“Living without the skin”: Or the ego position of not voting for Hillary Clinton

I always say, I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I grew up on Mao. Of course, the latter part is not strictly true. I barely read Mao when I was sixteen and joined campus marches against the Marcos dictatorship at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. But, as they say, I have many good friends who were Maoists. I watched how campus activists moved and strategized for larger aims—the larger aim being to destroy imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism, of course.🙂 We weren’t marching for small change. We were going for the big bucks, the revolution. But the chess-positioning and the coalition-building and the tactical warfare maneuvering even re: the most picayune details of campus-election-candidates and so on are imprinted like weird DNA that never gets erased in my brain, no matter how I try. I do strange internal analytics whenever confronted with anyone (friend, lover, boss, student): I consider myself and my class and historical position in relation to the other, and I am always refracting this positionality back into my relationship with that other [friend, lover, boss, etc] so that, however desperately I would like to have an unmediated relationship [with anyone really, even my daughter], I am always defeated. My old teenage, UP-campus-activist mind gets in the way. I am never only myself: I am always part of a goddamned world dialectical-materialist struggle, even when I am just choosing my kid’s gym shoes or bored as shit at a faculty meeting.🙂 But what my experience with campus activism at Diliman taught me was that the decision one made (and ALL of one’s decisions were political) was always contingent on the needs of the moment—in relation to the larger cause.

It was our end that was necessary; our means were contingent.

Thus, the rift among my friends upon the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, for instance—a figure (correctly) enshrined in our PSR teach-ins as basic panginoong-maylupa slash comprador-bourgeois. When one of my classmates from the English department, Cochise Bernabe, asked me in 1983 if I wanted to go and serenade Ninoy at the airport when he arrived, I looked at him as if he were nuts: why would I want to do that?? Cochise, clearly, was not among the Maoists. Of course, now, looking back, I regret not going—what experiences I miss as a writer because of what I scorn as an ideologue! Anyway, we had to decide: were we for the obviously imperfect widow Cory Aquino (an oligarch, from one of the most powerful landlord families of the country—but also, at the time, clearly a means for change) or do we boycott? Officially, the party line was boycott; at the same time, many of us joined the Cory marches: the split, in my view, lay in the Gramscian instincts that, however doctrinaire the higher-ups might be, were deeply engrained in our campus activism. Not that we read Gramsci then (our handbook was Amado Guerrero, after all). But as Gramsci says, “the truth is, one cannot choose the war one wants.” There is an ego position, I think, in seeing political choices as being determined by ideological purity: we wish the war to be on our personal terms. In 1986, I chose to march for Cory because I thought the left needed to be in the trenches given the needs of the moment—marching strategically, with larger aims in mind. I still believe that at the time, even with what I know now, my choice was correct. Overthrowing the dictator was “historically necessary,” a material change for the country (though revolution is yet to come…). And it is terrible that the left, which gave organization and momentum and clarity to the anti-dictatorship movement that installed Cory, did, as we argued would happen, get left behind in the immediate euphoria of that so-called rebellion, since it had publicly boycotted her election. The leaders of the left failed to seize the moment.

They should have read Gramsci.

(Of course, there are many, overdetermined reasons for the weakened Philippine left and, of course, for all the atrocious post-Marcos governments that followed the people power rebellion of 1986.)

In the case here of Hillary Clinton, I choose to vote for her because we need to be in the trenches and so advance our larger aims. The notion that she must respond perfectly to my demands is an ego position that I have long discarded. As I learned as a kid in Diliman, I am never only myself—I am part of a larger struggle. My vote is strategic and provisional, and yes, it is a sign of my defeat, but it is also a sign of my refusal to lose the war. With Trump, we lose a lot—not least of it enthroning a raging racist—he is a concrete threat to people of color—we need to accept this fact—that allowing this man to govern us is an irreparable reality that we do not need to live to regret. (That Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, was the PR consultant to the dictator Marcos is a historical repetition not lost on me.)

Gramsci had made this interesting analogy of politics to anatomy: “By highlighting the anatomy and the function of the skeleton nobody was trying to claim that man (still less woman) can live without the skin.” He was talking about “structure/superstrucure”; but I use the metaphor in terms of ethics. To imagine that we can live with the harm of a trumpity presidency on our civil liberties, on the poor, on #blacklivesmatter, on Muslims, and so on, to not recognize the ethics of the moment, is to imagine that we “can live without the skin.” We highlight the skeleton—our ideological purity—but we still need to live in the world.

I’m not saying that a vote for Hillary is “historically necessary,” as an election is just one of the tools for change, and repeatedly, as we can see, it is a fairly deficient one. But a vote for Hillary is also, to me, not merely “arbitrary”: there is a concrete difference in our choices. One is flawed but makes sense and has allied goals (for one thing, she shifted given the demands of Bernie Sanders: one must see that as a good sign); the other makes no sense at all.

Difference matters: literally. Difference is material—difference is part of the world of things.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: the Gramscian mantra my friends in Manila mutter every day as they wake up to more strange news of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines on one hand and the prospect of peace in Mindanao on the other, both under the not-so-trumpian yet certainly perverse new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Everywhere, there’s a specter of global weirdness haunting the world these days. Sadly, it is not the specter Marx was foretelling. But we can still act in the ambiguous moment and vote—with our larger goals in mind.

Multo ng Malacañang: Read Our [Ghosts’] [S]lips

 

A month ago news came out that Duterte would not live in Malacañang because he said it was full of ghosts. The statement, coming three weeks after election day, was one among many of the personal, close-up glimpses the country had of the incoming president as both the Philippines and the world were coming to grips with a new order. A video of his statement is here.

The newscast first sets up Duterte’s macho style, contrasting it with his multo fear, or, as he calls his fear of living in the Palace—“maramaing mumu diyan”—in deliberately childlike speech that both makes light of his position and underlines it: because as far as I can tell, only he can make fun of it.

There were the usual jokes in the comments section about Noynoy Aquino, his predecessor, being the real multo, and of course the irony that it was Imee Marcos—who should know—who relayed the information to Duterte that the presidential palace had “five” resident ghosts. The reporter interviews one of the Palace’s gardeners who reveals that he once saw a wheeled office chair move on Malacañang grass on its own, as if sitting on it were some unseen man just going about his official multo-of-Malacañang business. And, of course, now we know that “Mister Brown,” a tikbalang, lives in a balete tree on the palace grounds.

But to be honest, at this point in the post-election cycle, Duterte’s pronouncement was a clichĂ©. We were used to strange moments coming out of Duterte’s press conferences. As a person, he was beginning to be predictable—a bit like a crazy uncle that you tolerate because at Christmas he might give you money.

So I began looking at the comments section to see what else was new. As many have noticed, the followers of Duterte are a fiercely faithful bunch. It’s also useful to note, as some have already, that they are a faithfully parsing bunch: they love to deconstruct the incoming president’s pronouncements.

What exists beside every Duterte statement that flummoxes normal beings is a paratext—a marginalia of interpretations that coexist with his oracular voice and accompany his message precisely like a ghostly trace: a trail maybe not of supernatural but of supra-aural or subliminal (at least to them) meanings. Duterte’s faithful are sophisticated readers of his words: literary explication is central to his followers’ understanding of the incoming president—they point out metaphors, puns, historical allusions, and so on. Like Biblical scholars, they constantly engage in exegesis.

‘Ekai Atoneg’ explains, “Ghost means under the table operatives not the literal ghost mahina talaga kayo di nyo pa talaga kilala si Digong.”

Ekai underlines ‘ghost’ as a political pun: ‘under the table operatives.’ He/she also emphasizes the “slowness” [mahina] of those who do not “know” Duterte [the verb used is kilala, which also implies something a bit more personal than abstractly ‘knowing’ someone: kilala is a verb that, however metaphorically one might mean it, includes interpersonal knowledge, e.g., being friends with him; contrast ‘kilala’ (know) with ‘alam’ (know): one verb is more personal, familial than the other]. They feel an intimacy with him.

Of course, Ekai gets it from a heckler, ‘Ravy Hackfield’—“Haha. Daming alam. Laliman mo pa.”

Equal to Duterte’s supporters are Duterte’s hecklers, those who laugh at the ‘deep readings’ [‘laliman mo pa’: or ‘yeah, keep digging for deep meanings’] and ‘daming alam’ [sarcastic phrase for ‘great knowledge’] of Duterte supporters.

But once you get into the mode of such ‘laliman,’ it is actually hard to extricate yourself from the possibility of alternate meanings. The language of Duterte becomes intrinsically intriguing because the possibilities for meaning have been opened up by his readers, his faithful audience who keep noting that all words have alternate texts—everything has a paratext.

‘Chum Bian’ says, “Hindi yan literal na ghost matalino yan si digong kung maka Du30 ka alam nyo na.”

