An Essay Review of Two Books by E. San Juan, Jr.
by Prof. Mike Viola
Seattle, Washington, USA
“The oppressor elaborates his theory of action without the people, for he stands against them. Nor can the people – as long as they are crushed and oppressed, internalizing the image of the oppressor- construct by themselves the theory of their liberating action. Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders – in their communion, in their praxis – can this theory be built” (Freire, 1989, pg.183)
In his famous book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire contends that the fundamental theme of our epoch is one of domination. As a radical intellectual, he came to this conclusion in his engagement with the barbaric realities of state terrorism, impoverishment, and forced disappearances throughout Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. In an act of courageous scholarly intervention, Freire outlined a method and practice for the actualization of freedom. His pedagogical approach takes the standpoint of the marginalized, with the belief that such groups are not only more insightful but also more motivated to change the circumstances of their oppression. Furthermore, Freire’s pedagogy was an act of communion to address not only the questions the oppressed sought to answer but also a commitment to act in the transformation of the very forces that constrain their emancipation. Freire would certainly agree with the observations of Terry Eagleton: “History would be transformed by its most contaminated products, by those bearing the most livid marker of its brutality. In a condition in which the powerful run insanely rampant, only the powerless can provide an image of that humanity which must in its turn come to power, and in doing so transfigure the very meaning of that term” (qtd. in San Juan, 2007b, pg. 65).
The multidisciplinary writings of Filipino cultural and literary theorist, E. San Juan, Jr., continue the Freirean project and the vision of the world’s most marginalized that seek a lasting peace and a fuller humanity. Through an internationalist and historical analysis of the conditions challenging Filipinos, E. San Juan maintains that it is only in struggle that racialized groups can see beneath the surface of unjust social relations. In the Filipino struggle for national liberation, (a project that dates back to, at the very least, the Filipino-American War in 1898) emancipatory forms of knowledge production are in the process of becoming.[i] However, an authentic education that seeks to maximize human potential – as opposed to the profit for a small few– can only be realized in transcending the social relations of capitalist production (McLaren, 2005a; McLaren 2005b). For E. San Juan, this enormous task is not possible without a critical understanding of social class as a relation of owning land and human labor.
E. San Juan’s latest foray of writings, which interweaves an analysis of nationalism, culture, class, race, and history, has important implications for critical pedagogy. In particular, the infusion of E. San Juan’s work to the archive of critical educational theory provides the discipline of education with a needed internationalist scope to interrogate the globalization of racism or what Manning Marable calls a “global apartheid.” Under global apartheid today, the logic of a master race (“herrenvolk”) is embedded in unequal political and economic exchanges that impoverishes the vast majority of people in the countries of the “Global South” (Marable 2004). The Philippines is one such country devastated by policies of structural adjustment, privatization, as well the ongoing presence of the United States military to buttress the native administrators of neocolonialism. Using E. San Juan’s recent books, In the Wake of Terror and U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines as my axis, I embark on a project to “filipinize” critical pedagogy to link a historical materialist orientation of critical pedagogy with the transformative activities of Filipinos in a global diaspora. It is my belief that such an approach provides an important standpoint to counter the shallow strategies of multiculturalism in the United States and the unbridled racism most evident in U.S. “wars of terrorism” that haunt people of color throughout the world.[ii]
In The Wake of Terror: Class, Race, Nation, Ethnicity in the Postmodern World
In The Wake of Terror: Class, Race, Nation, Ethnicity in the Postmodern World, E. San Juan provides a powerful assessment of various mainstream theorists who speak to the issue of ‘race.’ In fact, his comprehensive analyses of theories that examine racism are often sharp and unforgiving. Such critiques are not made to belittle left leaning theorists who undoubtedly have a genuine desire for racial justice. Rather, E. San Juan’s writing is an effort to push theory away from a state of either apologetics or paralysis towards a living instrument for concrete social change.
This book is an important resource to understand how academic understandings of ‘race’ have become consumed in interstitial alibis and nuanced enigmas. E. San Juan argues that if intellectuals continue to turn their backs on the historical specificity of racialization and the role such processes play in the retention and enhancement of capitalism, academia will be nothing more than a site for the production of methodologically sophisticated projects that are ineffective when put into practice. Such research projects will encourage the merriment of cultural difference but will ultimately lead to dead ends in realizing racial justice so long as the structural configuration of capitalism is left unexamined and unaltered. E. San Juan’s thesis is clear, “I urge that we focus our attention on contradictions, not on consensus, the ensemble of economic and political contradictions that underlie the racializing process in society (145.) His pedagogical lesson is especially important to incorporate in the field of education as exchange relations between various cultures are often theorized as reciprocal; but in reality the social, political, and economic relations between the people of such cultures are anything but equal.
