Luna’s death was also the Republic’s

I had been anticipating Heneral Luna‘s showing since I first learned about its production last year. After having finally seen it last week, I can say that it was worth the wait. Not only did the film do justice to the complex character that was General Antonio Luna, it also offered a very incisive commentary on the nascent First Republic– one that, sadly, remains relevant to this day.

One of the things I liked about Heneral Luna was that it did not present a mythologized version of the General. For all his genius and patriotism, Luna was also arrogant and arguably short-sighted. He talked a lot about instilling discipline, yet he was trigger-happy. He was, for instance, not above sending a young foot soldier out to risk his life just to spite, not even to kill, an American officer. The beauty in this kind of portrayal is that it drives home an important point: That you can be a hero without being perfect. That the inner patriot in you can sometimes come out of your hubris and megalomania.

Now, it has to be pointed out– and this is something that the film-makers themselves admit– that Heneral Luna is a work of art more than a historical piece. The movie was based on historical facts, but these were simplified and sometimes embellished. It’s easy to think of Luna as a brilliant tactician and selfless patriot who wanted nothing but to unify the Filipinos against the American invaders. Alas, history is much more complex.

That General Luna was an innocent victim of deadly intrigue concocted by President Aguinaldo’s envious allies, for example, is a compelling case to make, but it is not an unassailable one. John Nery, for instance, shares interesting letters written by Apolinario Mabini that attempted to contextualize the General’s assassination. Said Mabini: “What there was to it was that Luna, as Undersecretary of War and ad interim Secretary in the absence of Don Mariano Trias, using as a pretext the tendency shown earlier by the present Cabinet to look for a settlement with the Americans on the basis of autonomy like that of Canada, moved the Department to Bayambang and there he ran matters all by himself completely disregarding ‘Puno’ [Aguinaldo] and his colleagues in the Government.”

Mabini would later on write a scathing indictment of Aguinaldo (read his memoirs, The Philippine Revolution, here) but in these letters his views of Luna were less favorable. “Impartial persons see in Luna dangerous tendencies, because, while he wanted to impose obedience on everyone by force, he did not like to obey anyone; and he did whatever he fancied without consulting anybody,” Mabini wrote.

This does not mean that General Luna’s assassination was justified. It only means that it is possible that the General could have really been, indeed, a threat to the Aguinaldo government. In the face of such a threat, what should a fledgling government facing a very critical struggle do? We have the benefit of hindsight; President Aguinaldo, a very insecure politician, did not.

Still, Heneral Luna‘s embellishment of historical facts highlighted a bigger historical truth: That, unfortunately, Aguinaldo was ultimately unfit to lead the fledgling nation. While the First Republic demanded a confident statesman, Aguinaldo was, at most, a parochial kingpin. The President was unable to resist the temptation of choosing his personal political fortunes over the nation’s interest. He also failed to see the bigger picture. Mabini was right; by allowing Luna to be killed, Aguinaldo doomed the Revolution.

Luna was a world-class genius who knew what it takes to win a war, but he was more than that. He established a military academy, formed an elite band of soldiers, mobilized rural folk to build the Luna Defense Line, conceptualized a brilliant strategy designed to outlast the United States in a prolonged war, and tried to centralize the Republican Army command. These modernizing reforms should not be seen as merely martial; they were also socio-polticial.

The First Republic was established in a society where sense of nationhood was weak and the family was the highest social institution. This explains deserters who did not fully understand what they were fighting for, personal armies that were loyal to their generals and not to the flag, and governments that were being established on other islands. Under this atmosphere, the new Philippine state had to not only assert itself as a viable political association, but also to dislodge the family as the foremost social institution. This required cultivating a brand of nationalism that transcends regional boundaries.

By insisting on military discipline that cuts across lines of personal, familial, and regional loyalties, Luna was unwittingly helping the state assert itself. His methods were harsh but they were, to a huge extent, a litmus test for the viability of the First Republic. If the Filipinos were ready for Luna, then they were ready to be a unified nation. In a way, Luna’s reforms complemented Mabini’s attempts to give political meaning to the Declaration of Independence. Both patriots tried to fend off the likes of Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino, who represented a gentry that was more interested in advancing the interest of their families than that of the young Republic.

