El Filibusterismo, plus Friday night Platonic self-promotion

by John Holbo on August 7, 2009

Yglesias and Drum had a back-and-forth about the constitutionality, morals and manners of the filibuster. I think more hay should be made of the fact that ‘filibuster’ does not, as one might expect, derive from the name of some thoroughly American, corn-stuffed, long-winded Senator from a nigh-unpopulated state. (‘The Senate now recognizes the honorable Horatio Wheatbender Filibuster, from the great state of …’) No, as wikipedia explains: “The term filibuster was first used in 1851. It was derived from the Spanish filibustero meaning pirate or freebooter. This term had in turn evolved from the French word flibustier, which itself evolved from the Dutch vrijbuiter (freebooter). This term was applied at the time to American adventurers, mostly from Southern states, who sought to overthrow the governments of Central American states, and was transferred to the users of the filibuster, seen as a tactic for pirating or hijacking debate.”

I think it’s remarkable that the name basically derives from a word for a crime. So I think the thing to do is tar the Republicans as soft on piracy. Basically.

On the other hand, here are some further literary notes on the wanderings of this word. El Filibusterismo is a famous novel by José Rizal, a 19th Century literary hero of the Philippines.


Here’s another quote from Wikipedia. Rizal explains what it means.

Rizal had to define the word filibustero to his German friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, who did not understand his use of the word in Noli Me Tangere [Rizal’s first novel]. In a letter, Rizal explained: “The word filibustero is little known in the Philippines. The masses do not know it yet. I heard it for the first time in 1872 when the tragic executions (of the Gomburza) took place. I still remember the panic that this word created. Our father forbade us to utter it, as well as the words Cavite, Jose Burgos (one of the executed priests), etc. The Manila newspapers and the Spaniards apply this word to one whom they want to make a revolutionary suspect. The Filipinos belonging to the educated class fear the reach of the word. It does not have the meaning of freebooters; it rather means a dangerous patriot who will soon be hanged or well, a presumptuous man.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the word filibustero had acquired the meaning “subversive” in the Philippines, hence the book is about subversion.

This is subversion with a positive connotation. I am sure we can all agree that sometimes this or that existing political order needs a spot of undermining. Still, it is at least a mild paradox that, in the U.S. Senate, subversion – the filibuster – is, technically, part of the established order of things. (Like in that Powerpuff Girls episode, “Bought and Scold” in which Princess gets her dad to buy the whole town, then makes crime legal.) Ah well.

Now, on to self-promotion. As you may be aware I just published an intro to Plato book, which (joy of joys!) you can read and download for free here (free! free!) I mention this in part just to beat the point to death, but in part to inform you that – although apparently Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato went from not-yet-released to temporarily out-of-stock on Amazon, without pausing to be actually purchasable, they actually had 15 or so copies. They just all sold. More are on the way. (Hey, it’s not quite Harry Potter, but I do have friends and family y’know.) What I am saying is: if you buy it, it will come. Pretty soon, too. And there’s something else as well. I would like people to be able to adopt it for course use. My publisher is the Asian branch of Pearson, so – if you are in North America – you might think it’s just too much hassle to get that in your bookstore, if even Amazon can’t seem to manage it. Well, email me. I talked to my publisher about the situation. There are stacks of books. If people want them, there ought to be a way to swing it. (I know, that’s probably not you. Still, it would pain me if anyone out there actually wanted to buy my book but reasoned that it was trans-pacifically unavailable.)

In other self-promotion news: if Plato isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe you would like this J&B post about the sexy sexy fonts of Squid and Owl. I think fonts are very sexy.



chris y 08.07.09 at 1:22 pm

So your original Filibusters were a bit like Tories then. It all falls into place.


Frank 08.07.09 at 3:58 pm

Well, I never! Alistair Cooke recited persistently the ‘Senator Fillibuster, from the gallant south’ bollocks!