E. San Juan points out that the understandings of “culture” and “identity” remain largely disconnected from asymmetrical power relations immanent in the lived experiences of communities of color throughout the United States. As a result, the mainstream logic in urban schools in solving the problems of racism and ethnic conflicts are the various strategies of multiculturalism. The fight for a genuine multiculturalism, where one ethnic group or culture does not dominate U.S. society, is in fact an important political project. However, can such a vision truly exist within the present economic system? For the ideas of a diverse and democratic society to be realized in not only one’s mind but also in the physical world, E. San Juan is adamant that we interrogate the totality of capitalism and the contradictions of history. Yet, with the marriage of multiculturalism and neoliberalism the reality of racial oppression in U.S. history is erased and replaced by celebratory lip service to the ideas of identity and difference. The brutality of history evident by the genocide committed against Native Americans; the enslavement of African Americans; the colonization of territory from the peoples of Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines; and the systematic appropriation of Asian labor is rendered discontinuous from the social realities of the present. Consistent with his earlier writings, E. San Juan will not allow us to forget this past (San Juan, 2000; San Juan, 2002; San Juan 2004). Linking his incisive historical analysis to the barbarism of our present, In the Wake of Terror is an important warning post to the current theorizing of ‘race.’ Specifically, if critical pedagogy does not address racism in tandem with the social structures that sets racism’s virility in motion – capital accumulation and class rule – then social theory will be an impotent instrument to address the racism that seethes our present day institutions of criminal justice, housing, healthcare, and education.[iii]
We can turn to the current educational debate in Arizona to examine how multiculturalism divorced from an anchor of history and the material processes of wage-labor exploitation can morph into the opposite of what is intended. By foregrounding Arizona’s current struggle over educational curriculum, E. San Juan’s penetrating analysis is difficult to refute. Specifically, E. San Juan claims that the present manifestation of “multiculturalism may be conceived as the latest reincarnation of the assimilationist drive to pacify unruly subaltern groups” (San Juan, 2007a, pg. 136). In April 2008, Arizona Republican Russell Pearce introduced Senate Bill 1108 (SB 1108). This bill would prohibit public schools in Arizona from teaching course material deemed counter to “American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” Furthermore, this xenophobic legislation would prohibit public schools, community colleges, and universities from allowing student groups to operate if its mission, in any way, is organized around the criteria of ‘race.’ Republican John Kavanagh was reported as saying that he hopes this measure would return cultural studies in Arizona to a “melting pot” model where various ethnic groups “adopt American values.” SB 1108 is a rallying point for those wary of the present condition of America’s social fabric. It is a nostalgic attempt to return to a supposed time period when success was based on the values of individualism, hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance. Such logic espouses “American Exceptionalism,” where U.S. democracy translates to amity and good will to all humanity and equal opportunity for all within its borders. Within this framework, the desire is to renew the values of a “color-blind” American society, especially since the struggle for racial justice reached its successful zenith at the end of the civil rights movement. With such ahistorical reasoning, all that remains is for political pundits to carry out their fascist-type experiments in order to coerce the socially defective and culturally aberrant to adjust to a capitalist status quo.
One of the most important essays in In The Wake of Terror is titled “From Racism to Class Struggle.” In this piece, E. San Juan engages the concerns of Richard Delgado, one of the architects of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Reflecting on the work done under the banner of CRT, Delgado states, “I’m worried that the younger crop of CRT theorists are enamored by the easy arm-chair task of writing about race in the word and not race in the world…A new movement is needed” (qtd in Cole, 2007, pg. 117). After reviewing the historical context of CRT’s formation (the 1970s and 1980s), E. San Juan recommends that a transformative movement is feasible through CRT’s incorporation of a Marxist understanding of class. E. San Juan argues that CRT is unable to fulfill its objectives of promoting racial equality and institutional change within the United States because it does not make the necessary connection to move us towards challenging the system on which racism and racialization feeds. While adamant that not all individual instances of racism are reducible to the economy, E. San Juan argues:
“A study of racist practices and institutions, divorced from the underlying determinant structure of capital accumulation and class rule that allow such practices and institutions to exercise their naturalizing force, can only perpetuate an abstract metaphysics of race and a discourse of power that would reinforce the continuing reification of social relations in everyday life” (101).
