Although A few years his junior, I met Jose Ma. Sison in the University of the Philippines years ago, in the Philippine Collegian, of which he was research editor during the editorship of Leonardo Quisumbing, then a law student, and who’s currently a Supreme Court justice. A liberal through and through with dreams of a law career, I nevertheless ended up editing Sison’s second book, Struggle for National Democracy (his first book was a book of poems).
The editing task was itself a struggle. Although an English literature major (he was then an MA student and an instructor in the Department of English), Joe, as he was then plainly known among friends, wrote in a prose style we in the esoteric circles of the UP Writers’ Club thought peculiar.
In Philippine Society and Revolution, which he wrote under the nom de guerre Amado Guerrero, every government this country has ever had is described as “The Puppet_______ Regime,” etc. Why this repetition despite its obvious demerits? That’s because that’s what they were, puppet regimes all, and to call them something else would have blunted its reality. As the late critic Petronilo Bn. Daroy would say later, when speaking of Sison’s poetry, Sison “is inspired, not by the conventions of literature, but by the need to relate to facts in Philippine social life.”
It’s a characteristic his prose hasn’t lost. In this supposedly postmodern age, he still uses phrases like “US imperialism and its die-hard puppets.” It’s true no one talks like that any more—at least not in the respectable, albeit “radical” circles of Philippine NGOs. In fact no one talked like that even when I was a UP undergraduate, when we favored the obscure prose of Lionel Trilling over the bare-bone clarity of Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yennan Forum on Literature and Art.”
Sison was on his part never “fashionable”. His books were disdained as “simple” by PhDs who expected him to produce treatises rather than manuals for the poor. Some of his poems are derided for being direct rather than metaphorical. But that was the price he paid for choosing meaning above form.
The brutal, sometimes awkward directness of Sison’s prose is one reason why, as respected as his name is in those areas of the Philippine countryside where the National Democratic Front has established its own governments, among the press and academia he’s too easy a target—a reverse example of the icons adored in respectable circles, the very mention of whose names invites paeans. Academics favor indirection, subtlety, obscure phrases. Unfortunately, again as Daroy noted, Sison doesn’t write for academics, but for the many who actually make history.
But only years later did I discover why Sison wrote and talked in a way so unlike what academia favored. It wasn’t only because he liked naming things for what they really were; he’s actually interested in communicating to the legions of the poor, which makes him a rare bird indeed. Thus did he also take the greatest pains to learn the Filipino language, a task difficult enough for a non-Tagalog, but even worse for an English literature major.
There is a name for what the United States has been doing for the last one hundred years. It is imperialism—and it does have “die-hard puppets” who are, well, die-hard puppets. Putting it thus is certainly far from the current fashion. But isn’t what’s happening in Iraq imperialism, and doesn’t the US’ listing of Sison as a terrorist a form of meddling in this country’s affairs?
The same aesthetics of “relating to facts”, rather than that of “[waging] royalty battles against the US treasury”, it seems to me, moved Sison to mention the personal difficulties he has suffered as a result of the “terrorist” listing. In the past Sison has mentioned not only that he is no longer chair of the Communist Party, but is still blamed for “ordering” everything from ambushing government patrols to executing military agents and torturers—acts which incidentally may not even be terrorism, if one went by the meaning of the word as consisting of indiscriminate acts of violence for political ends.
He has also pointed out that as a passport-less exile in the Netherlands (and please don’t say “self-exiled” because there’s no such thing), he has been denied the right to medical care among the consequences of his being so listed. How else convey to others a sense of the injustice, which would be an abstraction otherwise, except by relating what it has meant to one’s own life, about which one has the most direct knowledge?
Few people do age gracefully, and one need not even mention Mao Zedong’s alleged senior depravity—mostly according to his doctor, by the way, who made a zillion dollars by writing that book. But here’s even worse news: even fewer people were ever really perfect even in their youth, except in their own minds.
Sison had—still has, I understand—an eye for the ladies, a fact many feminists point out whenever his name’s mentioned. Rizal had a girl in every port. Antonio Luna had a temper that cost him dearly. Bonifacio had an authoritarian streak. Ninoy Aquino played up to the gallery even during martial law when he was on trial for his life.
No, I’m not saying that Sison’s in the same league as any one of these men, who are rightly regarded as heroes. But he does command the attention and respect—though no longer officially, but in the manner of an elder statesman—of a social movement. Like them he’s also, and he’s never been, perfect. But who is and who’s ever been?
The important thing is what one has contributed to this country. As armchair a revolutionary as I have always been, I am, as many others are, grateful for the forty-five years of his life Sison has given to the making of the movement that at the very least has forced governments to look into the causes of poverty and discontent.
But I agree that their looking into them doesn’t mean their addressing them—which is why, I suppose, there’s a logic to Sison’s thesis that the only way that will happen is for the poor themselves to take power.
Personally, I don’t find that a prospect as awful as much of the intelligentsia does. The world has never been as dangerous, the United States never more arrogant and more eager to lay it waste than today. At home in the country of our despair, no one really believes that the ruling system can ever do anything—nor does it really want to do anything—to make things any better for the many. On the contrary, they will do everything to keep things the way they are, for their sakes as well as those of their patrons at home and abroad.
It’s not the poor who’re responsible for this state of affairs, but their supposed betters, a category in which, I suppose, people like me and the stalwarts of “civil society” are included. But we haven’t been any better, and have instead helped make such a mess of things we’re actually killing people daily without knowing it. Maybe the poor can do better, because no one else can.
It won’t do to “advise” those who have actually done something to—ho, ho, ho—undergo a make-over in the same way that US journalists have “advised” North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il to change his hair-do and jumpsuits. It trivializes things despite the horrors of the present, as if hair and suit—and prose style—were what really mattered.
The “advice” that Sison accept the “terrorist” label as “a badge of honor” I can only presume was given in the same spirit, which is why it can’t be taken seriously. There are terrorists indeed in this country and in the world, and can you imagine what wearing that tag as a “badge of honor” would do? It would make the military dance with glee to the tune of “I told you so,” for one thing. But even more fundamentally, that tag just doesn’t apply.
I’m not alone in saying this. Dozens of other people say so, and they include lawyers, judges, bishops, a governor and former senator, and at least one (current) UP president.
And that’s what really counts, doesn’t it, the truth—rather than being perceived to have aged gracefully, or to have developed a way of talking and writing a professor of English would approve of? And isn’t one of the things that’s wrong with this world and this country the fact that even without our adding to it, words are debased and used not so much to enlighten as to prevent understanding, and meaning sacrificed for the sake of appearance and form?