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The unfortunate Ranhilio Aquino, Marcos apologist

/ 04:04 AM September 15, 2020

On Sept. 11, the 103rd birth anniversary of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the priest and legal scholar Ranhilio Aquino marked the milestone by tying a millstone around his neck. The millstone came in the form of an intemperate tweet: “The present generation that is loud in its condemnation of Marcos never experienced Marcos. So that rant is directed at their construct of Marcos. Shouldn’t they be studying Derrida and Lyotard more?”

It is clear, from Aquino’s diction and logic and tone, that the tweet wasn’t a compliment. In fact, in its own erudite way, it was as loud in its condemnation of the “present generation” as that generation was of Marcos.

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Through the one tweet, Aquino said many things at once: That the “present generation” does not know what it is talking about. That the rant against Marcos is misdirected. That experience trumps theory, and personal knowledge of Marcos takes precedence over the youth’s “construct” of the dictator. That the youth should seek enlightenment, through further study. And that the French thinkers Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard can help us catch the truth about Marcos.

His tweet (one of only two he posted that day) was retweeted and liked many times (of course, social media validation is at best a construct, too, and a fleeting one), but he also reaped a harvest of indignant criticism.

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He spent the following day, a Saturday, defending his position — by attacking, derogating, his many critics. At 7:34 a.m., for instance, he tweeted: “It is obvious from the dismal comments I get by propagandists that ‘constructs’ and ‘deconstruction’ are not understood.” But in fact this was not true. (It was also ungrammatical: He meant “from,” not “by.”) By no means were all the comments from “propagandists.” By no means were the comments all uncomprehending of the obtuse language of deconstruction.

I still have to read all the comments, but I think it is fair to say that much of the criticism Aquino received was driven by shock and disgust: Here was a priest, who had lived through the Marcos years, denying the tragic reality of the dictatorship.

Aquino did deny that he was guilty of any such denial. One of his replies scolded a critic for allegedly “equating revisionism” with deconstruction. But in fact, the logical relationship between his first words, that the youth “never experienced Marcos” and their condemnation was directed only at “their construct of Marcos,” and the inevitable conclusion, that he was denying the reality of the dictatorship, is not akin to an equal sign on a blackboard, but the broken grass on a slippery slope.

The Bloomberg journalist and Chevening scholar Ryan Edward Chua (see, not all of his commenters were propagandists) asked the right follow-up question: “So what’s the purpose of learning history if we should disregard the mistakes and evils of the past just because we ‘never experienced’ them? Aren’t the testimonies of those who lived through them enough?” Aquino could only rush an answer: “I never said anything about disregarding, i [sic] am campaigning fro [sic] deconstructive readings.”

For a scholar who is invested in the power of narratives (or, in Derridean terms, meta-narratives), Aquino does not seem that much interested in language per se. Or in truly understanding the criticism directed at him. Imagine a convert’s earnest, anxious question about the nature of the New Testament: “Aren’t the testimonies of those who lived at the time of Jesus enough?” Now imagine a priest answering in this way: “I never said anything about that. I am campaigning for deconstructive readings.”

The real question is a variation on a theme already struck by Pontius Pilate. “What is (the) truth?” What, really, is the truth about Marcos? Aquino, a priest of long standing, cannot offer a direct reply. Instead, he wrote this long thread on Twitter: “But the point, however, is that when you deal with constructs, there are rival constructs, rival interpretations, rival selections of data considered significant. But some constructs prevail and are favored. These become the dominant constructs. These are the grand narratives.”

He continued: “One of the grand narratives is that Ninoy Aquino returned to the Philippines to save the country, and that Cory restored democracy. These are not necessarily false, but they are reconstructions of history based on the selection of certain data, and the exclusion of others.”

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He concludes: “[Deconstruction] brackets grand narratives to allow petit narratives to be heard and then offers us alternative readings of reality and of history, and this is a salutary movement, yes, even for theology and for the Church.”

Truly, charity, even disguised as scholarly argument, covers a multitude of sins. The “petit” (small) narrative that Aquino wants to be heard is that Marcos was not the evil man history has portrayed him to be. Never mind the thousands of killings he ordered, the billions of dollars he looted, the generations of Filipinos he impoverished. He (in Aquino’s argument) deserves an alternative reading of reality and history.

But the truth is, the Marcos tragedy is not a petit narrative; it is, still, part of the dominant one. As long as the Marcos family retains its political and economic power, the country remains locked in a life-or-death struggle between the powers of corruption and despotism and the forces (however imperfect) of freedom and reform.

All that Aquino’s erudite temporizing in the face of truth does is put the faithful at risk; if meta-narratives trump truth, the ground on which religion rests collapses. What was the warning in Matthew? “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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