Saturday, March 10, 2012

l. 6021 -- “unconscious victims of modernity”

Five hundred American school teachers arrived in August 1901 on a ship named the Thomas. They became known collectively as “Thomasites” (l. 5194). They acted as a proto-Peace Corps, and left behind a rich collection of writing, diaries, and letters home, chronicling the ups and downs of teaching in a far-off land and providing a rich vein for historians. “Within the first three years, twenty teachers died of dysentery, cholera, or smallpox, six were murdered by bandits, and one blew his brains out” (l. 5404). Thomasites have a Wikipedia page as well as many articles on the Internet documenting their experience.

The US put the Philippines under the control of the “Bureau of Insular Affairs” in the War Department, and made certain that the word “colony” and its variants did not appear in official documents.

The US also embarked on other unorthodox actions, including redistributing former Catholic lands, effective legal reform, local autonomy, and compulsory English-language instruction. (Mr. Dooley: “We'll larn ye our language, because 'tis easier to larn ye ours thin to larn oursilves ye'ers.”) The population doubled between 1900 and 1920, and the literacy rate climbed from 20 to 50 percent (l. 5231). Eventually, the Philippines had the highest literacy rate in Southeast Asia (l. 5304). Education of women caused conservative Filipinos to term their youth “unconscious victims of modernity” because they could be seen “walking out alone” with “a handbag under the arm, just like bold little American misses” (l. 5347).

Education (l. 5504) and infrastructure building (l. 5580) followed familiar paths, starting when someone would come in with a great overarching idea. When the idea failed to produce the promised spectacular results, a new visionary arrived on the scene with a new Big Idea to replace it. While no scheme fulfilled its promise, there was a slow but steady increase in desirable outcomes (in addition to educational improvements, there were more roads, better harbors, increased railway mileage, cleaner water for more people, lovelier cities, freer press, et al.). However, there were always examples of inappropriate schooling, unwise road construction, graft, poor central planning, and so on, and to this day there are people who live without electricity, plumbing, and other conveniences of modern life.

Taft brought in experts to impose order on the patchwork of Spanish, Mexican, and US currencies then abroad in the Philippines (l. 5569). Battling US partisans of gold and silver every step of the way, Taft eventually introduces a dual currency of gold and silver pesos, each worth fifty US cents (l. 5573).

Improvements in health brought by American doctors were remarkable. Smallpox and cholera were virtually wiped out and malaria drastically reduced. “By 1914, the year after Taft left the presidency, Manila's death rate had dropped to twenty-three per thousand population – nearly half of what it had been when he first landed in the city” (l. 5569).

For reasons not always altruistic (e.g., special interests looking to limit cheap imports), Congress limited land acquisitions by Americans to 35 acres for individuals and 2,500 acres for companies (l. 5860), which sabotaged the traditional colonial pattern. Even influential US rubber companies found themselves unable to purchase enough land to begin a profitable operation. Occasional successful attempts to circumvent the law (including one which involved land Taft had bought himself and sold at a great profit) brought big headlines and Senatorial outrage (l. 5900). The law also had the unintentional effect of concentrating land ownership more completely in the hands of the indigenous elite, a group of approximately 60 families that retained power at least until the time of the writing of the book (l. 5917) and probably still retains it.

At the time, the US had high tariffs on foreign goods, which caused some legal hand wringing. Were the Philippines part of the US or not? As part of the 1898 treaty, Spanish goods in the Philippines were subject to the same duties as US goods (l. 5952) for 10 years, so it was agreed that duties would not be reduced until the decade had run its course. The Supreme Count further muddied the waters in May 1901 by delivering a decision that said that, for tariff purposes, Philippines was neither “foreign” or part of the US, meaning that Congress had to specifically legislate on this topic (l. 5954). In 1909, as a tiny part of a contentious larger debate on trade and tariffs, Philippine products were granted duty-free access to the US (l. 5987). By the 1920s, American was buying nearly every ounce of Philippine sugar and coconut oil (the latter used to make WWI-era explosives), and most of its tobacco and hemp (l. 5992). However, the benefits of free trade did not often trickle down to the average person. Later, Filipino politicians charged that free trade was a device to increase economic dependence on the US (l. 6015).

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