Sunday Lifestyle

Envy, history, freedom and the Harley Davidson

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

I ’ve never made New Year’s resolutions not because I have no resolve, but because I know resolutions are seldom followed, not just by the individuals who swore to them, but even by great and prestigious institutions like the United Nations. How many UN resolutions, for instance, devoted to the assistance of the Palestinian people have ever ended the Israeli occupation of their territory?    

That is a tall order, of course, but because resolutions do not really matter, I am more interested in identifying people during the past year or beyond that I envy because they achieved extraordinary feats beyond my capacity to accomplish.

I must stress, however, that with us Filipinos, envy is more a vice than a virtue. Though there are individuals I envy very much, this does not mean that I want to be like them or that I want to emulate them. I envy them for their luck. As for the others, it is really more admiration than envy.

On occasion, I write for international publications, among them the International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times). Shortly after President P-Noy occupied Malacañang four years ago. I got permission from the paper to interview him. I wrote to Malacañang and even followed it up with a call. After a month, I did not even receive the simple courtesy of a reply. Then last week, upon switching on the TV set, there was the President being interviewed by the comedian Vice Ganda. How I envy him.

But as the former editor of the New York Times Joseph Lelyveld told me way back in the late ‘80s: “Frankie, it is difficult for me to take your leaders seriously. They are silly.”

So then, as the king so the people? Or is it, as the people so the king?

Another exclusive group of people I envy are those drug lords in Bilibid who live sybaritically in air-conditioned cubols, and who can get out any time they want to live it up.  And here we are, ordinary citizens living in the much-larger prison that is the country, always at the mercy of crooked policemen and corrupt officials, walking unsafe streets, breathing the polluted air, and for so many, eating only once a day. Their privileged status has been theirs for such a long time but it was only last fortnight that the rest of the country got to know about it. When will our own prison be like theirs?

I do not envy the Vice President and the politician members of his family. All of them have a lot of explaining to do now and when they run again for public office. The Veep has been warding off his attackers by saying the diatribes against him are politically inspired. Of course, they are, but as a politician and public servant he should expect that. And the questions must be answered, not with evasions, but with facts.

It is the building contractors who I envy. They made so much. Can they be prosecuted for their loot? Did they pay taxes corresponding with their obscene profits? Perhaps Ms. Kim Henares should look into their books — but then, I am sure they keep two books.

I envy the powerful pillars of the oligarchy; they have already stashed so much of their loot abroad, invested it in global enterprises like the Banco de Santander and Telefonica, in malls and hotels in China, in manufacturing ventures in Taiwan. The United States is not the place to stash ill-gotten cash — the banks there are open to scrutiny. What some members of the oligarchy do is not so much stash their loot there but obtain American passports so that at the first whiff of danger here, they can flee to their American sanctuary. I also envy them for their optimism, their grand predictions from their comfortable positions.  What is the reality?

How I wish to God that it were true — all these vestiges of progress that we see in Makati and Taguig, that President P-Noy has diminished corruption in government, that we Filipinos are capable of renewal and enduring faith, able to withstand the natural calamities that have devastated us. We banished Marcos, we survived so many crises, and we are a hundred million hard-working people.

But alas, my doubts are confirmed again and yet again, not by the naysayers, not by the oracles in media, but by the simple folk engaged in petty businesses, who deal with government and rotten tentacles like the Bureau of Customs. Today the smallest unit of government, the barangays, and the police in the small towns in the plains and in the boondocks — they are now corrupt!

On strictly another plane, I envy two good friends, both of them first-rate academics — Randy David and the late OD Corpuz, who was also my compadre. It is not their scholarship, their felicitous writing that I envy, because both worked hard to reach that pinnacle. I envy them because, as motorcycle buffsm both have tasted freedom on those powerful and elegant machines.

A little bit of history again. I fell in love for the first time with the Harley Davidson way back in 1938 when I first came to Manila. On Nov. 15, I witnessed every year till 1941 the Commonwealth Day Parade at the Luneta.

The highlight of the annual celebration was not, for me, President Quezon delivering his address there, but the parade. It was headed by nine cops on Harley Davidsons — hagad, we called them. The “V” formation was led by a tall mestiso with cap and sunglasses. Even from a distance, the distinctive roar of the Harley Davidsons could already be heard as the parade approached. After the motorcycle vanguard came the Philippine Constabulary band, the platoon of PMA cadets marching neatly in formation, then the floats.

Every time I saw a Harley parked in the streets, I would look at it with affection and dream of myself riding one. In fact, at that time, my ambition was to be a motorcycle cop.

