PCIJ: Circle to Circle

OCT – DEC 2004
Special Yearend Issue

Circle to Circle

By 2015, the Philippines would have become merely a “geographic location”; at best, a virtual nation. Home would be nothing but a staging ground for an overseas career, an issuing authority for passports.

by Manuel L. Quezon III

IT TOOK the children of the First Quarter Storm to realize just how thoroughly the circle had been broken. Their parents, at least, had been able to remember the Old Society, which, for all its many imperfections, could still be dreamed of as on the verge of being replaced by the New. The truth that the New Society was novel only in its ruthlessness could never overcome how fundamentally revolutionary its legacy was. So colossal was its greed, so utterly beyond redemption its hypocrisy, so thorough was its tyranny, that only those who had lived to see its dawn could remember that not all that came before was darkness.

The Marcoses were not just dynasty, they were dead end. Not just for a political way of life, but for a culture that claimed to crave the sunshine and fresh air of liberty and democracy as branded by the U.S. stars and stripes. The problem had been that the aspirations of the U.S.-educated had been nurtured on the corruption and stench of robber-baron, yellow-journalist-era America. Church, club, college: all had been nurtured in America’s image but that image was the mirror of an America dominated by Tammany Hall, the Pendergast Machine, William Randolph Hearst, John Rockefeller and Pierpoint Morgan. Reformist, populist America had yet to be born when U.S. proconsuls and educators came to the Philippines; the great, muckracking changes of a Theodore Roosevelt, the pious internationalism of a Woodrow Wilson, the exhilarating progressiveness of Franklin D. Roosevelt were alien things to the Americans teaching Filipinos to be little brown brothers. And so it was inevitable that having been taught by entirely a different sort of Americans, Filipinos saw the new America and wondered how different it all seemed.

When Marcos put an end to the U.S. experiment, he did so not only as one of the finest examples of U.S. education, but as one of the supreme examples of what was then known as the Filipino way of life. Church, club, and college were all there to be used, just as they used those who used them. America had separated Church and State, not in the manner envisioned by the propagandists and revolutionists of the 19th century, the Rizals and Mabinis who hoped to establish a secular religion of consecration to the nation; instead, church was transformed into finishing schools, where private faith couldn’t interfere with public hypocrisy. The patriotic clubs of the past were supplanted by the Kiwanis and Rotaries of an enterprising new middle class convinced of the irrelevant quaintness of the Masonic lodges of old. The sons and daughters of this rising middle class, if not polished by church-run schools, could get their education in public schools, themselves institutions that preached that everyone could get ahead.

And get ahead they did, by hook or by crook: sell the farm, subdivide the hacienda, go to school; study abroad and be a pensionado through the patronage of a politician; attend college and make sure to join a fraternity, where the fundamentally American lesson that it was all right to endure the unendurable, so long as you proved you belonged, was taught all too well.

This was the genius of 19th-century United States, and it was the genius of 20th-century Philippines: belong, and all crooked paths lead straight to success. If you couldn’t actually join the oligarchy, you could work for it. There was plenty for everyone. There was nothing—a revolt here or there—that couldn’t be solved through a combination of the mailed fist and the bribe. But such was the egotism of Marcos that he thought he could eliminate the only thing that kept things together, and that thing was a turnover in the cliques that embodied success. Hope sprang eternal so long as one’s hopes weren’t eternally postponed; not just presidents, but mayors, prelates, petty bureaucrats and managers, principals and physicians, all of whom got ahead depending on who they knew and who could offer them a place in the system.

MARCOS BROKE the circle; he stopped the wheel from spinning; he shut down the pump. Politically, the effects of his attempt to establish an everlasting dynasty soon showed. Politicians became restless, and while their heretofore natural progression in the pecking order was retarded for a generation, they eventually displaced him and were proud of it.

