Ilustrados in a Time of Fakery

Benjamin Vallejo Jr.

By: Benjamin Vallejo Jr. | Squeeze Opinion | Published August 2, 2017 | Updated August 16, 2017


Who are the Ilustrados?

The Ilustrado (the enlightened one) imagined and conceived the Filipino nation, then, with the help of the masses of the 1896 Katipunan revolution, birthed it. It can be argued that there was one infant but with two faces and fates. The Ilustrado nation was almost stillborn but survived with American incubation, while the nation of the “Other Katipunan,” which is still being born, is likely to overturn the existing order.  The Ilustrado was a consequence of the rise of the native clase media, which grew prosperous with the gradual opening of the Philippines, beginning a few years after the British withdrawal in 1764, culminating with the complete opening of the colony to world trade in 1834. This period in Filipino history was called as the formative century by historian Fr. Horacio de la Costa SJ.

The growing wealthy class needed to secure its privileges. Key to ensuring this is education, and the children of the emerging wealthy middle class received an education, first in nearby British colonies and then in Europe.  Since this clase media was educated, Filipino history has always considered them to be elite.  By 1872, the Filipino colony in Madrid was well established and with the liberal political atmosphere in Spain, they noticed the contradictions in the Philippines.

Since education was what made the Ilustrado, it was the lack and inadequacy of education in the Philippines which they saw as the major hindrance to material progress. All the Ilustrados beginning with Graciano Lopez Jaena had this as a thesis. In 1888, the chemistry student Antonio Luna, who later will become the first Indio to receive a science doctorate, extended the thesis to a logical consequence in his Impresiones, where he observes that the idiocy of the government bureaucracy is rooted in the lack of education and thus results in inefficiency and lack of discipline. Luna’s intolerance of ignorance and inefficiency, which are important virtues for a research scientist, will characterize his command and leadership of the Revolutionary Army and will tragically result in his murder in 1899.

Marcelo Hilario del Pilar was convinced that the root of this problem is the friar, whose obscurantism prevented the implementation of liberal reforms especially in education. To del Pilar, obscurantism is the father of lies and deceits. This was also the central theme of Jose Rizal’s books. While del Pilar advocated the removal of the friars, Rizal went further and reexamined the relationship of the rulers and the ruled. For repression will not work, though it will be tempting to use it to convince the people, and like Lopez, Antonio Luna and del Pilar, the written falsehood is the key step in subjugating the people. This was the ultimate repression.

The university as an answer to the problem of repression, the Philippine University reinforces a contradiction

And the answer to the ultimate repression is nothing but a university, which the Ilustrado-nurtured republic established. As any university molded in the medieval virtues, it was supposed to proclaim the truth. The students will have to be trained to think like their Ilustrado forebears.

And so through the period of American sovereignty through the self- governing Commonwealth, and to the American-recognized independence in 1946, the Ilustrado was kept alive in a continuity guaranteed by the establishment of the Philippine University.  This university established in 1908, was tasked to provide advanced instruction in the arts, literature, philosophy and the sciences, with no regard for one’s religion, political affiliation, race or economic status. It was to be the apex of the American-designed public education system with free tuition. With such aims, this university was the Ilustrado dream come true.

The university essentially cemented the concept that the Ilustrado was educated and had a profession. We have to note that the second qualifier of having a profession is extremely important, perhaps even more than being educated alone. A profession ensured social and geographical mobility. The educated that did not have the opportunity to travel were considered second class ilustrados. This is something that clouds Apolinario Mabini’s heroic reputation. The Ilustrados who studied in Europe shine brighter in the pantheon of heroes, while Mabini, educated completely in the Philippines, well-versed in enlightenment philosophies, receives less attention, even if he self-studied English and was better at it than Jose Rizal! Mabini ironically crystalized the ideology of the Filipino Revolution which Rizal was not able to do.

