Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Isles of Unwisdom

According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a "hick" is a "disapproving" noun defined as follows:

American English: "a person from a rural area who has little knowledge of culture and city life".
British English: "a person from the countryside who is considered to be stupid and without experience".

I live on a tiny island - one if the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines. You cannot get very much more remote from what is commonly called civilization unless you were in an Amazonian backwater, sub-Saharan Africa, or Antarctica. The Bounty mutineers chose an island called Pitcairn as their ultimate hideout because it had a latitude on the maritime navigational charts of the time (probably those made by Captain Cook), but no accurate longitude. To find it, they had to reach the north-south line and sail east until they finally reached it in 1790. Knowing there was nowhere else to go without being discovered and certainly hanged, they burned the ship. In 1808, an American sealer called the "Topaz" found the sole survivor of the mutineers, John Adams, living amongst a small population of Anglo-Tahitians, the most that the tiny wild island could support.

I didn't burn my ship when I reached my island, but I might just as well have. Census takers have visited my house a few times over the years, making sure not to count me among its inhabitants because I was a "porriner" and proud of it. The islanders among whom I live are, strictly speaking, hicks. They were born here, raised here, and, even if they are lucky enough to find a job somewhere else, they will most likely die here, since Filipinos traditionally seek out their place of birth when they feel the approach of death.

These islanders are somewhat less isolated than they were before the bridge connecting their island to a much bigger one to the south was constructed, and they have certainly become interconnected by the insidious proliferation of cellphone communications. But they retain their status as hicks, in my opinion, because they remain "probincianos" - provincials in a physical as well as a psychological sense. All they know or care to know is the extent of their tiny island, its volcanoes and surrounding waters, and the limited view of the world that their horizon presents to them.

These people live in a kind of darkness that I have written of before. Instead of hearing a rumor about an impending tropical storm and checking the internet, which is available here (how else am I writing this to you, dear reader?), or perhaps checking a weather channel on cable TV (which I regard as a necessity), they will join everyone else they know and hurry into the nearest town to stock up on provisions like rice and canned goods. The source of the rumors along what we porriners call the "bamboo telegraph" is never divulged.

So these islanders cannot be blamed if their view of the rest of the wide world beyond their horizon is a little distorted or downright false. Their very isolation from the outside world exonerates them from the responsibility of making sense of it. For example, most of my neighbors call all expats, whether they are European, American, or Australian, "Canos" (short for Americanos) and believe that Berlin and Toronto and Sydney are all cities in America.

I have been writing film criticism since my first year of college, when I submitted examples of my critical acumen, such as it was at the age of eighteen, for extra credit in my English 101 class. The kinds of films that I chose to write about (exclusively at the time) exposed me to the charge of reverse-provincialism - a term Stanley Kauffmann coined in reference to writers like Graham Greene, who deliberately sought out the most exotic locations for their stories to attract readers in humdrum places like Des Moines. I wrote about what were once known, somewhat contemptuously, as "foreign films," but now fall under the equally contemptuous moniker "art films."

The reason why I wrote about films from places other than Hollywood was because of the resentment that was aroused in me, and that I still feel somewhat, when I discovered Federico Fellini's La Strada at the age of thirteen and learned something that no American film I had seen by then had taught me: that film was an art, that it could be a medium as profound and as rich and as deeply moving as a Hardy novel or a Mahler symphony. In the years following this discovery, I found many other films of equal value - a whole world of films that I had not known existed. And it was these films that inspired me to write criticism.

I suppose that I am guilty of the late Mr. Kauffmann's accusation of reverse provincialism. He was guilty of a provincialism of his own - a New Yorker who looked out of the world, and on the rest of America, with a sense of superiority, whether or not it was earned. But I am rather happy that this attitude has also affected my politics. My understanding of both Liberalism and Conservatism - Progressives and Reactionaries - is broader and more complex than the attenuated versions practiced in America. This is both an advantage for Americans and a disadvantage. While Americans have never faced the extremes of the Left and the Right - Communism and Fascism - they are ignorant of politics any more extreme than Walter Mondale or Ronald Reagan.

This election year, however, Americans have been treated to greater political extremes - a bonafide Socialist who has come in second for the Democratic nomination and a anti-immigration, isolationist neo-fascist who has won, or so it seems, the Republican nomination. If this means that the average American voter is better educated than he once was, it has done nothing to quiet the nerves of many observers (including myself) who fear a victory in November for the presumptive Republican who is prepared to do what America has never done in its history - pull back from its international commitments, put the brakes on legal immigration, deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and build a BIG wall all along the border with Mexico. All these things are indications of a serious withdrawal from the world back inside well-demarcated and well-enforced borders - the borders of an insular and isolationist America. It looks to many Americans like the party of Abraham Lincoln is about to hand over its nomination to a man who would bring back slavery if he could.

Yesterday, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted by a small majority in a referendum for exiting from the European Union for alot of the same reasons why the American presumptive Republican nominee is running for president. A new provincialism, resistance to immigration, a reversal of globalization (which many voters, mostly working class, feel has betrayed their interests) is driving this political trend. In a real sense, they are right to feel betrayed because their governments have failed to push forward fiscal reforms that can counterbalance the loss of jobs. As politicians have let go of their control of their economies, they somehow believe that, by relegating their authority, they can also relegate their responsibility. None of this is a reason for abandoning or dismantling the process of globalization, if using the money and power of developed nations to help lift backward countries (like the Philippines) onto their feet is what it is really about. But the motive behind globalization may not be entirely noble. I don't believe for a second that it's altruism that wants to lift people out of abject poverty. It may be nothing more than an attempt to create markets where they didn't exist before. But ending poverty, for whatever reason, is a positive good from which every one of us on the planet can benefit.

The people I live among on my island are genuine provincials. Their view of the world is severely limited. But they have an excuse for living in the dark. No one who lives in Europe or the U.S. - not even residents of the remotest Romania or in backwardest Mississippi has such an excuse. The people who voted for Brexit and who support Donald Trump are too sophisticated to pretend that they're as stupid as they seem. Something else motivates them. A hatred of politics, of the responsibilities of citizenship, of people who don't look like them or think like them. They feel extreme nostalgia for simpler times, when it was acceptable to be uninformed and excusable to be wrong. Most of them, we're told, have never voted before. But if they care so little for being right, for doing what they know in their guts is the right thing, then the right to vote and every other right of citizenship in an advanced, successful nation is wasted on them. They should be exiled, as ancient Rome once did, to an island such as mine, far from the pleasures and advantages of their culture.

The Isles of Unwisdom (stupidly retitled The Islands of Unwisdom for those Americans who maybe weren't aware that an "isle" is an "island") is an historical novel by Robert Graves, published in 1949 - a highly fictionalized account of an ill-fated Spanish expedition that sailed from Peru in 1595 bound for the Solomon Islands and the diamond fields rumored to be there, ripe for the stealing. After sundry misadventures, the expedition, sans its captain and most of its conquistadors, makes it only as far as the Philippines, not far from where I write this.

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