The Marcos past and the ’86 historians’ debate
“Time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers,” Fr. Jerome Lucero, SJ, warned his students as he recounted the horrors of martial law in “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the film adaptation of the award-winning novel. The warning might as well apply to all Filipinos. That’s because most families who attended reunions last December could probably be divided into three distinct groups: the elders who perennially compare whoever is in power to Ferdinand Marcos whom they regard as the standard; the Edsa veterans who are just as bullheaded about why we should not allow anyone to “normalize” the Marcos past; and the majority who couldn’t care less, and who, over the years, have come to include those disillusioned by the failed promises of the left, the center and the right.
The ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency has dramatically affected those who subscribe to these perspectives. It has become more acceptable to a growing number of Filipinos to forgive the Marcoses and move on. In fact, more than 14 million Filipinos voted for the dictator’s son and namesake as vice president in 2016. In the same year, Marcos’ heirs finally got their wish for funeral honors for their “hero,” which those who were imprisoned and tortured during martial law, along with civil society, the academe and the studentry, did not take sitting down.
The continuing dialectic between those who argue for moving on and those who insist that we must not revise the Marcos past calls to mind the historians’ debate of 1986. At that time, a group of German historians called for an end to the trauma of the Nazi era, arguing that the time has come for the German people to move on by reframing the stigma associated with Auschwitz. According to the historians, the shadow cast by Hitler on the present tends to cancel out all the gains that the German people have achieved to march more confidently into the future. They argued that the German people have been burdened with a seemingly “unmasterable past” despite their country’s numerous contributions to democracy in Europe and around the globe.
The historians’ call to action served as the impetus for contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas and like-minded thinkers to argue that it is not acceptable to do so. Habermas insisted that the Nazi era cannot and should not be forgotten despite all the reparations undertaken by the German people. Their position: We owe it to the memory of the six million Jews who were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis along with other minorities to never forget the acts of Hitler and his followers.
Habermas’ large body of work directs us to two lenses which might serve Filipinos in good stead as we continue to grapple with the Marcos past.
The first lens seeks to unmask the agenda behind a particular course of action by posing the question: Whose interest is ultimately served by a specific initiative? Applying this to the call to move on and discard the trauma imposed by martial law on the national psyche, it challenges us to answer the question: Whose political interest is served if the Marcos past is rehabilitated? Whose political interest is jeopardized?
The second lens is a notch above the first as it goes beyond political colors. It tests the soundness of an action by taking into account the interests of all those affected by it. This is, in fact, presupposed when two sides strive to debate an issue through the “unforced force of the better argument.” The second lens thus asks the question: If we were to move on and revise Marcos’ place in our history, would doing so pass the acid test of what is morally right regardless of political colors?
From this vantage point, the challenge of grappling with the Marcos past makes the Jesuit Gus Saenz’s admonition in “Smaller and Smaller Circles” more urgent and compelling. Indeed, “some things are better dealt with in the cleansing light of transparency and openness rather than in the darkness of secrecy.”
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Von Katindoy works for a multinational fintech company.
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