Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Theater in a "Damaged Culture"

This paper was presented at the Nation and Culture Conference commemorating the 150th anniversary of Jose Rizal last September 2011. Now published  as "Nation and Culture: The Proceedings" edited by Thelma Arambulo. 

When Rizal wrote “On the Indolence of the Filipinos” more than a century ago,  James Fallows was not yet around to pose his theory about how damaged our culture is. Mr. Fallows might not have known, however,  that his theory is not really new in this part of the world. It has merely undergone a few transformations throughout our history, including and beyond the time Mr. Fallows wrote his controversial article in the Atlantic. During Rizal’s time, the laziness of the Indio was believed to be the main cause for his stagnation. It was supposedly his indolence that brought about his own misery. Today there are no colonial tyrants that blame us for our slovenly ways. There is no dictator that instills in us that progress can only be achieved through discipline (Sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan, Disiplina ang Kailangan.). In this so-called democratic space,  seemingly, we can easily say what we want. And it seems blaming these evil tyrants for causing what’s wrong with us now is not valid any longer.  And so, then,  some people say that we have no one to blame but ourselves after all. And that blame, ironically reverts back to the very same assumption that Rizal refuted. Only now, we are not lazy per se, but that it’s because our culture is damaged. The damage occurred not just during the time of Marcos but way even earlier.  And it seems the damage is so deep-rooted, so deeply ingrained in our wiring, so to speak, that the only way to fix it is by probably imposing this cure  on ourselves as a people, not unlike the very dictatorship we have experienced in this country almost forty years ago, only “benevolent.”

The thing is, for as long as our country’s miserable condition is not alleviated, tyrants. politicians, media, powerful institutions, such as those of religion, business, and military will constantly implicate society’s culture, if not its innate characteristics, as the ultimate core that needs to be changed for this poor country to emancipate itself.  The friars and Spanish colonial masters pointed out laziness. The American sociologists zeroed in on our smooth interpersonal relationships (SIR), utang-na –loob or debt of gratitude, and amor-propio. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared that it was our lack of discipline that was the real cause of our stagnation. James Fallows reinterpreted the SIR concept and found a more familiar name for it: delicadeza. And many among today’s Filipino middle classes think we are simply just too shallow.

Rizal, the very figure we are paying tribute to today, never believed it was any of these. He wrote his novels, essays, poetic and dramatic works, all impassioned and sincere, from one clear perspective: That it is not our culture, but who profits most from the inequality and the misery, the injustice and  impunity, the corruption and greed that will determine why and how our country has gotten into this mess. That our cultural behavior, that which is truly ingrained in us, does not make us corrupt. Rather corruption and greed, impunity and injustice have all been using our cultural practices as alibis and instruments, the way a rapist will blame the pornographic material he has been reading as gagging his own sense of responsibility and allowing him to commit a crime (Sapagka’t ako’y lalaki, natural lang iyon).  To be sure, corruption and greed have indeed utilized our very own cherished values of utang-na-loob, pakikisama, etc. Our close family ties and our adherence to delicadeza or our being non-confrontational in the interest of smooth relationships have all contributed to sealing corrupt transactions and exploitative deals.  But is this evidence to suggest that it is our culture that is damaged? Any culture is always context-specific. It enriches societies if the context is appropriate. Our modern set-up, imposed on us by American tutelage for example has not taken Filipino culture in serious consideration. It has, in fact demanded that we do away with how we think, denigrated our values as primitive and untenable in the context of  democracy and individualism.  Taken from this angle,  our culture has indeed been damaged. But as Rizal may have pointed out in his essay more than a hundred years ago—who made this so and who profited most from it?

It is important that we do not distract ourselves from answering this crucial question. For once we figure out a clear reply, only then do we realize that it is not culture that we have to change, but the purveyors of the damage they have wreaked on us.

Mass media has been the most pervasive, most influential festering agent of this so called “cultural damage”. It has effectively reduced our cherished cultural values to promote materialism in its most crass and shallowest sense, even utilizing the urgent struggle of poor Filipinos for survival as its hypocritical measure for Christian charity, for example. Politicians, businessmen, religious institutions, and the rest of the influential elite have profited most from the power that mass media can wield to spin this myth and feed the masses in daily doses.

For instance, democracy, a revered political exercise, has been touted by politicians and the State as the weapon of the majority. Therefore the perversion of this political exercise can only be blamed on the very majority who choose their leaders foolishly. Voting wisely is the universal credo that will supposedly make way for a brighter political future of our nation. And if and when poverty and injustice remain unabated after each electoral process, there is no one to blame but the voters who chose unwisely. Never the politicians nor the system that has made a travesty of democracy by reducing the power of that majority to ten minutes of casting ballots once every three years. For in truth, that is how democracy is practiced and encouraged in this nation: A total of one election day every three years.  To add insult to injury,  it is not even the votes that really matter in our country. For votes, in this country, as we have plainly seen, are spoiled, par for the course, every election day—that singular window of lending power to the people!  Is this a sign of a damage in culture. Possibly. Who is culpable? The unwise voter who is increasingly losing faith in the process, or the purveyor of a sham democracy that lays blame on the voiceless voter every time government fails to govern well?

