Nick Joaquin and the madness of hope

*Excerpt from Joel Pablo Salud’s manuscript titled, “Dissecting the Dictator: Echoes and Reflections on Tyranny.”

Apocalyptic—a madness of hope born of despair […] In this climate, too, evidently, revolutions are bred. ~ National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, “Apocalypse and the Revolution

Anyone who has read Nick Joaquin’s controversial essay, “A Heritage of Smallness,” in the context of the here and now, may find it too coarse, or rather, too raw a barbeque to munch on. What most astonishes the modern reader was Nick Joaquin’s seeming propensity to judge Filipinos with the same heritage of smallness he mauled and disparaged.

The injustice allegedly done to us by the essay may have come from Nick Joaquin’s somewhat weak comparison between the Filipino’s idea of “scale,” which Joaquin called “pigmy,” and people abroad who think “dynamically”.

For us who have the benefit of 21st-century learning may find this too trifling a reason to even raise, if not “petty” on the whole. The “Global Filipino” had long since been a reality—the 18th century, to be exact—and was recognized and even saluted for their achievements in a range of disciplines.

What could have prompted Joaquin to write “Filipinos have the habit, whatever our individual resources, of thinking poor, of thinking petty”? Selling cigarettes by the stick proves more profitable on the whole than by the ream.

Joaquin, nonetheless, drummed on his deduction for all it was worth: “Are we not confusing timidity for humility and making a virtue of what may be the worst of our vices? Is not our timorous clinging to smallness the bondage we must break if we are ever to inherit the earth and be free, independent, progressive? The small must ever be prey to the big. Aldous Huxley said that some people are born victims or ‘murderees.’ He came to the Philippines and thought us the ‘least original of peoples.’ Is there not a relation between the two terms? Originality requires daring: the daring to destroy the obsolete, to annihilate the petty. It’s cold comfort to think we haven’t developed that kind of ‘murderer mentality.’”

While I’m rarely the sort who’d leap in response to the opinion of every other person—least of all Aldous Huxley—about who we are as a people, I however believe that the words of Nick Joaquin need closer scrutiny. Having read the essay years back, I feared the worst: not only that these were true, but these were inescapably true.

Viewing this now in the context of a world leaning towards totalitarianism, the future looks bleak. Or does it?

Joaquin stressed in another essay, “Footnotes to Yesterday,” our inevitable end if and when we refuse any and all challenges. “The Filipino in general, if he keeps retreating from the challenge of the difficult, may learn too late that a challenge posed may be perilous, but a challenge evaded is suicide.”

The whole essay chronicled the tell-tale timidity of the Filipino potter and the Filipino santero—to add, Filipino writers in Spanish and English—and their apparent fate: “he perished”. And for what unavoidable reasons? Joaquin trained his eyes on the Filipino’s ‘fear of failure and hurt pride’.

“For Filipinos today, the great peril is of challenges not met fully or not met at all. These challenges may seem too big or too small, too rash or too sudden, too dangerous or too dishonest. We always have reasons for rejecting them, for not responding. We are not prepared, or our betters don’t set us a proper example, or it’s just the old con game, anyway. We’re interested only in what’s popular and easy. Challenges are difficult; they don’t elicit popular response […] Our reluctance fills the air with the uneasiness of a destiny not being fulfilled adequately. The Philippines question today is: why are we as a people so disinclined to face up to challenges?”

This query on which Joaquin may have developed his essay, “The Heritage of Smallness,” is every bit a political question. What we do or refuse to do affects the whole. Joaquin further observed that what we do or don’t do spins for us a destiny from which escape is a pipedream, thus the sense of uneasiness.

History makes it plain, however, that ‘destiny’ is something malleable, that somehow, by some miracle or magic, it can be altered, reshaped, though not solely by the hand of humanity but a multiplicity of factors, responses, choices. A wave of change can reroute a destiny and set it back on course.

