Book Texts – Culture at Large

A NEW ROLE FOR KOREA

The forthcoming ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit will have been preceded by a related event, fraught with symbolic implications: the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the Philippines (celebration ceremonies had to be postponed due to the period of mourning for the late President Roh Moo-hyun). Both countries underwent traumatic parallel upheavals in their encounter with modernization during the last century. In fact, the link between Korea and the Philippines may be traced to as far back as over an entire century, when the U.S. and Japan executed the secret diplomatic document now known as the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum, a sort of gentleman’s agreement between colonizers to divide up the major Far Eastern territories between themselves – Korea for Japan and the Philippines for the U.S. For this reason I will focus initially on comparing and contrasting the two countries, before discussing Korea in relation to the larger ASEAN region.

Otherwise well-informed professors in the Philippines react with surprise when I tell them about the Taft-Katsura manuscript, about whose existence I’d learned in an English-language translation of a Korean high-school history textbook. The first half of the twentieth century resulted in divergent colonial experiences for both countries, with Korea opposing the Japanese occupation to the extent of forming an overseas exile government, and the Philippines growing loyal enough to fight alongside the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. The convergence of Korean and Philippine interests (pro-U.S., anti-Japan and later anti-Communist) continued through the Korean War, when the Philippines sent the biggest Asian delegation in support of South Korean combatants. Nationalists on both sides also expressed dismay that the conflicts were essentially proxy wars fought by the U.S. against its imperialist rivals, leaving the battleground territories (Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War) utterly devastated, and with both Asian countries persuaded to subsequently assist the U.S. against the eventually victorious Vietnamese during a longer-drawn-out conflict.

Up to this point, the Philippines generally fared better. The country had a head-start in economic recovery and lucked out initially in its post-war import-substitution industrialization strategy. Its status as a long-Westernized, recently Americanized capital made it an attractive destination for other Asian citizens, so when it embarked on the U.S.-supported authoritarianist experiment that many other Third-World countries were pursuing, logic dictated that it would continue to lead the rest of Asia in finally attaining industrial development. (As partners in the regional strong-men club, Park Chung-hee and Ferdinand Marcos were able to meet up in Manila during an earlier version of the ASEAN, the 1966 conference of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

The end of the periods of dictatorship all over Asia proved to be generally beneficial for their respective countries’ economies – with the egregious and embarrassing exception of the Philippines (once described as a “banana republic” by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman). While Filipino experts tried to figure out what went wrong and how the Marcos era’s mistakes may be avoided in future, Korea made itself over into the most impressive economy in the region, next to Japan. In fact, from the point of view of other Asian countries outside East Asia, Korea’s example is not merely worthy of emulation; it is a moral triumph. For while Japan may have had a longer run and a still-larger annual income, Korea, like the rest of the ASEAN countries, had been and has remained resolutely postcolonial: at any point in its drive toward modernization, its wealth was never achieved at any other country’s expense, and if any people had to endure suffering, it was always first and foremost its own population.

This is the (admittedly simplistic, probably reductive, and strictly tentative) logic that I use in explaining why Korea holds such a strong fascination in the imaginaries of the other ASEAN member-countries. A few observers might want to believe that the Korean pop-culture wave might be over, or that it might not even have existed at all. Yet the record of, say, Korean TV dramas dominating the ratings of Southeast Asian media since the start of the current millennium speaks for itself. A Korean performer, virtually unknown hereabouts, has leading-lady status in Philippine movies, and the latter country acknowledged last year that the number of Korean visitors has now exceeded those of all other countries in the world, displacing the previous and long-time record-holders, the Japanese.

One way of illustrating how the exceptionally high regard for things Korean persists in the ASEAN region is by contemplating an alternative situation. If another major East Asian country were to initiate its counterpart of the Korean pop-culture wave, most Southeast Asian countries would likely respond with some degree of hesitation, if not outright coolness. For better or worse, the Chinese have been marked with an overriding (though much-envied) profit motive, while the Japanese’s espionage activities prior to their World War II imperialist expansion cannot be easily expunged from the other countries’ historical memories. This partly explains why most successful Chinese or Japanese cultural products circulate in the region through Western distribution circuits.

