Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Eagle without talons? Nation-building and the Ateneo de Manila University

The celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Ateneo de Manila University presents an opportunity to celebrate not only the immense contribution the institution has made to Philippine society, but also to consider what more the university can do in light of its frequently articulated goal of building the nation. University President Fr. Bienvenido Nebres outlines his general approach to nation-building which he derives from Dr. Jose Rizal, the Ateneo’s most prominent alumnus. The Rizal that Nebres draws from is not the firebrand who sparked the first nationalist revolution in Asia – the hero who spoke the truth to power amidst massive injustices. His Rizal is the one exiled in Dapitan – the gagged Rizal forced to channel his energies towards community-building projects like the building of schools and the improvement of irrigation systems.

He notes in a speech to the Knights of Rizal: “In his years in Dapitan, we see a Rizal not of the Noli or the Fili or of many letters and poems, but a Rizal who said less and did a lot.” This defanged apolitical Rizal is the bedrock of the nation-building strategy of the university. Instead of criticizing the government for its injustices, Nebres’s approach focuses on addressing immediate and concrete needs like housing and disaster relief. The flagship project of this strategy is Ateneo’s partnership with Gawad Kalinga (GK). To quote the president again: “In Spain and Manila, he [Rizal] wrote and preached against injustices. In Dapitan, he simply worked to create the foundations for a better life for the people. He may well have launched Gawad Kalinga a century ago.”

This Rizal may well be the solution to our country’s problems for, as Nebres argues, today “there is so much talk and so little done.” Indeed, although a lot of Gawad Kalinga’s development approaches have been questioned, it is undeniable that it has contributed to the reduction of slums. Ateneo’s education programs in depressed areas likewise contribute to long-term national development.

But what are the implications of de-emphasizing political criticism in favor of immediate concrete action? Historian Floro Quibuyen argues that the image of an apolitical Rizal was used by the American colonial government to encourage Filipinos to cooperate with them even as they subjugated the country. Reminding Filipinos of the anti-colonial and revolutionary Rizal would have been unwise given their mission of pacification.

Similarly, in the context of the Ateneo, this Rizal and the framework of nation-building that it’s associated with has been used to question and erase the university’s long history of social and political activism. As a former student and now lecturer, I’ve been told many times by students and faculty associated with the university’s official nation-building programs that Marcos-era activism is dead, that the aktibista’s approach of criticizing the national government did not and does not work. More actions and less talk; let’s just build houses. As a student writing about GK in the official university website claims, “the aktibista and makibaka days are long gone.”

This anti-politics atmosphere has made it difficult to forward issues of national concern in the university. I was witness to the lethargy of many students and teachers during the time when mobilizations were being made to protest the NBN-ZTE scandal. I saw how this withdrawal from issues of national concern influenced the moderate stance taken by the Ateneo regarding the issue of whether Arroyo deserved to stay in power. While basketball nemesis La Salle called for resignation, Ateneo called for reflection. An administrator personally rebuked me when I said the university should join the lobby for the Freedom of Information Act since it would allow the public to scrutinize shady deals like the NBN-ZTE. Won’t work, I was told; let’s just lobby for another disaster relief bill. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that in her final State of the Nation Address this country’s most despised president claimed the university and its president as partners in her goal of building a strong republic.

There is one major flaw in the university’s anti-politics framework: the claim that activism with its attendant criticism of national politics does not work. It does. In the 1970s, the “talk” of student activists (many of them Ateneans like Edgard Jopson) conscienticized an entire generation, exposing them to the ills of authoritarianism. It was a slow process - educating and opening people’s eyes takes time – but it worked. When the crowd in EDSA overthrew the dictator, it was a victory for those who fomented dissent. It was the legacy of the makibaka activism that is currently derided in the Ateneo. And lest we think that nothing was gained from EDSA, one should consider that we currently have a free press, participate in regular elections, and have a growing civil society. Political scientist Nathan Quimpo, for instance, claims that grassroots NGOs who engage in legal activities like aiding farmers in land reform cases were few and far between before EDSA. It was the revolution that opened this democratic space. Our system isn’t perfect, but it’s significantly better.

After discussing my critical take on the university’s nation-building programs in my Philippine history class, I was asked by a student, “so are you still proud to be an Atenean?” I did not hesitate to say yes. I am proud of the Ateneo that produced martyrs like Edgar Jopson, Manny Yap, Billy Begg, Evelio Javier, and the revolutionary Rizal.

And I am proud of the Ateneo that can be when we remember these heroes once more.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Roots, Rhizomes, and Charter Change(?)

Another downside of self-serving attempts at amending the constitution (apart from the possibility evil-bitch-in-palace and linguistically challenged congressmen staying in power) is that you can no longer have a proper debate about the issue. At this point, charter change is wrong, period, because of the motivations behind it.

