In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines
The US and the Philippines: In Our Image Neudel, KCET, Los Angeles
Ermita: A Filipino Novel
I heard the story from Francisco (“Franky”) Sionil José, the foremost Filipino novelist in English: a group of American and Filipino friends at a smart dinner party were discussing the US bases in the Philippines. One of the Americans mentioned the increasing number of AIDS cases among American sailors. “That’s what you guys get for screwing us,” said a young Filipina, quick as a flash.
The image is apt. It is hard to discuss what Filipinos call the Fil-American relationship honestly without resorting to sexual imagery. Screwing, literally and figuratively, is the operative word. Filipino accounts of their national history leave the overwhelming impression of a people that has been screwed by powerful foreigners (and their local mimics) for centuries. The picture of a beautiful woman in native dress being raped by the alien conquerer has become a cliché of Filipino iconography. You come across her everywhere, in movies, cartoons, novels, and on posters displayed in street demonstrations.
Power often contains a sexual element, but the Philippines is somehow special. It is hard to think of the Dutch subjugation of the East Indies or the Spanish conquest of South America in terms of screwing; exploitation, certainly, large-scale killing, yes indeed, but not screwing. Is it perhaps because of a masochistic streak in Filipino behavior, a willing submission to superior might, which is degrading and at the same time almost voluptuous? As an American character in F. Sionil José’s latest novel, Ermita, observes to his Filipina girlfriend: “Filipinos get screwed because they like being screwed.” One of the best descriptions of the Fil-American relationship I have ever read is a Playboy magazine article about the US navy base in Subic Bay, by the American novelist P.F. Kluge.1 An unforgettable passage describes the ramshackle pleasure town called Subic City, “Home of the three-holer”:
And now, here you are, and it looks like a Mexican town, something the Wild Bunch might ride into, everything facing a main street, with jeepney after jeepney of sailors tumbling out, the smell of barbecue mixing with diesel fumes, cute, lively, incredibly foul-mouthed girls saying hello and asking what ship you’re from and offering head, and the juke-boxes from a dozen bars playing all at once, and the song you notice is Julio and Willie doing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and you climb to King Daryl’s, where dozens of girls await just you, and you take a chair right at the edge of the balcony, with a King Shit view of the street, and you have a beer in one hand and a pork-satay stick in the other, and a woman between your legs, which are propped up against the railing, and you know you have come to a magical place, all right, a special magic for a nineteen-year-old Navy kid, the magic of a place where anything is possible. And cheap.
Offering head to whoever happens to be king of the mountain seems to have become second nature to many Filipinos. To be down there, between the legs of the Spanish friar or Uncle Sam, or Ferdinand Marcos, or whoever, has become the natural place to be. But screwing has another meaning as well: that of betrayal. Philippine history is also a story of betrayal; those who offer head so willingly usually end up being screwed in both senses of the word, the bitter and seemingly ever recurring experience of a submissive people that expects too much in return.
How did this gifted, humorous people get into such a sorry state? Stanley Karnow’s highly engaging history offers us many pointers. It is rich in facts as well as lively description. The astonishing thing is that no American, to my knowledge, has written such a book before; astonishing, considering that the Philippines was America’s only major colony, but then again, that might explain it: the Land of the Free ought not to have had any colonies. Still, as Karnow points out many times, the United States, after a bloody campaign to take control of the Philippines was, on the whole, a benevolent and enlightened master. And José likes to remind one of the days, not long ago, when “Bangkok was a backwater, Jakarta a big village and Singapore a sleepy colonial outpost, while Manila was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in Southeast Asia.” Why, then, has the Philippines, which had everything going for it, turned into such an unholy mess?
The first encounter with the West, in the shape of Magellan, who arrived in the Philippine archipelago in 1521, went smoothly enough. A tribal chieftain called Humabon was converted to Christianity on the spot. Magellan named him Charles in honor of the Spanish king. But soon disaster struck: Humabon asked Magellan to go and punish a rival chieftain called Lapu Lapu. Lapu Lapu, a fierce-looking character with feathers in his hair, didn’t take kindly to this and his men hacked Magellan to death. Jeane Kirkpatrick tactfully reminded newspaper readers of this event in 1986, just as Marcos was digging his heels in, as a warning to Washington not to get involved in native squabbles. As for Lapu Lapu, his portrait now hangs in the presidential palace in Manila. He had been forgotten for centuries until, as Karnow notes, “contemporary Filipino nationalists revived his memory in an effort to endow the Philippines with a historical continuity that never quite existed.”
