I HAVE been involved with the television industry since 1978, including a rewarding stint as president of a major national network from 1989 to 1992. So I am quite familiar with established audience behavior patterns, such as the inclination of people to retreat to escapist fantasy films when the going gets tough.
During the Great Depression in the US that came after the 1929 stock market crash, Hollywood cashed in on fantasy films. Shirley Temple, who had become the darling of an American public eager to find diversion from their troubles, outranked the many other talents in the fantasy/escapist genre who blossomed during the American economic winter. Remember Fred Astaire who also found himself dancing his merry lilt all the way to the bank? In the recession that followed the end of the Vietnam War, movies and television shows went for the tried and tested formula of fantasy films for hard times. Considering the state the Philippines is in, should one wonder why fantasy rules on films and even most glaringly, on TV prime time series? In the wake of GMA-7’s successful fantasy television series “Mulawin”, competing network ABS-CBN lost no time climbing aboard the fantasy bandwagon.
Nothing wrong with that – escapist fantasy entertainment serves a real human need. People who have long been subjected to extraordinary difficulties need temporary relief from pressures and have to recharge. Not many people are aware that entertainment is also a major aspect of public service that television networks provide a society. Remove entertainment from a depressed society and productivity will drop and crime incidence will likely rise.
But while escapist fantasy entertainment provides temporary relief for the crestfallen, it can lure the weak to forget the pain and obligations of living in the real world. Prolonged escapism is like opium – it deadens the senses and impoverishes both the soul and one’s pockets.
Sad to say, many of us seem to like overextended stays in Fantasyland. Instead of dreaming visions that move the country forward, we live in a world of make-believe, of fabled characters and happy endings, even if we always end up waking to the reality of the next morning’s new nightmares.
And here we are as though trapped in the dungeons of an enchanted kingdom where leaders think like dwarfs and corrupt politicians lead the innocents in a pied piper’s march to their own annihilation. The greater tragedy lies in the many who have benefited from a good education and could have made a difference but now prefer to look the other way. Maybe having the creature comforts and a well-stocked home can delude even the most educated of people that they can live like an island. But any student of history knows only too well what can happen when the good men do nothing.
Two things keep us desperate: One is a political opposition that cannot offer itself as an alternative to the present regime. The other is the people who can make things happen but who do not want to take the initiative to save the country.
Many have asked me why democracy fails to work in the Philippines. My answer is: Democracy works when the citizens know that they are the stockholders of their own country and act accordingly and responsibly. Obviously, this is far from being a reality. Instead of enforcing their will and their birthright, our masses think and behave like rank and file employees.
The only time I saw our people assert their rights as stockholders of the country was when we ousted Ferdinand Marcos. Today, with the country under worse mismanagement, there is hardly a whimper from society at large over the state the country is in. Fantasy overrides stark reality and the country deteriorates rapidly towards a situation that nobody may soon be able to handle and control.
In 1980, I met a 24-year old Swiss girl who was here for a year as an exchange student. Switzerland is a prosperous and stable market economy where nobody has been recorded as living below the poverty line. The jobless people there are those who do not want to work, she told me. There it is assumed that all Swiss nationals have money. Her one year stay here brought her to many places that I have never been to myself, even during my later stint in the Local Government Department as Assistant Secretary in 1987. Narrating to me the sorry state of the country under the Marcos dictatorship which she personally observed – she commented: “Why don’t the people rise up and overthrow the Marcos regime? They have only their lives to lose.”
What she said and the casual manner by which she said it made me think. Here is someone who comes from a developed country who would not have taken a second thought to rise up against the government if a similar situation happened in her country. Here is the daughter of a physician, an upper-class member of the affluent Swiss society, and she would not have hesitated risking her life if the national situation called for it.
