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Mar 26

We Filipinos

Current – http://blogs.inquirer.net/current/2007/03/26/we-filipinos/

By Manuel L. Quezon III on March 26, 2007 5:35 PM

OUR government conducts surveys on poverty, of course. And when surveys emerge that it doesn’t like, it actively disputes such non-government surveys. But in the end, government goes where public opinion leads it. The President imposed a deadline on curbing hunger, designated lead agencies, mobilized funds, and along the way decided to stop trying to counter public opinion, and instead, prove itself responsive to that opinion. Yesterday, blogger  Philippine Commentary essentially defended  the President, who has been clobbered in the media for something she said. What she said is true, he said. The blogger’s reaction reminded me of how often we debate our national characteristics, and how often we despair of what we consider our national character. Charles de Gaulle once famously said of his fellow Frenchmen, “how can you be expected to govern a country that has 264 kinds of cheese?” The French are often described, and at times describe themselves, as impossible to govern, and impossibly quarrelsome; if you ever have a chance to read the book “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French” (Jean-Benoit Nadeau, Julie Barlow), you would probably enjoy it. It reads in many respects, like a book about we, the Filipinos. How often have we heard something similar to what de Gaulle said? I even once heard a variation of de Gaulle’s remark: “how can you govern a country with dozens of different kinds of kakanin?” And in our exasperation, we turn to what some would call “self-flagellation.” In some cases, it comes close to either self-loathing, or a furious contempt for our countrymen. It becomes ticklish when criticisms we aim at ourselves, are pointed out by our fellow countrymen as the statements of ignorant foreigners. Rizal’s famous essay on the Indolence of the Filipino tried not only  to examine the question, but how to approach it; as he put it, we should do so “without superciliousness or sensitiveness, without prejudice, without pessimism.” and perhaps, with the realization that the things that disturb us, other people are disturbed about, too, or at the least, they try to understand and explain it. Sometimes we can look for similarities between our own and the cultures of others. A criticism of our culture, and our national habits, might lead you to explore some things Luigi Barzini wrote this of the Italians (in his marvelous book, “The Italians” (Luigi Barzini):

One fundamental point which escapes most foreigners must be understood and remembered. Most Italians still obey a double standard. There is one code valid within the family circle, with relatives and honorary relatives, intimate friends and close associates, and there is another code regulating life outside. Within, they assiduously demonstrate all the qualities which are not usually attributed them by superficial observers: they are relatively reliable, honest, truthful, just, obedient, generous, disciplined, brave, and capable of self-sacrifices. They practice what virtues other men usually dedicate to the welfare of their country at large; the Italians’ family loyalty is their true patriotism. In the outside world, amidst the chaos and disorder of society, they often feel compelled to emply the wiles of underground fighters in enemy-occupied territory. All official and legal authority is considered hostile by them until proven friendly or harmless: if it cannot be ignored, it should be neutralized or deceived if need be.

