Exposing an Exposer: A Critical Look at Glenn May's Inventing a Hero
by Malcolm H. Churchill
There is a certain breed of American academic that brings to the study of the Philippines an unshakable sense of superiority. Believing that standing outside the culture provides greater insight, they fancy themselves objective, unmoved by emotion, and better able to understand the Philippines than Filipinos. Such an academic is Glenn May, author of the widely discussed and highly controversial new book, Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-creation of Andres Bonifacio.
When the work of this breed of American academic is subjected to scholarly criticism by Filipino academics, the criticism is perceived, not as an indication of a possible need to reconsider conclusions and evaluate evidence, but as confirmation of a belief in the emotionalism and lack of objectivity of Filipino scholars.
Unfortunately, the overtly personal attack of Milagros Guerrero and Ramon Villegas in the May 5, 1997 Philippine Daily Inquirer merely confirms for Glenn May the validity of this view, as is evident in his two-part response in the May 19 and May 26 Inquirer. It may therefore be useful for someone whom Dr. May cannot dismiss as a "nationalist historian" to point out in detail the deficiencies of Inventing A Hero.
Dr. May's new book is an elaboration of a thesis first put forth at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 1995. His contention is that the key documents pertaining to Philippine hero Andres Bonifacio are forged, that we have essentially no reliable information on Bonifacio, and that the Bonifacio we believe we know was created by nationalist historians in pursuit of nationalistic aims. I previously showed the shortcomings of the thesis as it was presented in Washington in an article published in the November 19, 1996 Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Dr. May, in his new book, writes in a manner designed to create an impression of objectivity, of scholarly care, of even-handed unemotional weighing of facts. Despite the appearance of objectivity, however, he has produced what I would characterize as pseudo-history written with pseudo-objectivity. I would suggest that in doing so, May is not seeking so much to "savage" Bonifacio, as Guerrero and Villegas have understandably concluded, but to make a name for himself as a revisionist historian.
In pursuit of this end, he has been wont to radically amend his hypotheses while retaining unchanged his high-profile revisionist conclusions. A case in point is the four key letters written by Bonifacio to Emilio Jacinto, which are the subject of May's Chapter Two. In Washington in 1995, he confidently pronounced these letters forgeries; in Inventing a Hero, he acknowledges that this conclusion "was reached too hastily" and that he "failed to consider other possibilities" such as their possible preparation by scribes (p. 76). Accordingly, he pronounces the letters the "originals" obtained by Epifanio de los Santos, while still doggedly characterizing them as forgeries.
To understand what Dr. May is about, it is useful to set aside the "he said this" and "they said that" nature of the Guerrero/Villegas-May newspaper exchange and examine the
Introduction to Inventing a Hero. Dr. May asserts in his Introduction that Bonifacio was posthumously re-created in a heroic mold for political reasons, that is, for reasons of nationalism. All nations pass through this stage, he asserts, until greater maturity leads to the emergence of objective historians (like Glenn May, of course!) who winnow out the truth (pp. 6-8). In the Philippine case, Dr. May sees the supposed connection between "nationalism and historical invention" as linked to an alleged deep Filipino "yearning" for heroes which, he believes, established a Filipino pattern of forging documents to create a history (pp. 8-10). Dr. May patronizingly suggests that Filipinos should not be unduly upset by his supposed exposure of "willful, wholesale distortions of the historical record" because Americans allegedly did the same thing in creating fabulous stories about George Washington (pp. 9-11).
Turning to the body of the book, which consists of only five relatively brief chapters, we find that the first two chapters deal with documents pertaining to Bonifacio's life: (a) before the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution, and (b) after the outbreak of the Revolution until his untimely death. The third chapter provides an intriguing but ultimately flawed interpretation of the Tejeros Assembly, linked to the theme of the book only through May's assertion that the Tejeros Assembly illustrates nationalist historians' supposed sanitizing of all the nation's heroes (i.e., including Bonifacio). May concludes with respect to the Tejeros Assembly that the Filipino revolutionary heroes were acting as Filipinos customarily do and did in all elections, that is, in "tawdry" fashion. The revolutionaries' error, he states cavalierly, was in being unaware that "historians would one day expect a higher standard of behavior" (pp. 101, 110-111).
