Lionizing the dead
In death, the good ones become great, while the bad ones become good enough. We humans have a tendency to lionize the dead, to highlight the good deeds and forget the bad ones of those who have passed away. As the Latin saying goes, “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” — Of the dead, speak nothing but good.
This ethic was likely beneficial in small, tightly knit communities, where continuity and harmony were paramount virtues and individual legacies can do little harm. Informing the practice, moreover, is the belief — widely shared across cultures — that departed ancestors continue to exert influence in the world of the living, and must thus be the object of reverence, or at least respect.
Perhaps, on the personal level, it also made good psychological sense: Why remember the negative side of your relative or friend, when you can choose to highlight the positive one instead? You and everyone else will feel better that way.
This “postmortem lionization,” however, can have dire consequences for our historical consciousness when applied to politicians and other public figures.
Consider the case of Miriam Defensor Santiago, who passed away in 2016 and is one of the most respected (and sorely missed) former senators today. Miriam quotes — apocryphal or real — figure in the central debates of our time, reminding us how low the Senate has sunk: The hall that once was venue to MDS’ witticisms is now the place where Sen. Bong Go declares President Duterte to be the “No. 1 tourist attraction in the Philippines.”
More than her wit, there were her convictions: She was one of the senators who rejected the pork barrel—and was one of the strongest voices against institutionalized corruption—
both before and during the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal in 2013, bravely calling out her own colleagues in the process.
However, this view of sage-like Miriam ignores the fact that she was a longtime Marcos loyalist. She promised to bury the dictator way back in 1992, and ran in tandem with the dictator’s son in 2016. How can someone so smart and averse to corruption even consider siding with such a corrupt family? The only conclusion was that Miriam threw her support knowing full well the extent of the harm the Marcoses had wrought on our nation.
Miriam was also a Joseph Estrada supporter, clinging to the actor-turned-president long after the substantial evidence of his corrupt activities had surfaced. Famously, she vowed to jump off an airplane if Erap got arrested, only to mockingly say, “I lied!” when held to account for her promise. Until her later years, she would defend her decision to reject the opening of the fateful “second envelope” in Erap’s impeachment trial.
“You have to be balanced!” People would cry upon hearing the above, but such a reaction supports my argument: People tend to lionize the dead to a point that any discussion of their negative acts are deemed unacceptable. Again, I do not believe that Miriam’s entire legacy ought to be invalidated, only that it be reflected more accurately for the sake of the historical record. After all, part of the reason why the Marcoses remain in power is that enough people make an exception to their principles out of gratitude to the dictator’s family.
There are many other examples, both here and abroad — from American presidents to Southeast Asian strongmen, from European royals to Filipino personalities — in which we see a formerly divisive figure elevated into a unifying force; a hawk recast as a dove, a partisan turned into an elder statesman, upon their passing.
As I wish to reiterate one more time, I do not suggest that we erase the good people have done in a world where nobody’s perfect. But neither should their death extinguish their moral liabilities, mediocrities, mistakes — or, for that matter, the truth itself. Surely, we need to respect the grief of loss and the sorrow of mourning. But when it comes to people who have had the privilege to shape our nation’s fate, we should never let go of our criticality.
In other words, we should not be afraid to speak ill of the dead — if only for the sake of the living. And for the many others who have died with neither lionization nor justice.
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