Writ on water*

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It’s a common occurrence, and sad for this country and its poor and marginalized. A student activist graduates — and sooner rather than later becomes one of the people he or she used to rail against. Or some civil society type once committed to the bitter and dangerous struggle for change throws up his hands and joins those he says can’t be defeated anyway.

In too many instances are both forms of surrender driven by self-interest. But these acts of selfishness are often cloaked in some lofty principle.

For former student activists, the surrender is usually prompted by the coming of payback time; they have to bring home a paycheck and/or support the education of younger siblings as payment for those carefree years when they were parental scholars.

But it may also be due to the opening of all those doors to opportunity that, say, a University of the Philippines education virtually guarantees. Our ex-activist may have said often that the poor and uneducated don’t have the wealthy’s opportunities. But he discovers soon enough that his UP education has set him apart from those he used to champion.

Not that ex-activists from other schools don’t manage to stand before those very same doors. Some do — and far too many quickly push their way through, casting off their activist pasts while attempting to explain the act as something beyond the call of that basest of all motives, self-interest.

He may not have known that his is not the only case of apostasy on record (both his words and tone suggested that he thought he had, like Columbus, discovered something previously unknown, like the New World). But the new chief of the Philippine National Police was doing precisely that last week — attempting to explain in grand terms why he’s ended up heading a government agency that in protecting the flawed social and political order he claimed to have opposed in the 1970s has become the worst violator of human rights in this country.

Jesus Versoza claimed last week that he was an activist when he was a freshman at the University of the Philippines in the 1970s. The declaration of martial law, he said, made him enroll in the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) because he “wasn’t a real advocate of armed struggle” (and what’s the PMA’s advocacy, maintaining the status quo through debate? ). What he was an advocate of, Versoza said, was “cultural change.” In addition, he went on, “I began to see that there was no future in the movement. It offered no alternative solution.”

What “movement,” exactly, was Versoza talking about? In the 1970s, it couldn’t have been anything else other than the student movement, which at that time was spearheading the Second Propaganda campaign — it was a movement for cultural change if it was anything, and not at all involved in the “armed struggle,” or the guerilla war that was then in its infancy.

If he was at all paying attention, Versoza should have known that the student movement in the 1970s was focused on providing Filipinos an accurate understanding of their history, and the roots in the colonial culture of the Philippine crisis of economic backwardness and limited democracy.

The readings favored by student activists reflected this focus. The writings of Renato Constantino were at the top of their lists, as were the speeches of Claro M. Recto. The student activists of the 1970s were after all waging a cultural war, not ambushing government troops.

But what’s of interest equal to Versoza’s flawed recollection of the 1970s student movement is his declaration that he saw no future in “the movement” and his claim that it offered no solution to the problems it was exposing. In the first place the future he was apparently talking about was his future, the declaration of martial law having put the fear of state violence — imprisonment, torture and/or murder — in the still raw minds of adolescent activists, among others.

As for solutions, there’s this thing about exposing problems: the exposure and criticism themselves often suggest the solutions. As Nobel Prize-winning novelist and philosopher Albert Camus was saying (in his collection of essays, The Rebel), conventional wisdom disdains criticism as a negative act. But you can’t criticize, and you can’t rebel against what exists without measuring it against definite standards. The cry in the streets against feudalism in the 1970s was certainly based on the demand for the democratization of land ownership, for example. And democratization WAS a solution to the land problem.

But let’s not assume too much. Versoza’s case is far too typically a relapse from Paul back to Saul to be taken too seriously. The entire country’s crawling with former activists — with some having been activists far, far longer than Versoza ever was — who’ve become part of the system they once denounced, lackeys of the very order that dooms millions to short brutish lives of misery, hunger and despair.

Not that apostates and opportunists are not well rewarded. In exchange for houses in posh villages and humungous bank accounts, some have become tyranny’s worst apologists and henchmen. They defraud during elections the very citizens they once said they wanted to serve. They devise the strategies that have led to the killing of activists who’ve remained true to their principles.

But they’re not only in government. Many are also in the private sector, where they nevertheless wreak as much havoc as their state counterparts. They broker for crooks, or are themselves corporate crooks. They’re the advocates of the monsters of deception the black lagoon called Philippine elite education breeds. They no longer serve the people, but those narrow interests that when not ruining the environment are dispossessing further the legions of the poor.

They‘re farthest from the bright light of selflessness where true humanity dwells.

They’re the exact opposite of the heroes the country needs, the self being their focus first, last and always, rather than the poor who have always been with us, and in whose service talent and skill and knowledge are best devoted. They proclaim that change is impossible — and they see to it that it can’t happen by opposing it. They’re the self-fulfilling prophecies that have helped keep this country in the depths of the brutality, despair, hunger and hopelessness that defines life for the millions fighting for survival in these isles of want. When the time comes they will be remembered only with contempt; their names are truly writ on water.

*The poet John Keats thought he would not be remembered, and said his name was “writ on water”.

(BusinessWorld)

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