Truth, Lies and Subtleties in Propaganda
By NORMAN SISON
On exhibit at the Lopez Museum is a painting, measuring 18 inches wide and 24 inches high, put to canvas at the turn of the 20th century.
Commissioned by the US government, the painting is a study by Felix Resurrección Hidalgo, a celebrated Filipino artist. His contemporary was the more famous Juan Luna.
It illustrates the Philippines, symbolized by a Malay woman holding a bolo pointing downward — a sign of surrender. With her left hand she offers an olive branch to a Joan of Arc-like maiden holding the US flag, representing the United States.
Its message: the Philippines needed the benison of US colonial rule under its policy of “benevolent assimilation” because Filipinos were supposedly unfit for self-government, as asserted by then US president William McKinley.
The final product, “Per Pacem et Libertatem” (“For Peace and Liberty” in Latin), made its debut at the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition in the United States. There, the fair’s organizers also devoted a section of the park and built a replica Igorot village, populated by Igorot tribesmen — hauled from the Cordilleras and brought to Saint Louis. Like visitors to a zoo, Americans watched from a viewing stand as the Igorots slaughtered dogs and performed their rituals.
At the time, the US government was trying to justify its decision to annex the Philippines and its war with Filipino revolutionaries pursuing Philippine independence. The American public was growing weary of the Philippine-American War as US casualties mounted and accounts of brutality and atrocities from both sides made news headlines.
A few years later, the Hidalgo painting graced the legislative hall of the Ayuntamiento building in Intramuros, home of the Philippine Assembly. The legislature was formed by the US colonial government in 1907 to allow Filipinos limited self-rule — under American tutelage.
The painting today exists only in historical photos. It was destroyed during World War II, in the 1945 Battle of Manila, which gutted the Ayuntamiento.
The Hidalgo painting may be gone, but the issue of Filipinos being unfit for self-government is still very much around, as Lopez Museum curators Ethel Villafranca and Ricky Francisco have found out while putting together the museum’s current exhibit, simply named “Propaganda”.
Aside from historical documents, paintings and other artefacts, the exhibit also features contemporary works from artists Nune Alvarado, Santiago Bose, Joey Cobcobo, Don Salubayba and Alvin Yapan.
The exhibit is the end of a chapter for the Lopez Museum as it will be its last at Benpres Building. Later this year, the museum will move to a temporary location at Rockwell Center in Makati City, where it will stay until its new home at Proscenium is completed. The exhibit will run until May 30.
The power of the pen
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “propaganda” as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. It also defines the word as “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.”
Filipinos — especially those who are weary of the deceit that often characterizes politics in the Philippines — would readily agree with the second definition. But there was a time when propaganda not only didn’t have a pejorative connotation — it was very much a part of Filipino nation-building.
In the 19th century, as the Philippine economy was opened to international trade, the nouveau riche began to travel abroad or sent their sons to study in Europe, where they absorbed contemporary ideas.
“The fresher climate spawned an important species known as the ilustrados — an intelligentsia of lawyers, doctors, scholars, artists, journalists and other professionals with no stake in the preservation of an antiquated Spanish imperial structure,” wrote the late American journalist Stanley Karnow, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines”. “Elite conservatives, seeking to be treated as Spaniards, they agitated at first for assimilation rather than independence.”
In 1872, Filipino emigres in Europe formed a lobby group, El Movimiento de Propaganda (The Propaganda Movement), to press Spain for reforms in the Philippines. Among its illustrious members were Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena and several others.
In 1889, they launched a Spanish-language magazine, La Solidaridad (Solidarity), which became the organ of the lobby group. A rare copy of La Solidaridad is currently on exhibit at the Lopez Museum.
Beside the magazine in a display case is a Spanish-language newspaper, La Independencia (Independence), founded after the Philippine declaration of independence in 1898 by General Antonio Luna, the hotheaded chief of the nascent Philippine Army.
Stemming from his experience as a member of the Propaganda Movement and a La Solidaridad contributor, Luna felt that a paper was needed to solidify the gains of the Philippine Revolution in the minds of the new Filipino nation.
Among its staff was soldier and writer Jose Palma, who wrote the original Spanish lyrics of the Philippine national anthem, published in La Independencia on September 3, 1899. Another staffer, academician Epifanio de los Santos, is better known to Filipinos today by the initials EDSA.
Francisco and Villafranca originally thought of an exhibition to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila and the end of World War II. “We’ve had these Japanese and American World War II-era posters — which are very rare — and they have never been shown before,” he said.
But the exhibit soon took a life of its own. “We realized during research that we have propaganda materials from the Spanish colonial period, propaganda from the time of the 1986 snap elections,” said Villafranca.
And then came another — and depressing — realization. “We could see that a lot of problems facing the nation 100 years ago are still the country’s problems now,” said Francisco.
William Howard Taft saw quickly the kind of Filipino political leaders that he had to work with shortly after he took up his post in 1901 as the Philippines’ first American civilian colonial governor. To him, they were “intriguing politicians, without the slightest moral stamina, and nothing but personal interests to gratify.”
Villafranca pointed to a collection of editorial cartoons, drawn by the late cartoonist Liborio Gatbonton, published in the 1960s by the now-defunct Manila Chronicle newspaper.
A strong critic of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the then Lopez-run Chronicle was padlocked by the government after Marcos declared martial law on September 23, 1972. Its headquarters then was Benpres Building. Jeepney drivers from that decade plying the Pasig route still remember the building by its old name, the Chronicle Building.
Depicted in the editorial cartoons were issues that still cause exasperation among Filipinos today, such as rampant corruption and politicians making empty promises come elections. “If you put your hand over the dates, you will feel that those editorial cartoons were drawn only yesterday,” said Villafranca.
“Of course, there have been a lot of changes,” Francisco quickly added, referring to the gains made over the last century. “We have more freedoms today, and hopefully people will use those freedoms to create change.”
But freedom won’t be enough, according to Villafranca. “We are all at fault, partially because of the choices we make,” she said, referring to the country’s problems. “We fought hard for our freedom and our right to vote but a lot of us don’t think much about the choices we make. We would like our viewers to learn from the past so that we can make informed choices that affect our future.”
There is also another critical element: How those choices will be shaped depend primarily on the press — as the pen did in the days of La Solidaridad and La Independencia —simply because of its wide reach.
“The press has the power to shape popular opinion and make something happen,” said Francisco. “I hope that journalists and writers will have the clarity of intent and integrity to make positive change for our country.”