Hence among the “senior” non-ASEAN Asian economies, Korea may well be the country that is in a position to assume an influential role in the region. Why then has its leadership function remained largely theoretical, a kind of guidance by example, when the other East Asian countries have been more or less actively staking their claims to representing the rest of Asia? There are two interlocking ways of answering this question, one internal (to Korea) and the other external, which I will attempt first. From the perspective of the ASEAN members, the organization has been doing well enough without any form of outside interference. A cultural historian might be able to argue that, were it not for the intervention of European colonization, the region could constitute an entire super-nation or subcontinent (comprising a seemingly endless array of cultures and peoples and languages) unto itself. In a sense, ASEAN fulfills this might-have-been vision through an ideal of cooperative self-sufficiency.

Korea, for its part, has always had the historical propensity to turn inward. Its comfort zone as a nation remained within its boundaries, among its people, hermitic (to use its self-descriptor) to a fault. By now its leading lights might have figured that such a response could prove debilitating in an age of globalization, just as it had proved disastrous during preceding eras of colonizations and proxy wars. Moreover, a genuine internal consolidation will be impossible for a long while, at least while the northern half of the country remains ideologically estranged and materially impoverished. Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian region remains for the most part organized, appreciative, determined to succeed on terms that do not seem all that different from what the people of this country had been able to achieve not too long ago. Spring is in the air. A period of mutual courtship is long overdue.

[First published June 2, 2009, in Korea Times]

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Crescent Tense

One subjective measure of the distress over the recent killings in Mindanao’s Maguindanao province (also called the Ampatuan massacre) is how Philippine-based foreigners, including the few Koreans I advise mainly for their thesis completion, seem as traumatized as the Pinoy bourgeoisie, in stark contrast with the rest of the natives. This is not to say that the working-class majority feels unaffected by the tragedy. In fact the oft-noted peculiarity of the local response to crises – marked by the incongruent use of humor, or in this case silence – can be read as a form of fatalistic acceptance of the brutalities of fate, as well as a means by which the individual could refocus her or his attention on the exigencies of personal survival.

I must confess that I encourage my Korean advisees to indulge in something approaching xenophobic paranoia. Most Koreans who visit the Philippines are impressed by the local culture’s excessive libertarianism, a welcome relief from the severe patriarchal hierarchisms that invariably confront most East Asians from birth onward. Yet the country’s seemingly boundless promiscuity misleads foreigners into thinking that its culture is as benevolent as it is tolerant.

More than once some of my Manila-based colleagues had informed me that one or another of my male Korean students had set out, usually alone, for some unannounced inter-island itinerary, with the person’s mobile phone occasionally losing signal due to the underdeveloped condition of some far-flung destination. So far the guys have returned safely, convinced all the more of the kindness of the “other” Filipinos vis-à-vis the relatively cynical and materialistic Manileños, even as my friends and I wonder how to impress on these wide-eyed innocents the kind of dangers they were lucky to have skirted.

The Maguindanao massacre was not, even in my wildest and weirdest and saddest dreams, the example I had hoped for, but there it is. The widespread response to the event turns on its perpetrators’ bald-faced assumption that they could get away with such an extensive and bloodcurdling criminal operation, directed in open-space broad daylight against a large and influential group comprising mostly women, uninvolved passersby, and (the ultimate indication of contemporary hubris) media professionals. Beyond the jaw-droppingly pathological stupidity of a group of men driven by old-line machismo and power-hungriness, one could somehow sense a shock of recognition, even among Koreans who happen to belong to an old-enough generation.

For this is how people with absolute power (with the concomitant absolute corruption) have always tended to behave, down to the knee-jerk assignation of blame to armed seditionists. Just replace the unsophisticated provincial dynasty with more charming, urbane, and eloquent types and one would have the U.S.-sanctioned Third-World dictatorships that most middle-aged Southeast Asians (and Koreans and Latin Americans) still remember all too vividly.

Which makes the actuations of the Maguindanao-massacre perps as backward as they are barbaric, locked in a period and setting that ought to have been relegated to a permanently passed past. What provides an underlying unease regarding the response of the current Philippine administration is the fact that both sides of the political fence, the outraged ruling party as well as the infuriated opposition, are calling for immediate and unqualified intervention, thus conjuring up spectacles once more associable with the excesses of the long-deposed Marcos regime: the deployment of Philippine army troops to predominantly, supposedly autonomous Muslim areas, with hasty arrests of elements perceived as rebellious, and everything conveniently blanketed by the imposition (since lifted) of martial law, possibly as prelude to a transition of power to a bereaved rival who, it must be stressed, mirrors his opponents’ penchant for maintaining a militia force.