A famous Filipino historian, Teodoro Agoncillo, once said there was no Philippine history before the end of the nineteenth century. What he meant was that there was only Spanish history, written by Spaniards, mostly about Spaniards. There are no great pre-Spanish monuments, no pre-Spanish literature, indeed not even many pre-Spanish names, and certainly few pre-Spanish heroes, except, of course, Lapu Lapu. The nineteenth-century Filipino elite, educated in Spanish, was quite literally the product of Spanish screwing, the so-called mestizo offspring of friars, soldiers, and local girls, whose charms had also attracted many a Chinese trader. The great national hero José Rizal, a reformer who pleaded for equality with Spain in the 1890s, was, according to the historian Gregorio F. Zaide, a mixture of Negrito, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Malay—“a magnificent specimen of Asian manhood.”
To seek equality with the alien power is of course not the same as overthrowing it, although it could be dangerous enough. Another national hero, Father José Burgos, a mestizo and not as Karnow calls him “a full-blooded Spaniard,” was publicly garoted by the Spaniards for allegedly instigating a rebellion. What he actually wanted was emancipation of the native clergy.
There is, however, a revolutionary tradition in the Philippines, which occasionally finds common cause with the mestizo elite, but usually does not. It is a tradition of peasant revolts, led by messianic figures, usually many shades darker than the mestizos. In Vigan, formerly the Spanish capital of the northern Luzon, I recently visited the old house of Father Burgos. There was a display of pictures of a peasant revolt, sparked by the imposition of a Spanish government monopoly on a locally brewed alcoholic drink called basi. The pictures showed bands of small, dark men fighting the government militia, identified in the captions not as Spanish troops but as mestizos. This ethnic divide still exists, although it is easy to make too much of it in a country where most people, like Brazilians, are a mixture of something. José, himself a dark-skinned man with native “Indio” features, is fond of saying that “the higher you go up in this country, the whiter it gets.” A look at Mrs. Aquino’s cabinet would seem to prove his point. Compare this to the rather miserable position of mixed bloods in other former colonies, like India or Indonesia, where screwing the natives was not comme il faut.
It was the mestizo elite that, so to speak, offered head to foreign powers in exchange for which service they could rule their darker brothers and sisters. This is the way it has been and, so many say, this is the way it still is. Hence the sense of betrayal. According to Filipino nationalists (often a code word for leftists) the educated mestizos, called “ilustrados,” betrayed the revolution against Spain by cutting a deal with the Americans, after the Spaniards had been driven out by the US Navy in 1898. As soon as the old one was deposed, the new king of the mountain was appeased.
Things are of course never quite so simple. General Emilio Aguinaldo, who fought the Americans bravely for three years after Commodore Dewey’s navy blasted the Spanish ships away, was a typical ilustrado. And even though he cooperated eagerly with the Americans after his surrender, he wore a black tie until the day of Philippine independence in 1946, on which occasion he ceremoniously took it off. His house in Cavite is a showcase of Filipino ambiguity. The ceiling is decorated with the Philippine flag as well as the American eagle. And pictures of Filipino heroes and American presidents hang side by side, like old friends, or, more appropriately in the Filipino context, relatives.
Karnow quotes Aguinaldo’s foreign affairs adviser, Pardo de Tavera, to illustrate the ilustrado mentality. Partly educated in Europe, Tavera was a nationalist and a liberal who believed in universal education, civil liberty, and capitalism, all encapsulated, as Karnow says, “in that magic term of the time: progress.” Not the sort of thing admired by left-wing revolutionaries, or, for that matter, right-wing autocrats. But what truly damns a man like Tavera in “nationalist” eyes is his approach to the Americans. He wrote to President McKinley, who seems to have spent much of his time on his knees asking God what to do about this new colony, which he had barely heard of before hotheads like Roosevelt (Theodore) and MacArthur (Arthur) urged him to acquire it.
