Column: Cory, damaged culture and cacique democracy

The second of four reflections on the role of the Aquinos in the life of the nation, at least since 1972. Published August 11, 2009.

Cory Aquino’s personal qualities helped her assume the mantle of leadership after her husband’s assassination. But what was her legacy, not as leader of the opposition but as first president of the post-Marcos era?

To my mind, the most devastating critiques of the Aquino presidency were written very early in her unexpected term (it is easy to forget how, before it became inevitable, Marcos’ fall from power seemed improbable). James Fallows wrote “A Damaged Culture” in 1987, after spending six weeks in the country; the still-controversial article, a finalist for the National Magazine Award in the United States, appeared in the November 1987 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Benedict Anderson’s “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines,” a sweeping context-setting study, was published in the May-June 1988 issue (No. 169) of the London-based New Left Review.

I do not think they were written as such—that is, as a critique of the Aquino years, which after all ran until June 1992—and yet that is how they were received in the Philippines then, and how they are best understood now. Perhaps the writers’ stature had something to do with it: Fallows is an eminent journalist writing for an influential publication; Anderson is an eminent scholar, whose classic “Imagined Communities” revitalized the study of nationalism. (I have admired their work for years.)

But I think it was also the way they framed their writing, as nothing less than a discovery of a benighted country’s DNA (cultural for Fallows, historical for Anderson), that vested their words with an explanatory power so persuasive it seemed to predict Cory’s end.

To place Cory Aquino in history, then, we must come to terms with these implied indictments. (To be sure, Fallows wrote for an American audience and Anderson wrote for an international readership—sufficiently British enough however to distinguish Chelsea from Arsenal. But they must count Filipinos among their readers too.)

Both the feature article and the historical survey make for painful reading, in part because of what they get right and in part (and especially) because of what they get wrong.

After sketching the country’s bleak prospects and scaling the hellish summit of Smokey Mountain (which the magazine misspells without the “e”), Fallows goes to the heart of the matter. “If the problem in the Philippines does not lie in the people themselves or, it would seem, in their choice between capitalism and socialism, what is the problem? I think it is cultural, and that it should be thought of as a failure of nationalism.”

I share that view, as do many others: We are damned by the lack of a sense of nationhood. There are times when the country seems to pull together, and there is a surge in pride in the “Pinoy” (a term that I think became current and an honorific only in the 1980s). But despite what I think is a palpable increase in the Filipino’s self-esteem in the last quarter-century, many Filipinos still think that life, in its fullness, is elsewhere.

Anderson locates the problem in our colonial history. “The truth is that American electoralism remains powerfully attractive, even when, perhaps especially when, married to Spanish caciquism [political bossism] in a geographically fragmented, ethnolinguistically divided and economically bankrupt polity.” Anderson likens the Philippines after Cory’s “restoration of democracy” (those searing, ironic quotation marks are his) to a casino. “In any well-run casino, the tables are managed in the statistical favor of the house. To keep drawing customers, the owners must provide them with periodic, even spectacular successes.” He is speaking of elections.

Like poison that does not age, there is still much truth in that telling if limited metaphor.

Both Fallows and Anderson see Cory’s role as the bringing back to life of the old pre-Marcos society. Fallows: Edsa “should probably be seen not as a revolution but as the restoration of the old order.” Anderson: The local elections of 1988 signified the “fuller revival of the ancien regime.

And yet: Reading these pieces again and again, I am nagged by the sense, not of frustration, but of futility. I find Fallows unduly pessimistic, and Anderson overly deterministic. In a word, their view seems bereft of hope, offering the Filipino no sources, no wellsprings, of hope-bearing change.

This is the first of the big things they get wrong, the sense of hope that Cory Aquino embodied. There are still others. Reading Fallows and Anderson, one would think that a comprehensive agrarian reform program would never pass a landlord-dominated Congress, or that the US military bases would never be removed, or that local governments would never become viable units of governance, or that a successful handover of power, despite the smallest presidential mandate in history, would never be accepted by the public in 1992, and at once.

One more thing: “Corazon Aquino’s husband was conforming to general practice in the late 1960s when he campaigned for a senatorial seat in a black Mercedes ringed with Armalite-toting bodyguards,” Anderson also notes. In a footnote, he adds more such details from the 1967 New York Times story and concludes: “a useful antidote to the current martyrology surrounding the assassinated senator.”

Aside from doing exactly what Marcos did in 1983, regurgitate an old article to try to discredit the returning Ninoy, Anderson in 1988 fails to understand the fundamental fact that Filipinos came to realize about the Aquinos: their martyrdom (including Ninoy’s seven years in jail) had changed them completely. They were not so much old order as new wine.

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