Politics

A Manual for Historical Revisionists

All you need: The Philippines' relative shallow sense of historical community, and politicians, populists, and demagogues.
ILLUSTRATOR Louis A. Arenas
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THE REVISIONISM WE NEED

Historical revisionism is in the air. If it were professional in nature, we should rejoice. If anything, we need more historical revisionism, more evidence and fact-based challenges to the cultural and historical status quo. In many ways, our "known" historical narratives have been grossly influenced by our conqueror's historians: Our history crafted for us, handed down to us, freely accepted by us. Frequently, what is known and what is generally accepted is far from what needs to be remembered and preserved. Historical revisionismat least the academic pursuit of reinterpretation through historical inquiry and peer reviewis a legitimate way to challenge staid national narratives and unearth new facets and dimensions of our collective identity. After all: History, in and of itself, is a powerful, compelling, and even dangerous force. Its use can create a country from almost nothing, it can bind a people together, it can whip them into frenzy, it can cow dissent, it can raise a nation and unleash it upon the world, it can subjugate and oppress the powerless.

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"History, in and of itself, is a powerful, compelling, and even dangerous force. Its use can create a country from almost nothing, it can bind a people together, it can whip them into frenzy, it can cow dissent, it can raise a nation and unleash it upon the world, it can subjugate and oppress the powerless."

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We need historical revisionism. What we do not need is the insidiousness of denial, the bedeviling of negation, and the pursuit of revision in favor of agenda. What bothers today is not revisionism, in the academic sense, butfor lack of a better termillegitimate revisionism [01], through unethical techniques; prominent current examples include the reworking of the Marcos historical narrative in service of his political absolution. (For brevity's sake, this sort of politically motivated historical revisionism can be classified as "bad history"the abuse of history [02] for self-indulgent, often political or narcissistic (even on a national level) purposes.) But, that is not the only source of illegitimate historical revisionism working its way through our imagined community.

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A SELECTIVELY SHALLOW SENSE OF HISTORY

The idea that history is dead, the past unusable and barely knowable, is as nonsensical as it is darkly humorous. A quick review of daily headlines aptly demonstrates how powerful history is today as a force in our social and political worldespecially when utilized by populists. History provides context to modern disputes, it strengthens alliances, wedges to break allies apart, and inflame past grievances in to current crises. It is all too apparent that the study of history and its careful deployment, are necessities in navigating domestic and international affairs. There is no person in power today, no politician wielding the influence of their office, who has not drawn upon the recent and not so recent past to substantiate a course of action, to defend a decision they have made.

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"There is no person in power today, no politician wielding the influence of their office, who has not drawn upon the recent and not so recent past to substantiate a course of action, to defend a decision they have made."

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One of the dangers of our relative shallow sense of historical community is how it allows our historical self to be subverted by politicians, populists, and demagogues. The increasing use of bad history in service of political ideology (chicanery?) is a global concern, but one felt most personally in the post-colonial developing world. Our sense of culture and self has been battered and beaten down through years of imperial and neo-imperial rule; as well as the social cataclysms that followed as we extricated ourselves from the strictures of colonial rule.

That is a reason so much of near-end colonial period and post-colonial literature is dedicated to extracting the essence of a people and reconstructing their identity. An important part of that process is reaching to both the near and distant past to build the foundation for 'modernity.' Jose Rizal, first and foremost, reached into the past to craft his sense of Philippine community and draw attention to all that Filipinos had lost. From the Philippine Propagandists to the American Founding Fathers, the use of history was an integral part in capturing the imagination of others, and motivating them to do great things. This is history as a positive force; a compulsive agent driving a community to heights unknown. But that process, the use of history to create a nation, takes time and tending.

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"One of the dangers of our relative shallow sense of historical community is how it allows our historical self to be subverted by politicians, populists, and demagogues."

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But, our concern is history and its misuses. The abuses and the ways it can be twisted and torn to suit politics and ideology. In some countries, for example, the negation of historical atrocities, like the Holocaust, are illegal. Criminal. This sort of revisionism, dedicated to creating "immoral equivalencies" or the pursuit of obscurantism, is almost exclusively found in service of an agenda. It utilizes the purposeful twisting of fact, manipulation of events, moments, and statistics, along with the frequent use of logical fallacies, to arrive at a predetermined point or conclusion.

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Logically, it should be easy to see how the use of history in this manner can be so compelling. It preys on fears and inflames passions; in the hands of populist politicians, it is a tool both delicate and destructive. That misuse of history gives rise to the continuation of centuries-old grievancesit allows for modern injustice to be visited in retaliation (not compensation) for historical injustices. At its heart, the use of history in these instances has to be towards reconciliation, not negation or denial.