“Providence,” wrote Tavera, “led the United States to these distant islands for the fulfillment of a noble mission, to take charge of the task of teaching us the principles that…have made your people the wonder of the world and the pride of humanity.” To MacArthur he wrote that “all our efforts will be directed to Americanizing ourselves” in the hope that “the American spirit may take possession of us,” infusing the country with “its principles, its political customs and its peculiar civilization.”
Although it is Karnow’s thesis that these principles never took hold in the Philippines, some of the political customs and at least the forms of the peculiar civilization certainly did. Teodoros became Teddies, Juans became Johnnies, Corazons became Cories, and Franciscos became Frankies. American public education was to change the Spanish-speaking elite into an English-speaking one within a few decades. Nick Joaquin, a writer educated in English and Spanish, once lamented the fact that
the cultured Filipino of the 1880s… intellectually at home in several worlds…had a latitude unthinkable in the “educated” Filipino of the ‘20s and ‘30s, for whom culture had been reduced to being knowing about the world contained between Hollywood and Manhattan.2
Thus the fact that half the educated male population today seems to bear the title of attorney at law. Or the fact that on prominent display at the biggest department store in Manila is a large oil painting of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in formal Filipino dress. Or the fact that thousands of Filipinos apply every year to work for the US Navy, and that many thousands more are waiting to emigrate to California. Or that Filipino cities all look like East L.A., with minimarts, discos, hamburger joints, and honkytonks. Amid the jumble of street signs and slogans my favorite recent discovery was a sign over a funeral parlor that said, “Funeraria Rosaria: Home of the Superior Casket.” Now here is a people that has clearly taken that peculiar culture on board. Filipinos appear to love it, although to some of course it might seem more like rape.
But if so, the Americans were peculiar rapists. The US conquistadors remind one of Jimmy Swaggart, praying while they sinned. They were on the one hand racist and at times unspeakably brutal and on the other benign, generous, and idealistic. One of the best facets of Karnow’s book is his use of contemporary American journalism, popular songs, and newspaper columns to illustrate the mood in the US. It was from the start one of profound ambivalence. Finley Peter Dunne’s column in the Chicago Tribune is an especially effective example:
“I know what I’d do if I was Mack,” said Mr. Hennessy. “I’d hist a flag over th’ Ph’lippens, an’ I’d take in th’ whole lot iv thim.” “An’ yet,” said Mr. Dooley, “‘tis not more thin two months since ye larned whether they were islands or canned goods.”
Mack was of course President McKinley, the one who went down on his knees, prayed, and realized that “there was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”
No doubt that was sincerely meant, in the best tradition of Yankee generosity. But it took about 200,000 Filipino lives to convince the natives. And not all Americans were as high-minded as Mack. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted by Karnow as saying, “All the great masterful races have been fighting races…. No triumph of peace is quite so great as the triumphs of war.” These feelings were echoed by ordinary soldiers, one of whom stated that “I am in my glory when I can sight some dark skin and pull the trigger,” while another observed that he would like to “blow every nigger into nigger heaven.” A brigadier general named Jacob (“Hell-Roaring Jake”) W. Smith hoped to turn one of the Philippine islands into “a howling wilderness.” One is reminded of Curtis LeMay’s wish in World War II to bomb Japan “back into the Stone Age.” Such images must have a special appeal to a pioneering people.
But once the fighting was done and many “goo-goos” found their rightful places in nigger heaven, the Americans were indeed benevolent. They quickly set up an education system that was second to none in colonial Asia. American soldiers repaired roads, built hospitals, vaccinated children against smallpox, and the US Army band entertained the locals every afternoon in central Manila to such inspiring tunes as “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
Karnow rightly compares the American colonial record favorably with that of European nations. There is a more interesting comparison, though, which he does not draw, and that is with Japan. American colonial history, such as it is, began around the same time as Japan’s. Both countries, for obvious reasons, were opposed to European imperialism, yet at the same time emulated many of its trappings, down to the white topees and classicist architectural bombast. Their colonial conquests came in the guise of anticolonialism; they were, in a sense, the first modern “liberation” movements, and like so many such subsequent movements, they were marked by a peculiar savagery, and, in the Japanese case, a horrible penchant for rape, as though it were not enough to defeat the enemy; it had to be degraded and humiliated too.