How the Philippines’ second largest (and richest, resources-wise) island ever reached such a sorry state of affairs, with the Maguindanao case a culmination of a long and so-far unending series of tragic events, can be best understood via a sufficiently distant geopolitical perspective. From, say, an orbiting satellite’s view, what may be regarded as the Philippines’ Christian majority is actually the Indo-Malayan archipelago’s regional minority, disproportionately empowered by the historical accident of the U.S.’s current undisputed status as global police.

After largely successfully resisting foreign attempts at colonization, the Philippines’ Muslim population found itself at the receiving end of a series of ill-advised political trade-offs initiated by the American reoccupation of the country after World War II. First, the U.S. reneged on its promise of benefits to the local Communist army after contracting it to undertake the bulk of anti-Japanese resistance. The peasant-based insurgency that ensued from this instance of Cold War-era duplicity suffered severe repression, and the then-fledgling Philippine administration sought to mollify increasing antipathy by providing ex-rebels with settlements in Mindanao, many of which were located in still-undocumented Muslim ancestral properties.

The disgruntlement that percolated under the social surface finally erupted with the Marcos government’s decision to infiltrate, destabilize, and reclaim Sabah in Malaysia using a commando unit (code-named Jabidah) of Filipino Muslims, trained on a ship without being informed of the nature of their mission. Upon learning what they were expected to carry out, the young men attempted to mutiny and were summarily executed (in a scenario reminiscent of then-concurrent events in Korea depicted in Kang Woo-suk’s 2003 blockbuster Silmido). Having since been radicalized by the Jabidah massacre, several generations of separatist Muslims experienced some of the most harrowing peace-time assaults by Philippine armed forces, punctuated by a few truce periods.

The U.S.’s so-called war on terror did not ease matters for the severely put-upon Pinoy Islamic populace. In the current millennium, a few individuals attempted to meet half-way the globalist call for entrepreneurship by supplying, to an extremely responsive and grateful nationwide market, affordable copies of otherwise unfairly priced digital content; instead they were continually hounded and accused of more than just video piracy by the Motion Pictures Association of America, whose leader, the late Jack Valenti, claimed (but never proved) before the U.S. Senate, as a way to justify harsher measures, that the profits made by “pirates” were donated to terrorist organizations.

Where the recent return of the Philippine army to Muslim areas in Mindanao might lead this time is anyone’s guess, but if history were to serve as indicator, what may appear to be a solution at present might only lead to further heartbreak in future.

[First published December 14, 2009, as “Heartbreak in Mindanao”]

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Asian Casanovas

When the only serious contenders during the last US presidential election were a woman and a black man, most commentators wondered which category, gender or race, would prove worthier of the patronage of the electorate. As it turned out, voters felt more confident about being led by a black man, although in a show of buyer’s remorse typical of history’s most successful consumer society, some Americans nowadays tend to write how Hillary Clinton would have had the leadership qualities that Barack Obama, for all his Kennedyesque charisma, sadly lacks in a time of serious global crises.

Yet the bigger picture has largely been overlooked. The standard presidential qualities of maleness, whiteness, wealth, and old age have become more and more difficult to assert, due to the rise of identity politics during the only truly progressive revolution the US ever came close to, comprising the various cultural upheavals of the 1960s. After the election of the non-WASP John F. Kennedy ushered in the Camelot spirit, the old boys’ club managed to hold on for a few more decades afterward, although it became increasingly apparent that successful candidates could, and then should, be sold on the basis of their deviation from the norm: Jimmy Carter had been a peanut farmer, Ronald Reagan a B-movie actor, Bill Clinton an impoverished native son who could complete his education only through scholarship grants. In this context, even “Dubya” Bush connected with voters despite his monstrous incompetence precisely because he was an aw-shucks underachieving everyday guy, in dull contrast with his father, the US’s (and by extension the world’s) last patriarchal President.

The foregrounding of the formerly immovable categories of race and gender during last year’s election recalls another category, one where both qualities reside, and which (officially, at least) supposedly no longer exists: that of Orientalism. Ever since Edward Said published his eponymous study, Orientalism (or, more accurately, anti-Orientalism) became an area of scholarly pursuit, first within comparative race studies, where Said had originally located his ideas. Not long after, feminist scholars joined the growing body of work critiquing Orientalism, but in fact improved on Said’s framework by incorporating the issue of desire.

