Monday, September 21, 2020

[Speech] "Silence is not history": Reflections on historical distortion and disinformation

Speech delivered on the occasion of BALIK KA/SAYSAY/AN: An Online Conference on Historical Revisionism on September 21, 2020.

In “Bamboo Girl” (2016), a short story by the fictionist Ian Casocot, the thirty-something  protagonist explores his mother. lifelong insistence that she came from a crack of a bamboo - like the mythical characters in our folklore. Of course, the protagonist finds out a very different truth, but in the process, he also understands his mother’s reasons for holding on her story. 

“We who are able to tell our own stories own the narrative,” he realizes, adding: “Silence is not history.” 

Casocot’s story comes to mind when I think of history, in light of yet another anniversary of Martial Law. On one level, it points to fact that, as the mother said: “We make our choices in the stories of our lives that we tell”. Of all the moments of our high school days - some embarrassing, many boring - we choose to highlight the most exciting ones, and choose to tell them in ways that make them even more exciting - or relatable. And as the years go by, we add or subtract detail; edit characters in or out; and proofread the past using the present as our style manual. 

Indeed, everyone engages in acts of ‘personal historical revisionism’.

On another level, it reminds us that, like a palimpsest, our nation’s biography is subject to rewriting and erasure. Just as the dictator and his wife successful cast themselves in the mold of the original bamboo couple -  Malakas and Maganda; Silalak and Sikabay - today they have been cast as the regents of a golden age of culture, infrastructure, and wisdom. Indeed, attempts to lie about the past and the present are as old as history. 

Let me quickly give three other examples of disinformation in history. 

When Jose Rizal climbed Mt. Makiling in 1887, he was accused of planting the German flag on its peak as an agent of Bismarck: an early example of what was likely state-sanctioned fake news.

When a cholera plague hit Manila in 1820, panic and fear hit the local and they blamed  the foreigners. “There has been a very shocking massacre of from thirty to forty Europeans of different nations of Europe, and of about eight Chinese, at Manilla.” One missionary wrote. "The perpetrators of this cruel act were the native Manilla people. The pretext was a supposition that foreigners had introduced the disease called cholera morbus, which had prevailed extensively, and was very fatal.”

A third example is much more recent: When a group promised to distribute Marcos wealth to Filipino citizens in 2017, thousands flocked to UP Los Baños - some coming from as far as Marinduque - to claim their share - one million pesos each - of the promised wealth.

Critics being subjected to fake news. Pandemics being the subject of disinformation. Filipinos being promised payment in exchange for supporting for a dictator. What else is new?

Well, what has changed today is that the denialism has become more brazen, and the technologies more powerful to amplify its most pernicious effects. One does not need to watch ‘Social Dilemma’ to see how intense the political polarization has become, how entrenched the ‘fake news ecosystem’ has become - to a point that it is possible to sustain people’s honest-to-goodness conviction that the earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism, or that Marcos is a hero.

Times have indeed changed from the time that Rizal climbed Mt. Makiling, and hardly no one remembers the 1820 cholera plague, except for historians who helpfully remind us of their relevance. 

But the two levels articulated above - the personal and the political - are not unrelated. While most of us are quick to take the view of history as fixed and final, our personal histories reflect that they are dynamic - and such a view doubtless affect how many people view history-at-large. 

And so, a time of pandemic, and in an age where our epistemology is no longer respected, how do we overcome ‘historical revisionism’ - or more accurately, historical denialism? And how do we overcome the fatigue, the seemingly futility, in insisting that a faithful account of past matters?

In the first place, we must ask ourselves whether our history itself has been a form of disinformation. For decades, Filipinos have been educated with Europeans and Americans as reference point, taught that we were inferior, that prior to Magellan we had no history to speak of, and that whatever civilization we have reached is thanks to the contributions of waves upon waves of people of increasing sophistication - from Indonesians and Malays to Spanish and Americans. For decades, too, our history - at least the way it has been taught - has focused on a few people, a few regions. Is this also not a form of disinformation - or at least, a distortion? Is it not also damaging to nation building? Thankfully, the historians and social scientists of today know better and even the balangay has been revived. But the damage of “history as disinformation" remains. 

Secondly - and this will occupy much of my attention in this speech - we must invest facts with an affective quality. Can our history make people feel what it means to be an indio ruled by insulares and peninsiulares? Can we convey the anger of 1896, the fear of 1972, the euphoria of 1986, and the hope, however fleeting, that followed?

The fact that Jose Rizal choose to communicate his ideas in the form of novels speaks of his intuition that reason is not enough. It is not enough to indict the abuses of the Catholic Church at the time - one must construct the character of Padre Damaso. And it is not enough that Crisostomo Ibarra experienced injustice - he must have fallen in love. Rizal’s martyrdom in Luenta - just like Ninoy’s assassination in the airport that now bears his name - communicated what their ideas cannot - and at least for a moment, such events were compelling enough for people to take action.

Ironically, while Rizal recognized the value of affect, he himself has been treated by our textbook in a disaffected way. In the process of requiring Rizal for our students; of apotheosizing him in our historical canon - we have cut him off from an affective bond with young people. Only when I became a doctor and social scientist did I come to truly appreciate Rizal - his mountain climbing, his anthropology, his nation-building project. 

On the other hand, when we consider Fernando Poe Jr., and how his ‘death’ in his films evokes grief and anger among early cinema-goers, we see the power of this affective quality. His films communicated a truth that no political career could ever match: his relatable underdog-ness, and the goodness of his character.

