Monday, June 11, 2007

Excerpt from Stanley Karnow's In Our Image America's Empire in the Philippines

This is a brief excerpt from Stanley Karnow's In Our Image America's Empire in the Philippines. It was first published in 1989, a few years after the Marcos regime was overthrown by the so called Peoples' Power, another Philippine revolution. Mr Karnow made an observation as this book was being completed that the People's Power was not a revolution at all. Nothing was changing by 1989. One corrupt and equally incompetent administration was replaced by another.

We choose this excerpt to post because it clearly explains the Filipino psyche and how it perpetuates a culture of corruption. This was evident with the recent congressional election. It has been over 20 years since the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were removed and four administrations later, the Philippines is as dismal as ever.

They found in the Philippines a society based on a complicated and often baffling web of real and ritual kinship ties – the antithesis of the American ideal on a nation of citizens united in their devotion to the welfare of all.

Again history explains the phenomenon: Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Filipinos belonged to no social group larger that the village, which was in fact their family. Catholic priests spread through the countryside, further sanctifying the family by exhorting the Filipinos to identify with the Holy Family – God the powerful father, the compassionate Virgin mother and Christ, whose suffering and humiliation matched their own misery. The friars also introduced the Catholic custom of godparenthood, which fused with the pre-Hispanic practice of blood covenants with tribal allies to create a network of compadres, or ritual relatives. The sponsors of a child’s baptism, for example, became the ceremonial kin of its parents, and the ritual family could expand to astonishing dimensions as well through weddings, funerals, and confirmations. Calculating the possible permutations, Filipinos outdo Chaucer’s man from St Ives. Historian Theodore Friend has reckoned that a father with five children who enlists four sponsors, each with a family of four, can theoretically weave a fabric of nearly five hundred kin. The system has lost its original religious character as Filipinos, out expediency, forge secular links with professional partners, army comrades, and schoolmates.

Filipinos are absorbed into these alliances from infancy. Children, always invited to celebrations attended by real and fictive relatives, learn to feel comfortable at an early age in the warm fold of parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins and ritual kinfolk. But they also learn as they grow up that there ties impose reciprocal responsibilities and must be observed to avoid the worst of all fates: exclusion from the extended family.

Personal rather than institutional relationships guide Filipinos, making them less sensitive to the rules of society that to the opinions of their real or ritual kin, whose esteem they must win and retain. Hence their obsession with hiya, a Tagalog term that conveys the supremely important concept of “face.” To behave decorously toward family and friends, to display respect for an elder, kindness toward an underling, deference toward a superior - all show exemplary hiya and are ways to gain face. Failure to exhibit these qualities is a walang hiya, to act shamelessly and thus lose face in the eyes of others. Equally vital is utang na loob, the “debt of gratitude” that Filipinos are ethically expected to repay in return for favors, lest they be guilty of walang hiya. A Filipino who renders services piles up credit for the future, since those he has assisted become indebted to him.

At its best, this mutual obligation pattern is an ideal social security mechanism. Filipinos help to raise siblings and later care for their aged parents. If they become wealthy or rise to high office, they are required to support their relatives or find them government jobs. Even the poorest scrape to aid their more indigent kin, and no house is so humble that it lacks a spot for an unfortunate relative. Thousands of Filipinos rely on remittances from their children in the United States. Four hundred thousand Filipinos are employed abroad, mostly in lonely places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Working on contract for two or three years as technicians, nurses, drivers and clerks, they send an estimated $1 billion a year home – a sum equal to one fourth of the country’s earnings from exports. Numbers of women serve as domestics in Singapore and Hong Kong, many ending up as prostitutes. Guaranteed the hospitality of cousins and in-laws, Filipinos travel around the islands for only the cost of air fare. They take cheap charted flights to America, then sponge off an uncle in San Diego, a sister in Chicago or a nephew in Boston...

...The Philippines also owes its worst abuses to the strong blood and ceremonial alliances, whose mutual obligations spawn pervasive corruption. Greed alone is not the motive. Public figures rely on their real and ritual kin to win elected or appointed office, and once in authority, they then must reimburse licenses and other favors, both legal and illicit. The recipients in turn kick back a proportion of their profits to the cooperative officials, and so the cycle of graft and fraud becomes normal practice...

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