Having cared for and lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t help but think about the eerie coincidence of Sept. 21 being World Alzheimer’s Day, as well as the anniversary of martial law in the Philippines.
Alzheimer’s becomes a powerful metaphor for the national forgetting that is happening, a forced amnesia that comes both from sins of commission (the massive fabrication of fake historical accounts) as well as sins of omission (the failure of the educational system, as well as mass media, to give more attention to that era).
There’s more to Alzheimer’s than just forgetting. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects the brain, mainly a gradual deterioration of executive functions, which includes working memory, cognition, and comprehension, and the ability to make rational decisions.
The deterioration of those executive functions is called dementia, which is mainly caused by Alzheimer’s, but can also come about from frequent strokes and other injuries to the brain.
It’s not just about martial law. We have been too quick as well in forgetting the horrors of World War II and the Japanese Occupation and, before that, the long Philippine-American War that was waged to consolidate US colonial occupation of our country.
Past is past. We have to move on. These are the common arguments for an un-remembering. In Filipino, pagbubura, an obliteration, of memories.
Yes, the memories can be painful, given the assault and the trauma inflicted on the nation. But, in psychology, treating post-trauma pain will involve a gentle and mindful confrontation of the trauma, so a victim learns to become a survivor.
Our national dementia involves a dangerous obliteration of the memories that can actually prevent us from repeating past mistakes, especially around our acceptance of oppression.
Time and time again, we have been fooled into quick acceptance of oppressors bearing gifts and promises of a better life (or, in the case of the Spaniards, a better afterlife). The Americans promised a better life than the one under Spain, dangling an American model of prosperity and, if that failed, you could always aspire to migrate to their land of milk and honey. The Japanese came along castigating US imperialism and offering co-prosperity of Asians, under their leadership of course.
Then the line of our own Filipino presidents and more promises. I have to mention our history classes almost never mention that our first president, Aguinaldo, declared himself dictator of our first Republic and would have stayed dictator had he not been chided by a wiser Mabini, who insisted on a new republican constitution.
It actually becomes easier for demagogues to fool a dementing nation. Marcos’ long reign made it so much easier for Duterte, and Duterte for Marcos Junior. Our amnesias are cumulative, each generation more vulnerable to new empty promises and rhetoric or, to use the blunt Filipino word, to more budol and budol-budol.
Dementia isn’t just about lost memories, but distorted ones, which then wreak havoc on our cognition and comprehension. The most disturbing memory losses here are those that relate to basic body needs: hunger and thirst. The patient with dementia has to be reminded all of the time about needing to eat, drink, even chew, and swallow.
Our national dementia is similar in the distortion of our cognition and comprehension. The constant barrage of disinformation, and the amnesia of truth, make us lose our appreciation of freedom and democracy, preferring instead authoritarianism and dictatorship.
As with Alzheimer’s and dementia, we only have preventive methods right now to stave off national dementia. There is the term cognitive reserves, referring, in an individual, to a lifetime of education and experiences which can be called up as we age, to fight dementia.
As a nation, we still have those reserves, and that is what so terrifies the enemies of democracy and freedom. The reserves are to be found in our collective stories of how we won and defended freedom, as well as the times when freedom was assaulted and, again, defended. The stories are told in books, in songs, in theater, and in historical archives. We have to defend those reserves before we reach the point of believing there is nothing to remember.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.