The University of the Philippines has renamed its business school after Cesar Emilio Aguinaldo Virata, finance secretary and later prime minister under the Marcos dictatorship. Critics, and they are many, ask: Is it legal to start with, there being a law that prohibits the “naming of public places … and institutions after living persons”? Had the university authorities been truthfully briefed about naming practices in elite universities abroad? Was the honoree truly worthy of the honor, apparently unprecedented in UP, of having an entire academic program named after him?
But what should have bothered the critics instead is a deeper question: What is this way of thinking that has emboldened the UP business school to even think of suggesting this, and has given the university’s governing board the gumption to approve it? Such effrontery does not arise in a vacuum.
It is easy to say that there is a vacuum in our collective memory. Stated simply, the renaming would have been unthinkable in the afterglow of the 1986 Edsa People Power uprising. It is possible only because Edsa’s allure has waned. The ineptness and/or corruption of Marcos’ successors have prevented genuine change, and many Filipinos now look wistfully at the Marcos years as “the good old days.” If national amnesia is the problem, then the academic beatification of Virata is even more objectionable because it rewrites history. It’s no different from the victorious US forces renaming city streets after the leaders of the Partido Federalista, those Filipinos who first collaborated with “the Great North American Republic” after the true revolutionaries had fallen.
Yet it is more than just a problem of forgetting. The renaming is just a symptom of a deeper problem: the drastic shift in people’s mindsets away from looking at Virata’s place in history and toward looking at him as an individual. It is now possible to extol Virata’s personal virtues and be oblivious to his lending his sterling reputation to deodorize the Marcos dictatorship. The UP Board of Regents had this to say: “Virata has served UP, the Philippine government and the country for many years and with clear distinction.”
It used to be that great men and women were acclaimed as agents of history, embodying causes larger than themselves, but, yes, mere actors on a stage. Today individual merit and innate goodness are extolled regardless of their impact on the greater good. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with that, except that an examination of the historical record will show that some Nazi butchers were actually loving husbands and exemplary fathers at home. To applaud their adherence to “family values” is to exalt personal virtue and ignore historical fault.
Sad to say, this debate should not really be about Cesar Virata, whose intelligence and integrity are beyond question. Indeed, Virata is the victim twice over, the first when he lent his personal prestige as the veneer for dictatorial plunder, and the second when he lent his name to an intellectual shift that is curiously lost to the business professors.
UP’s defense has been shameful. We renamed an academic program, not a building, says its spokesperson. It is so unbecoming the premier state university to split hairs when faced with grave moral questions, even worse because academic programs are more important than buildings. So the legal prohibition on naming after living persons is bad for buildings but okay for academic programs? It does not make sense. Worst of all, the text of the law seems to apply just the same to programs and buildings alike.
Another argument is “we consulted the constituents in the college.” Ignore for now the posts in the social media from alumni and students denying precisely this. Even assuming a bona fide consultation, this is one choice where there are stakeholders outside the college, namely, the other members of the UP community who have invested much of their lives fighting the Marcos dictatorship. If their sacrifices are about to be diluted, surely they are entitled to be heard on this issue.
Saddest of all, UP officials seem cocky that bureaucracy will prevail over popular outrage. It will be the greatest disservice to both UP and Virata if a debate of this magnitude is reduced to procedure and technicality. This debate is no less about UP’s role in historical revisionism as it is about a technocratic style of governance that, come to think of it, Virata would have relished.