The Centennial that was

The recent celebration of our National Centennial, everyone agrees, was a great party.  But it is an open question whether it left us with a better understanding of ourselves as a people or a clearer idea of how we should approach the problems that confront us today as a nation.

We Filipinos often complain that our memories are too short to enable us to live sensible and coherent lives. We take to heart Santayana’s dictum — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — believing that the key to the present and future lies in a correct understanding of the past. We expect history to yield to us its lessons, forgetting that the past is always selectively revisited, that it offers no intrinsic messages, and that there is no single correct approach to the past which best captures its meanings.

In the 1970s, the historian Renato Constantino published his version of Philippine history and called it “a usable past” in contrast to a past burdened by many myths.  He offered Filipinos a way of reading history so that it may provide a basis for present tasks and future goals.  His approach was criticized by conventional historians, like the American author Glenn Anthony May, who accused him of “inventing a heroic past in order to produce nationalists in the present”.  Historians like May assume that the only function of rigorous historiography is to ensure that research gets the past right, as if the past were something that spoke for itself and all that was needed was to represent or record it in its own language.

But the past does not speak for itself. The past yields itself only to those who come to it with conscious purposes, with their feet firmly planted in the present, and their eyes turned to the future.  To ask what challenges a review of the last 100 years can offer is not to search for some timeless moral destiny hidden in layers of history. Rather, it is to look for affinities between our present tasks and the concrete visions that our heroes — the poets and revolutionaries among our ancestors — spoke about, the dreams they had, and to ask what every succeeding generation had done to achieve these dreams.

We need history to remind us of the conditions that have obstructed the realization of these visions.  We need history to tell us about the origins of institutions and laws that contradict the basic values that to this day animate our social movements. We do not need history to tell us about our supposed destiny as a people, for there is no such thing apart from the destiny we create by our actions.  We only need history to remind us how we have come to live the way we do in spite of what we believe in, in the hope that such a realization may produce the sense of urgency we need to spur us in the effort to achieve our country.

The German philosopher Nietzsche talked of three kinds of history: a monumental, an antiquarian, and a critical species of history.  We may use his ideas to assess the centennial celebration.

A nation’s monumental history tells us about its great heroes, the great moments and accomplishments of the past. Confronted by such a monumental past, says Nietzsche, the man of the present “learns from it that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again; he goes his way with more cheerful step, for the doubt which assailed him in weaker moments … has now been banished.” By reminding us of our heroes and their deeds, and of the crucial moments when they chose immortality over mere existence, the Centennial showed us a legacy of greatness worthy of emulation.

It is in the antiquarian and the critical mode of remembering that I feel the Centennial record proved most wanting.  History serves its antiquarian function when it gives us a sense of rootedness in a place. For the man who remembers, landscape becomes biography.  In Nietzsche’s words: “The history of his city becomes for him the history of himself; he reads its walls, its towered gate, its rules and regulations, its holidays like an illuminated diary of his youth and in all this he finds again himself, his force, his industry, his joy, his judgment, his folly and vices.”

We have not seen much of the antiquarian sensibility in the Centennial.  Historic buildings everywhere lie in ruin, unable to project even a glimmer of their former glory. Many historical documents remain bundled under dusty staircases, awaiting the gentle caring hands of librarians and archivists.  Old photographs are slowly fading in humid store rooms before they could be re-shot for the appreciation of future generations.  The finest antique collections are to be found not  in churches or cathedrals or public museums but in the private homes of the wealthy, where they surrender their pious signification in favor of their new decorative functions.

But more than this, the Centennial has had no critical historical value. Critical history lets us examine how we came to where we are today so that we may free ourselves from the chain of past errors. This is history’s liberative function.  A good place to begin would have been the status of national minorities in the nation’s life.  Critical history would have told us how the aberrations and crimes of the past produced the minoritization and inferiorization of Mindanao and the Cordilleras today.

When done well, such a review of shameful episodes in our history allows us to condemn past deeds and gradually emancipate ourselves from their living residues.  It enables us to take the first real step towards correcting historic injustices, and thus pave the way to forgiving ourselves as a nation.


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