Chum Bian does not even need to explain what the non-literal, metaphorical meaning might be (nor does he/she need punctuation, for that matter)—it is enough that a metaphorical explanation must be implied in ‘ghost’ because the man is “matalino”: intelligent.

(Of course, ironically this implies also the lack in Duterte’s words—one takeaway is that, because you need to reach for metaphor to understand him, you cannot take him, or his literal words, seriously, which is a drawback, politically.)

But there you have a third word for knowing, apart from ‘alam’ and ‘kilala’—‘talino,’ in this case a noun, not a verb—meaning intelligence. Matalino is a Tagalog adjective: the binisaya adjective could be baltok, or the Spanish cognate intelihente. (I see Chum Bian, a “maka Du30,” as a reader who speaks binisaya, likely Cebuano; though of course he could be Tagalog or Ilocano or Waray, who knows—Du30’s followers have a wide geographical swath.)

In Waray we might also use maaram; in Cebuano maalam. In short, our different Filipino languages have many root words for knowing and for intelligence. The fact is, given our various words for it, it seems we value knowing, but above all we recognize different modes of it: cunning, or academic, or commonsense Juan Pusong knowing, and so on.

I am not sure if matalino and baltok imply exactly the same thing: though they both mean intelligent. To know (alam) might be different from being intelligent (baltok). In Waray, maaram hiya, she is smart or she knows, has a different shade from baltok hiya, she is smart. I do think in the adjectives maaram and baltok, cunning is implied, something beyond academic knowledge, perhaps intuition, too; though if one is being entirely complimentary, baltok or maaram will mean a layered knowing—erudition in school and smarts outside of it.

But Chum Bian uses a Tagalog word “matalino” for Duterte here. Let’s say Chum Bian is Visayan, perhaps Cebuano. Once in the Visayas you use Tagalog to describe someone, you have broadened your audience, of course—you are aiming beyond your home—you have cosmopolitanized yourself.

The fact is, that is the annoying default experience (so default we in the provinces never even think when we code-switch to Tagalog) of being outside of the metropole (for me who grew up in Leyte, that is Manila, not New York). In my view, one implication of the word matalino is that Chum Bian is suggesting Duterte’s linguistic sophistication, just as he, Chum Bian, is sophisticated linguistically (for one thing, unlike the Tagalog, Chum Bian probably knows at least three languages, English, Tagalog, and Cebuano, e.g.).

Thus, for his supporters, Duterte’s metaphorical language is part of his talino—just as Chum Bian’s trilinguality, and his knowledge of alternate linguistic meanings, including metaphorical meanings, is part of Chum Bian’s talino, of his having ‘alam’—unlike the non-followers of Duterte.

This intense parsing of Duterte’s words by Duterte’s followers is fascinating not only because his followers have given us a new president, a new regime—whether we like it or not. I think this parsing of words is fascinating because it keeps revealing to us something integral to Filipino experience but always somewhat unexamined about Filipino experience—that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is always ‘sophisticated,’ in that we are aware, because of language, of multiple worlds and meanings always at once.

We always bear within us several texts, a paratext for our English and a paratext for our Tagalog and a paratext for our Waray or Ilocano or Ilonggo—we bear a marginalia of tongues all simultaneously and at once. We cannot help it. We cannot help but bear multiple worlds in us. And I mean that word ‘bear’ in those multiple senses: we are burdened by it, we are born to it. [I will not get into our damned colonized history here that condemns us to what we are born to and to what we bear.]

We are always trailing ghosts of words, a trace of other words and thus meanings, as we speak. (Note: This is true of humans; but it is existentially transparent with Pinoys. Pinoys, in this sense, are uber-humans: or the colonized is hyper-human—but that is too much theory for now.) When I say baltok, I also have the word smart in me, as well as talino and maalam. As Eliot’s Wasteland goes, I can do the police in different voices. We live daily with the ghosts of our various selves, our triple languages, our multiple worlds via our several, and severing, tongues.

The emergence of Duterte, who makes prominent the language of an other, at least if we consider the political convention of Tagalog as the not-other (by the way, that is not, for me, my lived experience, since the language of a so-called other, Waray, is my motherland, my tongue-ina, to use that witchy code-switching term of poet Eric Gamalinda)—the emergence of Duterte only makes that existential multiple-tongued reality of the Filipino slightly more obvious.