Joaquin himself unwittingly attested to the truth of that statement when he wrote his essay, “Junking the Heritage.” He said, “But a nation is not its politics or economics. A nation is people. And a nation changes only when the people change.”

In this essay “Junking the Heritage,” Joaquin discussed the social, political and economic restyling which swept all across the Philippines ‘mid-decade of the Seething Sixties.’ Caught up in these upheavals was the Filipino hitherto held back by ‘peasant-oriented attitudes making up his peasant-oriented society.’ This society, Joaquin expounded, once marked by peasant-ness, routine meekness, resignation, fatalism and provincialism, had begun to grapple with its “smallness,” and by wrestling against it, eventually saw the fruits of his struggle.

That Filipinos saw the need to struggle was in fact a good sign. The tendency of the Filipino to flinch from the challenge of defining his identity had reached its tipping point; he was made aware of the repercussions if he refused. As a result, he detoured into an “aroused interest in our country, people and its history.”

The winds of change and general positive attitude then, noticed Joaquin, also came with a skepticism which, at length, gave us the ability to discern the road we were taking. We began to grasp Western materialism’s derisory nature, at once deficient and unsatisfactory, and how it assumed influence over our lives. The Filipinos, now with an aroused sense of their role in the scheme of things, thought materialism cannot be their defining moment.

This opened our eyes and spurred us to think twice, ponder on our choices, think in more profound ways, which led to our speaking truth to power.

This curiosity, triggered by what Joaquin called the prophets of havoc—our intellectuals—drove away the Filipinos’ fear of introspection and examination of the society of which they are part, resulting in throwing ‘the book at ourselves.’

By dispensing with the fear of introspection, the first revolution against smallness began.

In “Junking the Heritage,” he continues: “Faith is the flesh of freedom but skepticism is the nerve; and as we stand in mid-year, and in mid-decade, to ponder on our new Freedom Day, the state of the nation, we may realize that we are so critical of ourselves because we have become so confident of ourselves. We can take anything, even self-detraction; so, we throw the book at ourselves. It’s a healthy attitude. As the saying goes, it’s when you begin to think you’re safe that you’re in danger.

“The prophets that cry havoc do us a service by impelling us into self-examination. Have we really become degenerate? Is the country really going to the dogs? Is our condition really disconsolate compared with happier times? Or, the handicaps notwithstanding—like rising prices, rising taxes, rising crime rates, rising impatience—are we not living better today than at any other time in our history? An honest look at prewar times, for instance, can only force us to admit that we didn’t even know how to live well then, when we could afford to, because we prized money not as a means but as a thing in itself.”

Easy enough for the dahling of Philippine literature to offer such sweeping generalizations, but one must admit, he was, in many a facet, right on the money. The intellectuals of the era turned the tables by contributing a relatively expansive analysis of the milieu regardless of the group’s ‘small’ community of thinkers. Their fresh ways of portraying the Filipino and his society—no doubt true and not simply “fictive”—came as a breath of fresh air to an otherwise intellectually-starved population.

The people’s readiness to receive new information, topped by their boldness to go where hardly this generation of Filipinos had gone before, began shaping Philippine society into the vibrant, energetic and, in many ways, rebellious constituency it was always meant to be.

Social ills, back then, still held sway among many a poor Filipino community, but it was a poverty which had refused materialism its hold on the family. Money was a means, not an end. Compared to the foreign cities of its day, Manila stood proud of its heritage despite the devastation wrought by the Second World War nearly two decades earlier. We’ve begun to rebuild from the ashes of Japanese invasion, swiftly and with much skill. With the rebuilding of edifices came the renewal of national confidence and pride.

With such sterling works by notable authors as Amado. V. Hernandez, EdilbertoTiempo, Edith Tiempo, Lazaro Francisco, F. Sionil José, Francisco Arcellana and others holding on to the ideal, Filipinos saw their potential in spite of their first baby steps.