But remember when you could actually discuss the merits and demerits of federal and parliamentary systems? That wasn't very long ago. One day, I suspect, we'll be able to have that discussion again. And when that happens expect to hear one of the most illogical yet surprisingly pervasive arguments in Philippine politics: let's not bother with charter change; it doesn't solve the root cause of the problem. In other words, don't bother with structural change since there are more basic problems to be solved. I remember this argument being made by the once eminent and now bipolar Senator Joker Arroyo in an Inquirer editorial a few years back.

I've taught argumentation to high school and college students alike. One of the things I emphasize is that just because something doesn't solve the root cause of the problem, that doesn't mean it doesn't solve a problem or that it doesn't reduce the problem. For example, in the case of our political system, I suspect the "root cause" people are referring to is corruption. Their argument is that charter change won't solve corruption. Well duh. Of course it won't! Charter change won't solve corruption in the same way that widening Katipunan road won't solve the problem of traffic since Filipino drivers are just so balasubas. Yet people understand the benefit in widening roads. They know it can reduce the problem. It makes no sense to say that something is useless simply because there is a root problem or there is a bigger problem.
Charter change will not solve corruption, yet it may address certain structural problems like, say, political turncoatism. A parliamentary system would, for instance, be likely to incetivize party loyalty because that system assigns duties to parties and not individuals.

When we've defeated KAMPI's efforts at Cha Cha, discussions like these should be had.

Saying that only root causes should be solved prevents us from looking at other causes that contribute to the problem. And besides, when is there ever a "root cause" anyway? Name any social problem and that problem is likely to be a result of a variety of factors.

The social theorists Delueze and Guattari challenge us to think of the social world not in terms of singular binary roots, but in terms of interrelated webs of rhizomes. Modernity has overemphasized the root, the essence, the core, and the primary. It's when we stop thinking in these terms that we become a little wiser. Why reduce the complexity of the carnival that is Philippine social and political life to roots when you can have much more fun with frisky rhizomes?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tribute to a Generation

PhD by research students are practically married to their theses. Since we do not take any courses, we do nothing but research and write. After spending 3 years or more writing 80,000 words, we get to call ourselves Dr.

Like any marriage, the relationship between the student and the thesis has to be built on a solid foundation. The student must find something inherently lovable about the thesis that will allow him/her to stay with it for richer and poorer, through thick and thin. Less the a year into my research, my thesis has already caused me a lot of pain and heartache. Despite this, I think I'm ready for two more years. I'll survive. In the end, I'm still in love with my thesis.

I love my thesis because we have a strong emotional connection (this will be my last corny reference to a romantic relationship). My thesis is about the generation that raised me: the martial law generation. This is the generation of my parents and many titos/titas and even teachers who joined the anti-dictatorship struggle mostly as members of the organized Left.

A study of historical memory (a history of how history is being represented), my thesis examines the way the anti Marcos struggle is represented in various media from monuments, books, museums, to films. Rid of the pedantry that goes into most academic work, the point I aim to make is simple: the Philippines needs to remember the martial law generation as a generation of heroes. And, concomitantly, the martial law generation needs to remember that they were and are heroes.

The past few years have seen the rise of a vile apolitical form of youth activism. This jaded activism refuses to engage national politics and favors immediate band aid solutions like building houses (and banning the use of condoms in them *wink wink*) or disaster relief. Of course, there is nothing wrong with building houses and disaster relief per se. The problem arises when these activities become an excuse to forget issues of national relevance. You've probably heard it before: it's no use fighting a corrupt government since nothing changes anyway; let's just build houses.

The National Democratic (ND) and even the Social Democratic (SD) activists of the 70s would have seen right through this. Sure, they might have also done things to solve immediate concerns like poor housing, health etc. But they recognized these were simply first steps. Building a house does not solve the structural issue of corruption that leads to homelessness. This is why my parents and their generation fought long and hard against the Marcos regime. It was a difficult battle, and its effects were not as immediately gratifying as seeing a poor family in a new home. But it worked. For all our complaints about a corrupt government, we at least live in a democracy. And if we are to prevent evil-bitch-in-palace from taking this democracy away from us, we need to rediscover the spirit of the martial law generation. This doesn't just apply to young people of today. This applies even to the martial law generation itself.

Ex martial law activists are still alive and kicking. In fact, many of them are still engaged in political endeavors (see my favorite groups like Likhaan and Action for Economic Reforms). Some of them, however, have retired into the privacy of their own lives. The martial law generation has already proven its heroism, and we should all be thankful. But their story is far from over. The cliche that the youth is the hope of the country is obviously true. But they are not the only hope. The generation that toppled a dictatorship and restored democracy are not future leaders, they are leaders. Surely a lot should be expected from them.

I like to think of the politically inactive members of the martial law generation as consisting of sleeper cells in a peaceful democratic resistance network. They may be dormant now, but they can be activated. And when that happens this generation of heroes together with politicized students will be formidable foes to new Marcoses who seek to destroy democracy. This is cause for optimism.