Brown Americans and white Filipinos
The participation of Filipinos in the assault on the US Capitol is so instructive of the mental twists that develop in the minds of Filipinos who wrench themselves from the “Philippine Islands” to relocate to the colonial motherland, America. The walis tambo that was so prominently displayed in the video footage of the siege on the US Capitol instinctively made me search for other tell-tale symbols of Brown American complicity, like the giant spoon and fork, the Sto. Niño, and the Ifugao-in-a-barrel. How can people of color in the United States like Filipinos put their shoulder to the racist boulder that would roll down and wreck the pained American’s struggle for inclusive democracy?
The immense interest of Filipinos in the ongoing presidential transition drama in the United States is not unusual. As early as 1900, Aguinaldo’s government and many Filipinos were already invested in the American presidential contest. Attentive Filipinos were already rooting for William Jennings Bryan, then only 33, the youngest American candidate thus far. He was an anti-imperialist Democrat who eventually lost to William McKinley, who decided to forge ahead with the “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines. As an insightful article put it, the 1901 headlines would have read “Philippines Granted Independence by President Bryan” if Bryan had won instead of McKinley.
For more than a century, American presidents have been intimately involved in the destiny of the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt cemented his claim to the American presidency by audaciously sending the American fleet to Hong Kong even without presidential authorization, prepositioned to smash the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay. William Howard Taft was governor general in the Philippines before he became president of the United States. Harry Truman got us the unequal postwar RP-US treaties and our involvement in the Korean War. Lyndon Johnson got us into the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon acquiesced to Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law, while Ronald Reagan got Marcos to exile in Hawaii. From a distance, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama also made lasting impressions.
Donald Trump delighted Filipinos by making the Duterte administration seem less grotesque and almost normal. After four years, we are envious of the impending American deliverance from their quixotic leader. As Biden takes over, we wonder what the Biden policy would be with regard to the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese intrusion into which Mr. Duterte has squarely blamed on previous Philippine and American administrations.
This constant tendency and urge to compare ourselves with the conditions in the United States has been so ingrained in the Filipino political psyche. The comparison is infinite, from the quality of hamburgers to the personal excesses of leaders in the political system. There is a continuing historical, cultural, and demographic connection with the United States that fuels the oddness of the Philippines in its home region, Southeast Asia. There are four million Filipinos (or Americans with Filipino ancestry) in the United States, increasing by about 50,000 annually. As the walis tambo indicates, they have varying levels of stable party identification (two-thirds are Democrat while one-third are Republican), which is unknown in the Philippines.
Watching the Filipino and American political scenes makes for great entertainment. One tries to stay focused on the Philippine scene, but it is often too much to listen to Mr. Duterte, Harry Roque, and Francisco Duque III hold their midnight seances and dance around the COVID-19 pandemic, prescribe the most expensive but lowest efficacy vaccine for the people, report on the statistics of the pandemic, evaluate the features of various vaccines, and fumble through the convoluted process of procuring the vaccines.
This January, the urge to shift one’s eyes away from the Philippine scene is compelling. US television grabs your attention with the impeachment drama in the US Congress. But interesting times portend in the Philippines. The House of Representatives has opened another carnival side show, the amendment of the Constitution. A committee of the Lower House now claims it constitutes a “constituent assembly” by the mere act of starting the process of amending the Constitution. If this “constituent assembly” show metamorphoses into a ruse to extend Mr. Duterte’s term beyond 2022, it would generate political theater comparable to the excruciating end game of Donald Trump.
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