I have been doing an informal survey, particularly with the young, asking them what they want most in life. Almost always, after giving the question some thought, their most common reply is happiness. Seldom are lofty ideals like peace, justice, or wisdom mentioned. For the young who still have to build a career or shape the future, happiness is the end-all.
I am not surprised, of course, because this is what most people, including myself, want. It is after all enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence which, “holds these truths” to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
We all know that happiness is state of mind, but it can also be very physical. Two of the great thinkers of the 18th century had their theories. Karl Marx postulated that happiness is a full stomach, while Sigmund Freud declared that happiness is satiated gonads.
These are, of course, gross over-simplifications of very complex theories. For politicians, happiness might be the possession of absolute power. For the greedy, immeasurable wealth, and for the common folk just an empty bladder.
SOME THOUGHT MUST BE GIVEN to the process by which happiness is achieved, and how it can be maintained. When we bring these factors to mind, then we recall the nature of man, the society that he creates for himself, and the liberty that makes real happiness possible.
That liberty is what sprouts when opposition is banished from society. The process is often violent and calls for committed agents. As the revolutionary Thomas Paine declared, show me the country where oppression is – that is my country.
For so many people, certain beliefs will bring happiness. As Marx said, religion is the opium of the poor. And for intellectuals, that opium is communism. To achieve happiness that is based on ideology requires unrelenting faith and conviction in that ideology. But then we must remember always what Nietzsche said, that convictions are prisons.
In our search for happiness (and utopia), we need to go back to the distant past to recall what the ancients did, how they created laws and institutions that gave them happiness. Some primitive societies have no word for liberty, but its essence is understood in the taboos and codes of conduct that are rigidly observed.
History is a very good teacher, but can also be a very bad master when it shackles us to the past and inhibits us from being innovative, creative, and critical. Indeed, history often repeats itself because we don’t learn from it.
ALL THROUGH HISTORY man has strived for liberty as the basis of happiness. Liberty, truth, justice are bound together and striving for these is a continuing struggle to this very day. Some years back, an American scholar postulated that with the end of the cold war, the major conflict of the future will be between civilizations.
If we look at this theory very closely and straddle it with fanatic jihadism and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, we may see some truth in this forecast. The deeper reality, however, is not so obvious. This continuing struggle is not between civilizations but humankind’s deep longing for liberty. And, therefore, the conflict will be as it had always been – between the oppressors and the oppressed, between those who crave liberty and those who refuse to give it.
But do you really want liberty?
Unfortunately, not all civilizations or individuals look at liberty as the basis of their happiness. There are people who want despots or dictators to govern them, and they become comfortable with their shackles.
Tradition, too, inhibits liberty. China is one such country that has always been ruled by despots, a continuum for four millennia to this very day. China also adeptly illustrates, contrary to common western logic, that development does not necessarily bring liberty. In fact, when a country progresses and becomes an empire, to hold on to power, the emperor or the imperialists suppress liberty with the Mandate of Heaven.
In so many instances, too, crimes are committed in the name of liberty for human nature does not take to liberty naturally. The great virtues of humanity are not embedded in human genes, they are acquired often at exorbitant cost.
FOR SEEKING AND TEACHING the truth, Socrates was condemned to death by poisoning by the Greek agora. For propagandizing for freedom from Spanish tyranny Rizal was executed by the Spanish. As the poet Bertolt Brecht said, we who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind. I recall Madame Roland who during the French Revolution lamented before she was guillotined, “Oh, liberty what crimes are committed in thy name!”
We ourselves did not realize the true value of freedom until Marcos took it away, we even welcomed him. And today, we are even nostalgic for his despotism.
The hunger for despots or dictators such as Hitler was aggravated by the Germans themselves who were looking for a savior in the midst of their impoverishment, much in the same way we are today hoping for a savior. That condition was summed up by the German poet and pastor, Martin Niemoller. I now paraphrase what he said: First they came for the leftists – and I did not speak out because I was not a leftist. Then they came for the social activists – and I did not speak out because I was not a social activist. Then they came for the Catholics – and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
I came across this Latin passage way back in the 1940s when I was in college. Keep this posted in your office, your desk, wherever it will greet you every day: “Ubi boni tacent, malum prosperat” – Evil prospers where good people are silent.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 24, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/06/24/1928992/why-liberty#034yRTeF7jyRSxvI.99
I was born and I grew up in an Ilokano village in eastern Pangasinan. In that part of the province and from there all the way to the Northern tip of Luzon, Ilokano is the lingua franca. In 1938, I moved to Manila for high school and it was here where I learned Tagalog, but the everyday Tagalog of Manila.
