Thursday, May 7, 2009

America: Our romanticized view?

Recent developments have seen us gushing with either love or hate for America.

A Singaporean scholar (see argues that while “the 19th and 20th were European and American centuries, respectively, the 21st will be the Asian century – not because Asia has rediscovered some old Asian wisdom: what the Asians have finally figured out are the 7 pillars of Western wisdom which enabled the West to succeed”, including pragmatism – “it is an ancient western practice”.

Does America define pragmatism in our relationship akin to differentiating between family and neighbor? That America does not see us as family but as a neighbor in the global community – where there are 200 of us? Is part of our romanticized view the belief in the extended family – which we share with other Asians and Europeans but not America? But we fought side-by-side with them? Like they did with the French among others, and similarly their relationship is like a roller coaster?

Among neighbors people don’t expect to be invited to family reunions but they gladly share leftovers from feasts?

Puerto Rico comes to mind.

It is just a hop away from New York (which many Porto Ricans call home) and easily accessible to candidates during primaries. Senator Clinton spent lots of time in Puerto Rico and was rewarded, winning over then Senator Obama.

Puerto Rico is not a state of the union but a commonwealth (like we once were) entitled to benefits like currency, foreign affairs, defense, infrastructure (e.g., roads and bridges) and postal services, among other. They don’t pay federal taxes yet carry U.S. passports (the U.S. president being chief of state while the head of government is an elected governor) but cannot vote in presidential elections and lack voting representation in both Houses of Congress. The Porto Ricans are divided on whether they want to become a state and so the status quo remains. Are both parties being pragmatic?

Unfortunately for the Porto Ricans they have not developed like the Asian tigers: totally independent –with none of the crutches of Uncle Sam to lean on – and had the greater need and desire to stand on their own.

In espousing pragmatism, the Singaporean scholar calls the Asian tigers the “best copycat nations in the world. As Deng Xiaoping said: "it doesn't matter if a cat is white or black, if it catches mice". In most of Asia, the ideological debates are left behind.”

Fortunately or unfortunately the Philippines is 10,000 miles from Washington and almost a day, not just a hop, away. And given our desire for independence, we cannot have a similar relationship like that of Puerto Rico.

As a neighbor to the Philippines is the U.S. adhering to a “good-neighbor policy”? And if we adhere to the same policy we would not suffer the angst from our romanticized view?
In our respective neighborhoods do we ourselves tend to favor those that abide by the good-neighbor policy – neither would bother the other but can be pleasant and helpful as the need arises? And instinctively reciprocity reigns?

But whenever one is aggrieved they can assert their rights and protect their interests?

Secretary Clinton’s emerging pragmatic and blunt diplomacy may be refreshing. If she can be as blunt about her expectations in Asia, e.g., she does not expect China to step-up efforts to address human rights, that she expects a leadership crisis in North Korea, etc., we should be as blunt when we address our issues with the U.S.? But we’re a small country? Being blunt does not mean irrational so size does not matter? Expressing a mature reaction to something egregious is what pragmatism is about? Her pragmatism should be welcomed too – a departure from the omnipotent-like ideology of “if you are not for us you are against us”?

In the couple of decades after WWII when foreign companies came over to join and partake in the rebuilding of the country and the resulting economic boom, one of the many cultural do’s and don’ts that they had to learn was paternalism – that Filipinos respond better to leadership that mirrors a personal relationship; and hence must acquiesce when they are offered to be godparents in a baptism or wedding. Westerners struggled with this given their belief that such leadership style that offers help, advice and protection has unintended consequences: the neglect of individual choice and personal responsibility. (A Filipino priest-psychologist adds: “it reinforces one’s sense of entitlement which is a reflection of the false-self or ego.”)

In 1969 a best seller came out and every other Filipino manager and aspiring manager read it: I’m OK, You’re OK. The author (a doctor who based his treatise on experiments related to neurology) talked about the adult-to-adult conversation model that should ideally apply to the work setting, i.e., the manager-subordinate relationship should reflect the adult-to-adult model; not the adult-to-child or child-to-adult.

A deceased relative would retell his children time and again an incident he witnessed on his first trip to America: He was in a park and saw a toddler running around and then tripping. His first impulse was to run to the child who had broken into tears and help . . . until he heard the parents say: “Come on stand up”, and the child stopped crying and stood up. The mother then said, “Remember this is just the first not the last time you will trip, everytime you fall you must stand up; if you are in pain, cry but stand up” and kissed the child. The toddler resumed running and tripped a couple more times, and each time stood up while yelling with a smile on his face: “Mom, it’s not painful.”

A couple of Filipino Ivy League students who had sat in a class in one of our premier universities when asked how similar or different it was from theirs said: “It’s different; there’s spoon-feeding.”

If Westerners struggled with paternalism, do we Filipinos struggle with “I’m OK, You’re OK?

Is our tendency to romanticize our relationship with America . . . or our response to our economic challenge . . . or to poverty . . . or to corruption . . . a reflection of our comfort zone? Do we wish we could do something about it?

For instance, if we put our mind to it we can confront corruption? Corruption has become a monster –that saps our moral fiber and makes us less confident of the future – yet it would take baby steps for us to slay it?

To address corruption we need to realize that it is an inside-out process? It starts within each of us – from the head down; a rotten fish smells from the head down?

This writer wishes to acknowledge the priest who conducted the retreat he attended and admonished: “beyond the Filipino focus on family we have the community to sanctify”.

As an example, within our respective families we can start with three rules?
  1. Observe road courtesy when we drive or are a pedestrian?
  2. Donate to our favorite charity or church whatever “fine we owe” from traffic violation whether we bribed our way out or were not apprehended – it is like counting all our strokes in golf or reliving “honesty is the best policy”?
  3. Rule no. 3 – anyone can build on, modify and own the list or reject it?

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