Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)

There can be no tyrants where there are no slaves. ~ Jose Rizal

For Americans committed to understanding and resisting the unrelenting erosion of liberty by an increasingly totalitarian State, the transformation of the American sociopolitical milieu during the 19th century, particularly following the watershed War Between the States, remains a phenomenon of particular and abiding significance. For while the case can be made that certain aspects of the problems that eventually emerged were unwittingly seeded by the very founders of our republican system, in retrospect there can be no mistaking a sudden acceleration in the growth of Leviathan commencing from the outbreak of America’s bloodiest war. After 1861, America was increasingly run (in fact, if not in the letter of the law) according to a different set of rules from those that had operated prior to the war. Domestically this was manifested by expansion of federal government powers at the expense of state, local and individual rights. The international corollary of this was America’s increasingly imperialistic and interventionist approach to foreign affairs in the 20th century. Such interventionism would never have been possible given the set of spiritual and cultural values predominant among the founders of the republic. That Americans throughout the 20th century generally tolerated the federal government’s illicit expansion of power, both domestically and internationally, indicates a major transformation of popular values.

I was recently struck by a sublime irony that helps illustrate how radically the face of America was transformed, both at home and abroad, in the span of a few decades, as we approached the 20th century.

Recently, when provided a link to Alabama’s Secession Convention Flag, emblazoned with the phrase "Noli Me Tangere" (1861), I was immediately struck by the irony of the slogan and the date. For I had just learned through a close Filipino friend that 1861 also marks the birth of Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ most famous and extraordinarily multi-talented patriot (among other things, he was an eye surgeon, competent in 22 languages and a skillful artist). In 1896, at the age of 35, this genius was executed as a traitor by Spain, largely due to the alleged "seditious" influence of his classic novel of sociopolitical satire, Noli Me Tangere. This novel, published in 1887, not only inspired the Philippine Revolution but also nationalist movements in China and other countries of Southeast Asia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here is a brief excerpt from it describing a cockfight. This novel was followed in 1891 by an angrier and more passionate sequel, El Filibusterismo (Subversion), which established his reputation as the leading spokesman of the Philippine reform movement. Although Rizal, a Freemason, endeavored to expose the abuses of the Spanish friars who ran the Philippines, it appears that it was never his intention to leave the Catholic faith. Basically, he was martyred for telling the truth: rigid control of the flow of information and communications between the Filipino masses and the outside world was vital to the friars’ maintaining power, and a master of communications like Rizal was seen as a direct threat to that control.

The irony is that as Rizal’s compatriots were in armed uprising  against Spain (Rizal himself consistently sought for reform of Spain’s oppressive colonial policies rather than for outright independence, as he felt the bulk of Filipinos – deliberately kept illiterate as a matter of colonial policy – would be incapable of self-government), they turned – against Rizal’s advice – to the United States of America for assistance, believing that America would honor Philippine independence. After all, was not America free from the imperialist ambitions of the European nations? Would not military occupation of the Philippines be contrary to America’s own constitution? And would not America be sympathetic to the Filipino cause, having recently fought a war "to end the evil of slavery"? Surely America would free the Philippines from the yoke of Spain . . .

If Rizal’s compatriots could have seen Alabama’s Secession Convention flag emblazoned with the same phrase that was inspiring the Filipino fight for national sovereignty and local self-rule, perhaps they would have recognized the folly of expecting the United States to come to their aid out of altruistic motives. The very fact that America would be willing to deploy military forces there should have been a red flag warning the Philippines that our intentions there were less than noble. Indeed, although Cuba and Puerto Rico were far closer to America’s shores, there was no valid compelling reason for military involvement even in those territories. (The still-controversial notion of deliberate "Spanish sabotage" of the U.S. battleship Maine, trumpeted incessantly by the warmongering Pulitzer and Hearst press, runs contrary to common sense, as Spain had every reason to want to avoid a war with the U.S.A. in America’s own backyard.) However, compared with military adventurism in a totally unrelated archipelago on the opposite side of the globe, involvement of our forces in Cuba and Puerto Rico seems downright reasonable. But be that as it may, by the late 19thcentury the U.S. government was already well-versed in the fine art of riding roughshod over both the spirit and letter of the constitution, and the Philippines discovered too late that they were simply trading a Spanish yoke for an American.

This nascent American imperialism, begun under McKinley and enthusiastically carried forward by Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Albert Beveridge, met widespread – though hardly universal – approval in the USA. Both domestically and abroad, many prominent figures vocally opposed the new America. Rizal’s close friend, the great Austrian academic Ferdinand Blumentritt, was active in lobbying Washington for Philippine independence, and other prominent members of the Anti-Imperialist League, including Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain , William James , and many others protested vigorously against what they viewed as a perversion and abandonment of great and quintessentially American ideals. The degree of success the Anti-Imperialist League enjoyed in influencing American foreign policy is evident from the subsequent course of events in the 20th century. In other words, they accomplished little: popular support of imperialism among the American people was overwhelming. The result was the annexation of the Philippines by the U.S.A. and the longest war in American history, producing, by some estimates, in excess of half a million casualties, and during which we were at times met with such stubborn resistance that we required the development of a more powerful military pistol and even "improved" torture techniques.

