Feb 28, 2017 | essay

The Revolution Was Televised


Andrea Phillips wrote us this follow-up essay to her story from last week, The Revolution, Brought to You by Nike.

Here in America, the only thing people remember is the shoes.

After Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the country, the people took over their palace and its contents. They found hundreds upon hundreds of designer shoes; too many for any one woman to wear in a lifetime. This was a widely reported, iconic symbol of excess; a small symptom of how a corrupt regime had profited at the expense of its people.

Now it’s all the West remembers. Not the corruption, not the protests, not the assassination. Just: there was a woman, and she had a lot of shoes.

I remember sleeping over at a friend’s house one night, during the revolution or just before it, worried that men with rifles would go house to house and find us and shoot us. This wasn’t a plausible scenario, not really. But I was a child, and so I had a child’s understanding of what was happening. And what was happening was big and frightening, the world changing under our feet.

This is what I knew: Ninoy Aquino was shot in an airport for daring to come home to the Philippines and lead the opposition. I saw graffiti honoring Aquino, red spray paint stenciled onto cement walls with pieces of broken glass embedded along the top. The person who had left that mark had done a dangerous thing in making it.

Some ideas, I learned, are dangerous.

Growing up as a child on military bases, you are exposed to many ideas earlier and faster than you might have elsewhere. Another such idea was a question. What would you die for? What is so important to you that you would willingly give your life?

I am not a Filipina. This was not my story, because it was not my revolution. And yet this is my life and my memory. If not mine, then whose?

It’s easy to think that advertising is an unimportant job, a leech job. That nothing Nike or Cheerios or Target has to say matters at all, excepting that they are trying to sell you something. That if they do good, it is purely a matter of self-interest and thus should be discounted.

As an artist, I also am trying to sell you something. Right now I am trying to sell you on reading a story I have written, in the hopes that you will read it, and like it, and perhaps buy my other work, and on and on until perhaps I have enough money to pay for a meal or a mortgage, so I can sustain myself and do more and better work.

This does not mean that I am not also trying to convey to you a truth, or at least a feeling. I am an artist, and I am trying to move you by carefully exposing hidden and vulnerable parts of my self for your benefit. This is a performance, and so I dance for your pennies:

By the time I was ten years old, I knew what rifles firing in the distance sounded like.

I know this is a commercial transaction. You know. This does not transform a truth into falsehood.

I do the same work and sometimes the same bleeding for corporations as I do for myself. Or more properly, for you who are reading this. I am only one artist, with one brain. If I do good while in their employ, does it not count because they wish to sell something?

I heard once that Marcos had been a good president, to begin with. He built roads and schools. And then…

Guns did not win the People Power Revolution. Snipers and helicopters were present, and they played a role, to be sure. But as revolutions go, this one was nearly bloodless.

On the night the revolution was won, there were two inaugurations. One was for Ferdinand Marcos, who was widely known to have stolen the election. The other, elsewhere, was for Corazon Aquino, Ninoy’s widow, who had run against him.

Revolutionaries took over a television station. They broadcast Corazon Aquino’s inauguration. It was the first time a new president had been inaugurated in the Philippines since 1965. This was the weapon that brought a swift victory: the mere image of another president.

So. In my child’s understanding of revolution, some ideas are so dangerous that they can topple a regime, simply by seeing them on television.

Culture is made of many small ideas, squashed together like bits of clay. Here is how we know what foods are acceptable for breakfast; here is how we know what is desirable in a coat, in a shoe, in a life partner. Here is how we know how to engage in an argument. Here is how we know who is our equal and who is our enemy.

Sometimes advertising makes up little clay balls of ideas and persuades us they have been there all along. And so De Beers has given us diamond engagement rings. Coca-Cola has given us Santa Claus. Listerine has created the modern plague of halitosis.

Sometimes advertising shows us little clay balls that have been there all along, but were not broadly acknowledged as a part of the schist before. Nike is showing us Muslim women who excel at sports. Cheerios has shown us interracial families, and Target has done the same with gay families — presenting them as ordinary and unexceptional. These small acts add up over time to change how society as a whole perceives itself. That power is why they make some people so angry.

Revolution, too, is made of small ideas. They stack up, one on top of another, until you have built a tower high enough to see another way to live.

The revolution is not always signs and chanting. The revolution is not always guns and tanks, not riot police, not tear gas and pepper spray, not blood running in rivers in the streets.

Sometimes the revolution looks like trying to sell you something. Sometimes the thing being sold can’t be bought in stores. Sometimes the thing being sold is better than what you have already.

Sometimes the revolution is a dangerous idea.

About the author

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning game designer and author. Currently she co-writes the serials Bookburners and ReMade. Her debut novel, Revision, is about a wiki where your edits come true. Andrea lived in Angeles City in the Philippines as a child, in the years before and after the 1986 People Power Revolution. This was extremely formative to her. You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. You know, if you like that sort of thing.