This might be explained by a racist element which did not exist yet in earlier European adventures. The British, the Dutch, and the French did not arrive in their respective colonies to liberate anybody, nor were they burdened with racial or even nationalist zeal. They simply wanted to trade. Their empires grew out of that. By the late nineteenth century it was too late for empires to grow; they had to be conquered.
The racial theories, the White Man’s Burden and all that, came around about that same time, a product of Social Darwinism. This had an enormous impact on Japan, obsessed with national survival in the jungle of struggling nations, and, as one can see in the statements of Roosevelt and MacArthur, many Americans were infected by the same virus. Trade was an added benefit, but it was not the only purpose of American or Japanese colonialism. “In their own eyes,” says Karnow, the Americans “were missionaries, not masters.” The Japanese, who felt rejected by the Western world they had wished to join as equals, went on a similar mission, but in their case, at least according to the propaganda, it was to spread the superior virtues of the Japanese race. Conquerers with missions (including the Spanish conquistadors spreading Christianity with the sword) have caused far more mischief than traders, for traders cannot afford to kill off too many of their clients.
It has been suggested that American savagery in the Philippines, as well as in the campaigns at home against Indian tribes, helps to explain the brutality of the Pacific War. This I find unconvincing. For in fact American brutality came to a speedy end in the Philippines, not just for moral reasons but because the Americans, unlike the Japanese forty years later, quickly realized how counter-productive it was. Besides, as Karnow points out, it got a bad press at home. And though Darwinist theories were used to justify the conquest of the Philippines, it is hard to see their relevance to American behavior after Pearl Harbor.
Karnow draws a different parallel, between the Philippine war and the Vietnamese struggle for “liberation.” He attributes the Vietnamese success to a combination of national cohesion—bolstered by a shared history, national heroes, and so on—and a revolution promising a better life to the dispossessed peasantry. Aguinaldo’s mestizo elite, in contrast, fought for independence, but not for social reforms that would benefit the masses. And unlike Vietnam, the Philippines had little national cohesion, solidarity, or identity, which made it hard to find any common cause. There is some truth in all of this, but one important point is, I think, missed, a point that cuts to the core of Philippine politics today. Was Ho Chi Minh’s or General Giap’s success in mobilizing the people a question of national identity or was it to a large extent something more mundane, like political coercion? Do the subjects of a Communist state really have much choice when they are ordered to fight? The same is of course true of many Communist reforms: they are forced on the people. Aguinaldo may not have been a great, let us say, agricultural reformer, but he was much more of a democrat than Ho Chi Minh.
The constitution of the first Philippine republic, promulgated in 1899, was a remarkably sophisticated document, and the new state, whose executive powers were checked by a strong legislature, remarkably liberal. It may be that a more authoritarian leadership—especially if it had been backed by a foreign power—would have had more success fighting off an invasion, just as there are many people today who would like the Philippine government to be more authoritarian in pushing through social reforms. It may also be true that Aguinaldo and his fellow ilustrados would never have reformed their feudal society. It can even be argued, as many do, that in a democracy run by an elite, whose interests are contrary to those of the masses, reforms are an impossible dream. But the Filipinos never really had the chance to prove themselves as a nation, for their efforts to do so were preempted by the Americans. It seems questionable to me, in any case, that Aguinaldo’s defeat by the US had much to do with the lack of cultural unity or historical heroes.
It fits right into Karnow’s general thesis, though. He believes that the American mission to transplant its values and institutions to the Philippines, or anywhere in Asia, was a dangerous illusion. As he puts it: “A noble dream, it proved in later years to be largely an exercise in self-deception.” This, in Karnow’s view, is because of deep cultural differences. I have my doubts about this argument as well. The idea that every country can be just like America and every capital another American town is naive, to be sure. But the aborted effort of Filipinos to establish their own democratic republic, partly based on American institutions, proves that there is nothing in Filipino culture innately hostile to a liberal democracy. Karnow rightly says that Filipino politics are based on personal relationships—between landowners and peasants, political bosses and clients, and so on—rather than impersonal institutions, but this is less a cultural peculiarity than the normal condition of any preindustrial society.
