Still asking why
They were good times, the ’50s and ’60s. World War II seemed distant, the world recovered from the war’s devastation. The Philippines was developing, and a middle class was emerging.
The baby boomers, those born in the early years after the war, were entering college with high hopes for a bright future.
But the 1960s were marked, too, by increasing global tumult, with the baby boomers, who had benefited from the growing prosperity, asking many questions about persistent—even worsening—poverty.
In the Philippines, close family ties meant these baby boomers dutifully attended weekend family reunions, listening to elders with a litany of complaints about government inefficiency and corruption, and personal accounts of having to bribe the police and government officials, oh and, pare, can you get me a calling card from your friend the general so I won’t have to argue with the police?
There would be complaints about rising prices, including “blue seal” cigarettes, which were imported, mostly stateside, smuggled into the country and openly sold in the streets.
Oh, and why don’t the police do something about those squatters and the street children and the beggars? Everyone had their stories to tell about “lazy” household help and office staff, and how they were just having too many children.
In between the complaints, parents updated each other about children sent abroad to study, or who have found a job and settled down in Los Angeles, New York, and how other siblings might follow.
The solutions were always to be found in Mother America. Our failings in the Philippines were attributed to our not having followed the American models of development.
There were dissonant voices questioning those models—in Congress, Claro M. Recto, Lorenzo Tañada, Jose Diokno. Universities were becoming restless, too; in 1964, a spectacled professor named Jose Ma. Sison formed the Kabataang Makabayan (KM), whose youthful membership quickly swelled.
But makabayan, nationalism, was a dirty word, as was aktibista.
In 1965, the young and charismatic Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was elected president, promising better times, but the corruption and inefficiency worsened, as did social unrest.
“Poor” was no longer some abstraction. In universities, professors began to talk about “class,” and in discussion groups, students realized they had some tough questions to ask as well about their own class origins and, much to the dismay of parents, being asked to take sides.
In 1971, Sison’s “Philippine Society and Revolution” or PSR (and the Filipino “Lipunan at Rebolusyong Pilipino” or LRP) was published. Sison used Mao Zedong’s theoretical framework that identified “three basic problems”: imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism, together with an analysis of classes in the Philippines and their roles in perpetuating social problems.
PSR triggered “oo nga” realizations, and in the process, ended an age of innocence for Filipinos. It was painful because it meant asking about power relations and the control of resources, about collaboration and complicity.
The family reunions today still involve stories similar to those from half a century ago, except some of the parents or even grandparents are the erstwhile activists of that era will smile remembering the 1970s and say they’ve moved on. Talk some more and they’ll acknowledge PSR and student activism and the alphabet soup of mass organizations changed at least two generations’ ways of looking at society and the world.
The PSR was too simplistic, we were told, but so, too, maybe even more so, the arguments about the poor destined to be poor, corruption an inevitable product of human nature.
The world has changed and so, too, has activism. Sison himself has modified some of his analysis, referring to Russia and China as additional imperialist powers. It isn’t just capitalism anymore but neoliberalism, and the villains aren’t just oil companies now but Silicon Valley chief executive officers.
Today, we grapple with Asia’s longest insurgency, going back to 1968. Instead of revisiting Sison and other radical works, government bans them.
And so, the cycles continue, a recycling of old rhetoric and proposed solutions, like a change of values and moral education and ROTC.
KM and the activism Sison started wasn’t just about shouting out slogans. Might we learn, as many did during those years, to go out into the world, talking less, listening more?
And asking why.
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