Our ‘sophisticated’ knowledges—talino and alam and baltok realities arising from our everyday sophisticated experience of our multilinguality—are made prominent in the emergence of Duterte. But perhaps more importantly, in the emergence of Duterte’s readers.

But on the other hand, that existential linguistic quality is not enough to sustain the mesmerizing, messianic qualities of his words upon his followers (not to mention the distressing, to say the least, effect of them on his not-followers). Sylvia Mayuga, in her essay on Duterte and the Pilandok tale, and Ninotchka Rosca, in her comment on Duterte and his ‘duro’ politics, have brought out folk aspects of the man that many respond to. In another post, I looked at the most immediate historical moment that strikes me in Duterte: his strongman-nostalgia (and our strongman-attraction that may also be part of the country’s vote for him). And he does contain folk qualities—a Juan Pusong type, an insider who acts like an outsider, seemingly dumb but actually always victorious, a justice avenger, a pun-twisting joker, etc etc. One can look at him in an exterior, narrative way and parse him as a riddle, a folk image, and so on, and we can get a quite complex, edifying or not, mirror of ourselves achieved by those readings.

But reading the comments makes me also aware that his significance lies in the readers themselves—his readers are a fateful text. I’d say this includes both the responses of his faithful and of his hecklers.

‘Lea Sanchez’ goes, “May point si Mr President haha. Lahat ng kaganapan sa history ng Philippine politics dumaan diyan haha😄.”

The president has a point, says Lea Sanchez: to read Duterte’s comment on the palace is to read all the events [lahat ng kaganapan] of Philippine history through Duterte’s proclaimed fear of the ghosts of Malacañang.

An anonymous poster adds, “Malacañang means malaking lakan, o ahas [snake]. I think we have to change the name. Puro ahas diyan. SNAKEPIT.”

For both Lea Sanchez and Anonymous, Duterte’s fear of multo in Malacañang then is a historical allusion and political critique—and the historical allusion, inevitably, is encased in a linguistic pun. For Filipinos, history is a matter of pun. In Anonymous’s case, malacañang, malaking lakan, house of a big lord, but also, house of a snake, is a linguistic and physical pun, both the snakepit that is language and the house of ghostly snakes. I have no idea if this punning interpretation of the word malacañang, as snakepit, is accurate, but it is sufficient perhaps that Duterte faithful go there.

It is impossible in the Philippines to separate historical critique from language play.

Thus, the presidential palace, as parsed by Duterte evangelists through his messianic, metaphorical language (however aware he is of the meanings his followers will make), becomes a tongue-lashing snakepit, that is, a historically corrupt house of politics that has poisoned the nation through the years.

I would not say that his followers are mistaken.

But then an anonymous poster responds: “Malay nyo naman po matakot sila sa yo”—Who knows, sir, if it is the ghosts who will be afraid of you.

To which ‘Kevin Mercado Linsao’ gleefully answers, “The famous ghost still won as Mayor!”

And so ‘Losi Garo’ jeers, “Akala ko astig ka. Looks like he does not have balls afterall.”

But ‘Alesha Mohhamed Lavender Unica’ laughs at Losi Garo, “lol have sense to understand what he means.”

While ‘Rotsen Naalcab Agirab’ goes on, “Hahhahaha taga davao ako boy!! Hindi mo pa mkuha ang style ni mayor!! Ganyan yan marunong magbiro peru wag lng magalit dahil lion yan.”

And so on and so forth.

(I mean, even the posters’ pen-names seem like plays on words: anagram [Losi Garo: Roli the Siga?], palindrome [Rotsen: Nestor?], chiasmus [Ekai Atoneg: Genato E?]—all those slippery games of self-naming, our treasured secret identities, through language-play, that to me are precarious ways to hold on to a passing sense of superiority, a perilous control. I imagine we like to pun because when we play with words, at least we might feel, however illusorily, we have control over meaning—since we don’t over our lives.)

There is no way out of the tangled braid of language and interpretation and politics and history and jokes as ways of knowing that bedevils our islands.

In the voice of the Duterte critic, Duterte himself will become a metonym: Duterte will inevitably become the ghost that Duterte himself fears.

It is hard, in our political world especially, and in our tongues in cheek that respond to it, not to see the reflexive, inevitable fallibility of the leader.

Duterte, as far as history goes (even in the tautological logic of his own followers, who accurately label his future home as a snakepit, so that then Duterte himself is the big snake in it) will inescapably become the ghost of Malacañang.

The one who is killed and will kill.

