Is memory the enemy?

May 29, 2022

by EJ Honorica

Ang kailangan natin ay isang presidenteng nagmumura at pumapatay.” These words came straight from the mouth of a local official in a barangay in the City of Manila where a community project I took part in was being implemented.

It was an unexpected encounter since my colleagues and I were expected to be non-partisan and non-political as we were representing the organization that headed the project; and all public officials, according to law, should be the same. It was moreover only a courtesy call with the LGU, letting them know that we would be undertaking the project in the coming days. The conversation was not supposed to be politically charged at any point.

We were all surprised—or maybe enraged would be the more fitting word—when ‘Kap’ (the said barangay official) mentioned the candidate of his choice and added “Tanungin ninyo ang mga nanay at tatay, lolo at lola niyo. Ang sasabihin nila, maganda ang buhay noong panahon ng Martial Law.” This struck a chord. As a child of Martial Law babies who never once said that the Martial Law period was all good, contrary to what is sadly now a popular belief, I was disturbed.

I quickly remembered some of my grandmother’s stories—that my grandfather was held in jail for almost two weeks simply for being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, that my granduncle was laid off from work for joining a strike demanding wage increase, that their family had to line up for cheap rice, that the cost of living was high and wages were depressed, and so on—and told Kap about it. There’s nothing golden in an era like that, I said.

The heated conversation came to a halt when one of my colleagues intervened and made it clear that we are not a political organization. The atmosphere in Kap’s office became tense, my colleague said, that he felt the need to do something.

Days after that unpleasant encounter, I saw some memes criticizing how old people who used to be poor back in the days contradict themselves now by saying that those years were the best times of their lives. Indeed, it’s too conflicting that two versions of their youth—a poor and deprived childhood on one hand, and an economic paradise on the other—could have transpired in a single timeline. Too impossible, especially for an underdeveloped archipelagic country that had fallen into the hands of tyrants.

What could have ignited in them this odd yearning for what is otherwise a dark past? Disillusionment because of the failures of liberal-democratic promises? Or is it simply a generational nostalgia? Or is memory the enemy?

Nag-uulam kami ng asin at toyo,” “Walang bigas na mabili, kaya mais ang araw-araw na pagkain.” I usually hear these from my older relatives and acquaintances and even my parents whenever they take a trip down memory lane during gatherings and occasions. The same or similar testimonies and sentiments could be read literally anywhere on the Internet, especially in digital spaces where there is ‘freedom’ to express. These experiences would be fully illustrated as narrators conclude in unison: ang hirap ng buhay noon. The image that my mind conjures looks exactly like the pictures of the Negros famine in the 1980s, urban slums and houses on dumpsites, long queues for rice rations, breadwinners separated from their families as they try their luck abroad. These are just among other images that had been documented and had caught the attention of even international media. The Philippines was then dubbed ‘the sick man of Asia’.

It is astonishing when people say their lives were better off under a dictator of global shame. Crisis and poverty are things that people do not forget even as they age, especially if these problems were widespread and had worsened under a specific era. Are we then just too forgiving or too forgetful? Filipinos are known for being ‘resilient’ that once we ‘move on’ from bad experiences we also forgive and forget over time. Or do we just tend to do this as defense mechanism in order to survive as a people who have gone through really bad times?

Mas maganda ang buhay noon” is a common expression especially if people are referring to their younger years. It is natural for people to long for the days of their youth when there were no responsibilities and everyday seemed like forever. But it would be a fatal mistake to translate this nostalgia into saying that the economy was far better then and that those were the country’s ‘golden’ years.

We are worse off now. But that is not because the Marcos years were good and everything only went awry after that, but precisely because the Marcos years were so bad that they started everything that could go wrong afterwards.

Neoliberalism and the multidimensional crises it has wreaked were started under the Marcos dictatorship and have become dominant in our lives today. But the devastating impact of neoliberal policies has been obscured by misguided comparison of numbers, as the ordinary folk have been taught to do. “Mas mura ang bilihin noon!” “Bente singko sentimos lang ang pamasahe!” “Sobra na ring tumaas ang sweldo!” But only few are speaking the naked truth that wages are still not enough to buy people’s basic needs.

But we should not blame the common people whose lived experiences have been invalidated by miseducation that has only led to subjective understanding. Education has apparently not only inflicted us with social dementia but the inability to have a critical view of history.

And with the disinformation epidemic, things only worsen in every possible way. Disinformation takes advantage of this vulnerability that ‘recent past’ generations continue to bear. We have seen countless online content exploiting the ‘golden’ stories from the Martial Law era and comparing these to the failures of the so-called liberal-democratic regimes. Most of us have heard the almost oral history-like retelling of stories that the peso-dollar exchange was equal at 1:1. That grand infrastructure projects were built. That in Asia, the country was second only to Japan in greatness.

So, kudos to the disinformation architects and their paid hacks who have exploited this weakness of those who want a better life, albeit imaginary, but still are unable to achieve it as they enter their twilight age. Congratulations for successfully gaslighting an entire generation. The years if not decades, and millions if not billions, worth of twisting and contorting historical truths have finally paid off. You have created an alternative history and a repugnant imagined reality where the deeds and words of the infallible man had supposedly created heaven on Earth. You have successfully manipulated millions to, in the words of philosopher Baruch Spinoza popularized by a contemporary intellectual, “fight for their servitude as if they are fighting for their salvation.”

This, however, will not last. The architects of disinformation may have won the day, but the future won’t be kind to them.

There are countless others who are learning from history and do not wish to repeat it. They are taking on the challenge to improve and popularize a deeper discourse on history and social phenomena and bring it closer to action in order to fight another autocracy and finally create a better future for generations to come.

We need to grasp the historical context of a phenomenon if we want to truly understand why and how it took place or if we are to compare it to the present, and of course, if we want to correct our mistakes.

In these trying times when impunity reigns, when our history is being revised and rewritten to serve despotic ends, when our forebears’ memory is being weaponized against us, to collectively study, understand and speak up is the only way to go. Only through this constant reminder can we assert that what the country needs is not like what a leader who kills and curses as Kap described, but leaders who are infinitely better.