Rizal and Bonifacio – Polar Opposites?

The Philippine Islands (1899) (14773138935)How much in the discussions about the “Pepe and Boni” is just projection, first of all? How many who say that Rizal wanted to be a martyr actually want to say that of Ninoy? How many who are for Bonifacio’s alleged shoot first, talk later mindset mean right-wing or left-wing characters in the present or nearer past of the Philippines? How many who are against Rizal’s reformism actually mean the February Revolution of 1986 was not really a revolution, and reforms from then were useless? What is their real agenda?

Bayot o Bayani?

How many of those who criticize Rizal for not being a revolutionary also subscribe to Duterte’s criticism of Mar Roxas (link)? “Wala, si Mar, bayot. Hindi niya kaya. Hindi. Kaya ko kasi lalaki ako,.. Hindi ka lalaki, papaano ‘yan? Takot kang pumatay, takot kang mamatay. Eh subukan mo ako. Maghawak ka ng shabu sa harap ko, pasabugin ko ulo mo…Ikaw bayot, ako kaya ko. Hindi ka marunong pumatay?” The gist is that leaders have to “fear neither death nor killing”. Modern, civilized men aren’t seen as “real men”.

Rizal in fact was a good shot and knew how to fence. If the duel between Antonio Luna and Rizal had pushed through, there probably would have been no Heneral Luna (link) as Rizal was by all accounts better. While Bonifacio was, as many may not know, a well-read autodidact, forced to stop going to school by his being orphaned very early. And this was his conclusion in March 1896 (link): Reason tells us that we must rely upon ourselves alone and never entrust our livelihood to anybody else. Unlike Duterte.

Approach the World?

Unlike also like Sikatuna, also mentioned by Bonifacio for his blood compact with Legazpi, or Aguinaldo, who made his deal with Spain in Biak-na-Bato in 1897 and then tried to become an American protege in 1898. Or pro-Japanese collaborators later on. The ilustrados around Rizal still hoped to be treated as equals by the Spaniards, some wanting representation in the Spanish Parliament or Cortes, others wanted autonomy, but still under the Spanish crown. An arrangement like Australia has with England?

According to Charles Mann’s book 1493, there were already Filipino communities in Mexico City in earlier centuries, but most probably never returned to the country, just like the Manila Men of Louisiana (link). The ilustrados of the late 19th century were able to travel back and forth to Europe thanks to the Suez Canal and steamships. Electricity was one of the marvels of that age, as well as photography. Rizal loved to take “selfies”. Aspiring for modernity is still a Filipino obsession. Was the place a backwater too long?

Differences in Perspective

On the other hand, Bonifacio and the like were middle class people working in foreign firms that had been increasingly setting up in Manila for decades. They had a glimpse of what might be out there, they had the stories of Rizal, but no access to those places. Their view was of the abuses perpetrated by colonial authorities, as mentioned in one of the founding documents of the Katipunan (link): this land has been broken from the stem and withered, and shows no inclination to grow fresh shoots or spring back to life.

Even if Rizal’s novels do mention colonial and friar abuses, there is a major difference in wading in a flood that is waist-high versus a flood that is neck-deep. And though the great respect Bonifacio had for Rizal is known, there is one sentence in the January 1892 Katipunan document which shows serious doubts regarding the many in Rizal’s social class:  The pretensions of the enlightened men (ilustrados) who have education and everything they desire, dear ones, but it can be seen that their habits are coarse.

Battle of Katipunan

Even today one can see truly enlightened, cosmopolitan members of the Filipino elite – as opposed to pretentious rich people or pseudo-intellectual schmucks. One can also see ordinary Filipinos who embody good values – as opposed to vulgar, tacky types. The once strong divide between UP and Ateneo, nationalist as opposed to elitist-clerical has faded somewhat nowadays, with student councils of both universities calling upon the audience to wear black during the “Battle of Katipunan” as a sign of protest (link).

The great divide may be elsewhere now, as an observer of the 2016 elections noted (link): Malapit ba si Duterte o si Binay sa pagiging katulad ni Bonifacio?  Si Roxas, si Poe o si Santiago ba ay kapara ni Rizal? Duterte skipped Bonifacio Day yesterday. Meanwhile, more Filipinos are abroad than ever before. Those who have had the privilege of learning good English of course are more at ease in many global settings. Typical OFWs and some BPO workers may see the world much like Bonifacio once did.

Disown the World?

One must try to imagine how isolated from the world the Philippines was around 1800. Possibly the ordinary Filipino was even more isolated from the world in 1800 than 1521, when the small chiefdoms and the collections of chiefdoms called rajahnates at least traded with the world – mostly on their own terms. The sense of having lost something is what both Rizal’s Philippines a Century Hence and Bonifacio’s Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog exude. Learned helplessness might have been an effect of that loss.

Probably that learned helplessness is the key weakness of all three major founding fathers of the Philippines. Rizal who wanted to rely mainly on learning from abroad, Bonifacio who might have glorified the past too much, Aguinaldo who followed the fatal Filipino tradition of relying on foreign patrons – which Duterte is simply continuing. Different from Japan, whose spirit was never broken, and therefore had the confidence to adopt whatever it happened to see fit from foreign templates – yet staying Japanese.

Being less developed than others at some point has happened to nearly every country. Germans learned from the Romans, Romans from the Greeks, Greeks from Persians. The relative isolation of the Philippines had a more advanced civilization crashing in like alien starships, while continental Eurasians had learned from one another for millennia. Filipinos now travel the world. Disowning the world and joining China in anti-Western resentment – Duterte’s way – may not be the wisest course. Rizal and Bonifacio were 120 years ago. The world and the Philippines are both radically different places now. Travel and communication have gotten even faster and more instantaneous than then. The challenges of today are more important, the past offers lessons at most. Let us see.

Irineo B. R. Salazar
München, 1 December 2018