Kaplan’s take on Filipino culture is wrong

I used to think Robert Kaplan was a great geoanalyst until I read his book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014) which deals with the current geopolitical situation in Asia. from the South East. He sees a potential danger for the planet in the strong nationalism of the countries of the region and the recent expansionist attempts of China. Mr. Kaplan appears to be a very knowledgeable person on all the intellectual matters he tackles, an expert on the political, social and cultural affairs of each nation he speaks about. However, I must confess my deepest disappointment when I finished reading his chapter on the Philippines, titled “America’s Colonial Burden”.

Kaplan begins his essay by mentioning The Shawl of Manila, a painting by Matisse that reminds him of Spanish heritage in the Philippines. The shawls were marketed in Manila, but made in China. Thanks to the galleon trade, Manila has become a cultural melting pot and a milestone in the first globalization: the spicy taste of many Southeast Asian dishes would be impossible without the chili peppers of Mexico. Either way, the mention of Kaplan is only an anecdotal but strategic starting point to introduce his explanation, from a historical perspective, of the current disheartening situation in the Philippines.

“For the Philippines – [he claims] – not only burdened by hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism which, with its strong pre-Reformation Roman Catholic overtones, brought less dynamism than the British, Dutch and Japanese varieties experienced elsewhere in the First Channel of islands, but they are doubly burdened by the imprint of the Mexican colonizers, who represented an even lower level of modern institutional consciousness than those of Spain ”(pp. 117-118).

I can only see the shadow of Spanish black legend and tones of ignorance in such an unfortunate claim, as it clearly ignores the strong institutions that have been built from the very beginning in the so-called Spanish provinces beyond. -sea: not only the very complex set of Leyes de Indias, an early and incomparable attempt – although not often fully implemented – to establish good governance; it also ignores the particular Hispanization of the Philippines, where the civilian presence of Peninsulares was weak and the presence of missionaries was relatively overwhelming; it ignores the educational establishments that were opened as early as 1595 (Colegio de San José, by the Jesuits) and 1616 (Universidad de Santo Tomás, by the Dominicans) and that education was accessible to all, as proved the American scholar Robert Fox in two articles published in Philippine Studies in the 1960s; he ignores the enlightened laws of Tamón Valdés, Anda y Salazar, Basco and Rafael Aguilar, governors of the Philippines in the 18th century; he does not know how the first books were printed in the Philippines as early as 1593; it also completely ignores that society during the Spanish period was more inclusive than it appears, as can be seen from books from the 17th and 18th centuries describing official celebrations.

The representation of Spanish colonization in East Asia is astonishing, especially when compared to those made by the British (they arrived in Asia at the end of the 18th century and far from seeking to acculturate the natives who, according to them, were not worthy to approach, they focused on the exploitation of natural resources, they opened the first university as early as 1949); the Dutch wiped out entire villages in Formosa and Indonesia and until 1800 was a private enterprise run by the very corrupt United East India Company, or VOC); the first university did not open in Jakarta until 1898 with the aim of educating white colonizers and natives for the upper class. Racism is clearly visible today in the absence of a mixed race group of people in Malaysia or Indonesia: Indigenous peoples and white colonizers lived in totally separate worlds. The Japanese imperial enterprise in the Philippines can be boiled down to an absurd race for destruction in Manila, made worse by the fact that the event took place in the first half of the 20th century. So what kind of modern institutional consciousness is Kaplan referring to in the British, Dutch and Japanese colonies?

The relationship between the Spanish colonization and the alleged horrific chaos and aesthetic ugliness of Metro Manila is therefore inconsistent. Anthropologist Ateneo de Manila F. Zialcita, writing in what I believe to be the best book on Filipino identity: “Many Spanish municipalities have a medieval tradition of owning communal land which has helped the poor and have paid for utilities. There is a strong citizen pride that is expressed in the care given to town planning, public buildings and public spaces. “(Authentic though not exotic, p. 160.) Kaplan himself acknowledges that Intramuros is a notable exception to this chaos. I must add that Mr. Kaplan would have refrained from asserting such a connection if he had simply looked at photos of Manila from 1890, 1920 or even 1960 – after World War II – readily available n ‘anywhere on the web. The conclusion would not take long to emerge: the fall into urban decrepitude and widespread dysfunction is a very recent development that began in the mid-1960s with the massive influx of Filipino migrants from the provinces, a process which is, unfortunately, still underway. The status-obsessed Filipino elite rule the country by protecting the assets of the oligarchs, neglecting any redistribution of wealth or any investment in the provinces – who therefore remain poor – and strongly centralizing all policy within the limits of Metro Manila. The result was catastrophic: a mass of slightly westernized provincianos, who are not used to the rules, courtesies and urban disciplines. have invaded the capital until today as the elite have chosen to live in closed communities to end up in expensive social clubs and spend their money in the many malls that have mushroomed across the country . In addition, decades of bad governance and cronyism have facilitated the rapid establishment of a culture of improvisation and short-term solutions.

