History and Histrionics
by PN Abinales
Who was Andres Bonifacio? Glenn May's response to this question, Inventing a Hero, attacked the canonical works on the subject by Agoncillo and earlier historians. His book, in turn, was the jumping-off point for a fierce debate and a new anthology of essays, under the editorship of Bernardita Reyes-Churchill, featuring a host of historians from UP and La Salle. PN Abinales, surveying the terrain from above, makes short shrift of both camps' positions.
Glenn A. May has once again raised the hackles of Filipino academics and writers with his new work, Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio (New Day, 1997). In this book. May re-examines the writings of Bonifacio and asserts that in light of the absence of the originals, the story of Bonifacio and the Katipunan may be based on forged documents. As evidence, May points to documentary discrepancies, notably concerning Bonifacio's purported handwriting and the (mis)use of turn-of-the-century idiomatic expressions, all of which he alludes to be possible forgeries perpetrated (and peddled) by the first generation of nationalist historians, notably Artemio Artigas [sic], Epifanio de los Santos and his son Jose. May, however, does not stop with incongruities found through paleography or handwriting-analysis. In the succeeding chapters of the book, he criticizes post-war Filipino historians -- notably Teodoro Agoncillo and Reynaldo Ileto -- for uncritically accepting the documents as authentic. Given that the empirical foundations of their arguments are "spurious," May says it is logical to assume that the nationalist narratives that Agoncillo and Ileto wove in their leading works (Revolt of the Masses and Pasyon and Revolution, respectively) have accordingly become questionable themselves.
The response to Inventing a Hero was violent and vehement. Filipino historians and writers from various shades of the political spectrum responded by questioning both May's motive for writing the book as well as the inconsistencies in his arguments that the Bonifacio writings were fabrications. The hastily-prepared compendium edited by Bernardita Reyes-Churchill, Determining the Truth: The Story of Andres Bonifacio (The Manila Studies Association, Inc., The National Commission for Culture and the Arts -- Committee on Historical Research, The Philippine National Historical Society, Inc., 1997) epitomizes the animosity this group of scholars (and an American fellow-traveler, the editor's husband Malcolm, former cultural officer of the US
Embassy in Manila and now, shall we say, a popular historian) has toward the book. Except for the off-the-cuff remarks by Tadhana historian Samuel Tan, most of the essays attacked what their authors saw as lapses in May's logic and methodology. Most important of all, the essays express in various ways suspicions of May's so-called agenda, as exemplified by this statement by Rolando Gripaldo: "His anti-nationalist agenda consists in discrediting and discarding the testimonies and researches of nationalists because they tend to present a misleading picture of the national hero."
The antipathy behind most of the essays in the Churchill collection is understandable. This isn't the first time that May has questioned some of the hallowed assumptions of Philippine nationalism. In the late 19705, he criticized Renato Constantino for being careless with his facts in his historical narrative of the 1890s. A motley group of historians, philosophers, and political scientists came to Constantino's defense, invoking the same suspicions harbored by today's historians (Constantino himself appeared impervious to the May
critique: a case of taking a moral high ground or a quiet admission of certain methodological lapses?).
What makes the 1997 May different from his 1970s incarnation, however, is that the former probes more deeply into the heart of Pinoy nationalism -- questioning the validity of Bonifacio as the unofficial national hero of our country -- at a time when Filipinos are about to celebrate the 100th birthday of the nation. By attacking the wrong person at the wrong time, May's intrusion hit a vital nerve in the Filipino psyche; and so the contributors to the Churchill collection saw it appropriate to give him what they thought was due him as an anti-nationalist: fire and brimstone.
Oddly, while they intensely differ from each other, these two works share a euphony when it comes to two issues: the relative scantiness of the evidence pertaining to the 1890s, and the question of motive behind historical investigations. Time and again, the protagonists admit that the story of Bonifacio and the Revolution needs more primary documents to stand on more solid foundations. Whether the Bonifacio letters are forgeries or not is not the only issue; what is more pressing is how very little evidence has come out despite the best efforts of these historians. A scarcity of data inevitably creates conditions begging for varied interpretations. Given that all the immediate actors and the first generation of historians who chronicled the Revolution are dead, the divide between interpretation and speculation becomes even wider. British historian EJ Hobsbawm's insistence on the role of evidence in writing history comes to mind when reading these books: evidence, evidence, evidence, before making assertions!
