They came. Professor Rosalind Ablir brought the megaphone. (That was the first time I have ever held a megaphone in my life.) Lawyer Golda Benjamin and author David Ryan Quimpo gave rousing heartfelt speeches. Theologian Karl James Villarmea and journalist Maya Angelique Jajalla started and ended everything with prayers for the country, one a note of despair and the other one a note of hope. Activist John Lumapay led everyone to a chant. HOPIA lead singer and theatre actor Earnest Hope Tinambacan made everyone sing “Bayan Ko.” Students volunteered. Reyman Krystoffer King Sy helped around. Alyana Krystine Adasa and her friends helped light everyone’s candles. And Shamah Silvosa Bulangis and Renz Torres kept the ball rolling with their stump speeches.
It was an impromptu program organized by no group—except random people who just felt something had to be done. They came together—more than the number than we anticipated—because the events of November 8 were a little too shocking to merit silence. Like I told a friend recently, “These days are not for silence anymore, you have to make your voice count.”
We came because we felt the betrayal of the Supreme Court paving the way for a thief and a murderer to be buried and honored a hero. We came to mark voices of dissent. We came because we had to.
When the news from the Supreme Court blew up on social media, I felt small and bewildered. There was a moment earlier today when I sat in some cafe and just quietly cried. In Manila, friends were hastily organizing an indignation rally in various points in the metro. One of them point-blank told me: “What are you guys doing there? Do something?”
In that café, challenged by that, I had to pause. And I realized that I’ve been mostly an armchair activist, spewing out rallying words on the Internet but never once taking to the streets to make my voice really count. But what did I know about organizing an indignation assembly? And could we gather people? And could we find a good spot? Logistics are always a fascinating nightmare—but I knew that if I didn’t do anything, my fighting words online don’t mean squat. And so I began to text people, began to ask permission from this and that, not really knowing what should happen or if people would respond. Shamah mobilized things. Renz, too. Reyman as well. People started messaging me encouraging notes: “We’re going, we’re joining you.”
Still I told a former student: “This is not about numbers. If there are only five of us around that flagpole, so be it. The important thing is to try. The important thing is to be out there, to show our public face, to make a public mark.”
But many, many people came. Later on, from Davao where he was visiting, Silliman President Ben S. Malayang III would text me: “When virtue seems to have lost meaning and value almost everywhere, it is most important to keep it and live it where we can, like a gem getting rarer in our world.” It was a fitting reminder for our times. And for that, thank you very much, Sir Ben.
A reporter asked me that night: “So, what’s next?”
A fascinating question, because what is dissent without action? Later on, it became clear to me the best way to do my fight is to look at my life, and see what I honestly could do. Me, I’m going to write—it’s what I’m good at. To quote the writer Nicola Yoon: “To all my fellow writer friends: let yourself feel the hurt and the pain, but when you’re ready, write. Write like all our lives depend on it.”
And I’m going to teach, because people forget if they’re not taught.
And I’m going to fight. And I’m going to stay healthy for that fight.
I know apathy sounds more delicious—some of my friends actually make fun of my “activism” —but I’ve made my peace with that: I am not built to be spineless and not care.
All I know is that almost everything we enjoy and take for granted today people in history had to fight for, sometimes even die for. Your being able to vote, your being gay, your being free in your country after years of colonization, your having a weekend away from work, your not having to work while still a child, your working conditions, your basic salary, your ability to breathe clean air, your legal rights, your right to get basic education, your freedom to worship your God, your right to rant in Facebook and Twitter.
If no one fought for any of these, you wouldn’t have the leisure to be apathetic about the world.
A few months ago, I began an online magazine titled The Kill List Chronicles to archive and feature literary pieces that I called the new protest literature—a space for writers to be able to say through fiction and poems and essays, what they feel and what they know about the overwhelming darkness of the present, the evil we sense is growing.
There are three things that have slowly become apparent as we live out the current days with their quotidian tremors that often signal—at least to those people who are sensitive to them—an unending arrival of apocalypse:
First, that Jean-Paul Sartre is right: hell is other people.
Second, that Hannah Arendt is right: the great cover of evil is banality.
And third, that Umberto Eco is right: a very good way to fight evil in the world is to persist in writing about it.
Evil is a curious thing. We tend to think of it as a dreadful embodiment of metaphysical darkness—a demonic possession, for example, or the bloody body count of serial killers, or the social havoc that is unleashed in the wake of psychopaths. In these instances, often graphically illustrated by the purveyors of our popular culture through movies and books, evil as a thing is banished to the realm of fantasy. It has become a malevolence that lurks mostly in the fringes of our imagination. We can be screening The Exorcist on our laptop screens, for example, cowering from its perfectly modulated jump scares—but we can just as easily turn the whole thing off, and then proceed to draw the curtains of our closed-off rooms, and suddenly the daylight of the “real” comes crashing in, saving us from a further sense of dread. Real evil, alas, is not so easily pigeonholed, and doesn’t usually come with bells and whistles.