Thus we understand the extent of Aguinaldo’s folly. By allowing those who had been castigated by Luna for infractions to be the General’s own assassins, Aguinaldo destroyed discipline in the army. By reinstating Cavinteno officers who had been dismissed by Luna for insubordination, Aguinaldo prevented nationalism’s triumph over regionalism. By sidelining Mabini and having Luna killed, Aguinaldo undermined the First Republic’s promise. Indeed, my guess is that even if Aguinaldo’s regime had won against American imperialism, it would still have been rocked by serious challenges to its legitimacy, making the unification of the entire archipelago unlikely.

Many years later, the nation and the state are still unable to fully assert themselves over the family and the province. The elite remains largely disinterested in nation-building, and personal and familial ties remain the primary basis of social mobility. To be sure, we as a nation are slowly changing for the better. But, if at the end of the day the Philippines is still described by the likes of Alfred McCoy as nothing more than an “anarchy of families,” we have those who killed Luna to blame.

What kind of president would Obama be?

As expected, the result of this year’s presidential election in the United States has not been as close as most pre-poll surveys had projected. President Barack Obama has won a decisive number of the electoral votes and, contrary to pre-poll projections, managed to win the popular vote. He is only the third president in the post-war era, after Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, to be re-elected with more than 51% of the popular vote.

Except for North Carolina, President Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney in all of the swing states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the home states of Governor Romney’s, his father’s, and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s, respectively. Prof. W. Scott Thompson, who had been the first to predict in 2007 that the then relatively obscure junior senator from Illinois would defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, actually predicted an Obama landslide a couple of months ago. Perhaps that could have been the case had the President not misperformed in the first presidential debate.

Having framed the election as a choice between two distinct social and economic visions, perhaps President Obama would claim a strong mandate for his policy prescriptions. However, the American people has elected to maintain a divided Congress, with the Republicans keeping their majority in the House of Representatives. There would certainly be gridlocks in the debate on how to move the American economy forward. Particularly interesting would be the debate on the question of whether or not to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, which would be expiring before the year ends. Prof. Jack Balkin argues that the President should hold his ground on this issue, as it would likely define his place in American presidential history.

In two interesting essays published on The Atlantic, Professor Balikin draws on the works of another renowned political scientist, Prof. Stephen Kowronek, whose book on American presidential history is a must-read for all students of American politics. Professor Kowronek classified American presidents into four kinds: the reconstructive presidents, the affiliated presidents, the pre-emptive presidents, and the disjunctive presidents.

Reconstructive presidents create dominant regimes in American politics, where their ideologies influence the political reality, and their party has a stronger support base that has the ability to steer the general direction in Washington.  Professor Kowronek classifies William Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan as reconstructive presidents. Their legacies are the most enduring in American presidential history.

Now, those who follow these reconstructive presidents would either support or oppose the political orders they create. Presidents who support the dominant regime become affiliated presidents, whose political legitimacy usually hinges on their ability to defend the said regime. Affiliated presidents whose terms are marked by either the decline or the collapse of the political order they support are classified as disjunctive presidents.

On the other hand, presidents who oppose the dominant political order of their time are classified into two. Those who had the misfortune of being at the White House at the wrong time are the pre-emptive presidents. While they do not subscribe to the dominant regime, they are forced to be more pragmatic than dogmatic in order to successfully navigate the political currents. If they happen to be at the White House at the right time– that is, at the time when the dominant regime is falling apart– they become reconstructive presidents, creating a new political order that would affect a generation, or more.

In the last one hundred years, for example, the United States has seen two dominant regimes created by two reconstructive presidents. The Great Depression enabled President Roosevelt to create the Democratic regime on the basis of his  New Deal ideology. Affiliated presidents in this era included Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who tried to reinforce the Roosevelt regime with his Great Society policies. The pre-emptive presidents, on the other hand, were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The disjunctive president, Jimmy Carter, presided over the collapse of this Democratic regime that enabled President Reagan to create a new, conservative order. In the Reagan era, George H.W. Bush was obviously an affiliated president, while Bill Clinton was a pre-emptive one.