These books can (must?) therefore be seen as a clash of interpretations arising from the relative inadequacy of historical material. To appreciate them more meaningfully, and thus go past the acrimony of present debates, they must be understood as part of a continuing effort by historians and their peers to make sense of a vital period in Philippine history which -- alas -- remains obstinately coy in revealing to us its fullness. Any serious student of history can find value in this anarchy of interpretations, especially since the full story of how our nation came into being has yet to be written.
Moreover, given Reynaldo Ileto's radical questioning of the conventional historical framework in his inaugural lecture as holder of the Lorenzo Tañada Chair on Philippine nationalism, Bonifacio and 1896 may even have to be repositioned if a more meaningful construction of Philippine history is to be made. In that remarkable speech, Ileto deliberately lumped together all the nationalists -- from Agoncillo to Marcos, to Constantino, to Joma Sison and the NDF -- and chastised their linear presentation of Philippine history as being mere variations of the standard intelligentsia view of how the nation unfolded. He
further lamented the absence of the masses in this framework. In doing so, Ileto -- who has, of late, apparently become also an ardent critic of the May book -- may have inadvertently muddled the picture even more with his decentralized, post-modern entreaties to nationalist historiography.
And what about the issue of motive? Is Glenn May really anti-nationalist or just a historian puzzled by the problems of evidence when it comes to Bonifacio's life and achievements? The Churchill cabal is clear about this: the ugly American, May, is an anti-nationalist. May's use of certain phrases and adjectives in describing the Santoses, et al., as well as his over-extended effort to rope in Agoncillo and Ileto as accomplices in the alleged myth-making project, merely reinforces such sentiments. Yet, the fact that the May book was well received by other Philippine historians, notably Ambeth Ocampo (derided by the Churchillian critics as a "popular historian" -- a foolish accusation given Ocampo's substantial empirical and analytical contribution to a better understanding of the Philippines in the 1800s) and the historians outside the UP, suggests that there is more to May-the-historian than May-the-anti-nationalist.
The problem with probing intentions is that, in the final analysis, we will never fully know what motivated individuals to take up certain projects, unless they reveal their motivations to us: and even then, one should be inclined to take things with a grain of salt. May has the same right as anyone else (and not just historians) to probe and reprobe history. Those who wish to contend with his analysis will have to do so at the level of his work and scholarship. Then, and only then, after a comprehensive, substantive critique of his framework, evidence, and analytical presentation, can one possibly explore the issue of motive. Not the other way around.
And yet, ironically, the same questions could actually be posed to May's critics. There appears to be more than the obvious defense of nasyonalismo when one takes into consideration that some of May's critics have varying and often divergent understandings of the national question. Some view nationalism from behind radical lenses, while others see it through Marcosian eyes. The lineage of some is clerical, while others trace their pilgrimage of knowledge back to Teodoro Agoncillo. What makes the Churchill compendium notable is how these disparate tendencies, which have had their share of spirited disagreements in the past, appear to have found a new basis of unity: a dislike of the honkey anti-nationalist May. How harmony was restored to this nationalist school (or more specifically, the rancorous UP Department of History, from which even La Sallites Bernardita Churchill and Ronaldo Gripaldo trace their intellectual lineage) is a story in itself which, if told, may tell us more about the motives behind the unusual, united front of the Churchill collection.
But perhaps it isn't necessary to probe deeper into the nationalist schools' histories. Perhaps it is sufficient to relish the fact that the much-sought national unity based on a common nationalist interpretation of history is just around the corner, now that these historians have rallied behind a common cause -- Andres Bonifacio. Then again, in light of Ileto's Tañada chair lecture, perhaps not.