Barzini further observed,

The first source of power is the family. The Italian family is a stronghold in a hostile land: within its walls and among its members, the individual finds consolation, help, advice, provisions, loans, weapons, allies and accomplices to aid him in his pursuits. No Italian who has a family is ever alone… Scholars have always recognized the Italian family as the only fundamental institution in the country, a spontaneous creation of the national genius, adapted through the centuries to changing conditions, the real foundation of whichever social order prevails. In fact, the law, the State and society function only if they do not directly interfere with the family’s supreme interests… This is, of course, nothing new, surprising, or unique. In many countries and among many people, past and present, where legal authority is weak and the law is resented and resisted, the safety and welfare of the individual are mainly assured by the family. The Chinese, for instance, in their imperial days held the the cult of the family more praiseworthy than the love of country and the love of good. This is why the Communist regime of Ma Tse-tung tried to stamp out the family, recognizing it as its most powerful opponent. Similarly, wherever the Jews were allowed to settle in Europe, they outwardly conformed to the local laws and impositions, but in their hearts obeyed only their religious rules and the immemorial code of their family life, which allowed them precariously to survive persecutions. It is therefore not surprising that the Italians, living, as they have always done, in the insecurity and dangers of an unruly and unpredictable society, are among those who found their main refuge behind the walls of their houses, among their blood-relatives. Italians have, after all, many points of contact with the Chinese: the Chinese, too, love ceremonies, feasts, elaborate rites, deafening noise, fireworks, and good food; love children and produce many of them; their art is also highly decorative and ingenious but not always deep; they fashion lovely things by hand, and are astute negotiators and subtle merchants. The Italians are also, in many ways, similar to the Jews: the Jews have the same disenchanted and practical outlook; are among the few people who laugh at their own foibles; they entertain a wary diffidence for other people’s noble intentions and always look for the concrete motives hiding behind them. There is, however, this fundamental difference between the Italians and most other people who use the family as their private lifeboat in the stormy seas of anarchy. Anarchy in Italy is not simply a way of life, a spontaneous creation of society, a natural development: it is also the deliberate product of man’s will, the fruit of his choice; it has been assiduously cultivated and strengthened down the centuries. The strength of the family is not only, therefore, the bulwark against disorder, but, at the same time, one of its principal causes. It has actively fomented chaos in many ways especially by rendering useless the development of strong political institutions. This, of course, brings up a complex problem: do political institutions flourish only where the family is weak, or is it the other way around? Does the family become self-sufficient only where the political institutions are not strong enough? However it may be, political institutions never had much of a chance in Italy. The people gave birth to but a few of them: they had to import most of them ready-made from abroad, from time to time…the constitution, the bi-cameral system, liberalism, democracy… The family extracts everybody’s first loyalty. It must be defended, enriched, made powerful, respected and feared by the use of whatever means are necessary, legitimate means, if at all possible, or illegitimate…

And it sounds like us! Doesn’t it? There’s a marvelous book, now sadly out of print, in which one of the leading Filipino minds of his generation tried to do what Rizal did, that is, explain us to ourselves and along the way, to others. That man was Leon Ma. Guerrero and his book was a collection of essays titled We Filipinos. If we take a cue from Barzini, then Guerrero has something similar to say (and he said it about a decade before Barzini wrote his book!), in his essay, What are Filipinos Like? In it he says Filipinos are extremely self-reliant -but only when they have to be, in crisis situations (for example, the Japanese Occupation). He goes on to say,

There is another aspect of self-reliance which has nothing to do with colonialism and its residue…. [Some Americans] cannot understand why grown-up sons and daughters keep living with their parents even after they have been married and begotten children of their own, or why we should feel obliged to feed and house even the most distant “cousins” who find themselves in want. This trait is not exclusively Filipino; it is common to all rudimentary societies. Modern man looks to his government for security but where the government, whether native or foreign, is still regarded as an alien, selfish force, the individual prefers to trust his bloodkin for what are in effect old-age pensions or unemployment insurance. The family is an indispensable institution in these circumstances, and one cannot be too sure that people are happier when it has been supplanted by the state as the center of society.

Sounds like the Italians, doesn’t it? And indeed just the other day someone told me, “we are like the Italians -it’s not that we want better government, it’s that we’re happiest when there’s no government.” Which might just explain why public opinion tends to be skeptical of government-announced action plans and solutions -could it be, what we really want, is to solve our problems for ourselves? Any government initiative, taken from such a perspective, is just a hassle. And about government -more on what Guerrero had to say, next time.

Similarly, wherever the Jews were allowed to settle in Europe, they outwardly conformed to the local laws and impositions, but in their hearts obeyed only their religious rules and the immemorial code of their family life, which allowed them precariously to survive persecutions.It is therefore not surprising that the Italians, living, as they have always done, in the insecurity and dangers of an unruly and unpredictable society, are among those who found their main refuge behind the walls of their houses, among their blood-relatives.  Italians have, after all, many points of contact with the Chinese: the Chinese, too, love ceremonies, feasts, elaborate rites, deafening noise, fireworks, and good food; love children and produce many of them; their art is also highly decorative and ingenious but not always deep; they fashion lovely things by hand, and are astute negotiators and subtle merchants.  The Italians are also, in many ways, similar to the Jews: the Jews have the same disenchanted and practical outlook; are among the few people who laugh at their own foibles; they entertain a wary diffidence for other people’s noble intentions and always look for the concrete motives hiding behind them.There is, however, this fundamental difference between the Italians and most other people who use the family as their private lifeboat in the stormy seas of anarchy.
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