Tagalog and Spanish were taught while I was in college back in 1946. I almost flunked Tagalog with its “Balarila.” I came to realize the difference between my Tagalog and the Tagalog being taught in schools, and why it was not widely accepted as the national language, not only for ethnic reasons but also because it was purist.
Language is organic; it either grows or dies. The Oxford English Dictionary does a quarterly update with new words, colloquialisms. If you read the original Beowulf, the English epic written a thousand years ago, you will not understand a single word. I think President Quezon, because he was Tagalog, made a very big mistake in electing Tagalog as national language. Earlier, Spanish and English were accepted by us because both languages made all of us equal.
In the 1950s, I travelled all over the country, from Sabtang in the Batanes group in the north to Sitangkai in the Tawi-Tawi group in the south. In those days, Tagalog was not spoken in non-Tagalog regions. I communicated in English. Thank God, English was already understood by many Filipinos, especially those in official positions. But in the past 50 years, media – particularly movies, radio, and television – and the public schools, have turned Tagalog into a real national language. And during the recent senatorial election campaign, I watched non-Tagalogs give speeches and debate in a Tagalog far better than mine.
THE FINAL RULING of the Supreme Courtmaking Filipino (Tagalog) no longer a required college subject is absolutely correct. I think now is the time to make Tagalog the sole language of instruction from grade school to graduate school, and also the official language in government and in the courts. This Tagalog will be understandable, and will not be the Tagalog espoused today by the Commission on Language.
I know that such a monumental change will cause many difficulties and expense, and it is for these reasons why the transition will have to be carefully calibrated for at least 25 years. This will mean the gradual rewriting of textbooks and of procedures in government. Business will follow inevitably.
English should be phased out slowly to become like any of the foreign languages – Spanish, German, Japanese – taught in special schools. This change will be a daunting job for our Tagalog teachers. Many of them must change their mindset in order to turn Tagalog into Filipino. Many non-Tagalog words like balay (house), taytay (bridge), and bulan (moon) should be incorporated into the national language as mandated by law.
When I was with the old Manila Times, I received a copy of the Tagalog newspaper, Taliba, every day. I could not read it. I told the publisher of the Manila Times then, Joaquin P. Roces, to make Taliba more understandable with the use of Manila Tagalog, not the archaic Tagalog of Balagtas. When that change was made, the Taliba circulation surged from a few thousand to more than twenty thousand.
Twenty years ago, I managed a translation program wherein books in Japanese were translated into Tagalog. The books did not sell as indeed even today Tagalog translations of books – including mine – are not selling. This does not mean we should stop trying. Look at how successful the Indonesians and Malaysians have been with Bahasa.
LET ME RECOUNT how Bahasa became the national language of Indonesia and Malaysia. It was modernized and also made literary, and broad and rich enough for intellectual and scientific discourse. Takdir Alisjahbana, the Indonesian writer and scholar, and a significant influence on the modernization of Bahasa, told me how it came to be Indonesia’s national language.
When the leaders of the Indonesian independence movement were discussing their national language in the 1920s, they could have easily opted for Javanese. Most of the leaders themselves were Javanese but were educated in Dutch. But they realized that if Javanese became the national language there would be objections from the other language groups. So they elected Bahasa, which was used mainly in trading centers. They accommodated international words – ethnography became etnograpi, anthropology became antropologi, science became sains, and so on. This is a very good model for us to emulate, to use widely accepted terms instead of words like lungsod, pamantasan, mataas na paaralan, aklat, and so on.
I can think of no people more nationalistic than the Japanese, but they have Japanized many foreign terms.
In the 1950s, the writer, Rodrigo Perez, knowing the Indonesian example, suggested Tausug as our national language. Like English and Spanish, it would have been accepted because Tausug is such a tiny minority language spoken only by the Tausug of Sulu. It would have brought us closer to Indonesia but most important, it would have dampened or banished altogether the Moro separatist movement.
The first Tagalog novel I’ve read in its entirety is Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada 70. I am very happy with her translation of my novel, Mass. She uses “alarm clock” instead of “relos ng panggising.” This is how it should be.
I’m only too aware that language carries with it a lot of cultural baggage, but this cultural baggage should enrich our language, not diminish it. As a writer in English, I hope that much of what I have written can be translated into Tagalog, so too the works of those writing in Filipino languages such as Bicolano, Cebuano, and Ilokano. This is a formidable task particularly for our Tagalogs who despair over the Supreme Court decision. Then Tagalog shall have become truly “Filipino” and no longer a euphemism.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 17, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/06/17/1927069/tagalog-all-way#SxXwqWDsydmFy7Mz.99
Let us pause and recall on this, the 121st anniversary of the Philippine Declaration of Independence in Kawit, Cavite, in 1898.
