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A DAMAGED CULTURE through hard study and hard

By: James Fallows work. Unfortunately for its

people, the Philippines
A New Philippines? illustrates the contrary: that
culture can make a naturally
In the United States the rich country poor. There may
coming of the Aquino be more miserable places to live
government seemed to make in East Asia – Vietnam,
the Philippines into a success Cambodia – but there are few
story. The evil Marcos was out, others where the culture itself,
the saintly Cory was in, the rather than a communist
worldwide march of democracy political system, is the main
went on. All that was left was to barrier to development. The
argue about why we stuck with culture in question is Filipino,
our tawdry per dictator for so but it ahs been heavily shaped
long, and to support Corazon by nearly a hundred years of the
Aquino as she danced around “Fil-Am relationship.” The result
coup attempts and worked her is apparently the only non-
way out of the problems the communist society in East Asia
Marcoses had caused. in which the average living
standard is going down.
This view of the New
Philippines is comforting. But Now a few disclaimers.
after six weeks in the country I Some things obviously have
don’t think it’s very realistic. gotten better since Ferdinand
Americans would like to believe and Imelda Marcos fled the
that the only colony we ever country at the end of February
had – a country that modeled its last year (though most Filipinos
institutions on ours and still seem to think that the threats to
cares deeply about its relations the Aquino government- of
with the United States – is which the worst was the bloody
progressing under our wing. It’s August coup attempt – imperil
not, for reasons that go far such progress as the country
beyond what the Marcoses did has made). Not so much money
or stole. The countries that is being sucked out at the top.
surround the Philippines have More people are free to say
become the world’s most what they like about the
famous showcases for the government, without being
impact of culture on economic thrown in jail. Not so many
development. Japan, Korea, peasants are having their
Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore – chickens stolen by underpaid
all are short on natural soldiers foraging for food,
resources but all (as their although the soldiers, whose
officials never stop telling you) pay has been increased, are still
have clawed their way up

woefully short on equipment beginning to grumble about her
and supplies. government, many Filipinos
speak of Cory’s goodness,
The economy has stopped patience, and piety in tones that
shrinking, as it had been doing suggest they think of her as a
in the late Marcos years, and secular, widowed Blessed Virgin,
some rich Filipinos have brought and as the only person with
capital back home. I was not in even the potential to hold the
the Philippines during the country together.
Marcos era and can’t compare
the atmosphere firsthand, but Democracy has returned
everyone says that the to the Philippines, in a big way.
bloodless dethroning of Marcos As if to make up for all the years
gave Filipinos new dignity and when they could not vote,
pride. Early this year, on the Filipinos have been analyzing
first anniversary of the “EDSA the results of one election and
revolution” (named for Epifanio preparing for another almost
de los Santos Avenue, where nonstop since early last year.
many of the crucial events took Election disputes have returned
place), television stations ran too. For three months after the
round-the-clock replays of all legislative elections last May,
the most emotional moments; long recounts dragged on to
the nuns’ attempts to protect determine whether Juan Ponce
the ballot boxes, the defection Enrile, Marcos’s former Defense
of Marcos’s two main military Minister, whose switch to Aquino
supporters, Juan Ponce Enrile helped topple Marcos, would get
and Fidel Ramos, the abortive one of the twenty-four seats in
swearing-in of Marcos, his the Senate. Senators are
sudden disappearance in an elected nationwide, in what
American helicopter. It was often resembles a popularity
inspirational and moving and contest. Among the new
heroic, and as late as this senators is a Charles Bronson-
summer, just before the style action-movie star; Enrile is
attempted coup, some of the about as well known as the
same atmosphere remained. actor, and though he has made
Filipinos are famous for their many enemies, most foreigners
love of religious icons. A visitor I spoke with found it hard to
would have to be blind not to believe that in an honest vote
see the religious element in count he would have lost to
Corazon Aquino’s public role. everyone on Aquino’s list of
Stores sell small Cory dolls with nominees, which included a
bright yellow dresses and round- number of newcomers and
rimmed glasses. They’re not nobodies. Finally, in August, he
exactly icons, but I’ve seen squeaked in as number twenty-
them displayed in homes and four.
cars as if they were. Even when

