The Trouble With Harry: The US ambassador’s puzzling sex tourism slip
SAN FRANCISCO—U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas has apologized for saying that 40 percent of male tourists in the Philippines are really just after sex.
But that didn’t really answer the question: Why on Earth would an American ambassador make such a stunning claim, especially since he did so without backing it up?
But first, a basic premise: The U.S. ambassador’s role is to protect and advance American interests. He or she should never be expected to protect and advance Filipino interests. Only the most naive Filipinos would think otherwise.
Which is what’s puzzling about this controversy — what unstated American interest was Ambassador Thomas (before his mea culpa) trying to defend or advance by making such a statement?
Was there some American strategic plan, some tactical objective involved in Harry’s decision to highlight the widely-known fact that sexual exploitation is a problem in the Philippines?
After all, the American presence in the Philippines has, historically, involved sex. For decades, U.S. military forces turned Clark and Subic into two big R&R centers for US servicemen, many of whom got away with treating Filipino women like trash.
So what was Harry’s stunning declaration all about? We may never fully know. The U.S. Embassy and Malacanang both want to put this behind them.
But I have my own theory, my own take on the roots of the mess Harry got himself into. I actually think the US Ambassador’s error had nothing to do with American interests.
I suspect his misstep was based on impulses that had little to do with his diplomatic career.
In fact, I think the American ambassador messed up because he forgot that he’s the American ambassador. That he momentarily forgot that it’s not his job to weigh in on social issues that may be serious concerns to him and to Filipinos, but which ultimately are not relevant to Washington.
You can almost hear the lecture Ambassador Thomas got after his serious diplomatic faux pas.
‘Listen, Harry, we know Filipino women and children are exploited by vulture-like foreign visitors. Okay, so you’re upset about it. But, for crying out loud, Harry, you’re the American ambassador. You have other things to worry about.
‘ Like making sure Manila remains safely in the orbit of American influence, ready to play the pawn in geopolitical games.
‘Like making sure those pesky activists complaining about the environmental damage we left behind at Subic and Clark don’t get anywhere with their silly campaign.
‘Who cares about the exploitation of Filipino women and kids, Harry? Now, apologize and get back to work.’
Sure enough, Harry apologized.
But somehow, I have a feeling he didn’t really feel like saying sorry.
Because based on tidbits from his life story, Harry probably said what he said because he was angry.
I suspect Harry made such a bold claim because he was disgusted. Because he was so offended by the idea of these male tourists coming to a poor country to exploit women and children.
One can even sense that anger in media reports in which Harry adamantly declared that there’s no way he’s going to apologize.
“I’m not going to apologize,” he said in news reports. “I will never apologize for trying to combat child sex. I will never apologize for trying to combat children being forced to labor. I will never apologize for trying to help children in Smokey Mountain.”
From what I’ve read about him, Harry Thomas is not the typical American ambassador.
He’s the first African American to become boss of that sprawling embassy along Roxas Boulevard. And I’m willing to bet that he’s the first US ambassador who actually knows and understands the plight of people of color.
This was fairly evident in a June interview in the Philippine Star interview with F. Sionil Jose.
It’s an interesting exchange.
Thomas told Jose about how his “father was a typist” who used to “dig ditches.” He talked about growing up in the late 60s and early 70s “in the militant era.” He talked about being influenced by the great African American writer Langston Hughes.
“But not only Langston Hughes,” he said. “A lot of them were what we called the Dream Team at Howard University, but also in Harlem. So those were our great writers. There’s a great literary tradition in all American communities: the Irish, the Latinos. A lot of novels come out of pain and struggle and some are humorous. My father believed in us studying everything and so we read the classics in literature, but we clearly also read history by African-Americans.”
And in a remark I found striking, given the intense homophobia in the African American community, the U.S. ambassador appeared to argue that another great African American writer, James Baldwin, should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but that he didn’t “because he was gay.”
And Harry knew only too well the horror and humiliation African Americans endured during the time of segregation – when Blacks were prohibited from mingling with Whites. (Filipinos endured the same prejudice in California where some hotels displayed signs saying ‘No dogs or Filipinos allowed.’)
“I never was on a segregated bus,” Thomas said, “but I, we had to take the trains down South to my grandmother’s and on the train, you had to sit in the back. … But we had a lot of fun because we were with our cousins; we were eating and playing and it didn’t matter. People would throw coins at us to say, ‘You aren’t worth anything.’ ” I wanted to pick the pennies up, my cousins wouldn’t let me pick them up.”
His father, he said, taught him “that you shouldn’t be bitter, that you shouldn’t have rancor.”
His mother showed him how to fight back, by being part of the non-violent movement for change. “She always went to all the marches,” he said, including the historic 1963 march to Washington DC led by Martin Luther King.
And that’s the trouble with Harry.
The American ambassador was a child of the American Civil Rights Movement, a son of brave people who led one of the most inspiring and successful campaigns for human rights in history.
It’s a chapter in US history, by the way, that Filipinos here in the U.S. should really acknowledge and celebrate — for we and other communities of color benefited from the struggles and sacrifices of people like Harry’s parents.
Could the U.S. ambassador’s comment about male sex tourists be based on the historical outrage in the African American community over the way Black women were abused, even raped, by slave owners?
An odd twist in this controversy is how some Filipino politicians hit back at the US ambassador by accusing him of insulting Filipino women — when clearly the group Harry most likely offended are men visiting from overseas.
In any case, Harry has said he’s sorry. So Manila and Washington can move on.
Harry has learned his lesson. No more speaking off-script. No more social commentaries. No more expressing hints of outrage over the way poor, historically oppressed peoples are treated.
So, as far as the power-wielders in Washington and their allies in Manila are concerned everything should be okay now.
Apparently, Harry has come to his senses. He’s snapped out of it.
Although for many Filipinos in the Philippines and here in the U.S. it would really be more interesting, even exciting, if Harry did speak off-script from time to time.
On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel
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- Aquino’s fumbled message on artists and drug abuse
- Aquino and the heckler
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