Wednesday, August 29, 2007


The Poverty of Memory deals with narratives of resistance and conquest, the exigencies of empire, the roots of global insecurity and the ecological impacts of imperial overreach. It draws on the contradictions that have increasingly defined our lives and takes aim at the certainties that have allowed others to hold sway over the affairs of pretty much everybody else.

The Poverty of Memory is about the consequences of abstention and forgetting, a combination that has never been as deadly as it is today. Above everything else, it is about remembering.

Former PresidenT
University of the Philippines

It is difficult to follow the footsteps of a famous grandfather because people are prone to compare him with the ancestor whose name he bears. But Renato Redentor Constantino, in The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire, compels us to judge him in his own terms.

This book consists of articles written for different newspapers over a few years. It covers a wide range of topics from American atrocities in the Filipino-American war to recent imperialist maneuvers in Iraq, Venezuela, Somalia, etc. He takes a hard look at some adorable personages and despicable scoundrels. His essays on the environment cannot fail to provoke dread and indignation. The marshalling of little known historical facts and the sharp analyses from the nationalist perspective are reminiscent of the original Renato Constantino. But the style and humor are distinctly his own.

March 2006


March 23, 2006

In Renato Redentor Constantino's book The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire, the author quotes scribe, wit and muckraker Greg Palast as saying, "History repeats itself with horrifying predictability. First as farce, and then as presidency." As compelling and apt as that quote is,, the provocative summary serves as philosophical bookends for Constantino's anthology of published essays that go beyond a collection of his writings, and transcend deeply into historical commentary tugging both at heart strings and at the deepest recesses of patriotic thought and national psyche.

Between farce and presidency, history as we have all come to expect is based on events, dates, places, times and people all chosen by the historian. The choices, as well as the alchemy of putting together diverse elements, are dependent on the historian's perspective, and it is his criteria, values, as well as philosophies, that determine how history is told. That would be the archetypical history book. Constantino's, on the other hand, is something else. It is history mentally regurgitated several times over.

The repetition of history with insanely predictable outcomes, first starting out as farce and then culminating into petrified institution as Palast implies is what Constantino's collection of essays is all about. His treatise is that because we are cursed with "the poverty of memory," a myopia of sorts, bereft of a more profound appreciation of events and their meanings, we are cursed to forever repeat it.

Constantino speaks of US Admiral George Dewey writing to his sister on Jan. 30, 1898 and saying that "what we all want is Chinese trade." He writes, "We would lose (the Philippines) were it not well known that we are ready and will protect it." Constantino also notes that more than a century ago, US Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge declared that America is "interested in the Philippines solely on the account of others. We are interested in trade expansion." Nothing more and nothing else, such was the sentiment that has not changed over the centuries as that superpower grabbed "for itself the republic Filipinos won in their revolution against Spain." Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed.

Again, there is something oddly familiar in that and should we ponder, repetition is one of the most common we might reach. Past is prelude. It's as common a cliche as any.

But Constantino's book goes beyond the kind of history book one would expect. Here, one finds historical development in form and substance seen through the eyes of more than just historians, but also an amalgam of scientists, sociologists, politicians, authors, commentators, and yes, maddening muckrakers like Palast.

As history is seen through this kaleidoscope, Constantino then takes it on and twists it on its head. Suddenly, from the cacophony comes the most profound insight as history is viewed as new and novel with disparate dates, places and people at once linked and simultaneously rational in its totality.

See, for example, the way the book is structured. With craftsmanship worthy of literature and fine storytelling in its sectional divisions and the gradual building up of analytical argumentation, the book is an eloquent treatise not simply on what constitutes modern empires, but also how we developed over time. How we developed, later only to realize, that in some ways we did not.

Structurally, the collection starts with conquest and resistance. In the middle, it talks of how conquest ravages, personally through the lives of people, and economically and environmentally through the lives of nations and the life of the planet. At the end, it talks of new and emerging empires, exile and finally resistance or non-resistance.

However, unlike most timelines, history in Constantino's retelling follows a form that immediately pulls us into an arena where not memory, but divergent perspectives are straight away challenged. His first chapter is all at once a graphic palette, but also in its storytelling it brings us face to face with the views of others. We encounter US President William McKinley, Filipino revolutionist Apolinario Mabini, Japanese war doctor Dr. Yoshio Shinozuka, Iranian potentate Mohammad Reza Shah, and the soldiers of the expeditionary forces who occupied the Philippines in the first part of the last century.

While the chapter traces the eternal conflict between conqueror and the vanquished, conquest and empire, it is not just historical data that we have, but reasoned analysis of that data presented where we see history and its implications in a unique montage of images.

See the individual reactions of American soldiers in Iraq where Sgt. 1st Class John Meadows says, "You can't distinguish between who's trying to kill you and who's not. The only way to get through shit like that was to concentrate on getting through it by killing as many people as you can."

Juxtapose this modern-day image with one from the past where Constantino notes that in 1900, Sgt. Howard McFarlane of the US 43rd Infantry in the Philippines wrote, "On Thursday, March 29, 18 of my company killed 75 nigger bolo men and 10 nigger gunners. When we find one that is not dead, we have bayonets."

On top of that, add another image a few paragraphs down where Constantino quotes Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith, commander of the US 6th Separate Brigade in the Philippines as saying, "I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you please me."

