How Fallows’ Essay Gutted Morale of the Filipinos
by Manuel L. Quezon III
In the 1980s the term “parachute journalism” was coined. James Fallows parachuted into Manila not once, but twice, and out of his experiences attempted to sum up Filipino society — an ambitious effort indeed, and when not even that great Filipino intellectual Leon Ma. Guerrero had fully accomplished the task in his 1950 collection of essays, “We Filipinos.” To be sure, Fallows rendered judgment on Filipino society without the book-length depth of Barzini’s “The Italians” or even the recent “Why 60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.” Yet his single essay has had Filipinos reeling from the impact ever since.
Filipino writers paused to recall the publication of Fallows’ essay a month or so ago. This is a belated effort to join the fray.
In his essay, Fallows pointed out the shocking disparity between the very rich of the Philippines and the very many more who are poor. Which is not to say, he said, that there wasn’t a gap between the wealthy and the poor in America. There is, he said, but it is between the South Bronx and the fantastically rich in Manhattan.
Nothing suggests the bankruptcy of ideas of Philippine intellectual circles than a slim Atlantic Monthly essay still being the dominant discourse two decades after its publication. Does that prove it was true, that he was on to something? No.
Fallows famously titled his piece, “A damaged culture.” What we Filipinos have been asking, and this has been going on since the 1960s, is, who did the damage?
Which may not be the right question at all. What Spanish colonialism was unable to do was eliminate, much less replace, the pre-Hispanic culture we had; it has remained what it was: Submissive, divisive, built on assumptions of inequality and impunity on the part of those fortunate enough to rule, by whatever means and for whatever purpose; it didn’t take a conquistador to teach the Filipinos inequality.
Yet not everything is untrue, or superficial; if James Studwell, critic of Southeast Asia’s incestuous alliance between politics and business, and novelist F. Sionil Jose, fierce critic of the Filipino oligarchy, agree on something — the essential pigheadedness and incompetence of our ruling class — we must explore how that ruling class has changed.
I have one major criticism of Fallows, and it is, that he was out of touch, even in 1987, with his reliance on delicadeza, not least because the Marcos oligarchy had consigned it to the dustbin of history. He could have more accurately described the Philippines as a decadent culture.
Instead of a damaged culture, we have not only a decadent one, but a stubborn one — a superficial culture where as long as form is maintained, substance can be ignored.
The old middle class was made in the image of our old upper class. Both have gutted; they are either at the periphery at home, or both have migrated overseas; a new middle class and a new rich now exist, with values entirely different from those they replaced, and those values have an antiquity that is truly astounding. As Onofre D. Corpuz said, in every president beats the heart of a tribal chief; but most aspired to be more modern than tribal, until Marcos turned back the clock and was more tribal, and more of a chief, than he was, a president. With the exception of Fidel V. Ramos, every one of his successors has been true to type: Aquino the Mother Superior, Estrada the Gangland Boss, Arroyo the Latter-Day Hacendera.
The interesting thing isn’t that the New Society was a mirage, but that it’s proven an enduring aspiration. The Old Society never recovered from being demonized by Marcos and the Communists; so that when it enjoyed a period of restoration it proved incapable of proving itself anything more than what Marcos had said it was: Foolish, grasping, insensitive, devoid of vision and accomplishment. Ramos briefly tried to embrace modernity but fractured on the populism of Estrada; and when Estrada in turn, was toppled it was a return to business as usual — monkey business. With an upper class sneer.