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[PULITIKULTURA] Dear leaders: A primer on bayanihan

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

By Marian Pastor Roces

Sige, kami na

This is not the first time Filipinos quit waiting for help, and picked up the work of survival. Exasperated and unbowed: Ako na ang gagawa ng paraan. Kami na ang bahala.

Seems definitive of Filipino-ness, which is otherwise elusive. Quickness to self-reliance and empathy surprises no one in the Philippines.

And while nothing is gained by reducing people to essential traits, nevertheless there are behaviors that, because recurrent, give pause. And, pausing, something that might be called culture shows up and claims attention.

The community pantries claim the attention of Filipinos with different hungers —for food, for health, for relief from hopelessness, for safety from a virus from hell, for a channel for basic humanity or religiosity, for political assertions, for community-feeling at a time of isolation. A hunger for good outcomes against the odds.

The hungry also includes gluttons for the gristle and dark power around Duterte’s table. Cultivating notoriety, mouthing off about Filipinos-giving-food-to-the-poor-are-communists, these bottom feeders feed on, and regurgitate, toxins.

Toxic is the only way to describe their call for Filipinos to distrust the old instinct for compassion.

The call is ludicrous amidst the collective memory of spontaneous goodness released at every calamity in the Philippines, and by every sort of Filipino. The community pantry is only the most recent of too many outbreaks of collective, impulsive kindness for anyone to think them unreal; or to tar as insincere.

Still, culture talk is intriguing because this uplifting Filipino-ness and this corrosive counterpoint do co-exist. So, which is us? Which is, dare we say, authentic? Which is culture and which is mirage? There are few pat answers.

But it is safe to say that both behaviors are authentic. Both behaviors assert a collective selfhood, and even if entirely different, the projected identities are similarly muscular.

Culture and endurance

But these behaviors belong to different orders of things. To figure which is which, it is unimportant to know whether the redtaggers believe their own claims or are just bare-faced liars. Seeing Red owes to faulty education or infantilism or narcissism or all of these together. In the chemistry of these ingredients, deceit is easy.

What are instead useful observations to make, focus on the self-hynotizing ways with which the minions feel compelled to constantly validate their thug-president. And that is because this hypnosis and the compulsion itself do not constitute culture. These are just parts of fascist method (although fascism does indeed constitute a culture), following sinister calculation.

Following sinister calculation that an existing political order can be destroyed. But these agents forget that political orders are built on and are sustained by particular cultures.

Culture, which emerges from the long duration stamina of a people, preserving ideas and habits where it is possible for these to be shared, is by definition tenacious. In contrast, how long the Duterte hypnosis will last is still anyone’s guess. Parlade’s and Badoy’s loyalty to a ghoul is a new ersatz religion, and is best seen as a symption of much a larger field of contest that may, of course, produce a different culture, in due course. If at all.

Right now, however, Duterte and cohorts are still trying to hammer into place an illiberal social order, knocking together fear-mongering, calculated lies, and badly recycled Cold War rhetoric to replace transparency and accountability. Governance skills are not required in this project; at least not until the pandemic hit.

Several variants of similar social constructions with blood are on-going in different parts of the world, Daesh among them, if on the exteme end. Drawing the comparison comes easy because there is no discernible difference between Duterte’s redtagging hounds and, say, Omarkhayyam and Abdullah Maute, who ambitioned to be Daesh caliphate founders.

Badoy/Maute are equally craven ideologues, except that the brothers had an actual ideology.

Nevertheless, they similarly construe themselves as battering rams, for pummeling a political order —modern, liberal democracy, against which they may be temporarily successful— but unknowingly bang against an actual culture that evolved over millenia, which ancientness survived in democracy.

Where the Maute brothers planned bombing runs to emulate the Daesh rout of Syria, their object of attack was not Christian Philippines but the Philippines entirely (Muslim Philippines included) and its well-defined and enduring compassionate core. Badoy, similarly, weaponizes a blindness to compassion.

And in disbelieving compassion, they assault something very old indeed.

The scale of bayanihan

The considerable time depth of the empathetic culture under their attack can be sensed from the number of ancient words clustered around the urge to give a helping hand. The words surrounding community pantries are precolonial; firstly, habág, pity or mercy, for all; but specifically, for the kababayan in the vicinity and now in the abstract space of nation, who might not make it through a runaway pandemic.

These are more: pre-Christian, pre-Islamic words. In Tagalog alone, the relevant words include malasakit, pagkabahalà, pakikiramay, pakikipagkapwà, tunkulin, awà, pananagutan, kagandahang-loòb, kabutihang-loòb, each inflected to convey exquisite nuance. Since Filipinos speak 170+ languages, words for fellow-feeling are plentiful.

But it is bayanihan that the refreshes the imagination everywhere in the Philippines these days. It has been on the lips of Filipinos since the early months of the pandemic, in 2020, when it became obvious that the national government has no capacity for the complexities of pandemic response.

Bayanihan —the will to gather as a community for a task too big for individuals — channels ancestral culture into modern experience. Bayanihan has been connected to people power (with reason); to a Filipino joie de vivre (which is released while helping others); to how Filipino communities are organized and sustained (with relationships forged in common good).

The community pantry idea, borrowed from other countries, was “bayanihan-ized” in its expansion into an archipelago of shared food. In its sheer scale, the pantries together dwarf the black ops attempting to stop, or diminish, or repaint it with the wrong color.

For the moment, bayanihan remains unscathed by the politics of arrogant ignorance. Culture imposes a center of gravity on the political field: so long as it still works to ensure survival (with flair!) culture will maintain itself. Even violent threat from the state will not stop Filipinos from walking down their streets to deliver food for the poor to collect. As they need, and no more.

Of course, assaults against something that is thousands of years old may, hypothetically, succeed; very old cultures can be destroyed. But bayanihan seems impervious to the small-minded populism abroad in the land right now, because only bayanihan makes sense. And produces the food as though miraculously.

Any system that delivers food with dignity will prevail.

Bayanihan: the archaic, today

There is something else to be said about bayanihan. Like all cultural systems, it’s complicated. This impulse to share resources, time, and skills within a community, belongs to a vast order of things knitted together by reciprocation and exchange mechanisms.

Island Southeast Asia —whether Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist — preserves this archaic organization of society and indeed the cosmos. The bayanihan offer of help always means that help will be reciprocated, but not necessarily in the same form; and not necessarily from the recipients.

The reciprocal system in the case of today’s community pantries implies that the donors will expect a return. But this is no tit-for-tat exchange; nor barter, exactly, because the bonds forged are non-material. Bayanihan is much more sophisticated than the simplifications sketched in quick reportage.

Reciprocation could be the poor self-organizing to better the community in non-financial terms. It could be the neighbors continuing what project leaders began. It could be the children learning the model and relaying it to the future.

It could be and really should be a government that finally knows what to do, for a people who have given so much for the survival of the whole. This would be the exchange of exactly the right size.

Bayanihan is a reciprocal relation.

Marian Pastor Roces works internationally as an independent curator, critic of institutions, and analyst of culture and politics. Through her corporation, TAOINC, she curates the establishment of museums. She is also a founding Partner of the think tank, Brain Trust, Inc.

She has long argued that governance, civil society action, and policy making in the Philippines are weakened by the absence of cultural analysis. Such analysis, in turn, needs to work with updated data. Hence Pulitikultura, Roces' platform for probing the intersection of culture and politics.

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