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Sidelining history

THE RATHER slick paid advertisement began disarmingly enough with people in the margins—a farmer, a fisherman, a street child, a rebel, an OFW family, even a colorful gay—saying, “Hindi ako ang nakaraan” (I am not the past). Intrigued, you follow the visual sequence, which subtly shifts the script to hints of moving on and the repeated “Hindi ako….” At the end, a pair of walking feet segues into a full-blown figure that jolts you: an expansive Ferdinand Marcos Jr. saying, along with the others, “Tayo ang bukas” (We are the future).

This message is insidious: It suggests that Marcos Jr., now running for vice president, should not be shadowed by whatever has happened in the past under the regime of his father, Ferdinand Marcos. It also insinuates, quite disingenuously, that his refusal to deal with the past is of the same kind as the forward-looking struggles of our people to face the future and overcome the vicissitudes of an impoverished life.

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This propaganda beguiles us in at least two ways: One is the subtle effort to cut the son’s umbilical cord to the parents’ unsavory past; the other is the blithe assumption that we can move on without having to deal with the issues of our past, whether personal or shared as a society.

In a recent television interview, Marcos Jr. was evasive when probed and pressed on what exactly was the pahiwatig, the point, behind the ad. He parried pointed questions about the need to acknowledge wrongdoing during this dark period in our history. Repeatedly, he skirted the issue of accountability and having to say sorry, putting himself at a distance from the dark shadows of his father’s regime and saying it is not within his power to put closure to this gaping wound in our history.

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The picture being played out before us is that martial law was a mere blip in the radar screen of this country’s long record of political disasters. Years back, Marcos Jr. was asked what he would say to his progeny when posed with uncomfortable questions about martial law abuses and his father’s role in them. He simply shrugged and dismissed the turbulence of that era as “mere politics.” He would tell his children, he said, that it is all part of the contestation inherent in politics, which has its ups and downs. As luck would have it, their political fortunes just happened to be on the down side.

Today, the Marcos machinery—fueled perhaps by those billions of dollars still stashed in Swiss banks and other offshore financial havens—is once again trying to gain ascendancy and get within striking distance of the presidency. The bold move is premised on the likelihood that Filipinos have a short memory, and that there is still a residue of support for the Marcos dynasty, as the surveys show.

What is most disturbing about all this is the utter lack of some sense of responsibility, some feeling of complicity, in being part of a family that for two decades rode roughshod over the rule of law, gutted and corroded our institutions, plundered the nation’s coffers, and left tens of thousands of victims dead, maimed or psychologically crippled.

Behind this appalling moral obtuseness is the refusal to accept solidarity. While it is true that children are not accountable for the sins of their parents, there is such a thing as corporate responsibility.

In a forum we held in the early 1980s, at the height of the turmoil over the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., a Japanese theologian began his lecture with a moving apology. Bowing deeply, he expressed grief and asked forgiveness for what Japan had done to the Philippines 40 years before.

He was then hardly in his teens and his parents had nothing to do with the war. Yet he felt complicit in, and humiliated by being part of, an imperial cult that led to the atrocities done in the name of the Japanese Emperor and Imperial Japan.

It struck me then that this acceptance of collective guilt is where nations with a strong collective identity are set apart from still-decolonizing cultures whose traditional structures of solidarity have broken down. Tribalism, with its highly personal sense of belonging and responsibility, did not evolve in these countries into a gradual sense of “nationhood,” as with the shogunates of Japan or the medieval fiefdoms of Europe. Colonialism arrested this process. It fostered instead fractious ruling elites with narrow interests, and whose sense of responsibility is limited to a very small radius of trust, usually confined to family and all that goes by the name of “Kamag-anak Inc.”

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As recipient of the spoils hoarded through the massive despoliation suffered by this country during his father’s watch, Marcos Jr. cannot feign innocence. Neither can all the rest of us who silently acquiesce to the continuing refusal to deal with this blot in our historical memory.

While we may not be aware of it, we are all part of the blood guilt that stains our societies. Horrendous crimes happen because entire societies succumb to the machinations of those in power and get swept into acquiescence or patriotic hysteria. This is what happened in Hitler’s Third Reich, when the boots of Nazi soldiers tramped on the cobblestones and Jews crouching in cellars were ferreted out as their neighbors shivered in fear and turned away.

Jews, Germans and Japanese continue to struggle in keeping their memories of the last world war at the center of their vision. In our case, we sideline this part of our history by not addressing it at all, unlike Germany subjecting itself to the Nuremberg Trials or South Africa confronting the crimes committed under apartheid by establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Instead, we allow tricksters to spin myths around our fading memories, turning our political struggles and social disorder in the present—which in the first place are consequences of the breakdown of our institutions in the past—into occasions of nostalgia for the good old days when an iron hand whipped us all into line and we behaved like a disciplined herd of sheep gathered quiescently together in one large pen. This is much like the ancient Israelites who, faced with the hardships of traversing the Sinai Desert, hankered for the leeks and meat of the Egypt they left behind, forgetting the cruel slavery and the backbreaking labor that produced them.

Memories can and do hold us back, but only when we spin fictions around them, papering over the rough and grim edges as if we can make them disappear, the way computers nowadays can photo-shop a spot or stain out of existence. Still, human nature asserts itself: We feel great discomfort when a thing at issue remains unresolved and we are being pressed into a handshake that we know very well is a mere way of bulldozing the truth, under cover of a charming air of bonhomie.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: Ferdinand Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, History
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