Maraming mumu diyan. Including, who knows, what Duterte fears of and for himself even as he speaks.

It’s exactly as Freud calls it—this comment on the multo of Malacañang. It’s a psychopathology of the tongue: the extreme self-awareness that occurs in lapses of speech.

The fact is, the readers of Duterte, whether follower or critic, will keep on dragging our multiple ‘sense[s] to understand,’ our many ways of being ‘marunong,’ including, of course, our most palpable intelligence—the great intelligence of jokers—‘marunong magbiro’—our jokiness being ultimately a mark of our own sense of our slips—the way our completeness of self lies in our seeming ineffability, our multiple selves that constantly escape our grasp via our multiple tongues—as we slouch toward our Bethlehem, to one more inauguration of a leader who, one only hopes, will be not the lakan in the snakepit but the healer outside of it.

Malay nyo, as Anonymous says. Who knows?

I wish for him to be the hilot, the healer. Above all, I wish us all the best.

But then, my own paratext bubbles up in me, as I also think, he could also be just the snake charmer.

But does it matter who, in fact, he is?

Maybe it is for us the readers to go deeper, into ourselves. We are the text, the ghost, whose lips we must read. With empathy, with hope, with a sense of our mutual intelligences, for after all in our multiple ways there is only the one country for which the many dream.

Laliman pa natin.

 

Two American writers of the Filipino-American war period

There are two interesting Americans of the period who wrote about life in the archipelago. One style of writing was to do captive narratives—I imagine those were popular among Americans, the way stereograph pictures of dead Filipino bodies were mass entertainment. Similar to these captive-memoirs would have been narratives of army officers, etc. Those seem to be well published. Of course, there were the travel narratives, many of them by women, Thomasite teachers and such. The other writer I am thinking of is a Conrad-esque one—his work was like a hybrid of Orwell’s Burmese Days and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

James Marie Hopper was an aspiring literary stylist who wrote in the vein of Joseph Conrad (Hopper seems to have been a fan of Conrad, as a letter from Conrad shows, and as the contemporaneous book reviews acknowledge). Some of the stories in Caybigan were published by the literary magazine McClure’s; he was most famous for his reports on the SF earthquake, in Harper’s—he made money enough on it to buy a home in Carmel (now Carmel-by-the-Sea), CA. He was said to have published 300 stories in his lifetime. I looked up whether or not a Filipino scholar had done any research on Hopper; could not find any references. I found him because I was looking for evidence of what seems to be an apocryphal story about Jack London—that in his time as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese war, he passed by Manila and thus owned or stole a Katipunan flag. Anyway, found no source for that rumor, but I found the work of Jack London’s friend James Marie Hopper instead. Hopper, in the Google book of Jack London’s letters, is said to have been known in the literary world as “the Kipling of the Philippines”—an intriguing, if not necessarily complimentary, epithet.

The other writer is Albert Sonnichsen, a former prisoner of war who wrote a 12 Years a Slave-type narrative, called Ten Months a Captive Among Filipinos. Mark Twain wrote Sonnichsen a very nice letter approving of his book: the memoir was, in fact, an evenhanded narration, in some places poignant, of incidents of war. Most powerful to me is his anecdote of a grieving Filipino mother offering food to the prisoner of war Sonnichsen, asking him whether gringos treated their prisoners well. It turns out the old woman’s son was a katipunero captured by US forces—a haunting mirroring in that scene. I saw Sonnichsen’s papers, including that nice autographed letter from Twain, in the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division when I was doing research on my never-ending novel William McKinley’s World. Sonnichsen was a Danish American captured by Aguinaldo’s army in Malolos; he was a GI out, stupidly, trying to take pictures of the outbreak of war, then the Katipunan captured him when he got off a train (or something Reds-like like that). He went all around Bulacan then Northern Luzon as a POW of the Katipunan, becoming friends with one of his captors Juan Villamor, an Ilocano general under Aguinaldo (a hero also mentioned extensively in Scott’s Ilocano Responses to American Aggression). The American senators who cross-examined Taft about Balangiga in 1902 in Affairs of the Philippine Islands were very familiar with Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir (it was because of Sonnichsen’s book that the senators insisted to Taft on their belief that Aguinaldo himself killed Luna; Taft dissuaded them). Ten Months a Captive is available online here.