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
Democracy has unleashed for delicadeza, or from a vague
a Philippine press so varied and sense of guilt that the former
licentious as to make even colony is still floundering, or
Americans feel nervous-or because of genuine fondness for
rather, to recall standing in the Filipino people, the United
grocery check-out lines looking States tolerates polite fictions
at Midnight and Star. about the Philippines that it
Newspapers are always starting would ruthlessly puncture if they
up and closing, but at any given concerned France or even
time Manila has at least twenty Mexico. I don’t pretend that my
dailies, most of them in English. view of the Philippines is
Each paper features its stable of authoritative, but I’ve never
hardworking star columnists, before been in a country where
any of whom is capable of my initial impressions were so
turning out 2,000 to 3,000 totally at odds with the
words of political commentary standard, comforting, let’s all
and inside gossip-the equivalent pull together view. It seems to
of a whole American op-ed me that the prospects for the
page-in a single day. Philippine Philippines are about as dismal
politics has a small-town feel, as those for, say, South Korea
because so many of the are bright. In each case the
principals have known one basic explanation seems to be
another all their lives. This adds culture: in the one case a
to the velocity and intensity of culture that brings out the
gossip-especially the rumors of productive best in the Koreans
impending coups, which have (or the Japanese, or now even
cropped up every week or ten the Thais), and in the other a
days since Aquino took power, culture that pulls many Filipinos
and which preoccupy political toward their most self-
Manila the way scandals destructive, self-defeating
preoccupy Washington. worst.

One final disclaimer; it can The Post Kleptocratic

seem bullying or graceless for Economy
an American to criticize the
Philippines. Seen from Manila, Consider first the overall
the United States is strong and economic picture. Officials in
rich. Seen from anywhere, the both South Korea and the
Philippines is troubled and poor. Philippines have pointed out to
Why pick on people who need me that in the mid-1960s, when
help? The Filipino ethic of the idealistic (as he then
delicadeza, their equivalent of seemed) Ferdinand Marcos
saving face, encourages people began his first term as
to raise unpleasant topics President, the two countries
indirectly, or better still, not to were economically even with
raise them at all. Out of respect each other, with similar per

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
capita incomes of a few hundred people are taken into account,
dollars a year. The officials something like half the human
used this fact to make very talent in the country must be
different points. The Koreans unused.
said it dramatized how utterly
poor they used to be (“We were Some Filipino economists
like the Philippines!” said one contend that the country is
somber Korean bureaucrat), about to turn the corner, is
while to the Filipinos it was a ready to make a new start
reminder of a golden, hopeful economically as it has done
age. It demonstrated, they said, politically. Is the world price of
that the economy had been sugar stagnant? Plantation
basically robust until the owners can flood seaside
Marcoses launched their sugarcane fields and raise
kleptocracy. Since the 1960s, of shrimp, which bring high prices
course, the Philippines has and for which Japan has an
moved in the opposite direction insatiable demand. Are
from many other East Asian American, Japanese, and
countries. South Korea’s per European companies shifting
capital annual income is now their production sites
about $2,500 which gives the worldwide? Why not build more
country a low-wage advantage of the plants in the Philippines,
over Japan or the United States. which believes it has a well-
That same income makes Korea educated work force and
look like a land of plenty relative relatively low wages. Just
to the Philippines, where the per before the first anniversary of
capital income is about $600. the EDSA revolution I spoke with
The average income in the Jaime Ongpin, an intense,
Manila area is much higher than precise businessman in his late
that for the country as a whole; forties, who had become the
in many farming regions the per new Finance Minister. For the
capita income is about $100. immediate future, he said, the
The government reports that trends looked good. The
about two thirds of the people in government was breaking up
the country live below the some of the cartels run by
poverty line, as opposed to half Marcos’s “cronies” and exposing
in the pre-Marcos era. There them to competition.
are technical arguments about Construction and small-business
where to draw the poverty line, activity were picking up. The
but it is obvious that most price of copra (the country’s
Filipinos lack decent houses, leading export) was finally
can’t afford education, in some rising. And the economy might
areas are short of food, and in grow by five or six percent this
general are very, very poor. year – more than the economies
The official unemployment rate of Japan and the U.S. Another
is 12 percent, but if all the economist, Bernardo Villegas,
cigarette vendors, surplus bar
James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
has been predicting an East spectacularly rich while the
Asian-style sustained boom for masses remain abjectly
the Philippines. poor. . . . Here is a land
consecrated to democracy but
Many man-on-the-street run by an entrenched
Filipinos share a version of this plutocracy. Here, too, are a
view, which is that Marcos was people whose ambitions run
the source of all their problems, high, but whose fulfillment is
so his removal is itself a low and mainly restricted to the
solution. There is some truth to self-perpetuating elite.” The
what they say, especially as it precise phrasing belongs to
concerns Marcos’s last ten years Benigno Aquino, in his early
in office, when he had days in politics, but the thought
graduated from his earlier, has been expressed by
nationalistic, land-reform-and- hundreds of others. Koreans
industrialization phase and and Japanese love to taunt
formed the “conjugal Americans by hauling out old,
dictatorship” with his wife. pompous predictions that
obviously have not come true,
Still, for all the damage “made in Japan” would always
Marcos did, it’s nor clear that he mean “shoddy.” Korea would
caused the country’s economic “always” be poor. Hah hah hah!
problems, as opposed to You smug Yankees were so
intensifying them. Most of the wrong! Leafing back through
things that now seem wrong Filipinology has the opposite
with the economy – grotesque effect: it is surprising, and
extremes of wealth and poverty, depressing, to see how little has
land-ownership disputes, changed.
monopolistics industries in cozy, Because previous changes
corrupt cahoots with the of government have meant so
government-have been wrong little to the Philippines, it is hard
for decades. When reading to believe that replacing Marcos
Philippine novels or history with Aquino, desirable as it
books, I would come across a doubtless is, will do much
passage that resembled what I’d besides stanching the flow of
seen in the Manila slums or on a crony profits out of the country.
farm. Then I would read on and In a sociological sense the
discover that the description elevation of Corazon Aquino
was by an American soldier in through the EDSA revolution
the 1890, or a Filipino should probably be seen not as
nationalist in the 1930s, or a a revolution but as the
foreign economist in the 1950s, restoration of the old order.
or a young politician like Marcos’s rise represented the
Ferdinand Marcos or Benigno triumph of the nouveau riche.
Aquino in the 1960s. “Here is a He was, of course, an ilocano,
land in which a few are from the tough, frugal Ilocos

