I’ve been watching The American Future: A History, the latest documentary series by one of my favorite historians, Simon Schama. A book version, it seems, has also been released (see Niall Ferguson’s review). Schama, a long-time resident in an America that, in in its post 911 incarnation, became so frighteningly different from the America that was so attractive to liberal intellectuals like him, and which Republican Neo-Conservatives mightily strove to dominate for the foreseeable future, seems relieved to witness a revolt from the American people themselves: what many foresee as Obama’s impending victory seems to be a return to a more familiar, more attractive, United States.
Whatever else his legacy, the man who called himself “the decider” has left some gripping history. The last eight years have been so rich in epic imperial hubris that it would take a reborn Gibbon to do justice to the fall. It should be said right away that amid the landscape of smoking craters there are one or two sprigs of decency that have been planted: record amounts of financial help given to Aids-blighted countries of Africa; immigration reform that would have offered an amnesty to illegals and given them a secure path to citizenship, had not those efforts hit the reef of intransigence in Bush’s own party. And no one can argue with the fact that since 9/11 the United States has not been attacked on its home territory by jihadi terrorists; though whether or not that security is more illusory than real is, to put it mildly, open to debate.
Bet against that there is the matter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties, more than 4,000 American troops dead, many times that gravely injured, not to mention the puncture wounds and mutilations inflicted on internationally agreed standards of humane conduct for prisoners – and on the protection of domestic liberties enshrined in the American constitution. If the Statue of Liberty were alive, she would be weeping tears of blood.
I must confess that is how I feel: and it betrays a familiarity with, and affection for, a particular conception of America that conservatives labored mightily to prove the false face of America. And to be sure, for a huge number of Americans, Obama is not the face -literally and figuratively- of their America; just as for a particular kind of Filipino-American, it is McCain, his party, and the values of that party that are their values, their preferred face: what other Filipinos and Filipino-Americans would react to with horror as too much paleface.
But I am not an American. But I am a particular kind of Filipino, not particularly representative of the Filipino (or Filipino-American) experience or possibly even conception, of the United States. We lived there for a time; I studied there, for a time; I saw many things I liked, experienced much I did not; but like so many Filipinos, found something exceedingly familiar and attractive in a culture and from a people one didn’t really have to exert much effort to get to know and appreciate.
Let me state first of all that my bias is a clear and in many ways, an unshakeable one, beginning with being bombarded by my father’s very strong opinion that the American Democratic Party was the only proper party to appreciate in the United States, because it was the party of Philippine independence, a cause that generally prospered during Democratic administrations and that fared less well under Republican ones. For this reason I continue to be astounded by Filipino-Americans who are Republicans but eventually, I suppose it makes sense for those who’ve made the decision to leave home and become citizens of the USA: emigration is at the very least an implicit repudiation of the homeland; more often than not, an explicit one, too; and if one party and its policies can be credited with the independence one feels ambivalent about, then one can understandably embrace the very party that, to too many Filipino minds, was poised to bring the permanent blessings of American civilization to their benighted little brown brothers.
That being said, I suppose I am like most Filipinos in viewing the relationship of the Philippines with the United States as more of a positive than negative one, or at the very least, who sees it from the perspective of a relationship that is very personal and not just abstract: the relatives and friends over there, the American friends over there and here, and so on. And for every George W. Bush who praised Marcos’ devotion to democracy, there’s a Ted Kennedy who was a friend to Filipinos fighting Marcos.
Which brings me to this touching scene:
Seeing Ted Kennedy addressing the Democratic Party Convention earlier this year, my thoughts came back to viewing a Democratic Party Convention back in 1984. I had no choice in the matter; every night, my father would sit me down in front of the TV and sternly exhort me to “watch real democracy at work,” trying to exorcise whatever authoritarian instincts, I suppose, might have been nurtured by a childhood spent under the New Society.
During those convention nights, I watched, and learned to enjoy, speeches; Ted Kennedy gave a masterful performance during one of those nights, but there were two speeches, in particular, that thrilled me because they evoked an understanding, or so I thought, of the reason my elders seemed so ill-tempered all the time whenever the government at home was discussed; instead of fear and suspicion it was refreshing and inspiring to hear people talk, not only of what was, but of what could, and should, be.