The focus on perspective becomes even more pronounced as the book progresses and delves into the lives of those who have lived and live through this montage. People as big as life like Gen. Douglas MacArthur and as significant and important as Filipina heroine Loretta Brunio, a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong.

History is not just dates, places and people. For it to matter, it must transform. And if that be the measure of history, then Constantino's book is perhaps one of history's most eloquent essays. #

Dean O. de la Paz maintained the acclaimed column Bystander in BusinessWorld. De la Paz continues to actively write on wide-ranging topics covering economics, politics, management, the power sector, and financial affairs. Read a recent piece by de la Paz here.

A Book Review of Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire by Renato Redentor Constantino
Robert JA Basilio Jr., June 2006

HOWEVER cleverly written, newspaper columns have never been given a break.

Treated as the poor cousin of the essay — considered as the quintessential form of non-fiction since the Renaissance, so says an American critic — opinion columns, together with editorials, feature stories, and what can be generally considered as “think” and “color” pieces have been refused membership into the literary club.
Which perhaps explains why in the early nineties, Adrian Cristobal decided against asking fellow columnist and current Makati City congressman Teodoro M. Locsin Jr. from writing the foreword of his fourth book.

Entitled Pasquinades, Cristobal’s work was a collection of occasional pieces written primarily for the weekend supplement of the defunct The Daily Globe, a newspaper which Locsin published and edited.

“This book is an inconsistency,” Cristobal said in his introduction. “Like Teddyboy Locsin, I believe that a collection of newspaper columns in book form is sheer vanity: what is perishable — and newspaper pieces are perishable — should be allowed to perish without benefit of clergy...[B]eing a ruthlessly honest writer, [TeddyBoy] might go at it too well for my comfort, and I happen to perversely value his friendship more than his honesty.”

Although Locsin was able to defend himself against this barb — through a speech delivered at the book’s launch at a Makati City hotel and later published in the Philippines’ Free Press — the witty exchange between the two writers emphasized the amorphous position occupied by well-written, non-straightforward news pieces published in dailies, weeklies, and some glossies.

And so, the question must now be asked: can these same pieces be considered as essays or are they simply just passing fancies, perishable goods to be consumed today and discarded tomorrow? Is there a clear demarcation between the non-fiction piece written under a tight deadline as opposed to the one that was produced leisurely?

Not even the celebrated National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin thinks so.

Writing tons of non-fiction under the pen name Quijano de Manila, the prolific fictionist, poet, biographer, and journalist has shown that a well-written prose piece of any substantial length can inform, educate, entertain, and, in certain cases, even enrage. (Witness, for instance, Jose “Pete” F. Lacaba’s Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, a collection of narratives about the First Quarter Storm, one of the most tumultuous events in the country’s history.)

This sentiment is shared by American critic and professor Cristina Nehring in an essay published in the May 2003 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Although castigating essays “that strain to be stories — the ones, in other words, that renounce the main privilege of the essayist over the storyteller: the right to think out loud, the right to draw conclusions from data than merely present it, the right to offer interpretations and propose hypotheses,” Nehring says that there is no such thing as a higher or lower genre in literature.

“[T]here is only good writing and bad writing, strong thinking and weak thinking,” she said, in a piece entitled, Our Essays, Ourselves: In Defense of the Big Idea. “Stylistically, non-fiction has produced gems that glitter as brightly as the clearest stones of fiction.”

Going by the Nehring protocol, the collections and anthologies of a number of Filipino writers are not going to lose their luster anytime soon.

Decades after their publication, the essays of Joaquin, Lacaba, and Cristobal will always remain a pleasure to read.

This same pleasure is replicated whenever Locsin (before he ran for office) delivers a printed tirade against stupidity in government, Conrado de Quiros fulminates against Malacañang’s current resident, and Gregorio C. Brillantes waxes sentimental about his trips to Manabo, Mexico, and Madrid.

Although Philippine literature and journalism lies in wait for an anthology compiling unpublished gems produced by these writers, a younger generation have thankfully emerged to fill the vacuum.

Among them is Renato Redentor Constantino, who in March 2006, released a collection of nearly 70 of his published columns and pieces in a book entitled The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire.

With four sections discussing an impressive array of topics — an American anti-imperialist group protesting US annexation of the Philippines to a profile of Iran’s pro-poor prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh — Constantino’s collection is more than just a samples of good writing and in-depth research. It is proof that combining talent, tenacity, and noble intentions can do more than just beat deadlines: it can stimulate ideas, widen perspectives, and help propose alternatives to the current local millieu, which has only helped to deepen oppression, encourage mediocrity, and tolerate ignorance.

Unfortunately, despite his skills, Constantino, also known as Red, is burdened with two sets of luggage, the kind that may not be easily jettisoned.

Besides being the grandson of the late, great historian Renato, Constantino the younger is also a committed environmental activist, one who remains connected with Greenpeace.

Fortunately, his personal affiliations have never gone to his head nor has his professional involvement clouded his judgement. In short, Constantino is very much his own man, preferring to lay claim to the world of words on his own terms, despite bearing a name that resounds with Philippine history.

Besides being published in the opinion sections of various Manila-based newspapers, the younger Constantino is also one of the few writers — then and now — who can claim that his pieces have seen print abroad, including in publications such as The Nation, one of the leading alternative magazines in the US (which incidentally has also published University of the Philippines sociology professors Randy David [who also happens to be his uncle] and Walden Bello).

