My novel Sherds is a meditation on freedom, truth, and art. It details the poignant relationship between PG Golangco, a rich and accomplished potter, and his poor and beautiful protégée, Guia Espiritu. Beyond the narrative level, I like to consider it as an elegiac treatise on art, etc. All these are, of course, beautiful abstractions, inane and meaningless, if they are not given value — social, political, national, even personal.
What is freedom? What is truth? Are they useful? Freedom itself, may be the root of injustice. A billionaire owner of a media complex righteously claiming freedom as their beacon may oppress employees, intimidate rivals, or corrupt officials to protect and enlarge their empire. Freedom then becomes a social menace.
Freedom as value is discussed in Sherds. In a major scene, the potter artist, PG Golangco, is asked: "Do you believe in art as social protest? Goya and Picasso used their art politically."
Golangco replies: "I would ask you to permit any artist all the freedom he needs. Art thrives on freedom. The artist is free to determine his purpose, whatever his time, be it good or bad."
The artist is challenged by an academic. "Freedom is a political condition. And you have freedom because you are very rich and can afford to speak your mind, because you do not care whatever the consequences. Mr. Golangco, you are free because you have the influence and the money to buy your freedom. But what about the artists of the people? Who are not pampered like you? Who are denied this precious freedom?"
Yes, indeed, how can the poor be free?
By praying, by striving, by revolution perhaps? In the end, freedom needs no logic, no reason. It is the human being’s fate, it is our ultimate destiny. There is no insurmountable barrier to this desire to be free. No dictator's lash, no tyrant's sword can halt this striving for it is a pre-determined purpose, entwined with every fiber in our being, a programmed culmination, the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, the sperm and the ovum becoming, and the river flowing to the sea to become the sweet air we breathe.
But take care, for this freedom is also very fragile and needs constant nurturing. It lives only in the heart where it is often neglected or abused. If it dies there, no power on earth can ever ever bring it back to life.
The idea of freedom is neither eastern or western. It universal and we instinctively define it in terms of our own needs. We say the wind is free, and as that popular Tagalog kundiman confirms, "Even the bird has the freedom to fly."
Thousands of Filipinos now eat only once a day. More than anything, we need freedom from hunger, freedom from the oppression of our elites who hindered our economic development and made us poor. Perhaps others need freedom from the restrictive customs of their societies, the caste system for instance, religious or racial discrimination, and freedom from oppressive personal relationships. We need freedom to speak out, to pursue legitimate ambition, to travel, to organize, Or as American President Franklin Roosevelt intoned in 1941 at the outbreak of the war with Japan, "freedom from fear itself."
Many of these freedoms are guaranteed by magna cartas, constitutions, by law, but more often than not oppressive despots have no respect for the basic law of the land. A scrap of paper, they call it. Freedom from tyranny, therefore, is a major aspiration for so many people all over the world.
The difference between the eastern and western tradition is sometimes over-emphasized by cultural anthropologists to buttress whatever their arguments on modernization. Actually there are more similarities between the two traditions. The great religions that sprang from these traditions espouse the same golden rule for ethical living.
An uncritical reading of history will perhaps promote the easy generalization that the eastern tradition is characterized by hierarchy and harmony while the western tradition is characterized by individualism and change or revolution.
I stated earlier that freedom may be achieved by prayer. This perhaps best explains the rapid growth of our indigenous religions, the Iglesia Ni Cristo and El Shaddai, as well as the continued strength of Catholicism. All these religions promise believers a very personal form of freedom or nirvana, peace, redemption, even wealth.
Our nativistic religions are motivated also by a sense of nationalism. The idea of revolution, an important aspect of the western tradition, may have inspired the Philippine revolution of 1896, but certainly it had no impact on the earlier peasant revolts during the Spanish regime, the Ilocos revolt of Diego Silang, for instance. These clamors for freedom arose from the basic instinct to revolt against injustice, in this case against the landlord friars. Although it is fiction, Rizal's Pilosopong Tasyo is instructive; no longer able to accept the continual increase in rent imposed by his landlord, he rebels.
The peasant Colorum revolt in Pangasinan in 1931 and the much larger Sakdal uprising in Central Luzon in 1935 may have failed, but as the Sakdal leader Salud Algabre, declared: "No rebellion ever fails, each is a step forward for freedom."
How does the tyrant destroy freedom? First and foremost, always remember that truth is the tyrant's worst enemy. So the first thing they do is shut up the founts of truth. They may do this slowly by first intimidating or threatening the practitioners of media. To dilute the truth, they might propagandize the lies that mask their reach for power.
Simultaneously, they will discredit or corrupt the justice system so that the justice system weakened or intimidated cannot prosecute them, but will, instead, meekly follow their bidding. They will also, in the meantime, build a core of fanatic followers who will applaud all their actions.
They will always look for a scapegoat or a minority to which they will attribute the poverty and other injustices in the country then hoist themselves up as the savior, mouthing all the while the tired cliches of nationalism. They will promote populist programs even if these very programs will bankrupt the public coffers. And if the people grumble because food has become costlier, they will be appeased with "bread and circuses."
Freedom is delicate and needs constant care. People may lose it through their apathy, when they don't realize it has been frittered away by neglect, when they have accepted security or financial bribery in exchange, or elected leaders who are the sworn enemies of freedom.
When tyrants unleash their hound dogs, people must resist but without violence. This is the most effective way by which brutality can be defeated. The individual is never powerless. Remember, whoever stands alone is the strongest.
Truth is your best weapon and to deny it is to deny freedom. Speak out against injustice, remembering that evil prospers when the good are silent.
Be an activist — join NGOs, or any organization for the public good. Demonstrate, take a stand boldly, loudly, to protect the institutions of freedom.
Use your ballot wisely. You know who are the thieves and murderers. Don't vote for them, shun them, and ostracize them. And don't lose hope because tomorrow is yours.
The Ilokano word for freedom is waywaya. How I wish you would read my story of the same name. It is an allegory of two pre-hispanic tribes at war. Dayaw from Taga Daya kidnaps Waywaya from the Taga Laud. She becomes his slave, but he falls in love with her. She dies giving birth to a son. As tradition demands, Dayaw brings her corpse back to her tribe and is killed as a matter of course; he illustrates the truism that if one loves freedom (or any ideal), he must be prepared to sacrifice for her. This is the logic of love.
So then, where are the Filipinos who truly love our unhappy country?