Sunday, October 28, 2012

Living in the Dark

Poverty is the most merciless oppressor that human society has devised. Its products are suffering and ignorance. Or, worse, suffering whose cause is ignorance.

There is a typical scene in Dumb and Dumber that epitomizes the quality of every other gag in the Farrelly Brothers' movie. In the scene, Lloyd (Jim Carrey) is leaving a hotel bar when he notices a newspaper clipping framed on the wall. The clipping reports Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon. Lloyd, blissfully ignorant of the event, believing that it must have just happened, says, "No way!" and heads into the hotel lobby yelling, "We put a man on the moon!"

The movie is genuinely funny, I think, because it manages to demonstrate how some people can be so dumb. I can laugh at Lloyd not knowing about the moon landing, but what that scene couldn't prepare me for was being confronted by a room full of people on my Philippine island who were just as surprised as Lloyd was when, at the news announcement of Neil Armstrong's death at the end of August, asked me what the strange black and white images accompanying the report were, and I told them it was TV footage (which was "live" in 1969) of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon's surface. At first I believed that they had simply never seen the TV clip. I could not honestly say who was the more astonished in that room, the Filipinos who had been kept in the dark about one of the greatest events in history for forty-three years, or I at their mouths agape at the news I was delivering so late.

Of course, the difference between Lloyd, the dumb American, and the Filipinos in my sala, who are deliberately kept in the dark, was a matter of choice. The American man in the street is ignorant because he chooses to be, while far too many Filipinos are given no choice in the matter. American culture produces ignoramuses out of laziness or cowardice, while the Filipino ruling class produces them as an act of policy.

Once, a few years before, in the middle of the day, the skies grew dark on this same island and I noticed that within an hour, all my neighbors were scrambling around - the men going into the nearby town to buy essential supplies, the women all washing clothes - because the local trike drivers had repeated a rumor of an impending "bagyo" (typhoon). Since I have cable TV and access to international news (and weather), I knew that nothing but an LPA ("low-pressure area") was causing the clouds to gather. I knew that it was useless trying to disinform my neighbors, since they are living in the dark. Like the sky above them, their horizons were perpetually occluded.

This past week, my entire island was deprived of electricity for two days because of a passing tropical storm, blowing down trees that severed power lines (politically, of course, these people are without power all their lives). I was once again amazed at the behavior of the people around me, unbothered by the lack of electricity, outside their houses all day, cheerily chatting with one another, playing cards, gossiping - in fact doing everything that they usually do even when the power is working.

I thought to myself how Americans would behave if they were deprived of electricity for two whole days. They would probably be rioting, looting, and generally losing their minds. What the Filipinos I live among could teach them is that it's a mistake for us to depend so much on our technology. No one has pondered the effect of a cyber-attack on America that shut down all cellphones and computers. Many people are already claiming that they couldn't live without their Blackberry or their iPhone. They trust too much in the dependability of their devices, and place far too much importance on their function. People in developing countries, where electrification is hit or miss, know too well that their provider/suppliers (i.e., pushers/fixers) can't always be relied on. As I have learned the hard way, there is nothing more useless that a cellphone with a dead battery.

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