I have recently been re-reading ancient history – about Alexander the Great, the building of Rome, the Renaissance. I can see how human the ancient politicians were, how they built institutions that survive to this very day. Motivated by power and glory, they built empires that lasted centuries, then decayed. The decay of these empires is just as interesting as their rise; it illustrates how the character of leaders decide as well the fate of their power, their imperial reach.
Looking back at Asia’s First Republic and the ilustrados who shaped it, I wonder if it would have been able to escape the American hegemony, or Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even the Germans were in Manila Bay, waiting, when Admiral Dewey arrived.
But there are no ifs in history. We are what we have become because we have not really learned from our past, that we were easily subjugated first by foreign colonizers, then by our own elites because we are a weak and divided people, because we didn’t have the institutions that support a sovereign state.
The sneering, lying response of some readers to my recent column, “Why it is difficult to love this country,” informs me, alas, why we rot in this swamp. We refuse to learn from our history. There is even a conscious effort now to deny this past and revise it, and to denigrate those who remember. These revisionist efforts are the termite mounds we have to identify and demolish before they destroy our country.
WE CAN NEVER EVER alter history or rescue Marcos from the ignominy which he created. Did he do anything good? Sure, his first decree freeing the peasant from his ancient yoke. I commend him for abolishing tenancy in the rice and corn areas, and replacing it with leasehold. No Filipino leader, not even Magsaysay who championed agrarian reform, could have done that with a Congress dominated by landlords. Marcos as dictator did it and reaped political largesse.
I also applaud him for abrogating the 99-year US Bases lease. This could have led to perpetuity. And, finally, for opening our country to new diplomatic relationships as, for instance, with China and Russia.
But all that good is nullified by the massive corruption and the brutality of his martial law regime. This is known not only in our country but internationally, and no matter how much his champions strive to remove this stigma, they cannot because the whole world knows it.
We need not speculate if the United States was involved with his staying power or his ouster. The big powers, China included, always interfere with the destiny of other countries, particularly the weak. This to preserve their hegemony and to enlarge their markets and sources of raw materials. Always keep this in mind as the rationale for the origins of war. But the big powers can do little when countries are strong, their people unified.
How, for instance, did Cuba survive American overt incursions? The Cubans did because their leader, Fidel Castro, was credible. How did tiny Vietnam humble the United States, the world’s most powerful country, in the Vietnam War? Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader, too, was credible. More than anything he personified Vietnamese nationalism.
It was not communism that the United States fought against in Vietnam. It was nationalism – the strongest element that binds a people, the sturdiest bastion for survival that, alas, is woefully absent in this country.
How can we possess it? Imbibe it in our very blood, the air we breathe?
We must know our history, nurture our memory, and love this ravaged homeland.
OUR HISTORY DEFINES US, confirms us as a heroic people, but we have to look at ourselves and our past honestly, realize that we want a strong leader who is willing to make sacrifices, and this we should ask of ourselves as well. We must always beware, however, of leaders who claim kinship with the poor but whose actions deny that claim.
Looking back, Marcos had every good reason to declare martial law. But he failed to use that power to modernize this country. He was going to create a New Society and was surrounded by our finest technocrats. He grabbed power when we were next to Japan in prosperity; we were then in the take-off stage. His rhetoric was democratic even noble, but alas, he was crippled by his ego, by insatiable greed, and lust for power.
So now, we seem to be on the verge of the same old scenario. The emerging portents are ominous. I recall us welcoming Marcos who was then vastly popular with a landslide election victory. Will history repeat itself?
To conclude: The grievous problems that plague our people were already evident more than a hundred years ago and were described by the ilustrados, most of all by Rizal. How do we learn from history?
How do we create a just society and abolish poverty? We have arable land three times that of Japan. How can we use this to produce enough food for our people?
The vast wealth in this country – how do we use it to develop the economy? Our very rich must undergo tremendous change, transform themselves from landlords to producers and industrialists. We are now more than a hundred million – a mass market and at the same time a vast labor pool.
How do we bring back the thousands of talented Filipinos abroad?
At the bottom of all these and perhaps the most important question for us all -- how do we truly love this motherland sincerely enough to sacrifice for her?
First published in The Philippine Star, June 8, 2019
All of us know how finite life is, that nothing in this world really lasts. But though this knowledge is with us every moment of our lives, we often fight it because it is very difficult to let go.
Many politicians, used to privilege and power, can’t let go; if they lose an election, it is almost always because they were “cheated.” Political power is an aphrodisiac, an addiction, so they cling to it to their dying day. Women – many of them cling to a past when they were beautiful, their faces unlined with wrinkles. And the rich dream of bringing their wealth to the grave but that narrow pit cannot contain all their loot or their corpulent corpses which turn to dust.
There are those rare individuals who lead quiet, useful lives, moral lives even, who should linger a little longer, not for themselves but for others. But they let go quietly, silently. I knew three of them.
My father-in-law, Antonio Jovellanos, was a government doctor who, for much of his life, worked with lepers. He was on call day and night, not only for hospital patients but also for the people of the surrounding barrios. He reached his patients on foot or horseback. He encountered ignorance, superstition, and crushing poverty. He was often paid with chickens and eggs, which he would always decline.
He belonged to a middle-class Ermita family. His father, Cesareo, was an Ateneo classmate of Rizal, who used to visit the Jovellanos home in Padre Faura, the same place where my bookshop now stands. As recounted by my father-in-law, Rizal was very judicious. He was already being watched by the Spaniards as a filibuster and he didn’t want to jeopardize his friend so they would go somewhere else to talk.
MY FATHER-IN-LAW was quiet and appeared distant, but was actually very warm. He read a lot, particularly history. He resented me at first because I eloped with his daughter, but we eventually made peace, well enough for him to agree with my politics. It was pleasurable talking with him because he was insightful. With his background, he would often trace how perverse family relationships and character leads to social decay.
Like his oldest brother, Jose, parish priest of Tondo, and his sister, Bernarda, who was a Benedictine nun, he was almost saintly. He was the epitome of hard work and honesty. He was a great influence in my life. Once, he came upon my wealthy acquaintances in the bookshop. After they left, he asked about them and my revolution which would sweep them away; he was aware of moral dilemmas. My reply was ambiguous. I said, I’ll cross the river when I reach it. He died without a fortune other than the fondness and respect that I and the others who knew him kept in our hearts.
When President Elpidio Quirino retired in Novaliches, I visited him a few times. His retirement home was on the way to Tala, where the girl who became my wife was staying with her parents. President Quirino was magnanimity personified. He was a great President, honest, with a stern eye to the future. It was he who planned our economic recovery and development with the assistance of superb technocrats like the late Cornelio Balmaceda.
He was, however, portrayed as weak. It was a very wrong perception – he was very strong but was the traditional Filipino patrician, well-mannered, without bombast. He did not have the common touch of Ramon Magsaysay, the man he selected to be his Defense Minister to fight the Huks.
He had a land reform program, his answer to the Huk demand for agrarian reform, which Magsaysay followed. He was so charitable, he forgave the Japanese who massacred his family. He said to bear anger is to bear a heavy and useless burden. I always addressed him as “Apo,” the Ilokano term for someone venerable or in authority. And as Apo, he let go of that primal anger and declined the arrogance of those who hold power.
I was out of the country when Luis Taruc, the heroic guerrilla and Huk leader, died. I watched the old rebel grow old, and saw how much he loved his people and how hard he worked for them. He even accepted the Marcos dictatorship so he could get assistance for them in return. To the very end, he was vocal in stating and reiterating his socialist faith, that he was never a communist. His communist critics and colleagues reproached him for that: he fought with the communists, therefore he was one of them.
HE LIVED SIMPLY, FRUGALLY, and let go the many opportunities that would have improved his income. He was vocal and emphatic about what he believed in – democracy, social justice, land reform. He might have sounded like a broken record, but he meant every word. At one time, we visited a poor village where he had followers. They crowded around him, some of them weeping. He said, I have no more tears to shed.
I cite these three men who I admire very much because to my mind, they illustrate the fortitude and truthfulness that make ordinary existence more meaningful. Many of us strive to live morally, but human as we are, we commit mistakes, we sin, and are mortified.
We try to be honest with ourselves so we can be true to others and find that we are sometimes “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” How true what Rizal said, that it’s the honest man who has enemies. Jesus’ sermon on the mount should comfort us, but even if it doesn’t, we must remember that tattered cliché, virtue is its own reward.
It is really difficult to let go when we have a job left undone, an unfinished novel, a debt unpaid, or we are engaged in an effort that fulfills us and lifts our spirit. But time is running out. So then, let go gladly, peacefully even, but never, ever let go of the dream.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 1, 2019