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It's All History by Jon Malek

Tsismis, talaga?

by Jon G. Malek

“History is like tsismis [gossip].” Thus, did actress Ella Cruz light a tinderbox of national debate surrounding the nature of history. Cruz, who plays in the newly released movie Maid in Malacañang, which recounts the final hours of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, continued to say that history is filtered to us from the past, implying that things may be added or taken away. Now, as a historian, I can say that I agree that the past, through historical sources, is passed down to us and that these sources can be modified. But that observation that history is passed down and may be modified is a truism – a truth that is so obvious, self-evident, and mundane that it doesn’t make much of a statement. Cruz and her supporters, though, seem to feel this is something profound.

The reason that Ella Cruz’s statement is an unprofound truism is that it completely neglects the actual process of history. Obviously, we are handed down sources such as oral histories, written documents (whether government, diaries, newspapers), and other media such as artwork, or AV recordings. A single source, though, is almost never used to construct a history. There are exceptions, such as when there is only one source that is known to exist on a topic and, in those cases, historians are very cautious using it. Why? Because sources have biases. For example, a government account of a protest rally will differ from that contained in a participant’s diary. Sometimes the differences are because each is intentionally trying to depict a particular view of the event, but bias can also simply come from the fact that both authors are serving different purposes. Government reports versus personal diary entries are, by nature, very different.

As a result of the bias inherent in every source, historians use as many different sources as possible to understand and reconstruct something from the past, whether it be a person’s life, an event, or an entire period. History is not merely a collection of facts, dates, and names; it is the interpretation of those things. The sources one uses and the viewpoint of the historian all affect the narrative that is constructed. Thus, each historian and each piece of rigorous historical analysis brings a particular perspective. As Ludmilla Jordanova in History in Practice wrote, “diversity of opinion [based upon interpretation of historical sources] among historians is inevitable. What historians share is their commitment to the critical evaluation of evidence, to meticulous reasoning and to disclosing their sources” (5). That is, interpretations differ, but historical methods and the ethics behind them should not.

What is ironic about this is that the movie, Maid in Malacañang, is reportedly based on the testimony of a single eye-witness, and so presents a very narrow and biased view of what may have happened. There is no shortage of accounts of this period, including from those who were supporters of Marcos, that could have been used in the film. Many of these other accounts contest events as they were depicted in the movie, or at least offer additional details, which raises an important point: Why are historians up-in-arms over the statement? If the statement by Cruz is a bland truism, why all the media traction and attention?

It is, of course, the context in which it was made. The movie itself has been received by many, both pro- and anti-Marcos, as revising the history of the Marcos family. (Full disclosure: I have not seen the movie yet and I am not interested here in offering a review of the movie.) Cruz initially made the statement at the movie’s promotion, suggesting that the narrative of the movie depicts a researched and legitimate view of the events depicted. You will note before I had referenced rigorous historical analysis. Good historical practice is as exhaustive as possible, tracking down and reading many sources and integrating each of them to construct a narrative the historian, in good conscience, believes is true and reflective. A single eye-witness account that is presented as offering a legitimate, counter view of accepted history, without acknowledging other accounts, is not rigorous by any means.

Further problematizing the statement and its context was when Ella Cruz fortified her opinion in a vlog post with Imee Marcos. Of all people she could have had the discussion with, appearing with Senator Marcos reveals the purpose behind the statement: the suggestion that the history of Martial Law and the Marcos family can be rewritten using gossip as a source. Imee and Ella can quote all the Oscar Wilde they like, but historical practice knows better, and has known better for millennia. Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian from the 5th century B.C. who is considered to be the founder of the practice of history, believed in the veracity and multitude of sources, doing his best to find more than one report of similar events.

In a world of Internet 2.0 where anyone can post their views online, Ella Cruz’s statement might seem like it’s making a good point. Further supporting it on the vlog of Imee Marcos also might support that. But it is not. In reality, historical practice is held up to a high standard of review. Before an article or book written by a professional historian is published, it usually goes through a rigorous process where the sources, methods, and arguments are scrutinized by other professional historians to maintain the standard of the craft of history. Certainly, Ella Cruz’s arguments would not pass this process, and we should all remember that history is based upon the veracity and multitude of sources, not mere tsismis.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.