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The New "Empire Lite" and the Philippines, a Century Ago

There has been a lot of talk about empire lately, and even with Bush’s denials (“America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” he said in a speech last June) this vision of a Pax Americana — or at the very least, a kind of “liberal imperialism,” as David Rieff put it — seems more and more apparent. Michael Ignatieff’s now-notorious article in the New York Times has him, despite his denials, still essentially advocating taking up the white man’s burden:

America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known. It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere. It is an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad.

The first two sentences made me choke; the last three made me stop and think. Why did this seem so new to him? Of course there was historical precedent for this “new invention;” as many scholars have long argued, the American military occupation of the Philippines was already the dawning of the American empire, a reopening of the closed American frontier, the first moment of America’s assertion of military might in a foreign land as a world power for the very first time. (Add to this the genocide of Native Americans, the colonization of Chicanos in the Southwest, the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, the takeover of Puerto Rico (and Cuba) during the Spanish-American War — a war that took a lot less time to wage than the Filipino American War — and you have a beast that sure looks and talks like an empire. Richard Drinnon similarly argues in Facing West that the racist attitudes embedded in westward expansionism (and toward Native Americans) served as a template for foreign policy from the Philippines to Vietnam.)

In any case, “empire lite,” or “liberal imperialism,” still smells to me like “benevolent assimilation,” which was William McKinley’s policy for governing the Filipinos. He, too, passionately denied any mercantilistic aims for the colonizing of the Philippines, pretending instead that the country fell into his lap and that he was commanded by God to “uplift, Christianize and civilize” the poor Filipinos. McKinley and Taft and their cabal of colonizers similarly vowed liberation and upliftment for the hapless Filipinos — and they too, were “constantly shocked that [their] good intentions arouse resentment abroad.”

Some folks have at least taken notice of this historical precedent. (Gen. Tommy Franks has been likened to Gen. MacArthur and his occupation of Japan after the surrender, but as John Dower put in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks back, the comparisons are spurious: for starters, there was worldwide (and regional) support for the occupation. Similarly, the Japanese postwar economy was seen at the time to be a non-starter, unlike Iraq with all its oil resources. Okinawa, Dower said, would be the more historically accurate parallel.) This one, from Emphasis Added, looks at it differently, however. Comparing Iraq and the Philippines, the blogger writes:

[The United States] finds itself in charge of a hot foreign country, teeming with fanatics of various stripes with a long tradition of mutual hostility, for centuries under the sway of a backward and repressive religion.

Well, “hot foreign country” is at least accurate. (And while I have no real quibbles with “backward and repressive religion,” Catholic priests from the U.S. set up shop in the Philippines as well.)

Within a generation, American administration instills basic cultural values and a democratic political culture…

And so we see where he’s coming from: what exactly are these “basic cultural values” that the Iraqis and the Filipinos lacked?

By any measure, the impact of 45 years of US rule there during the first half of the 20th century must be seen as a net positive, and the Filipinos remain close, generally supportive allies.

This depends, of course, on what this measure would be: Economic? Political? And was this a “net positive” to Americans, or Filipinos, or both?

I can see how the parallels are tempting, but for all the wrong reasons. For all of the American government’s patting itself on the back for making the Philippines into a “showplace of democracy” in Asia, the colonial government was fairly inefficiently run, carpetbaggers were grabbing land and mines and fields, and bad deals were made with landlords with no real benefit to the peasantry.

Sure, “liberal imperialism” could certainly be used to characterize this particular form of the colonial yoke (albeit one supposedly padded in velvet) used in the Philippines: the Americans, after all, brought roads, bridges, hospitals, Hershey bars, and, most important — something the Spaniards weren’t particularly interested in — schools. For free. And there was English, too.

But to embrace the colonization of the Philippines as a “net positive” — and a template for governing Iraq — would be to discount the consistently brutal war that took the lives of… 200,000? 400,000? a million? Filipinos from 1899-1903. (These numbers — which don’t even include the death toll from the various skirmishes and massacres in Mindanao, where the war never really ended — vary greatly depending on the source. Both the Philippine and American soldiers kept fairly good records of casualties, but these do not include “indirect” deaths — exacerbated illnesses, hunger, and the like. Ken de Bevoise, in Agents of Apocalypse, cites about 1.7 million, which already includes people dying from the various cholera and malaria epidemics and those who died of natural causes.) And it would also have to take in consideration Filipinos who mourned the loss of national sovereignty, as well as the aftereffects of neocolonial dependency and exploitation well after independence was “given” in 1946.

No, the lesson to be learned from comparing Iraq to the Philippines is this: for the U.S., the war on Iraq is simply coming full circle to the imperial depredations it committed just about a century ago.

(Thanks to Javier Morillo-Alicea from Brindle Planet, whose comment a few posts back pointed me to Emphasis Added, and whose excellent posting “Where Is The West?” inspired me to write this. But Javier — horrors! — please don’t call it the “Philippine insurrection!” Scholars have tried for years to get the Library of Congress to change its categories from the “Philippine Insurrection” to the “Filipino American War” precisely because it shouldn’t count as an “insurrection.” The insurrectos — later denigrated as “ladrones,” kind of like those wandering Afghan “bandits” and “pockets of resistance” — were only defending their newly independent, sovereign nation-state from foreign invaders!)

6 replies on “The New "Empire Lite" and the Philippines, a Century Ago”

First, the site is looking good, glad you got MT working again.

Second, I very much enjoyed reading this, and I have to agree that I think the current (as well as the old) American Empire is something that is so “under the radar” of the American public (and often the politicians themselves) that we don’t even know we are doing it.

It scares me most to realize that there is really no “imperialistic” agenda on the minds of American officials, they honestly do not think what they are doing is wrong, or obtrusive in any way!

Hey Benito — You’re absolutely right about the use of the term “Philippine Insurrection” — I confess that I’ve been mired in reading contemporary sources from the U.S. about the Philippine-American war (things like the “Our New Possessions” books and Murat Halstead’s “The Story of the Philippines”) and I unthinkingly adopted their language. Students in my class just gave a presentation on the Halstead book about 15 minutes ago; one of the things I try to get them to think about is the use of language on the American side and why, for example, the Spanish-American War is called the Spanish-Cuban-American War in Cuba and Spain and why, of course, what is in one line of thought an “insurrection” in another context was really a Filipino-American War. Mea Culpa. I’ll send you my syllabus over email.

To Jesse: you’re quite right — much of it has to do with the near-absence of any historical memory (or, for that matter, critical analysis — just look at all those people who thought Saddam had something to do with 9/11) on the part of the public. But there are deeper ideological reasons conspiring towards amnesia as well; that great American narrative of the land of freedom and democracy, for starters.

BTW, where were you Monday night?

To Javier: thanks very much for the syllabus; it looks great! (Nothing on Guam, though?)

I am always reminded of something I heard a Puerto Rican scholar say once: that Puerto Ricans considered Filipinos “their Asian brothers and sisters.” Same daddy, different mommies, I guess. =)

No prob about “insurrection;” just wanted to clarify it.

Hey there – Thanks for the snap-correction on the history. I think my enthusiasm for finding similiarities to the current situation exceeded my understanding of the facts, and I did not mean to excuse or underplay the inherent problems of the US colonial period. I was in the Philippines about 12 years ago and was struck by the pervasiveness of US cultural influence and the vibrancy of the political culture (this was right around the end of the Aquino administration or maybe the first few months of Ramos) in contrast to the extremely reserved (not to say repressive) politics I saw elsewhere in SE Asia. That seemed to me to be a good thing, and at least somewhat the result of the American experience. But maybe not…

If you read my blog, you know that I’m not a supporter of the war or Bush, and I don’t have very high hopes. However, for better or (probably) worse, we’re in Iraq for a while now and it’s likely going to be a generally humiliating experience for the local population. All we can hope for is that we might eventually do some good in the long run to help balance out the inevitable short-term economic exploitation and political manipulation.

I hear ya. From what I understand, the political and economic climate in the Philippines around the time you visited was fairly upbeat; the bloom was off Aquino’s rose, but the euphoria surrounding Marcos’s fall was still there… somewhat.

At some point I will post an entry regarding something you wrote (about how Americans are still remembered quite fondly). This is, in a general sense, quite true.

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