"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it." - Thomas Jefferson
History retains a presence, palpable if you know what to look for. During election season, historical narratives take center stage in every politicians campaign. The past is interpreted, re-interpreted, re-written, and engineered with on specific goal in mind: Getting elected. While in position? The public and officials alike call on history to defend positions, criticize opposition, and distract in equal measures. The past, by its very nature, maintains an allure. The attraction of the unknowable and its ability to be what we need it to be. Narratives are malleable and the past always at our disposal.
The current hullaballoo surrounding the CyberCrime Prevention Act of 2012 is no exception. On both sides of the ideological divide, the specter of history and its lessons looms large. References to Martial Law, not so far-flung draconian eras, Nazism (naturally), the Arroyo administration, and our colonial past have been deployed in pointed (and at times almost hysterical) criticism of the bill and the current administration and Congress. The fears are relevant, the perceived curtailment of civil liberties, whether in the ‘real’ world or ‘cyberspace, must be addressed through open and balanced public discourse. The concerns of a vocal portion of the population, a minority though it may be, must be headed and not dismissed by administration mouthpieces. That is the heart of democracy and the dismissal of those concerns only reinforces growing fear and paranoia among the intelligensia. Despite our popular construction of history, the middle class (the upwardly mobile educated and economically emancipated) almost always form the backbone of any social resistance and civil disobedience. Today, they occupy social media and the cyber world; moving in and staking claim to a space that lends itself as a platform for dialogue and discourse. Yet, the reaction so far from administration spokespeople has not generated further discussion, instead the intelligensia’s concerns have only been heightened. In a sense, the Aquino administration remains lucky that social media has only crossed over into traditional media and society large in limited respects. Else the pronouncements of Edwin Lacierda in his ‘discussions’ with netizens over the weekend would have raised more of a furor than the relative ‘squeak’ we are seeing now. That remains the single greatest obstacle for social media relevance: Translating social media angst and agitation into real world action.
A firm understanding of history is also necessary in putting public pronouncements into context. Whether it is Secretary Leila de Lima’s comment that we have little to fear from this government (what of the next?) or spokespeople’s tweets in cyberspace, a sense of history is needed to peel apart the comment and get to the heart of the issue. For example, one of the more noticeable comments from Lacienda, in response to comments on the administration’s actions, was his reference to an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson.
A government official deploying a reference to Jeffersonian ideology in response to criticisms is a risky play, at best. Thomas Jefferson is noteworthy, and hallowed among certain segments of the American population, precisely because of his distrust of government, driven by anti-monarchy sentiments. Jefferson, towards the end of his life, crafted an almost pastoral vision of the United States, one where people lived in communes and government was practically non-existent. Jefferson’s loathing of overreaching of government was such that some quotes for which he has become famous have a decidedly revolutionary tinge to them:
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
“I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
The deployment of Jeffersonian ideology in response to criticisms of a government over-stepping itself is ironic at face and ludicrous in analysis. I cannot say, in all honesty, that the CyberCrime Prevention Act is not necessary. It is and there are provisions contained within it that are needed. However, the original intent of the bill has been hijacked by personal agenda and misguided concerns. The law, as fashioned, betrays a distinct fear on the part of our elected congressmen; fear of the unknown, fear of something they do not, and maybe cannot, understand, fear of something they cannot control. This is a blatant attempt, incidental or not, to control a legitimate vehicle for social discourse and dialogue. Jefferson, through his writings and speeches, spoke rigorously against the restriction of civil liberties. A refined sense of history, on the part of the administration spokespeople, can only help them in their widely lauded goal of reforming Philippine public life. History can be a defense and an avenue for criticism; but only when properly understood and utilized. Else the misuse of history just opens you up for further misinterpretation and new avenues for critique.
For the Filipino, the sense of history is recognized in a limited sense. As I have remarked elsewhere, we retain a historical sensibility only when reacting to events after the fact. In this, some of the pointed critiques of Cocoy Dayao and (only when loosely interpreted) Lacierda, are relevant. We remain reactive to events and political developments. Only a select few in New Media made themselves aware of the Cybercrime Prevention Act prior to it being signed into law and only a few even bothered to speak out against the measure. Granted, it appears that there may be some irregularities involved with the crafting of the bill, but that does not distract from the fact that either the bill itself went un-noted, or the collective subconscious decision was to address the situation when it came to a head. Either is deeply concerning for our political future. No matter, the bill was overlooked, and the current reactions from civil society are wholly expected; inflammatory, polemical, and in some cases distractingly overwrought. That being said, civil society is taking calculated and appropriate action to address the contents of the law; one hopes those actions are not lost amidst the sturm und drang and fear mongering of some social media denizens.
Only now do we see the critical mass necessary to create a grassroots movement against. Even after its passing, our response reflects a relatively shallow and superficial understanding of the political and social process. President Aquino has been lambasted from all corners for signing the bill into law. The question of whether Aquino should have expended veto power on a bill that never should have made it to his desk in the first place has been set aside. One has to wonder if the bill would have been signed into law, if the efforts currently being expended now, existed prior. It is a hypothetical, but one that touches on our current relationship with the political process.
While the Aquino administration does deserve criticism, the malaise that led to the crafting and ratification of such a wayward and potentially draconian law, runs far deeper. This is where our superficial sense of history fails us as a republic. Our history, one of colonialism not from out but within, warns of the dangers of taking civil liberties and elections lightly. Yet, those warnings are little heeded. Instead, elections continue to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, the best name, the most money, the most appealing narratives. Our sense of history does not guide how we plan out the future of this country, whether its through elections, grassroots organizations, or advocacies. We are restricted to applying our fears of Martial Law and creeping dictatorships to decisions already made, actions already done. The use of history as an anticipatory guide, one that helps refine our decision-making process and even vision for the Philippines, is absent. The mechanisms to allow us to assert our voice in the political process, to take co-ownership of government, have to be put in place and utilized.
Over a century ago, Juan Luna crafted his masterpiece the “Spoliarium.” It retains much of its majestic resonance and social relevance. Then it was a plaintive critique of the prevailing society situation in the Philippines, one where civil liberties were trampled on by an over-bearing and antiquated colonial government unresponsive, and frankly failing to understand, the needs of its educationally and economically developing population.
Superficial parallels are there to be drawn with the situation today. I say superficial because there are avenues to remedy iniquities like provisions of the Cybercrime Prevention Act; avenues that civil society must be allowed to explore else those parallels become less polemical and more reality-based in nature. However, if power is exerted to kill challenges, the equation changes and the parallels become applicable. History’s presence is a warning for those in power and a guide for those who wish to curtail power.
The vigilance that Lacierda so aptly referred to is necessary. But it is a vigilance less built on reactive fear and paranoia, and more focused on nation-building and civil society playing a more active and integral role in the entire political process, not just after the fact. But, the government, in all its various forms and functions, must be open to civil society engagement, it has to reflect and represent the will and needs of the people. Or else it becomes akin to an ancien régime, one that requires relegation to the dustbins of history. Jefferson would agree.