Why we can’t ‘move on’

The children of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos—namely, his namesake Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and his eldest daughter Imee Marcos, whose respective political careers have received a special boost under the Duterte presidency—have repeatedly admonished their father’s critics to stop wasting time talking about the Marcos martial law regime.

As the nation marked the Aug. 21, 1983, assassination of the late senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., Imee told the press: “The conflict between the Marcoses and the Aquinos happened a long time ago. We don’t need to keep hating people for a very long time. It’s not our way. We just need to go forward.”

Her brother, Bongbong, chimes in before another forum: “The country faces so many problems. Why do we continue to waste time on this? It’s over.”

Imee, who is Ilocos Norte’s incumbent governor, has recently joined forces with the party of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. At the last Sona, she was seen onstage celebrating the election of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as House Speaker. Bongbong, who ran for vice president in 2016 and lost to Leni Robredo, is asking the Presidential Electoral Tribunal to hasten the resolution of his electoral protest and declare him as the true winner in the vice presidential race. Their mother, Imelda Marcos, sits in the House of Representatives as representative of Ilocos Norte, a living relic of past glory. Even as Bongbong waits to be proclaimed vice president, President Duterte has singled him out as his ideal successor.

The martial law regime was overthrown in 1986. The patriarch is dead. No Marcos is in jail.  The bulk of the family’s wealth is intact. Clearly, the scions of the Marcos family have all moved on. So, why, indeed, can’t the rest of the country stop talking about the crimes committed under martial law? Why can’t we “move on”? Why do we remember?

The reasons are many, but for lack of space we can mention only two of these here. First, because the clash between remembering and forgetting cannot be reduced to a feud between the Marcoses and the Aquinos. The issue is between a repressive regime that took advantage of the people’s yearning for a better life, and a nation that pinned its hopes on the charisma and political will of a strongman. The more important conflict is between dictatorship as a form of rule and the practicability of democratic governance in a young nation such as ours.

Second, we cannot move on because dictatorship is not a thing of the past. It remains very much alive, feeding upon the despair and resentment of a gullible public. It thrives in every area of modern governance where the staggering complexity of social problems permits no easy solutions, and where the exercise of authoritarian political will takes the place of reflective and rational planning.

In an insightful 1995 essay titled “Ur-Fascism,” the Italian novelist and public commentator Umberto Eco warned that the defeat of German Nazism and Italian Fascism did not necessarily extirpate the conditions that made them possible. These include “a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.”

They also take the form of “linguistic habits” or common expressions that encapsulate for many the reality around them. I would point as examples from our own experience statements like: “All politicians are corrupt”; “Filipinos are lazy and unruly, what they need is someone who can impose discipline”; and “Government officials lack competence, integrity and political will.”

Considering that such statements never go out of fashion, fascism becomes entirely feasible again under different guises. All it takes, Eco wrote, is for a whole system of rule to “coagulate” around any of the following features or elements: the cult of tradition, the rejection of modernism, the cult of action for action’s sake, intolerance of disagreement, fear of difference, the appeal to a frustrated middle class, obsession with conspiracies, the exploitation of feelings of envy and humiliation, “an Armageddon complex,” a contempt for the weak, “the cult of death,” machismo, “selective populism” and an impoverished vocabulary.

Depending on which of these elements are highlighted, fascist regimes can assume many forms.  Eco says that Hitler’s Nazism was very different from Mussolini’s Fascism. The former had a well-articulated program and philosophy that rested on the delusions of a superior Aryan race and a German will to power. The latter was a jumble of contradictory themes held together by a charismatic leader.

By the same token, one can say that the authoritarianism of Marcos was very different from that of Duterte’s.  Marcos had a long view of his place in the nation’s history and a broad program of what he wanted to achieve, whereas Duterte cannot seem to go beyond his war on drugs and crime.

But, what ties them together is the easy resort to the means of state violence, which they share—to a point where both seem to equate action with the ability to make and enforce decisions, using fear and intimidation as the preferred weapon. Many have died and many have suffered because of the self-righteousness by which state violence has been deployed.

“What else do you want?” the young Marcos asks those who choose not to forget. Here’s Eco’s answer: “If reconciliation means compassion and respect for all those who fought their own war in good faith, to forgive does not mean to forget. [B]ut I cannot say, ‘OK, come back and do it again.’ We are here to remember what happened and solemnly say that ‘They’ must not do it again.”