Mar 172013



Roland G. Simbulan

(A book review of The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons by Abe Ignacio, Enrique de la Cruz, Jorge Emmanuel and Helen Toribio, T’Boli Publishing, 2004)

This review was read during the book launching of the book at Popular Bookstore, Quezon City, Feb. 5, 2005.

      The parallelisms and similarities are all too striking. A blatant invasion of an independent country by the same imperial power claiming to liberate it.  A national liberation movement formed by the people whose country was ravaged and whose resources are plundered by the invader. An escalating cultural war in trimedia by the imperial power to portray the local freedom fighters as terrorists and insurgents, even criminals.  The events of today in one part of the world and those during the Philippine-American War constitute an interesting repeat of events.

      Inside the Pentagon building in Washington D.C. which houses the nerve center and headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense is a listing of wars and conflicts where the Armed Forces of the United States have been involved.  Two of these conflicts where U.S. soldiers died in combat, “The Philippine Insurrection, 1899-1902” and “The Moro Wars, 1901-1913”, are engraved on the walls of the Pentagon. Can someone tell us how the defenders of our duly constituted republic could become “insurgents” in their own country against a foreign invasion force?  Can someone tell us how the 126,000 U.S. troops sent to invade this country could become the duly constituted authorities that relegated the Filipino people’s resistance and their constitutional government to being merely an “insurgency,” lasting for 15 years and taking the lives of 600,000 to a million Filipinos who were killed in massacres, tortures, pillage and wholesale destruction of villages? If those events were transplanted today, they would have probably added the terrorist tag to our “insurgent” countrymen. This is again an interesting parallel of the present events unfolding  in the  war for oil.

    Exactly 106 years ago, on Feb. 4, 1899, the United States invaded our country based on a false claim that Filipinos had begun attacking American soldiers in Manila.  The first shots were actually fired by an American soldier as Filipinos crossed a bridge. Documentary evidence now points out that it was all actually a prearranged plan by the United States to start the invasion and occupation of the Philippines as soon as this premeditated incident was provoked.  Misled by false reports, the U.S. Senate passed a treaty to annex the Philippines.  Many more false reports and distortions were to come. Filipinos had to be portrayed as savages—barbaric and primitive—who needed to be civilized and Christianized to fit in U.S. President McKinley’s “manifest destiny.”   But publicly at least, McKinley forgot about his actual dream for overseas markets and raw materials for the American industrial tycoons.

      Many Americans and Filipinos have lost touch with their history, and in this thought-provoking but entertaining book, the authors explain why.  Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, sheer misinformation and outright lies, the book becomes an antidote to the myths of early Philippine-U.S. relations, the bloody Philippine-American War.  It resurrects the passion, conflict, and drama of our scarred past.  Many books have for too long perpetuated the distortions. As William F. Buckley, Jr. once wrote, “History is the polemics of the victor.”

     Let us begin with a close look at caricatures and political cartoons in the American mainstream media that are a form of entertainment aimed at adult viewership. Political cartoons were and are still important tools in the ideological battle, especially for those trying to restructure the world according to their worldview and oil-greased lenses. The images of propaganda used by both pro-imperialists and anti-imperialists during the Philippine-American War reflect the various protagonists in those times. But through caricatures and political cartoons, stereotypes are widely used to represent peoples and their nations, even in a distorted way.  The old stereotype of the “primitive and barbaric peoples of the colonies” contributes most to the overall demeaning representation of a colonized people, even as political cartoons in U.S. media have been an effective agent in molding public opinion. But political cartoons, to be effective, need to have good timing, and an ability to seize upon a critical moment when passions are high.  The most telling political cartoons are said to be those that reflect public opinion, and even those against the annexation of the Philippines or resistance to it.  But there are those that can also effectively manipulate public opinion as they distort events, and weave myths, and therefore help the cause of those with colonial ambitions.

The grand ambition of imperial powers is to create a cultural infrastructure that would hold firm the dominant imperial policy frameworks that would shape the values, ethics and morality of the times no matter how distorted.  Perhaps, the failure of U.S. occupation in Iraq today is caused by its inability to come to terms with the reality of Arab nationalism.  It is a failure that has only increased America’s moral and political isolation in world politics.

    For its forthrightness, this book is unprecedented. The authors reach into the core and fabric of American media and argue that aggression was clearly camouflaged by the imperial policy-makers of the United States.  They contend that by relying too heavily on military forces, the invaders grossly underestimated the determination and aspiration of the local people to chart their own course.  They set out to show this in their readable style and this is the main success of this book.

     The authors foresee that these experiences at colonial techniques will further push the invaders to further imperial ambitions like the Roman legions or Macedonian armies that pressed on and on until they were too thinly spread out in their empire. The Philippine-American war makes the authors reflect on future imperial adventures.

     In principle, the authors may be right.  But their carefully constructed and meticulously researched book still does not manage to convey how, at its most atrocious level, the United States exercised its terrible power over those it colonized.  Cultural warfare, even in political cartoons, has the tendency to overemphasize “soft power.”

      The authors have divided their attentions so judiciously between the content of their political cartoons on the one hand, and their analyses of the events, that they leave themselves no time for greater reflection.  Such reflection would have been helpful in explaining the consequences of these policies for those on the receiving end.

     The core of the book’s contentions is how could a country established on the ideals of republican democracy become an autocratic imperial power itself?   The book looks first at the slave trade, the Indian Wars and moves on to the annexation of Mexico.  All throughout, it takes particular aim at the locomotive of the expansionist designs of industrial capitalism for markets and raw materials.  At the end, it examines the roots of American imperialism.

     Brimming with insights into the beginnings of American imperial policy overseas, this book reconstructs an era that was to shape and refine U.S. intervention in the modern world.  Through political cartoons in an era when the colonizer itself worked to hide the truth from the American people about the forgotten war a century ago, it restores for the present generation a past marred  by misinformation, racism, blind patriotism and outright lies.  It is a thought-provoking education about the miseducation of the American people by arrogant imperial leaders whose successors never seem to learn the lessons of history.  This is a particularly relevant book which makes it essential reading for the present generation of Filipinos and other colonial subjects of the modern Pax Americana.

      It is said that we must never judge a book by its cover. But I must admit that one of the important centerpieces of this book is its attractive cover taken from the June 1899 issue of “Judge” magazine.  The man in the cartoon titled “The Filipinos’ First Bath” is U.S. President William McKinley.  “Oh, you dirty little boy,” he says standing in the waters of civilization, and about to scrub the Filipino with the brush of education. The McKinley administration aggressively promoted the idea that Filipinos were children incapable of governing themselves, thus justifying annexation of the Philippines by the American visiting forces.  This is a typical example of what Americans saw in editorial cartoons and caricatures of their newspapers and magazines, usually accompanied by racist language that labeled Filipinos as “gugus”, “niggers” and “monkeys”, and reinforced by events such as the 1904  St. Louis World Fair, where Filipinos and native peoples from other countries were displayed as uncivilized and savages.

         But, ah, it is the highly entertaining and illustrative creativeness, its insightful interpretations of the samples of political propaganda, coupled with a powerful sense of history, that makes the Forbidden Book a worthwhile read.



The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Feb 22nd 2005



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