Rethinking One Hundred Years of U.S.-Philippine Relations
A Hundred Years of American Tutelage
And We Are Still Uncivilized
the volcano as vortext
slips into my dreamworld
as bombs drop on Baghdad
my chest heaves for
another war, century old.
the silent volcano
convulses with rage.
i do not know if this is
the time for tea and scones
and small talk. if this is
the time to praise
the beautiful life.
the volcano is trying
to speak, how do you
hear when your ears
are tuned to tv, glam
stars and award nights?
how do you hear
when you leave no
time to fall into a dream
to catch a message.
I wrote the above lines as the war in Baghdad commenced. I do not know if the bombs would have stopped falling by the time this essay is published. But for me, war never really ends, just as the Philippine-American war has never really ended (yet) in our national and cultural psyche and memory. The work of decolonization-as-healing remains as urgent and necessary today.
In thinking and writing about the process of decolonization, I began with the question of how to deal with the psychic and epistemic violence of our colonial history. It is a psychological and spiritual process, I asserted, that leads us to a sense of wholeness and an ever-widening capacity to experience the beauty, depth, and strength of our Loob. This personal journey inevitably led me to ask the question: What do we do after we decolonize? What do I, a decolonized Filipina in America, have to offer the world that comes from my recovered devotion to our cultural and ethnic heritage and a critical perspective on received dominant paradigms such as colonialism and imperialism?
In this essay, I would like to share some of the answers I've found to this question.
Charles Mills, a philosopher of Caribbean origins, wrote The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997). The first line in his book reads: "White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today." In this book, he claims that the social contract, the grand story driving imperialism, is in fact, a racial contract. European white male property owners-as anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, scientists, adventurers, and business owners-constructed the theories, concepts, models that defined what it means to be human and civilized. The social contract defined and prescribed the requirements of a transition from a "state of nature" to becoming "civilized"; in other words, from being "sub-human" to "human" through the civilizing requirements of a civil society. The social contract includes such ideals as: freedom, democracy, equality, individualism, and pursuit of happiness-with morality and ethics guided by religious principles (primarily Judeo-Christian). Today, such ideals appear to have become universal God-given human rights. These ideals are not a bad thing in themselves were it not for the fact that the social contract was not meant to apply to certain kinds of species (read: nonwhites). For how else would colonization and imperialism be justified if it began with the assumption that the "sub-human" is already "human"?
Having divided the people on the planet into two categories "human" and "sub-human"- white folks would now measure how well they are doing by the situation of non-white folks (who are NOT doing well by their definitions). Mills asserts that this leads to cultivation of patterns of affect and attitudes that would justify white folks' moral obligation to the 'sub-human': to make the 'sub-human' human through the civilizing process.
Colonialism and imperialism of the 19th and 20th century, in other words, were justified as moral acts done by those who are 'doing well' for those who are 'not doing well'. How can people act in racist ways and still believe that they are acting morally upright? The social contract sanctions their deeds.
Would colonialism and imperialism have been produced with devastating results on the third world had it not been for this widely held conviction that the "other/nonwhite" people on the planet were not quite human yet and therefore in need of the civilizing mission of white folks?
And isn't this what our colonization taught us to internalize as well?
As I thought about the racialized social contract and Mills' challenge to his readers that we should withdraw our consent from it, I was led serendipitously to the work of a Native American anthropologist, Vine Deloria, who wrote God is Red: A Native View of Religion. He would teach me about another grand narrative through which white folks have always framed their view of reality. This narrative states that History as a linear narrative is informed by religious beliefs, primarily monotheistic religion, which in turn informs political ideologies. The rise into political power, first of the Catholic form of Christianity and now its Protestant form (political leaders like George Bush today), use the linear narrative of history based on the biblical story to shape political decisions. From the "Fall" in the garden of Eden, to God's call to Abraham in the land of Ur (Baghdad today), to God's plan to save his chosen people, to the birth and death of Jesus Christ, to the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles, to the day of judgment and return of Christ-this linear narrative of Time and of God acting in history is then taken to be the universal drama of life on earth. If there was a beginning (Genesis), then there must be an ending (Apocalypse). This is the curse of Time.
Western historians have shaped American national memory through the lens of Time.
Evolutionary concepts narrate the linear progression of human life on earth in terms of "progress", "improvement", "development". Societies were eventually categorized hierarchically from hunting/gathering to agrarian, to the scientific/industrial, to the information/technological age. There are other constructs, e.g., from pagan/heathen societies to Christian societies, pre-modern to modern, primitive to civilized -all of which privilege the concept of evolutionary time as linear progression. Time, it seems, has favored white society.
