Overcoming a heritage of mimicry

In the small town of Betis in Pampanga, where I come from, furniture makers invented the paradox of the “modern antique.”  Gifted artisans are put to work to produce flamboyant Louis XIV replicas that the new-rich buy to adorn their stuffy living rooms. Over the years, many small shops that make such furniture have migrated to Manila, where they can be closer to their bourgeois buyers.  But something redemptive is happening on the cultural home front.

The scarcity of good wood has forced our craftsmen to work with a combination of metal and wood, or metal and rattan.  In recent years, they have turned out winning pieces of furniture. Others are discovering the beauty of hard recycled wood, and they are creating exquisite tables, benches, and chairs from old lumber that in the past would have been used for firewood.  We have used such aged lumber extensively to rebuild my parents’ house in Betis, which has become a little showcase of what local carpenters can do when allowed to work from their own vernacular imagination rather than from the glossy pages of “House Beautiful.”

The other day, I chanced upon a unique bench in our garden.  It had been cut from the belly of a discarded banca.  The rotted part was taken out and replaced with rattan weaving.  Artfully stained, it made for a stunning piece of sculpture and carpentry. It also echoed the culture of the fishing villages that constitute old Pampanga.  I sat on it and felt at home.  By such little things are we instantly reconnected to our past and to the communities from which we are sprung.

We Filipinos love to recall those years when our country was only second to Japan in economic progress. We look around us and we observe with envy how almost all our neighbors are outstripping us. This is our self-lacerating way of noting how badly we have been served by our present leaders.

Maybe the quality of our past politicians was better.  But even so, it is wrong to believe that our past development was ever anything near that of Japan’s. Japan copied Western technology while consciously preserving and enriching its own indigenous culture. In contrast, what we created was a colonial economy tied to the coattails of American economic development.  It had no life of its own.  It gave birth to an imitative consumerist culture ahead of its ability to sustain it in any meaningful way.

I suspect that we were the envy of Asia not because we were creating a strong economy, but because, being the fair-haired boy of a dynamic America, we were exhibiting all the trappings of Western modernity to which many new nations aspired. In the post-WWII era, says the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the former colonies that won their independence were faced with a crucial problem.

“Now that there is a local state rather than a mere dream of one, the task of nationalist ideologizing radically changes.  It no longer consists in stimulating popular alienation from a foreign-dominated political order, nor with orchestrating a mass celebration of that order’s demise.”  Instead, writes Geertz, the national debate focuses on “two rather towering abstractions: ‘The Indigenous Way of Life’ and ‘The Spirit of the Age.’

“To stress the first of these is to look to local mores, established institutions, and the unities of common experience – to ‘tradition,’ ‘culture,’ ‘national character,’ or even ‘race’ – for the roots of a new identity.  To stress the second is to look to the general outlines of the history of our time, and in particular to what one takes to be the overall direction and significance of that history.”

Clearly, our leaders decided early on to follow “the spirit of the age,” no doubt mesmerized by the strength of American capitalism.  We cared little for our own languages and traditions.  Instead of actively cultivating the soil from which it sprang, we treated national unity as a given.  We ignored the truism that institutions must grow from the instincts of a people, and took the shortcut to institution-building by copying almost everything from America.  In the process, we generated  two cultures – a modern one that we enshrined in our laws and formal institutions, and a syncretic one that thrives in our everyday dealings.

This dualism has been upon us ever since – producing a split-level society with weak moorings. We pride ourselves in being able to participate extensively in the global labor market because of our fluency in English, little realizing how much this same Westernization has kept us from developing a stronger and more confident society. As a result, we have little to contribute to the global symphony of cultures that is not resonant of a heritage of imitation.

Yet what seems to bother our decision-makers is that our English is getting bad, and that perhaps it is time to call “a summit to establish a uniform policy on the use of English in schools and in the workplace.” The Inquirer carried this report the other day (PDI, 11/4/05): “Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz said new job markets were not hiring

Filipino workers because they failed in basic English proficiency…. Major reforms are needed to address the inability of Filipino students to be understood overseas, according to the labor official.”

The problem, as I see it, is not that the teaching of English has deteriorated.  It is, rather, that we are now sending more people abroad who in the course of their lives at home never needed to learn English to become productive.  This is not an educational problem, but an economic and political one.


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