Chapters Four and Five seek to undermine the work of historians Teodoro A. Agoncillo and Reynaldo C. Ileto, respectively, by asserting that because they utilized the documents discussed in the first two chapters, their work is flawed and
unreliable. May's conclusions about Agoncillo and Ileto, thus, are tenable only if the claims made in his first two chapters are sustainable.
Chapter One of Inventing a Hero is really worth very little attention. Dr. May uses a microscope when he should have used field glasses. He focuses in great detail on individual documents or writings, and his sole interest is in discussing one by one whether they can be conclusively attributed to Bonifacio. However, the authenticity of these documents is not in question, only their authorship, for they are for the most part, either articles that appeared under a pseudonym in Kalayaan, the newspaper of the Katipunan, or poems. May does not attempt to establish the case of someone other than Bonifacio as author, going no further than seeking to cast doubt on the evidence that points to Bonifacio. Not only is this approach lacking in its own right, but it ignores the historical reality of Bonifacio's rise to prominence and of the widespread knowledge of him by other revolutionaries and, of course, by his own siblings. May neither demonstrates nor seeks to demonstrate that any specific fact about Bonifacio's life before the Revolution is wrong, and his entire "case" against accounts of Bonifacio's life before the Katipunan period is that his biographer failed to provide footnotes.
Indeed, May does not even go so far as to assert that the materials he questions were not written by Bonifacio. The furthest he goes is to say that none of the materials can be "conclusively shown" to have been written by Bonifacio (pp. 42-43). Such wording is designed to create an impression of near-certainty while in fact saying virtually nothing.
In an effort to give greater credibility to his efforts, May also attempts to create a divide between the allegedly heroicized Bonifacio depicted by Manuel Artigas, Epifanio
de Los Santos, Jose P. Santos, and other "nationalist" historians, who emphasized Bonifacio's humble origins, and Nick Joaquin and co-authors Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson, who emphasized his higher status as an adult. In fact, all of these authors agree on his humble origins and his rise to a higher status. They differ merely in emphasis. The former group emphasizes where he started; the latter group emphasizes where he ended up. The divide that May purports to see simply does not exist.
As we proceed to Chapter Two, it is important to be aware of the technique Dr. May uses. He almost invariably expresses his doubts about documents in the conditional -- "might be" or "unproven" or "perhaps" -- rather than in the declarative. This is a technique of seeming to say something without actually saying it, creating for the reader an atmosphere of skepticism about long established sources without ever proving or even asserting that the sources are false. Dr. May then proceeds to thp next stage as if his expressions of doubt have disqualified the documents from further consideration. It is a clever technique, but it creates an edifice on a foundation of sand. When the supporting beams are exposed as without substance, the entire edifice comes crashing down.
In Chapter Two, which Dr. May entitles "The Mysterious Letters of Andres Bonifacio," he devotes virtually all of his discussions to the interesting but largely irrelevant topic of three current extant Tagalog versions of the four key Bonifacio-Jacinto letters referred to earlier. Written in March and April of 1897, these letters provide our major source of insight into Bonifacio's thinking at this crucial period. The letters appeared in 1917 and 1918 in Spanish and English translation, but the original Tagalog version was not published. Why there are now three different Tagalog versions is worth exploring, but the only matter relevant to an understanding of the life of Bonifacio is whether the original letters, obtained by Epifanio
de los Santos in approximately 1906 (pp. 61-63) were genuine. On this topic, Dr. May promises much but delivers little.
Dr. May attempts to undermine confidence in the letters obtained by Epifanio de los Santos by: (a) professing to find it peculiar that Epifanio de los Santos did not publish the original Tagalog version; (b) ridiculing as unbelievably fantastic Jose P. Santos's account of the history of the letters and other documents; and (c) erroneously claiming that the Tagalog in what he arbitrarily declares to be the "original" version is passive tense "modern" Tagalog rather than what he incorrectly believes to have been the active-tense Tagalog of the 1890s.
As to Dr. May's first professed doubt, there was nothing at all "curious" about Epifanio de los Santos's publishing the four letters only in Spanish and English translation. The educated class of his day was educated either in Spanish or, with the younger generation, in English. By providing Spanish and English translations Epifanio de los Santos placed these letters and the other documents before the entire audience of his day. Little could he have anticipated the ravages of World War II on his original documents which, according to Prof. Teodoro Agoncillo in a 1973 book, The Revolutionists, Epifanio de los Santos intended to be the "heritage of the Filipino people."
