Friday, February 10, 2006

The Last Wowowee Post

Rational Technology for Feb 12, 2006

In keeping with the season, I ought to write something about romance and technology, something I had been saving specifically for Valentine's week. Or I ought to write about street food culture, a topic which popped up in a conversation with a friend. Or, really, just about technology, of which this column is supposed to be about.

Instead, I find myself compelled to weigh in once more on the Wowowee tragedy. I've written about it twice already in my blog. And with the amount of eloquent commentary on the event, surely it's a waste of pixels and column space to flog the issue any further.

But I can't help it.

I find myself wondering why it has struck such a chord in my thinking. Not just me, apparently, as half the Filipino blogosphere has mentioned it one way or another.

It's not as if it's the first fatal stampede to happen in the Philippines. It's not as if we had a higher death toll than other stampedes elsewhere. It's just's the first stampede to involve a game show. Only in the Philippines, as they say.

It would be so comical if it weren't tragic. Thirty-thousand people, camped outside a stadium for days -- for days! -- leaving behind their occupations, just for a sliver of a chance at game show prizes. And in that merry atmosphere, a whisper of a rumor, a thoughtless announcement, a deluge of humanity, and then, death.

It rankles at the conscience because, for all the promise of call center careers, of the strengthening peso, of increased investor confidence, there's a slice of humanity for whom all these means nothing and will continue to mean nothing. The mirror of truth has been thrust at our faces, and we see that we're really not all that we thought ourselves to be.

It's easy enough to meet one of the Wowowee crowd and chalk up their misfortunes and misplaced hopes to laziness, to poverty, to misinformed choices, or to just plain bad luck. It's easy enough to chalk them up as an anomaly. It's easy enough to scoff at the statistics as the error of fudged numbers. But then to be suddenly faced with the reality of Wowowee? You know that something is terribly wrong.

The obvious and unimaginative reason behind Wowowee is desperation born out of poverty. These people, they say, were there because they wanted just a little bit of hope in an economic situation that was hopeless.

I will argue that this thinking is superficial and wrong.

Wowowee shows the fault lines along which our society is divided. To be sure, wealth and poverty are the primary distinctions, but these are merely symptoms and not the cause. I believe it is more than that: the very way of thinking, living, and acting between one side and the other has become so alien as to be near-irreconcilable.

Curse me as you will for being an insensitive and elitist clod, but I will say that there was nothing normal or decent about the crowd before, during, and after the Wowowee incident. Normal people do not spend a week waiting in line for a game show. Normal people do not fall over themselves over tickets. Normal people will not demand that the show go on over the bodies of the fallen. Normal people will not seek guaranteed participation in the contest as amends for their injuries.

This goes well beyond a simple case of poverty. People do not abandon decency just because they are poor. Rather, it's a way of thinking that has become so deeply ingrained in this section of society that it must have taken generations to form; that, in fact, it might have some historical basis, something heretofore ignored and unrecognized in the Malay distinctions of maharlikas, timawas, and alipins on which our customs and traditions are really founded. For what is the Wowowee crowd if not the ancient alipin cast forward in time? Endowed they may be with modern trappings, yet they still think like slaves.

Yet if there is nothing decent about the way the Wowowee crowd acted on that fateful Saturday morning, neither is there anything decent with their puppet masters acted before and after the tragedy. There is nothing decent in playing on the hopes of the desperate, simple folk; there is nothing decent in compensating the bereaved with P10,000 worth of cellphone load. There is nothing decent in which the blame is cast hither and thither; and there is nothing decent in the way they hope this will dissipate (as it surely will). But isn't that the way of kings? Endowed they may be with modern trappings, yet they are still disdainful of the dignity of those beneath them.

What of us who are neither maharlika nor alipin, but caught somewhere in between? Can we call ourselves normal and decent if we disclaim responsibility, laugh off this incident, and live our lives as we lead them?

Wealth and prosperity alone, I'm afraid, will not solve the problems of the Wowowee caste. Really, what is a million pesos if you still think and act like a slave? Only a brief respite in a vicious cycle of poverty.

If nothing else, they were there because their imagination failed them. They could not think of a dignity that goes beyond dependency on a smiling benefactor. They could not imagine a destiny which they could chart on their own. They could not write a story of their lives beyond what the untalented scriptwriters write for them. They do not have the capacity for self-expression beyond "mabait", "masama", "tulong", and "awa."

To lift them out of their malaise, we need to give them -- no, rather, they need to acquire -- that capacity for dignity, imagination, and self-expression. These are the gifts that are worth more, much more, than a million pesos. These are the gifts that people like Bill and Diane Pool of One Candle Schoolhouse, Anna Lou Suan and Sven Erich of GP Rehab, Yong Gyun Kim of Vortex, and so many others bring. We in the middle, these are the people we need to become.

And what of our modern-day maharlikas? They need to find a heart, and that, I'm afraid, is not nearly so easy.


  1. Of course, the minute I submitted a comment on your previous post about Wowowee, this article came up. :-)

    Let me just reiterate, despite the hand-wringing about Wowowee and its implications about our culture, we should not forget that the *vast* majority of Filipinos are decent, hard-working men and women.

  2. True, true, but we need to be able to find a purpose and a vision for ourselves. I mean that for everyone. Otherwise, that decency and hard work will just be for naught.