In other words, where Said pointed out instances in Western literature where the Oriental was presented as inferior to the Western subject, more recent studies of Orientalism, focusing mainly on popular culture, acknowledge that racial bias (expressed via Christianity-inspired moral chauvinism) had a tense and often conflicting relationship with desire, often by the West for the Other. For all its potentially contentious, controversial, even occasionally pornographic implications, this view helped explain several phenomena, including the feminizing attitudes Western nations and peoples had toward Orientals, as well as the West’s comparatively less destructive colonization projects, rather than the outright enslavement or extermination wrought on populations that early conquistadores regarded as subhuman.

In order to see just how far Orientalism might have transformed, I have been casually following the still-unfolding sagas of three celebrities, all males in their 30s, more or less Asian, and beset by women trouble. Tiger Woods, who describes himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, black, [American] Indian, Asian), is actually more Asian than any of his other racial designations, but like Obama, exhibits the more genetically dominant African skin color. Pinoy boxer Manny Pacquiao is the more “native” Asian sportsman, a multiple-division champ, while Lee Byung-hun, as close to the stereotypical Oriental as any East Asian can get, is a Korean actor who has appeared in local and global blockbusters. One can “rank” them, as I had just listed them, in terms of increasing “Asianness,” but the way that twinned conditions occur among them is even more fascinating: Pacquiao and Lee are more racially Asian, Woods and Lee have middle-class backgrounds, and Woods and Pacquiao are already-legendary title holders in the traditionally masculinist profession of sports.

If we proceed from the feminization of Orientals by the self-masculinizing West, then Woods would be the person least subject to this outlook, mainly due to his most-mixed and consequently least-Asian ancestry. Ironically he has been the one so far whose stature has regressed the most, largely because of his incursion in a field, professional golf, which had been the bulwark of a type that would have once included former US Presidents. The outing, so to speak, of his sex addiction was undertaken by women who were, to put it mildly, unruly and, more significantly, white.

Lee, like Pacquiao and unlike Woods, only has to worry about a single female complainant, non-white at that. Although the specifically Korean offense of honin-bingja-ganeumjoi, or obtaining sex under a false promise of marriage, is no longer in force, it nevertheless points up the disparity between Lee and his way-too-young ex. Lee’s advantage over the other two is that, as an unmarried man, he is still technically free to play the field.

Pacquiao, if we were to take his detractors’ assertion that his philandering is more than just a gimmick intended to drumbeat his and his alleged paramour’s media projects, might not suffer the same extreme fall from grace that Woods did, but nevertheless still has to contend with his status as a family man. Yet he is the one blessed with a partner who has been fully supportive, who holds back her outraged responses whenever he prepares for one of his much-anticipated matches, and displays a warmth and graciousness during her interviews that have disarmed even those who had long gotten over her husband’s mystique.

This is where a further insight into Orientalism makes itself indispensable: within even a Western domestic sphere, where no racial Others might be present, the woman can still be configured as the Oriental of the man. (This is in fact a more optimistic view than Billie Holiday’s remark, famously quoted by John Lennon, that “woman is the nigger of the world.”) In a situation like the Philippines, which has been Orientalized several times over – by multiple colonizations, rapacious rulers, and possibly permanent underdevelopment – it is the country’s women, the close-to-legendary Pinays, who have managed to keep heart and hearth alive, further proof that, as Korea had earlier demonstrated, the most Oriental among us just might persevere in the end.

[First published January 25, 2010, as “A Few Insights into Our Asian Casanovas”]

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The Sins of the Fathers

The recent sensational revelations about ungodly, sometimes literally closeted goings-on in the Catholic hierarchy would not surprise those with a passing familiarity with Philippine colonial history. An early 20th-century report by James A. LeRoy in the Academy of Political Science’s journal listed a litany of excesses, all economic and political in nature, culminating in the charge that the Spanish friars “in general encourage[d] stagnation rather than progress.” By way of explaining such behavior, the author remarked that the majority of religious-order members “seem[ed], from their appearance, manners, and personal habits, to have been recruited from certainly not the best classes of Spain.”

