Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In a Wowowee State of Mind

I came across this piece on the Wowowee tragedy through Torn and Frayed. I laud Idiot Savant for taking an unpopular explanation to the tragedy. He claims that it is not extreme poverty that caused people to line up outside Ultra for days, he says it is "the Wowowee state of mind."

Also, those who had resources enough to wait it out for days couldn't have possibly been that poor.
"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."
He then looks to link this kind of value system, 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" to the mentality of the "alipin" a pre-colonial "caste system" that he says survived the Spanish era and continues today.

While to some extent, I agree that Wowowee's audience couldn't have been that poor, after all they could afford TV sets, what is "poor?" If we do not eat thrice a day, are we "poor?" If we eat thrice a day, but have nothing but rice and talbos ng kamote, are we not "poor?" Do we need to be in an extreme state of malnourishment, ribs showing and faint from hunger to be "poor"? In a mediatized society that constantly feeds us with all kinds of wants and needs to achieve the "good life," you and I could be poor.

While those people had enough provisions to last them three days and could afford not to "go out looking for food," this does not discount their varying states of desperation. The fact that they are desperate yet "festive" is a well-evolved coping mechanism, something we Filipinos are known for.

Idiot Savant is right in claiming that it is an "insane value system." What he does not says is it's a value system that is "insane" from his view. For those people, what they were doing and the value system that prompted them to do it, was completely rational. We are, after all, calculating humans. In the end, all we want is to survive. For those people, a few days chit-chatting with your neighbors under the sun while awaiting the main event, was just part of their ordinary struggle to survive. Idiot Savant implies, why don't those people just go out and work? Work hard? Work harder?

But poverty isn't merely a state of mind, it is a social condition. Contrary to little "nuggets of wisdom" we, the educated folk, have been taught since birth, poverty cannot be overcome by simple hard work. An ambulant vendor can work 15 hours a day every day for fifty years and still die with nothing to show for. And the "good life" these days mean that in order to be happy and fulfilled, we need a lot of things to show for.

Poverty is social because it does not mean anything divorced from the environment. Poverty is social because it is relative. Poverty can be measured by a sense of lack. And when we see people in our vicinity having many things that give them happiness, why should we begrudge ourselves of these essential elements of the good life?

But then if we were born into the wrong end of the spectrum, what an uphill battle it will be for us to achieve the means to buy the good life. We would need to be superhuman, extraordinarily ambitious, extraordinarily cunning to break free of the limitations of our birth. Limitations including; risk of malnutrition growing up, sub-standard public education, pressure from family to work at a young age, and most constraining of all, overcoming the "Wowowee state of mind." This is the most difficult because it means having to go against everything you've learned since birth. Things your parents taught you, and their parents taught them, to survive.

"Wag kang masyadong ambisyoso! Mapapaso ka lang." (Don't be too ambitious or you'll get burned).
"Dapat alamin mo kung san ka lulugar." (You should know your place)
"Magdasal ka na lang." (Just pray)
"Hindi tayo pababayaan ng Diyos." (God will not let us come to harm)

Nobody chooses to live in the socially-created conditions of poverty. But because we live in a world of never-ending scarcity, this kind of poverty is inevitable. Nobody chooses to be "unpoor" either. Contrary to our bourgeois value system, it is not a mere choice. It is necessary, it serves a function. So Idiot Savant and I should thank our lucky stars our lot in life means we are able to look out our 20th story windows and survey the Makati skyline and rail about the dastardly aspects of the human condition instead of living it.


Edited to add:

In response to comments by Dominique/Idiot Savant and Torn.


Thanks for the response to my response. I agree with some of what you said in your earlier post. What I do not agree with is causation. And maybe, your use of terms.

I don't see how the "alipin mentality" caused the Wowowee tragedy. First, assuming that the alipin value system survived the colonial period, could it have done so essentially unchanged?

Second, how could you discount 400 years of "colonial rule" and the consequent value systems resulting from the social structures created at the time and the interaction of agents of history? For example, how does the concept of an all-knowing God, one that monitors your each and every move change your values? How does the inate, natural superiority of caucasians change your values? How does a State, previously unconceived of in the pre-colonial Barangay system, the supreme authority above everything and everyone you see change your values? How does the concept of property, of exclusive ownership of land for example, change your values?

My point is, you cannot claim that "the pre-Hispanic class system is still with us" and say that this is the cause of poverty. Even I will not venture to enumerate the causes of poverty in this country (although I could). I could read and think and study it for the rest of my life and still be unable to make such statements.

Third, what I object to the most is the thinly veiled condescencion in your post.

It is evident when you say:
"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."

I'm reminded of this scene in Leondardo di Caprio's film "The Aviator." His character Howard Hughes was having luncheon with Katharine Hepburn. He was so crass as to talk about business and money-making during the meal. Hepburn says "We don't talk about money at the table" or something to that effect. Howard replies, "You don't talk about money because you have it."

Let me ask you, when your survival means getting your grubby little hands on some cash for the day or trying to feed your family on your P300 minimum wage, wouldn't you put your material well-being ahead of everything else as well? To hell with "common" decency, damn courtesy and niceties, fuck kindness?

Yes, these kinds of values, as you say, stem from something. But not the pre-colonial caste system, not the alipin mentality. It stems from values created in the past few centuries, it stems from values created at this moment. And values do not spring out of nowhere like mushrooms. They do not linger unchanged for centuries either. Values, or "little nuggets of wisdom" or "common sense" stem from our realities. As you say, theirs is a different world. Theirs is a different reality. And so, they must create values to match their lives. Shouldn't we be grateful that our reality is so much more comfortable than theirs? And so we can afford not to talk about money, we can afford our little niceties, we can afford our kindness.

Maybe we should just dispense with safe terms like "alipin" or "caste system" because they mean nothing today compared to loaded terms such as "peasant," "urban poor" or "class system." Let us call a spade a spade.

No comments: