Showmanship as rebellion

Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace: A Conference of Asian Bloggers, Podcasters and Online Media begins today.

Here’s my powerpoint presented at iBlog2:


Accounts of the summit are at Filipino Librarian, at Jove Francisco’s, good old Punzi’s Corner Blog and at RConversation. Also, Ajay’s Writings on the Wall, and Quare Verum. There are surely more who’ve posted, but have to run!

Subservience of Philippine Congress Is Nothing New is my Arab News column for this week.

And so, on to today’s reading.

Have you ever watched a Balagtasan? And more importantly, watched the audience watch one, and watch the poets in the joust interacting with each other and the audience, to whom they always turn to score points against their rival-poets? To watch a Balagtasan is to understand our politics, the roles imposed -because expected- of politicians by the voters, and see voters’ behavior in the context of what they demand and expect. The Balagtasan, according to Virgilio Almario’s fascinating paper (linked above, which you should download or read online) was born during the period when our present politics was itself maturing; it is as much a link to the political mores of those times as it is a means of gaining an insight to our traditional attitudes towards the performance aspect of politics.

In the same chapter (Chapter Five, quoted from previously), Barzini, in his book “The Italians” (Luigi Barzini), goes on to explain the Italian love for spectacle, for the pleasures of participating in attempts to impress:

[These] are not always animated by ther ignoble desire to deceive and bedazzle observers. Often, to put up a show becomes the only pathetic way to revolt against destiny, to face life’s injustices with one of the few weapons available to a brave and desperate people, their imagination. To be powerful and rich, of course, is, for an individual as well as a nation, more desirable and satisfactory than to be weak and poor. Italians know it as well as anybody else. For some reason, it has always been extremely difficult for them, individually and nationally, to conquer power and wealth. What were they to do? They staged an almost perfect imitation of the real thing. In normal times, after all, when there are no conflicts, power and the show of power can be considered equivalent. The mere shadow of power, if convincingly projected, can be as frightening as power itself. By its use, one may gain a few years or decades of tranquility, and that is all one wants. In a crisis, of course, only real power can defend one. But crises are rare, seldom come unannounced, and can be delayed or avoided by a tactful change of policy. This is a risky game. It may last a certain length of time, perhaps a very long time, but not forever. At some point, real power destroys make-believe power and everything ends in catastrophe. But the show is better than nothing, better than the supine acceptance of immediate defeat…

…In other parts of the world substance always takes precedence and its external aspect is considered useful but secondary. Here [in Italy], on the other hand, the show is as important as, many times more important than, reality.This is perhaps due to the fact that the climate has allowed Italians to live mostly outside their houses…the result is that at all times form and substance are considered one and the same thing. One cannot exist without the other. The expression is the thing expressed.

This reliance on symbols and spectacles… is the fundamental trait of the national character. It helps people to solve most of their problems. It governs public and private life. It shapes policy and political designs. It is, incidentally, one of the reasons why the Italians have always excelled in all activities in which the appearance is predominant: architecture, decoration…

Inevitably, Italians are tempted to applaud more those performances which stray dangerously furthest from reality, those which make do with the scantiest of materials, those which do not even pretend to imitate existing materials…

I’ve heard more than one foreign observer say that it seems to take a herculean effort for Filipinos to be able to carry out a spectacle, but when we do it, we do it with charm. But reading the above, and the Italian interest in simulating power even if it isn’t there, in living their lives outside the home, and attention to appearances to the extent it stimulates the decorative and artistic abilities of an entire people -is there an echo of ourselves there?

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Manuel L. Quezon III.

7 thoughts on “Showmanship as rebellion

  1. You are the second columnist I’ve noticed to have pointed out similarities between Pinoys and the Barzini-described Italians. Max Soliven said he is always amazed to see the parralels everytime he picks up that book. He once quoted what Barzini said about Italians being for the equal application of the law, except on their very selves.

  2. Thinking of Italy and Rome what did the senate do to their Leader(Back in Roman times).

    Cesar was killed but he was a great leader but the senators did not like him.

    Maybe there are more similarities to Rome and the Philippines than we first thought..

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