Why indeed do our people not do the same when it is true that, for at least 50% of them, they have only their lives to lose? How come someone with something to lose is more patriotic than another who has only misery to lose? It made me remember how Western Europeans easily take to the streets to decry anything they find afoul in their country in order to register their message to their government to reform or be fired. But then that is also how they got their act together and attained clean, efficient and responsive governance. Their appointed “directors” and “managers” are on edge because they know that the stockholders will not tolerate mediocre governance.
I can understand the masses for not responding accordingly as citizens of a democracy should. Since the colonial period, they have fallen prey to the twists of fate and circumstance that had practically muted them from participating in their own democracy. Instead, they have always ended up as peons and spectators to the false promises and the heroics of the power grab. The Philippine tragedy lies in the middle and upper classes – the people who have had the education to understand what is happening and have the means to do something about it.
The masses enjoy their escapist fantasy films but when they return to face their miserable hand-to-mouth existence, they know what reality is and what is not. It is the middle and upper classes who are overextending their stay in Fantasyland. For all their pedigree and education, these more privileged groups continue to delude themselves that there is nothing they can do to make things better for the rest who are poor. They remind me of the Jews in Germany during the 1930s who preferred to think that Hitler was a passing political fancy of the German people who were trying to get over their traumatic humiliation for the terms of the World War I Armistice that they had to swallow after losing that war. Six million Jews in Europe paid the price with their lives for that gross miscalculation.
Scan the pages of history and you will find out, if you don’t know already, that the more affluent you are – the worse share of the national trauma you will experience when a major upheaval occurs. The poor are adapted to adversity. The members of the affluent class are not. The poor have been used to living without water, electricity, food, a decent shelter, privacy in their abode and so forth. Can those living in Forbes Park, Corinthian Gardens, Green Meadows – nay even BF, Tahanan, Pilar, and Camelia adjust to that lifestyle too? Well, those who lived through the political upheavals in Moscow in 1917 and Peking in 1949 can tell you that the most affluent folk suffered the worst shock during the Russian and Chinese Revolutions.
A social explosion, when order collapses, is potentially worse than the most powerful tsunami, typhoon or volcanic eruption that can devastate a place. Volcanic eruptions do not target specific people and neither are these the consequence of rage that has been nurtured through a long period of human depredation. There is no vindictiveness in a tsunami, typhoon or volcanic eruption – quite unlike the French Revolution where you just simply had to be an Aristocrat in order to get a preferred number to the guillotine queue.
In the period immediately following the Ninoy Aquino assassination, my friend Nap Rama (now Bulletin publisher) and I were in a gathering of people from the upper class and we were discussing the possible scenarios in the country. Nap and I were telling them that all of us had to get involved in the political affairs of the country if we were to save our country. Someone asked: “Isn’t that dangerous?” Nap replied: “This is not the time to be safe.” Luckily for us, the middle class and some of those in the upper class agreed that it was not the time to be safe and took an active stance in getting rid of Marcos.
That there is no credible opposition to replace the current management is no excuse for inaction or lack of concern and involvement. This attitude is nothing but a cop out. That the opposition cannot offer an alternative to the mismanagement of the country should all the more move the citizens to take the initiative, especially considering the lack of quality of those in the wings who are now trying to position themselves as an alternative to the government and the opposition. It is the job of the stockholders of the country to develop a new management team if there is none to be sourced from within the existing staff setup. The stockholders of a global company will not delude themselves that their problem will sort itself out by just simply ignoring the problem. They will grab the bull by the horn, form a new team and straighten out the mess.
Today, the people who can make a difference because of their education and the means that they have are overstaying in Fantasyland – like those Jews in Germany in the 1930s – and are deluding themselves that this situation we are in is only a passing fancy. When they witness the premature passing of many members of their social class due to uncontrolled crime (when order is breaking down) or due to a major upheaval (after order broke down), they will finally wake up to the reality of their folly for not acting soon enough.
In such a development, fantasy transforms into sheer horror.
You may email William M. Esposo at: firstname.lastname@example.org