Explaining How the Philippine State Came to Be

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Explaining How the Philippine State Came to Be

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Eventually, whether it’s overseas, or at home, Filipinos encounter this problem: A non-Filipino asks a question about the Philippines the answer to which the Filipino confesses he doesn’t know, or can’t further explain, which leaves the questioner dissatisfied. The Filipino vows never to be caught flat-footed again; thus begins the search for a source, a book, that can either be consulted when questions arise, or recommended to foreigners curious about the country.

I’ve often wished that there were books about the Philippines — and Filipinos — as engaging and informative as Luigi Barzini’s classic, “The Italians,” or Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong : What Makes the French So French.” What has been available, but difficult to find, is David Joel Steinberg’s “The Philippines, a Singular and a Plural Place,” which is, indeed, quite informative. However, all things being equal, a book by a Filipino on the Philippines would be better; sadly, until recently, aside from Steinberg’s work, any comparable work by a Filipino has been even more difficult to find, and when available, hopelessly out of date.

For years and years (it was published in 1969), one had to make do with Teodoro A. Agoncillo’s “A Short History of the Philippines,” published in the United States and endlessly reprinted in cheap and extremely ugly newsprint editions in the Philippines. Obviously, however good the book was, it is silent on developments over the past 37 years. Another book, “We Filipinos” by Leon Maria Guerrero, is the closest, in my mind, a Filipino has gotten to Barzini’s work on the Italians, but suffers from being a compilation of short pieces, and thus not really written as a book, and again, is rather out of date (he died in 1982, and the book came out in 1986). Guerrero’s book, then, is a shadow of what could have been, had he managed to write a proper volume explaining the Filipinos and their past.

The little that Filipinos know about their past is usually dominated by the interpretations of history of two men, Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino, who had a profound and lasting effect on attitudes borne by post-independence Filipinos toward their past. The textbooks they wrote remain in widespread use, and their views and arguments have become so ingrained and influential that works are often viewed on the level of sacred texts: The last word on the past, the definitive interpretation, the unimpeachable source. While myself an admirer of both men, I tend to view a slavish devotion to their works as dangerous and objectionable. They were trailblazers during their times; their intellectual labors were vigorously conducted and their works marked by integrity. In other words, they were not only scholars, but patriots; but they were men of another era.

Agoncillo famously asserted that much of what is considered Philippine history is really the history of Spain in the Philippines, since the three centuries of Spanish rule produced documents in which Filipinos had very little to say (and not much of a chance to say it). Constantino concentrated on explaining the Philippine past according to what he considered a modern, scientific, and socialist point of view oriented towards the masses. Their works served to correct previously dominant biases against Filipinos, and which glorified the colonizers and the upper classes of Philippine society too much.

Since they wrote their influential books, however, many things have changed: Agoncillo’s views on the period of Spanish dominion, for example, were formed at a time when neither sociology nor archeology were particularly advanced in the Philippines; over the past thirty years, a tremendous amount of research has been done revealing all sorts of things — from actual artifacts, to observations about customs and beliefs that have endured despite centuries of foreign domination — that can help illustrate and clarify the past. Constantino’s work, too, may be comforting to those who share his political beliefs, but for the ideological agnostic — or skeptic — no particular interpretation should be viewed as a kind of sacred text.

Which is why I was quite delighted to find out that a new book exists, which accomplishes several necessary things. The first is that it provides a survey of Philippine history from prehistoric times up to the relative present (2001); the second, is that it makes an effort to tie in all the advances in knowledge that have taken place since the last major efforts to write a general history of the country were attempted; the third, is that it provides a convincing explanation of how the Philippine state came to be, and the forces that shaped its development; and fourth, it is available to the reader, whether in the Philippines or overseas, at an affordable price.

The book is “State and Society in the Philippines,” by Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso. Their book tackles the gulf that exists between hopes and reality when it comes to the Philippines as a modern state: Why is it that Philippine governments are often weak, and marked by inefficiency, corruption, and an overall lack of modern characteristics?

Although written primarily as a textbook, this is a book that deserves to be read by anyone, Filipino or not, who wants to understand why the Philippines is the way it is — and where it might be headed

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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