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REVISIONIST POLICY

Towards the end of the 19th century, leading elites in the United States began to craft the narrative of Manifest Destiny. Go West, My Son. The ultimate destiny of the United States was to spread to the Pacific, to bring civilization to the uncivilized, and become the greatest nation on earth. The allure of that compulsive, affirming narrative remains in force today, over a hundred years later. To build the foundation for that narrative, elites drew on Aryan imagery and imagined "history" to craft the argument that this was the destiny of the United States. German leadership pre-World War II, drew on similar imagery and "history." They touched on recent historical "slights" and "insults" that came at the end of World War I, to justify their waging a war of aggression and acquisition that consumed the entire world. From China, constructing itself as the center of the world, to Japan doing much the same, this is history on a grand social scale used to influence and inform popular and ultimately incendiary policies. Empires almost always subvert the history of their colonies to substantiate their role as a "civilizing" force: Benevolent assimilation, founded on Manifest Destiny, buttressed by purposeful narrative building by colonizing historians.

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"To engage President Duterte’s policies, critics need to engage how he is structuring and presenting his historical worldview, essentially his vision and revision of Philippine history."

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This was all-too evident in the case of the Philippines. American historians were sent to the Philippines with the sole purpose of writing the history of the Philippines, from the perspective of the new colonial power. Intentionally, the ideas of the United States as a civilizing force, as a necessity, were infused into our history books and resources. Even today, historical references like Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands, is exhaustively used and cited by historians of the Philippines; with little thought given to how it was carefully culled, collated, and edited to present a rather specific and intentional picture of our country.

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"Our current leader, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, well understands the power of history."

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We do not need to look very far for examples of the power of history in current political discourse. President Benigno S. Aquino III intellectually understood the power of history as the foundation for nation-building and values formation. He entrusted the archives of Malacañang (historically the center of the Philippines as a political body) to Mr. Manuel L. Quezon III. Mr. Quezon managed and utilized the archives at his disposal to bring meticulously crafted, fact-based, but engaging, history to Filipinos.

Our current leader, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, well understands the power of history. He peppers his speeches with consistent references to the Philippines pre-1521, to our historical relationship with China (though, oddly, not the history shown by our maps in the West Philippine Sea), the influence of Islam in relation to the freedom of Mindanao, and the massacres like that at Bud Dajo to buttress and substantiate decisions and policies he is considering. It shrewdly provides a dominant historical lens through which he can defend those policies. To engage President Duterte’s policies, critics need to engage how he is structuring and presenting his historical worldview, essentially his vision and revision of Philippine history.

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RECLAIMING HISTORY

Once upon a time, the understanding of history was held on equal as footing as the study of law in crafting the present and future of a country. That has rather fallen by the wayside. Law has become the foundation of nation, while history has become either the province of ivory towered academicians, purveyors of pop-lite history for congenial mass consumption, or propagandists and the ideologically bound. The space where history informs, illuminates, and moves us forward needs to be reclaimed. History is identity. And it cannot remain the bailiwick of the ideologically and politically guided revisionists. When that happens we lose our identity, we lose our sense of self, and we are putty in the hands of powerful and whatever agenda they may have.

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FOOTNOTES

1 Briefly, there are a number of techniques that are frequently deployed by illegitimate revisionists. If is rather unsurprising that these techniques were almost all used by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. when he put together his "grand history" of the Philippines, with him at the center of it. These techniques are all in use today, by those who continue to attempt to rewrite historical fact in an attempt to redeem his rather abject historical legacy.

From “Historical Revisionism (negationism)”:

“British historian Richard J. Evans describes the difference thus:

‘Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account, and, if necessary, amend their own case, accordingly. They do not present, as genuine, documents which they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious, but implausible, and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents, because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments, if this is the case, or, indeed, abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources, which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability, or otherwise, simply because they want, for whatever reason, to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures, as impartially as possible, in order to arrive at a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages in order to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not wilfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents and events, for which there is no historical evidence, in order to make their arguments more plausible.’”

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2 From The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan, pg. xiii: “Sometimes we abuse history, creating one-sided or false histories to justify treating others badly; seizing their land, for example, or killing them. There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly.”

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About The Author
Nik de Ynchausti
Nik Skalomenos de Ynchausti splits his time between the business world and the non-profit world. When he has the opportunity to write, he focuses on the intersection between Philippine politics, culture, history, and identity.
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