However, to merely consider Constantino’s work as opinion pieces, in the strictest sense, would be unfair and misleading.

After all, these essays are more than interpretations of facts but pieces put together, placed in a historical context and, for better or worse, simplified to fulfill the quotidian demands of a newspaper’s opinion section.

Lourdes Molina-Fernandez, BusinessMirror’s editor-in-chief, has it down pat. In a blurb on the front cover, Fernandez says that the collection is “[h]istory and the breaking story in one seamless tapestry.”

She continues: “This is a book for anyone who cares to remember, whether the chronicles are written as journalism, or as timeless literature; whether the stories happened this century or the last, or even four centuries before; or whether the persons in them, though set apart by creed or greed, by color of skin or of views, or by class or interest, have something to teach.”

Which just perfectly describes Constantino’s hell-raising, mind-blowing, and eye-opening pieces that should give pause to current media practitioners who act more like petty bureaucrats than idealistic muckrakers that they are supposed to be.
But then again, that might be asking too much from the majority of the parochial, half-literate, junket-crazy, social-climbing, self-proclaimed journalists unable to distinguish their pampered asses from a press release.

While he is — arguably — not a media professional, Constantino is, first and foremost, a writer who collects facts and ensures the veracity of his assertions without compromising the demands of the craft and the art of writing.

Even without intending to become the journalists’ journalist, Constantino also plumbs the depths of Philippine history, and, much like his grandfather, involves himself with the minutiae of what life was like back then, when electronic mail and text messaging were the stuff of science fiction.

Thanks to his curiosity — a trait no doubt acquired by the grandson from his grandfather — the younger Constantino comes up with loads of relevant information rarely discussed in a country whose many residents have mistakenly recognized that democracy was introduced by the Americans.

Since many have been misled into believing that former US vice-president Al Gore invented the internet, this is not surprising. After all, Filipinos, as a whole, have yet to come to terms with the big war which defeated Asia’s first democratic republic.

Fortunately, Constantino is not about to let this issue go unnoticed. Or at least not in his book.

As expected, the collection opens with his essays about the Filipino-American War, an event which easily lends itself to discoveries, which may be shocking even to those currently seeking the benefits offered by US citizenship.

Supposedly the US’ first Vietnam, the defining battle which marked America’s rise to global preeminence murdered anywhere from 250,000 to a million Filipinos.

In a piece entitled Memories of Black and Blue, Constantino cites a pro-imperialist New York Times piece which describes the attitudes of American soldiers fighting in the Filipino-American war.

“It kept leaking down from [our officers] that the Filipinos were ‘niggers’ no better than Indians and were to be treated as such,” Constantino cites a soldier as saying during the hostilities.

While these accounts may prove unnerving, even to little brown Americans, it attempts to emphasize what has been ignored all along: that America’s promises to encourage democracy, promote equality, and uphold liberty may just prove to be necessary diversions to advance its imperial interests.

To underscore his point, Constantino, in his introduction, only had to quote Thomas Friedman, the celebrated right-wing, Iraq-war-supporting, free-market-thinking, socialist-bashing New York Times columnist.

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist,” Constantino cites Friedman as saying. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” However, despite continuous attempts to implement Pax Americana, it is good to know that the imperialist country’s atrocities are condemned the world over, even by its own citizens.

More than a hundred years before America invaded Iraq, it successfully attempted to conquer the Philippines through a policy known as benevolent assimilation.

But David Fagen, a black American soldier, and 20 other black troops knew that they were fighting for a country whose strategies were less than benevolent.

So one day, Fagen and his like-minded brothers decide to quit the Army and fight alongside Filipino guerillas.

In a piece entitled The blood that binds, Constantino says that this event is “unprecedented in Black military history.”

The same essay also discussed a different kind of hero in America, one that has been disenfranchised since birth, much like Fagen.

Shortly before World War II, Dr. Charles Richard Drew discovers the process of storing human blood for months without the need for refrigeration.

“As the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, Drew ensures that shipments of liquid plasma [the fluid left when red blood cells are removed from whole blood] are sent to combat zones where Axis bombs and bullets are spreading death,” Constantino says. “...At first the Red Cross and the military refuse the blood of Blacks in the plasma banks so as to avoid the possibility that races might mix by transfusion. But later they relent—provided Negro blood is separated from Caucasian blood. Charles Drew resigns. Charles Drew is black.”

These and many other heroes, mostly unsung yet inspiring, populate the pages of Constantino’s collection, a stark contrast to the world outside which has way too much of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Iza Calzado.

In Constantino’s collection, there are individuals such as Mordechai Vanunu, the world’s very first independent nuclear arms inspector.

Discussed by Constantino in more than three essays, Vanunu worked for nearly a decade as a technician at Dimona, Israel’s nuclear installation in the Negrev desert.

In 1986, after painstaking documentation and preparation, Vanunu told the world that the country developed 40 kilograms of plutonium annually. Thanks to his steely commitment against nuclear weapons and his opposition to Israel’s nuke program, he was kidnapped by the Mossad in Rome, five days before his well-documented exposé appeared in the London Sunday Times.

Held incommunicado for 11 years, Vanunu was imprisoned for another seven years before authorities agreed to release him in April 2004, especially after he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, a distinction he shares with Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Despite leaving jail, Vanunu’s freedom remains limited.

