Paradoxes, Alarm, and Scandal

February 19, 2010

By Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil

First published in her column, Consensus of One, in The Sunday Times Magazine, March 22, 1970, p. 11.

We take demonstrations at once too seriously and not seriously enough. More than a month after the January riots which set every one on his head, that is the first paradox of the political scene.

At the first hint of a march, teach-in or picket line, Manila becomes a ghost town inhabited by blanched-faced wretches quaking in their shoes. All public life is suspended, schools and offices closed and the Manilan, once so garrulous and peripatetic, barricades himself behind a fortress of hastily-nailed plywood, armed guards and hoarded canned goods. This exaggerated fright makes a ludicrous contrast to the stolid and carefree sophistication of Tokyo, Calcutta, New York or Paris where the demonstrations are larger, fiercer and several years older. But the Manilan is nothing if not adaptable and perhaps in a few more weeks he will learn to live with student unrest and decide that despite all, life cannot just grind to a complete halt but must go on and on.

At the same time, and despite this overreaction of panic and hurt price, we are not taking demonstrations seriously enough. We refuse to see that they represent an irreversible trend towards radical reform (not to say revolution) and that they are not just a fad or youthful exuberance or a particularly nasty type of juvenile delinquency but a strong and perhaps irresistible public will to change. Many still hope to turn the tide with smiles and subsidies and perhaps a few plane tickets to the Osaka Expo, or with free clinics and bundles of old clothes distributed among the squatters, or a new set of government officials to answer complaints faster. But the handwriting on the wall is there, even if we won’t read it.

True, attendance in Congress and most other government offices has risen to a spectacular and unprecedented ideal and there are suddenly very few parties (mostly held “underground”), the society page has turned overnight into a prissy, highbrow bluestocking, and there will be thousands of housing units to go up in Tondo. But one misses a really dramatic turning over of a new leaf: for instance, a realistic living wage, confiscation of idle lands to support land reform a tax law that will make the Establishment a little less established, the prosecution of the really big grafters and warlords.

The second paradox about the quality of Filipino life these days is that public reaction to demonstrations is much more acute than it has ever been to the evils that provoked the demos in the first place. a few broken glass windows, some amateurish gasoline bombs fashioned out of whiskey bottles and a score of placards in ribald Tagalog seem to have caused much more anguished soul-searching than the millions of deprived farmers, workers and children. Why? The wrongs which the demonstrations are protesting have been with us for a long time, perhaps not writ so large as now, but it was not till a handful of student leaders (abetted or not, if you like, by mobsters and rioters) threw a few stones and taunts that people up there began to see them.

Poverty, social injustice, graft, legal inequality, the intolerable conditions under which millions of our people have lived for decades and centuries—did not appear out of the blue in January 1970. They have in fact been the mainstays of our life for as long as anyone can remember, yet our behavior would lead a stranger to believe that they did not exist till now. They did, of course, but we were determined to ignore them and have continued to ignore them if it had been possible to do so without rousing so much alarm and scandal.

A third paradox is that the very things some of our new revolutionaries want is what the rebels elsewhere would like to discard. The abuses of capitalism and freewheeling democracy are equaled only by those of existing socialist systems. The Soviet Union and the People’s China have succeeded in changing the subhuman conditions of their masses in a few years (50 in the first case and 20 in the second) and in making themselves into world powers, but they are quite as guilty as the capitalist, liberal-democratic world in committing excesses of imperialism (overseas and international dominance and exploitation) and fascism (thought control, force and police power). Indeed Moscow’s neo-capitalism and ruthless repression of young writers has turned many student activists away from Marxism-Leninism.

This leads one to believe that the change we need in the Philippines is not merely away from the sins of one established order to the sins of another established order, but towards an entirely different new system, evolved on home grounds, according to our own lights, a new kind of ism that will be partly this and partly that, completely eclectic but completely suitable to our own nature and to our own needs.

The saddest paradox, however, is that President Marcos is getting what has been coming to all of us during the last four hundred years. The sins of Spanish colonialism, with its mixture of innocence and callousness, American “manifest destiny,” with its cynical benevolence, domestic tyranny, all the sores and cankers of our tortuous history are now being visited on his head. We should be able to see the bitter inevitability of what is happening, but no less than us, President Marcos should see it too.#


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