Remembering Martial Law

Twenty four years ago, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and proceeded to govern the country without accountability – except, maybe, to history.  Today, we remember that sad episode in our national lives as a metaphor for everything that is corrupt, abusive, and predatory in politics.

The story could have been different.  Martial law could have led to the modernization of the economy and the establishment of a professional civil service.  With his immense powers, Marcos could have enforced a genuine land redistribution program, raised educational standards, equalized social opportunities, and nurtured a work ethic appropriate to an industrializing society.   He could have lifted the poor from their hovels, built concrete homes for them, and instituted a social insurance program on their behalf.

The model of the “successful” authoritarian state is Singapore, of course.  For Marcos, the example worth watching then was South Korea.   Both countries became showcases of repressive development.  The ideologues of martial law  knew, above all, that people would value civil liberties only to the extent that they were freed from the material necessities of daily existence.  Most Filipinos probably did not mind trading their civil and political freedoms for a stable job, a secure home, and an assured future for their children.

Had Marcos remained in power and had he managed a smooth transition to an anointed successor, we would still be celebrating September 21 as a day of national thanksgiving.  In death, he would be remembered as the builder of the modern Filipino nation.  His preserved body would not be lying in a solitary crypt in his hometown in Ilocos; it would be sheltered in a grand mausoleum somewhere in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.  Buildings, boulevards and scholarships would be named after him.  And his life would be the exemplar of all political careers.

But it did not happen that way.  That is why today we use a different vocabulary to describe the Marcos legacy.  We call him the greatest thief this country has ever known.  We remember him as the megalomaniac who staged a coup against his own government in order to perpetuate himself in power.   We call his business associates  “crony capitalists”, rather than nationalist entrepreneurs or pioneering Filipino conglomerates.

The point is that “reality” is mostly a matter of perspective.  The same events, persons, decisions and actions can be described and redescribed in various ways.  They do not possess an unchanging essence waiting to be discovered.

Marcos viewed his declaration of martial law as a last chance to correct the ills of Philippine society.  We saw it only as one power hungry politician’s way of remaining in power beyond his term.  But a number of intellectuals from academe did think of martial law as offering the possibility of correcting the “systemic inefficiencies” of our society without the encumbrance of traditional politics.  Many of them joined the Marcos experiment, some opportunistically, but a few sincerely believing that Marcos represented the kind of willful leadership that alone could lift this country from stagnation.

Many propertied Filipinos opposed martial law not because they loved democracy, but because they felt insecure about their property.  Many politicians fought Marcos simply because he deprived them of their power, and not because they were impelled by their adherence to democratic principles.  By the same token, many ordinary Filipinos loved martial law not because they believed that it was needed to fight the anarchy that Marcos said was being sown by the communists and the warlords, but simply because it made the streets relatively safe and government service a bit more bearable.

The motives behind our actions are as varied as one can imagine them to be.  They are no less valid and real for being idiosyncratic and personal when placed alongside the moral claims of political values.

Of course we hide the nakedness of our personal motives by describing our actions in the lofty language of universal imperatives: freedom, democracy, liberty, etc.  And often we may even be carried away by this re-description, imagining ourselves as the warriors of universal values.

There is “a certain blindness in human beings”, said the psychologist William James.  We see only from the limited perspectives of our own “peculiar ideality”.  We tend to be blind to those symbols which, to others, are “redolent with moral memories and s(i)ng a very paean of duty, struggle and success.”  This is the ground from which all intolerance proceeds: the belief that one’s description of events represents not merely a useful way of making sense of our lives at a given time, but the “true essence” of these events.

As an episode in our collective lives, martial law and the whole length of the Marcos years will continue to be described and re-described in ways different from that in which the original protagonists imagined them to be.

From a longer perspective, historians of the future may likely treat Marcos less harshly.  But that would not mean that, at last, his “true” place in history has been discovered.  It would only mean that at that given point in our nation’s life, a particular need of our people happens to favor a new description of the Marcos period.   We saw a glimmer of this need towards the end of the Cory Aquino years.


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