Besides being disallowed to leave city limits without permission, the whistleblower mightier than Israel (which is what Constantino calls him) is banned from going near any border terminal, including the Ben-Gurion International Airport. He is also prohibited from communicating with foreigners including expatriates in Israel, whether in meetings, by phone, fax, or email, let alone talking about Dimona’s warheads to anyone.

But like many others similarly situated, whether in Israel, Iraq or the Philippines, incarceration and torture failed to break his spirit.

“I still believe Israel is wrong to develop nuclear weapons, and I still believe the abolition of nuclear weapons is possible in our lifetime,” Constantino quotes Vanunu as saying immediately after his release. “I call on international nuclear inspectors of the UN. Come to Israel. Inspect Dimona. Dimona must be shut down.”

Despite international condemnation for its weapons program, Israel conveniently cites the Holocaust, an atrocity in whose name it has committed many smaller and similar crimes.

“[A]nytime the Israeli government is pressed to account for its duplicity, for its malevolent intentions, for its extraordinary racism, the Holocaust card is flashed to shut up its critics,” Constantino says in a piece entitled “What is required of Israel.”

He continues by asking a question, more practical than theoretical.

“What exactly is a country surrounded by hundreds of millions of people each one of whom have sworn to destroy her supposed to do, some Israelis ask, as if the mere question is supposed to still the demand to dismantle Israel’s nuclear facilities?” he says, adding that the question, theoretically put forth, ignores interesting facts.

Among the ignored facts, Constantino says, is “that for over 20 years, Arab governments have recognized Israel’s right to exist; that polls taken among Arab nations confirm what most people already know—outrage over the brutal treatment of Palestinians under Israel’s occupation is increasing, not diminishing; that the same polls acknowledge the continued legitimacy among most Arabs of a solution to the Middle East peace problem that includes Israel; that those who bring up the matter of Israel’s supposed ‘impending annihilation’ by its ‘sworn enemies’ do not always realize that the reasoning used to justify Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is in reality a way of thinking framed by a familiar narrative: the small civilized community in a wasteland versus the millions of murderous savages intent on annihilating their way of life.”

What is required of Israel is a series of cogent arguments asserting that Israel’s current right-wing government has become no less racist—and perhaps no less violent—than the Nazis.

Although longer than the other pieces, the essay not only is recommended reading, it is instructional as well, providing clarity to those who are unable to make heads or tails of the current Lebanon conflict.

This, incidentally, brings up yet another kind of hero, many of whom were found to have been working at Lebanon before the war began.

These are the same kinds of people who have sacrificed hearth, and to some degree, health (both mental and physical), just to provide a better life for their families: overseas Filipino workers.

Whether maids, drivers, nurses, or tragically, even sex workers, Filipinos working abroad regularly send money to prop up the economy which has been ailing for so long, very few remember how it was like when the Philippines was progressive.

To show his gratitude for their sacrifices, Constantino allots a section entitled Memories of Exile dedicated especially for profiles of Filipina domestics.

In “The vitamins of Erma Geolamin,” Constantino relates the life and times of a domestic helper who has spent 14 years in Hong Kong only to find out later that the family savings were squandered by a husband who has been living with another woman.
“Another familiar story...It’s like the relationship between overseas Filipino workers and the Philippine government,” Constantino says, referring to the larger, menacing yet often-overlooked form of squandering: that of the Philippine government’s automatic provision of using precious dollars earned by the likes of Geolamin to pay for fraudulent, graft-tainted debt, best represented by the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). These automatic debt payments, Constantino adds, is “a monumental barbarity that re-exports the dollars remitted by overseas Filipino workers.”

But as everyone who has a father, mother, brother or sister working abroad knows, the Philippine government’s methodical mismanagement of funds from its toiling expatriates is just one among the many urgent issues brought about by the policy of exporting the country’s labor force.

“For behind almost every statistic of Filipino workers ‘deployed’ by government to work abroad is a home fighting to keep the fabric of family intact,” Constantino says in a profile of Loretta Bruinio.

Although most tales of Filipina domestics are of woe and desperation, Constantino is not reduced to cynicism, unlike the many professionals who leave Philippine shores even if they can afford to stay. Instead, he waxes poetic, emphasizing isolation and loneliness as a means to focus and act towards a hopefully brighter future — the very ideals exuded by a Brunio, who impresses Constantino with her heroism and humanity.

Admitting that she sometimes is overwhelmed by loneliness on some nights, Brunio says that her “antibiotic” is Ivy, her third and youngest child. “Some nights, when sadness is overwhelming,” Constantino quotes her as saying, “I call up Ivy and ask her to sing for me and then I’m okay.”

It appears that nothing ever lets Brunio down at all.

Although she failed to find fulfillment even after attending a born-again Christian group, it was not enough to discourage the Hong Kong domestic helper from establishing the Coalition for Migrant Rights, an organization whose membership included Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Thais, Nepalese, and Indians.

It comes as no surprise that Constantino chose to call this piece Loretta Brunio: Filipino. This, no doubt, was made in honor of a woman who, without intending to, has come to represent the Filipino everyman. Though successful in securing a job abroad, each overseas worker—most especially those with only manual labor to offer—has grown to realize that there is very little difference between foreign employment and forced exile.