No sooner than the winds of change in the mid-1960s raised nation’s wings to heights never before thought possible by the average Filipino, disaster struck. Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, who previously sat at Senate President, won the presidential elections. Assuming power on December 1965, this sly and cunning manipulator began restructuring the narrative of the Filipino of that era if only to fortify his rise to power.

If we were to examine the National Artist’s account of the mid-sixties to that of Marcos in his inaugural address delivered at the Quirino Grandstand in 1965, a huge discrepancy emerges.

Joaquin: “From the steam and smoke of the turmoil emerges a profile of the Nation in this year 1965 that’s clear cut enough and far from depressing. At no other moment in our history, not even the 1890s, was the profile of the Nation so precise, as during these Seething ‘60s.”

Marcos: “Today the challenge is less dramatic but no less urgent […] Our people have come to a point of despair. I know this for I have personally met many of you. I have heard the cries of thousands and clasped hands in brotherhood with millions of you. I know the face of despair and I know the face of hunger because I have seen it in our barrios, huts and hovels all over our land.”

Little is certain as to the reasons for this discrepancy at first glance. Did Joaquin slide off the deep fictive end when he wrote his essay?

Joaquin was born in Paco, Manila in 1917. He was nearing his fifties by 1965, clearly in his prime. Joaquin’s ventures into literature and journalism brought him face to face with the stark realities of his day, beginning with the economically charged milieu of his lower middleclass suburb to the turbulence of his era.

The mid-sixties were a cauldron of social upheavals to which the First Quarter Storm owed its spark. These may have led Joaquin to portray it as the “Seething Sixties”.

Be that as it may, Joaquin saw past the social unrest by honing in on the apparent evolution of social and intellectual predispositions of the times. Filipinos, after a long leave of absence, had finally returned to fight their battles.

Marcos, on the other hand, was born on the same year, 1917, though younger by four months. Politically inclined from the start, the would-be dictator ventured into politics by working as technical assistant to Manuel Roxas, the first President of the Philippine Independent Republic shortly after World War II. Prior to 1965, Marcos was tried for the assassination of the political opponent of his father, but was later acquitted. In September 1972, claiming armed threats from the Communists, Marcos declared nationwide martial law.

Joaquin saw past the social unrest and praised the Filipino’s efforts to finally define the “profile of the nation”. Marcos saw the upheaval only as a threat to his ambitions.

Thanks to the benefit of hindsight (yes, I lived all throughout the Marcos era), I have all the reason to doubt the dictator than the National Artist, knowing the former’s propensity to lie and the latter’s partiality for truth, no matter how it hurts.

For all that Marcos was touted by loyalists and foes alike as one of the most brilliant Presidents to ever sit in Malacañang, Marcos’ intellectual virtuosity mirrored that of the criminal mastermind. He ruled as a veritable dictator and plunderer. Little wonder his family today has gone to great lengths rewriting their patriarch’s history.

With Marcos’ presidency lending some credibility to his claims, the winds of change which marked the “Seething Sixties” began to die down. The once healthy skepticism of Filipinos morphed into cynicism, and later, suspicion against the “prophets of havoc,” the nation’s intellectuals. This soon mutated into scorn and widespread indifference.

No sooner than news of corruption in high places hit the streets (thanks to the so-called “Mosquito Press”), Marcos was finally unmasked. With time working against them, those corrupted by Marcos took advantage of the little time they had. Corruption, once a crime, had turned into practice. In so short a time, Marcos had transformed anti-materialism to a wholly materialistic mindset from top to bottom. Again, it was money for money’s sake. This bought the dictatorship more time.

The hunt to arrest or execute all opposing voices was launched by Marcos, and nowhere was this hostility to dissent more apparent than the warrantless apprehension of writers and poets, editors and journalists, and the closure of all publications and media outlets. In exchange, Marcos let loose upon the public his narrative of self-serving grandeur under the guise of a “free” press. One such narrative, at best a tall tale, was his supposed participation in a guerilla unit which tried to bolster his image as a hero.

