I was visited by an old Asian friend who lived here 10 years ago. I was floored by his observation that though we have lots of talented people, as a whole, we continue to be shallow.
Recently, I was seated beside former Senator Letty Shahani, PhD in Comparative Literature from the Sorbonne, watching a medley of Asian dances. The stately and classical Japanese number with stylized movements which perhaps took years to master elicited what seemed to me grudging applause. Then, the Filipino tinikling which any one can learn in 10 minutes; after all that energetic jumping, an almost standing ovation. Letty turned to me and asked, “Why are we so shallow?”
Yes, indeed, and for how long?
This is a question which I have asked myself, which I hope all of us should ask ourselves every so often. Once we have answered it, then we will move on to a more elevated sensibility. And with this sensibility, we will then be able to deny the highest positions in government to those nincompoops who have nothing going for them except popularity, what an irresponsible and equally shallow media had created. As my foreign friend said, there is nothing to read in our major papers.
Again, why are we shallow?
There are so many reasons. One lies in our educational system which has diminished not just scholarship but excellence. There is less emphasis now on the humanities, in the study of the classics which enables us to have a broader grasp of our past and the philosophies of this past. I envy those Hindus and Buddhists who have in their religion philosophy and ancestor worship which build in the believer a continuity with the past, and that most important ingredient in the building of a nation — memory.
Sure, our Christian faith, too, has a philosophical tradition, particularly if we connect it to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Remember, the first Bible was in Greek. But Greek, Latin and the classics in these languages are no longer taught in our schools the way these are still studied in many universities in Europe.
We are shallow because we are mayabang, ego driven, and do not have the humility to understand that we are only human, much too human to mistake knowledge for wisdom. We can see this yabang in some of our public commentators, particularly on TV — the know-it-alls who think that because they have so much knowledge — available now on the Web at the click of a button — they can answer every question posed to them. What they do not realize is that knowledge is not wisdom. Until they recognize that important if sometimes awful difference, they will continue to bluster their way to the top at our expense because we, the people, will then have to suffer their arrogance and ignorance.
We are shallow because with this arrogance, we accept positions far beyond our competence. Because there is no critical tradition in this country — a tradition which will easily separate the chaff from the grain, we cannot recognize fakery from the real goods. That outstanding scholar, Wilfredo Villacorta, is a rare bird indeed; when offered a high position in government, he refused it because he knew he was not qualified for the job. Any other mayabang academic would have grabbed it although he knows he can’t handle it. And so it happens always — the nitwits who hold such high positions stubbornly hold on to their posts, bamboozling their subordinates who may be brighter than them for that is the only way those who are inferior feel they can have respect.
On the other hand, the intelligent person will be aware of his shortcomings. He does not hesitate to ask the opinion of those who know more than him on particular subjects. If he is a government hierarch, he will surround himself with advisers who he knows can supply him with guidance and background possessing as they do more knowledge, experience and wisdom than him. Such an official is bound to commit fewer mistakes because he knows himself.
We are shallow because we lack this most important knowledge — who we are and the limits to what we can do.
We also lack the perception, and the courage, for instance, to deny these religious quacks and the thousands who listen and believe in them. Sure, religion is the opium of the masses as Marx said. So then, how can we prevent the masa from taking this poison without recognizing their right to make fools of themselves? Again, shallowness because the good people are silent. Ubi boni tacent, malum prosperat. Where good men are silent, evil prospers.
This shallowness is the impediment to prosperity, to justice, and men of goodwill should emphasize this, take risks even in doing so. As the late Salvador P. Lopez said, “It is better to be silenced than to be silent.”
We are shallow because our media are so horribly shallow. Every morning, I peruse the papers and there is so little to read in them. It is the same with radio — all that noise, that artifice.
I turn on the TV on prime time and what do I get? Five juvenile commentators gushing over the amors of movie stars, who is shacking up with whom. One of the blabbering panelists I distinctly remember was caught cheating some years back at some movie award. How could she still be on TV after that moral destruct? And the telenovelas, how utterly asinine, bizarre, foolish, insipid moronic and mephitic they are! And there are so many talented writers in our vernaculars and in English as the Palanca Awards show every year — why aren’t they harnessed for TV? Those TV moguls have a stock answer — the ratings of these shows are very high. Popularity not quality is their final arbiter. They give our people garbage and they are now giving it back to all of us in kind! So I must not be blamed if, most of the time, I turn on BBC. Aljazeera, rather than the local TV channels. It is such a pleasure to read The New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Washington Post, to listen to “Fresh Air” on US public radio and public TV where my ever-continuing thirst for knowledge (and good entertainment) is quenched.
We are shallow because we don’t read. I go to the hospital on occasion — the long corridor is filled with people staring into the cosmos. It is only I who have brought a book or a magazine. In Japanese cities, in Korea — in the buses and trains, young and old are reading, or if they are not holding books and magazines, they are glued to their iPhones where so much information is now available.
In these countries and in Western cities, the bookshops are still full, but not so much anymore because the new communications technologies are now available to their masa. How I wish my tiny bookshop or any Filipino bookshop for that matter would be filled with people. I’ll make an exception here: BookSale branches are always full because their books are very cheap. But I would still ask: what kind of books do Filipinos buy?
We are shallow because we have become enslaved by gross materialism, the glitter of gold and its equivalents, for which reason we think that only the material goods of this earth can satisfy us and we must therefore grab as much as can while we are able. Enjoy all these baubles that we have accumulated; sure, it is pleasurable to possess such artifacts that make living trouble free. And that old anodyne: “Man does not live by bread alone,” who are the thinking and stubborn few who believe in it?
I hope that those who read this piece still do.