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.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Filipino caste system and the Wowowee tragedy

I have a theory, but I don't think that you're going to like hearing it. Heck, I don't want to have to be the one to say it, but since no one else is saying it, I might as well be the one to voice it out.

Here goes.

All the pundits who say that the Wowowee tragedy is the result of the extreme poverty in the Philippines is wrong.

Rather, extreme poverty in the Philippines is the result of a Wowowee state of mind.

We have got the whole thing backwards. It's an ugly truth but the sooner we come to grips with this, the sooner we'll fix things.

But whatever do I mean?

Take a look at the buildup to the event itself. For three whole days, you had people camped out like refugees outside the gates of the Ultra stadium. No proper lodgings, no proper sanitation, no proper breathing space; and yet they persisted.

Alright, you may say, but isn't that a sign of how desperate people are? Kapit sa patalim, as the old Filipino saying goes.

I disagree.

The people who massed at Ultra had alternatives. To be sure, not very attractive ones, but they had alternatives nonetheless. Hungry people do not sit around for three days in a festive atmosphere waiting for a ticket to a game show; they go out looking for food.

Yet they chose to sit it out.

They were people of some means, otherwise they would not have made it there at all. They would not have lasted three days without some form of provisions. Again, I agree with you if you say they didn't have much; but I will disagree with you if you insist that they had nothing at all.

They chose to sit it out.

What kind of insane value system prompts such behavior? It is one that banks on patronage and entitlement, that thrives on false hopes and dependency, and that feeds on the simple, immature sense of good and evil in the universe at the same time disregarding the nature of actions and consequences.

This is the world of the alipin, the lowest class of the heretofore conveniently ignored caste system of the Philippines.

Caste system, you say? There is no caste system in the Philippines!

Ah, and that's where you're wrong. As you read these words you are probably sitting in a nice office or a condominium. As you look outside, you'll see the skyline of Makati or the glitzy lights of Greenbelt or Eastwood or Ayala Center or Matina Town Square. The harsh reality of the alipin is several times removed from your own, the product of sordid telenovelas and government mismanagement.

But think back to the time that you personally encountered the worst in your fellow Filipino. What did you see?

My own happened several months ago during a fire in downtown Dumaguete. The blaze was strong, but thankfully, by mid-afternoon, the flames were extinguished and the embers in control.

I stopped by to see how things were going. Already, people were leaving the area, some with disappointed looks on their faces.

I would have chalked that up to my imagination if I had not heard one of them grumble out loud:

"Ay, pota--! Wala nadayon!

Aw, son-of-a---. The fire didn't come through!

I don't know what was going through his mind. Was he disappointed because he wouldn't see the spectacle he was expecting? Was he expecting to come away from the tragedy with some loot? I don't really know.

I am reasonably sure, though, that this is exactly the type of person who would line up outside the Ultra for three days, push the crowd forward in the stampede, and cry foul when they cancelled the show on account of the deaths because that meant he wouldn't get his tickets.

This is not the normal behavior of people we, the more privileged ones, deal with on a daily basis.

Perhaps I should mention some more.

Last Christmas, the squatters' area beside a friend's house burned down. My friend's family was spared, thankfully, but the squatters' houses were totally gutted. Hours after the fire, when the embers had cooled down, they started rebuilding. Nothing wrong with that, just your everyday Filipino resiliency. Indeed, nothing wrong.

What got me was that they actually had the will and the money to spend for fireworks and drinks on New Year's eve. Tuloy ang ligaya! Life goes on.

I don't know about you. For me, the normal behavior would be to take stock of what I still had and what I had lost, perhaps be a little more reflective of life, and start saving up for rebuilding.

Revelry-as-usual, after such a disaster, is not normal for me.

Several years ago, I was having my hair cut in a barber shop near a squatters' area. For some reason, the barber had become my regular one. Though I would sit the session out in silence, I couldn't help but be shocked at the conversation I overheard.

"That Pedro is so hardheaded. He insists on going to the beach with his friends! What if he drowns? It would be better if he were run over by a car; that way we might be able to get some money!"

I don't know if it was a joke or not. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. But even if it was a joke, I don't think money would be the foremost consideration in such an eventuality. That is not normal behavior.

Let's face it: these people are not like you and me. We live in one world, they live in another.

No, they're not bad per se. In fact, they are capable of suprising displays of tenderness and childlike simplicity at times. They just have a grossly distorted value system.

It's that value system that places material well-being ahead of everything else. It's that value system that defines a benefactor as "mabait, kasi tinulungan niya kami" (he's good because he helped us) on countless TV interviews. It's that value system which looks to immediate benefits, sacrifice for the future be damned!

You object: isn't this sort of thinking the result of extreme poverty?

Perhaps. But to this argument, I would add the element of time.