  3. hi, dom.

    this is more related to your post on arroyo's teaching geography. pero remotely connected na rin dito.

    ay, 'ngapala, i think gloria did teach at UP, at the UP School of Economics. though i didn't catch her there. i suppose i should be thankful.

    they've renamed the Econ Auditorium the Macapagal Auditorium, parang ganu'n. basta pangalan nila. i don't know what she contributed to help this country's economics. Some People's economic standing maybe, but definitely not Ours.

    where was i?

    geography! juzko. haha.

    i was wondering why she asked for countries to the West. tutuo. these are dated distinctions from a colonial past. itapon na dapat mga 'yan. we are our own people.

    at bakit nga "West"? parang itinuturo pa mga bata du'n, eh. ala, masaya du'n, kikita kayo du'n, pumunta na kayo du'n. not that i'm denigrating our ofw's who Are making sacrifices for their families. just that the social and economic conditions here force you to look for "greener" (as in greenbacks) pastures. in quotation marks. not that other countries are "greener". kelangan lang ng social support dito.

    the "West"? dapat magsimula dito, sa bansa niya. she should ask our Filipino children something native to her country, to the students' country.

    ewan lang talaga. hay.

  4. Amen to that, Oli, amen to that.

  5. hi dom, someone put your Wowowee post on a mailing list and it elicited some pretty harsh reactions. here's a snippet of one:

    "Was this essay meant to show a 'refreshing way' of looking at the lower classes? Because this seems to me just a reinforcement of the long persisting idea that the poor are poor because it's their fault. They couldnt' get jobs because they are "lazy, dishonest and drunkards". Apparently, according to the author, these people are are also made of different material! "Let's face it: these people are not like you and me." This reinforcment of the us (privileged) versus them (underprivileged) is wrong. Instead of attacking them and pointing fingers at each other, we should think of ways to alleviate their poverty and develop sustainability for the whole country. And isn't poverty SUPPOSED to be the evidence of the State's inefficiency and ineffectiveness and not the source?! We have high unemployment rates because of lack of jobs not because these people *chose* to be unemployed. Nobody chooses to stay poor. The author emphasizes the *choice* of these people, but really, how much freedom of choice do they have? What other alternatives are there that the author fails to mention?

    i'll invite them to comment on your blog instead.


  6. my own 2 cent's is that i hope you're not blaming these people for their mindset because it seems like you are.

    while the wowowee mob may have been irrational to some, there is perfect rationality there. it's consistent with the choices the poor make, that is, spend more on cellphone load than food or more for alcohol than for birth control.

    anyway . . .

  7. Hi, JJ, good to hear from you.

    Wow, you've invited an angry mob to come to my site. I don't know whether that's good or bad. Ha, ha, seriously, if they care to post their opinions, so much the better. As I've said elsewhere, I am still groping for answers. If contrary comments help me find a better view of things, then I'd be thankful for it.

    No, sir, I am not blaming these people for their mindset. I'd rather look at long-submerged and ignored cultural tendencies. We've spun our wheels long enough on the economy and government inefficiency and corruption as the cause. I want to know, I really want to know: why? Why are we like this? What drove those "poor" people (and some, apparently, not-so-"poor") to camp out for days at the ULTRA? What kept the other "poor" people toiling on at their jobs, forgoing the promise of instant riches? Why? Why? Why? And more importantly, how can we fix this?

    However, I'm a little disturbed by your statement:

    > it's consistent with
    > the choices the poor make, that is,
    > spend more on cellphone load than food
    > or more for alcohol than for birth
    > control.

    Aren't you now blaming THEM for their mindset? And on the basis of being poor? Aren't you the one making that judgment?

  8. am i blaming them?

    absolutely not.

    i think when you're poor, you make decisions which appear irrational to other people.

    economists will tell you that the urban poor live in the slums by choice. you may not think so but consider the fact that many of them have the option of returning to the provinces where their standard of living is superior. but they stay in manila.

    as you point out, people chose to line up outside ULTRA for days. it's perfectly rational because people really don't know how to measure probabilities. if they did, noone would play lotto, buy a sweepstakes or place a jueteng bet.

    consider this: you're sitting in a room with 4 other people and someone waves a P1,000 note and gives you the following choice: either he will give each of you P200 or he'll raffle it off to one winner. which would you prefer?

    if you have a preference, then you're not thinking straight. rationally, you should be indifferent to either choice -- the weighted pay offs are the same.

    the same thing is at work when the lotto prize goes up beyond P100M. doesn't it make you want to line up to buy a ticket? well, that's irrational. the odds are above 1:54million. the chances of winning is so slim, it's not even worth the trouble. the more people playing doesn't make your chances any better. it may make it worse if other people bet the same number combination. but you're lured by the prize. and you say "to hell with the odds."

    the wowowee crowd did exactly that.

    i'm not assigning blame, i'm describing a rational choice.

  9. Very thought provoking. I'm totally ingorant about the Filipino caste system, but in North America a lot of this behaviour is based on people wanting "something for nothing". It's a long standing illusion in the West perpetuated through activities like the lottery, and American Idol, that a pro-active approach to success is unecessary.

    I doubt that there's a cultural correlation, but thought I would mention it.

  10. G: thank you for visiting. "Something for nothing" is perfectly understandable. It's human nature. What's harder for me to swallow is why so many of my countrymen will stake their hopes on chance. Poverty is the favorite whipping horse, and I'm not so sure that's the right answer.

    Apparently, a lot of Filipinos are unaware of the caste system. Some will deny it altogether. I'm bringing this up as a framework for my thought, and, well, it makes a lot of sense to me. It also provides me with a framework for action different from oft-tried (and oft-failed) solutions.

    JJ: it's only rational in its irrationality; and therefore, ultimately irrational. If the Wowowee crowd was acting rationally, then does that make the people who did not camp out at Ultra irrational? How do we then come to a solution?


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