What is often missing in the simplistic consideration of evil is the real thing that lurks in the human heart which, once in a while, jumps into abominable turns of history that allowed Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Marcos, and many of others of their ilk to happen. Hitler impassioned many Germans—who were understandably feeling defeated by the ruinous end of the First World War—and he did so with his dreams of National Socialism. He triggered with it another great war, as well as the systematic elimination of “undesirable people” through a program we now call the Holocaust. (For Hitler, it was just called the “Final Solution.”) Stalin built on the communist ideals of Lenin before him—but soon realized that a “revolution” ceased to be a revolution when it had no enemies to fight, and so he unleashed a never-ending search for “counter-revolutionaries” that ended up as several cycles of murderous purges in Russia, sparing no one. Pol Pot dreamed of a return to a pure peasant society for Cambodia, and unleashed a program he called “Year Zero,” which soon systematically brutalized his people through years of making them toil in the so-called “killing fields.” Mao dreamed of an empowered China and ushered in a plan he called “The Great Leap Forward,” a catastrophic program that led to 18 to 46 million dead Chinese—perhaps the greatest genocide in history. Marcos dreamed of a “New Society,” and armed it to the teeth with martial rule.
What is often amazing to consider in these experiments in terror is that they were often carried out at the behest and in the name of those that these dictators ruled. “I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country,” Pol Pot once said. All the others felt the same way, too. In many cases, these despots often unleashed their worst tendencies with the approval of many. Hitler was beloved in Germany, and his policies—obviously wrong and evil in retrospect—resonated with the German masses. In their eyes, Nazism was a chance for Germany to become great again, and Hitler could do no wrong. Today, we ask a question that cannot be truly answered: how could so many be deceived? How could so many give tacit permission for atrocities to happen? And the answer may be this: human nature. Jean Renoir perfectly sums it up with this line in his film The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Which makes Sartre right. Hell is other people—especially those people who have learned not to see anymore the moral imperatives of decent living.
I made this observation not too long ago: “When the bodies started piling up a few days ago in what appeared to be a growing rage for vigilantism, emboldened by a strongman’s battle cry for a war on drugs, the manner of the deaths and the manner of the disposal horrified me—as they should any right-minded human being. The anonymity of the hits. The crude fact of packaging tape sometimes covering the corpses, mummifying them in despairing positions. The cardboard signs that declare the dead a criminal—’Pusher, ‘wag tularan,’ ‘Snatcher, ‘wag tularan,’ etc.—justifying the murder. Inside, I scream: ‘What happened to due process?’ These days those two words—bedrocks of a functioning democracy—are being laughed at. And I could not understand how people could shrug off the sinister implications.
“There has been a quiet acceptance by almost everyone of these things happening. And also waves of violent mocking by a mob if you issue dissent.
“It is not an entirely new thing. A sense of history would attest that these things have happened before, in exactly the same manner, give or take a culturally specific difference. I am going to use right now the most frightful of historical correlations. Because now I totally get what life was like for ordinary Germans in Nazi Germany, especially in the contentious pre-war decade. You see, seeing and reading about the horrors of World War II—in particular, the unbelievable death machine of the Holocaust—I used to ask myself: How come nobody did anything? Why were ordinary Germans so quiet, so passively (or aggressively) supportive of the programs of Hitler’s regime? Couldn’t a civilized people recognize a evil in their midst?”
That acceptance, that silence make evil the most ordinary thing in the world. All these murders have become so ordinary, we are not even moved by every new reportage anymore. We have learned to shrug away all these things, and we have even learned to make excuses for them. “Para sa bayan ‘to,” some of us have learned to say, without the slightest hint of irony—and thus Arendt is right: evil can become so banal.
Our ultimate hope lies in a suggestion Eco once proposed, especially for those facing a moral crisis in a society that is slowly embracing evil as a necessity: “To survive, we must tell stories.”
That was the imperative I went when I decided to put The Kill List Chronicles in June, ostensibly to collect and archive the many literary works that started appearing, all of them protesting the new culture of impunity in the Philippines. In my introductory essay to that archive, I wrote: “Many Filipino writers…have slowly come out of the shadows of overwhelming public approval of the ongoing purge, to register dissent, to call for a process of justice that also respects human life and dignity, to strive for a country that recognizes that indeed crime must pay but this must be done in the only way that makes our democracy a functioning one. Anything else is a form of fascism.
