OMBUDSMAN Conchita Carpio-Morales made her revisions during her speech before the UP College of Law reunion in Makati last Friday. One wishes they could be dismissed as just a blunder, but coming from a former associate Justice of the Supreme Court and the Ombudsman, they are egregious.
I wish the Ombudsman was more circumspect in throwing the weight of her office to bear on the debate about the Marcos burial, because she compromises not just herself but her office.
I wish also that she did not wander away from the field of law into the fields of history, philosophy and literature, for these disciplines are beyond her competence.
In wagging a finger against those who favor the Marcos burial and showing her usual supercilious manner, she invites scrutiny of her words, her thinking and her understanding of the issue of historical revisionism.
Having expressed in writing my own support for the burial and my opposition to exhuming the Marcos remains, I feel obligated to point out the glaring errors in her opinion. Alas, they cannot be ascribed to the frailties of womanhood or to old age.
Not knowing what/whom she was quoting
First, Ombudsman Morales does not appear to know the quotation that served as the core of her argument in her speech at the law reunion.
The quotation is: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
While quoting it correctly enough, Morales attributed it to the wrong author. She has no clue where it comes from.
She declared that she was quoting 19th century historian and Cambridge professor Lord Acton; and then she went, wink-wink, to her big point:
“As it turns out nowadays, those who could not remember history have the tendency to write a new one.”
The big problem is, it was not Lord Acton who wrote the words she so proudly parades.
The words belong rather to the Spanish-American philosopher-writer, George Santayana, a major figure in philosophy and letters, and a noted exponent of the philosophy of pragmatism and naturalism. Santayana curiously has a Philippine connection in his ancestry. Santayana’s mother was the daughter of an official of the Spanish colonial government in the Philippines in the 19th century. His stepfather also served in the country for a time.
Ombudsman Morales got the personages confused probably because Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) is famous for one cliché quotation: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” He is remembered for nothing else.
Santayana in contrast is huge. The quote on history from Santayana is to be found in his 1905 book Reason in Common Sense. The full quote reads:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Students of Santayana’s work complain that the maxim has been taken out of context: originally it formed part of a theory about how knowledge is acquired rather than being a moral exhortation to pay attention to history, and it has a didactic quality that is foreign to the subtle, paradoxical, and occasionally humorous quality of Santayana’s thought.
The elegant little sentence is typical of Santayana; he is noted among philosophers as an elegant writer. He believed philosophy is literature.
His other memorable aphorisms show the depth of his thinking and the liveliness of his style. Consider the following:
• That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.
• Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.
• There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.
• Only the dead have seen the end of war.
• Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.
• The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool.
Lifeblood of historical scholarship
Ombudsman Morales is guilty also of revising history in rejecting offhand historical revisionism in historical scholarship and writing. She shows only superficial understanding of the concept.
Morales lamented in Makati the “lack of demand for truthful and honest discourse,” saying people nowadays easily believe lies and half-truths spread by propagandists and fake news sites.
Morales does not allow for a second the possibility that historical revisionism is necessary in the writing and reconstruction of a people‘s history.
Yet in fact, historical revisionism has long been recognized as necessary in historical studies.
Historical revisionism is the means by which the historical record — the history of a society, as understood in its collective memory — continually integrates new facts and interpretations of the events commonly understood as history. The American historian and former president of the American Historical Association (AHA) James M. McPherson writes of the practice as follows:
“The fourteen-thousand members of this Association (AHA) know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue, between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning.
“The unending quest of historians for understanding the past — that is, revisionism — is what makes history vital and meaningful.”
Gaps in scholarship and knowledge
It bears noting finally that Ombudsman Morales is challenging the decision of the Supreme Court on the legality of the Marcos burial at the Libingan. She questions the judgment of her former colleagues.
Having committed gross errors in scholarship and shown serious gaps in her knowledge, Morales is hardly in a position to fault the scholarship of others, who may have a different view than her of the Marcos record. Having rejected the value of historical revisionism, she has no competence to dismiss the work of historians who seek new facts and seek to interpret the events that constitute Marcos’s leadership of the Philippines from 1966 to 1986.
In subscribing to the immutable interpretation of the Marcos era supplied by the Yellow Cult, Morales shows that she is more interested in politics than in history.