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December 17, 2007

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The Equalizer

Prolonged separation and changing values have caused the breakdown of families, delinquency among the youth and disruption of normal child development.


Carla

A compelling topic, torn, as you say. What did Hunter Thompson say about our parents?

I can't organize my thoughts very well on this theme as my 'objective' analysis goes against my personal experience, and my personal experience doesn't jive with the norms of the society I grew up in. Some points:

-Economic disincentives for children's independence are real, but we should also consider generational conflicts. An English friend of mine (in his 60's) had his son move back in recently, as the son (in his 30s) could not afford rent while doing postgrad studies. It's working out well, says my friend, but he would never have done it in his parents' time because the differences in lifestyle and values were too great. My friend lived out his youth in the 1960s, did the whole hippie thing and rejected his parents' stolid bourgeois existence. He and his son have no significant ideological differences--in fact, they agree on Iraq and the excesses of Western societies. He and his parents had imperial Britain and Vietnam between them.

-On dependence and parent-child relationships. In the worst of cases I've seen, such as among poor folk in agrarian societies, kids are produced for economic value because they provide 'free' labor.While even in modern, urban settings in the Philippines, offspring are still often seen as a guarantee against aloneness. I've been encouraged to reproduce many times so that "someone will take care of you when you are old". I've always resented this because it sounds so cynical. I like children but I don't think one should bring them into the world to be caregivers in one's old age.

I have observed that here (and in most Western societies, except maybe Southern Europe), people accept solitude in old age as inevitable. I see old people go about their own business, trying to lead productive lives past retirement age, then into care homes when they can no longer manage to be on their own. It breaks my heart. I took a long leave from my job when my father was ill to help care for him. I didn't see this as an inconvenience, nor did I need anything from him at that point in my life. It was just a way to say thank you and goodbye to a parent who had been so kind.

-In a sense, though, you are absolutely right: any kind of love has some degree of dependence at its core, even romantic love. That's because when you build strong bonds with anyone, you do give up a certain degree of autonomy: you stop being completely 'free' when your life is connected with others.

In a more individualistic society, those connections are eroded. The positive thing I see in this is that people come into their own quickly, unburdened by the expectation that their parents (or tribe, patrons, and other power figures) will aid them through life. THis is the mindset that fuels a meritocracy.

-Catholicism. I am ambivalent about the relationship between Catholicism per se and modernity. It's a confluence of factors that makes for a retrograde society. The lowest birth rates in Europe these days, for example, are in Spain, Italy and Greece. No repressed sexuality there, either.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines, though--that's another creature altogether. "Couples for Christ"?! "Mama Mary"? Condom ban. Priests with kids. Those are their ways of promoting family ties.

-Do you think there is one unavoidable trajectory in the maturation of societies? That one day, Pinoys will 'grow up' and that will mean joining the 'developed' world? I compare young people here and in the Philippines and I see such a great difference in the levels of innocence and jadedness. A part of me wishes Pinoys would never grow up but most of me knows we eventually will.

torn

Hi Carla

I dunno, what did Hunter say about parents? I know what Philip Larkin said about them:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

That’s an interesting story about your English friend, but when it comes down to intergenerational difficulties I wonder whether political differences or similarities matter that much? My political opinions are diametrically opposed to those of my only surviving relative, my mother, but I doubt whether we would get on much better even if we voted the same way. I remember you once saying something about you and your mum being two headstrong women in the same house – that sort of issue seems to me more fundamental than whether you agree on Iraq. (Actually that’s not strictly true about me and my mum; we are united in our view of Tony Blair, though for opposite reasons, and I do enjoy listening to her laying into him, so political agreement does assist domestic harmony, I suppose.)

On your dependence point, that was good of you to look after your dad and I am ashamed to admit that I doubt whether I would do the same. I know you are not saying that this is an exclusively Asian pattern, but there are many who believe this. When I lived in Singapore, I got completely fed up with Singaporeans telling me that Brits just stuffed their parents in a home at the age of 60. No matter what I told them about British friends and relatives of mine who had made incredible financial and emotional sacrifices for their parents it never shook their belief in the stereotype. Anyway, that’s not the point you were making I know; you just set me off on a little hobby-horse of mine.

-Do you think there is one unavoidable trajectory in the maturation of societies?
Ah well, that’s another whole issue isn’t it?! Francis Fukuyama (and most Americans) would presumably say yes – but then just look at the States and its bete noire across the Channel and it seems to me that there are many ways to go.

