Renato Constantino’s writings remain among the most influential body of work in Philippine historiography. This has remained the case even though an increasing number of professional historians have, quietly, come to the conclusion that those works have relatively little value for modern historical studies, other than as historical artifacts themselves, that they have contributed to an undue concentration on one small part of the country’s history at the expense – literally in the case of such an underfunded area of scholarship – of research along paths less traveled that may provide a firmer underpinning to national identity and nationhood.
What is especially worrying is the self-censorship by the Philippine scholarly history community. Constantino’s faults are discussed almost behind closed doors, much as Filipinos would hesitate to discuss Ferdinand Marcos or Spanish era Filipinos speak out about Spanish rule. Constantino has acquired the status of a secular religion with his article denouncing Jose Rizal, Veneration Without Understanding, representing one of its holy scriptures, to be questioned at risk of treatment of which the medieval Catholic Inquisition would be proud. It is fair to question whether such an environment is conducive or inimical to the development of a nationalist history.
This, it should be said, is not the fault of Constantino but of followers who cite him and use his writings as a primary source while censoring Constantino’s own words regarding his methodology and purpose. That purpose is made clear in his introduction to The Philippines: A Past Revisited: Filipinos are not ready for objective data about their own history, that must be suppressed until they have reached a level of nationalism, only then would they be ready to read the truth about their own history. Precisely the same argument was used by American officials to justify the colonization of the archipelago and withholding Philippine Independence – Filipinos weren’t ready for it.
I would submit that while myth plays an important role in creating and maintaining national identity, deliberate falsification does not. A nation’s myths reflect those values it regards as unique to itself and which separate its identity from other nations. Nazi-era Germany, the Stalinist Soviet Union, Khmer Rouge Cambodia and modern North Korea are examples of the sort of dysfunctional ‘nationhood’ produced by such falsification.
Be that as it may, it is important to bear in mind that Constantino’s self-admitted intent was not to reveal historical truth but to create an activist mindset among his middle-class readership.
Constantino had a purpose that was markedly similar to that of Jose Rizal. This is hardly surprising. Both lived at a time of enormous economic and political change. Both lived under regimes in which outright criticism, or support for the overthrow of the status quo, led to imprisonment, torture and, often death. Both perceived a possibly fictional ‘Golden Age’ in the past – Rizal’s pre-hispanic Filipino and Constantino’s revolutionary masses of the Philippine war of independence. Both sought to exorcise cultural demons, the influence of the friars in Rizal’s case and the influence of the Americans in Constantino’s.
While, as will be demonstrated with particular regard to Rizal, both believed in the need for revolution neither writer explicitly and unequivocally called for violent revolution against the reigning oppressors in their writings. Both men were products of their time and place and express the zeistgeist of their environment.
Neither man lived to see the realization of their separate visions of nationalism and liberty and their ghosts are likely themselves to be ghosts before those visions become concrete.
To get back to the muttons. The power of Veneration Without Understanding owes much to the Philippine school system which often projects Rizal as a flawless, almost Christlike figure rather than the human being he was. Brought up with such hagiographic pedagogy, students are ill prepared to view Veneration critically, a piece which appears to overthrow all their preconceived notions, presented by politicized professors to whom they must acquiesce or face poor grades for dissent. It undoubtedly comes as a shock.
It is now almost 30 year since the first publication of Veneration Without Understanding and almost a decade since the death of its author. Perhaps it is time to break the conspiracy of silence and ask the impertinent pertinent question: Does Veneration Without Understanding stand up to scrutiny?