I have been fascinated by motorcycles since then and I have mused over them with friends, the former Chicago Tribune correspondent Ulli Schmetzer, who biked all over Beijing on a BMW; and my German translator Marcus Ruckstuhl whose Honda brought him to many irenic niches in the country. My head turns every time I see a big bike. One of my most memorable moments was in Southern California when I saw more than a hundred of them, including three-wheelers, parked in one place. In this rickety age, I still live my youthful fantasy of racing a Harley with my wife on the back.

Still on another level, I envy writers like Ambeth Ocampo because they know more history than me. Every so often Ambeth drops by the shop and we exchange notes on history and people we know, particularly writers. I have often stated that journalism is history in a hurry and literature is history that is lived. There are so many events in the past that have not become history because they were either hushed, or the historians themselves wanted to protect the reputations of these history makers. It is for this reason that oral history should not be neglected, and why those who want to ferret out the past must talk with firsthand sources or be intuitive enough to read between the lines. Take, for instance, Ambeth’s own research on Otley Beyer, considered by many as the “father” of Philippine anthropology. After his research, he did not write the book.

Artemio Ricarte, the revolutionary general who refused to pledge allegiance to the United States, spent almost 30 years in exile in Japan. I researched on the man in Manila and six months in Japan, courtesy of the Japan Foundation. I had intended to write a novel based on his life. I almost dropped the project, but wrote a short one primarily to comply with the grants I received. My research unearthed a Ricarte who was not a tragic hero — he was merely tragic.

There are so few journalists who are truly involved with our history. In the print media, we have Ambeth and John Nery; on TV, Lourd de Veyra of Channel 5, Howie Severino on Channel 7 and Cheche Lazaro whose documentaries with historical background were excellent. Philippine TV should produce history features like NHK in Japan, and Arirang in Korea. Then we will be more aware of our heroic past, and hopefully, be transformed into the patriots that this unhappy country needs.

Several academics do not look kindly upon the efforts of Ambeth Ocampo and Lourd de Veyra. They are so prideful of their PhDs, their heavily footnoted articles in journals, they do not realize that they write only for themselves, and perhaps a few of their students, not for the many, who need to know our history and imbibe it in their very bones. So very few really care about history. In academe, history departments are getting fewer and fewer scholars — this was the lament of the late Fr. John Schumacher who wrote on the Propaganda Movement that preceded the Revolution of 1896.

Ditto with our creative writers. I admire Gina Apostol for her interest in history — if only she wrote with more understanding of the need to communicate without sacrificing the rigid requirements of art.

This attempt to communicate to a larger audience by Ambeth Ocampo and Lourd de Veyra is commendable. They popularize and dramatize history for so many of us bored by the mere recitation of dates. They do this without falsifying history; they make those details that clutter history more interesting, those sterling paragons more human with the failings of ordinary men.

Those makers of history have their critics. We cannot superimpose our perceptions today on what happened in the past. This is not only impossible, it also wrong. Circumstances change although things don’t seem to change at all.

Rizal himself was vilified for so many reasons, among them his elite status, his views on revolution and so many contrary details the Rizal industry has churned out. But whatever criticism has been flung at him, in the end, they cannot be validated for Rizal stands out as the epitome of Filipino brilliance and heroism.

And finally, there is this man who I envy the most. He sometimes pauses by my bookshop window to read the titles on display. He is shabbily dressed, but is never filthy. He carries nothing except this demeanor of tranquility. He often talks to himself and it is so obvious he has lost his mind. I envy his freedom. He owns nothing so he is not owned at all by anyone — people, institutions, or desires. He lives on charity unhampered by the iron strictures of civilization, ambition.

If there is a Redeemer who is the final and only arbiter, who would he redeem but this man whose mind is shattered, who survives in denial of sin and poverty? Is this man any different from the oligarch rendered insensate by his wealth to the compulsion of conscience, and the unjust society that he helped to create?

It is the only quote from the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre that I remember: “Man is condemned to be free...” He used the word condemned, with all its dark implications. Indeed, men in the highest office and power who have more freedom than lesser mortals are also free to demean their office by being silly or by forfeiting their responsibilities. I can imagine Randy David’s narcotic pleasure when, on his Ducati, he is merged with that powerful machine and can race the wind. And of course, the writer is free, too, not to write anything. Freedom is absolute and every man is free to forsake the earthly reality of toil and trouble. But there is also a host of equally infrangible absolutes — truth, justice. And yes, duty — that stern and tyrannical duty to God and country and, most of all, to one’s own humanity.

















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