Of course, despite its objective repugnance, what America did during those early years in the Philippines was hardly unique at the time, or even uniquely cruel. America had already witnessed the horror of anti-Christian "total warfare" against our own fellow Christian citizens in the War Between the States. Before us, Spain’s rule of its overseas territories had been highly oppressive, especially under the friars in the Philippines. While America was putting down the Philippine "insurrection," the Anglo-Boer War was unfolding as a bloody shooting match between fellow Calvinists, complete with concentration camps, in order to secure African mineral wealth for Cecil Rhodes and his cohorts. China had long since been subjugated through unequal treaties and Japan was having its way with Korea. Back then we were all "equal opportunity oppressors." It was not a world in which the cry of "noli me tangere" was likely to be respected unless it could be backed with a sufficiently painful bite for any would-be violators. (The Swiss have traditionally done a good job in this department.)

Against this backdrop, despite getting off to a terrible start, American control of the Philippines eventually came to be, overall, an improvement over Spain’s – although that isn’t saying much: implementing more draconian colonial policies than Spain’s would have been quite a challenge. And given the fact that Japan and various European powers were standing by like vultures ready to pounce in case America decided to relinquish its hold on the Philippines, it is doubtful whether Philippine independence could have been maintained in any case. In the classic The Political Doctrines of Sun Yat-Sen (Johns Hopkins Press, 1937), Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger (also known to science fiction fans as Cordwainer Smith) reports that Sun Yat-Sen – who was sympathetic to the Filipino nationalist revolution and perhaps better informed than any contemporary leader save Woodrow Wilson – had a high opinion of American rule in the Philippines, at least as compared with the earlier Spanish rule and what other colonial powers were doing to other East and Southeast Asian countries (pages 186-187,200). Still, what did that ultimately yield? After liberating the Philippines from the Japanese (whose rule during WWII the Filipinos disliked even more than the Americans’), we granted nominal independence but maintained a massive permanent military presence there. Overwhelming American domination of the country, and perpetuation of deeply ingrained political corruption, continued until after the fall of the Marcos regime.

Today the Philippines is still, in many respects, a basket case. President Aquino, who came to power after Marcos’ fall, tried to implement some "land reform" measures – the untouchable "third rail" of Philippine politics – but little changed, for better or worse. President Ramos, who followed her, thought it prudent to just ignore the landless peasants and pretend the problem of grossly lopsided land ownership didn’t exist. (Time and the free market could eventually resolve this issue, but politics are often hostile to both.) Then the Filipinos proved the old adage that people get the government they deserve when they stupidly chose as their next president Joseph Estrada, whose primary qualification for public office was popularity and fame from his acting career; this "champion of the poor" proved to be inept at everything except lining his pockets with kickbacks from illegal gambling operations. Now Estrada has recently been ousted and replaced by Gloria Arroyo, whose rise seems to have been choreographed by the nation’s elites.

The Estrada fiasco points to another pressing problem, although one hardly unique to the Philippines: the need for educational reform. How can a sound democracy exist amid massive ignorance, where people elect a person not on the basis of his competence, but because he is a well-known and popular movie actor? (I know, we haven’t been doing much better with our own selection of presidents in the U.S., and it is scary.) And how can meaningful educational reform occur if it must come through the efforts of a corrupt and inept government?

What this suggests is that the most fundamental reform required by the Philippines is in the spiritual attitudes of each person. The battle for transformation of society is a battle for the hearts and minds of individuals. As Lawrence E. Harrison has pointed out in his books, Underdevelopment is a State of Mind. True, during five centuries of colonial rule, Spain and America did the Filipinos no great favors. We did not do a good job of imparting skills, values and attitudes conducive to effective self-government. However, "that was then and this is now." Now it is incumbent upon the Filipinos themselves to build with what they have been given. The same is true for both today’s America and the Philippines: unless there is a widespread change of peoples’ hearts, so that people are essentially self-governing (i.e., in terms of internalized principles),the alternative will be either chaos or tyranny. Simon Bolivar’s final judgment on post-colonial Latin America, in 1830, applies not only to modern Latin America, but also to the Philippines, and increasingly even to modern America:

"I was in command for twenty years, and during that time came to only a few definite conclusions: (1) I consider that, for us, [Latin] America is ungovernable; (2) whoever works for a revolution is plowing the sea; (3) the most sensible action to take in [Latin] America is to emigrate;(4) this country [Great Columbia, later to be divided into Columbia, Venezuela, and Equador] will ineluctably fall into the hands of a mob gone wild, later again to fall under the domination of obscure small tyrants of every color and race; (5) though decimated by every kind of crime and exhausted by our cruel excesses, we shall still not be tempting to Europeans for a reconquest;(6) if any part of the world were to return to a primeval chaos, such would be the last avatar of [Latin] America." (Quoted in Carlos Rangel’s The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship With the United States , p. 6; I got it from Harrison’s book above.)

In the end, it all comes down to Rizal’s remark: "There can be no tyrants where there are no slaves." The person who is truly self-governed – who internalizes and willingly submits to God’s commandment to love God with all his heart and to love his neighbor as himself – is the man who is truly free, who cannot be enslaved. As declared by the other side of the Secession Convention Flag, he is truly "Independent Now and Forever." The man who cannot govern himself in this fashion is already a slave, of his own passions at the least. Such a man is simultaneously both slave and tyrant, because the heart of the slave and the heart of the tyrant are essentially one and the same; the label worn depends solely on whether he coerces, or is coerced. The truly free man will seek to extend his dominion over others, but it will be a dominion exercised through mutual voluntary submission (service) rather than through coercion. When the inward hearts of enough men in a society are self-governed in this way, the outward reality will eventually change to reflect it in every sphere, including domestic politics and international relations: ". . . they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid." (I love Calvin’s exegesis of this verse.) This is the real long-term key to recovering liberty in relations among both men and nations, whether we’re talking about Montgomery, Manila, Moscow, or Mogadishu. We need to get out the missionaries again, but this time without the military in tow.

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