Salvation from Mary Jane

Some are either too exhausted to comment or are already satisfied with the outcome. She is (momentarily) spared from persecution, her mother apologized for allegedly being ingrata, and more importantly, the government redeemed itself from its detractors. Everything is back to business. Finally, after a series of heated debates about who’s responsible for whom, we could just take our seats as we wait for another political controversy to pounce on. 

Or maybe not.

The aftermath of Mary Jane’s reprieve reveals a rather disturbing condition of our politics. One should not forget how, with an outburst from the convict’s mother, Celia Veloso, the solidarity of the nation fighting for the life of a Filipino was shattered. The effect was destructive. It diluted a virtuous cause to a series of personal attacks against Mary Jane and her family. (PODCAST: Can Mary Jane still be saved?)

Should this be just another case of a nation almost united, plunging into the divisive pool of distractions? It is perhaps time to channel our remaining critical energies towards this dangerous tendency.

Perils of distraction

The modern state is the ultimate craftsman of diverting popular attention from inconvenient truths.

Politics of distraction was notably present in the 1930s, when totalitarian regimes in Europe used art and film to glorify its leaders, to mask their atrocities and to reduce the public into mere consumers of the media. The Marcos rule also utilized the same technique to initially conceal his dictatorship through myths and colossal architectures. How effective is distraction as an instrument for tyranny in the twentieth century can only be judged by the fact that images and myths created have yet to be fully destroyed.

Now comes the twenty-first century. The present technological age creates all forms of distractions way beyond the imagination of George Orwell’s Big Brother. To concentrate on any undertaking is now considered to be the hardest imperative of life, next to keeping up with the latest material trends. 

While this phenomenon enhanced our senses, it also took away the significance of thinking before acting. We now lose control of ourselves and our feelings of guilt have surpassed the capacity of our conscience to avoid indifference towards the consequences of our actions. 

An important repercussion of the so-called information age is our imagined belief that our existence relies on the responses we make to everything that lands before our senses. Posts here, hash tags there. The incredible availability of information produced a new political animal that feels the need to react to everything instantaneously, even mechanically. 

The Philippines, as the social networking capital of the world for four consecutive years, is in the middle of this global phenomenon. We are seeing Filipinos everywhere enjoying the endless supply of information and joining the tirade that comes with it. Our vibrant political conversations take place mostly in the cloud, where all that is floating is worth our already divided attention. 

Our minds are clouded too. From reading short tweets, irate posts on Facebook and commentaries in quick successions, we have developed a habit of reacting in a state of distraction. It is guided by the intoxicating illusion that we have mastered the art of contemplative thinking, engaging people into radical, life-changing discourse. 

In reality, our drunken state is a reason for us to over share, to over react. We distract ourselves. 

The cost of hubris

Mary Jane Veloso’s case presents two extreme consequences of this phenomenon: objectification of life and affirmation of the state’s power over the people.

When the news spread about her mother expressing resentment against the government, dozens of citizens scrambled to find evidence that would either prove or disprove her accusations. Almost everyone had something to say about what utang na loob means. Naturally, opportunists took advantage of the heat to advance their own interests. 

Such was the tragedy when the unison cry for sparing the life of a Filipina ruptured: some remained loyal to the cause, some became indifferent, some condemned her family to death and a number even asked her mother to apologize to the President!

As citizens of hubris got distracted by the urge to build their cases and embellish their opinions with contempt for a small group of people, in the face of unfeigned political enrichment, the most important thing slipped the mind: the real cause which is the question of the state’s right to take life. 

What does it matter what utang na loob means, if the public is too quick to wish execution for a fellow Filipino? What does it matter if we fight for our life and the lives of others, if life is to be treated as an object we can discard if it displeases us? What is the meaning of social contract between the state and the citizens, when despite the constant failure of the state to deliver, we feel that every good it does deserves gratitude? What does it matter if we protest against another state’s right to kill, if we have to thank our state’s decision to save a life? 

There is a subtle kind of authoritarianism in our present political condition, and it operates through two interacting forces. On one hand, there is the state that refuses to deal with issues that concerns the public. As the state’s representatives, our politicians are masters at turning political discussions into sensational narratives that attack the personal. On the other hand, there are those who want to represent the people but are unable to resist the desire impose their own version of truths. Willingly or not, they undermine the virtues of plurality and freedom by silencing opposing views.

Weak as we are to the temptations of wanting to be right, our governments today, unlike their twentieth century counterparts, no longer need extraordinary creativity to devise means to control our thoughts. They rely on individuals and groups who see the value of expression as a technique to convince the public of their own versions of truth rather than a means to enlighten them. 

In turn, these people bombard the mass with opinions and declarations so limitless that they themselves become distractions for those who wish to think and reserve judgments for later.

While they open new venues for discourse, they also fall prey to the power of the state. Because they claim authority to what we should know, we give ourselves up to their authority and tag along. The state’s new strategy in an era where there is nothing anymore to mask is a politics of distraction that rides along the tides of our exchanges. In the comfort of their thrones, our politicians watch and laugh as we destroy our nation.

Hope for a nation of feelings

Power belongs to the people, and it is from the people where those with power derive it. Yes, Filipinos can be quite dramatic. This does not however mean that we always have to let our emotional fury dictate our judgments. Let us not forget what we learned from history: contemplative thinking is an indispensible weapon against tyranny. 

Our government thrives in our distracted hearts and minds. What we need is a kind of politics that refuses to react in haste but desires to engage. Perhaps, instead of utang na loob, the virtue that we should be discussing now is pagtitimpi. While this had rendered Filipinos into helpless suffering centuries and decades ago, self-control might be today’s precondition to questioning the system that abuses us. 

This is not a call for passivity. It is an extraordinary expression of bravery and unconditional love for the country through patient contemplation. For it might be that what we see as neglect for our surroundings might be a quiet act of resistance against the speed of things, against those who endeavor to stop us from truly participating. This virtue will keep us sufficiently excited about the future, and away from cynical stagnation. 

The currents of distraction are strong. Yet they cannot stop us from creating possibilities for our political salvation. At this point, it is not just about saving Mary Jane, but also ourselves. –


The author is currently pursuing a PhD in Politics and International Relations at Osaka University