Monday, August 29, 2011

Another Lousy Day for Heroes (Counter-Reifications)

ARE you still worth dying for? asked this poster that made the rounds of Facebook walls last August 21, a day commemorating the death of Benigno Aquino Jr. (better known to us all as Ninoy Aquino). Today as we celebrate National Heroes' Day, many of our dead heroes might have to flaunt a similar question, "Have you, whom we died for, been worth it?"
     Let's zoom back in on Ninoy.
     Beyond being just a nickname attached to an airport's name and behind its acronym, NAIA, Ninoy is also deemed a cult hero by many an admirer. Not just a national or political hero, but a cult hero, in the Greek hero cult sense, almost a saint in some Catholic people's minds, much as Elvis Presley is a cult figure to many at Graceland's gates who don't necessarily have any idea about Elvis's musical and socio-political significance when he exploded on the scene.
     Now, in case you're wondering, I started this blog because of an issue around the tag of hero upon Corazon Aquino. There was this dispute on film critic Noel Vera's own blogsite about whether Corazon should/could be called a hero, which question inspired me to put up this, my own opinion blog. Click here to read that blog post of mine.
     I do not plan to end this blog any time soon, but I feel I need to come full circle today on that hero thing there. Full circle, because this time around our first subject-person shall be Corazon's husband, Ninoy. I hope I would be able to contribute my own five-hundred pesos worth into that above virtual poster's eternally-hanging question, with a focus on the issue of qualifying hero-ness, and shall therefore now attempt to once and for all chip in on a final definition.

In light of all the doubt regarding the fixability of this country of ours, I shall have to answer that question---"Are you still worth dying for?"---thus: To be inspired to continue, all you need to have, really, is a firm belief in an ideology and an outcome, perhaps inclusive of a people reacting to that ideology and outcome. For a man/woman will die for an ideology or a hobby or passion, never for a people devoid of a connection to that hobby or passion. So much so that a man/woman will die for a hobby even regardless of whatever reaction from a people, even regardless of an absence of people. To the human psyche, it's the ideologies and serious passions they carry that are always worth dying for, not a people, unless it's one's spouse or kids or kin or parent or a God.
     It is possible that Ninoy, a student of history, was not being presumptuous about people picking up where he left off after his death. It was just his "hobby," his passion, his science, his art, to want to be a liberator, regardless of a people's appreciation. The spurts of applause would have been a bonus. He was serving what was in his heart and mind, what was in his idea of the role he assigned to himself.
     On the other hand, it is also possible that he had ideas of his death as the ultimate sacrifice for realizing his dreams, half-desiring it, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth saw it was only through his martyrdom that the Christ movement of love could spread beyond Galilee into Asia Minor and onwards to defeat the Roman philosophy of conquest by Might, the same way that Gandhi thought British violence toward him might be the only way by which the world could finally witness the reality of British oppression. It is possible that Aquino desired a suicidal finish, perhaps aware of a hero's monomyth requiring a final heroic Return. Better die for a monomyth than merely a heart surgeon's report.
     But, in these above persons' cases, it would still be simplistic to carry the slogans "died for a people," "died for our salvation," "died for India," unless of course we believe them (especially Jesus of Nazareth) to be gods or demigods. These slogans may seem to us to serve our causes' heroes and icons, but these slogans actually ignore the psychological reality of what there was in it for our heroes too, which in the end denies them (and us) the possibility of the existence of their own "selfish" dreams. The reason we declare persons our heroes is not by reason of their being Heroes per se, in spite of us, it is because they carried the same torch we carried within our own "selfish" dreams and/or struggles, dreams and struggles only these "heroes" were able to translate into action or able to fulfill, action and fulfillment that the rest of us did not have the privilege or position or wherewithal or perhaps even full courage or full indifference to achieve.
     The problem with simplifications like "died for his people" is it turns our heroes into emblems instead of symbols. Symbols are symbols of something, a cause, an ideology, a fight. Emblems are flags or seals the meanings of which are forgotten, becoming no more important than the blinding metanarrative of slogans used around a rationale for a fiesta budget allocation. In such a simplification, it is not a surprise to watch Ninoy become just Ninoy, a face, a color, during a holiday. It throws away his detailed dreams for us to the sidelines, dreams that we shared with many for our communities. It may even deny the fact that Aquino was aiming for a Christian socialistic formula for Philippine progress, a conscious or unconscious denial the conscious/subconscious intent of which is to reduce Ninoy to a corporate insignia on a shirt.

