Eulogy for a Gadfly
“I need time away. I need to clear my head” are the last words Carlos Celdran said to me in private conversation. He was deeply sad, he had said, to be leaving his beloved home—“bawling”, he said. This was in January, and I had dropped him a note to offer my sympathies—I was about to leave the country, too, and understood in some small measure what he was going through. He repeated again and again that he loved the Philippines, that he was heartbroken to be away.
New York University Professor Michael Purugganan finally said it: “Let there be no mistake. Carlos Celdran died in exile."
I’d like to think Carlos might have relished the implications of being exiled to Spain, where some of history’s other heroes were also thrown. But the fact that he died like this—in exile, and away from the country that he loved—is a tragedy for all of us. He was famously the only Filipino ever convicted of “offending religious feelings”, for standing up in church holding a protest sign during the height of the debates on reproductive rights, but using this measure, he was guilty of many other sins in the service of the nation.
“I didn’t always agree with him…” begins so many of the online tributes that have followed the news of his untimely passing. I don’t think this is true: I think we all agreed with him—because how can one disagree with patriotism, with stubborn love of country, with courage, with the need to speak truth to power?
We all agreed with him—because how can one disagree with patriotism, with stubborn love of country, with courage, with the need to speak truth to power?
What we disagreed with, perhaps, were his methods. Or maybe we didn’t even disagree with his methods, as much as we were frightened by them. Here was a Filipino who was unafraid to poke the hornet’s nest in however way he could. The Damaso stunt, the one-man show on Imelda, the irrepressible comments on social media—they weren’t the most prudent things one could do, perhaps, in this climate.
But in the handful of times I met and spoke with him at length, I always came away with the impression that he couldn’t help himself: as an artist, he could only process reality by baring himself, with neither filter nor protection. He was willing to do the dirty work of attracting hatred, if it meant also drawing attention to society’s ills. He made himself annoying in his incessance, fulfilling the role of the Socratic gadfly that would goad the dimwitted horse that was sometimes the government.
He was the irritating gadfly that we needed. And as Socrates warned through the centuries, the death of a gadfly is a deep wound to a democratic society.