But while Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir was well-reviewed and somewhat famous, James Marie Hopper is the literary writer. He came to the Philippines in 1901 to be a teacher; he was well-known at Cal Berkeley as a football player; he grew up in Oakland (incidentally so did Sonnichsen). His father was an Irish Fenian refugee in Paris, his mother was a Parisian who took her twin sons across the seas to California (don’t know what happened to Fenian dad). Hopper was friends with Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, etc. Hopper’s book of Conradesque short stories, Caybigan, was published in 1906; including its title’s punning use of Tagalism, caybigan, for the saccharine, reflexive term Pinoys used both for themselves as colonized and Americans as colonizer—that is, amigo—I think his book Caybigan is a lot more interesting than John Sayles’s Amigo.

Being something of a modernist, Hopper drew portraits of his fellow Americans that drip with what could pass as anti-imperial critique, in that Conrad way that is both simpatico and repulsive: racist and well-meaning (it seems). I like especially Hopper’s stories of colonist-trauma—the pathetic US soldier in Iloilo from the American South whom Hopper describes with the relish Conrad gave to the nutty Russian in the Congo or the “pilgrims” in Heart of Darkness, Hopper’s beast-like Southerner in his tattered camisa climbing up banana trees in the dark of night in order to eat (the denouement is tragic, an inverse of the balikbayan-OFW tale, quite fascinating); or the farcical life of a maestro (called Thomasites in history books but portrayed with gentle but clear-eyed self-critique in Hopper, who was, of course, a maestro himself)—funny Mark-Twainish scenes of the maestro desperately catching the truant Isidro who refuses his ‘civilization.’ And so on. Hopper liberally uses Tagalog words—baguio, for typhoon, bata, tao—but also racist words like pickaninny and brownie—all in an interesting, arch voice that I cannot quite condemn or condone, so I laugh. The racism, of course, makes the entire book a bit of a travesty, but it is an instructive read. Caybigan is also available online, here.

Those two, Sonnichsen and Hopper, give one a sense of the temper and tone of some of the literary writing about the Philippines at the onset of occupation, during a global period that was, in fact, full of great human radical movement—anarchism everywhere, factory occupations in Italy, communists in Hollywood, etc. They don’t tell us why books of that sort did not have a lasting hold on American letters. Basic American education also does not include Mark Twain as anti-imperialist, for instance, or MLK as socialist. High school students always read Gatsby but never Sinclair Lewis. And so on. The lack of American canonical literary writing on the American occupation of the Philippines does tell us that American letters is highly ideological, and rightwingish: the canon is made by a bunch of twits whose main job is to take wedgies out of their asses; canons aren’t about genuine thought but about lasting reaction. Sonnichsen actually became a freedom fighter in Montenegro, and then a leader of collectivism in Connecticut (whatever that is). Hopper became a World War 1 war correspondent. The 2 were by no means great writers, but they were two of the better ones, and they were more interesting voices than the much-published, stupid “historians,” like money-grubbing, gold-mine-owning, artifact-grabbing Dean Worcester. Or Forbes and Blount.

My sense is that those 2, Sonnichsen and Hopper, were exceptions, ‘better’ Americans than the usual kano in the Philippines. No wonder a writer born of erudite parents of the Spanish period, like Nick Joaquin, had disdain for the era he grew up in, the prewar years of the American occupation (at least I see that in his stories; don’t know much about his personal views); his country’s occupiers were louts, embezzlers, midget minds out to make a buck. Not to mention very tiresome racists. McCoy captures those Americans, with fine portraits of Rough Rider Leonard Wood’s stock-market-swindler son—a son of a governor-general (favorite friend of TR) who used his influence to fleece investors in Manila and New York, etc—and other filthy characters (not excepting the annoying Filipinos, like Quezon), in his essential book Policing America’s Empire (not available online, but available at Ateneo de Manila bookstore).

Both Sonnichsen and Hopper, coincidentally, were sons of immigrant Americans (one man’s father was from Denmark, the other man’s family emigrated from France) who grew up in California. They were not the Midwestern Indian-war veterans or Southern farm goonies who made up most of the U.S. volunteer soldiers. Hopper, I imagine, was also quite different from the pious, semi-literate Christians from Ohio or Arkansas who made up the Thomasites. In general, most of the Americans who came to the country were probably like swamp people in Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner (Hopper tells a story of one of them in the opening tale of his book Caybigan). At least, that is the very unkind interpretation I make from the documents of the Filipino-American war period, which mostly come from US Army files or government documents—such texts not being beacons of enlightenment.