Similarly, Rodrigo Duterte entered people's consciousness as a folk hero, which I believe continues to explain his appeal. Long before he ran for president, people have been hearing of his acts of kindness - whether imagined or real - from disguising himself as a taxi driver or traffic enforcer - to giving aid in times of disaster. Faced with a sense of historic injustice, people saw his own brand of injustice as justice. Duterte also understood the power of symbol - from the kulambo that communicated a simple life to the broken shoe that could dispel - more effectively than all the SALNs combined - the existence of hidden wealth. 

As for Ferdinand Marcos, he was also a master weaver of narrative, faking war metals and manufacturing the story of Yamashita’s gold, which is so effective than until now, it lives on, able to drive people from as far as Malabon and Marindique to the grounds of Los Baños. The gold may be fake, but people’s hopes on it were real.  

This brings me to the point I would like to emphasize: the role of creativity, the role of literature and arts. If empiricism and logic - if documents and testimonies, of amount of billions stolen, are insufficient, then we need to locate history within people’s affective realms for it to matter. 

In other words, we need to create a “cinematic universe” out of our history - one in which it is impossible to mistake Sauron for Gandalf, one in which people can relate to the characters, one which contributes to a sense of nationhood by reflecting and reinforcing our shared experiences. 

In fairness, and much respect, to our artists, directors, scriptwriters - they have tried. We have films like Respeto and Ang Panahon ng Halimaw documentaries like Aswang. And of course, music - like that of BLKD. We only have to remember the late Carlos Celdran to realize the value of performance and richness of our cultural history as a resource for such. 

But have we maximized this resource? If we had the clairvoyance in 1986 to see the events of 2016 onwards, would it have been changed how we treated Martial Law and its many unsung heroes in film and TV? Would it have have placed different words in Heneral Luna's mouth? Can we imagine Liza Soberano as Lorena Barros?

As J Neil Garcia rightly observed, even myths can “animate the character of our national reality”. For as long as Lam-ang remains relegated to textbooks, he will not reach the level of Black Panther in our imagination. Art can breathe life into history, while history itself can breathe truth into art. 

And so as we continue to grapple with an age of disinformation,  I would like to raise the affective possibilities that lie in our history. Historians rightfully warn that such projects carry the risk of distortion, but, whether we like or not, our history being distorted - the question is how do we respond. 

Of course, such projects run into the conundrum of popularization, of the need for “public engagement” - especially in our time when even TV networks are playing second fiddle to social media and its rising breed of influencers.

One things going on our side, however, precisely because criticism is natural for artists, scholars, journalists, and concerned citizens - many of us remain committed to historical record, and open to scientific evidence wherever it might lead. From 2016 onwards, a growing awareness of the existential threats faced by our democracy has led to a sense of community  not seen since the 1980s.

Another is the possibilities afforded by our age is the very platform we're using to make this event possible: the Internet. Yes, we have been on the receiving end of its dark side. But there may yet be emancipatory possibilities that we have not discovered. But the “influencers” of today, many of them young people, are reaching their generations in ways we never can, and some have used their influence to make known their politics. Even celebrities - untethered from their networks - are speaking out. Just as Rizal used the novel to communicate his ideas, we may yet see new media serve as platform for change - whether to get people to vote to stem the tide of disinformation.

To maximize these opportunities, the collaboration between scholars and artists has never been more critical. Unfortunately, our unnecessary divisions - institutional, disciplinal, regional, linguistic, and otherwise - have existed long before the arrival of a divider-in-chief who won by a minority of votes. 

This collaboration should not just multi-disciplinary but inter-generational. Our young people need mentoring. Our elders need coaching with the new technologies. We must reach out to people older and younger than us if we are to serve as generational chains. The idea of mentoring, alas, has faded in light of a commodified education system. But we can bring it back. Can. we challenge ourselves to have at least one intellectual sounding board representing every decade?

Finally, it has to be inclusive. Reducing Martial Law as a dualism between the Aquinos and Marcoses excludes people who do not identify with either. Reducing our country’s history to events that took place in Tagalog-speaking provinces excludes people for whom Tagalog is second language. Reducing our pantheon of heroes to mostly-male illustrates and mostly-elite presidents excludes women, indigenous peoples, and many others. Local histories can bring about a sense of dignity and responsibility - but we need to support state universities, our educators, and the patronage politics that afflicts our educational system. 

Of course, we must affirm the dualism between indelible truth and outright lie. Even in this post truth age, fact checking has forced presidents like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte to retreat in their unfounded claims - from fake cures to false hopes. Even in this post truth age when money can help buy elections through social media - we have seen a woman rise from relative obscurity to defeat the dictator's son. Contemporary rebuttals will also speak louder than future corrections - so thank to our journalists for the critical reporting. 

But we also need an openness to various narratives - like the mother who insists that she came from bamboo. It is not enough to have a villain. We need heroes too - not just one, but many. If we are to build a cinematic universe out of our history, we have to bring out the diversity that is already here to begin with.

Let us bear in mind that, if, as in Casocot's story, “silence is not history”, then we must not tire of our raising our voices. We must not get bored with our own stories. Because our tyrants rely on our amnesia to escape accountability, memory itself is a form of resistance. Yet we must find new ways of retelling. If Darna can be recast and remade, surely we can remind people of the real-life heroes whose only superpower was courage. 

I will end by offering a sigh of relief - or perhaps even a modest declaration of victory. We have made it this far. In the middle of a pandemic, in the autumn of the dictatorship, we are talking about historical record, striving to find a common ground that is big enough to build a country. The very fact that we are having this conversation is hope enough for us - at least enough for us to persist in this project of affirming our right to history - one that is true, one that is inclusive, one that can change people’s minds and just as importantly, touch their hearts.

Gideon Lasco
September 21, 2020