OPINION: Orphans of the Pacific – the Philippines

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at Jun 29 2019 04:39 AM

Such was a very succinct appraisal/description of the country just before the outbreak of World War II, a few months before Pearl Harbor.

It is also the title of a book by an American author, the full impact of whose critique may have been stunted and shunted into the dustbin of current affairs then, as a consequence of concerns over the ensuing war that was to dominate the tempo, tenor and conduct of life in the country.

Curious about what our country was all about, midway through the Commonwealth era?

There is hardly any handy literature packaged into a volume that is available today. In fact, none of our present crop of historians and even social commentators have endeavored to present today’s Filipino with what his forebears, leaders and their proximate pre-independence times were all about. Would it not be of great interest to vicariously live through those times? And see for ourselves if we have learned lessons of the past and matured as a people?

“Orphans of the Pacific” is one such source. Singular, I might say. In Mid-1941, “Orphans of the Pacific – the Philippines” by Florence Horn was published by Reynal & Hitchcock, which is now defunct. The book is 316 pages with an accompanying album of 32 black and white photographs. It was originally priced at $3.50.

It is possible that the Filipiniana Book Collectors Club, which maintains a Facebook page, might have this volume available in their ensuing exchange/buy and sell traffic. There are still several original, but used copies available and they are priced in the range of $30.00 to $45.00. Curiously, “print-on-demand” copies are even more expensive. One printer quotes $176.00 and the others less, but still costlier than the available originals. Having written in the previous blog about the sudden skyrocketing rise in the price of Col. Arturo C. Aruiza’s book on the last days of Marcos, after its mention on the ABS-CBN News internet portal, I thought I would check with “abebooks.com” and see what happens next!

There is not much that is known about the author Florence Horn, except that she is supposed to be a staff-writer for Fortune Magazine. Obviously she traveled throughout the islands to undertake the reportage. I seem to remember of idle talk among Manila’s older literati and cognoscenti during the late 1950s and early 1960s that the book was inspired and perhaps, even bankrolled, by Filipino and American interests opposed to Quezon’s politics and the forthcoming promised independence in 1946, such event being thought of as too premature. There too was the unverified canard that Florence Horn was a pseudonym of an anti-Quezon Manila journalist.

Might the erudite columnist Manuel Quezon III, Manolo, care to shed some more light on Florence Horn and her book? After all, the book was a biting critique of our Commonwealth president, his grandfather.

The book is regarded as a real appraisal of the state of Philippine politics, economics, public opinion, social and other problems midway through the Commonwealth years. In many parts the author parlays a critique and caricature of personages, mostly politicians, notably the “flamboyant and hypnotic president-dictator, Quezon."

The Philippines Free Press, through its pre-war correspondent James G. Wingo, described the volume as “one of the best books ever written on the Philippines….” combining “factual information and entertaining reading.”

Indeed, in my estimation, harking back to a time about which very few of today’s elders would even still have familiarity with, Florence Horn seems to have captured every facet of Philippine life, social, religious, political, economic and military. If only the book were readily available!

Here is a little teaser, an excerpt comparing the two top most political leaders of the country: Quezon and Osmeña. Florence Horn referred to them as “Two Mestizos.” I derived amusement from the following. I am sure, you also will.

“Sergio Osmeña has poise, the natural dignity of a person who always feels at ease, plus, perhaps, some of that ancient and inscrutable calm possessed by all the Chinese. Manuel Quezon is volatile, explosive, short-tempered and unpredictable. Osmeña’s manners are invariably patrician and gentle. Quezon today has the too-effusive manners of an elegant Spanish don and tomorrow will behave with the petulant rudeness of a spoiled brat.”

“Osmeña is subtle and cautious, never entirely reveals his thoughts, can conceal his hurt pride completely when he has been ignominiously defeated, knows well to bide his time patiently for a comeback. Quezon acts and speaks impulsively, contradicts himself from day to day, depending on his mood and the person with whom he happens to be speaking.”

“Osmeña dresses simply and quietly. Quezon loves expensive clothes…”

And don’t we quote often enough that famous Quezonian political diatribe—”Better a government run like hell by Filipinos than one run like heaven by Americans?” According to Florence Horn, such thought was not even a Quezon original. The expression was a takeoff from Jacob Schurman. We recall, in some history lessons of our past schooling, that the Schurman Commission was tasked by President William McKinley to study the Philippines in preparation for a colonial civil self-governance. Well, in 1902 Jacob Gould Schurman of Cornell University was quoted to have said: “Any decent kind of government of Filipinos by Filipinos is better than the best possible government of Filipinos by Americans.”

How odd that such a staunch display of celebrated Filipino nativist nationalism has an imprint of an American import!

It seems to me that the reason that “Orphans of the Pacific,” the fact that it was a frontal attack against President Quezon’s person and politics, did not bloom into a “cause celebre” in mid-1941 was because of the emergence of the war with Japan.

Some seniors in our midst may recall the “furor in a coffee mug” that was stirred by the Atlantic Monthly’s article, “A Damaged Culture” by American essayist James Fallows. I thought then that Fallows’ essay was a pretty concise mirror image of us in the time that the analysis was handed down. In fact, not much has changed since. I did not consider it an affront upon my being Filipino. Despite all the whining and hurt pride, in hindsight James Fallows has been proven on point.

That Atlantic Monthly article was written in November 1987 when we were still euphoric heady about having kicked out the previous rapacious regime. The essay came across with a devastating analysis of Philippine society and it did hurt being confronted with the truth.

“Orphans of the Pacific,” albeit pretty dated today, still spoke much truth. It spoke truth to then prevailing political power. And between its pages, it still might so speak in much of the Philippines today!

The factual information gathered and insights shared by Florence Horn in her book deserve a serious review by our peers and leaders. And by the concerned, discerning and righteous. Learning from the past is never wasteful.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.