A day of infamy. If the United States has one in Dec. 8, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan, the Philippines has its own in Sept. 21, 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law and shoved the country into a dark, traumatic path from which it has yet to fully emerge.
Quite a number will disagree with that last assertion, and many of them have found the new platform of social media, with its freewheeling, ad hoc nature, as the perfect venue to propagate their alternate take on Philippine history. Here, in slickly made videos and in commentaries, Marcos’ reign is presented as the best thing that happened to the nation: The economy was second only to Japan in Asia, crime was low, the streets were clean, the people disciplined; human rights abuses were a collateral result of the fight to save the country from godless communists; and if there was thievery in government, only the top honcho was doing it—unlike today when it’s every grubby man and woman for themselves. The “New Society,” in short, is being packaged as an unappreciated and all-too-brief belle epoque in Philippine history.
This is not, unfortunately, a fringe view, or one espoused by extremists and Marcos diehards. An informal survey conducted among students, street vendors and workers last year, two weeks before the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the martial law declaration, showed that many ordinary citizens were at best ambivalent about Marcos’ imposition of authoritarian rule. The chaos of democracy, the breakdown of law and order, the riot of corruption scandals, and the grinding, never-ending poverty that metastasized after the 1986 Edsa revolt have made some people nostalgic for the narcotic effects of Marcos’ strongman rule.
And this is not the older generation alone talking. Young people tend to have a minimal grasp of history, if at all, and if the chatter on social media is any gauge, they are some of the most vociferous in disseminating a rose-colored view of the Marcos era. That clueless revisionism comes with the simultaneous task of trying to demolish the heroism of Ninoy Aquino and the thousands of activists and freedom fighters who risked their lives to bring the horrors of martial law to light.
It’s easy to blame teachers and educators for the sorry ignorance of students and the young about recent Philippine history. But if something is wrong with the educational system in its inability to teach the lessons of the recent past to its young wards, it’s also true that it takes its cue from the larger civic environment—one characterized by a casual forgetfulness that can be described as pathological.
Students may be taught in school that the Marcoses did enormous damage to the country—but why will they believe that when, outside of their campuses, they see that the public has apparently forgotten and all too easily forgiven the family? Not only have Imelda Marcos, her children, and their cronies and underlings escaped any meaningful prosecution for having run the country to the ground in their time, they’ve also waltzed back to power on the strength of an approving electorate.
The landmark bill signed by President Aquino last February that mandates reparations for Marcos victims of human-rights abuses tries to address this collective amnesia with a laudable component. It requires that the Department of Education work “to ensure that the teaching of martial law atrocities, the lives and sacrifices of [victims of human rights violations] in our history are included in the basic, secondary, and tertiary education curricula.” But until now, Malacañang has yet to constitute the claims board that will compensate the victims. That means the separate commission that will establish a memorial, museum and library for remembering martial law is even farther from becoming reality.
In this historical vacuum, the dictator’s heirs are daily chipping at the country’s already feeble capacity for reflection. Recently, Imelda said she wants her son to run for president in 2016. This being a magic-realist country where even convicted plunderers can stage spectacular political comebacks, there is obviously no stopping them—except a public that hopefully recovers its memory, self-respect, and sense of right and wrong in time to say: Never again.