The Americans were a destructive force, not because their ideals could not be transplanted but because they robbed Filipinos of the chance to be their own masters. By making them dependent on American tutelage and largesse, they perpetuated the old colonial setup and deprived the Filipino elite of responsibility, the effect of which has lasted to this day. The Filipinos submitted to foreign domination, but not from choice. Indeed, as Karnow describes in detail, one of the worst instances of betrayal was the American promise to Aguinaldo in 1898 that the Philippines would be left alone once the Spaniards were ousted.
It is of course true that the Americans tried to remake the Philippines “in our image,” which included lessons in democracy. But the reason these lessons didn’t stick has less to do with incompatible Filipino values than with the gap between ideals and colonial reality. How could Filipinos become responsible democrats if the democratic tutors behaved like feudal patrons, fostering dependence while preaching the virtues of independence. This is where the cultural and political signals got seriously confused, again a situation that has lasted more or less to this day. For when the Americans act like masters, Filipinos talk about freedom from the American yoke; but as soon as the Americans threaten to cut their charges loose, Filipinos feel betrayed, as though the patron is forgetting his obligations. By the time the Filipino elite was actually offered independence, the Fil-American relationship had already become much too cozy, the psychology of dependence too deeply entrenched, the special privileges too convenient. Sergio Osmeña, who became president just before coming home with Douglas MacArthur in 1944, is said to have observed that “the Filipinos wanted independence only when it seemed to be getting farther off, and the minute it began to get near they would begin to get very much frightened.”
As far as other Asian “client states” are concerned, the problems with democracy have less to do with the incompatibility of American values and local traditions than with America’s ambivalent policies. South Korea and Japan are good examples. After World War II there was great eagerness in both countries, especially among leftists (the only real opponents of Japanese authoritarianism), to accept America’s help to set up liberal democracies. At first they even got the blessing of General MacArthur, not a man generally known for his liberal views. But by the late 1940s fear of communism was such that the noncommunist left was purged along with the communists, and reactionary regimes returned to power, secure in their knowledge of American support. Realpolitik alternated with idealism in a way that has bewildered American allies ever since Aguinaldo sailed to Manila on board a US Navy ship. Masters or missionaries? Liberation or the White Man’s Burden? Anticolonial colonialism: President McKinley was not the only American unsure of what to do in Asia.
In a way, American foreign policy has always been a hostage to its own propaganda. Moral arguments must be harnessed to convince the homefront of the justness of America’s cause. Great expectations are raised abroad, only to be abandoned in sudden shifts of policy. The national interest can get hopelessly mixed up with the national mission to spread the gospel of freedom and democracy, and the two, alas, don’t always dovetail neatly. Sometimes the national interest suffers, sometimes the mission; either way, people end up feeling betrayed.
Nonetheless, despite the demands of Realpolitik, America has been a relatively generous superpower. So much so that it strikes many Americans as extraordinary when such generosity is reciprocated with surly resentment instead of gratitude. For someone like Imelda Marcos, indulged by at least four American presidents, to feel betrayed by America must seem perverse. But it has to be said that some Filipinos had ample cause to think they had been screwed by Uncle Sam.
When MacArthur returned to repossess the Philippines from the Japanese, he found a Filipino elite, led by Benigno Aquino Senior, Cory’s father-in-law, and José P. Laurel, father of Cory’s vicepresident, that had dealt with the Japanese in precisely the way the American and Spanish masters and missionaries had been dealt with before: collaboration in exchange for patronage. Once again, the Filipino elite had offered head. The strongest resistance to the Japanese came from the darker folks, the traditional rebels recruited in the poor rural areas, in this case the guerrilla army of the leftist Hukbalahap, or Huks. They had helped the Americans free Luzon, but when that job was done, they were seen as a communist threat to the established order. The Huk leader, Luis Taruc, was jailed on charges of preventing the country “from returning to a normal way of life.” The normal way of life was of course a meager existence for the peasants, whose cause the Huks championed, under the domination of the old landlords, the very people who had collaborated with the Japanese.