Ace Hotel Residency

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 10.00.38 PM I will be at the Ace Hotel one Sunday in June (but no, not with Rizal—that photo was at the Philippines’ San Francisco consulate). Thanks to the Filipino-American Museum for inviting me. I will be working on my foreword to Nick Joaquin’s stories, to be published by Penguin Classics in 2017. So excited for that book—and such a pleasure to be rereading Nick Joaquin, especially now that I am much older and not reading him only for color, for language, which is what I loved him for. Just finished his “Doña Jeronima,” which is like the love-child of Borges’s Circular Ruins and a telenovela starring Rizal’s Padre Florentino. “Woman with Two Navels” still has the razor-sharp edge of modernity that I remember—now more than when he wrote it, I think, because his layers of postcoloniality are in greater relief as I read, with theory at my back and a history of the Filipino-American war on my mind. And still, reading him is pure pleasure: his writing is so sure, so replete. Thanks, FAM and Ace Hotel.

Duterte: Strongman, Jokerman (in CNN Philippines)

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Thanks to Don Jaucian of CNN Philippines for publishing the article on Duterte in its entirety. This was written in the heat of the election cycle, and I have read it again in light of the results and my own ambivalent feelings about Duterte (I sympathize with his voters, and I find Duterte himself—and the phenomenon of him—absolutely fascinating, a complex story of the Philippines and of overdetermined desire, that is, in this case, of a people’s political desire, a kind of idealism, an anguish, “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary—having more than one cause”). And I recognize demagoguery as an election strategy—heralded it seems as a Filipinism—Dutertism; but however much you make a Juan Pusong hash of his affect, the violence underlying it is a problem. I reread the article, and I would not change a word of it.

There’s that story of when Gertrude Stein first saw the portrait Picasso made of her, and she complained: “But it does not look like me.” The artist replied: “Don’t worry, it will.”

The issues behind this election outcome are structural, not personal. I was interested not only in a portrait of Duterte and his voters but also to consider  what constructs us.

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My Foreign Policy article on Duterte

The editor of this piece chose the title—not I! I do not think the Trump analogy is the best—nor is the sensationalizing caption—really annoying, actually. My original draft of this piece (published in its entirety on CNN Philippines) does not even mention Trump. The editor wanted the link to Trump to make it “understandable” to an American audience. Personally, I think the U.S. still needs to make the phenomenon of their Trump understandable to the world. With its sensational headline (again, not my fault!), this piece has also been picked up by NZ Herald and The Chicago Tribune, and cited in Forbes.

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Paltik Candidate: Duterte and the Duranos of Danao

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Paltik Presidente

It is fascinating to check out the genealogy of Rodrigo Duterte. He excuses his foul mouth by such comments as “hindi ako anak ng konyo”—I am not a child of the upper classes.

But if you look up his bio, his father, Vicente G. Duterte, was in fact the governor of his province, Davao, when he was growing up, in 1959 to 1965—his formative, teenage years. Thus, he was no unknown peasant when he was learning to be a man. He grew up a governor’s child. He is, in fact, “anak ng konyo”—that is, a child of privilege.

There is no sense that his father had oligarch ways; in fact, there is very little info on what his father had done for Davao.

But Davaoeños on my FB page mention that his mother, Soledad Roa-Duterte, was known for her good heart, a civic leader—she supported Cory Aquino in 1986. It is said Cory Aquino handpicked Duterte to be officer-in-charge of Davao City when his mother declined the honor. He was elected mayor in 1988 and served six terms, a mayor of Davao City well into the 2000s.

That the origin story of Duterte, champion of death squads as a form of justice, lies in his being handpicked by Cory Aquino says a lot.

The Philippines’ continuing accommodation of Marcos-style fascist warlords, from the Cory years on, is the country’s rot. State violence remains our cancer though the dictator has, so they say, died.

Duterte likes to talk about Davao as a safe city under his long mayoralty; Human Rights Watch notes otherwise. Davao City certainly was not safe when a rash of hostage taking occurred in 1989, a now infamous year after his well-publicized account of the rape and death in 1989 of Australian missionary, Jacqueline Hamill. Davao, then and now, is probably no more safe than any large city in the Philippines with guns and assassins and petty thieves and drug lords operating in militarized local settings—in which too often state oppression joins with personal revenge—that have marked the Philippines since the guardia civil killed Crispin in the Noli, and the Americans took up where the Spaniards left off, and then our own series of sad republics has had its day.

