Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Our Damaged Culture

Twenty years ago, I found myself in a heated discussion with my seatmate aboard a USAir flight. He was an American veteran of World War II who had spent a year in the Philippines and we were talking about the Atlantic Monthly article of James Fallows that had appeared a few months earlier. The veteran began by professing his deep love for the Philippines and profound respect for the Filipino people but confided to me that he agreed with the conclusion of Fallows: our culture was damaged.

Remember that we had just overthrown Marcos at that time and we were all full of hope and nationalism was running high. Our time had arrived and we were going to prove to the world we could be as productive as the rest of our neighbors. I blamed everybody and ascribed our national failure to historical precedents and worldwide economic upheavals. Everything and everybody but our very own selves and our culture.

Twenty years later, I revisited the article and discovered an entirely different reading. Fallows had been divining from a crystal ball. Only his conclusion was off. Consider these paragraphs: “The countries that surround the Philippines have become the world's most famous showcases for the impact of culture on economic development. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore--all are short on natural resources, but all (as their officials never stop telling you) have clawed their way up through hard study and hard work. Unfortunately for its people, the Philippines illustrates the contrary: that culture can make a naturally rich country poor.”

“It seems to me that the prospects for the Philippines are about as dismal as those for, say, South Korea are bright. In each case the basic explanation seems to be culture: in the one case a culture that brings out the productive best in the Koreans (or the Japanese, or now even the Thais), and in the other a culture that pulls many Filipinos toward their most self-destructive, self-defeating worst.”

The article even quoted Benigno Aquino Jr as he began his political career to illustrate the intractability of the problems: "Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite.”

I was faintly aware of the demoralizing effect this article had on many Filipinos because during this entire period I lived and worked in the US. I was busy testing my own mettle and determining whether I could compete in a country that attracted the most competitive people. Returning to the Philippines made me painfully aware of Fallows’ prescience. He was mostly right and we continued to be left behind even by countries that had seemed so unlikely to progress 20 years ago.

What made the article devastating then was the utter gloom in his concluding paragraph: “It may be too pessimistic to think of culture as a kind of large-scale genetics, channeling whole societies toward progress or stagnation. A hundred years ago not even the crusading Emperor Meiji would have dreamed that "Japanese culture' would come to mean "efficiency.' America is full of people who have changed their "culture' by moving away from the old country or the home town or the farm. But a culture-breaking change of scene is not an answer for the people still in the Philippines--there are 55 million of them, where would they go?--and it's hard to know what else, within our lifetimes, the answer might be.”

James Fallows could not fathom at that time that it was indeed possible to move 10 million Filipinos to other countries where they would be left on their own and be forced to confront the stark reality of becoming productive or else fail and flounder. The answer was there all along, a mass re-education for 10 million Filipinos that would definitively prove that we had it within ourselves to change our destiny.

Now I just smile whenever pundits analyze the origins of our national illness. How our postwar leaders should not have allowed parity with other powerful economies; how a federal system will eliminate the inequality in wealth distribution; how “genuine” land reform will eradicate homelessness; how pervasive corruption sucks up funds meant for health and education and infrastructure and discourages foreign investments; how sending convicted ex Presidents to prison will instill justice.

Not in our stars, in ourselves. The answers are literally out there, everywhere, in almost every nation on earth where fellow Filipinos strive daily to reclaim what we rightfully deserve: security, health, education, a way of life that does not debase but rather upholds our humanity.


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MegaMom said...

Whoa Martin, looks like you've been spammed...
Very interesting thoughts, some of which I share. I really don't know what Fallows' measures of "success" are. Have not read the article myself. Obviously his perspective of "success" is political and economic. But there are other things that make us successful as a people. Our ability to thrive in numerous environments outside our borders, and yet stand out distinctly as a people is remarkable! As a microbiologist by training (also, among other things), I can not help but feel that this adaptation makes us better global citizens. But shhh... don't tell the other cultures that we are slowly penetrating theirs, hehehe... ;)
The most successful microbes are those that are able to adapt to any environment, right?

Martin D. Bautista, M.D. said...

MegaMom, how do I put an end to these spam messages? Read the entire Fallows article at

Anonymous said...

I read that essay in 1993 at the New York Public library. I always wanted to re-read it. Thanks for publishing the link.