Kaplan’s following comment is neither very kind nor fair: “There really is no distinctive Filipino cuisine beyond fish, pork and rice cooked interchangeably” (p.119). I can only disagree. In fact, the Filipino gastronomy, certainly underestimated, is really original and unique: sinigang na hipon, kare-kare, halo-halo, inihaw na liempo in sauce, beef salpicao, the different varieties of pancit (I prefer the one from Ilocano), kinilaw na tanigue, sizzling prawns, kaldereta, chicken tinola, sisig tuna, crispy pata, lumpia, pinakbet, kangkong adobo, lapu-lapu with soy sauce, leche flan, lambanog, puto, suman (my favorite dessert) and a very long etcetera. All of these dishes, even though they have characteristics or names borrowed from other countries, are uniquely Filipino. You may like or dislike the Filipino taste, but to claim that there is no cuisine in the archipelago is an insult to the truth.

What Kaplan misses and can’t stand is the very fact that in his mind and in the minds of many people, the Philippines is not as eastern as the western imagination would like it to be; there are no pagodas, no spiritual Buddhism, no philosophical lessons from Confucius. It’s not exotic enough for him. Instead, there is a melting pot of 160 languages, unique ancient churches testifying to Spain’s past, a thriving community of Chinese businessmen, areas populated mostly by Muslims, and still scattered indigenous groups eager to live far away. of globalization (like the Mangyans in Mindoro). He might be happier to find people practicing shamanism, ignoring the English language or keeping the native culture alive. But the truth is, the Philippines has experienced the impact of globalization before any other country in the region and is experiencing rapid Americanization which is accelerating with the support of new technologies. The Philippines actually has a surplus of cultures, and what is happening is that the rich human diversity is disappearing, as in so many other places, for many reasons. We can take the side of the defenders of culture and wish for the maintenance of all indigenous languages ​​and traditions. It is indeed beautiful. But I also believe that the cultural change taking place in the Philippines, much faster in urban centers than in the provinces, is an exciting laboratory for observing the confluence of what is inherently Austronesian, Spanish, Chinese or American, and how Filipinos more or less consciously select cultural objects and practices that continually shape their culture. It is in this cultural syncretism, with all its intrinsic imbalances, that the originality and complexity of the Philippines are rooted precisely, but also many of its current problems. If you are looking for homogeneity, cultural purity and easy identifications, better to go to another country. The Philippines is, culturally, a very complex puzzle.

Kaplan also writes glaring errors: “The romantic hero of the country is not a Filipino but the protean figure of Douglas McArthur, who in the Filipino spirit saved the country from the slaughter of the Japanese occupiers” (p. 123). This is completely wrong. He is right to point out the pro-Americanism of the Filipinos. History textbooks can be blamed for this, since they describe the American period as a pleasant period of preparation for a democracy finally acquired. But the truth is, the national hero is José Rizal’s most protean and intellectual figure, something every Filipino knows and whose statues can be seen in every square in almost every city in the archipelago.

He would later claim that Mindanao is occupied by Moros Muslims (p. 126). The claim is far from accurate: Muslims are in the majority in Maguindanao, Cotabato City and Lanao del Sur. But most of Mindanao is, in fact, Christian, and many indigenous religions are still practiced. Generalizations are dangerous. Even Wikipedia could have helped him prevent it.

There are other negative comments about the Philippines throughout the essay, but they’re not worth mentioning. In the end, Kaplan goes to Palawan and writes some digressions to Puerto Princesa and Ulugan Bay. He doesn’t explain why he’s visiting Palawan, but I can speculate (just my speculation): he wanted to go to Pag-Asa, the only island populated by civilians in the Spratleys, but he couldn’t get there to. any reason .

So what are the highlights after reading Kaplan’s essay on the Philippines, eliminating the many factual errors indicated? 1) The Philippines is very corrupt; 2) The Philippines is very dysfunctional and poverty is endemic; 3) The Philippines does not have a strong army and needs the help of the US military to defend the territories they claim. This third point is what he really wanted to clarify in his sparsely documented chapter – as the rare bibliography shows in the endnotes.

We can therefore say, after reading, that there was no point in discussing all of this.

Edward K. Thompson