As Karnow rightly observes, MacArthur “aborted change in the Philippines by reinstalling the traditional dynasties, whose primary aim was to protect their vested interests.” Could he have done otherwise, a man in a hurry to restore order in a chaotic country in ruins? Perhaps not, but what was truly unforgivable in many Filipino eyes was his swift abandonment of the Philippines to become the proconsul in Tokyo, where, again in Filipino eyes, the great American Father, their very own compadre, proceeded to make the old enemy rich and powerful again. This offended the old custom of utang na loob, obligation earned through favors. Hadn’t Filipinos died for the USA? So did most Filipinos feel well and truly screwed by the old Lion of Luzon? No, no, no, said Cardinal Jaime Sin, archbishop of Manila, interviewed by Karnow in the fascinating television documentary about the Fil-American relationship: “Nobody can say anything against MacArthur here. You’d get stoned. That man saved us. He promised to return, and he did return.”
If only he hadn’t, if only America had left its old colony alone, things might have turned out better in the end. For if the Americans are often confused about their motives and aims, the Filipinos have an even harder time disentangling sentimental and cultural expectations from national interest. We hate you, we love you; Yankee go home, but please not just yet. As President Quezon once said: “Damn the Americans, why don’t they tyrannize us more!” There are many countries where men have come to power with the help of the CIA, but only in the Philippines can one imagine a local boy being elected and, what is more, being hugely popular because he is backed by the CIA. This was the case with Ramon Magsaysay (“He’s Our Guy”), elected president in 1953. The agency could not have wished for a better front man. He was an earthy, dark-skinned man of the people, quite different from his rich mestizo predecessors. He didn’t even have a Spanish name. Although hardened foreign correspondents like to dismiss him as nothing but a CIA creation, many Filipinos remember Our Guy wistfully; if only we could have another Magsaysay, if only he were still with us: he died in a plane crash in 1957.
Marcos, too, was a change from what he called the old oligarchy. But unlike Magsaysay he was not made by the CIA. He was a brilliant young upstart from the gritty north who first gatecrashed the privileged world of the Filipino elite and then proceeded to strip some of its most prominent members of their assets—only to redistribute the new wealth among his friends. He also seemed serious about land reforms and even dared challenge the traditional power of the Catholic Church. Here, at last, was a popular nationalist, who would tackle some of the country’s fundamental problems. Now, more than a few people think wistfully of his early years, too: if only he had done what he promised to do.
But instead he created a mirror image of the old colonial system, in which he was the only patron, the super compadre, the don of dons. And American eagerness to keep the bases (the country’s biggest employer after the Philippine government) meant that Marcos, just like his predecessors in the colonial era, could make himself and his friends fortunes by squeezing the old White Chief. He became so adept at this, and Washington was often so clumsy, that it was not always clear who was screwing whom. In addition he stole from his own country’s coffers. The extraordinary insouciance of Marcos’s kleptocracy can only be understood as an example of colonial psychology: Why should he be responsible for anything but himself, his family, and his friends? America would always be there to protect him and clear up the mess. After all, he was America’s loyal friend and he fought communists. Isn’t that what America wanted?
But, as we know, even Marcos came to grief, the beginning of his demise shown live on Ted Koppel’s TV show. There they went, the President and his First Lady, lifted out of their palace in an American helicopter, the First Lady singing “New York, New York.” And now the Marcoses, too, feel screwed. They were “kidnapped” by the Americans, they say, after having been betrayed by the American press. “I grew up around everything American,” says Mrs. Marcos in between singing old Irving Berlin tunes for visiting reporters, “American food, American music…USA, red, white and blue…. We were not just friends, allies, we were one in spirit with America.” But, then, “America did us in…. Before the kidnapping, we were clean, we were goodlooking. I was ‘beautiful,’ I was ‘great.’ And after the kidnapping, I was—everything was rotten.”3
I daresay that, underneath all the lies and all the playacting, this emotion is sincere, as sincere as is humanly possible with show folks like the Marcos couple, as sincere, at least, as President McKinley’s intention to civilize and Christianize and do the best by the little brown brothers in…what was the name of that place again? It is sincere and deeply humiliating, in the way that squabbles over money in a whorehouse are humiliating. Mrs. Marcos’s tears are like the tears of a hooker who feels she has not been paid enough for her services.
