From “Contemplating Martial Law,” in I Write As I Write
Despite its continued pervasive and subversive influence, Martial Law is barely understood. It has become more akin to bedtime story used to scare children: If you misbehave, watch out, Martial Law is going to get us! Impeachment? Martial Law! *insert undesired policy*?Martial Law! In its almost consistent deployment, martial law has become less a socio-political state antithetical to democracy and more a running joke. Less something to fear and more a child’s monster under the bed: Something that only exists in our heads. Without a critical understanding of the underlying reasons for Martial Law, we will remain wholly reactive to political changes and developments; consistently weaving fantastical theories of creeping dictatorships and stealthy martial law declarations, all the while the benefactors of Martial Law prosper in their little fiefdoms and maintain their power base. That much needed understanding is only found in the study of history.
Improperly used, history can be deployed to defend almost any excess. Marcos proved this to be true. Proper histories, those that are well-researched and evidentiary based, provide lessons in understanding. More importantly, history gives the present an opportunity to reflect on themselves. Art and history offer the opportunity to question prevailing beliefs and systems; they demand we question commonly held narratives and the actions of our leaders past and present. They give us the chance for critical analysis. John Carey put it this way: “One of history’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.” Our public historical amnesia robs of that opportunity. Look no further than our popular understanding of Martial Law.