Saturday, September 22, 2018

Abellanosa: Rethinking heroism

Fringes and frontiers

SOMEONE asked me to comment on the movie GOYO: Ang Batang Heneral. My initial reaction was, “better ask the historians.” On a second thought, it deserves critical analysis and further reflection. The movie was made not just for the purpose of presenting a historical fact. Apparently, it was also intended to send a serious political message.

Like (the movie) Heneral Luna, Goyo invites us to rethink our view of heroes. And because this contention is basically not new, allow me to push my argument some more. We have reached a point where many people no longer see heroes as relevant. Ambeth Ocampo once remarked that Jose Rizal, our national hero, is everywhere but is (actually) nowhere. Like Rizal, our other heroes are immortalized in coins, posters, and books, except in the hearts of many of their countrymen.

The perceived irrelevance of heroes did not develop overnight. Relevance is a question of meaning. For heroes to remain relevant they must mean something to their people. Heroes were needed in the formation of the republic. In its developing stage, belief and trust in the republic was necessary for political consolidation. Citizens were taught that they had models to look up to. Heroes were necessary beings for the stability of the body politic as well as the clarity of its direction.

In the Philippine context, the “meaning of the republic” has been problematic since its origin. The concept of a Philippine state has been mythologized through the years. History teachers have been presenting the Philippine revolution as a neat and seamless struggle. The dirt of political history was swept under the rag. We have forgotten or perhaps we were not told that at the onset there was so much betrayal and deceit.

We have been fed inadequate information and half-readings of our political history. Worse, students have been taught that history like a litany of dead people, and not a critique of their past.

At some point, heroes serve their purpose. There is a caveat however. Political symbols, and any symbol for that matter, have their limits. Like religious symbols, political figures can be a source of faith. However, they can also be a source of fanaticism. Its power lies in its ability to evoke meaning. There is thus a danger when heroes would lose their influence on the lives of people. They would end up in the pantheon of the gods. They become legendary figures and not real men, flesh and blood, of history.

We may thus borrow, with all due reverence, what St. Francis de Sales said of saints, and say of the same about our heroes. “There is no harm done to the saints if their faults are shown as well as their virtues. But great harm is done to everybody by those hagiographers who slur over their faults... These writers commit a wrong against the saints and against the whole of posterity.”

But here is another important reminder. The formation of the republic did not end or culminate with our heroes. Karl Marx once said that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

We the living should wake up to our own realities. It is a reality inherited from the past. A reality left to us by those we call heroes. We do not have any choice but to make history our own. Unfortunately we are tasked to do so in this Philippine republic with all its defects we did not choose.

Our task is not just to align our values to the heroes of the past and criticize their villains. The more serious question is where the living heroes of today are. The task of making the republic better belongs to the living, not the dead.