More than twenty years ago, James Fallows wrote an article entitled “A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?” It was Fallows who coined the term “damaged culture” to describe our country’s polarity and cultural backwardness. Of course, many of our highly sensitive and emotional countrymen were very infuriated and felt insulted by this foreign correspondent from The Atlantic Monthly. Many media practitioners lambasted him and called him names and some of them even called him “parachutist,” which pertained to a foreign correspondent who stayed in our country for a few days and reported a very “comprehensive and in-depth” story about us.
Mr. James Fallows was the only courageous foreign correspondent since then to write something about our damaged culture. And there are, of course, explanations for the reluctance of foreign correspondents to write something critical about another country’s traditional cultural values and beliefs.
David Landes, New York Times bestselling author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, explained that culture, in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population, frightens scholars. He added that criticizing another culture has a sulfuric odor of race and inheritance, an air of immutability… Besides, criticisms of culture cut close to the ego and injure identity and self-esteem. Coming from outsiders, such animadversions, however tactful and indirect, stink of condescension. Lawrence Harrison, author of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind, Who Prosper? and The Pan-American Dream, also explained that the influence of cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes, on the way that societies evolve has been shunned by scholars, politicians, and development experts, notwithstanding the views of Tocqueville, Max Weber, and more recently Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, David Landes, Robert Putnam, Martin Seymour Lipset, Lucian Pye, among others. He added that it is much more comfortable for the experts to cite geographic constraints, insufficient resources, bad policies, and weak institutions. That way they avoid the invidious comparisons, political sensitivities, and bruised feelings often engendered by cultural explanations of success and failure. However, he stressed that by avoiding culture, the experts also ignore not only an important part of the explanation of why some societies or ethno-religious groups do better than others with respect to democratic governance, social justice, and prosperity. They also ignore the possibility that progress can be accelerated by (1) analyzing cultural obstacles to it, and (2) addressing cultural change as remedy. He also explained that the influence of culture on the way that societies evolve is central not only to the goal of reducing poverty and injustice around the world but is also a key factor in foreign policy.
On July 7, 1986, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator from New York, wrote this maxim in The New Republic: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Lawrence Harrison explained that cultural change usually occurs when two factors coincide: (1) leaders with a progressive vision, and (2) a time of crisis or unique opportunity. The following summarized success stories of leadership of visionary leadership and initiatives to promote progressive cultural change that promote political, economic, social development and human progress were culled from Developing Cultures: Case Studies:
- Deng Xiaoping’s reversal of the “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” order of things by promoting private enterprise in the wake of the disaster of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
- The young Meiji leaders’ response to compelling evidence of how far behind the West Tokugawa Japan was in the second half of the nineteenth century.
- Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of a modern, efficient, and affluent — if not extremely democratic — Singapore, initiated at a moment of political crisis when Singapore was booted out from the Malaysian Federation.
The Taiwanese economic as well as political “miracles” under the Chiangs, facing military threat from the Mainland.
- A strikingly similar “miracle,” first economic and then political, in South Korea under Park Chung Hee, also under military threat from the North.
- Kemal Mustafa Atatürk’s Western and European-oriented cultural revolution after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the threat to Turkey’s continued existence.
- Botswana under Sir Seretse Khama’s enlightened leadership at the moment of independence in 1966, followed by the extraordinarily effective democratic leadership of the country’s succeeding presidents, Quett Masire and Festus Mogae.
- Chile’s return to democracy after the traumatic Pinochet dictatorship, but with a series of center/left-of-center leaders starting in 1989 with Patricio Aylwin perpetuating Milton Friedman’s free market policies as initiated under the dictator with inputs from the “Chicago Boys” (Friedman’s former economics students at the University of Chicago).
- The vision of Governor Mikhail Prusak and other leaders of a democratic, progressive Novgorod, rooted in a centuries-old mythical tradition, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- New leadership in Ireland, starting with Prime Minister Sean Lemass in 1959, committed to the modernization of a country that had fallen far behind much of the rest of Europe in both economic and social terms.
- Italy’s rejection of long-standing protectionist economic policies following its disastrous World War II collaboration with Germany.
- The key role of King Juan Carlos in Spain’s transition to democracy following the death of Francisco Franco, the quintessential caudillo — and by Spain’s decision to open itself to the mainstream ideas of the West to permit the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution to cross the Pyrenees.
- New leadership in Quebec, beginning with the Liberal Party government of Jean Lesage in 1960, committed to the modernization of a province that had fallen far behind much of the rest of Canada in both economic and social terms by engineering Quebec’s Quiet Revolution–a classic case of politics changing a culture and saving it from itself.
Dr. Samuel Huntington, PhD, (1927-2008) also explained that societies may change their culture in response to major trauma. A very good classic example was the amazing transformation of both Germany and Japan from highly militaristic countries into two of the most pacifist.