If we see American politics through this prism, then the Republican victory in congressional elections, the filibusterism of Speaker Newt Gingrinch, and the raging rise of the Tea Party in the middle of the terms of popular Democratic leaders Clinton and Obama would not be surprising. The Republicans have the dominant base, which is why a Democrat has a higher glass ceiling than a Republican: An unimpressive Republican, like George W. Bush, can win the White House; while Democrats would have to be specially charismatic and highly adept, like Clinton and Obama, to win the presidency. President Clinton had the acumen to survive politically, but he had to be pragmatic enough to negotiate a “third way” with the Republicans, instead of dogmatically pushing his own ideals. This pragmatism also characterized President Obama’s first term, where he had to contend with a Republican Congress whose obstructionism, according to historian David Kaiser, resembles the Viet Cong’s dau tranh policy. The President’s moderation has cost him the support of many of his progressive constituents.

Now that President Obama has won a second term, does he have a shot at being a reconstructive president, or would he, like Clinton, go down as a pre-emptive one? Professor Balikin argues that the odds are stacked against the President’s favor, although he sees the upcoming showdown on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as an opportunity to dismantle the current conservative regime. “First, he should let the United States go over the fiscal cliff,” the professor says. “Then he should push filibuster reform.”

But there are some encouraging signs for the President. Firstly, in terms of social policy, the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, and of same-sex marriage in Maryland and Maine, for example, seem to indicate a growing momentum for progressive social ideology, to which President Obama subscribe. The cultural divide between the religious, all-American right and the liberal left remains wide; but it appears that the dominant intellectual discourse favors progressive social ideas, like secularism, gender rights, and immigration reform, among others. The President, therefore, knew what he was doing when he expressed support for same-sex marriage prior to the election.

Secondly, the outdated Republican ideas on foreign policy, which views the world through a binary of us-versus-them mentality, is also losing some currency. For much of his first term, President Obama, resembling a classic pre-emptive president, merely adopted a moderate version of these conservative ideas. He has, for instance, sent drones to Pakistan, maintained the Guantanamo prison, and left the Patriot Act untouched. But the President’s success in pursuing consensus-based multilateralism in Libya, his audacity to stand up to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, his pivot to East Asia, and his nuanced approach in engaging China all show a reconstructive streak that is generally winning for the United States some respect in the international community. In his second term, President Obama would have more flexibility in terms of pursuing his own brand of foreign policy.

Finally, the Republican Party remains fractured, and its increasing dogmatism is alienating many of its moderate constituents. Its social ideology, driven by the religious right, is not in sync with the times, and its ridiculous suggestions that President Obama is neither American nor Christian puts its credibility in serious danger.

It would take a historian, which I’m not, to know for certain if these are symptoms of the unraveling of the current Reaganite political order. Regardless, the Republican Party would likely continue their dau tranh obstructionism, and a single scandal in the administration could enable the Republicans to play the impeachment card. President Obama has two years to cement his legacy, as he runs the risk of turning into a lame duck in the last two years of his term. During this period, he must successfully navigate the political waters; know when, how, and when not to compromise with the Republicans; and directly appeal to the American people when he has to.

How Jews found refuge in the Philippines during the Holocaust

A visiting friend from the University of Haifa was surprised to learn that there actually is a small Jewish community in the Philippines and that the country was in fact a haven for a considerable number of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. He’s been in the Philippines before but he has never heard of these, which I think represents the general lack of knowledge among both Jews, Israelis and Filipinos on the role played by the then Commonwealth of the Philippines and its President, Manuel L. Quezon, in saving the lives of around 1,200 souls during that dark period of history.

Thankfully, the Israeli government is aware. In fact, in 2009, it erected an impressive monument, called The Open Doors, honoring the Philippines and President Quezon at the 65-hectare Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Le Zion. I’m not really sure if the offsprings of the late Commonwealth leader has also been invited to plant a tree in Israel’s Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, an honor generally reserved for “righteous men” who had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust; if not, an invitation should be forthcoming as well.

