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JESSICA ZAFRA | Now What (Or, It's culture, stupid.)

Voters line up in Manila for the May 9 elections. The people have spoken, and the task at hand, says Jessica Zafra, is for people in culture and arts to help define Filipino. AFP FILE PHOTO
The online news portal of TV5

The people have spoken. Democracy has won. Why, then, have you fallen into this deep funk?

It is not simply that your candidates lost. In truth you were not that attached to them, but the options were limited. Over one hundred million Filipinos, and that is the prime selection. But that’s a topic for another time.

You can easily get over your candidates losing. It’s harder to deal with the fact that many of your assumptions about your country, your colleagues, even your friends, are wrong. (By “friends” we mean the family you choose for yourself, and not the millions you interact with in the social media.) You thought you agreed on basic principles—human rights, women’s rights, etc. It turns out that these may be set aside “for the greater good”. Are you so disconnected from your people that you do not understand this clamoring? Do you not understand your country?

What IS the Philippines? Periodically I am asked to write an essay answering that question. Inevitably I give it a comic treatment, as if the question were so silly it’s laughable. I trundle out the overrepeated quote from P.J. O’Rourke or whoever about our history consisting of 300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood. I list our common quirks, like holding fiestas at the slightest excuse, or pointing at things with our snouts (nguso), or running towards the sound of gunfire when we should be running away (pang-uusyoso). I mention my theory of world domination, which is largely sound but is hampered by one crushing lack: Our army of the diaspora doesn’t know what it’s fighting for.

The mission is still economic survival. We work in the interest of our families and our extended tribal groups, and we regard that as the national interest. We do not see ourselves as belonging to a larger collection of tribes, a.k.a. a country. This disconnectedness justifies corruption, private armies, dynasties, for these are things that benefit our extended families. We are in competition with the other tribes. To each his own country.

What binds a country? Ben Anderson said it was printed literature. He wrote that Jose Rizal basically invented this country in his two novels. Do we read Rizal the way he is meant to be read, or is he just another kind of dreaded schoolwork?

History binds a country. We do not know it. Our excuse is that our ancestors kept few written records, and this being the case our institutions do not seem too eager to reconstruct our history. The educational system has failed the people miserably. Our textbooks, riddled with errors, have become an opportunity for corruption. Even recent history is unavailable to the youth, leaving them open to imaginative revisionism. The history of martial law has been rewritten as a golden age, even if its victims are still alive. Its depredations have become standard operating procedure in the public sphere. We don’t talk about it because it’s so thirty years ago, and we’d rather pay attention to what is new and trending.

In politics we are defined by a perpetual clamor for change. We all agree that change is necessary; how this change is to be effected is not discussed. It is assumed that change will automatically follow if the people in charge are replaced. We look to personalities, not programmes. There seems to be no foundation, nothing defining us as Filipino, no common vision telling us how to think of ourselves as a nation.

That is the job of culture, and for too long we have treated culture as a luxury available only to the rich. We treat it as something less important than our many pressing problems—poverty, inequality, injustice. So we still have poverty, inequality and injustice, aggravated by this disdain for culture. Hindi naman pagkakakitaan yan, para ano pa? If you say “At least during the Marcos regime culture was promoted,” punch yourself in the face. And again. Of course they had to promote culture, it is essential in fascist image-making. They would force-feed it to us to ensure their grasp on power. It’s that important. No one ever said they were stupid. This recognition of the importance of culture—this, at least, we can learn from them.

We have neglected culture, and now this neglect bites us in the ass. What, then, are we supposed to do? I think the arts and culture sector has to do its job, and that job is to Define Filipino.

Stop bitching about the lack of funding—it’s bitching that got us here. Find a way. It’s a globalized digital world, you are not helpless. I don’t mean you should put on didactic plays and lecture people about being Filipino, that’s the fastest way to put the audience to sleep. You don’t hammer the message into the audience. If the work is any good, it affects them subliminally.

Just do the best work you are capable of. Not shallow escapist entertainment pandering to the short attention span audience, but well-made, substantial entertainment.  That’s not an oxymoron, believe it or not. You can provide the thrills the audience wants, but you must remind them that there are larger issues in the world. Make them think. Produce the greatest novel, movie, play, artwork of your life. Amaze us.

Pardon my rambling, clearly I need to think this through. Your country is beyond your control, but you control yourself. Your task is to zero in on the thing that you do best, and then do it as if your life depended on it. Now go.