What if, like the Native Americans and indigenous Filipino tribes and the rest of the Fourth World, we viewed reality not from the lens of time but from that of place? Like indigenous Filipinos who still believe in the sacredness of place because it tells their story as a people and their belonging to an ancestral domain. Indigenous peoples privilege their relationship to the Land over their relationship to Time. The land defines their life on earth because they recognize the symbiotic relationship between human life and all other life forms in their environment. "In my culture we have no God, we have relatives," says Albert White Hat, a Lakota Sioux tribal spiritual teacher and linguist. To indigenous peoples, the natural elementsearth, wind, fire, waterare their relatives, as precious as their blood and kin. They do have a concept of time, of course, but it is non-linear and not nearly as neurotic as the white folks' preoccupation with the "passing of time." Time, therefore, in indigenous peoples' belief system, is not yet commodified. Neither is their relationship to the land.
Colonialism and imperialism have touched these indigenous belief systems and peoples, of course, and such neat delineations can barely stand the onslaught of time-based paradigms. But presently, witnessing the environmental destruction of time-based "civilized/modern" paradigms, indigenous peoples of the world are speaking up and challenging the former.
Indigenous belief systems acknowledge that there is a Great Spirit or Creator who willed the universe into being. The Great Spirit blessed creation and called it good and then entrusted this creation to its own wisdom and stewardship. Homo sapiens were not declared superior above other creatures. Man was not given the sole responsibility to tame woman and other "wild" life. For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings lived sustainably on the planet up until ten thousand years ago.
Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship for creative work that deals with solving global problems, tells this tale of evolution of human consciousness through the lens of time. He writes about the consequences of such worldview on the environment and the diversity of species on the planet. We are on the brink of environmental destruction, he writes, and it may not be too late to reverse our course but to do so we need to reach far back into our consciousness to the time when human beings knew how to live sustainably on the planet. Quinn tries to recuperate the indigenous worldview not in a nostalgic way or as the longing for what we ourselves have destroyed. But because he believes that there is still a residual memory in our modern consciousness that can be accessed and will tell us the answers to our dilemma today.
Indigenous peoples ask: what if there was no biblical Fall? Would there still be a need for salvation? Would there still be a need for a final judgment and the accompanying rewards or punishment? Sin/kasalanan, after all, in Filipino language simply means "to miss one's aim or target". Why can't one simply try again? Why must the word 'sala' (omission) be laden with guilt and shame and be made to carry the moral weight of human 'fallen-ness'? Did the Catholic friars who colonized the Philippines merely impose a meta-narrative using a time-constructed belief system? Is this the reason why Catholicism among Filipinos even today is still very much under girded by an indigenous consciousness that do not really take the meaning of 'sin' so seriously?
Another non-Western spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama is said to be in a quandary about the concept of 'self-esteem' among Westerners. Among his people, the Tibetans, "self-esteem" is not part of their language. The Tibetans and Nepalese people I have known or read about talk of the same question: why are Westerners obsessed with the lack of "self-esteem"? It never occurs to them that a person can be lacking in anything, especially "self-esteem". They do not understand the western culture's emphasis on "improving" one's self as if the self is a project in the process of perfecting towards some ultimate goal. The human self as it is, cannot be separated from its place in nature as just one of the species that has been put on the planet. Yet western narratives have managed to rationalize the superiority of homo sapiens of the white variety over other creatures. American colonialists deemed it their Christian and patriotic duty to impart to Filipinos, a "savage and barbaric people", their benevolent gifts of democracy and other ideals. We have been loved to death. And this death has to do with our own sense of uprootedness from the land. Our story is that of Carlos Bulosan: his family slowly traded the land for a colonial education. Imbued with new ideas about the pursuit of happiness, of self-fulfillment, of making wealth, of entitlement to private property, we left the land and gave up our anitos and with it, our sacred connection to the Earth and our right to a symbiotic belonging.
The rise of capitalism and modernity are specifically credited with the notion that it was necessary to dis-enchant nature so that it can be exploited, appropriated, and developed to serve human needs. To dis-enchant means to strip nature of all that is considered sacred and spirit-filled about it. Even here, I become aware of my use of the word "it" to refer to nature, one more evidence of how deeply I had been conditioned to think of my relationship to nature as "I and it" instead of "I and Thou". Can I really refer to my Mother as 'it'? Lowland Filipinos like me, I suspect, all grew up hearing our old folks warning us of the danger of the Igorot headhunters or the Muslim who runs amok, they who are "uncivilized". Yet the indigenous peoples were able to resist total colonization because of the strength of their connection to the Land and their enchanted relationship with it.
Albert White Hat said, "Today my people have God, but we don't have relatives!" This is his way of talking about the consequences of colonization on his people. He belongs to a generation of Lakota Sioux who was kidnapped and brought to the mission schools to be "civilized". Many converted to Christianity, lost their language, and shifted their sense of the sacred from Mother Earth to the Christian God. White Hat said he made enough of a ruckus at the mission school that he was returned to the reservation as punishment-a punishment that saved his life. He claims that today he is only one of a handful who can pass on the Lakota Sioux language and spiritual beliefs to his people.