“The rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, and his unorthodox methods of dealing with some of the country’s problems has currently inspired — if that is the right word at all — a few of our writers to take to the literary to express their grief and their horror, all in all registering a dissent that is still forming, that has yet to be studied. Some of the works take their cue from the bloody reports from television news and broadsheets. Some from the unexpected deaths — the new ‘collateral damage’ — of friends and people they know….
“This…is an attempt to archive the new literature of protest that is now beginning to be written. Only the future can tell how this literature, as a prospective tool for change, can impact what is going on at present. Protest literature are almost always considered only in the aftermath; perhaps this project can change that, and can demonstrate, once and for all, the power of literature as a social tool.”
One of the many writers who responded to that call was Carljoe Javier, who started to churn out little stories to document, in fiction, various scenarios, which would have been paranoid fantasies only a few months ago, but now have become painfully realistic.
He started out with a poem titled “Cardboard Villanelle,” which rendered to playful lyricism the realization of growing horror at the status quo. Not satisfied with that, he turned to the essay—and produced “#PosiblengAdik,” a short rumination about the vicious randomness of the killings, where he makes this plea: that drug addicts and drug users—which are not the same things—must be seen as human who are capable of rehabilitation. He uses his own life as evidence of that, and writes: “We want to protect ourselves, protect our families. But every single time I see one of these people who are dead, I think, that could’ve been me. If I made different decisions in my life, I could have turned out that way. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to go to school, I can imagine being driven to do whatever it takes.”
That sentiment becomes the very theme that animates the short stories that quickly followed, each one suddenly pieces of a whole that gave us a sad geography of injustice.
“At the Door” shows us a young musician answering the frenetic knocks of raiding policemen, bent on arresting—or even killing—him, even though he has cleaned up his act for some time now. That doesn’t matter to the raiders. His name is on “the list,” and that was enough for police to harass him. That same dynamics—the fear of “the list”—puts the two characters of “On the List” in an existential crisis. Should they answer the summons or not? All the alternatives prove ultimately deadly.
“Past Buendia” follows a man on an innocent leisurely stroll in an old neighborhood—and gets mistaken for a pusher, and nearly dies because of that mistake. “In the Street” underlines the innocence that has become compromised in the new culture of impunity: a group of young girls—a barkada—decide to have a food trip in Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, and they become witness to an actual extrajudicial killing. Their confrontation with the killer in the end marks the very end of their innocence—and signal a world that has gone absolutely upside-down. That blooms to paranoia, eventually—which becomes the focus of “At the Hood,” where a group of friends—formerly a rock band—consider attending the funeral of one of their members. But attendance at what cost? One of them demures—”It’s like those movies where people go to a funeral of a mob boss, and so there are cops all over taking picture of everyone go goes to the funeral. Then they use those photos to track down the people who went”—painting once and for all the compromises of a new age of paranoia.
“In an Uber” takes that paranoia and makes it the center point of conflict in what should be a normal social interaction between strangers: an Uber driver and his passenger. One approves of the killings, the other does not. Tension mounts.
And in “Nagda-drama Lang,” Javier chooses to occupy the consciousness of the bereaved—a woman cradling the dead body of her lover gunned down on the streets. It is inspired by a real life incident that became an iconic piece of photojournalism—a measure of grief that President Duterte later dismissed as “nagda-drama lang.” Which finally underlines the unemotional inhumanity behind all of these.
Why does Javier continue to write stories like this? They couldn’t possibly be a hoot to write; these sad stories only immerse us—the writer and the reader—in a flood of despair that seems, for the moment, unstoppable.
I think the answer is this: our anger has to be sustained, although that itself is an undertaking fraught with difficulty. How does one sustain anger? It is often easier to give up, and then to spout out such lines of “wisdom” like: “People deserve the politicians they vote for.” It is so much easier to surrender to the prevailing darkness—much like the Germans did at the height of Nazism, or Filipinos in the first five years of Martial Law. Protest and the literature that advocates it are not something that is embraced or favored by many people especially in the immediate aftermath of disastrous things. We are often told to “shut up”—and just embrace the status quo.
Nonetheless, we write.
In his recent visit to the Philippines, the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa made it perfectly clear that reading and writing are subversive acts: “Dictators [and] dictatorships are right in being suspicious of this kind of activity, because I think this activity develops in societies a critical spirit about the world as it is,” he said.
And its effects are not in the immediately apparent; it is in the cumulative.
So Carljoe Javier and others like him write on, because we must survive. Because we must document and dramatize the unspeakable. Because the future demands it. Because when good finally triumphs over evil—as it always does—it needs to see where its seeds began, and it might as well begin in the stories we chose to tell today.
To end, it’s good to echo what Sophie Scholl once said, which is a perfect reminder of our times: “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”