Society, of course, has never been just about politics. Yet the repercussions of his actions were magnified so slowly as to leave the majority of those involved unaware of their extent. Change coincided with the passing of generations. Marcos’s wartime generation, frightened of change so that it embraced reaction, survived, grew fat, and thought it redeemed itself by kicking him out when their pocketbooks began to look empty. Their sons and daughters expended their energies in much the same manner their parents did, though cloaked in the rhetoric of the First Quarter Storm. Sooner or later it was back to church, club, college: first as a means of aiding and abetting resistance to the dictatorship, then to attempting to build a comfortable world to replace it.

Having wrecked the country, the dictatorship had preached finding opportunities abroad as a safety valve for the young and a means of life support for the economy at home. It worked better than anyone could imagine because although the policy failed to assure dynastic rule for the Marcoses at home, it extended the illusion of the system still having a pulse. Church, club, and college were the path: the sons and daughters of the established and the aspiring could still belong. The new could be like the old. Except the old did not realize that to them the old were not as the old viewed themselves: despise or criticize their World-War-II-era parents though they might, the generation of the First Quarter Storm still shared their culture. They could embrace or reject it (or having let go, embrace it again), but they couldn’t help but live it, at least for a time. Their children had no such luxury.

The children of the First Quarter Storm had another name: martial law babies. Born in the darkness of dictatorship, enlightenment, if it ever came at all, was expressed in terms of sudden disappointment. Bewilderment was their experience—at the crumbling of a dictatorship they had been indoctrinated to adulate; at the exhilaration of restoring democracy, only to be told it was a refurbished oligarchy; at the inability of democracy to equal economic improvement; at the shortsighted hypocrisy of it all. They lacked the ability, delusional or not, to look back to halcyon post-Huk but pre-martial law days; their heroes were not living statesmen but dead politicians on airport tarmacs; their destiny could not be a comfortable corporate job or a profession imbued with prestige. Their lot was to find their future elsewhere.

Their grandparents, more often than not, had gone from province to national capital, there to stay, prosper a bit, and perhaps come back to the old hometown. A large percentage of their parents had tried this path but perhaps an even larger number had tried their luck abroad. Church, club, and college were increasingly inhabited by ghosts: parishioners overseas, club members networking in sister organizations abroad; alumni in increasingly comfortable exile. This didn’t mean, of course, that church, club, and school were physically empty: there were far more people in them than had ever been before.

AT THE same time, however, the people who held those institutions together —who made them work — were getting fewer and fewer. World War II and First Quarter Storm generations were linked by teachers who transmitted from one generation to the next not just the learning of the past, but the manners that all assumed ensured getting ahead in the future. When the older teachers retired, and the younger teachers joined the ranks of those going overseas, there were precious few to pass on the manners and the illusions.

Not that, in a sense, it mattered. Hypocritically maintained or not, respectability had been the key to understanding the older generations. The World War II generation embraced dictatorship out of a confused and desperate dedication to upholding the respectability of their way of life; the First Quarter Storm generation had junked middle-class respectability in order to replace it with the enthusiasms that may have been revolutionary on the outside but craving a kind of respectability nonetheless. The martial law babies did not experience it, believe in it, or want it. The good days for them were their childhood days in the devious era of Marcos, or a tender childhood in the first heady years after his fall. Adolescence in any case was chaos, coups, plunging peso dollar rates, and more and more fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles abroad, trading respectability for overseas opportunity. At home were the fabulously new rich, or the increasing new poor: staying at home didn’t get you into the former (there were too many to compete with) and unless one was already in, wanted to join, or was content being associated with, the latter, that wasn’t the way to go. The only way to go was out.

Church, club, and school had conspired to suffocate the very class they were meant to nurture. There could no longer be a middle in a nation with everyone desperate to get ahead. Church, club, and school had trained those upon whom it conferred respectability. The respectable matched their political disrepute with economic opportunism inspired by the ineptitude of the dictatorship that proclaimed itself the salvation of the middle. Too late, in its senile dotage and in its increasingly gouty middle age, World War II and First Quarter Storm generations decried what was, crying it was nowhere near what they’d set out to do. The political classes chattered about fixing the broken circle, the priests prayed that God might will it so; the educators, themselves increasingly uneducated, the professionals, depressingly unable to eke out a living at home, all tried to make it so. The circle had been broken too long. Too many alternative paths had been opened.