By now, the general public had begun to heap scorn on most calls to dissent. Protest marches were marked as a menace to society. The words of the intellectuals, powerful though they may have been, fell on deaf ears.

It would be safe to assume that with the advent of Marcos’ New Society, which showcased, above all, his achievements in the area of infrastructure, economic development, and relationship with the superpowers—all paid for by the taxes of the people—the all-too-visual spectacle turned the public’s attention from any talk of reforms to such pageants as military parades, global events, virtually the sights and sounds and wonders created by this conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda.

Through this ritual of tyranny Marcos was able to erase all traces of confidence and dignity in the Filipino psyche save for the militant few. Faced with the majesty of Marcos’ stateliness and royalty—again, all paid for by the people’s taxes—the once proud Filipino was again reduced to the groveling, finicky and fearful crofter of Joaquin’s “The Heritage of Smallness”.

Only the cries of Marcos’ victims of abuse, and the blood of nationalist and communist martyrs (Ninoy Aquino’s murder, not the least) twenty years after the fact, nudged the otherwise apathetic Filipino back to life. That, and a Marcos rendered weak and hopeless by lupus, sparked another chance at a new beginning. By 1986, Marcos was ousted.

That it took Filipinos close to two decades to stand and be counted hardly needed an explanation. Rammed earlier from what could’ve been a strong socioeconomic and ideological foundation, the Filipino was left with little intellectual footing to stand on. What was a clear case of deceit and misdirection by Marcos was interpreted as a failure of the intellectuals to uphold the public’s position in relation to government.

Conviction takes time to solidify and bring to bear its claims on a populace possessing varying degrees of comprehension, command of language, and ideas. Having nowhere to turn to, the people banked on a newer and younger generation of Filipinos to carry on the intellectual revolution. And it was by a hair’s breath that the people saw this as a way to beat the tyrant. The aftermath left a trail of blood which stretched to the halls of our hallowed universities.

On a more radical note, while Filipinos had the benefit of foreign colonial rule, benefit being that we knew what it was like to come under tyrannical rule and how, perchance, to fight it, Marcos stood for everything we hardly thought was possible: an imperial dictator who was likewise Filipino. It was as if all that we had achieved by way of national pride had been rendered futile and altogether senseless. The disgrace of being caught with our pants down—having one of our own as oppressor, reliving our fear of failure and hurt pride—stopped us dead on our tracks.

Filipinos carried this shame, however subtle and concealed, even during and after the EDSA ‘revolution’ which ousted the dictator in 1986. Whatever public outrage was present then stood nowhere near the mythic homogeneity of meaning and purpose its managers created to explain, nay, magnify the event.

While I would not here make light of the general sentiment held by many that People Power was, in its most fundamental form, staged to simply topple Marcos, the creation of meaning and purpose, that of reinstating a democratic government and taking it from there, came much later.

I echo the hypotheses professed by Filomeno Aguilar Jr. in the introduction to the anthology, Remembering / Rethinking EDSA. One of the book’s editors, JPaul S. Manzanilla, writes:

“It is but fitting that we begin the anthology with Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr.’s historical reconstruction of what really happened. He highlights that the people who revolted on the streets did not have the same meaning and purpose in their participation. That ‘[p]eople Power did not even know what its goal was until the idea of Marcos’s flight was floated’ only shows that the revolution was neither a pre-ordained nor a predetermined action made by the various actors involved. Only after Marcos was ousted and Cory inaugurated did the contending groups make meanings with regards to the nature (ontology) and, more importantly, the purpose and ends (teleology) of their actions.”

This creation of meanings, purposes, and ends by EDSA 1’s competing actors—however resolute and endowed with resources—made little headway as to change the course of the newly-installed presidency of Corazon Cojuangco Aquino. Alice G. Guillermo in her essay published in the same anthology, “EDSA and its Aftermath: Lessons in the Production of Meaning,” recounts how a continuing dearth in meaning and purpose among Filipinos stood as reasons why it took long to exorcise Marcos’s influence over the new democratic republic of Cory.

