Defending truth and democracy against historical denialism

By Jose Mari Tirol

“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself”, is a popular adage credited to St. Augustine. Ironically St. Augustine didn’t really say or write this. Furthermore, the truth isn’t always capable of persuading people on its own (Horn. No, the Truth is not like a Lion [2020]).

Now what is the truth? Simply put, it is an assertion that is consistent with facts. It is different from opinions which may be, but oftentimes are not based on facts. This basic definition gives rise to the basic question: how are facts discovered? The search of truth, so to speak. There are many answers to this question; I offer two. For the first, there is another popular saying, “history is written by the victors”; one of its versions was reportedly uttered by the Nazi Hermann Göring during the Nuremberg Trials: Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein – The victor will always be the judge and the defeated will always be the accused.

At the end of World War II, the Allies brought to trial Göring and the other Nazis (and in Asia, the Japanese). They sought to confront  Göring and his ilk (which Göring and some defendants “evaded” by taking their own lives) with facts and the truth, in a court of law. With due process.

However, Germany did not stop with prosecuting the Nazis, which it still does, even now. German authorities believe that fascist organizations could pose an existential threat, recalling how Hitler used the electoral system to gain influence until he had the power to abolish the country’s democracy entirely (Glaun. Germany’s Laws on Hate Speech, Nazi Propaganda & Holocaust Denial: An Explainer [2021]).

And so Germany developed a new philosophy, “defensive democracy” or “militant democracy” which holds that in a democratic society, it may be necessary to limit some rights and freedoms to protect the institutions of the democracy (Landau. Abusive Constitutionalism [Fall 2013] UC Davis Law Review). Thus its penal code criminalizes hate speech, Nazi propaganda, and holocaust denial.

It is not just Germany which seeks to confront its fascist past. In 2007, Spain promulgated the Ley de Memoria Histórica or the Historical Memory Law which principally recognizes the victims of the Spanish Civil War, gives rights to the victims (and their descendants) of the war and the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, and formally condemns repressions of the Franco regime. It also prohibits political events at Franco’s erstwhile burial place (the Valley of the Fallen, from where he was exhumed in 2019), and decrees the removal of objects and monuments that exalt Francoism. A proposed law, the Democratic Memory Law, among others, intends to remove remaining Francoist symbols in Spain, including the possibility of issuing fines of on those who promote fascist symbols or attempt to humiliate the victims of fascism.

The Philippines’ counterpart is Republic Act 10368 or the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013; it “declared the policy of the State to recognize the heroism and sacrifices of all Filipinos who were victims of summary execution, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearance and other gross human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos covering the period from September 21, 1972 to February 25, 1986 and restore the victims’ honor and dignity. The State hereby acknowledges its moral and legal obligation to recognize and/or provide reparation to said victims and/or their families for the deaths, injuries, sufferings, deprivations and damages they suffered under the Marcos regime.” Its principal source of reparation is the Ten Billion Pesos, plus interest, which form part of the ill-gotten wealth recovered from the Marcoses.

However, the search for facts is not limited to the legislature. So now I offer the second way to do so: in courts of law through legal proceedings. The truth about the Marcoses as established by the Supreme Court and other courts, and their liability for their acts and omissions when they were in power. These cases were enumerated by retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban (Do the Marcoses have ill-gotten wealth? [September 26, 2021]) and retired Senior Justice Antonio T. Carpio (The Supreme Court as historian [September 23, 2021]). Nevertheless, Chief Justice Panganiban noted that the Marcoses have won some cases, albeit due to apathetic prosecution, i.e. the prosecutors’ utter failure to observe simple procedural and evidentiary rules.

And while the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions which questioned the decision of President Duterte to allow the burial of President Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, is cited Republic Act 10368 and underscored that “the lessons of Martial Law are already engraved, albeit in varying degrees, in the heaarts and minds of Filipinos… the preservation and popularization of our history … is a joint and collective endeavor of every freedom-loving citizen of this country.”

Despite the foregoing, Heydarian (Macoyismo: The myth of a ‘golden age’ [November 9, 2021]) noted that “…in our era of unregulated social media and systematic impunity, who cares about objective facts anymore? The Marcoses have been the masters of nostalgic politics with few precedents in history. This is their ultimate formula for success.”

Perhaps because fiction is more interesting than fact, and easier to manufacture. Especially for people who do not, by force of habit or circumstance, have the capacity to see the difference. People whose animus can be stoked with historical lies, and then invoked through the use of another aphorism attributed to Alcuin of York: The voice of the people is the voice of God.

However this saying must be appreciated in its entirety: Nec audiendi sunt qui solent docere, ‘vox populi, vox dei’, cum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima est – Nor should we listen to those who say ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’ for the turbulence of the mob is always close to insanity. Through the use of what Hitler described as the “Big Lie”: a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

Know the enemy, said Sun Tzu. The Marcoses want to return to Malacañang. They know that they will be unable to do so truthfully and honestly, so they employ half-truths and fictions. So who is their enemy? Their counterfactual incantations are not directed towards any of the opposing candidates; it is addressed to their real enemy: all of us. Especially those whose personal circumstances and desperation make them very susceptible to deception. And even those who support them, whether for free or for a fee, who may not understand or care that they are being used. Like the Kapos in the Nazi concentration camps, or those who see politics as a pastime or a source of profit, who do not realize that it is at their expense. But now that we know who our common enemy is, nothing should stop us from banding together to defend our democracy with truth, justice, and the rule of law.