The letter dated March 2, 2006 surprised me for many reasons. For one thing it was not addressed to me, but was about me. In it I was judged as a bitter iconoclast who had made a career out of attacking people. In it I was judged for being disrespectful of my academic and writing elders. In it my immediate superior – the Chairperson of the department I was teaching in – was implored to reprimand me, for something that was considered as a “public attack” even when my comments were posted in a private egroup.
I was appalled. But also I was very afraid I would lose my job, even as I just passed my class observations with flying colors, as graded by this same Chairperson; even as I knew this had absolutely nothing to do with the teaching I so enjoyed doing. It blew over of course – the Department ignored the letter – and my fear turned to anger.
How can any man, any person who calls himself mentor and elder, use whatever power he wields to silence someone who’s critical?
But it would be a sign of things to come. In 2012, six years after, I would write about the state of the literary establishment and how it is patronage politics that takes precedence over creativity. Unsurprisingly, the offended members of the establishment ended up talking about the critic in place of actually responding to the criticism. They said my time would’ve been better used trying to write a Palanca-award-winning essay, or writing a book. Realizing I had both, they then stooped so low as to judge me as bitter and negative and unproductive.
The goal of course was to dismiss me as critic. Yet in the process of Facebook kuyog – the Pinoy version of cyberbullying – what was revealed was precisely the existence of patronage politics within the literary and academic establishment.
It is of course no different from the status quo, that one that government lives off, that its propaganda maintains. Since 2010, and this PNoy Presidency, it has become clear that where the noisier majority believes one thing, there is barely any space to navigate for those who think differently, or who dare ask questions. I heard it from the literary establishment, as I have heard it from the President himself: these critics are destabilizers, they are Leftists, they are but a noisy minority, who have no contribution to government’s matuwid na daan.
Elsewhere in the world where the culture of criticism is mature and evolved, critics are the lifeblood of change, their credibility premised on their refusal to be co-opted by the establishment, the dynamism of their writing and thought fueled by the need to capture the contradictions and silences that are bound to forgetting.
In good ol’ Philippines, where creativity is haunted by complicity in the bigger oppressive institutions including government regimes, to think and write independently is to live dangerously.
Often, the lessons of EDSA 1986, the freedom and democracy fought for with blood, seem like nothing but words. ***