WE'RE all passionate about how not to trivialize the personas of our heroes, true. But we are often divided on which metanarrative to take in order to avoid the trivialization. My own possible anti-Greek Hero Cult metanarrative says people are made up of dreams---politicians, scientists, artists denounced by the Church, imperfect saviors, authors of insulting novels, and so on, their heroism all consisted of dreams. I'm saying it would be an offense to their personas to be reductivist, turning them into instances of our own Romantic metanarratives as these perfect heroes, as if Saul Bellow's lovable returning antiheroes with blemishes had never come back to haunt late 20th-century literature. I'm saying I prefer remembering my heroes as people instead of as Raphaelite statues devoid of a realistic story.
     Most people's one and only---for being the most popular---version of Ninoy Aquino is quite valid on paper and may even be the truth. Maybe Ninoy was indeed a freak of nature. It may seem sentimental to me and psychologically simplistic, but I'd respect this version of their hero. To me, however, Ninoy is a hero of a different vein, a hero of realism instead of Romanticism. This would be according to my own metanarrative which could be the reification in contrast to their truth. It may be that my version of Ninoy is wrong and theirs is right, and should that be, I am only human.
     Be that as it may, my version of Ninoy would not be a version, for it shall not be linear as a single movie about him but more like diptychs of transparencies placed over each other, with other people's images intertwined with those of his, appearing and fading and reappearing in a dynamism of counterfactual histories. I've been told by my Philosophical Taoist faith that the greatest sin one could commit against God is to simplify him in a box. I avoid the same sin with my enemies, for art-of-war reasons. I'd certainly avoid it with my friends, with whom a familiarity could easily lead me to be judgmental over mistakes. I'd especially avoid it in my appreciation of my heroes.


"Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great."---Mark Twain

MY main beef with the Romantic metanarrative is in its resultant effect of hyping up the heroism of vaunted figures while downplaying the heroism of others, especially the heroism of nameless middle- and lower-class efforts and martyrdoms. This metanarrative would look upon the vaunted heroism as a rarity, a god-like character placed in a few human receivers of para-human gifts. This appreciation is to me the intellectual and linguistic equivalent of assigning political royalism into certain niches of society, which, in turn and ultimately, denies middle and lower classes of the possibility of having that same dignified character. This intellectual royalism, therefore, would easily imagine and convince itself that we ordinary Filipinos would not take the martyred path Ninoy took, were we given the same situation and privilege.
     My counter-narrative would be that I daily see people around me taking their own modest "martyred paths." Modest paths of martyrdom or near-martyrdom, they may be, but martyrdoms nonetheless the modesty of which could anytime turn into martyrdoms of scale, depending on how history will take care of twists in its own plot via the volksgeist/zeitgeist phenomena of historical development. A scientific version looks upon Joan of Arc's story as one that started as an insane proposition, but one that historical necessity and political opportunism found a vehicle in for the mutual attainment of political success. The same with Hitler, whose little, demented anger started a runaway train to near-success and fateful infamy. In short, never underestimate the modesty or smallness of ordinary fearlessness.
     People around us take their own daily martyred paths not because they---or their managers---are consciously planning (them) to become martyrs or heroes, but just because it is in their self-assignations, what they think is their job or their duty or their role on Earth to do, just what they have to do. I don't mean political paths, I merely mean daily paths including such mundane stuff as risking being denounced by the majority in society because of what is in one's faith or belief or philosophy to do that which he is about to do, risking one's job because what he plans to do is---according to his heart---his obligation and is the right thing to do, risking assassination because he has to fight his union's fight that needs to be fought, risking whatever else. Some of these ordinary risks do result in death, but one such death wouldn't be because of a suicidal plan, like the plan of secular martyrdom some Ninoy followers would like us to think Ninoy drew. The risks are taken just because they are what are in the heart of the moment of deciding the path, like the quick decisions we make upon modest passions, like the ones we choose to take with little serious hobbies. The deaths wouldn't be self-planned; in fact, in everyday martyrdoms; the threats---whether of death or hunger or whatever---were often ignored, because deemed out of the question, laughable bits of information. They were mere unrealistic worries by the spouses. For, look, even the tabloids report daily of "heroic" deaths over little things, like with one "Lalaki na Nakipagtagaan Sa Videoke Bar Dahil Lang Sa 'My Way', Patay".