Ensuring mobility was key to the American colonial project. The university’s first president, an American Anglican priest, gave the university its marching orders to be a “university for Filipinos.” True enough the university provided the nation with its Ilustrados, who were expected to speak for the Filipino people and the unlettered masses. This Philippine University-educated creature imagines himself separate from the oligarchy but is complicit in keeping that oligarchy established. Explicit is the Ilustrado ideal of mobility in the University Hymn, “far tho we wander,” which in more nationalist times was translated into the national language in a very bad sense as “malayong lupain, amin man marating”.  The Ilustrado, like the Philippine University alumnus, is doomed to always find himself on other shores, for what and for whom?  Of course he, like doomed Dr. Rizal, will return to “ruin, withered loves, graves and nothing more.”

Part of the bargain for mobility was the expectation of returning to Inang Bayan. Scholar Caroline Hau writes that if the Ilustrado did not return, he is considered to have betrayed Inang Bayan. Before the OFW phenomenon, almost all of the Filipinos who left for abroad were professionals. In the last 45 years, more and more of these Filipinos cannot be considered as Ilustrados in the old sense. Many did receive the modicum of a collegiate education (in the sense everyone has a diploma and a photo in toga) but this has just prepared them for the most basic of job skills, and many can’t construct a simple sentence in English, something the colonial Philippine University required for graduation.

The colonial Philippine University essentially produced Ilustrados for work overseas. This is its contradiction. But is he an OFW? Surely not!

Miguel Syjuco calls the OFW as potential Ilustrados, a new kind of Ilustrado. But that potentiality requires breaking out of class boundaries. Living overseas is a levelling experience. The Pinoy graduate student on a scholarship will have to live with a Filipino expat colony, but unlike Rizal and Luna’s tribe, the colony will be made up more of domestics, semi-skilled workers, and in my case, a family of dishwashers!

The members of these Filipino colonies are acutely aware of the widening gap between the haves and have nots in Inang Bayan, the corruption, inefficiency, decaying infrastructure and lawlessness. But many of these neo-Ilustrados do not have permanent residency in their countries of residence. They will return and ask what could be done?

This question haunted Rizal and it haunts the neo-Ilustrados. “What could be done?” Segue to 2016. The neoliberal world and everyone has a smartphone. One can be on Facebook 25 hours a day. Social media according to Lanier makes us see perfectly in binary. The truth has alternatives, something that would be unimaginable to the scientist Antonio Luna or the rationalist Rizal.  Since the Filipino nation is built on the Ilustrado ideal, it is no wonder that “truth” is at the center of war in Filipino social media.

Who can speak for truth?

The question is who can speak for what is true? In the Ilustrado world, only they could speak for what is true. The Ilustrado always has been propertied and educated. But social media has its own ironies. You can be propertied by owning a virtual wall, and with it acquire followers which are hardly virtual at all. This translates to political power and with that, is always a threat to the old order.

The explosion of the so called fake news is a consequence of neoliberal capitalism. A global social media audience provides unlimited potential for profits. Once the exclusive province of traditional media, it is now open to individuals, non-state actors, governments and big business. Social media also freed many Filipinos from the inarticulateness demanded by the elite.

The present government led by Rodrigo Duterte took advantage of this to electoral victory with 16 million votes in May 2016, a remarkable result in an election constitutionally designed to be pluralistic. Duterte received almost near unanimous support from the OFW constituency. After a year of Duterte with his colorful language and contradictions, some policies are progressive but many are not, Philippines has been set on an uncertain path. The consequences shake the elite, but even with elite protestations, Duterte’s approval ratings above 70% will make any politician in a liberal democracy green with envy.

In all of these, Duterte’s drug war is not disguised by fakery. The majority of Filipinos see it on TV and yet, while they support due process, for them the drug war is perfectly acceptable. Perhaps it is due to years of elite-demanded inarticulateness in support of rule of law while lawlessness was all around. This is a Duterte contradiction that is not really a contradiction.

What are the political leanings of our 21st century Ilustrados? Some of them are reactionaries. Many are progressives. Many also support Duterte. They have one thing in common as stated earlier – mobility – something that Juan de la Cruz does not have. If he does, he is an OFW.

The Filipino people will go for democracy anytime. But this democracy will not be what the Ilustrados thought it should be or the generations that followed them. As for the 110 year old Philippine University, it has a hard time resolving its contradiction, and we see it in ambiguity of its constituents on the matter of free tuition.

At least the Ilustrados, starting with Antonio Luna, wanted a national university which provides tuition without fees!

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