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 that...it'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.