On martial law and other false nostalgias
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of scholarly and creative works about martial law, both to respond to the golden age myths propagated during the past elections, and to remind people about the horrors of the time—from the massive corruption to the monstrous violence.
In the realm of cinema, these works have included Lavrente “Lav” Diaz’s “Ang Panahon ng Halimaw,” Dakip “Kip” Oebanda’s “Liway,” Mike de Leon’s “Citizen Jake,” Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “The Kingmaker,” Vincent Tañada’s “Katips,” and Joel Lamangan’s “Oras de Peligro.” There have also been a resurgence of interest in older works, from Ramona Diaz’s “Imelda” and the rock musical “Here Lies Love,” currently on Broadway.
We’ve also had fine novels that Gina Apostol’s “Insurrecto,” Glenn Diaz’s “Yñiga,” and Elaine Castillo’s “America is Not the Heart” (I enjoyed reading all three) in which martial law and its aftermath loom large.
As for academic scholarship and writing, commendable (among many others) have been “The Marcos Era: A Reader” edited by Leia Anastacio and Patricio Abinales; “Marcos Lies” by Joel Ariate Jr., Miguel Paolo Reyes, and Larah Vinda del Mundo; “Martial Law in the Philippines: Lessons and Legacies, 1972-2022” edited by Edilberto de Jesus and Ivyrose Baysic; and “False Nostalgia” by JC Punongbayan.
I fully support these efforts, and have participated in it myself, both in this space and in scholarly work that has looked at how Ferdinand Marcos Sr. used drugs as a populist trope to justify dictatorship (https://tinyurl.com/bddfhays).
There are two premises that inform the reception (and perhaps even the inception) of these works, however, that we have to be mindful of, given how they can affect not just our view of martial law itself, but of our present and future political landscape.
The first premise—as I have discussed in greater detail in a recent piece (“Beyond the disinformation narrative,” 6/30/23)—is “that people are simply deceived by fake news and that once they are ‘corrected’ or ‘educated’ through efforts to ‘debunk’ these myths … they will change their views.” Disinformation cannot be disentangled from its resonances with people’s experiences, which is why fact-checking (and historical truth-telling) ends up mostly as preaching to the choir (a claim, incidentally, that can withstand fact-checking, given the wealth of recent psychological and sociological research on this topic). The promise of P20 rice can easily be debunked, but its ability to communicate a concern for agriculture cannot be so easily impeached.
The second premise is a circumscription of the Marcos years and the resultant view that other periods are either good (e.g., Edsa) or not worth studying or depicting (e.g., the Quirino administration). Doubtless, martial law was an exceptional period in its subversion of democracy and human rights. But there must have been some kind of continuity with the violence from the atrocities of the American years to those of the Japanese occupation, in the same way that riding-in-tandem is not a technology of violence invented during the Duterte years. An exceptionalism to martial law can also be a “false nostalgia” in itself, if it precludes the possibility that good things happened during those years—and that bad things happened after.
And this brings me to my main point: Any kind of nostalgia over other some past period can lead to misguided thinking, and worse, bad politics. Even the past election season is already becoming an object of nostalgia, with many writing off the thereafter as lost years. Such feelings are definitely valid especially in light of today’s vexing news, the Vice President’s sense of entitlement being a far cry from her predecessor’s sense of accountability; the abduction of Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, and indeed the continuing detention of Leila de Lima a throwback to the pretense of peace during the “New Society.” But such sentiments can become problematic when they preclude any kind of reflexivity, one which asks not just what could have been, but also what could have been done.
This is not a call to move on (I feel you, Hannah Arendt, when you said “Let truth be told though the world may perish”). Indeed, being critical of the above premises should not detract from the all-important work of studying the past, supporting those who do, and struggling against efforts to revise it (for instance, the proposal to erase the term “Diktadurang Marcos” from textbooks).
Equally important are the creative works that restore interest in the past in ways that entertain and inform while also stirring our pathos for its many injustices.
But if all nostalgias are, by definition, subjective and therefore unfalsifiable, then we cannot insist on foregrounding them in our politics and treating elections as a matter of who’s more factual, rather than who’s more effective in resonating with people. If the call for unity alongside historical denialism is “toxic positivity,” then our challenge is not just to point out the “toxic” but also to pursue a “positivity” (that is, a forward-looking vision) that appeals to people’s aspirations, while also being historically and morally defensible.