Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bushwhacking Gloria

It’s the most popular item on the HuffPost, with nearly 200,000 viewers and nearly 1,500 comments, most expressing astonishment at what George W. said to Gloria Mac-Arroyo, de facto president to de facto president. He said “First, I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that -- in which there's a lot of Philippine-Americans. They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the -- of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House.” And then added: “And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President. “

I wish she’d replied, with a smile, “thanks and General Taguba was no pushover either” or “I hope she serves you dinuguan” or “have you checked on your dogs lately?” But she sat there like stone, muttering “thank you” as George W. Bush stereotyped her and her entire nation.

Oich! To discern ethnic stereotyping can be difficult, especially if one has had little experience with racism. In my early months in New York, a guest at a dinner given in my honor started telling me about her maid in Italy. This guest was Rome bureau head of a mega news magazine and she had a “Filipino maid” who was, as she put it, a “good person” but who had started pilfering small items. Embarrassed, I vacillated between allegiance to my compatriot (how much was this news great paying her?) and being polite, per Catholic nuns' instruction. Fortunately, my host returned from the kitchen, asked what we were talking about, gave me a swift glance, and started shouting at her guest: “Why are you telling her this? She’s a journalist and a writer. What’s she got to do with maids? With your maid?”

The Rome bureau head stuttered, turned red and said, “I just thought…” My host snapped: “Well, you just stop that thought right now!”

Not having experienced insidious, constant and subtle ethnic stereotyping, I had to work out the subtext of that conversation in my sleep and woke up furious. A year later, as guest of honor at a one-woman show at a Washington D.C. art gallery, I was introduced to the artist’s mother, who promptly said: “Oh, you’re from the Philippines! My daughter’s nanny is from the Philippines.” By then, I could snap back: “What a coincidence! My secretary’s white!”

How ironic that one had to be prickly to fit into this society, especially when one wasn’t white. But one had to acquire armor against the subtle put-downs, usually given when one was occupying, in the eyes of the put-downer, a “privileged” position. When my first book was reviewed favorably by the Times and my excited landlady made practically everyone in our building read the article, one neighbor who had a toy terrier with a diamond collar asked, “is it true Filipinos eat dogs?” I said of course and called out to his dog, “here, Foxy, here; straight to the kitchen, I’ll make you a good dinner.”

Sometimes you just have to out gross "them."

Many Filipinos do not get this kind of nuanced insult. Some would even be flattered that George W. remembered the Filipina chef in the White House kitchen, “a very good cook,” chrissakes. It’s akin to the pleasure we feel when a feudal warlord joins the town fiesta and dances with the hoi polloi; never mind that he's just taken away half of the harvest. I’ve had Filipinos tell me to “please not insult our American friend” who’s just insulted me galore, as if they, despite citizenship, weren’t Americans. I would’ve dearly loved to have said "neither can your president" to this guy in my neighborhood – a guy who, upon catching sight of me walking on the sidewalk, said over his cell phone that the place was beginning to be full of aliens “who can’t even speak English.” As it was, I could only advise him to buy a Vlasik and sit on it.

Two things mystify me about this Gloria Mac-Arroyo visit. First, the “roll-in-the-dust” gratitude for the paltry sum of $700 million in aid, considering the public humiliation. If it’s just a matter of money, overseas Filipino workers send home up to $20 billion per year, without needing to insult anyone. Had Gloria Mac-Arroyo been attentive to their needs – ordered the government to negotiate for really decent wages and working conditions for domestic workers, instead of the monthly $200 they get at the United Arab Emirates, for instance, working 16 hours 24/7 – the bloody $700 million would’ve meant only a hundred dollar donation per OFW. Were the Philippine government just a shade more caring, OFW’s would’ve sent home an extra billion dollars, with pleasure and without subjecting even the most deserving public servant to public embarrassment.

More, that would’ve been cold, hard cash -- unlike foreign aid, which is usually spent on goods made by American corporations and on salaries for American experts who tell Filipinos what to do and how to do it. Aid is not aid for the recipient country; it is aid for American big business who thus are spared the need to be grateful for U.S. taxpayer's money. More, such goods invariably change the lifestyle of the recipient country so it becomes a vulnerable market for U.S. goods. It’s part of the national US budget for advertising. Consider that at one time, the weight-loss meal replacement Metrecal was sent to the Philippines as part of foreign aid.

After all these years of receiving foreign aid, one would expect Philippine government officials to conclude that foreign aid, foreign investments, etc., do not solve/resolve anything; that issues of poverty and inequity have to be resolved at ground level, by our bootstraps, as it were.

The second mystifying thing is why Gloria Mac-Arroyo started thanking U.S. congress people for the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill – which is not even approved yet. The bill is intended to provide pensions for the few surviving Filipinos who fought with USAFFE in WWII; they were denied equal benefits as U.S. soldiers by the Rescission Act of 1946 which declared that the services of some 250,000 Filipinos under the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East "shall not be deemed to be or to have been service in the military or national forces of the United States or any component thereof or any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges or benefits."

That clause meant no medical attention, no recognition, nothing whatsoever, all history of that service erased. I have occasionally exclaimed, "that's what you get for fighting under a foreign flag" but this is such a palpable act of racism it cannot be overlooked.

Over the years, the veterans and a few allies have fought to eke out “rights, privileges or benefits,” starting with access to the Veterans Hospital. Now here comes Gloria Mac-Arroyo thanking US legislators for an unpassed bill, pretending that she had had a role in the struggle for veterans’ rights. And who weren’t thanked for this struggle for equal rights? Why the veterans themselves, the Fil-Am community of supporters, advocates who’d gotten old and hoarse trying to correct this discrimination. As 86-year-old veteran Faustino Baclig said, “sobra ang tsu-tsu” (too much of a suck-up).

