Critiquing a critic (Part 1)

I start with a disclaimer. This is not officially a book review—how can that be done within a 700-plus-word limit of a column? Reducing the many gems of ideas in his latest tome of updated previously written articles to just less than a thousand words is a disservice to the work of one who I consider an intellectual giant as far as Philippine political history, having published a suite of noteworthy and mentally engaging works on the Philippines, Mindanao, and even on such seemingly mundane topics like love and sex among (communist) revolutionaries. This is not to mention some articles included in his newest book that I will refer to in this column, “Presidents and Pests, Cosmopolitans and Communists,” published by the award-winning Ateneo de Manila University Press toward the end of 2023.

Moreover, I feel uncomfortable doing a review, since I am not a peer—I consider him several notches higher than where I belong. But I know him quite well enough to be able to write a simple critique of this maverick of a scholar on Philippine and Mindanao studies who has earned the ire of those whom he has dared to challenge their opinions and stand on very crucial issues relating to contemporary Philippine politics. But equally, many young and aspiring political history enthusiasts and scholars consider him their intellectual north star. Among them are my own former and current colleagues in doing different genres of literary and journalistic pieces on Mindanao, and perhaps even the people who make this region more exciting as a subject not only of erudition but also of just random rumination. The latter are among his subjects of scrutiny in his newest anthology I refer to in this piece.

Patricio “Jojo” Nunez Abinales, author and professor of the University of Hawaii Center of Philippine Studies, has been a friend of long-standing; starting at the time we first met when I worked as editor in chief of a Cotabato City-based weekly tabloid, The Mindanao Cross, from 1991 to 1995. He was then gathering secondary data for his doctoral dissertation, part of the requirement of his doctor of philosophy degree he was then doing at Cornell University in New York. The Mindanao Cross is among the Philippines’ longest-running community newspapers; it was published by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic missionary congregation based in Cotabato City starting in 1948. It is a veritable source of historical records of past events in the former empire province of Cotabato, which is now subdivided into six provinces (as of 2022), largely through the gerrymandering of the region’s politicians.

Here I have to add that Abinales’ scholarly pedigree has somehow shaped his perspectives on making incisive analyses of Mindanao politicians and politics and everything and everyone in between them. Abinales is one of the most cherished “disciples” or students of the late Benedict Anderson, considered one of the influential theoreticians on how one’s complex feelings of identity and other characteristic traits of self-identification contribute to their imagination of belonging to a community, or a nation. This is the essence of his opus, “Imagined Communities,” (New York: Verso, 1983), tagged as a “brilliant exegesis of nationalism.”

Abinales pays tribute to Anderson by saying that nationalism is “[A] topic that has never been theorized, long thought of as originating from the West.” He cites Anderson’s critique of another “orientalist Western” author who “parachuted” himself to Manila and spent a couple of weeks talking to “resource persons” (based only in Manila) and returning to the United States to write “authoritative pieces” on post-Marcos Philippines. This encapsulates Abinales’ broad perspective of critiquing the works of self-proclaimed area specialists based on a swift visit to an area and coming out as self-proclaimed experts on certain areas they know next to nothing about.

The latter point resonates with my long-standing critique of Manila-based consultants (some friends call them “sulsoltants” or those who make sulsol, the Tagalog term for manipulating the mindsets of local or regional leaders) just to earn their professional fees. They swoop down on Mindanao for a two- or three-day visit; some even just fly in and fly out of Cotabato or Davao, for example, then come up with their imperialist-laced development ideas they use to embellish their work. Unfortunately, some clueless government officials in the region follow these frameworks without assessing their appropriateness to the local context. This is aptly expounded in the chapter “What sayeth the margins: a note on the state of Mindanao scholarship in Mindanao” starting on page 40.

(More next week)

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