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The color of malice

/ 04:00 AM December 15, 2020

What we call negative historical revisionism … is based entirely on the intent to deceive, to mislead, to cause harm. It is stained right through with the color of malice. In that sense, negative historical revisionism IS disinformation.

It is not an exercise in seeking and telling the best obtainable version of the truth; rather, it is an attempt to defend power…

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I share the view of some historians that the better term for negative historical revisionism is historical denialism. Denialism is not a mere alternative reading of reality; rather, it is a reading of an alternative reality. It denies history as it happened, and proposes a counter-factual history.

What are the conditions which allow historical denialism to take root?

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In 2015—that is to say, before Rodrigo Duterte became president and before Ferdinand Marcos Jr. almost became vice president—I identified five factors that enabled Marcosian distortions of history.

“Why is it that some Filipinos—not only those who are too young, but even those old enough to have lived through the Marcos years—seem ready to buy into this counter-factual version of history?”

“Many factors must be at work. The loss of perspective: The events have receded into what is now the distant past (more years separate our time from the declaration of martial law than from the start of World War II to military rule in 1972). The failure of education: Our generation has not done an adequate job of reminding the nation of the atrocities of the Marcos dictatorship. The power of myth: Marcos allies have been successful in presenting the beginning of an alternative history, especially online. The relativism of protest: Antigovernment critics of whatever stripe fall into the relativist habit of denouncing the incumbent president as the worst of the time (scroll through newspaper pages and see the vilification of one president after another: Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo, Aquino again). Not least, the lure of innocence: Media organizations today are too noisy, busy with present-day stories of iniquity and inequality.”

We can group these factors under a common label: historical, cultural, systemic conditions.

The loss of perspective is a function of time; in less than two years, we will be marking the 50th anniversary of Marcos’ imposition of martial rule. That IS a long time, by the measure of human memory. How many of the 40 million Filipinos living in 1972 are still around today?

The failure of education. It is difficult to justify sweeping statements about the quality of Philippine education, but perhaps the following assertion is non-controversial: Successive generations were taught that the Marcos regime was like any other administration, but with some excesses. If these were discussed, they would be compared to those of other administrations: as centralized as Quezon’s, as corrupt as Quirino’s. The right approach should have been to treat the Marcos years like the Japanese Occupation: an aberration, a self-occupation.

The relativism of protest. The fatal uniqueness of the Marcos regime becomes harder to see because of the lack of contrast with other administrations, in part because the protests that have criticized each succeeding administration use largely the same terminology. Every president since Marcos has been denounced on the streets as a dictator; the overuse cheapens the language, and blurs the distinctions.

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The lure of innocence. I could have chosen a more direct term, but in using this phrase, I only meant that the media industry is structurally designed to pursue the latest, the newest, stories, especially of “iniquity and inequality.” The bias is for the new. That means that, on a system level, many of the older stories of investigations and controversies wither on the vine for lack of attention. The failure to follow up—consistently, comprehensively, as a matter of course—is one of the greatest failings of the media as a profession.

That leaves the power of myth as the fifth factor. On reflection, we can see that this is actually two conditions in one. The first aspect is focused on myth. Our national culture rewards simplified narratives, even for instance in acknowledged masterpieces such as the movie “Heneral Luna”: “of one against many, of country before self, of nation above class, of good versus evil.”

The man on horseback is a powerful narrative; the compassionate widow is a potent symbol.

But other than historical, cultural, and systemic conditions, we must also reckon with the infrastructure of information as a relatively new and absolutely game-changing condition. The second aspect of the power of myth is focused precisely on power. That power, for the most part, is driven by information technology. The Marcoses have gained a firm foothold in YouTube, for instance, seeding it with visions and versions of its own alternative reality even before it became a massively popular platform. [The study conducted by the] scholars Miguel Paolo Reyes and Joel Fajardo Ariate Jr. of the University of the Philippines [on] the “Marcos truths,” tracing what they call a genealogy of historical distortions, helps explains how power meets myth.(Excerpts from “The Color of Malice,” remarks prepared for the Private Education Assistance Committee’s LIDER2 Series.)

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

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TAGS: Duterte, historical revisionism, History, marcos
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