Because the Philippine government refuses to recognize and rely on the indomitable character of the people it purportedly governs and represents, because the Philippine government continues to be led by suck-ups, all who are of Philippine ancestry become vulnerable to ethnic stereotyping, public humiliation and the disgrace of being perpetual beggars even as the Philippines gives away all of its resources -- from human to natural. Sad, just too sad. -- ##

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Post Script

Watched Hillary Clinton's concession speech. Was taken aback when everyone started praising her afterwards. I thought the speech was ironic. She laid it on really thick, mentioning Barack's name like 30,000 times in half an hour. The speech's undertone, it seemed to me, was "you want me to roll in the dust? okay; i'll not only roll in the dust; i'll tear off my hair; smear my face; claw my eyes out; etc., etc." Overpraise, overstate, over-everything -- something women do when they get tired of the caviling; just give in so totally no one knows what to make of it. Or am I being overcomplicated?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hammurabi in Texas

The evening he amasses enough pledged delegates to win the mantle of Nominee Presumptive, Senator Barack Obama chooses to deliver an apotheosis on Senator Hillary Clinton, thus creating the rather curious phenomenon of a winner lauding his defeated rival at the instant of his success. He thanks her on behalf of his daughters, in tacit acknowledgement of the truth that what one woman achieves becomes a potentiality for all women, that indeed there is a world of commonality among women. He says he is a better candidate for having had the honor to run against a formidable woman… and while it is true that one CAN’T not listen to Barack, he’s that good an orator, it is still a pleasure to hear a man acknowledge a woman’s strength, capability and accomplishment. This is rare, happening mostly at funerals, underscoring society’s implicit message that the only good woman is … well, you know the rest.

Of course, right after, everyone jumps on Hillary for not having instantly conceded, rolled in the dust in abnegation, thrown ashes on her head for having had the temerity to contest a male’s right to head a major political party… She is "ungracious" for not instantly falling to her knees. I’m sorry but I find this illogical; the defeated is not expected to be gracious, the victor is. The undertone of this caviling is fear about what she might do, and guilt over another frustration of a woman’s and women’s attempt at achieving even a surface equality. Enough already; she lost; leave her alone.

It’s been a bad season for women, underscored by that raid on the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ’s Latter Day Saints (FLDS) where some 400 children/minors were removed over allegations of abuse and forced/manipulated weddings. As details of the polygamous sect’s lifestyle unfolded over the air waves, one couldn’t help thinking of the reign of Hammurabi. Likely this was an insult to him, considering he had created an empire from the proto-slave societies on the plains of Babylon, Mesopotamia, Nineveh… And of course, he was first to codify laws, enshrining the principle of assumption of innocence in the juridical system. So apologies to him, but the similarities between the FLDS and Hammurabi’s milieu became more and more palpable with each revealed detail.

When the “moms” appeared on television, the affinity of their hair-do and clothes with the android Rachel in Blade Runner was striking. Rachel was given a false memory to render her closer to human, as it were.

The discourse on the FLDS was disquieting. Because it focused so much on the issues of the abuse of children and of child-brides (which are important), what underlay so much of this cruelty was lost: the relentless oppression of women within this absurdly patriarchal society. The oppression of women enabled the oppression of others: the young men whose unpaid labor was used to fulfill contracts with the Pentagon, the children who were kept in ignorance of the world, the girls who were raised to believe that their ultimate destiny was no more than becoming an adjunct of the patriarch… On top of this was the relentless concentration of property (including women and children) in the hands of men adjudged worthy of becoming patriarchs, on the say-so of a (yet another) clique of men, testifying to the truth that power-cliques self-replicate… Gerda Lerner must be chuckling over her breakfast tea, over this virtual dramatization of her book Creation of the Patriarchy on the plains of Texas.

I was inclined to dismiss the FLDS lifestyle as an aberration, until a friend from Switzerland said, for the umpteenth time that she couldn’t understand why, in a city that jumps out of its skin 24/7, television producers chose to feature some vacuous women in a reality show. I’d managed to ignore her remarks until she said: “the only interesting character there is the housemaid; I bet she’s from your country.” That sent me scurrying to watch re-runs of the The Real Housewives of New York City. Yup, vacuous as vacuum cleaners; yup, the housekeeper is from my country, I’d recognize that accent anytime, anywhere. Swiss friend added that she couldn’t see any great essential difference between the New York City housewives and the FLDS wives. That gave me great chill.

In an interview, Nepal's Hisila Yami gave a capsule description of what the problem was: “Women were the first to be oppressed, and will be the last to be liberated when class oppression ceases. So the test of whether class oppression still exists is if women’s oppression still exists or not.” That, in effect, acknowledged that all of class societies rests on women’s oppression.

The one ray of sunshine in the FLDS gloom came from women as well. Former child-brides, who broke through their conditioning and who took their children out of that hierarchy of oppression. Escape was not sufficient for them; they continue to speak out, warning others and trying to reach other women, calling on them to free their minds from the constructs of oppression, asking them not to be complicit in their own powerlessness. Perhaps, after all. women may not be the "last to be liberated."

And in keeping with the dawn-of-history ambience of this whole affair, I will end with an injunction that comes from those times as well: Go and do likewise. -- ##

Note to mostbeau, who's been denouncing me: this is the only place where I post; so I have no idea what you're referring to.