Dr. Huntington also narrated in Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress this very fascinating story:
“In the early 1990s, I happened to come across economic data on Ghana and South Korea in the early 1960s, and I was astonished to see how similar their economies were then. These two countries had roughly comparable levels of per capita GNP; similar divisions of their economy among primary products, manufacturing, and services; and overwhelmingly primary product exports, with South Korea producing a few manufactured goods.
Also, they were receiving comparable levels of economic aid. Thirty years later, South Korea had become an industrial giant with the fourteenth largest economy in the world, multinational corporations, major export of automobiles, electronic equipment, and other sophisticated manufactures, and a per capita income approximating that of Greece. Moreover, it was on its way to the consolidation of democratic institutions. No such change had occurred in Ghana, whose per capita GNP was now about one-fifteenth that of South Korea’s.
How could this extraordinary difference in development be explained?
Undoubtedly, many factors played a role, but it seemed to me that culture had to be a large part of the explanation. South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures count.”
The Philippines and Ghana almost share the same culture — the same irrationality, excessive conviviality or the propensity to feast that suggest that their societies are structured towards pleasure and the suppression of individualism.
Camerounian economist Dr. Daniel Etounga-Manguelle wrote a book entitled Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment Program? and set forth the following cultural obstacle to progress in most African countries including Ghana: present-time orientation, lack of concern in making efficient use of time, subordination of the individual to the community, excessive conviviality and avoidance of confrontation, little saving and much conspicuous consumption, very short radius of identification and trust, and the subordination and abuse of women. He also highlighted Africa’s excessive conviviality which was very strikingly similar to our culture. Everything, he said, is a pretext for celebration in Africa: birth, baptism, marriage, birthday, promotion, election, a return from a short or long trip, mourning, as well as traditional and religious feasts. Whether one’s salary is considerable or modest, whether one’s granaries are empty or full, the feast must be beautiful and must include the maximum possible number of guests.
Does this not sound very familiar?
In the early 1990’s Lee Kuan Yew stated that our country, the Philippines, was going nowhere because of our lack of discipline and excessive conviviality. We Filipinos, he added, possessed an “exuberant democracy” as we always have the propensity to feast incessantly with a bacchanalian attitude. It was in this particular instance that he advised us that instead of Democracy, Filipinos needed Discipline in order to build a successful society. Again, many Filipinos were incensed and infuriated including former president Fidel Valdez Ramos.
Let us return to James Fallows… In 1994, he wrote the critically acclaimed book entitled Looking at the Sun – The Rise and Fall of the New East Asian Economic and Political System. He never pulled his punches and neither did he mince words when he wrote about the Philippines. In the first paragraph, he wrote thusly, “The least successful-seeming society in East Asia is the Philippines. No one can take comfort in the fact–least of all Americans, since this is the society most heavily shaped in the American image. When Stanley Karnow called his mammoth history of the Philippines ‘In Our Image,’ he was not exaggerating. This is the largest country the United States ever attempted to colonize. It is the one part of East Asia to embrace most fully the “American Way” of two-party elections and an uncontrolled press.”
Mr. Fallows also took a stinging jab at our shrinking economy which also appeared on his “Damaged Culture” article as he compared our economy to South Korea in the mid-1960s the way Samuel Huntington compared the economic data he gathered in the early 1990s on Ghana and South Korea in the early 1960s. According to Fallows, in the mid-1960s, when the seemingly idealistic Ferdinand Marcos began his first term as President, the two countries were economically even with each other, with similar per capita incomes of a few hundred dollars a year (The Philippines’ economy was ranked second in Asia in the 1950s and early 1960s, next to that of Japan–ANQ.).
Now look where we are right now. The Philippines is one of the poorest countries in Asia and we are aptly monickered as “The Sick Man of Asia.” Our cultural backwardness is one of the major reasons and perhaps the biggest stumbling block that prevents our progress as a nation — not so much the Marcos-regime of dictatorship and kleptocracy. (And if that were the case, the why was Indonesia able to progress economically under the authoritarian and kleptocratic rule of the Suharto family?) Unless we drastically change our damaged culture we will never prosper economically. Not only do we need a great leader with a progressive vision to lead our country but the entire citizenry needs to realize that we all have to fix our culture.
The French-Canadian political scientist Daniel Latouche said it best, “There can be no cultural transformation without the widely-accepted belief that there is indeed something ‘wrong’ with the [culture] and without widespread discussion of how to fix it. For culture to matter, there must [first be] a realization that it needs fixing.”
Our Asian neighbors decided to look deeper into their own traditional cultural values and beliefs that hindered their success and changed them dramatically a few decades ago for the betterment of their respective countries and their own people. We, on the other hand, not only get very emotional and sensitive but also become rabidly enraged so that we hurl invectives when a foreign correspondent, another nation’s leader, or even comedians and Hollywood actresses lash out at our cultural backwardness.
I’m telling you this, my dear readers: If we don’t wake up from our deep slumber in order to change our defective and progress-resistant culture, we will be the poorest country in Asia someday and we will unfortunately always be a perennial loser-nation. Very sad and pathetic, indeed.