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
region, in the northwest corner succeeded him as President – or
of Luzon. Many of those whom Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or
he enriched were also outsiders Mrs. C. Douglas Dillon III. The
to the old-money, old-family traditional upper class was back
elite that had long dominated in its traditional place. Carmen
the country’s politics. These Navarro Pedrosa, a writer some
elite groups, often referred to in of whose work was banned
shorthand as Makati (the name under Marcos, recently
of the wealthy district and published a debunking
business center of Manila), biography of Imelda Marcos. Its
regarded Marcos the way high- killing blow, in its final chapters,
toned Americans regarded was its assertion that while
Richard Nixon: clever and Imelda always pretended to be
ambitious, but so uncouth. an aristocrat, Corazon Aquino
really was one: “Her jewels
Corazon Aquino’s family, were truly heirlooms, not recent
the Cojuangcos, is part of this purchases from Van Cleef and
landowning elite. (Their name Arpels. She was a true blue
illustrates its Hispanic stocking, educated in the United
pretensions. Her great States, and fluent in French.
grandfather came from China She represented all that Imelda
and was reportedly named Ko had ever aspired to.”
Hwan Ko, which was gentrified
into Cojuangco. Most educated Especially on my second
Filipinos speak fluent English trip to the Philippines, in the
but in the stuffiest reaches of summer, many Filipinos told me
the upper class, I was told, the that Aquino had become
residual Spanish influence is so strangely passive in office,
strong that it is a sign of greater acting as if her only task had
refinement to speak perfect been to get rid of Marcos and
Castilian Spanish.) Her ride out the periodic coups,
husband, Benigno Aquino, was rumored and real. As long as
also from a famous family. Her she did those jobs – that is,
running mate in the 1986 stayed in office – she did not
elections, Salvador Doy Laurel, feel driven to do much else.
is the son of Jose Laurel, who Perhaps she will do something
was the Quisling-like President to prove that judgment unfair;
under the Japanese. Many of the August mutiny and
her first Cabinet appointees and preceding social unrest may
sponsored candidates for the force her not only to control the
Senate bear old, familiar names. army more tightly but also to
And so when Corazon Aquino take economic problems more
replaced Marcos, it was as if seriously. But even with the
Katharine Graham, having best will in the world, she will
driven Richard Nixon from office have trouble dramatically
through her newspapers,

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
improving the country’s productivity. It’s a poor
prospects. country-but an expensive place
in which to produce. American
One morning this summer, and Japanese firms have set up
as I stared out the window at some electronics assembly
the monsoon rain. I listened to plants, but they’re only buying
two foreign economists describe labor, not building subsidiary
the economic trap in which the industries or anything that adds
Philippines is caught. The men real value.”
had worked in the Philippines for
years and had absorbed the Agriculture: “It’s been
ethic of delicadeza. They did heavily skewed for fifty years to
not want their names, or the plantation crops. All those
name of the bank they worked traditional exports are down,
for, revealed. This reluctance sugar most of all. Copra is okay
might suggest that their views for the moment, but it’s never
were unusually critical, which going to expand very much.
was not the case; they were Prawns are the only alternative
remarkable only for how anybody can think of now.”
concisely they summarized what Agriculture is also nearly
I’d heard in other banks, in paralyzed by arguments over
embassies, in business offices, land ownership. Since the
and from a few Philippine Spanish days land has been
government officials. The men concentrated in a few giant
ticked off the list of possibilities haciendas, including the 17,000-
for Philippine development and acre Hacienda Luisita of the
explained the problems in each Cojuangco family, and no
case. government has done much to
change the pattern. “You could
Manufacturing: “there argue that real land reform
were not many viable sectors to would lead to more productivity,
begin with, and most of them but it’s an entirely hypothetical
were taken over by cronies. The argument,” an Australian
industrial sector is used to economist told me. “The
guarantee monopoly and high- government simply is not going
tariff protection. It’s inward- to cause a revolution in the
looking, believes it cannot social structure.” Just before
compete. People are used to the new Congress convened, as
paying a lot for goods that are her near-dictatorial powers were
okay-to-shoddy in quality. Labor about to elapse, Aquino signed a
costs are actually quite high for generalized land-reform-should-
a country at this stage of happen decree. Most observers
development. They should be took this as an indication that
like Sri Lanka’s but they’re like land reform would not happen,
Korea’s, because union since the decree left all the
organizing has run far ahead of decisions about the when,

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
where, and how of land reform of millions of pairs of chopsticks
to the landowner-heavy out of paper wrappers, use them
Congress. for fifteen minutes, and throw
them away. Most of the
Services and other chopsticks started out as trees
industries: “They’re very much in the Philippines though more
influenced by the political and more of them now come
climate. I think this has from American forests. The
tremendous potential as a Philippines has more naturally
tourist country-it’s so beautiful. spectacular mountains and
But they don’t have many other vistas than Malaysia or
ways to sell their labor, except Indonesia, but you can travel for
the obvious one.” The obvious miles in the countryside and
one is the sex business, visible mainly see eroding hillsides
in every part of the country and stripped bare of trees. Like
indeed throughout Asia, where Americans who speak of
Filipino “entertainers” are “conquering” the frontier,
common. In Davao, on the Filipinos sometimes take a more
southern island of Mindanao, I romantic view of what “taking
watched TV one night and saw every tree” can mean. F. Sionil
an ad repeated over and over. Jose, a prominent novelist in his
Women wanted for early sixties, who grew up in
opportunities oversea. Ilocos, has written a famous
Qualifications: taller than five five-volume saga-the Rozales
feet two inches, younger than novels-about the migration from
twenty one. When I took cabs in the harsh Ilocos region to the
Manila, the drivers routinely fertile plains of central Luzon.
inquired if I wanted a woman. The Ilocano migrants made a
When my wife returned our new life for themselves he
children’s rented inner tubes to observes, and they did it by
a beach vendor at Argao, the cutting down the jungle and
vendor, a toothless old woman, planting rice. “There is some
asked if she was lonely in her hope with minerals and gold,”
room and needed a hired one of the economists said.
companion. Indeed, a Forty-nine-style gold
rush is now under way in
Resources: “Exploiting Mindanao. I was told that
natural resources has always communist rebels, Moslem
been the base here,” one of the separatists, and former
economists said. “But they’ve Philippine Army soldiers now
taken every tree they can easily work side by side in the gold
get. It’s not like Brazil or mines, proving that economic
Borneo, with another fifty years development can be the answer
to rip out the heart of the to political problems.
earth.” Every single day
Japanese dinners take hundreds

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
The economists went on: was experimenting, raising the
“Geographically, the country is number to test the response.
fractured beyond belief. The “Only six!” a priest said on my
most controllable area is right last day.
around Manila, but beyond that
the government’s writ has never The economist concluded,
run very far. “ For instance, the “All in all, you’d have to say it’s
newspapers that blanket Manila a worrisome situation.”
have virtually no circulation in
the rest of the country: among a The Meaning of Smoky
population of 55 million, the Mountain
combined readership of all
twenty plus daily papers is You’d have to say
about five million. “The something more than that. Most
education system has run down of the time I spent in the
terribly.” The Philippines Philippines, I walked around
spends about one eighth as feeling angry-angry at myself
much money per student as when I brushed off the latest
Malaysia does. Free education platoon of child beggars, angry
runs only through the lower at the beggars when I did give
grades, and after that the in, angry at the rich Filipinos for
annual fee of $10 a student living behind high walls and
keeps enrollment down to 50 guardhouses in the fortified
percent. “The fifteen to twenty Makati compounds
billion dollars that Marcos euphemistically called villages,
creamed off has had a big angry as I picked my way
effect. There’s a kind of among piles of human feces left
corruption that just recycles the by homeless families living near
money, but all this was taken the Philippine Navy
out. headquarters on Roxas
Boulevard, angry at a society
“And then you have that had degenerated into a war
population growth, which is of every man against every
closer to three percent than man.
two-point-five, even though the
government says two-point-two. It’s not the mere fact of
The population could go over a poverty that makes the
hundred million in fifteen years. Philippines so distressing, since
Since the economy doesn’t grow some other Asian countries have
that fast, the per capital income lower living standards. China for
keeps going down.” Most instance, is on the whole much
people I met in the Philippines poorer than the Philippines, and
asked me how many children I China’s human beasts of
had. When I told them, the burden, who pull huge oxcarts
normal response was, “Only full of bricks down streets in
two!” By the end of my stay I Shanghai or Beijing, must have

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
lives that are among the hardest live and work in the garbage
on the planet. But Philippine heap, and say they feel lucky to
poverty seems more degrading, do so. Smoky Mountain is the
for reasons I will try to illustrate center of an elaborate
through the story of “Smoky scavenging and recycling
Mountain.” industry, which has many tiers
and many specialized functional
Smoky Mountain is, I will groups. As night falls in Manila,
admit, something of a cliché, hundreds of scavengers, nearly
but it helps illustrate an all men, start walking out from
important and non-clichéd point. smoky Mountain pushing big
The “mountain” is an enormous wooden carts – about eight feet
heap of garbage, forty acres in long and shaped like children’s
size and perhaps eighty feet wagons – in front of them. They
high, in the port district north of spend all night crisscrossing the
Manila, and it is home to some town, picking through the
15,000 Filipinos. The living curbside garbage dumps and
conditions would seem to be looking for the most valuable
miserable: the smell of a vast items: glass bottles and metal
city’s rotting garbage is so rank cans. At dawn they push their
and powerful that I could not carts back to Smoky Mountain,
breathe through my nose where they sell what they’ve
without gagging. I did finally found to middlemen, who own
retch when I felt my foot sink fleets of carts and bail out their
into something soft and saw suppliers if they get picked up
that I’d stepped on a discarded by the police in the occasional
half-full blood transfusion bag crackdowns on vagrancy.
from the hospital, which was
now emitting a dark, clotted Other scavengers work
ooze. “I have been going to the the garbage over once city
dumpsite for over ten years now trucks have collected it and
and I still have not gotten used brought it in. Some look for old
to the smell,” Father Benigno plastic bags, some for rubber,
Beltran, a young Mod Squad some for bones that can be
style Dominican priest who ground up for animal feed. In
works in Smoky Mountain, has the late afternoon at Smoky
written. “The place becomes Mountain I could easily imagine
infested with millions of flies I’d had my preview of hell. I
that often get into the chalice stood on the summit, looking
when I say mass. The smell into the lowlands where trucks
makes you deaf as it hits you kept bringing new garbage and
like a blow to the solar plexus.” several bulldozers were at work,
plowing through heaps of old
The significance of Smoky black garbage. I’d of course
Mountain, though, is not how heard of spontaneous
bad it is but how good. People combustion but had never

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
believed in it until I saw the old found a job. The people of
garbage steam and smoke as it Smoky Mountain complain about
was exposed to the air. Inches land-tenure problems-they want
behind the bulldozers, the city to give them title to the
sometimes riding in the scoops, land on which they’ve built their
were about fifteen or twenty shacks – but the one or two
little children carrying baskets, dozen I spoke with seemed very
as if at the beach. They darted cheerful about their community
among the machines and picked and their lives. Father Beltran,
out valuables that had been the young Dominican, has
newly revealed. “It’s hard to worked up a thriving business
get them to go to school,” a speaking about Smoky Mountain
man in his mid twenties who live to foreign audiences, and has
there told me. “They can make used the lecture fees to pay for
twenty, thirty pesos a day this a paved basketball court, a
way” - $1 to $1.50. “Here the community-center building, and,
money is so good.” of course, a church. As I
trudged down from the summit
The residents of Smoky of the mountain, having
Mountain are mainly Visayans, watched little boys dart among
who have come from the the bulldozers, I passed the
Visayas region of the central community center. It was full of
Philippines – Leyte, Negros, little girls, sitting in a circle and
Cebu – over the past twenty singing nursery school songs
years. From time to time the with glee. If I hadn’t come at
government, in embarrassment, the last minute, I would have
has attempted to move them off suspected Father Beltran of
the mountain, but they have putting on a Potemkin Village
come back: the money is so show.
good compared with the pay for
anything else they can do. A The bizarre good cheer of
real community has grown up in Smoky Mountain undoubtedly
the garbage dump, with the says a lot about the Filipinos’
tight family bonds that hold spiritual resilience. But like the
together other Filipino sex industry, which is also fairly
barangays, or neighborhoods. cheerful, it says something
About 10 percent of the people depressing about the other
who live in Smoky Mountain choices people have. When I
hold normal, non-scavenger jobs was in one of the countless
elsewhere in Manila; they squatter villages in Manila,
commute. The young man who talking with people who had
guided me had just graduated built houses out of plywood and
from college with an scavenged sheet metal, and
engineering degree, but he who lived eight to a room, I
planned to stay with his family, assumed it must be better to be
in Smoky Mountain, after he poor out in the countryside,

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
where at least you had some zillions of dollars had been sunk
space and clean air to breathe. into the art, furniture, and
Obviously, I was being romantic. fixtures. We ate lunch on the
Back home there was no way to patio, four maids in white
earn money, and even in Smoky dresses standing at attention a
Mountain people where only a few paces off, each bearing a
four-cent jeepney ride away platter of food and ready to a
from the amusements of the big respond instantly when we
city. wanted more. Another maid
stood behind my chair, leaning
In Smoky Mountain and over the table and waving a fan
the other squatter districts, I back and forth to drive off any
couldn’t help myself: try as I flies. As we ate, I noticed a
would not to, I kept dwelling on strange rat-a-tat sound from
the contrast with the other inside the house, as if several
extreme of Filipino life, the reporters had set up a city room
wealthy one. The contrast is and were pounding away on old
relatively hard to see in Manila Underwoods. When we finished
itself, since so much of the our dessert and went inside, I
town’s wealth is hidden, literally saw the explanation. Another
walled up in the fortified two or three uniformed servants
“villages.” But one day, shortly were stationed inside the
after I’d listened to scavengers cathedral like living room,
explain why some grades of incessantly twitching their
animal bone were worth more flyswatters against the walls.
on the resale market than
others,. I tagged along with a The War of Every Man
friend and visited one of Against Every Man
Manila’s rich young families in
the mountains outside town. Am I shooting fish in a
barrel? Sure-you could work up
To enter the house we had an even starker contrast
to talk our way past a rifleman between Park Avenue and the
at the gate-a standard fixture South Bronx. But that would
not only of upper class areas of mean only that the United
Manila but also of banks, office States and the Philippines share
buildings, McDonald’s-and then a problem not that extremes of
follow a long, twisting driveway wealth and poverty are no
to a mountaintop palace. The problem at all. In New York and
family was, of course, from old a few other places the extremes
money; they were also well are so visible as to make many
educated, public spirited, Americans uneasy about the
sincere. But I spent my day every-man-for-himself principle
with them in an ill-concealed on which our society is based.
stupor, wandering from room to But while the South Bronx is an
room and estimating how many American problem, few people

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
would think of it as typical of for hours about how “market
America. In the Philippines the reforms” will lead to a better
contrasting extremes are, and life for most people.
have been, the norm.
If the problem in the
What has created a Philippines does not lie in the
society in which people feel people themselves or, it would
fortunate to live in a garbage seem, in their choice between
dump because the money is so capitalism and socialism, what is
good? Where some people shoo the problem? I think it is
flies away from others for 300 cultural, and that it should be
pesos, or $15, a month? It can’t thought of as a failure of
be any inherent defect in the nationalism.
people; outside this culture they
thrive. Filipino immigrants to It may seem perverse to
the United States are more wish for more nationalism in any
successful than immigrants from part of the Third World.
any other countries. Filipino Americans have come to
contract laborers, working for identify the term with the tiny-
Japanese and Korean country excesses of the United
construction companies, built Nations. Nationalism can of
many of the hotels, ports, and course be divisive, when it sets
pipelines in the Middle East. people of one country against
“These are the same people another. But its absence can be
who shined under the Japanese even worse, if that leaves
manager,” Blas Ople, a veteran people in the grip of loyalties
politician, told me. “But when that are even narrower and
they work for Filipino more fragmented. When a
contractors, the schedule lags.” country with extreme
It seems unlikely that the geographic, tribal, and social-
problem is capitalism itself, class differences, like the
even though Philippine Marxists Philippines, has only a weak
argue endlessly that it grinds up offsetting sense of national
the poor to feed the rich. If unity, its public life does
capitalism were the cause of become the war of every man
Philippine underdevelopment, against every man.
why would its record be so
different everywhere else in the Nationalism is valuable
region? In Japan, Korea, when it gives people a reason
Singapore, and elsewhere Asian not to live in the world of
style capitalism has not only led Hobbes-when it allows them to
to trade surpluses but also look beyond themselves rather
created Asia’s first real middle than pursuing their own
class. Chinese economists can’t interests to the ruination of
call what they’re doing everyone else. I assume that
capitalism, but they can go on most people in the world have

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
the same mixture of selfish and reconciliation and proudly
generous motives; their culture nationalistic spirit. The EDSA
tell them when to indulge each revolution seems emotionally so
impulse. Japan is strong in large important in the Philippines not
part because its nationalist only because it got rid of Marcos
racial ethic teaches each but also because it
Japanese that all other Japanese demonstrated a brave, national-
deserve decent treatment. Non- minded spirit. I would like to
Japanese fall into a different agree with the Filipinos that
category. Individual Filipinos those four days revealed the
are at least as brave, kind, and country’s spiritual essence. To
noble-spirited as individual me, though the episode seems
Japanese, but their culture an exception, even an
draws the boundaries of decent aberration.
treatment much more narrowly.
Filipinos pride themselves on For more than a hundred
their lifelong loyalty to family, years certain traits have turned
schoolmates, compadres, up in domestic descriptions and
members of the same tribe, foreign observation of Philippine
residents of the same barangay. society. The tradition of political
The mutual tenderness among corruption and cronyism, the
the people of Smoky Mountain is extremes of wealth and poverty,
enough to break your heart. But the tribal fragmentation, the
when observing Filipino local elite’s willingness to make
friendships I thought often of a separate profitable peace with
the Mafia families portrayed in colonial powers all reflect a
The Godfather: total devotion to feeble sense of nationalism and
those within the circle, total war a contempt for the public good.
on those outside. Because the Practically everything that is
boundaries of decent treatment public in the Philippines seems
are limited to the family or tribe, neglected or abused. On many
they exclude at least 90 percent street corners in downtown
of the people in the country. Manila an unwary step can
And because of this mean a broken leg. Holes two
fragmentation-this lack of feet square and five feet deep
nationalism people treat each lurk just beyond the curb; they
other worse in the Philippine are supposed to be covered by
than in any other Asian country I metal grates, but scavengers
have seen. have taken the grates to sell for
scrap. Manila has a potentially
Like many other things I beautiful setting, divided by the
am saying here, this judgment Pasig River and fronting on
would be hotly disputed by Manila Bay. But three fourths of
most Filipinos. Time and again I the city’s sewage flows raw into
heard in interviews about the the Pasig, which in turns
Filipino people’s love of empties into the bay; the smell

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
of Smoky Mountain is not so The four hundred years that the
different from the smell of some Philippines spent under Spain’s
of the prettiest public vistas. thumb obviously left a lasting
The Philippine telephone system imprint: at first glance the
is worse than its counterparts country seems to have much
anywhere else in non- more in common with Mexico
communist Asia which bogs than with any other place in
down the country’s business Asia. The Spanish hammered
and inconveniences its people home the idea of Filipino racial
but the Philippine Long Distance inferiority, discouraging the
Telephone Company has a long native indios from learning the
history of high (and not Spanish language and refusing
reinvested) profits. In the first to consecrate them as priests.
class dining room aboard the (The Spanish are also said to
steamer to Cebu, a Filipino at have forbidden the natives to
the table next to mine picked wear tucked-in shirts, which is
through his plate of fish. why the national shirt, the
Whenever he found a piece he barong tagalog, is now worn
didn’t like, he pushed it off the untucked, in a rare flash of
edge of his plate, onto the floor. national pride.) As in Latin
One case of bad manners? America, the Spanish friars
Maybe, but I’ve never seen its taught that religion was a
like in any other country. matter of submission to
Outsiders feel they have doctrine and authority; rather
understood something small but than of independent thought or
significant about Japan’s gentleness to strangers in daily
success when they watch a bar life. And the Spanish rulers set
man carefully wipe the the stage for the country’s
condensation off a bottle of beer economic problems in the
and twirl it on the table until the twentieth century, by giving out
label faces the customer huge haciendas to royal
exactly. I felt I had a glimpse favorites and consigning others
into the failures of the to work as serfs. As in Latin
Philippines when I saw America, the Spanish thereby
prosperous looking matrons implanted the idea that
buying cake and donuts in a “success” meant landed, idle
bakery, eating them in a (that is, non-entrepreneurial or
department store, and dropping commercial) wealth. The mainly
the box and wrappers around Malay culture with which the
them as they shopped. Spanish interacted was different
It’s easy to observe that from the Aztec and other Indian
Japan’s habits are more useful cultures in Latin America; for
economically than those of the instance, societies throughout
Philippines, but it’s harder to the Malay regions (including
figure out exactly where the what are now Indonesia and
destructive habits come from. Malaysia) are usually described

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
as being deferential to their laws, and courts. Many older
leaders, passive rather than Filipinos still speak with
rebellious. Perhaps for this fondness about the orderly old
reason the Philippines has not colonial days. But American
overthrown its clergy or its rule seemed only to intensify
landed elite in the twentieth the Filipino sense of
century, the way most Latin dependence. The United States
American countries have tried to quickly earned or bought the
do. loyalty of the ilustrados, the
educated upper class, making
But for all that might be them into what we would call
said about the Spanish legacy, collaborationists as if the
the major outside influence on Germans or Japanese had
the modern Philippines is clearly received their favors. It
the United States. America rammed through a number of
prevented the Filipinos from laws insisting on free
consummating their rebellion “competition” between
against Spain. In 1898 the American and Philippine
United States intervened to fight industries, at a time when
the Spanish and then turned Philippine industries were in no
around and fought the Filipino position to compete with
nationalists, too. It was a brutal anyone. The countries that
guerrilla war, in which some half have most successfully rebuilt
million Filipino soldiers and their economies, including Japan
civilians died. Losing an ugly, and Korea, went through
war has its costs, as we learned extremely protectionist infant-
in Vietnam; but winning, as in industry phases, with America’s
the Philippines, does too. In blessing; the United States
opposing our policy in the never permitted the Philippines
Philippines, William James said, such a period. The Japanese
“We are puking up everything and Koreans now believe they
we believe in.” His seems a can take on anybody; the
prescient comment about the confidence of Filipino
war, especially compared with industrialists seems to have
President William McKinley’s been permanently destroyed.
announcement that conquest
was necessary to “Christianize” During the Second World
a country that in ironic point of War, Filipinos fought heroically
fact was already against the Japanese, both
overwhelmingly Catholic. before and after the fall of
Corregidor brought on the
In its brief fling with American surrender of the
running a colony, America Philippines, in early 1942.
undeniably brought some Following the war the United
material benefits to the States “gave” the Philippines its
Philippines: schools, hospitals, independence and was in most

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
measurable ways its benefactor: about the black bourgeoisie of
offering aid, investing in the 1950s. College or graduate
businesses, providing the education in America is a mark
second largest payroll in the of social distinction for Filipinos,
country at U.S. military bases. as it is for many other Asians.
But in unmeasurable, intangible But while U.S. trained
ways it seems to have eroded Taiwanese and Korean
confidence even further, leaving technocrats return to improve
Filipinos to believe that they factories and run government
aren’t really responsible for ministries, many Filipinos seem
their country’s fate. Whether I to consider the experience a
was talking with Marcos-loving purely social achievement, a trip
right wingers or communists to finishing school.
who hated the United States,
whether the discussion was “This is a country where
about economics or the U.S. the national ambition is to
bases or the course of the change your nationality,” an
guerrilla war, most of my American who volunteers at
conversations in the Philippines Smoky Mountain told me. The
ended on the same discouraging U.S. Navy accepts 400 Filipino
note. “Of course, it’s not really recruits each year; last year
up to us,” soldier or politician or 100,000 people applied. In
communist would tell me “We 1982, in a survey, 207 grade
have to wait and see what the school students were asked
Americans have in mind.” what nationality they would
prefer to be. Exactly ten replied
In deeper and more “Filipino.” “There is not
pernicious ways Filipinos seem necessarily a commitment by
to have absorbed the idea that the upper class to making the
America is the center and they Philippines successful as a
are the periphery. Much local nation,” a foreign banker told
advertising plays to the idea me. “If things get dicey, they’re
that if it’s American, it’s better. off, with their money.” “You are
“It’s got that stateside taste!” dealing here with a damage
one grinning blonde model says culture,” four people told me, in
in a whiskey ad. An ad for Ban more or less the same words, in
deodorant warns, “Hold IT! Is different interviews.
your deodorant making your
skin dark?” The most It may be too pessimistic
glamorous figures on TV shows to think of culture as a kind of
are generally light-skinned and large-scale genetics, channeling
sound as if they grew up in Los whole societies toward progress
Angeles. I spoke with a black or stagnation. A hundred years
American who said that the ago not even the crusading
yearning toward “white” culture Emperor Meiji would have
resembled what he remembered dreamed that “Japanese

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture
culture” would come to mean
“efficiency.” America is full of
people who have changed their
“culture” by moving away from
the old country or the home
town or the farm. But a culture-
breaking change of scene is not
an answer for the people still in
the Philippines-there are 55
million of them, where would
they go?-and it’s hard to know
what else, within our lifetimes,
the answer might be.

America knows just what

it will do to defend Corazon
Aquino against usurpers, like
those who planned the last
attempted coup. We’ll say that
we support a democratically
chosen government, that this
one is the country’s best hope,
that we’ll use every tool from
economic aid to public-relations
pressure to help her serve out
her term. But we might start
thinking ahead, to what we’ll do
if the anti-coup campaign is
successful-to what will happen
when Aquino stays in, and the
culture doesn’t change, and
everything gets worse.


In: The Atlantic Monthly.

November 1987 pp. 49-58.

James Fallows – A Damaged Culture