Manila Jews

There had been a sizable Jewish community in Manila in the 1930s, composed mostly of businessmen and socialites. Among the most prominent of the Jewish families are the Freiders, who count President Quezon and American High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt among their friends.

The Freiders followed with concern the meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi) to power in Germany. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. When German President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934 resulted in a power vacuum that allowed Hitler to combine the chancellery and the presidency and become the Fuhrer of Germany, the Freiders knew that their fellow German Jews were in grave danger.

This fear was confirmed when Hitler mandated a systematic persecution of Jews and other “subhuman” races as his first order of business. His rubberstamp Reichstag passed the notorious Enabling Act, institutionalizing anti-Semitism and racism and leading to that infamous orgy of violence called the Kristalnacht. Jewish businesses were either sequestered or destroyed, synagogues were burned or vandalized, and Jews were forced to wear badges bearing the Star of David; and, as everyone knows, those were just the beginning.

Escape to the Philippines

At that point, thousands of Jews were already fleeing Germany for their lives. In Asia, Shanghai became a favorite refuge. The influx of Jewish refugees in Shanghai prompted the Manila Jewish community to raise money to support the escapees, but it turned out that money was not needed yet so they reserved it for emergency. Meanwhile, Japan began adopting confrontational stance against China, culminating in an outright invasion in 1937. Afraid that the Japanese, as a German ally, might adopt anti-Semitic policies as well, the Shanghai Jews began packing their things again. But most countries, including the United States, would not let them in. So they looked for alternatives: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Philippines.

This is where the Freiders began using their connections and friendship with High Commissioner McNutt and President Quezon in order to help their fellow Jews. Taking advantage of the fact that the Philippines still had no immigration law at that time (indeed, there were thousands of Japanese spies posing as immigrants, but that’s another story), President Quezon ordered that the country’s gates be opened to Jewish refugees. Around 1,200 came to Manila from Shanghai, Austria and Germany. The President himself donated parts of his personal estate in Marikina to be temporary residence halls for Jewish refugees.

President Quezon also urged the Philippine Assembly to pass a law allowing the entry of at least 1,000 Jews to the Philippines, and plans were drawn up for a Jewish settlement that could cater to at least 100,000. With the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, President Quezon even went as far as to announce his willingness to open Mindanao, then an under-populated new frontier, up for Jewish colonization, provided the Jews be naturalized as Philippine citizens. The Quezon plan proposed a sprawling settlement in the southern Philippine island that could cater to around 30,000 to over a million Jewish residents. It was hospitality beyond the usual.

Beyond altruism

But it appears that altruism might not be the only motive behind President Quezon’s Mindanao plan for the Jews. Local geopolitics played an equal, if not greater, part. Former American High Commissioner Francis Sayre, a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson, allegedly even called the President’s Mindanao proposal a “scheme.”

Allegedly, President Quezon’s invitation to Jews was part of his plan to ease Muslim dominance of Mindanao and to prevent the possibility of Moro secession. At that time, the government had been systematically and strategically re-settling people from Luzon and the Visayas to Mindanao, which explains why Visayan Christians, not Moros, comprise the majority in the south today. A surge of Jewish migration to Mindanao could have stimulated economic growth in the area, thereby attracting more non-Muslim Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayas to move there.

In a way, it appeared that President Quezon intended to use the Jews as a buffer against Muslim animosity towards Filipino Chrsitians, and even against Japanese infiltration brought about by the alarming increase in Japanese migration. Some feared that this could lead to anti-Semitism in the Philippines as well, prompting Washington to disagree with Quezon’s “grandiose plans.”

The State Department reportedly said that the project was too ambitious and that Mindanao’s climate and infastructure is not suitable for white men and their European lifestyle. The American mandarins also doubted the Jewish people’s ability to adapt to the Philippine culture. Further, they feared that if the Philippines would take in such a huge number of Jewish immigrants, other countries might excuse themselves from doing their own part in saving the Jews.

‘Failed to rescue’

Finally, anti-Jewish sentiment grew in the Philippine Assembly and opposition leaders kept on delaying the progress of the Mindanao project, saying that President Quezon was too hasty in offering Mindanao for Jewish colonization. These delays plagued the Mindanao plan and became the source of frustration for the Jewsih community. In the end, the Japanese invasion of 1941 totally doomed the project.