Much of this really has to be seen to be believed. Karnow is an excellent sketcher of characters, and what characters they are!—Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Manuel Quezon, Imelda Marcos, “Ninoy” Aquino. In the world of Filipino politics—one is tempted to say Filipino life—everybody becomes an actor, playing roles, often confused but always flamboyant, always bella figura. Television, with its emphasis on “personality,” seems made for Filipinos. To read about Ninoy’s speeches, Imelda’s disco parties, or the carnival of the ‘86 People Power revolt is fascinating enough. To see it on TV is riveting. The makers of the PBS series “In Our Image” have wisely allowed Filipinos and Americans to tell their own story. And if it lacks historical detail and what social scientists, and now everybody else, call context, Karnow’s book provides an excellent guide. The last person to appear in the three-part series is F. Sionil José, commenting that “our great hangup over the United States should have ended a long time ago.”
José in some ways exemplifies the turmoil of Filipino intellectual life. He talks about the need for a “truly nationalist revolution,” though he loves America, where several of his children have settled. He sympathizes with young people who disappear into the mountains to join the communist New People’s Army, though he has little sympathy with communism. Yet in some circles he is regarded as a communist, while more progressive types accuse him of being a “CIA agent”—for his association thirty years ago with the Congress for Cultural Freedom. This is nothing special in the Philippines; most people are suspected of being either communists or American agents. That José is accused of both says something about the man: he is the kind of free spirit who would be intolerable to any revolutionary regime, whether of the right or the left.
José’s radicalism is not so much the product of Marxist analysis as of a moral rage. V. S. Naipaul might call it a colonial rage, against the humiliation of subservience, the indignity of a history of failure. This is the theme that runs through all José’s novels, which deserve a much wider readership than the Philippines can offer. It is indeed a minor scandal that important Filipino authors are virtually unknown in the US, while Africans, Indonesians, and Indians find a serious readership in Europe. José’s major work is the so-called Rosales saga, four novels dealing with Filipino history from 1872 to 1972. The entire saga can be read as an allegory for the Filipino in search of an identity.
The heroine of José’s latest book is a prostitute. And as if that metaphor were not strong enough, she was born as the result of a rape, inflicted on her rich mestizo mother by a Japanese soldier during the sacking of Manila in 1945. Ermita, the name of the heroine, as well as the title of the novel, screws her way to the top, ending up with that most desirable of things, a rich American husband. But in the kind of denouement José likes, she rejects the American and goes back to her real love, a Filipino she grew up with. His first name, incidentally, is Mac, short for MacArthur. She doesn’t actually take to the hills, to join the revolution, as does the hero in José’s best-known novel, Mass, but she does, as a Manila intellectual might put it, find her identity as a Filipina. In José’s moral universe, the two are closely linked: revolution is a matter of pride, dignity, identity. “What we need,” says José, tapping his nut-brown head, “is a revolution in here.” What we need, he means to say, is to stop being prostitutes.
Colonial rage usually boils over into self-hatred. A young student in Mass sums up the author’s feelings:
Listen, our history…is a history of failed revolutions. Always, in the end, someone was bought or someone turned traitor. We are a nation of traitors…. We delight in seeing the downfall of others, even friends. We betray for money, for revenge, for envy…but most of the time, out of sheer cussedness.
In Ermita, a former historian called Cruz, now “prostituting” himself for a multinational company, tells Ermita that
we are witnessing the slow demise, the gradual self-destruction of this nation. And we don’t need a foreign colonizer to do this. We are blissfully doing it ourselves…. Our entire educational system—and I am its product—is valueless. It is our creation. We cannot blame it for the fatal flaw in us. Maybe, we deserve the darkness that is coming.
José’s rage seems at odds with the seemingly indestructable carnivalesque jokiness of the Filipinos. Yet it reflects a dark current that runs through their history, occasionally erupting in messianic zeal and violence. José is an urbane, witty, cosmopolitan man of the world, a pillar of the local PEN club, a gourmet and a connoisseur of art. He is not a communist and voted for Cory Aquino. But his spirit is with the rebels in the hills, in whom he thinks he sees the latest incarnation of his Indio ancestors, still waiting to exact their blood debt from the mestizos who betrayed them.
His latest novel on the Philippines is MacArthur's Ghost (Arbor House, 1987; Lyle Stuart paperback, 1989).↩
The Aquinos of Tarlac: An Essay on History as Three Generations (Manila: Cacho Hermanos, 1983).↩
The Washington Post (April 15, 1989).↩