Nevertheless, in some ways economics dictates a common path. The Pinoy retail model of one girl to take your goods, another to punch in the amount, a third to staple the pink slip to the blue slip, and so on add infinitum just cannot survive in a society that pays shop staff a semi-decent wage. (But then as your call of “hello, anyone here?” echoes down an empty aisle in a Sheffield supermarket perhaps you miss our overstaffed stores here?)

Ah well, plenty more to debate about in the new year – have a wonderful holiday season wherever you are!

Cogs


This comment more rightly belongs in Part 1 of this conversation, picking up on Carla's closing line of "That's also sad and certainly no catalysts for 'progress'".

The reason I didn't make a contribution when Part 1 was running was that the discussion was so generous and good-hearted, while my feelings about the consequences of the childlike approach to life in the Philippines would have seemed churlish and out of place in such company. But a few days spent in Singapore over the New Year have pushed me to write.

I am no fan of the Singapore government. I spent 20 years as a journalist in Hong Kong and have a gag reflex about Singapore politics and the media. But but as my family made its way around the place, visiting the usual tourist spots and, on the way, seeing something of "real life" as we drove past hundreds of spic and span working-class housing estates set in lawns, I set to wondering. Why is it, I asked myself, that Singapore has done so much with so little, while the Philippines has done so little with so much?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the dark side of Philippine childishness. As charming as the good nature of the Filipino is, and as impressive as the ability to laugh at hardship is, I doubt there is a future for this country above the lower ranks of the developing nations until the childish smiling stops and is replaced by adult fortitude.

The Philippines' problems have almost nothing to do with being mollycoddled in youth, and nearly everything to do with a child-like inability to stick with what has been started -- beginning with People Power 1 and running through to today, with Estrada strutting around a free man and talking of seeking power once more, and taking in all the stuff in between, including the unfinished infrastructure projects, a Congress that is constantly distracted from its real business and laws that are passed but never executed.

Lew Kuan Yew is an arrogant son of a bitch, but take a trip to Singapore and think what the Philippines could be with him in place of a short-term survivalist like Arroyo. Now there's a thought that brings a smile to my lips.


cvj

If LKY was a Filipino, he probably would be in exile or in the mountains. The landed oligarchy wouldn't have allowed a socialist to take power.

Jon Limjap

I cannot believe I totally missed out on these two excellent posts torn. As even I am guilty of many of the points you raised (hah, my wife sometiems accuses me of being too dependent on my parents, which only steels my resolve to get out of our borrowed abode sooner rather than later), I could do nothing but agree. Vehemently.

Great post!

Sam C

Two wonderful posts Torn.

I think it's a very perceptive point that "Catholicism reinforces a more general social consciousness... [that] poor Filipinos are convinced they will always be poor". This contrasts really vividly with my experience of societies in north asia (China and Vietnam) where growth and change is very rapid, and the expectation of a majority of the population is that their children will not remain poor. That fundamental difference creates enormous differences across society, and particularly in relation to familial expectations and familial relationships. There are also huge cultural differences between the Philippines and its northern neighbours, but you have touched a key point in the entwined relationships of religion and perceptions of social consciousness.

I'm not sure what Hunter said, but I was reminded of a quote, which I'll paraphrase as: "when I was a child I was amazed at how much my parents knew, as a teenager I was amazed at how much they'd forgotten". A purely western viewpoint? That poem from Phillip Larkin really sums up the extreme of decay in the parent-child relationship in the West, which seems to be reinforced in so many ways - structure of education, career paths, tax and income structures, art, media, advertising - it is almost a given now that a child should have some 'issues' with their parents, even if they maintain a civil relationship. How sad.

And as to the "child-like qualities" within Filipino culture - it seems to be in part a coping mechanism. Is maintaining that facade a symptom of the continued problems with development, or a cause?

Perhaps Cog has more to offer on that?

torn

Jon and Sam — Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

A very honest self appraisal Jon! However, as several commenters have implied, there are advantages to the Pinoy approach (largely in the stronger family structures) and problems with the Western model of independence.

Sam — I think you put your finger on it, an expectation of "growth and change" versus the probability of stasis.

In the end though, I think it is the absence of real economic development (rather than the influence of the church) that determines this mindset. The Pinoy view of a static world is very much a pre-Industrial-Revolution viewpoint. In the UK at least, once the factories started rolling the so-called Whig view of history (that everything is getting better all the time) started to prevail, even though for many people industrialization actually made people worse off. This view was satirized even at the time, e.g., in Candide, but belief in a better future remained dominant in Western thought.

I also completely agree with your thoughts on the screwed up Western family — as you say, the generation gap is now so embedded that you are made to feel weird if you don't have "issues with your parents.

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