On this failure, American historian Bonnie Harris, an authority on the Holocaust whose doctoral dissertation was about President Quezon’s efforts to save the Jews, wrote:

“Mindanao was the last hope for a mass resettlement strategy aimed at aiding the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees victimized by Nazi Germany.

“At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Hitler’s plan for massive Jewish deportation mutated into one of extermination, which was executed over the next three years. With the failure of the West to provide a successful mass rescue operation for Europe’s Jewish population, ‘thousands of Jews entered the cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, under the impression that they were being resettled in the East.’

“The irony of the ‘Final Solution‘ lies in its mimic of the Western World’s failed attempt to rescue through resettlement. ‘The decision to murder followed directly from the failure to resettle.’ Mindanao ended a long list of resettlement schemes considered at one time by the international community that failed to rescue.”

Still, this failure did not come until after President Quezon had already saved about 1,200 Jews.

The Japanese, who occupied the Philippines from 1941 to 1944, did not pursue Nazi-style anti-Semitism. But their brutality was equally notorious. This ironic story of escaping persecution only to be exposed to terror and infamy was the theme of a 2008 book by Frank Ephraim, a Philippine Jew, entitled Escape to Manila: from Nazi Tyrrany to Japanese Brutality. 

After the war, the State of Israel was established and most of the Philippine Jews left the Philippines for their new homeland. Manila, for its part, became one of the first Asian governments to recognize Israel.

Just how formidable is the Church anyway?

For declaring his intention to push for “responsible parenthood” even at the expense of excommunication, President Benigno S. Aquino III got a most serious censure from the Archbishop Emeritus of Lingayen and Dagupan, Oscar Cruz. “He’s crossing over thin ice. He has a sense of omnipotence, arrogance,” the prelate said.

Perhaps the irony of his statement escaped him, for it is in fact the Philippine Catholic Church’s series of recent public actions that has a “sense of arrogance.”

Continue reading “Just how formidable is the Church anyway?”

On Tunisia, velvet revolutions, and the battle of political perspectives in the Philippines.

The news of continued protests in Tunisia over the appointment of cabinet ministers associated with recently-ousted autocratic President Zine al-AbidineBen Ali in the new, transitional “unity government” reminded me of an interesting thesis on velvet revolutions by Timothy Garton Ash. I came across it in 2009 through the blog of Manuel L. Quezon III, now President Benigno S Aquino III’s Undersecretary for Communications.

According to Ash, one fundamental difference between traditional revolutions– those class-oriented mass actions led by the republicans in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China– and the modern velvet revolutions– those that democratized autocracies from the Philippines to Central Asia to Eastern Europe from the late 1980s– is that the latter do not produce a winner-takes-all situation where the losers lose not just their influence and properties but also their lives. Instead, the members of the ruling elite get not the guillotine but a seat at the round table.

Continue reading “On Tunisia, velvet revolutions, and the battle of political perspectives in the Philippines.”

Defying the Pope, perverting democracy.

Today’s Inquirer headline tells of a Vatican leadership critical of Cardinal Sin’s pivotal role in the 2001 power grab against Joseph Estrada.

According to the story, the Holy See ordered Cardinal Sin to stop Church participation in EDSA II.

Cardinal Sin defied the order. And indeed he could defy it, for he was popular enough to override the pope when he was alive. Sin was seen as a figurehead of the Third World Catholic clergy and his influence extended beyond these islands.

Powerful as he was, however, the late cardinal, the Inquirer story proves, was nothing more than a carbon copy of Cardinal Richelieu who would disregard his vow of obedience in favor of his wanton desire to play the role of kingmaker in this country.

Although late cardinal was able get away with defying the Vatican order, Rome retaliated by splitting the Manila See into several dioceses. The break-up was crucial, for it broke Sin’s access to scores of Metro Manila parishes and schools, which he ordered in 2001 to produce at least fifty people each, mobilizing hundreds of thousands that formed the backbone of the EDSA II uprising.

Continue reading “Defying the Pope, perverting democracy.”