And that, surprisingly, these OFWs not only manage to overcome all forms of adversity, their government’s indifference included, but that they also have learned to improve themselves, doing the country proud.

“In a world imprisoned by self-inflicted ignorance, among people sedated by affluence, inside communities immobilized by fear, the conduct of [Brunio] remind[s] us...of the essence from which springs acts that we have come to know as that glorious but seemingly unattainable thing called heroism,” Constantino says in a piece entitled Well of Valor. “We honor our heroes not merely by erecting monuments in their likeness. We celebrate them, too, by recognizing that they were not uncommon women and men but ordinary people like us who carried attributes that we, too, in truth possess: extraordinary hope, will, and heart.”

Although Constantino has celebrated the achievements of these unsung Filipinos, he nevertheless offers a few rules for those intending to secure a brighter future for everyone.

“Rescuing tomorrow from those who wish to appropriate it carries some requisites,” he says in the introduction. “History must penetrate memory. Memory must permeate history. Act deliberately but with dispatch. Understand. Listen. Reach out. Act with others. Rescue tomorrow together. Hope abounds. The future’s already here, said the writer William Gibson. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”

It’s nice to know that in less than three hundred pages, Poverty of Memory, filled with bite-size pieces, is successful in what it sought out to accomplish.

Robert JA Basilio Jr. is a writer and senior editor of the leading Philippine business paper. He is the husband of award-winning poet Conchitina R. Cruz. They both live in Quezon City with a fat, lazy cat named Minggoy. A shorter version of Basilio's review can be read here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Reihana Mohideen
Green Left Weekly
November 10, 2006

When history is denigrated, such as in these times, Renato Redentor Constantino’s book of essays, which brings together an array of little-known facts about the history of imperialism – from the Philippine-American war, World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – is a welcome and refreshing read. The sharp analysis is delivered with passion, humor and style. Underlying his writings is the commitment of an activist involved in the struggle for social change.

Renato Redentor Constantino, better known as Red Constantino to his comrades, comes from a family of nationalist activists and writers. His most powerful political essays are those linking the history of the anti-imperialist struggle in the Philippines to the resistance to the empire in more recent times.

'I want no prisoners, I wish you to kill and burn: The more you kill and burn the better you will please me’, was the order [of US] Gen. Jacob Smith issued a century ago as his troops slaughtered civilians and Filipino revolutionaries alike defending the first republic in Asia and the freedom they had just wrested from Spain. … Foreshadowing the fate of Lt. William Calley, who was found guilty of leading US soldiers in perpetrating horrors in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai and who served only four and a half months of his life sentence behind bars … Gen. Smith was court-martialled for issuing his barbaric order, found guilty, and sentenced to – an admonition.”

“As early as 1901, the number of Filipinos who had been killed or had died of disease … was pegged by a US general at a ‘mere’ 600,000 …

“Before Afghanistan, before Nicaragua, Indonesia and Vietnam; before all these and much more – it was the Philippines. And what a start it was.” he writes.

In his essay on ‘Progress and regression’ Red takes up the cudgel of his pen against elite rule in the Philippines. “Of extraordinary exploits, Filipinos have had plenty recently to speak of. Three insurrections in the last two decades. Two toppled governments, one failed.”

“We are reminded by the highest officials of the land … that it is time to unite so that the reform program of thegovernment is not derailed. Reform is such a noble purpose. Reform the government. Re-form the oligarchy. Re-form the gangster economy. Reinvent elite rule.

“Each rumor [of popular bedlam] is chewed to pieces by the wealthy, fearful … that the wretched this time will realize there should be more to popular power than just changing the faces of those who rule.”

Red Constantino’s politics, however, go beyond an anti-imperialist nationalism. The book contains an essay on Cuba, entitled an ‘Antidote to despair’, which highlights the tremendous gains made by the Cuban revolution in building socialism and the importance of solidarity. An essay on ‘Lessons from Venezuela’ describes favourably the path taken by the government of socialist President Hugo Chavez. Red Constantino, the political activist, sums up the tasks for our times in the slogan: Remember [history], Refuse [to collaborate with the system of oppression] and Resist.

Recent writing by Reihana Mohideen can accessed here.

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The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire
Lourdes Molina-Fernandez *

Of all the things that one could be bankrupt of, none could be as tragic as an inability to remember. And to learn enough to understand the lessons of what deserves repeating and what must forever be avoided.

A moral bankruptcy, if one believes enough in a forgiving supreme being, might be remedied, for all its seeming irreversibility, by some miracle working in a man’s heart. Needless to say, all other kinds of financial bankruptcy may be reversed. But to empty a memory bank is the worst condition of all. So why, one asks, does this thing keep happening every day in every corner of the planet? Why do follies big and small keep recurring in some form or another, like some economic cycle, despite the abundant and increasingly sophisticated means for monitoring and documenting everything that happens in our lives? One answer: there are means for such tracking and telling -- technology that's pervasive, swift and creative -- but the controls are held mostly by those with a greater interest in keeping certain truths out of people's reach. The gods of truth, they who man the gates where mostly "damned lies and statistics" may pass if useful to their interests, have such an all-pervading ability to influence minds everywhere that there's only so much anyone with a bare passion for honest story-telling can do to get across the details and the message.