Barely a year following Cory Aquino’s assumption to power, the event known as the Mendiola Massacre happened, Guillermo recounts. This slaughter, which involved farmers and peasants in broad daylight, brought to fore the Cojuangco-Aquino fiefdom as Hacienda Luisita landlords, lending weight to the rumor that ‘democratic’ reforms stood as a mere trade-off between the erstwhile despotic oligarch and the incumbent oligarch.

For all its storybook and true-to-life achievements, EDSA 1 was nothing more than a tyranny of competing interests foisted against the backdrop of meanings and purposes that hardly squared with reality.

The Aquinos, likewise, took the long road to fully exorcizing the shadow of Marcos, even thanking the Marcoses for prayers lifted on Cory’s behalf (the Marcoses’ were present at the wake) during the latter’s death. For whatever it’s worth in this discussion, Cory Aquino’s failure to lend finality to her husband’s assassination, Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., was monumental in discrediting the teleology of Aquino’s leadership and whoever and whatever may come after.

The Filipino public had yet to come to terms with his political stature—as stakeholder and not subordinate—to government, but he was getting there. The grandeur of Marcos’ delusions, however, had severed his New Society regime from the average Filipino, pushing the public back to its heritage of smallness.

The Cory Aquino administration, missing the social impact of Marcos’ display of grandeur on the public, fell into the same trap. By utilizing Aquino’s new designation as Asia’s ‘Icon of Democracy,’ her dyed-in-the-wool intellectuals pushed the Filipino farther down, down to the very fang-spangled jaws of his heritage of smallness.

Aquino’s all-too-loyal intellectuals unleashed on the public their stereotypes and clichés, the melodramatic denouements and grassroots ideologies, while immediately holding back defiance against the devices of the Cory administration to uproot the same peasantry it was supposed to defend. The inconsistencies in ideology and practice were jarring.

It was power brought on by the sleight of competing hands, thus never more the delusion it has always been.

This contradiction, this stark inconsistency in message and action, stretched all the way to the presidency of Cory’s son, Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III. The repercussions proved cataclysmic to restoring what Joaquin pointed out as a clear portrait of the nation.

This power relationship between intellectual and electorate is not unique to us. American sociologists David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, in their essay on intellectuals and the discontented classes, said of the Truman and Roosevelt dispensations:

“As we have seen, the shift has not been among the inarticulate—they have always held their present attitudes [emphasis, mine]. The decisive factors, we suggest, have been two-fold, and interconnected. On the one hand, the opinion leaders among the educated strata—the intellectuals who take cues from them—have been silenced, rather more by their own feelings of inadequacy and failure than by direct intimidation. On the other hand, many who were once among the inarticulate masses are no longer silent: an unacknowledged social revolution has transformed their situation. Rejecting the liberal intellectual as guides, they have echoed and reinforced the stridency of right-wing demi-intellectuals—themselves often arising from those we shall, until we can find a less clumsy name, call the ex-masses.”

This silence of the intellectual was not an ‘inaudible’ silence as it was the careful reinvention of message after message and their meanings to agree with the American political ideology and foreign policy revolving around Communist Russia and the Soviets. This reengineering of message resulted in “feelings” of inadequacy and failure (inadequacy and failure in the sense that the attempt to reengineer the message hardly coincided with their democratic education and ideal), and extended across the seas to Marcos, a good friend of the American anti-communist elite, whose footsteps Marcos followed to justify the imposition of martial law.

Riesman and Glazer’s proposition in the book, The Radical Right, I believe, explains the Filipinos’ present condition under President Rodrigo RoaDuterte. Decades of inconsistency and contradiction, resulting in social and cultural ambiguity, forced the ‘inarticulate ex-masses’ to take the cudgels of message-building and myth-making, and peddled their own ideas against those of the spurned intellectuals.