It would be possible to tease out certain strands to explain both the character of religious officials posted to distant colonies, as well as the antipathy of the American observers who provided such condemnatory remarks. On the one hand, it would be next-to-impossible to persuade the most promising administrators, religious or otherwise, to accept an assignment in a destination that would have taken months of travel to reach, and from which a return to Spain, the colonial center, might never materialize. One extreme allegation was that out of desperation, some of the orders would seek potential recruits from the ranks of convicts and use their “conversion” as a means of petitioning for their release and subsequent deployment to Las Islas Filipinas.

I would not wish to cast the first stone, as it were, in maintaining that genuine repentance cannot occur in real life, even outside the pale of the then-raging European Enlightenment. But the actuations of many such shepherds of the flock did turn nothing less than wolf-like once they reached their Oriental destination. The first recorded account of a Philippine lynching, for instance, consisted of a mob of Spanish friars fatally assaulting their very own Governor General, a liberal administrator who had ordered investigations into and arrests of corrupt government officials and their religious defenders.

And as in public comportment, so in private: the climax of one of the multiple narrative strands in José Rizal’s masterly 1887 roman à clef, Noli Me Tangere, consisted of the revelation that the heroine, María Clara, had actually been sired by the hero’s mortal enemy, Father Dámaso; believing that her true love had perished as a falsely accused subversive, María Clara insists on entering the nunnery, only to fall into the waiting clutches of her ardent secret admirer, Father Salvi. The upshot of such common-knowledge instances of devilry among the country’s Holy-Joe imports is that even today, when someone with distinct European features turns up in an impoverished rural area, people simply shrug and say that a foreign priest must have intercepted the person in question’s ancestral line.

Such historical material can, at best, only serve as backdrop for the burgeoning tales about clerical scandals, which have so far been confined to the First World. That they involve this particular Catholic pope, at this particular historical moment, when in fact these stories extend into conditions whenever and wherever patriarchy holds sway (not just the present, and not just in Christendom), bespeaks of interests that had been at play even during the specific period when Spanish rule, epitomized by friar power, was being demonized in the Philippines: then as now, it was the Americans, the incoming colonizers, who took the lead in exposing the abuses of the Church – so just as we may be grateful for the outing of previously suppressed information, we might also do well to wonder who stands to benefit from such exposés in the end.

Joseph Ratzinger’s insistence on ideals that had been bypassed by several centuries of liberalization efforts (the last occurring as recently as the 1960s, during the Second Vatican Council) has led to the ugly quagmire that his dispensation finds itself in. The fact that priests all over the Western sphere believed they could continue to rape and torture minors with impunity is consistent with, not counter to, the position that women have no right to their bodies, queers have no right to happiness, humans (poor ones especially) have no right to reproductive health, and all opposing faiths ought to make way for the “one” “true” church, complete with god’s original (though long-dead) language, Latin. Emblematic of the darkest possible humor, were it not a real-life situation, would be the dozens of deaf children who attempted for decades to communicate their experience of abuse in the hands of an American priest who had meanwhile petitioned for, and received, clemency from the pope.

One more image, drawn from pedophile literature, would be that of hawks preying on hapless chickens. Once more, hard as it may seem, one must first attempt to withhold judgment; so yes, great literature can come out of such disturbing desire (witness Lolita, or Death in Venice), and a number of successful long-term relationships may have started from such distressing origins, if we were to accept some child-bride narratives at face value. However, as admitted atheist columnist Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the very people who represent an institution that upholds the most stringent moral standards (to the point where most of these have in fact already been rendered obsolete by modern history) ought themselves to conform to the most basic requisites of human decency, starting with the injunction to visit no harm, first and foremost, on the innocent and helpless.

In this instance of (pardon the pun) chickens eventually coming home to roost, one might hope, pray even, that Ratzinger and his minions could make the leap, resistant though they may seem to be, straight into the second millennium A.D. For starters: maintain the separation of church and state, accord reproductive health the import that good science has long acknowledged, respect the variegated possibilities of human sexual desire, provide for the ordination of women priests (and eventually a woman and/or non-white pope), and yield criminal transgressions to the jurisdiction of civil authorities. The apices of European classical art, music, architecture, and literature betoken the possibilities of lofty, if not divine, inspiration, but there remains no reason to restore the Roman Empire just to be able to partake of these pleasures.

[First published April 12, 2010]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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