and www.cmfr-phil.org

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
August 20, 2013

Share This Post