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By Elmer A. Ordoñez
The activist scholar speaks
The Manila Times

September 17, 2008

There was a time when the academe was seen as a community of scholars engaged in advancing the frontiers of knowledge through research and teaching in the sciences and humanities.By nature the aca­demic is not an activist and is seen (as U.P. professor Crisitino Jamias did in the 50s) as one who is “unleading and unled.”

The scholar’s entry in public life or discourse would be incidental and he may be drawn to social commitment depending on the times. Before the war, U.P. scientist Vicente Lava (Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia), zoology professor Agustin Rodolfo (Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin) and U.P. Librarian Gabriel Bernardo were involved in the radical movement until the post-war years. Conditions in the 30s called for struggle against fascism growing in Europe and Japan as well as in the Philip­pines. Agrarian unrest and lack of social justice were burning issues then as they still are today.

The late 50s and following decades compelled many other­wise quiet scholars to become activists (in the U.S. it was the civil rights struggles and pro­tests against the Vietnam War; in the Philippines, the con­tinuing semi-feudal and semi-colonial impasse, with U.S. surrogates running and des­poiling the country).

Political scientist and ex-U.P. President Framcisco Nemenzo Jr., (Ph.D. Manchester); physicist and ex-U.P. chancellor Roger Posadas (Ph.D. Pittsburgh) and his colleagues in the pre-martial law Samahan ng mga Maka­bayang Siyentipiko and SAGUPA (Sama­han ng Mga Guro ng Pilipinas); literary scholar Bienvenido Lumbera (Ph.D. Indiana) and writers in PAkSA (Panitikan para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan) are among the many members of the academe who decided to lend their expertise to the national democra­­tic movement. Today the committed scholars are legion—involved in militant groups of varying ideo­logical orientations.

Three U.S. based scholars whom I admire turned from what seemed to be “sedate” studies to active participation in people’s struggles – Dr. Edward Said (who wrote his Harvard Ph.D. thesis on Joseph Conrad), a bit ahead of Dr. Epifanio San Juan Jr. in the same school (his Ph.D.thesis is on Oscar Wilde) and Dr. Noam Chomsky of M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass., noted for generative (or transformative) grammar studies (e.g. Syntactic Structures).

Not only did Dr. Said (who taught English and Comparative Literature at Columbia) pioneer in postcolonial theory with his groundbreaking Orientalism (perhaps inspired by Conrad’s anti-colonial views e.g. Heart of Darkness) he (Palestine-born) also became a member of the PLO leadership. An articulate spokesman for the Palestinian cause, he has also a photo showing him throwing a rock across the Lebanon-Israel border.

U.S. based Dr. San Juan whom I have known from his U.P. student days in the 50s was radicalized during the late 60s, translating Amado Hernandez’ s prison poetry (Isang Dipang Langit) and writing a book Carlos Bulosan and the Politics of Imagination (U.P. Press, 1972). He has since written many critical books of engagement and is acknowledged as a leading Marxist critic here and abroad. In the U.S. he has been active in the support movement starting with anti-martial law groups in the 70s and 80s to people’s and anti-imperialist struggles of the present.

(San Juan’s school mate in U.P., Jose Maria Sison, also an English A.B. cum laude graduate, would have become a Ph.D. specialist had he not been removed from the faculty by older conser­vative professors. Sison then taught in Lyceum and would found the Kabataang Makabayan that became the lead youth group (together with workers and peasant organizations) for re-establishing the Communist Party in 1968. With his many publications on the Philippine revolution, Sison is acknow­ledged as among the leading 200 or so Marxist thinkers of the world.)

Linguistics scholar Noam Chomsky is well known as a left intellectual who has many articles on political and social matters. What he has to say is always welcome for his alter­native views.. He is an example of the specialist in academe, contributing to progressive intellectual discourse on a wide range of issues. He has also joined mass struggles and works in solidarity with national liberation groups.

His recent piece is on the “anti-democratic nature of U.S. capitalism” exposed in the light of the current financial collapse of Wall Street. He connects this crisis with the failure of neoliberalism. The bailout (financed by taxpayers) of rogue investment giants is an example of government inter­vention passed as law by the prevailing one party system (the business party) made up of two factions, the Democrats and the Republi­cans. He concedes that under the Democrats “real” incomes of middle classes and workiug-poor families rise much more appre­ciably than under Republican rule, Still, he notes that over the centuries prog­ressive legislation and social welfare are won by popular struggles, not gifts from above.

Now, will Obama as U.S. president make a difference?

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