The timing of the introduction of social media is no less valuable to our discussion. Simply said, what would’ve been impossible twenty years ago in the era of past Philippine Presidents now stands as a formidable bastion of opinion and freedom of expression: Twitter and Facebook. The onset of the internet offered more than the basic opportunities to socialize and mingle in virtual reality. What it did was let loose a different kind of social “revolution”—this rejection of liberal ideas in exchange for the radical right, smart-shaming and proliferation of lies—unlike any we have seen in ancient and modern times.

But why must these people replace liberal ideas for the more unwarranted ideology of the radical right? In short, why choose dictatorship?

Riesman and Glazer offer an explanation: the discomforts ‘founded less on economic than on intellectual uncertainty’.

“These new members have entered a realm where the interpretations of the world put forth by intellectuals in recent decades, and widely held among the educated, are unsatisfying, even threatening. Having precariously won respectability in paycheck and consumption style, they find this achievement menaced by a political and more broadly cultural outlook tending to lower barriers of any sort.”

This uncertainty, coupled with the escalation of political fears staged all across several dispensations, to say nothing of an ideology centered solely on economic prosperity as the ideal for the nation, which Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, pandered to for all his six years as President, cannot be the final verdict on the growing middleclass.

In fact, the economic achievements of Benigno Aquino III, sterling as they were necessary to the budding middle class and the nation at large (thanks to his army of economists), worked against his all-too-apparent indecision and ambivalence. This weakness lent an air of ambiguity to the overall sociopolitical strata, forcing the middle class to preserve its triumphs, however modest, by every means possible, even side with the more decisive and powerful dictator if only to reach their goals.

It is not inequality, but uncertainty that fueled this middle class vote in favor of a Duterte presidency, the same uncertainty which threatened all their attempts at claiming and sustaining a respectable financial future for themselves.

Taking a chance with a tyrant, therefore, outshines any gambit offered by indecision, worse, hesitation on the part of government to secure necessary social and economic reforms. No crime in wanting to be secure economically. This is how power ought to be used on the people’s behalf. It is fundamental course of action as regards the government’s relationship with the governed.

But to focus solely on economics as a nation’s defining advantage, which led to the siding of the “ex-masses” with the oppressor to secure their economic triumphs, is another story altogether. Consider today the commonplace invitation by opposing political groups to put up “online anonymous troll accounts” for a hefty fee: who would’ve thought that commenting nonsensical comments as a matter of corporate policy would bring home the money?

In the eyes of these ‘ex-masses,’ it’s either they make it now or they break it—that is, everything in their path. Even with Duterte’s admission that he was, in fact, a dictator wearing the hide and stripes of Marcos, to the ex-masses, there’s no turning back to the Dark Ages.

Little did these people know that the same aspiration to free themselves from the Dark Ages ushered in a milieu more terrifying than Medieval times. The trouble, according to Reisman and Glazer, is the age-old problem of ignorance, or as Joaquin said, our fear of facing up to the challenges with eyes wide open.

“Today […] politics is of intelligence without force or enthusiasm or enthusiasm facing force and enthusiasm without intelligence.”

Reisman and Glazer suggest that while many factors could contribute to the dismantling of the cycle of ignorance, our country’s intellectuals mustn’t stop at mere moods and symbolisms to fight this.

The Duterte administration, with its unstable social, political and economic baggage, topped with dictatorial ambitions, offers nothing but ten times the smallness Joaquin had foretold decades ago.

Needless to say, Filipinos ought to build a steady, unwavering confidence if we were to push back the claws of this heritage of smallness. We can do this by reliving another heritage of the Filipino: our rich revolutionary inheritance.

At last, we must find it in ourselves to venture forward, to dare the precipice, to not only stare but call on the abyss to face us, finally, and launch a superior response against the heritage of smallness of which Nick Joaquin evermore reminds us today.

When all else has failed, when we’ve exhausted life and history, journalism and literature’s myriad feats of daring, we can now break from our shells and join that grandest of expeditions—to dare the Apocalyptic, this madness of hope—from which we may not come out alive.

Not for anything else, but because we must. Because we can.

Because we are Filipinos.






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