The U.S. government continues to rewrite its policy towards Native American peoples in attempts to wrest the reservation lands from the indigenous peoples so that the minerals, water, and other resources can be exploited and developed. Early this year, 300,000 Native American signatories filed a class action suit suing the U.S. government for $137.2B for trust fund payments due to them from the Indian Trust Fund established in 1887. The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) leased reservation lands to mining, grazing, oil and gas drilling, and lumber extraction interests and was mandated to distribute lease revenues to Indian beneficiaries. The plaintiffs claim that the fund has been mismanaged for over a hundred years.
The fight is the same among Filipino indigenous peoples. The Aetas, displaced by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo into lowland areas have been trying to make their way back to their ancestral domains. Developers want to appropriate these domains. How long can the Aetas hang on while they are being tempted to give up their land in exchange for access to "modern" life? If they become mesmerized by modern life, who will reap the future consequences and costs of being separated from the land? The Manobos in Mindanao have had to co-exist with corporate interests that are developing geothermal energy at the foot of Mt. Apo, their ancestral domain. Paradoxically, the challenge of encroaching modernity has provided them the impetus for cultural renewal. (Alejo, Generating Cultural Energies on
My point in telling these stories is this: What if this place, this world, is continuously being created and re-created? According to Navajo beliefs, the world has been destroyed and recreated three times and we are now on the threshold of its destruction for the fourth time. What if Time is not linear but circular? What if the Christian story is not a universal story but the story of a particular people from a particular place and just one of many grand stories in the world? What if we recognize that the power and hegemony of the Christian narrative is not due to a direct divine revelation but due to its being wedded to the politics of empire-building? And that direct and divine revelation is also available to other religious peoples around the world? How would this way of looking at the world change our consciousness?
It seems that the time is right to be asking these questions as scientists and ecologists are becoming more and more alarmed by the paradigm of 'no-limits', of seeing nature as limitless and infinitely exploitable. Thirty years since Rachel Carson, we have more information available today of the fact that the Earth is not able to replenish and renew itself as fast as we are consuming the resources to supply the non-negotiable (according to our political leaders) "American way of life" that has now gone global. So we are being challenged to look for alternative paradigms. In order to privilege alternate paradigms, we have to revisit colonialism and imperialism and develop a critique of its effects and consequences.
If colonization is a process of projection of those disowned parts of the colonizing self, what wounds have been projected onto the Other? If the United States became an empire and a global superpower because of that critical historical moment when it decided to claim its first and only colony, the Philippines, what was being projected onto us Filipinos? Historians have weighed in and called it 'the masculine thrust to Asia', the 'White man's burden', 'manifest destiny and benevolent assimilation', 'white love', 'American tutelage'.
This, I think, has to do with the split self of modern western society, the ruthless rootless people who uproot other people. Simone Weil said only the uprooted uproot others. Similarly, African writer Malidoma Some (Of Water and Spirit), writes that his ancestors believe that the white men who conquered their land must have had dysfunctional relationships with their ancestors; they see a people who must have brought shame to their ancestors because they were killers and marauders masquerading as artisans of progress. The fact that these people have a sick culture comes as no surprise to Malidoma's ancestors (Some, 9). In this book, he offers the indigenous Dagara way of healing the relationship with one's ancestors. Some writes: "Not all people in the West have such an unhealthy relationship with their ancestors, but for those who do, the Dagara can offer a model for healing the ancestors, and, by doing so, healing oneself (10).
If decolonization has taught us anything, it's this: part of our own healing is to no longer be the willing receptacle of these projections from the colonizer. What then becomes of us when we are emptied of colonial projections? I was reminded by a very wise woman mentor from India that my colonized self is only a sliver in the totality of my Filipino Self. Yet, temporarily, it was necessary for the process of decolonization to take up time and space in the psyche in order to purge those projections so that I can 'come home' full circle to the largeness of my own indigenous self.
I use the term "indigenous" to refer to the self that has found its place, its home in the world. Emptied of projections of "inferiority", "third world", "undeveloped", "uncivilized", "exotic and primitive", "modernizing", it is the self capable of conjuring one's place and growing roots through the work of imagination, re-framing history, and re-telling the Filipino story that centers our history of resistance, survival, and regeneration.
Lately, I've been telling folks that I am an animist. Somehow the more I reflect on the native view of religion as deeply rooted to the Land, the more I became convinced that I still do carry in my genes, and in spite of my modern whereabouts, that strong residual memory of belonging to one's ancestral land and people. While it is true that there might be little that is literal in this connection, it is a symbolic and psychic connection nevertheless that is powerful and transformative.
So when I say that we have had a hundred years of American tutelage and we are still uncivilized, I do not say it lightly. As the bombs rain on Baghdad and as misery and suffering are visited on the Iraqi people and on U.S. soldiers and personnel who will be exposed to a toxic war environment, I wonder if it is a good time to claim to be civilized. As American schools, social services and infrastructures are under-funded because the government would rather finance a military-industrial empire, it behooves me to question where things have gone wrong in the great American democratic experiment. What I have come to believe is that the West started from the wrong assumptions from the very beginning.
I am human.
The earth/land is enchanted.
It will prevail with or without us.
© Leny Mendoza Strobel