Over the past two decades, CRT has made inroads into various disciplines but outside of the United States it is relatively unknown. Surely, ‘race’ relations in the history of the United States carries a unique position and deserve special emphasis. However, E. San Juan makes the prudent observation that because CRT leaves relations of production untouched it is unable to adequately come to grips with pressing issues worldwide. Such issues include perpetual “wars on terror,” and a globalized racism (i.e. Islamophobia) that keeps a U.S. populace compliant to ruling class motives of global profiteering. Sociologist John Bellamy Foster reminds us that at no time “can we turn our backs to the worldwide impact of racism, militarism, and imperialism nor forget that capitalist societies are historically associated with all three” (Foster, 2006, pg. 35 ). Let me now turn to E. San Juan’s recent book on the Philippines, the neocolonial laboratory of the United States, where the torment of racism, militarism, and imperialism is felt everyday. It is in the Philippines where a vibrant critical pedagogy can be found among a people tempted by the ideas of freedom and national liberation.
U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines
For those wondering why critical pedagogy needs to engage the history and present-day realities that E. San Juan unearths in U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines, I make the argument that educators have a responsibility to understand the world in which they are preparing future generations to live and work. In the 21st Century, we exist in a world of global capitalism. Therefore, if Paulo Freire is an important intellectual that educators can draw upon to understand an epoch of capitalist domination in Latin America, then E. San Juan is the intellectual we can turn to in our attempts to transform the current epoch of imperialism and racism in the Philippines.
Radical educators throughout the world have turned to critical pedagogy and the specific writings of Freire as a valuable resource for locating the roots of injustice as well as the sources for future liberation. The internationalist frame of critical pedagogy has drawn primarily from the standpoint of Latin America struggle. Unfortunately, the history of military repression, forced disappearances, and widespread impoverishment in Latin America has been recreated in the present tense–Philippine-style. U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines is invaluable book for not only shedding light on the atrocities taking place in the Philippines but also to demystify what binds the project of U.S. Empire.
Various critical theorists have argued that the mainstream preoccupation with postmodernism in academia serves as an ideological support for global capitalism and the New Imperialism (Wood, 1997; Harvey, 2005; McLaren, 2005). E. San Juan builds upon their arguments with a particular focus on the Philippines as a contested site for “globalization.” His writings are always welcome, as “the Philippines remains a tell-tale gap or omission in the public understanding of world affairs” (San Juan, 2007b, pg. xxi). E. San Juan maintains that if Philippine history and its relationship to the United States are at all examined in academia, triviality and mysticism have polluted the intellectual atmosphere, allowing white supremacy and exploitation to become acceptable points of view. Utilizing a class-based analysis, E. San Juan’s essays foreground important issues such as language, indigenous struggle, and nationalism as useful sites for a project of humanization in the Philippines. His utilization of historical materialism as a tool to study the concrete conditions in the Philippines counters the superficial labels of economic determinism and dogmatism commonly made against such an orientation. The author maintains, “the whole or totality of history is an ideal but it does not necessarily dictate a necessary future – the future depends on what we do at present to realize it” (pg. 125). Accordingly, E. San Juan is not concerned with absolute truths but with social change for Filipinos in a global diaspora. There is some overlap within the two books. However, due to E. San Juan’s theoretical complexity and his use of a historical archive not commonly drawn upon in area/ethnic studies, the repetition in his essays can be advantageous.
U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines notes the important task for scholars to critique neoliberal configurations of the state, which maintains a monopoly on available force and institutionalizes the pilfering of a country’s natural resources. However, the author maintains that a critique of corrupt presidential leadership alone cannot address the roots of Philippine injustice and deprivation. Without an understanding of workings of U.S. Imperialism and its inbuilt tendency for growth and spatial expansion, blame can be directed towards a nascent Filipino nationalism and a supposedly sovereign populace for their inability to elect moral leadership. E. San Juan contends that because power has been widely accepted as diffuse and virtually independent of class struggle and politics, “post-al” theories run the risk of regurgitating a “white-supremacist triumphalism” (pg. xxvii).