To be sure, the levers are held not only within the world of mass media: for the controls in mass media, telecommunications and information technology, interlocking all, are linked firmly and continually to the controls in all the other industries and interests that rule the world. The merchants of oil, the merchants of war, the merchants of lies -- insulated by the brilliant merchants of law who can so easily dictate the terms and limits by which the planet is to be used and by whom, and how much risk people will be exposed to, wittingly or unwittingly.

When I agreed to write the foreword for this book, I thought it would be a good companion primarily for journalists—considering the painstaking effort that its author has put into each piece, in order to weave together history, the breaking story, and the lessons as distilled by social scientists and witnesses both, in one seamless tapestry.

I was wrong. This is a book for anyone who cares to remember, whether the chronicles are written as journalism, or as timeless literature; whether the stories happened this century or the last, or even four centuries before; or whether the persons in them, though set apart by creed or greed, by color of skin or of views, or by class or interest, have something to teach.

Those unfamiliar with the author's style may be uncomfortable initially with how he likes to juxtapose context and people. He jumps from past to past-past to present to future and then back, citing events and people and places with such ease and speed he leaves the reader breathless. In Red's writings, heroism and cowardice are timeless. Nobility of heart knows no creed or color; it may spring in some black American soldier who refuses to kill Filipinos at the turn of the century, knowing they are defending a freedom they won from a foreign power, only to be snatched by a new colonizer. Or in a whistleblower who refuses, though he is "just a mechanic," to be a cog in a secret nuclear machine and thus pays for his refusal with 18 years of his life in prison.

This same ability to string together memories of long ago and of recent vintage, memories of empires lost and still ascending, and connect the dots each time, shows Red’s ability to make the difficult transition between chapters. He jumps, not just from one era to another, from one empire to the next, but also from one oppressed people's struggle to another: whether it's the Philippines after its hijacked revolution at the end of the 19th century, or Indonesia's pogrom after Suharto's ascent to power -- cheered on by the same powers that cheered on a Philippine dictator, only to dump them all when they outlived their usefulness; or East Timor suffering 24 years of annexation while much of the world kept quiet.

He reminds us, lest we forget, that much of today's macho rhetoric against "terrorism" and "terrorists" are actually just ways to cover up a long string of unscrupulous policy: how those who rejected conventions against biological and toxic weapons years ago now threaten to invade countries seen harboring them, and pressure allies into passing sweeping anti-terrorism laws, on pain of economic sanction, with provisions that will not really stem the tide of terror.

The same thread of feigned concern and useless, two-faced solutions run through the new horrors of a new age: to climate-change and global warming issues where the culprits who shunned the Kyoto Protocol spout rhetoric about the need to stop the petroleum addiction and promise support for renewables, while justifying an illegal invasion in the world's biggest oil basin.

I have gone over more than 90 percent of the essays Red included in this book, because they appeared in TODAY newspaper, where I was editor for many years. Still, however, re-reading each one triggered some epiphany of sorts; a joy in seeing complicated stories of basic universal themes told so effortlessly and with just enough passion; but also, a burden in yet again being reminded of the tragedies of our times. Tragedy upon tragedy in an endless stream of diverse stories cannot, however, be anywhere as heartbreaking as the tragedy in not remembering -- the cry of the book from end to end.

Three important lessons I bring with me always since re-visiting the articles: first, while the rich and powerful control the levers that open the gates of truth, we just need enough people, as Red paraphrases John Pilger, to speak out, and urgently. Two, while the "narratives of the occupier" may often dominate the telling of the story, we just need enough people to write the alternative narrative from the ground -- constantly, wherever and whenever possible, as our own Mosquito Press did, not too long ago. Third, history never runs out of cruel lessons, and that cruelty must be matched by a certain ruthlessness in stripping the gods of lies of their "nobility of intention."

There are risks, as always. That is the lot of whistle-blowers, Cassandras, prophets, messengers of bad news, journalists, through time and across empires. This book tells their stories as well, and gives us hope that in whatever context, it is always better to pick the right and the good, because, as every story here keeps repeating, what goes around, comes around.

Manila, 2007

Lourdes Molina-Fernandez was the first woman editor-in-chief of the Philippines, a tribune of journalism since the rule of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Photo of Chuchay Fernandez by the journo Dave Llorito.

Remarks made by the author during the launching of

Renato Redentor Constantino
March 24, 2006
Balay Kalinaw, University of the Philippines, Diliman

Bismillah hirahman nirahim. Assalamu alaikum. Warmatullahi ta'ala walbarakatu. Pagbati sa inyong lahat. I am not an Arab or a Muslim or a member of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan but, in keeping with the tradition of Isaac Deutscher, I wish to say first that, for the purposes of the anti-Muslim and the anti-Arab today, and for the purposes of the malevolent anti-Left, I am a Muslim, an Arab and a member of Bayan.

It is necessary to begin this address with such a statement. History continuously provides us with too many graphic examples of the consequences of indifference. Few among you may know Julius Mariveles. I personally have not met him. I know of him only a couple of things: that he is the news director of Aksyon Radyo-Bacolod and the secretary general of the Correspondents, Reporters and Broadcasters Association of Negros. He is also listed as a target in the "order of battle" of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Mariveles is from Negros; he is a journalist; maybe he is a gentleman or maybe he is outspoken and abrasive; maybe he is even a sympathizer of the national democratic movement; and maybe he is also a member of Bayan, a leftwing organization with political perspectives that some of us may not entirely agree with. The illegitimate government would like each of us to delve on what makes Mariveles different from us so that we may not entertain thoughts of solidarity that have always served as an antidote to tyranny and despair. If we cannot focus beyond the things that make us different, if we cannot impart on our family and friends the lesson that the assault on others is an assault on ourselves -- if we do not stand together in these perilous times -- we will collectively perish.