If every material possession were taken from you today, would you revert to such an existence tomorrow? How about next week? How about next month? How about next year? Would you find yourself lining up at the Ultra? Would you insist on getting your ticket as you stepped over the bodies of dead people?

Ask yourself -- sincerely! -- what you would be doing? Would you be demanding for that ticket?

Ah, you say -- maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, maybe not next month, maybe not next year -- but maybe after years and years of poverty and neglect, with no clear way out, such an action would be understandable. Maybe even I might find myself crying out for that ticket as I stood over a dead body.

And really, what have we just described -- years and years of poverty and neglect, with no hope, with no clear way out, living an existence that goes from hand to mouth -- but the lowest state in a system of castes?

It's easy to point out to the ineptitude of the government, the greed of businessmen, and the false hopes offered by the Church as the root causes of poverty. It's obvious!

What doesn't quite fit into the pattern is the fatalistic reaction to ineptitude, greed, and false hopes. Adding up years and years of oppression, the normal reaction would have been a bloody revolution. But where is that?

The revolution hasn't happened because the people who have cause to revolt have been inured to think that there is no hope, that the future does not rest in their hands, and that whatever change happens, things will still remain the same. So, indeed, why bother?

It's easy to point out to the Spanish administrators and the friars of the Catholic Church as the cause of this mentality. It's obvious! After all, weren't we enslaved by the Spanish?

Ah, but that's an erroneous fiction. Well before the Spanish came to the Philippines, slavery had been abolished in Europe. The friars, in fact, expressly forbade slavery. The closest that came to slavery was the encomienda system, which was really more of conscription as a defense against the Dutch invasion.

You might not believe me in this regard, but let me ask: if the Philippines was enslaved in the terms that we normally understand it, would Rizal have been able to travel to Europe? Would the ilustrado class have been able to exist?

Of course, this might be open to some debate. What is less so is whether or not slavery existed in the Philippines, because it did.

Slavery existed in the Philippines well before the Spanish came.

It wasn't quite the slavery that we normally associate with American slavery, possibly the nearest conception to the word we have today. It was a system of economic servitude whereby a person in debt would be required to render service to his debtor.

There was the aliping namamahay, who had his own house and who rendered service a few days in a week, a sort of a common laborer. And there was the more uniquely Filipino alipin sa gigilid (hearth slave) who stayed in with his master, a phenomenon which persists to this day with live-in househelp.

And what do you know, it was a class system that in structure was very similar to a caste system. To be sure, it was economic in nature rather than religious, but those divisions were all too real, and an integral part of Malay society then.

So, then, the question: aren't the people at the Wowowee tragedy just your modern-day equivalents of alipin?

Or maybe we shouldn't say modern-day equivalents? Maybe they still are alipin, with all the mental shackles and resulting economic disadvantages entailed therein.

It's not such an encouraging thought. We like to think of ourselves as a modern, liberal, and equitable society that gives everybody a fair shake at things. To a great degree, we are. We might like to think that we left these things behind in 2001, in 1985, in 1946, or even in 1898.

But did we, really? Take a good look. Isn't the pre-Hispanic class system still with us?

The problem, I think, is that we were never really able to address the class issue. The Spanish came and abolished its practice, but those ways of thinking never really left us. The monumental failure of the Spanish and the Church hierarchy was not that they introduced slavery, nor that they failed to abolish it, but because they failed to provide the proper closure to it.

The old class system was resolved by executive fiat, not through a gradual yet complete resolution.

The Spanish are gone, so now that failure lies with us.

The modern alipin class is filthy, disgusting, and does not at all fit within the pristine vision of what we want the Philippines to be. They are lazy, they are dishonest, they are drunkards, they are children of incest, and they breed like rats. They are every sort of disagreeable thing that we can think of. But they are convenient.

For politicians, they are a convenient and malleable source of votes, happy enough to exchange the future of their nation for a doleout here and a fiesta there once every three years. For the entertainment industry, they are a convenient and malleable source of ratings, happy enough to line up in droves at the promise of a prize or a glimpse of their favorite artista. For the well-meaning well-heeled, they are convenient balms to the conscience, ecstatic and smiling at receiving donations. And so we erect structures, consciously or not, to make sure that this alipin class persists.

Well-meaning members of society will forever be wondering why such a situation exists. After all, haven't they given enough values education? Haven't they handed out the contraceptive pills? Haven't they given this alipin class sufficient opportunities?

I say: you can't fix this problem until you understand its historical roots. You can't fix this problem until you recognize it for what it is: a persistent caste system that hangs on to our society like an overgrown cancer.

Like I said, this is just a theory. Like I said, you won't like hearing it. I don't like saying it myself, but I think it has to be said.

If you think all that I'm saying is pure baloney, you're welcome to send in your opinion. The comment button awaits.

But do try to think of what I'm saying the next time you read of some sordid tale in the tabloids. Is it really the product of economic desperation? Or is it something more deeply ingrained?

See also: The Last Wowowee Post