David 08.07.09 at 8:28 pm

I for one wish that the press would quit equating a threat to filibuster with actually filibustering. Although, why risk engaging in the real thing when spineless Democrats shit their pants at the mere whispering of the word. Just once, I wish they would call the Republicans’ bluff and make them filibuster. I think the Repubs would tuck tail and fold in under a week, if not a day or so. Most of the legislation Obama needs only requires 50 votes and Biden.


Salient 08.07.09 at 8:38 pm

David, I’ve long been convinced that having to cede to the “threat” of filibuster is very much preferred to having to admit they don’t actually want to pass the legislation all that badly. It’s easier to defer to arcane parliamentarian rules than it is to admit you don’t want to have to vote on a bill that might compromise your reelection campaign coffers. It’s easier to get reelected if you can paint your opponents as obstructionist and blame the problems on them — it’s much riskier to actually pass a legislative solution to those problems, because then you’re on the hook, not the obstructionists. If I were Chris Dodd I’d be buying Max Baucus and Mike Enzi flowers, you know?


John Holbo 08.07.09 at 9:10 pm

“Alistair Cooke recited persistently the ‘Senator Fillibuster, from the gallant south’ bollocks!”

Really? I’m reinventing the wheel?


minnesotaj 08.07.09 at 9:46 pm

Happy to see Rizal here, plus: my wife is related to one of the Gomburza (I forget which) & her great grandfather (as mayor of Cavite) was hanged by the U.S… which is to say: we’re all filibusteros in our house.

As for irony involved in Republican hijacking of debate, overthrowing of Central American governments, and freebooting &cetera & so on: seriously? What I love about our current moment is watching that crowd get more and more bold about saying what they mean.


Phil 08.07.09 at 10:28 pm

Speaking of self-promotion, here’s a bit more on Rizal.


rea 08.07.09 at 11:57 pm

Just once, I wish they would call the Republicans’ bluff and make them filibuster.

That’s a myth. The Democrats would have to keep a quorum of senators available for a quorum call, while the Republicans would only have to have one senator present at a time. Under those circumstances, very obviously the burden of an “actual filibuster” falls heaviest on the party trying to end it, by a considerable margin, so that’s why it isn’t done.


Moby Hick 08.08.09 at 12:42 am

“…thoroughly American, corn-stuffed, long-winded Senator from a nigh-unpopulated state.”

On behalf of Williams Jennings Bryan, nerts to you.


Yarrow 08.09.09 at 1:16 am

By the way, when you sign up for Issuu they they ask you to put in your email address and password in order “to find people you know”.

That can’t be good.


jholbo 08.09.09 at 1:37 am

Hmmm, that is slightly concernful. But they aren’t asking for your email password. They aren’t going to read your mail. If you only ever give them your issuu password, to download my PDF, then forget about it, then you really haven’t given them any information. The idea is supposed to be that it is a social network thingy, like Facebook. They want you to have a shelf where you check in and see the things your ‘friends’ have published. I don’t think this will ever be a successful model for them. Because people don’t publish substantial works the way they leave idle comments.

If I am missing something, and there is actually something sinister about issuu, I am willing to be corrected. I’m not contractually obliged to use them or anything. My publisher wanted me to use some technology that allows me to keep reasonable track of downloads and visits. That, combined with the nice interface, was what I wanted from Issuu.


Glen Tomkins 08.09.09 at 1:42 am

You can’t tar people with association to behavior they admire

Uh, sorry, but the current Republican Party tends to approve of American adventurers, mostly from Southern states, taking over governments by force. It’s bad enough when they confine these activities to Central American countries, but it’s really alarming when they get carried away and begin their charity at home, as in 1860, and (let’s hope not) today.


mart 08.09.09 at 3:16 am

it’s really alarming when they get carried away and begin their charity at home, as in 1860, and (let’s hope not) today.

But, but….Teh Mooslim Joker Soc1alist has to be stopped!

I think they should replace the filibuster with Going Galt. It’d be win-win all round.

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