In truth, we must not only stand together. If we wish to collectively construct our common future, we must also strive to remember together.

This month marks the centennial of the Bud Dajo battle, where 1,600 men, women and children of Jolo were slaughtered by American imperialist troops a hundred years ago. This March marks the 38th anniversary of the Jabidah massacre. Next month also marks the 20th anniversary of the nuclear nightmare of Chernobyl, which the big powers will commemorate by trying to build more nuclear power plants, which will create more nuclear weapons. Twenty years ago, on this month, Filipinos were still celebrating in the streets and offices and households, having broken the grip of a dictatorship and having accomplished what so many kept dismissing for years as an impossibility.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated on this day in 1980, a spiritual hero not just to Latin Americans but also to Filipinos. Romero it was who promised history that life, not death, would have the last word. "I do not believe in death without resurrection," said the Archbishop. "If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people." Today, Romero's light burns brighter and beyond El Salvador, among people who march freely in remembrance and in honor of his memory.

March 24 is also a day that should remind us that some lessons have not been learned. The worst oil spill in US history called the Exxon Valdez disaster took place on this day in 1989, and ten years ago on this day, a massive spill of mine tailings from the mines of the company Marcopper took place in the Philippine island province of Marinduque.

Everyday can be a day of remembering. Everyday can be a reminder that we need to do more and to remember more so that resistance against wrongdoing can be sustained and so that we may become wiser with each passing year.

A book-launching event is always a joyous occasion because it marks the conclusion of a creative process, one defined often by generosity -- the generosity of the writer's sources of emotional and intellectual nourishment. I beg your indulgence if I've to thank some people a little profusely. These are small acts of remembering that are necessary.

I thank first of all the fire-starter and patient teacher for whatever it is that one calls the tiny space I currently occupy in writing. She is not responsible for any of my faults, but she is greatly responsible for the things that have caused the creation of this book and, I hope, the things that have made this book worth reading. She represents grace in person and grace in teaching. I thank her for helping impart to me the value of love of country -- a value increasingly debauched by those who claim to be our nation's leaders. I thank her for nourishing year after year my fascination with history -- in particular, the materialist conception of the past, and for imparting to me the centrality of the discipline and order required in the craft of writing. I am referring to Dada Ming -- Letizia R. Constantino, for those of you who do not know her by the name that her grandchildren and great grandchildren affectionately call her. I thank Letty, a keeper of memory and the chairperson of the Foundation for Nationalist Studies, an aristocrat, as defined by E. M. Foster, who wrote of his abiding belief "in the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory over cruelty and chaos." Thank you, Dada Ming.

I wish to also thank two creatures called RC and Dudi, also known as my parents, for their trust and patience and support. From the time I became politically active, they have been unwavering comrades and before that, they were already my loyal, loony and loving friends. My engagement with radical politics had to begin somewhere and that place was in 38-A Panay Ave. I have been told by Dada Ming how, before I was ten, I was already asking her to recount for me the story of Palestine and the dispossession of an entire people. Political inquisitiveness begins at home and credit for such story requests go to RC and Dudi, who both brought up their family by weaving love and affection together with the concepts of fairness, accountability, responsibility and an insane hunger to discover more of the outside world -- the world outside one's home, one's school, one's neighborhood, one's country, and one's region. To find out more about the world as it existed before and why the world can and should be better, much better, in the future. The milestones that I have reached I attribute mostly to my parents, including this one. Si RC at Dudi ay walang kasing tigas ng ulo at walang kasing kulit pag dating sa kanilang mga anak at sa usapin ng ating bansa bunga ng kanilang paniniwala at respeto sa kakayahan ng kanilang mga anak -- at sa kakayahan ng mamamayang Filipino -- na mabuhay ng malaya, mapayapa, masaya at may dignidad.

The crafting of each part of this book would have been impossible without the activist called Kalayaan Pulido -- Kala to family, comrads and friends, my constant comrade and critic, my dear wife and companion forever who I love so much. I cannot thank you enough, Kala.

Profound thanks go to Chuchay Molina-Fernandez, tribune of journalism and my boss for many years in the esteemed newspaper Today and currently the chief editor the Business Mirror, for finding time to write, in the midst of her insane schedule, the foreword to my book with her trademark candor, clarity and cadence.

I thank Dodong Nemenzo for finding time in the middle of his busy regime-ouster schedule to review the manuscript of the book. Thank you also to the esteemed writer, banker and intellectual, Admiral Dean de la Paz, for writing such a generous review of the book, which came out yesterday in his Business World column.

It's a closely knit family so you will have to forgive me for thanking the painter and UP College of Fine Arts teacher Ninel Constantino for temporarily putting her career on hold in order to provide the elegant design and lay-out of the book. The same goes to Marika Constantino, business manager and painter, for meticulous task of organizing and helping edit the book.

