A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?

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This 1987 Atlantic Monthly article was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in the United States and has remained the subject of controversy and attention in the Philippines. This is the text as originally published in the magazine.

Copyright 1987 Atlantic Monthly Company

The Atlantic Monthly: November, 1987

A DAMAGED CULTURE

A New Philippines?

IN THE UNITED STATES THE COMING OF THE AQUINO government seemed to make the Philippines into a success story. The evil Marcos was out, the saintly Cory was in, the worldwide march of democracy went on. All that was left was to argue about why we stuck with our tawdry pet dictator for so long, and to support Corazon Aquino as she danced around coup attempts and worked her way out of the problems the Marcoses had caused.

This view of the New Philippines is comforting. But after six weeks in the country I don't think it's very realistic. Americans would like to believe that the only colony we ever had--a country that modeled its institutions on ours and still cares deeply about its relations with the United States--is progressing under our wing. It's not, for reasons that go far beyond what the Marcoses did or stole. The countries that surround the Philippines have become the world's most famous showcases for the impact of culture on economic development. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore--all are short on natural resources, but all (as their officials never stop telling you) have clawed their way up through hard study and hard work. Unfortunately for its people, the Philippines illustrates the contrary: that culture can make a naturally rich country poor. There may be more miserable places to live in East Asia-- Vietnam, Cambodia--but there are few others where the culture itself, rather than a communist political system, is the main barrier to development. The culture in question is Filipino, but it has been heavily shaped by nearly a hundred years of the "Fil-Am relationship.' The result is apparently the only non-communist society in East Asia in which the average living standard is going down.

Now a few disclaimers. Some things obviously have gotten better since Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the country at the end of February last year (though most Filipinos seem to think that the threats to the Aquino government --of which the worst was the bloody August coup attempt --imperil such progress as the country has made). Not so much money is being sucked out at the top. More people are free to say what they like about the government, without being thrown in jail. Not so many peasants are having their chickens stolen by underpaid soldiers foraging for food, although the soldiers, whose pay has been increased, are still woefully short on equipment and supplies.

The economy has stopped shrinking, as it had been doing in the late Marcos years, and some rich Filipinos have brought capital back home. I was not in the Philippines during the Marcos era and can't compare the atmosphere firsthand, but everyone says that the bloodless dethroning of Marcos gave Filipinos new dignity and pride. Early this year, on the first anniversary of the "EDSA revolution' (named for Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, where many of the crucial events took place), television stations ran round-the-clock replays of all the most emotional moments: the nuns' attempts to protect the ballot boxes, the defection of Marcos's two main military supporters, Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos, the abortive swearing-in of Marcos, his sudden disappearance in an American helicopter. It was inspirational and moving and heroic, and as late as this summer, just before the attempted coup, some of the same atmosphere remained. Filipinos are famous for their love of religious icons. A visitor would have to be blind not to see the religious element in Corazon Aquino's public role. Stores sell small Cory dolls with bright yellow dresses and round-rimmed glasses. They're not exactly icons, but I've seen them displayed in homes and cars as if they were. Even when beginning to grumble about her government, many Filipinos speak of Cory's goodness, patience, and piety in tones that suggest they think of her as a secular, widowed Blessed Virgin, and as the only person with even the potential to hold the country together.

Democracy has returned to the Philippines, in a big way. As if to make up for all the years when they could not vote, Filipinos have been analyzing the results of one election and preparing for another almost nonstop since early last year. Election disputes have returned too. For three months after the legislative elections last May, long recounts dragged on to determine whether Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos's former Defense Minister, whose switch to Aquino helped topple Marcos, would get one of the twenty-four seats in the Senate. Senators are elected nation-wide, in what often resembles a popularity contest. Among the new senators is a Charles Bronson--style action-movie star; Enrile is about as well known as the actor, and though he has made many enemies, most foreigners I spoke with found it hard to believe that in an honest vote count he would have lost to everyone on Aquino's list of nominees, which included a number of newcomers and nobodies. Finally, in August, he squeaked in as number twenty-four.

Democracy has unleashed a Philippine press so varied and licentious as to make even Americans feel nervous-- or rather, to recall standing in grocery check-out lines looking at Midnight and Star. Newspapers are always starting up and closing, but at any given time Manila has at least twenty dailies, most of them in English. Each paper features its stable of hardworking star columnists, any of whom is capable of turning out 2,000 to 3,000 words of political commentary and inside gossip--the equivalent of a whole American op-ed page--in a single day. Philippine politics has a small-town feel, because so many of the principals have known one another all their lives. This adds to the velocity and intensity of gossip--especially the rumors of impending coups, which have cropped up every week or ten days since Aquino took power, and which preoccupy political Manila the way scandals preoccupy Washington.

One final disclaimer: it can seem bullying or graceless for an American to criticize the Philippines. Seen from Manila, the United States is strong and rich. Seen from anywhere, the Philippines is troubled and poor. Why pick on people who need help? The Filipino ethic of delicadeza, their equivalent of saving face, encourages people to raise unpleasant topics indirectly, or, better still, not to raise them at all. Out of respect for delicadeza, or from a vague sense of guilt that the former colony is still floundering, or because of genuine fondness for the Filipino people, the United States tolerates polite fictions about the Philippines that it would ruthlessly puncture if they concerned France or even Mexico. I don't pretend that my view of the Philippines is authoritative, but I've never before been in a country where my initial impressions were so totally at odds with the standard, comforting, let's-all-pull-together view. It seems to me that the prospects for the Philippines are about as dismal as those for, say, South Korea are bright. In each case the basic explanation seems to be culture: in the one case a culture that brings out the productive best in the Koreans (or the Japanese, or now even the Thais), and in the other a culture that pulls many Filipinos toward their most self-destructive, self-defeating worst.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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