From people power to populism
I should have known with three nouns (Edsa people power) converted into adjectives to describe Revolt.
Confining ourselves to the words though, there are important semantic points to be considered. What was this people power, and was it truly a revolt?
Beyond academic calisthenics, we’ve seen it happening, and not happening, to question the use of those terms. Not that I want to see them changed — they’re there, let’s live with the label but let’s not sweep the issues under Edsa and its traffic.
I worry though about how the term did raise people’s hopes for a better life ahead, for a better Philippines. It gave the illusion of quick fixes, that a few days out in Edsa was all it took to topple a 14-year dictatorship, never mind how many thousands of people were incarcerated, tortured, disappeared to lead the way to this Edsa revolt.
Our learning curve hasn’t been too bad. We tasted a second Edsa revolt leading to Joseph Estrada’s ouster, but when attempts were made for a third rerun against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, people realized this was turning into a bad movie with too many sequels.
Stay home many Filipinos did, and stay home Filipinos did yesterday. Well, maybe others went shopping or went off to the beach.
We need though to remember 1986, maybe less as a revolt than another important milestone in our history, down a long and winding road filled with detours, betrayals, and dead-ends.
I think of how we now use the Filipino word “laylayan” for those who are the most betrayed, our translation of “marginalized,” but more powerful. Like the hem of clothes, the laylayan is vital in holding a piece of clothing, a fabric, together, yet is hardly noticed, our attention distracted by the main design on the cloth, much like the crowds of Edsa in 1986.
There have been changes, no doubt. Our economy finally got back on its feet several years after 1986 and there has been prosperity for the upper classes. I might even be so bold as to say there is a visible middle class that has emerged, even as my work as a UP chancellor has many rude reminders in the students who drop out or take a leave of absence, that it is still a vulnerable middle class, quick to turn poor because of some medical emergency, or a breadwinner overseas who abandons his or her family.
It is that middle class on a tightrope, and the poor, whose frustrations have grown exponentially through the years. They complain the most, in private conversations, in family gatherings, and they have been doing that since 1986. It has become an almost daily ritual listening to stories about someone being mugged on the way home, about the hours of commuting to and from work or school. Social media amplifies these litanies of frustration and anger.
Our psyches are being battered and brutalized. Is it any surprise that Filipinos end up turning on other Filipinos?
President Duterte’s populism was just waiting to take over, to fill in the vacuum. We learned Edsa revolts were not going to change society, but we were ready to believe that a strongman like Mr. Duterte would redeem us. It was an easy landslide win.
Foreigners were startled, asking how this could have happened, and I tell them, Americans especially, that the discontent of the desperate, with an overdose of fake news and media manipulation, gave them, and the world, Trump.
That populism continues because, in a way, we want quick fixes, except we don’t want another Edsa. Hope comes from the strangest sources: the fiery expletive-laced tough talk barked out in politicians’ speeches… and gunfire in the night, almost always in the slums, a way of saying: we are protecting you from addicts… and the poor.
Populists need fear to keep the populace in place. Marcos used fear effectively for a number of years and so has Mr. Duterte. What is so horrifying though is that Mr. Duterte does not need martial law to keep us in fear, and the reason is that fear makes us believe in him. Fear lurks in our subconscious, in part because Marcos still lives, in revisionist history, even very young Filipinos believing that martial law was a golden era under a dictator… and that, maybe, Edsa was a mistake.
That is why I still prefer we use the ungrammatical Edsa People Power Revolt as a signpost on the way to Duterte populism. It’s a bleak journey, and we should be aware of, and beware of, the signs ahead.
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