For the happy influence they had on my life, I thank Karina and Randy -- my Nanang and Nonong. For the companionship and criticism, I thank my sister Karmina. For their effort in ensuring the publication of The Poverty of Memory, I must cite our valued caregiver, Mimi Tanoja and also Rose, Aida, Malou and Nieves, and of course for helping organize this event I thank Emily, Merlinda and Jennylyn.

I thank Jenny -- a long time activist of Courage and my best friend since our days at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines helmed by Nemesio Prudente -- along with my kumpare and fellow activist Teddy Lopez for agreeing to be co-emcees of this event. Thank you to Lyn Resurreccion, currently the opinion and science editor of the Business Mirror for her patience and support of my writing endeavors. And lastly, the biggest hugs in the galaxy to my most deliriously wonderful, top-rank activist family for six years, the Greenpeace gang of campaigners and volunteers led here by Von Hernandez and Mareng Beau.

Rebecca Solnit reminds us of an all too often neglected fact -- that "the most powerful spokespeople for hope remain those most in need of it." These are the oppressed -- and our children.

"We talk about 'what we hope for'," wrote Solnit, "in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as WHY we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is inscrutable, we hope because it's a more powerful and more joyful way to live."

This book is thus for Rio and Luna, my two children and daily reminders both to Kala and to myself that hope always trumps despair. This book is also for the late Renato Constantino, nationalist and historian, who I deeply miss.

So ends this speech. It's now time to sign some books I think. After which we may return to the task of kicking out this unbelievably unbearable administration.

Thank you very much. #

Event brings together writers, activists and political personalities
See news item here

Quezon City, 24 March 2006 -- The Foundation for Nationalist Studies (FNS) today launched the book The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire by Renato Redentor Constantino in an event that brought together a hundred guests and attended by writers, activists and political personalities. The event was held at the Balay Kalinaw in the University of the Philippines Diliman Campus.

The launching of the book was celebratory and at the same time solemn as the book's author, a grandson of the late nationalist and historian Renato Constantino, reminded the audience of the need to "remember, rejoice and resist as we confront the twin threats of global and national tyranny." According to Constantino, "the book is, above all, about remembering. It is not only our duty to stand together against the ambitions of empire and small-minded despots; we must also strive to remember together if we wish to build a common peaceful and sustainable future," said the writer.

In his review of the book, the banker and writer Dean de la Paz remarked, "History is not just dates, places and people. For history to matter, it must transform. If that be the measure of history, then Constantino's book is perhaps one of history's most eloquent essays." Lourdes Molina-Fernandez, the editor of the Business Mirror newspaper, described Constantino's essays in the foreword she wrote for the book as "history and the breaking story in one seamless tapestry."

The event was graced by personalities such as Cong. Del de Guzman, Cong. Rene Magtubo and Cong. Mayong Aguja, former senator Wigberto Tanada, including the eminent scholar Bienvenido Lumbera, political economist and author Walden Bello of Akbayan and activists such as Carol Araullo of Bayan, the Wilson Fortaleza of Sanlakas.

"It is difficult to follow the footsteps of a famous grandfather because people are prone to compare him with the ancestor whose name he bears," said the former president of the University of the Philippines, Francisco Nemenzo. "But Red Constantino, in The Poverty of Memory, compels us to judge him on his own terms," said Nemenzo.

The book's author opened the event with a statement of solidarity against authoritarianism. "I am not an Arab or a Muslim or a member of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan. But for the purposes of the malevolent anti-Left, the anti-Muslim and the anti-Arab, I am an Arab, a Muslim and a member of Bayan," said Constantino. The writer also slammed the Armed Forces of the Philippines for targeting journalists and called on its leadership to immediately drop from its "order of battle" Negros-based journalist Julius Mariveles, the news director of Aksyon Radyo-Bacolod.

The Foundation for Nationalist Studies has been publishing progressive literature for thirty years. The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire is available at leading bookstores. Early bird or direct orders to FNS will receive hefty discounts. Call 3732505, 09173814172 or email For inquiries, contact Emily.

Thursday, January 22, 2004


Renato Redentor Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire. A writer and painter based in the Philippines, Constantino's work comes out frequently in leading Philippine newspapers and international publications and has been translated into numerous languages.

Constantino is the managing director of the Constantino Foundation formerly known as the Foundation for Nationalist Studies, a policy research and publication institute which has been publishing progressive literature for almost three decades, including the national social journal The Bulletin Board. Constantino is also the managing director of the translation and advocacy institute Linangan ng Kamalayang Makabansa. He can be reached via redcosmo(at)gmail(dot)com.

Constantino is currently working on his next book and the last batch of aquarelles and sketches based on his travels during the period 2000 - 2005, which he intends to release in an exhibit in late, oh, who the heck knows since he just keeps putting it off. Time is on his side but he is procrastinating. When he is not writing or painting or riding Goran (great mountain bike), Constantino works with Greenpeace International related to the organization's energy campaignin Southeast Asia, China and India.

Red, as he is known to friends, is married to Kalayaan Pulido. They have two kids, Rio Renato (a precocious nine-year old boy who finished the last installment of Harry Potter the day after the book was released worldwide, and Yla Luna (sweet daughter who will turn five in November and who paints and draws as if she were having a furious exchange with Chagall and Klimt...)

Yvette, a family friend, is responsible for turning Red towards the blogging world. Visit the website where Yvette is currently posting with good buddies Kala, Jeng and Ebong.