Instead, what is remarkable about Duterte’s Davao City is not its dubious safety but its death squads. Duterte’s fans like to say that the extrajudicial killings of street children and drug addicts are worth it if the rest of citizens can walk the streets free. But no citizen in her right mind should sleep well at that cost. As far back as 525 B.C, the ancient Greeks knew well enough that Orestes and the rest of his bloodletting ilk of the house of Atreus had to stop taking justice in their own hands already. Thus courts were invented (so says Aeschylus). Courts, as far the civilized world goes, remain a fine alternative to bloodletting.

State-supported violence to tamp down crime is not security: it is crime. But when one looks further into Duterte’s genealogy, one gets an insight into his assassin-friendly rule. The Dutertes, like many Davaoeños, are emigrants from elsewhere, usually Cebu. In Duterte’s case, his father Vicente was from Danao City, in Cebu province. That lone consonant shift, v to n, Davao to Danao, is a significant diffĂ©rance. Danao City is the stronghold of the Duranos, a warlord family to which the historian Michael Cullinane devotes a whole chapter in Alfred McCoy’s classic anthology on Filipino cronyism, An Anarchy of Families. The figurehead of the violent, gun-loving Duranos is their patriarch, Ramon Durano, Sr. His wife was Beatriz Duterte.

There’s the rub.

Turns out the Dutertes of Danao are linked to the notorious Duranos, potent deliverers of Cebu votes to the Marcos dictatorship in every crucial election of Marcos’s reign.

This is what I gather from the family trees that have proliferated since the man has become a buzzword—not all of his words so nice—in these elections (correct me if I am wrong, as the genealogies are actually conflicting): Beatriz Duterte Durano is the first cousin of Vicente G. Duterte, the late governor of Davao. Beatriz and Vicente’s fathers, Facundo (Vicente’s) and Severo (Beatriz’s), are brothers, children of Isabelo Duterte and Concepcion Buot. Since 1955 to 1986, Beatriz Duterte Durano was a force in Cebu politics, trading off the position of Danao mayor or congressperson with her children, Boy and other boy Duranos, so that their elections were “monotonous,” says Cullinane.

But her husband, Ramon Durano, Sr., is the kingpin—the Marcos crony whose spectacular devotion to martial rule is not meteoric but metonymic: his name is a substitute for the GGG (not galunggong, but guns, goons, and gold) of Philippine politics.

When I was growing up, visiting Cebu every summer, I’d hear of these toxic Duranos. Their fiefdom, Danao, was the well-known, dreaded (to a child’s mind) place of paltik. Some towns are known for their puto or their piña; Danao was known for its paltik—crude but effective Filipino-made guns, made illegally, but the Marcos-era police turned a blind eye. I grew up thinking that if you entered Danao, you’d be riddled with drug addiction or bullets. The Duranos were the overlords and masterminds of an un-charming cottage industry. At a time when violence was normalized and rumors of disappearances were as common as the whiff of kaingin, to me violence in Cebu equaled the Duranos. Guimaras was famous for its mangoes; Danao for its deaths. These were childhood equations of my martial law years.

If I mention the Duranos to my sister, for example, she immediately says—so violent. If I mention Duranos among Manileños, I only get glassy eyes. The power of the family is unknown. Information about the provinces is so lacking in the capital that it is no surprise that to many, the Duterte phenomenon catches them unaware. This is one more strike against the blinkers of the people of the national capital region. Significantly, in the last Pulse Asia Survey, the only region in which Poe and Roxas win is the Visayas. Who knows if that is because—they are aware of Duterte’s entire career—or of course Poe and Roxas have their own familial footholds in the Visayas—or maybe the Visayans are more intelligent and knowledgeable than the people in Manila would care to admit, knowing both the capital region’s personalities as well as their own. Who knows.

News reports state the Duranos of Cebu City (don’t know about Danao City) are not (publicly) on Duterte’s side in this election (the family had huge splits after Marcos years, according to Cullinane); but that does not negate the Durano/Marcosian style of Duterte’s views of law and order, ie, extrajudicial killings as state policy. He’s interesting (and thus maybe worse) in that he’s pretty open about it.

I keep wondering why the biography and genealogy of Duterte barely make play in Manila news. I imagine it is because for so long the man was ignored in the capital, for his Bisaya accent, his outrageous mouth, and his provincial affect as some no-name bumpkin. It would have been useful to figure out that the man has long had pertinent examples from his own set of relatives, however distanced or estranged he may be (I have no information on his actual personal relations with them) as an example of how to remain in power.