Unity in conformity

Congressman Arnolfo Teves, Jr. of Negros Oriental has filed a bill renaming the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Other individuals have been proposing the same thing. But the difference is that his bill, if made into law, would rename the NAIA the Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. International Airport (FEMIA).

Other proponents of name change have limited themselves to suggesting that the former Manila International Airport (MIA) be given its old name. But one doesn’t need a PhD degree to discern the motives behind their stated reasons, which have included the supposed need to familiarize international travelers with the name of the Philippine capital.

The explanatory portion of Teves Jr.’s bill claims that “this project was done during the time of the presidency (sic) of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.,” hence, “it is more appropriate to rename it to (sic) the person who has (sic) contributed to the idea and execution of the said noble project.”

But as some journalists and news media organizations were quick to point out, that was not exactly true. Construction of the former MIA began in the late 1940s, and it was completed in 1961 — four years before Marcos Sr. assumed the country’s highest elective office in 1965.

What is true is that former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. was assassinated there by the thugs of the dictatorship when, despite the possibility of being arrested or killed, he returned to the Philippines from the United States on Aug. 21, 1983. The MIA was renamed after him by an act of the restored Philippine Congress in 1987, a year after the civilian-military “People Power” mutiny at Quezon City’s Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) overthrew the Marcos regime.

Aquino’s killers and some of their immediate superiors in the military were eventually identified, tried, and imprisoned. But who the mastermind behind the assassination was has never been established. There are lingering doubts on whether it was Marcos Sr., since he was far too astute not to have anticipated the public outrage over, and “Ninoy” Aquino’s being made a martyr of, his murder, as well as its international repercussions. Unlike some of his successors, with whom he has been wrongly compared, Marcos Sr. was intelligent enough to calibrate his responses to whatever problems he faced. There were even rumors then that he was furious when he learned of Aquino’s assassination. Who ordered the killing is still among those unsolved mysteries in the Philippine culture of impunity.

Nevertheless, it does seem too much for Teves Jr. to propose that the NAIA be named after Marcos Sr. Because of the political context at the time of the Aquino murder, many suspected that his minions were responsible for it — a suspicion that was eventually confirmed by the conviction in court of the military people involved. Even if he did not mastermind it, Marcos Sr. was at least partly at fault because he was unable to prevent it despite his vast powers.

But it is far from the facts that are driving the name-changing game. Although they are not saying it, Teves Jr. and his political ilk who have been campaigning to change the NAIA name want to expunge from what little remains in the collective Filipino memory any reminder not only of what the Marcos Sr. dictatorship was like, but also of how direct people’s action through the EDSA 1 “People Power” civilian-military mutiny overthrew it.

EDSA 1 was hailed in many parts of the world as a sterling example of democracy at work and encouraged similar uprisings against dictatorships. But the political dynasties in control of Philippine governance see its example and possible repetition as threats to their interests, hence their determination to consign it to the limbo of forgetfulness.

Beyond the immediate aim of feeding mass amnesia, however, the name-changing business is but another means of advancing the “unity” mantra that the current President appropriated from the older Marcos. Marcos Jr.’s “unity” theme during his campaign and after echoes his father’s own “Isang Bansa, Isang Diwa” (One Nation, One Mind) emphasis during martial law. Implicit in both is a concept of “unity” based on conformity and compliance with — as limited and as simplistic as those may be — the thoughts, values, and ideas of the political class, its clones, surrogates, and its instrumentalities such as the police and military.

Marcos Jr.’s non-engagement with his rivals for the Presidency during the campaign was publicized as part of his commitment to national “unity.” It was vague enough to be interpreted by many sectors as a reflection of their own aspirations for a better society. But it was actually based on the assumption that those views different from his own are of no value — they divide rather than unite — and are therefore unworthy of being acknowledged, much less discussed. Equally invalid from the perspective of that concept is what really happened in history, such as the Aquino assassination at the then MIA. What matters is the dynasts’ version of the past, no matter what the facts may say.

Authentic unity is based on a diversity of views, out of the clash of which can emerge a common understanding of the nation’s aspirations and how to achieve them. It is precisely to encourage the diversity of outlooks, interpretation, opinion, and politics that can lead to the crafting of an inclusive national agenda that the Constitution protects free speech, free expression, and press freedom.

But that is unacceptable to the Philippine power elite, the main focus of which has always been to acquire power and keep it whatever the cost. The same contempt for diversity is evident in police, military, and bureaucratic intolerance with, and their demonization of, those who hold opinions different from, or contrary to, their bosses’ own. Hence the forcible suppression of free expression and press freedom in furtherance of purging from the collective consciousness any and all awareness of what is going on and what has gone before.

Rewriting history is a means to that end. Only seemingly unprecedented is the extent to which the heralds of conformity have disparaged even the country’s historians and other social scientists. It has happened before, in the 1950s, when academics and scholars were persecuted for holding views different from those of government functionaries in a campaign to force them to add their voices to those of the mob.

In his 1951 novel The Conformist, the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia described how fascist rule in his country was based on its leading disciples’ and adherents’ compulsion to be part of an unthinking herd — and on their coercing everyone else to be the same in their politics, their social lives, and even their persons.

The justification for it was the supposed need for the “unity” those with authoritarian proclivities claim is needed for a society to achieve its aspirations — which they presume without defining what it means are for “greatness.” The same appeal to ultra-nationalist sentiments was, and is, not incidentally also part of both Marcos regimes (“This Nation Can Be Great Again”) as it also was of such other authoritarian populists as the United States’ Donald “Make America Great Again” Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro — and much earlier, Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

A replication of mindless conformity and blind obedience is in process in the Philippines, where the power elite and its minions regard dissent and the diversity of views necessary in a democracy as a vice rather than virtue. Instead of unity in diversity, what the oligarchy wants is unity in conformity.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
July 14, 2022

*Featured image from Business Wold

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