The case of the Burgos family serves as an educative case in point to the historical atrocities confronting a Filipino polity and the role theory must play in elucidating such conditions. Edith Burgos is the widow of Jose Burgos, a journalist who was integral in the launching of opposition newspapers at the height of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. In 1982, the Philippine police detained Jose in an effort to suppress and intimidate dissident voices. Despite threats to his life, Jose survived and would later receive the 1986 International Journalism Award of the Inter Press Service for his dedication to the ideals of press freedom. In his acceptance speech, he said: “If I had my way, I would rather that this award should go to each and everyone of the Filipino media men who were killed or who vanished during those years of unspeakable oppression.” Twenty-two years later, Jose’s wife, Edith Burgos is alone in search for her son, Jonas, a present-day “desaparecido.” Jonas Burgos is an agriculturist who advocated for farmers’ rights in the Philippines. He was reported abducted by elements of the Philippine military in April 2007. His situation is one of the highest profile cases of the more than 300 forced disappearances and over 890 Filipino victims of extrajudicial killings since the U.S.-supported Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001. To be sure, the atrocities that continue to torment the Burgos family and countless other Filipinos is not some discursive aberration that can be understood outside of history and divorced from the logical consequence of an economic order and its political manifestations. E. San Juan’s writings serve as an important reminder that “theory to be intelligibly valid cannot exceed the limits of reality” (pg. 151). What’s more, for a valid theory to be transformative it cannot be locked within the corridors of our mind but embodied in our collective action.
Critical pedagogy has much to learn from a long history of liberatory praxis in the Philippines. The activities of Filipinos in a global diaspora who are learning about the world, not simply by reflecting upon it but by changing it, is an invaluable resource to augment critical pedagogy from the ground up. The “filipinization” of critical pedagogy provides educators with an archive of practice and theory that educators “can dare use, test, enrich, and appropriate for a future waiting to be born.” A future of universal human rights, global economic justice, and peace where genuine expressions of democracy and multiculturalism can flourish may seem a utopian dream. While the future is never guaranteed, with a “filipinized” critical pedagogy we can gain strength in an awareness of a longstanding Filipino struggle that is stubborn in its refusal to accept that something so desired and necessary is not worth fighting to attain.
[ The two books by E. San Juan reviewed here are: In the Wake of Terror: Class, Race, Nation, Ethnicity in the Postmodern World. Lanham: Lexington Books (2007); and
U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2008). ]
[i] Two important pieces highlighting the Philippine American War include: Constantino, R., &
Constantino, L. R. (1975). The Philippines : a past revisited. Quezon City: Renato Constantino
and a more recent publication by Foster, J. B. (2006). Naked imperialism : the U.S. pursuit of
global dominance. New York: Monthly Review Press.
[ii] The term, term “wars of terrorism” is borrowed from the writings of Roy, A. (2003). War talk (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.
[iii] The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) recently criticized the United States for its two-tier society that negatively impacts America Indians, Blacks, Latinos, and other racial minorities. (See: http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/03/12/7626/)
Cole, M. (2008). Marxism and educational theory : origins and issues. London ; New
Constantino, R., & Constantino, L. R. (1975). The Philippines : a past revisited. Quezon
City: Renato Constantino
Foster, J. B. (2006). Naked imperialism : the U.S. pursuit of global dominance. New
York: Monthly Review Press.
Freire, P. (1989). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Harvey, D. (2005). The new imperialism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University
McLaren, P. (2005). Capitalists and conquerors : a critical pedagogy against empire.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
McLaren, P., & Farahmandpur, R. (2005). Teaching against global capitalism and
the new imperialism : a critical pedagogy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
San Juan, E. (2000). After postcolonialism : remapping Philippines-United States
confrontations. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
San Juan, E. (2002). Racism and cultural studies: critiques of multiculturalist ideology
and the politics of difference. Durham: Duke University Press.
San Juan, E. (2004). Working through the contradictions: from cultural theory to critical
practice. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.
San Juan, E. (2007a). In the wake of terror : class, race, nation, ethnicity in the postmodern world. Lanham: Lexington Books.
San Juan, E. (2007b). U.S. imperialism and revolution in the Philippines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wood, E. M., & Foster, J. B. (1997). In defense of history : Marxism and the
postmodern agenda. New York: Monthly Review Press.
“Measure backs ‘American values’ in state schools.” By Howard Fischer. East Valley Tribune. Accessed April 29, 2008. [http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/114048]
“Plan targets anti-Western lessons: Some fear loss of diversity in lawmaker’s education proposal.” By Matthew Benson. The Arizona Republic. (Accessed April 29, 2008)