When military generals stole money from government coffers and paid themselves hefty bonuses, they invoked the soldier’s adherence to a Filipino fraternal spirit. This fraternal loyalty taken from a more appropriate context may have been one of the fundamental tenets of the Philippine Revolution. Kapatiran, which not only derives from the principles of Andres Bonifacio’s underground organization but also from the tenets of the French Revolution, ennobles a brotherhood that demands the highest loyalty to a sacred cause, such as freedom. As we have witnessed in our scandal-ridden times, this value has been stripped of its noble cause, the object of which has made a travesty of the value itself.
Apart from context, there is also the matter of proportion. When the poor disillusioned voter accepts money from the vote-buying candidate, media and politicians  blame the voter for selling his future, graciously forgetting that as a matter of history, whether or not he voted,  his future has never been the government’s genuine concern. Pragmatism is what drives many poor voters to sell their votes. Because they sincerely know with desperation that this single election day, is the only day they can enjoy democracy, despite how phony it really is.

The poor corrupt citizen stands no chance against the big-time corrupt official who pockets billions of taxpayer’s money.  For one, their motives are completely different. One is motivated by necessity, the other by greed.  Many huge multinational companies  and government campaigns call for environmental initiatives from the common people to take care of  the earth. While all these are filled with good intentions, it is still a fact that 90% of today’s environmental hazards do not come from the wastefulness of the ordinary citizen but from the terrible destructiveness that the largest and most profitable companies in  rich nations, as well as their subsidiaries in our part of the world wreak on our atmosphere, our water systems, and the earth’s soils.

One cannot blame a naton’s culture for the prevalence of corruption and greed because greed itself is universal.  Our revolutionary spirit has always come to the fore whenever we Filipinos think that we have been pushed against the wall. We may have experienced a fatigue of this revolutionary spirit as expressed in conventional modes but it eventually finds ways of manifesting itself, ways which even the most disillusioned and pessimistic citizen may not foresee.

We know how depressing our nation’s condition can be, especially if we compare ourselves to our Asian neighbors. Many of us would harp on about the Philippine’s past splendor and at the same time blame what has been ingrained in us for hundreds of years as the main cause for this splendor’s decline. This is simply not logical.  I believe that much of what has happened to our country is hidden in our history.  A history unfettered by interests other than  the truth. The search for these answers requires a strong political will coming from a band of new ilustrados, armed with the shiniest light of truth.
I declare that theater artists in the Philippines are made of that same mettle, members of that band, torchbearers of truth. We have had an illustrious history since the turn of the 20th century, when theater artists have kept the revolutionary fervor aflame against colonial invaders. Theater artists, spearheaded by visionary playwrights have consistently committed to uphold truth. The truth about greed, about class conflict, about the hypocrisy of religion, the real causes of poverty, the poverty of dignity and honor in government and other powerful institutions, the insidiousness of the profit motive in big business, the pretense of the elite. Nowhere in all other forms of media, especially mass media, have these fundamental issues been genuinely addressed.

Furthermore, Philippine theater practice has arguably been the fiercest proponent of advancing a Filipino culture that is alive,  sincere, critical, dignified, liberating and empowering. It is the closest to its audience, both literally and spiritually. Its educational impact has not been compromised by commercial interests such as television, radio and film. Even the most commercial ventures in Philippine Theater today cannot blink or turn a blind eye on the most pressing problems of our country. It seems that much of theater in the Philippines, both community, and semi-professional have an unspoken bond to pursue truth and freedom.

Committed theater artists have never believed that  Philippine culture is damaged, nor have they viewed Filipinos as shallow.  Probably because much of what we do in our work refutes all these ridiculous assumptions. We do acknowledge the damage done by corrupt politicians, corrupt businessmen, power-hungry and greedy tyrants and their military minions to our social and economic fabric. We  are also alarmed by the shallowness and hollowness of meaning in the most powerful forms of media in our country. We are also alarmed by the apathy of many citizens whose disheartening response to the mess around them is to go abroad thereby defusing a revolutionary fervor for genuine social change. If anything, it is not our culture that is damaged but our belief in the empowering quality of that culture.
My collaboration experiences with other theater artists in other Asian countries have made me realize that the greatness of any form of expression can be seen where one’s own culture is proudly embedded and aligned within the context of its present environment. That instead of denying our culture and shedding our true selves in exchange for the cosmopolitan, global standard—we seek to incorporate our culture and modify this standard to fit our own needs and aspirations. That instead of vainly trying to seek world-class recognition from others, we start knowing more about ourselves and set our own goals without seeking anyone else’s approval.  For only then will the world see us in our own terms, and only then will world-class recognition be genuinely achieved.

This is much of what Philippine theater practitioners consciously or unconsciously do.  Admittedly, while many theater artists have given up by crossing over to television and commercial ventures, or worse, gone abroad albeit for very pressing reasons, the pool from which Philippine theater draws its strength: idealistic youth, committed artists, people concerned with community and social issues, enlightened and creative generations, people who have in them a defined cultural character unmistakably Pinoy – all have replenished  and continue to replenish an increasingly vibrant art form.
Filipino playwrights are the most dedicated writers, knowing fully well that theater is not a lucrative occupation.  Yet some of them persist in writing for the theater because the fulfillment of expressing uncompromising truth is supreme to any other fulfillment offered by its more commercial and bogus counterparts in mass media.

And yet,  hardly any government or corporate support is handed to this small band of artists. Is it because many in government and business know only fully well, that when they engage with a genuine truth seeker, the truth about their own perverse corruptions will necessarily be exposed on stage?
The commitment of the theater artists lies not only in their commitment to the craft, but their sincerity and commitment to truth. Anything short of this shows in their work on stage as mere artifice.
This same commitment to excellence and truth have made us believe that our culture is the only thing we can rely on. And that to believe that it falls far short of what we can become is our fundamental national tragic flaw.