In discussing Jose P. Santos's account of the Bonifacio letters, May shifts attention from the relevant to the irrelevant in a manner worthy of a magician's sleight of hand. In two paragraphs, May describes how the letters came to be purchased by Santos's father from a man in Tondo after first being hidden beneath Emilio Jacinto's house, where they escaped the burning of the house, and then having escaped a fire that consumed much of Tondo. There is nothing particularly remarkable in this, as the documents would have had to have been hidden away to avoid detection by Spaniards, rival revolutionaries, and Americans. In a third paragraph, May relates Santos's account of their
survival after coming into the hands of the family, a survival which Santos refers to as "nothing short of miraculous" in view of fires, floods, and World War II.
Dr. May then characterizes Santos's entire account as having a "fantastic quality... that calls to mind the text of brochures distributed at major religious shrines in the Philippines." In other words, May uses Santos's exuberance of about forty years of survival to plant doubts about the totally plausible nine years before Epifanio de los Santos acquired them.
May also doubts Teodoro A. Agoncillo's account that the letters were found in a chicken coop (hen's nest) in Bataan. Agoncillo's account does seem to be inconsistent with Santos's, but the letters clearly would have had more than one hiding place, so a chicken coop in Bataan is not ruled out. As to the "fantastic quality," if a chicken coop seems an implausible hiding place, one should remember that the more implausible a hiding place seems, the better a hiding place it is.
Dr. May tacitly acknowledges with a remarkably toothless conclusion the weakness of these attempts to create doubts. He concludes: "This is not to say that the accounts should be disregarded, but they do raise justifiable concerns -- about how the Bonifacio papers survived the revolution; how they came into the possession of the Santos family, and beyond all that, how we can be certain that they are authentic" (p. 63).
We now come to Dr. May's contention that the passive-voice Tagalog of the letters he asserts are "originals" marks them as bogus. He erroneously believes that Tagalog evolved to the predominantly passive voice of today from active voice in Bonifacio's day. In my earlier article, I explained how Dr. May's research on Batangas documents misled him. For purposes of this article, however, it is only necessary to state that no language evolves in only nine years, the period between Bonifacio's
writing of the letters and their acquisition by Epifanio de los Santos. May's reliance on a nine-year period of evolution of the Tagalog language is the most glaring academic failure of the entire book. May makes no effort to document this supposed evolution, which he could not because it did not happen.
Thus Dr. May fails totally to make a case that the four key letters are forged. Worse, he ignores strong circumstantial evidence that they are genuine. The letters were acquired together with other documents, including what is known as the Acta de Tejeros. The Acta de Tejeros was signed by Bonifacio and more than forty others protesting the previous day's (March 22,1897) elections in which Aguinaldo was chosen President of the Republic of the Philippines. Obviously, if a forged text of the Acta de Tejeros was published, some among the 45 or so signers would have come forward to say "that was not what we signed." Furthermore, what forger would even consider forging a document whose authenticity could be disputed by some forty eye-witnesses and which would have required forty-some forged signatures?
Epifanio de los Santos' in his article on Bonifacio, published translations not only of the four letters but also of the Acta de Tejeros and other documents that he acquired at the same time (p. 60). Furthermore, according to popular historian Ambeth Ocampo, photographic copies of the Acta could be found in the Philippine National Library in the 1930s, and copies also appeared in Philippine magazines (p. 180, footnote 22). In short, signers of the Acta had ample opportunity to review the text obtained by Epifanio de los Santos. The logical conclusion is that not only the Acta but the four Bonifacio letters acquired with it were genuine.
Since Dr. May's central allegations in both Chapter One and Chapter Two are without substance, his entire thesis collapses. The reputations of Teodoro A. Agoncillo and Reynaldo C. Ileto, which May seeks to tarnish in Chapters Four and Five,
accordingly remain intact, and there is no need even to discuss the many unfounded assertions which he advances in those two chapters. More importantly, we can rest assured that Andres Bonifacio's reputation is deserved, not created, and that the only "invention" is Glenn May's "unknown" Bonifacio in Inventing a Hero.
One might legitimately ask why Dr. Glenn May would embrace an idea as badly flawed as his thesis that Tagalog evolved from active-voice-dominated to passive-voice-dominated in the nine years before the acquisition of the four Bonifacio letters by Epifanio de los Santos. The answer is that only by asserting that the letters in the hands of Filipiniana dealer-collector Emmanuel Encarnacion are the "originals" but in the "wrong" Tagalog can May use these letters to discredit historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo.
The three versions of the letters are (a) Teodoro A. Agoncillo's, as published both in The Revolt of the Masses in 1956 and in The Writings and Trials [sic] of Andres Bonifacio, a collection of primary sources published by Agoncillo and S.V. Epistola in 1963; (b) that found in an published manuscript of Jose P. Santos which was submitted for a 1948 Bonifacio biography contest and is reported by Dr. May to be in the University of the Philippines Library (p. 64); and (c) the purported original letters owned by Emmanuel Encarnacion. Encarnacion reportedly purchased the letters from a dealer who acquired them from Jose P. Santos's daughter, Teresita Pangan. Encarnacion friend [sic] Ambeth Ocampo is reported to have photocopies from which he transcribed portions for the appendix of a lecture manuscript which he made available to Glenn May (Pp. 71-72).
Dr. May seeks to evaluate these three versions on the basis of the Tagalog used in them. It thus is essential to place May's knowledge of Tagalog in proper context.
Very few people in either the United States or the Philippines recognize the difficulty of Tagalog for a native-English speaker. The linguist at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute during the period I was maintaining a rating in Tagalog judged Tagalog to be one of the most difficult languages in the world for English speakers. Very few non-native speakers master it. While Glenn May obviously has considerable proficiency in Tagalog, as a non-native speaker who learned the language as an adult, the pretentions to virtually bilingual status that he showcases in Inventing a Hero represent an unseemly conceit.
In addition to erroneously asserting that Tagalog has evolved from active-voice-dominated to passive-voice-dominated, May repeatedly attempts in Inventing a Hero to improve on translation [sic] by native speakers of Tagalog. Even my own limited Tagalog enabled me to spot one of his re-translations that is clearly wrong. All of May's statements about Tagalog should thus be treated with great caution, and none should be accepted as verified until reviewed and confirmed by native speakers of Tagalog.
It should be kept in mind that Inventing a Hero was first published in the United States and that, despite the deep interest in the book in the Philippines, May's primary target audience is his peers, American academics. Few Americans know Tagalog well enough to challenge May's assertions about Tagalog, and as most of those few are linguists, there are even fewer Americans with sufficient knowledge of both Tagalog and Philippine history. Regardless of how the book is received in the Philippines, May therefore burnishes his reputation among American academics as an original thinker, for American academics accord great respect to anyone who challenges established wisdom with a line of reasoning that is abstruse and seemingly erudite.
With this as background, we turn to the three Tagalog versions of the Bonifacio letters. We first consider, however, whether there are three versions or only two, for Dr. May asserts that Jose P. Santos's version and Teodoro A. Agoncillo's are one and the same.
Portions of Andres Bonifacio's four letters were written in code. Epifanio de los Santos, in publishing the letters, placed the decoded Tagalog in parentheses after the decoded translations. In eleven instances, Jose P. Santos's Tagalog differs from both his father's and Agoncillo's while Agoncillo has the exact Tagalog of Epifanio de los Santos. In six other instances there are what Dr. May acknowledges are major differences between the Agoncillo and Santos versions. In an additional three instances, May found differences which he believes represent copying errors by Agoncillo. Finally, there are 105 differences between the Agoncillo and Santos versions that May characterizes as minor: spellings, contractions, "and so forth." (p. 67)
Others might conclude from the foregoing that Agoncillo was working from a different text from Santos. May argues, however, that Agoncillo worked from Santos's text, editing it "for style" and altering it "somewhat based on what he found in Epifanio de los Santos' earlier article." (Underscoring supplied.) (p. 68)
In the foregoing quotation Dr. May inadvertently acknowledges that the Agoncillo and Santos versions are not the same! Agoncillo's version, in May's own words, not only differs stylistically from Santos's but is in substance closer to Epifanio de los Santos's text!