Parliamentarism, Federalism, Socialism, Prayer—all were dead ends because they were espoused (in the view of many martial law babies) by the deadbeat. The professions of the past became merely a means to the globalized sweatshops of the present: as call center operators, AutoCAD drafters, programmers, animators, medical transcribers at home, operating to the rhythms of foreign time zones, earning relatively splendid salaries that made the carping of the traditionally respectable Cassandra-like wailings of the quaint (so what if the services they provided might be lost to other countries? They could shop, and on credit!). Better yet, church, club, and school might be stepping stones to a life abroad, where legally or illegally, earnings could be made in undebased currency, a kind of stability and even equality, enjoyed. All it took was to follow the traditional shortcutting ways, albeit cut even shorter. Schooling was not a grounding in a way of life, it was a process to obtain certification for work in other lands, certificates obtained, incidentally, much more easily if cheating and bribery was involved.

AND SO it was, that in the year 2015, the Philippines—as Metternich had once contemptuously said of Italy—had become “merely a geographic expression.” It was, at best, a virtual nation, but more aptly a gigantic nursery for those who would consider the world their home. Home was not native land, a nation, in the sense understood by previous generations. It was still a place, but this time just a staging ground. It might be where property could be obtained; it would always be where a never-ending line of poor suckers not as clever (or far too lazy) compared to you were stuck waiting for your monthly remittance.

Country was an issuing authority: for passports and permits; a place where nothing worked as well as where you were working, but which you fondly remembered as the place that allowed you muddle through. Your parents and grandparents talked politics; you provided them appliances for karaoke when the politics got them depressed. Your parents and grandparents talked of school and church; you could email and text your classmates the world over and were likely to belong to a different church than them. You were different from those who came before because, unlike them, you felt you were truly free.

Country was the place where your foreign exchange could build a house, brand new, beside the decaying homes of the local gentry. Country was where your siblings waited their turn to go to another land. Country was where you went for funerals and weddings; it was where you could come back, without that “proper” accent, and without the “right” manners, and be able to afford to hobnob with the sons and daughters of those who had employed your parents. Home was land, increasingly urban, or at the very least, as urbanized as your remittances could afford to make it. Home was about handouts: for thieving officials, for relatives to indulge. But as for the rest, home was where you might be, comforted by the songs from home, played on your mp3 player; entertained by movies you could see on DVD; illuminated by the gossip on shows you could watch on cable; driven by the jokes sent by email and text by your compatriots inhabiting the four corners of the world.

The First Quarter Storm generation had hoped they might do a stint overseas and come back to build a good life. Many of them did. They fulfilled filial duty and cared for their parents, and brought up their children the best way they could. That their children did not share their romantic illusions was painful. The more reflective among them may have paused to think they were getting a taste of what they, in their hippie-haired rebellion, had inflicted. The less reflective may simply have thought that they should have done less rebelling and more scheming.

Most of them would miss friends permanently abroad, and children already there. The middle class would bewail the loss of the respectable certainties of their day: where to be a dentist was to be not only a person of importance, but of near-certain financial worth. Where to be a doctor conferred standing; an engineer, prestige; a lawyer, hopes far surpassing the notary public rubber-stamping of the present. Like their parents, they blamed the politicians who couldn’t even be as brilliantly crooked as the ones of their youth. And yet, they couldn’t help see that their sons and daughters, eternally martial law babies, were now babying them. They might speak better English than their children, but, babysitting their grandchildren, they would be thankful they had a DVD player on which to play a Walt Disney movie that started with some sort of song about the circle of life. A circle had been broken, a new one had been formed.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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