There was the Rev. Jesse Jackson:
What thrilled me about Jackson wasn’t just his rhetoric, but what he represented: equality of the races, for all races. Something I was quite conscious about because that was the year I’d experienced feeling the urge to speak up for my country when I discovered the Filipino-American War was referred to as the “Philippine Insurrection” in our American history textbook, which made me bristle; fortunately, the teacher was an entirely liberal man he himself made this Mark Twain short story required reading for the class:
And so, for me, 1984 was, indeed, a very interesting year: it was, to begin with, the year in the title of George Orwell’s novel, the sort of book that would make a precise connection with someone in America to experience a culture different from the police state that was the Philippines; it was the year I was introduced to Mark Twain, and his writing against the annexation of the Philippines; and it was an election year, for someone whose only living memory of elections had been the charade that was Marcos’ validation as President of the New Republic he inaugurated with such pomp in 1981. It was, also, the year after Ninoy Aquino had been shot, when the world had focused on the Philippines and Filipinos had begun to consider that their choice wasn’t limited to the bloody revolution of the Communists or the bloody repression of Marcos’ Constitutional Authoritarianism.
There had to be a middle path and what more centrist model could there be, than comfortable America’s? And the other speech that made me sit up and listen was Mario Cuomo’s:
These golden-tongued orators, for someone discovering the joy of words, and who had begun to feel the stirring of political thoughts -of the interplay between leaders and followers, nations and people, ideas and idealists, and how it had all be chronicled and how those chronicles, in turn, explained what was happening, now- well, to a young impressionable mind such as mine, they were the stuff of which indelible memories are made.
In those still-Imeldific days, with its talk of Metro Manila as “The City of Man,” and where the fences had been raised to shield the eyes of visiting Republicans from our shantytowns, to hear someone say, “this nation is more a tale of two cities than it is the tale of a city on a hill” referring to his country, of course, but said in a way that might very well have been addressed to Marcos, why that was enough to instill in someone as firm an understanding of Social Justice as any exploration of the Great Thinkers in College (indeed, when that time came, I mostly fell asleep in SocSci I and II).
Of course, listening to Cuomo lash out at Reagan for subsidizing foreign steel, and hearing the concerns of some contemporary Filipinos over Obama’s vow to start bringing home US jobs, serves as a reminder that the Democratic Party as the party of Philippine independence was in large part, whether at the time of William Jennings Bryan, or in the 1930s, when independence was finally settled as a matter of when and not if, with the entirely selfish assistance of US sugar interests:
And so it remained, with the Rescission Act after the war, stripping Filipino veterans of their benefits; or even in the 1980s, where American enthusiasm for democracy and human rights regularly got trumped by the need to retain their bases; or, in the era that’s evolved after the last umbilical cord, the US bases, has long been cut, in Democrats not being very different from Republicans in attending to their own national interest regardless of appeals for solicitude for Filipino ones. This is simply a reminder of a basic lesson no amount of American tutelage or Filipino navel-gazing can ever really teach: the meaning of sinking or swimming entirely on one’s own efforts. Contrary to what many might say, we have not been a total failure in this regard, as a people; we are, by every measure, middling at the job of independence; yet we have set such a high benchmark for ourselves -and rightly so- that our frustration, individually and collectively, is high, and despair a real problem -the world, as it’s evolved, making it so much easier and lucrative to simply pack up and leave, to work or live, or both, abroad.
To see the maps -and how I wish we could come up with similar things, for our own politics, to graphically explore our political realities- is to see how divided, literally, America is:
But it is also to see a shift; and for those, like me, with a particular kind of affection for a particular kind of America, to derive a certain satisfaction and comfort -the comfort of a return to something familiar, and which seemingly seemed poised to be gone for good- from what is going on.
It’s a return to a more inclusive, a more idealistic, less fear-driven and optimistic, view of the world, for Americans the world they affect so much; and for those who find affinity in those ideals, and in the expression of those ideals, a return to the motive power of words, and of their promise of a society where Social Justice is a living ideal, a commonly-held aspiration, and where might is not what defines right.