Philippines

Men in dark times: When theories do not fit the facts

By Joel Pablo Salud

Forty-eight years ago, on Sept. 21, 1972, former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos placed the whole Philippines under batas militar. His goal, or so his propaganda machinery claimed, was to create a new and disciplined Filipino society marked by industrial and economic progress. 

In order for this to be achieved, Marcos kicked off the massive militarization of the whole archipelago. 

Historian Michael Charleston “Xiao” Briones Chua, in his paper, “TORTYUR: Human Rights Violations During the Marcos Regime,” wrote: “Military membership grew from 55,000 in 1972 to 250,000 in 1984, and its budget ballooned from P 608 million in 1972 to $ 8.8 billion in 1984.”

Chua also narrates how Marcos’ Ilocano friends received high level appointments in both government and civilian bureaucracies. Gen. Fabian Ver, a former military driver, was appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

In 1986, the dictator was ousted in a popular uprising called People Power. 

Memory of atrocities

Chua’s paper reserves a long exposition on the atrocities committed during the conjugal regime of Ferdinand and Imelda. While he quoted the estimates coming from Danilo Vizmanos, a West Point-trained Navy Captain turned activist, and the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, the most damning figures came from Amnesty International.

The group’s estimates were far from moderate: “70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, 3,240 were killed (Tiongson 1997).” As for corruption, US$10 billion.

On the matter of torture, Chua said the military employed a whole gamut of methods which included physical as well as psychological and emotional, even sexual torment.

Forced disappearances—the so-called desaparecidos—was in itself meant to disorient and break the spirit of the victims’ families, leaving them unable to know what had happened to their loved one. 

Physical torture methods included electric shock, truth serum, Russian roulette, beatings, pistol-whipping, water cure, strangulation, cigar and flat iron burns, pepper torture, animal treatment, and the notorious “San Juanico Bridge”.

In the latter, the victim “lies between two beds and if his/her body falls or sags, the victim will be beaten.”

Not only did women’s bodies suffered unspeakable barbarities, the sexual torture caused their relationships with their families to flounder. Chua wrote, “Rape and other sexual indignities were meant to isolate the individual from his or her compatriots and the society. The violation of what they held sacred was so shameful that there could never be an actual count of how many detainees were raped or molested.”

Chua observed that torture was used to extract confessions from those suspected of treason, insurrection and rebellion. The idea was to force victims to implicate someone else. “To do this to a small sector of our society is meant to scare the community at large […] They aim to break the spirit.”

Martial law deniers

These thoughts on the inhumaneness of martial law coincided with my reflection on Hannah Arendt’s works, particularly her books “Men in Dark Times” and “Responsibility and Judgment”.

In the first book, the German-born American philosopher delved into why such men of evil dispositions exist, and why a greater part of society chooses rather to ignore the decisions and actions of such individuals despite victims’ sufferings; in the latter, what personal responsibilities we must all bear under a dictatorship.

I was compelled to turn to Arendt’s works shortly after I had an encounter with a notorious Marcos apologist (whose name I will not care to mention here) who misused the theories of postmodern deconstruction of Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, two French philosophers whom I also admire and whose works I have read.

In a Twitter post, this “man of the cloth” and known member of the academe wrote, “The present generation that is loud in its condemnation of Marcos never experienced Marcos. So that rant is directed at their construct of Marcos. Shouldn’t they be studying Derrida and Lyotard more?”

In that three-sentence tweet, the priest immediately dismissed the Filipino youth’s criticism of Marcos as totally disingenuous and immaterial all because they weren’t there to experience the dictator.

He insinuated that this juvenile “rant” would better serve society if the youth first deconstructs the narrative of Marcos atrocities (which he called a “construct”) through the looking glass of these two postmodernist philosophers. 

In short, the priest is advancing the idea that the stories against Marcos is a dominant narrative out to damage the reputation of the late dictator. After receiving much flak for what he had posted, the priest defended his stance by saying he wishes only for the youth to listen to other petit narratives, rival interpretations, which could lead them to a truer picture. 

By saying that, the priest hints of Marcos as someone innocent of the crimes held against him despite an endless string of proofs to the contrary.

I wrote a piece in answer to the tweet titled “Marcos, Derrida, and a priest who should know better than to side with executioners” which I published on Medium.com. My argument was simple: No one can discount the fact that the Marcos atrocities happened in real time and to real people. 

To call these atrocities mere “constructs” and not murder, plunder, rape, and corruption, is no better than a malicious play on philosophical magniloquence. 

In the hands of a known Marcos apologist, Derrida’s theory of deconstruction suffers hijacking and misapplication, meant to adulterate and sophisticate—in the end, muddle—what for decades have been the sure facts of the case. 

Inquirer columnist John Nery puts it ever clearer: “But the truth is, the Marcos tragedy is not a petit narrative; it is, still, part of the dominant one. As long as the Marcos family retains its political and economic power, the country remains locked in a life-or-death struggle between the powers of corruption and despotism and the forces (however imperfect) of freedom and reform.”

The proof of the Marcos narrative’s dominance is not only limited to the Marcoses’ relentless clinging to power, but that Pres. Duterte himself protects the Marcos tradition of abuse and corruption by saying “Marcos is the best President we ever had”. Duterte said this during his proclamation rally in Feb. 2016.

‘Let the theory go’

In “Men in Dark Times,” Hannah Arendt reflects on reality and how the reification of the poet and the storyteller, journalist and historian, brings permanence and persistence to the stories they tell.

She said, “The question is how much reality must be retained even in a world [that has] become inhuman if humanity is not to be reduced to an empty phrase or a phantom.”

Her answer to the question is an eye-opener: “No philosophy, no analysis, no aphorism, be it ever so profound, can compare in intensity and richness of meaning with a properly narrated story.”

One can only go so far to deconstruct an idea, a text. The facts of martial law, however, remains impervious to the theories of deconstruction. As novelist Agatha Christie said, “Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory—let the theory go.”

Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction and is a member of the  Philippine Center for International PEN, Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle.