Our man in Manila


HARRY, THE new US Ambassador to the Philippines, and the first African American to hold that post in this country, is surnamed Thomas, as in USS Thomas, the US Army transport ship that arrived in Manila on August 21, 1901, about a month after it sailed from San Francisco. The ship was carrying some 500 teachers from the United States — the first batch of about a thousand tasked with teaching “natives” the English language and establishing the beginnings of the public school system.

As everyone should know who has gone through that system, or even the private one that co-exists with it, from the ship’s name came the American teachers’ label as “Thomasites” and not from that of St. Thomas Aquinas. After all, the US policy of encouraging in its newly acquired (through conquest and at the cost of about a million “native” lives) colony the use of the English language and the creation of a public school system was meant, among others, to undermine the obscurantist system of which the University of Santo Tomas was such a sterling representative. In that system, learning was by rote and infused with Church dogma, the Spanish clergy, despite its antipathy to the “natives,” being the teachers. Thus did Rizal’s Noli me Tangere devote one chapter (The Class in Physics) to exposing how racist, stupid, and anti-learning the system was.

But it did serve the purposes of the Spanish colonial government, which was to keep these islands firmly in the rank embrace of Church and State. Uniquely among its colonies, however, the Spaniards chose not to encourage the use of the Spanish language in the Philippines, in contrast to what the Crown was doing in Latin America — and certainly in stark distinction from US policy, which was to aggressively propagate the use of the English language.

The advocates of English see nothing wrong in that, and in fact rain blessings on the US for it. Hasn’t our status as the third largest, allegedly English speaking country in the world made our OFWs competitive on the world stage as domestics, construction workers, etc., earning them the affection of their employers and bosses across the planet, whether in Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, or Ireland and even Bosnia?

Achieved through the school system, the establishment of which had seemed so typically benevolent of the US, and maintained by a continuing cultural invasion, the residency of the values and assumptions of US interests in the brains of too many Filipinos has certainly helped keep the country in the US economic and political orbit — in enabling Congress to pass the Parity Amendment shortly after “independence,” keeping the US military bases here until the US itself withdrew, and, while the entire world was condemning the George W. Bush administration for invading Iraq and providing terrorism with at least a thousand other reasons for existing, being one of only three countries that still approved of US policy. And despite its unpopularity, approval as well of the Arroyo government’s inviting US troops into the country via the Visiting Forces Agreement and its sponsorship of an alphabet soup of other military as well as economic agreements. What’s been called the colonial mentality may not have been of much help in pulling the country out of the rut of underdevelopment, poverty, corruption, misrule and semi-independence. But it has certainly made the task of keeping the country’s head above the economic waters easier for the political elite via its labor export and US-dependent policies.

That elite is the creation of the school system that was supposed to teach Filipinos self-government but did exactly the opposite, and therefore part of the Thomasite legacy. The Thomasites were sent to the Philippines not only to undermine the old Spanish school system. They were also the first storm troopers of the cultural contingents of a policy of soft power that has so successfully won the hearts and minds of Filipinos for the US and whatever interests, goals, and methods it may have at any given time and in any place, one perfect example of which was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s unconditional support for whatever initiatives the Bush government might take — whether invasion, the bombing of whatever country worldwide it may want to send back to the Stone Age, the ouster of sovereign governments and the hanging of their presidents, you name it, you’ve got it — in retaliation for September 11, 2001.

The echoes of the US Philippine colonial policy’s success is everywhere apparent, and not only in most Filipinos’ identification with the travails of desperate housewives, the fate of American idols, and Charice’s appearance in Oprah. It echoed too in Benigno Aquino III’s decision to meet first with Harry, surnamed Thomas, rather than with the ambassadors of other countries.

Even more evidently, however, was the success of the US cultural policy of encouraging the use of the English language and the creation of the public school system echoing in the glee with which certain commentators greeted the visit, into which they read US approval of the way the elections were conducted, as well as support for Mr. Aquino’s impending Presidency. Apparently few in the country’s media system are aware, or have ever been aware, that the country won its independence in 1898, and that it was restored in 1946. Equally interesting was the total absence of any discussion of US-Philippine relations in the campaign, despite Mr. Aquino’s declaration, after the Thomas visit, that the US connection is vital to the Philippines.

Harry, surnamed Thomas, was apparently pleased with his visit to the Quezon City home of Mr. Aquino, during which, he told the media, he discussed with the incoming President of the Philippines “issues of mutual concern.” “He’s the man,” Mr. Thomas said of Mr. Aquino. Let’s hope that only later — much, much later — rather than sooner does that turn into “He’s our man.”