Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Despite historian Ambeth Ocampo’s call not to think in black and white, that’s mostly what happened to the conversation surrounding Elcano y Magallanes: La primera vuelta al mundo, the controversial animated film about the Spanish expedition. Two sides have clearly been delineated.

The first side objected to the film because of its seemingly glib treatment of the titular expedition, including characters and scenes coming directly from the history of our country. By extension it seems to depreciate the political, economic, and cultural repercussions of colonial projects emanating from the West for the last five hundred or so years. After all, many peoples of color (including us Filipinos) continue to be burdened by the legacies of colonization, such as discrimination, a mentality conditioned to elevate regard for the “white” other, and social injustices stemming from the economic exploitation that was integral to the whole thrust of European empire-building. It has reached a point that some have even called for either a boycott or a ban of the film, urging that it should never be shown in Philippine theaters.

I found myself spontaneously sympathetic to this side. A simplistic (which cartoons often necessarily are) retelling of a historical phenomenon that brought such pain and injury to millions is tone-deaf. However, equally simplistic responses like banning the film or trying to get the Spanish producers to change their minds are not solutions either.

The other side favors the film, mostly by downplaying not just what the film can potentially do, but the sentiments described above. This is the side that tended to cite matters of historical accuracy and relativism. They argue that there is no factual basis to raise Lapu-lapu or the Battle of Mactan as nationalist symbols. They also say that any complicated narrative will undoubtedly have several sides, none of which may claim validity over others. Ocampo’s piece mentioned above and the statement of Rene Escalante, chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, are exemplars of this.

I see Ocampo’s point about “blind patriotism”. But he commits the same error he ascribes to those who are trying to police the showing of the film by trying to police peoples’ emotional reactions to it. It isn’t fair to characterize the outrage merely as people being unable to think in terms outside of bad guys and good guys. Also, I don’t think we should abandon our ability to draw the sharpest line (when the need arises) in favor of endless nuancing. As for Escalante’s statement, perhaps people dismissed it not because it was “boring” (in Ocampo’s words), but because it went against what any conscious agentive subject instinctively knows: what matters is not how many sides of the story there are, but what one should do to be true to the side that one chooses to be on.

Having said that, what to do now with these two camps of thought? May I put it (cheekily, of course) in stark Žižekian/Stalinist terms: “they are both worse!” There is a third option, the glimmer of which I heard during a lecture by anthropologist and activist Michael Herzfeld not too long ago.

Herzfeld, British by birth and a long-term ethnographer in Greece, related that he once was conversing with a well-known Greek archaeologist when he mentioned that Britain should give the contested Elgin Marbles to Greece. The Elgin Marbles is a collection of classical Greek sculptures that were removed and taken by the British in the early nineteenth century. This removal was done allegedly with the blessing of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece at that time. The marbles are contested not only because the Greek state and many of its citizens consider them as having been stolen, but also because they have become the material symbol of foreign oppression the Greeks suffered at the hands of both the British and Ottoman authorities. On the other hand, the British Museum (which now houses the sculptures) has always been cold towards proposals of repatriation. This has long been a touchy subject between these two nations and among heritage advocates around the world.

Herzfeld mused to his friend that if and when the Elgin Marbles are finally back in Greece “then that’s when Greece would truly be free.” The archaeologist’s reply came as a surprise: “We’d truly be free when the British offer us the marbles and we could say, ‘It’s okay, thanks. You can keep them.’”

It may sound completely counterintuitive, but it was a radical third option in an issue that has become so polarized that it is nearly impossible for stakeholders to find wiggle room. I wonder if — in the context of Elcano y Magallanes — we too can find a radical third option between censorship and endless nuancing. I wonder if — in the context of other similar issues that will emerge in the future (and there will be more, I am sure) — we can realize that both indignation and relativism have their limits, and thus begin to search for a better way forward somewhere along the lines of this archaeologist’s oddly liberating answer.

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