Let us now focus on the two Tagalog versions of the letters that came out of the Santos household -- Jose P. Santos's
essay -- contest version and the four letters now in the hands of Emmanuel Encarnacion. The two versions cannot both be genuine.
To begin with, Jose P. Santos may have known of the two versions and been aware that at least one was not genuine -- or he may not have! The version in the hands of Emmanuel Encarnacion could have been created after Jose P. Santos's death.
If Santos's essay-contest version is, as May believes, in a more active-voice Tagalog, this might be explained by Santos having translated it from his father's English version. English tends to be written in the active voice. However, by itself this is not a sufficient explanation, for as just noted, the decoded Tagalog placed in parentheses by Epifanio de los Santos differs from Jose P. Santos's Tagalog in the same passages (p. 65). The judges could readily compare these passage, so Santos must have had a reason for changing his father's Tagalog that he could, if necessary, defend to the judges.
The most plausible explanation is that Jose P. Santos had the coded portions of the original letters and was seeking to improve on his father's decoding. This does not establish, however, that Jose P. Santos had the entire text. To assist in working on the codes, a transcription focused on the coded portions might have been made, either by Epifanio de los Santos or, sometime prior to the war, by Jose P. Santos. This transcription could have been available to Santos at the time of the essay contest without the full text having been, either because the originals were destroyed during the war (for which there is considerable evidence, discussed in my earlier article) or because they were temporarily lost owing to the turmoil of the
war. If Santos, for the essay contest, translated the bulk of the letters back into Tagalog from his father's English language translation of 1918, this might explain why he never published his essay contest entry.
If Jose P. Santos did not have the full text of the original letters at the time of the essay contest, the Encarnacion letter might then either be the original letters rediscovered, legitimate 1930s transcriptions from the originals, or an "improvement" by Jose P. Santos on his essay contest re-translation.
Needless to say, scientific testing of the paper and ink in the Encarnacion letters would throw some light on which of these numerous possibilities may be correct.
Rather than acknowledging that Jose P. Santos probably did not have the letters now owned by Emmanuel Encarnacion before him at the time of the essay contest, May offers an alternative explanation. He suggests that Santos "corrected" the letter's passive-voice Tagalog to prevent the essay-contest judges from noticing "glaring" stylistic differences from other Bonifacio writings (pp. 78-79). This explanation falls apart, however, not only because the passive-voice Tagalog of the letters is customary 1890's Tagalog but because of the differences between the Tagalog of Epifanio de los Santos and that of Jose P. Santos.
May's "explanation" depends on the judges being able to suddenly notice that Epifanio de los Santos's Tagalog of thirty years' standing was stylistically wrong but not being able to notice when Jose P. Santos altered that Tagalog! This defies all logic.
To summarize, two versions of the letters came out of the Santos household, and it is possible that neither version is
genuine. However, it is also possible that one is genuine, and it could be either Jose P. Santos's or Emmanuel Encarnacion's. We cannot know without scientific testing of the purported originals. This is a good place to note, however, that May's entire discussion of the Tagalog versions is in effect a smokescreen. The linguistic differences among the Tagalog versions do not alter their substance. Our knowledge of Bonifacio from the original Epifanio de los Santos translations remains unaltered.
This brings us back to the Agoncillo version. It is possible that neither of the versions that emerged from the Santos household is genuine; one very real possibility is that Agoncillo's published Tagalog version is genuine. Agoncillo might very well have obtained a transcription of the original letters prior to the war.
However, it is also possible that the conclusion of popular historian Ambeth Ocampo, reflected by Glenn May, is correct. Based on his comparison of the Agoncillo Tagalog with that in photocopies of the Encarnacion letters, Ocampo stated in a November 1989 public lecture that Agoncillo had re-translated Epifanio de los Santos's English version back into Tagalog (pp. 68-69 and 71-72). Teodoro A. Agoncillo, quite obviously, would have desired a Tagalog text for his 1948 Bonifacio essay for the same reasons as Jose P. Santos, and if the original text was missing, it could be that both men translated back into Tagalog from English for the essay contest.
In order to avoid accepting Ambeth Ocampo's conclusion, Dr. May had to be able to offer an alternative explanation for Agoncillo's Tagalog text. This is why he went through such intellectual contortions trying to establish that the Agoncillo and Santos versions are really the same. In addition, however, May tried, and failed utterly, to make a case that Agoncillo's text could not possibly have been a transcription of the original.
