Middling middle mind
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
In survey after survey since 2016, the Filipino middle class has consistently supported the President whose name shall not be uttered.
The extremely rich also approves of President, er, Voldemort. This is no surprise. Elite support has been evident to survey readers and trend watchers from way before the Davao boss shadowed Malacañang carpets. Never has there been public display of class eeeewwwing from on high.
Elite betrayal of the Philippines is Philippine tradition.
Meanwhile the Filipino middle class—thin demography but noisy—has evaded culpability for flirting with and yielding to autocracy. The record of its support of the Administration is unremarked.
Its class crassness is hidden by the persistent imaginary of its ranks as educated, enlightened (ilustrado is the preferred word with the right airs), hardworking, taxpaying, and church-going.
None of these qualities are untrue. This middle class has been to UP Ateneo La Salle; some of their children have managed to Harvard their shine. They pilgrimage to Fatima Vatican Jerusalem and weird places like Medjugorje. They move to Sta. Rosa or Baguio and eat raw vegetables, outgrow Spam, and sometimes brave the weekend traffic to go to the Cultural Center to watch ballet with growing daughters.
And as a class, it has enjoyed the aura produced by some who fought Marcos.
It all checks out. Taxes are sliced off paychecks and endured. Businesses are self-greening. They run civil society orgs like corporations and work smoothly with corporations. Youthful dabblings in activism have produced idealist leaders for both the Left and the Right.
And, sure, they’ve all started affecting indigenous textiles, fashioning fashion out of residues of collapsing cultures. Thinking, bless them, that this helps the marginalized.
How does all this enlightened behavior square with consent (and maybe secret admiration) for tokhang, abusive misogynistic rants, and systematic dumping of untruths in cyberspace?
Clues showed up in a recently circulated letter voicing middle class demands. Seems everyone who has a phone in the Philippines has read it. Seems it circulates only in Philippine cyberspace and has no earlier incarnations in Russian or Chinese prototypes.
Towards the end, the letter is an anti-poor rant. It does not pull the stops, vilifying the poor for congenital or habitual laziness. And for actually preferring poverty. It demands government attention; says government must have other priorities than the poor during the pandemic.
The middle class is hurting, it screeches, and deserves to be top of mind. In any case, the poor embody everything so infuriatingly different from middle class dreams of order. The poor drains resources and goodwill from true citizens—or somesuch, the nature of its fear.
The harangue is brief but it manages to vomit out regurgitated colonial prejudice. For yet another regurgitation.
In 1890, the Filipino middle class’ favorite hero, José Rizal, struggled to critique precisely this prejudice. Published in La Solidaridad in March of that year, Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos (“On the Indolence of the Filipinos”) tried to dismantle the same accusation. Rizal argued against the prolonged victimhood to discrimination and abuse that produces seeming laziness.
Rizal was not on top enough of 19th century Western philosophy to avoid racial explanation for this apparent indolence. But he understood the accusation of tamad as unjust.
A century later, Rizal hero worship does not seem to demand self-critical reflection that one might have hoped builds on Rizal's argument.
There is neither remorse about—nor recall of—how anti-poor sentiment is internalized again and again through the centuries, every time Filipinos define themselves as separate or "graduated from Class D and E".
It seems very much a part of Filipino middle-classness to diss the poor. Colonizers maligned "natives" the same way and for the same reasons: to sharpen their self-definition as superior.
The letter may well be fabrication by a local troll factory. Or merely picked up and re-circulated by disinformation networks as a sly, reasonable-sounding pushback (with a tail that delivers the lash) against successful private sector donation drives for the poor during the on-going pandemic.
It will take time to unearth its genesis on the net. But whoever or whatever its source, it works. The letter promotes contempt for the poor by raising the matter of middle-class entitlement.
With the draconian measures now in place to discipline the "pasaway", doubtless there are benefits, to powers that be, in deliberately creating situations untouched by sympathy for the poor. Trolls are working very hard to make “pasaway” the new “nanlaban”.
Should hunger lead to anarchy, and supposing guns are fired, it will help some—they need not be named—if in fine the middle class does not feel much.
Or if they feel something, they could rationalize the dead bodies as acceptable casualties of economic recovery. Such calculation would be, again, unsurprising. But there's the horror.