BUT, of course, it's the martyrdoms of corporate scale that we celebrate, and we would be bent---in our hierarchy designs---towards awarding one persona the national hero assignation (number one), as we pigeonhole the others into that roster box consisting of secondary national heroes (still an exclusive roster, though), our not national but 'mere heroes'. Macario Sakay is a mere virtual hero on the sidelines, not fit to be placed in the exclusive roster of national heroes, according to earlier historians, for reasons anyone could easily muster.
      That's why I prefer today's holiday name, National Heroes' Day, even as it fails to refer to which heroes the day is saluting. I would have preferred "Cry of Pugad Lawin Day," so to commemorate not an assignation to abstract referents but a collective act and will. Collective, I say, for a national heroes' day like today ought to be celebrating leaders of a communal heroism, with those heroes raised as prime symbols of a . . . well, a collective cause. Because, in our day, we've turned our heroes into emblems, good men unto themselves. Instead of being symbols of good leadership within a collective cause, they've become symbols of themselves.
     This is reflected in our own support for our living politicians. We start by supporting a political figure who stood for our fight, our cause, with us doing so because this hero of the moment spoke our language and told our story. Later in the day, especially when we are ourselves entrenched in modest positions within our hero's newly-won leadership, our stand for our earlier cause quickly turns into a stand for the political figure himself, he who may have already left the original cause. We, in our turn, often consciously leave our original cause with our hero, or otherwise delude ourselves into believing our hero is still in the cause, . . . in effect turning that hero to be not the vehicle for a cause but himself and his holy persona as the new cause unto himself.
     To repeat, in countries such as ours, heroes stop becoming symbols of a people, they become emblems of themselves. In front of these resultant icons, we proffer to society and offer our faith that theirs alone have been the existing speech-cries of freedom, theirs alone the blood spilled worthy of a spotlight.

And so we have the polymath Jose Rizal, who is that freak of nature, whose character level has been played up so much that it can be deemed unattainable to ordinary men, unattainable even to one placed in extraordinary situations. It would be impossible for the son of a fisherman from Samar to have similar poly-interests that could result in poly-expertise given some background of poly-privilege and poly-support.
     I do not know how Che Guevara is taught in Cuban universities, but in the West, when people talk of Che Guevara they cannot escape quoting the Che's glorification of his people's courage, the people that he led and yet belonged with. But yet, in this probably unconscious Western strategy of empathizing with Che's popularity, Che also becomes a sneer object, for being the popular hero of a duped people and, as well, being no better than his fellows whose parallel courage he was merely a parasite of. Though his pretty face would be on the T-shirts of new bohemians from New York to Milan today, mainstream Western society would yet label this communist a cruel, vain villain who merely used the masses for an ambition. And so, in contrast, the heroes of Western countries and their Westernized nanny states (like ours) are placed not among the people but above them. In the case of Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, these are heroes portrayed as gods whose followers can only aspire to become. The followers are assured that they will never be those heroes of theirs, and worse, never could have been, even if all this time they had already been.
     A musical by the progressive songwriter-composer Gary Granada opens with the song titled "Sino Ka Ba, Jose Rizal?" In this song alone, Granada depicts the alienation of Rizal's persona from the ordinary man's perspective, a result of years of hyping up Rizal's freak individuality that elevated him to the level of an unreachable god. Meanwhile, when people sing a paean towards Ninoy Aquino with the slogan-line "hindi ka nag-iisa!," two levels of meaning explode on the table. The first level says, "you have followers in us, we are one with you, and will die---like you---for the country too." The next level says "you, like Jesus, are our unreachable savior who single-handedly fought our fight, and we worship you in return because of that sacrifice."
     This attitude towards heroes not only denies heroic achievements their flaws, it makes a mockery of those achievements, a caricaturesque depiction of their development in sympathy with the people (and the people's own efforts), and finally provides a strategy upon a servile society that cannot be expected to save themselves or fight for themselves. This strategy has been feeding us with the lie, through our Heroes and the cult of personality, that we ordinary citizens have never really fought, never will, and will always be needing hero-demigods to perform their fateful monomyths upon us.
     Again, that's why I prefer today's/tomorrow's holiday name, National Heroes' Day, even as it fails to declare which plurality of heroes it is celebrating. Again, I would have preferred "Cry of Pugad Lawin Day," so to commemorate not specific personalities of our imagination and their historical apotheosis but a collective act and will with its own counter-apotheosis for the record. But the Romantics won't give it to us on a platter, of course, and, in order to maintain that hidden class-driven linguistic and hegemonic version lording it over the concept of the singular hand called "the Hero," will always be ready to resist any form of counterfactual history upon It. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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