In explaining Epifanio de los Santos's parenthetical Tagalog insertions following de-coded passages, Agoncillo explained that the translator "was merely trying to 'play it safe' by putting into parentheses words he feared he might have translated wrongly" (p. 60, from Epifanio de los Santos, The Revolutionists, ed. by Agoncillo, xii). Because Agoncillo used the word "translated" rather than "de-coded," May proceeds as if Agoncillo did not know that these were de-coded words. Had Agoncillo seen the originals, May states, he would have known the place names and proper names were not translations (p. 72). However, Agoncillo in fact not only knew of the codes, he supplied code keys on pp. 52-54 of Revolt of the Masses (May's footnote 31, p. 72). May's argument falls apart because it depends not only on Agoncillo not having known about the coded words but also not having been intelligent or observant enough to notice that words like "Magdalo" and "Malabon" which appeared in parentheses in Epifanio de los Santos's texts were immediately preceded by the exact same words.
To dismiss Ambeth Ocampo's claim that Agoncillo retranslated the letters into Tagalog, May had to rely on a premise that would produce his desired conclusion. His premise was that a good historian, such as May agrees Agoncillo was, would not have re-translated (p. 69). A different premise, however, would give us: (1) a good historian might re-translate under certain circumstances; (2) Agoncillo was a good historian; (3) therefore, Agoncillo might re-translate under certain circumstances. Agoncillo might have re-translated into Tagalog under the circumstances of the 1948 essay contest, and if he did, he certainly would have been tempted to use that text later when Tagalog was called for.
It is quite evident that Dr. May has conjectured wildly but proven nothing. It is also quite evident that the Encarnacion-owned letters need to be submitted to scientific testing. Until
then, it must be presumed that the Agoncillo text is genuine for the simple reason that it was first published in 1956 when Jose P. Santos, who died in 1964, was still alive. If Santos possessed the originals, he could have challenged an Agoncillo re-translation, particularly if the two men were rivals as Ambeth Ocampo and May suggest (p. 68).
It is worth concluding the discussion of Inventing a Hero with Chapter Three, in which Dr. May develops a tangential but very interesting hypothesis regarding the displacing of Bonifacio. This hypothesis is worth considering in part because of what it reveals about Dr. May.
Basically, Dr. May in Chapter Three depicts a Bonifacio who lost the confidence of a majority of his followers. May argues that this, rather than the narrow factional dispute between Cavite's "Magdalo" and "Magdiwang" factions, caused his replacement by Aguinaldo. The process of replacement that Dr. May describes is analogous to the "rolling" of a leader in British parliamentary democracies. The problem with Dr. May's presentation is not that he advances this novel idea but that he characterizes a perfectly reasonable process as "tawdry" and characteristic of unsavory Filipino politics.
American politics tends to be relatively straightforward by comparison with parliamentary processes. Parliamentary politics is much more rough and tumble, for structural reasons. Voters do not vote for a leader, they vote for a party, and the party itself must choose its leader in a manner very similar to the Tejeros Assembly. For obvious reasons, parliamentarians who have lost confidence in their leader do not say so publicly. There is a great deal of backstage maneuvering and sounding out of potential allies, all conducted in secrecy, for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow a leader likely will be "rewarded" with positions on the back bench for a long time to come. Only
a challenge likely to succeed, having been orchestrated in advance, is actually mounted.
Dr. May, in characterizing this process as unsavory, observes that the Tejeros representatives probably "consulted with each other, lobbied, cajoled, threatened, conspired, drew up slates of candidates, and made deals. They did not know that historians would one day expect a higher standard of behavior. The elections at Tejeros were, after all, only elections."
Chapter Three illustrates better than any other the fatal flaw in Inventing a Hero. Glenn May, by dint of knowledge, an enquiring mind, and a great deal of laborious work, had an opportunity to advance our knowledge of Andres Bonifacio and the revolutionary period. Instead, his approach was to tear down, cast doubt on, and denigrate all that precedes him, leaving nothing in its place. Such an approach is shortsighted and self-defeating, and Inventing a Hero stands as a mute testimony to that fact.