Deep in stasis, our sad country's stories never change

The Manila Times
March 21, 2015

A FEW months back, a Nobel laureate in economics was in Japan to speak at a conference. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who desperately wants to lift Japan's economy after years of being wasted by secular stagnation, arranged for a meeting with the visiting professor, who had studied Japan's "Lost Decade" extensively.

Mr. Abe wanted views from the visiting academic and he got them. Whether there was a profound shift in his policies after getting the views of the visiting professor in the serious hours PM Abe spent with him, we do not know. But it dramatized the value of ideas even in a country whose economy used to be called the most innovative and dynamic in the world. And is, despite its "lost" decades, still the world's third largest economy. Ideas rock the world. Ideas unsettle the world and remake it in a fundamental way.

Contrast this to the recent Manila visit of a Nobel laureate in the field of chemistry. She spoke before groups of students and young people, who were clearly struck by both her brilliance and her lack of artifice. She demonstrated to young Filipinos that there is another path that the young could take, the anti-Paris Hilton and anti-Kardashian path. That in the drudgery of the labs, noble work is being done to uplift the lives of humankind. Superhuman efforts were clearly done to inform the public of her visit. Despite that, the news about her visit got buried - as expected - very near the obit pages, and in the news holes where editors usually place the fillers about motorcycle accidents.

Was the DOST leadership kind enough to get her views on the state of science education in the country? Or the state of scientific research? No. Why would they unravel their own abhorrence of science. Were the permed-hair TV talking heads predisposed to run a 30-sconder on the gifted scientist and educator? Out of the question. How can the booming voices and empty heads talk about science with some amount of credibility? The tabloids also entirely ignored her visit. A headline that states "Henya, pinagkaguluan ng kabataan" has no element of the usual tabloid stories: sex, gore and violence.

The visiting Nobel laureate never stirred a sliver of interest among the country's teeming nomenklatura, even those coming from the science, research and education sectors. In that, our entrenched mandarins share a common taste with the masa, people like me and my neighbors who have no aspiration to rewrite the static narratives of our sad country, which seemed to be permanently fixated on three things, namely, boxing, beauty pageants and basketball, the three "Bs" of our existence.

Poor Prof. Ada Yonath, the 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry. She was in the country at the peak of the country's obsession over the possible winners in the most prestigious beauty pageant, one of the prime rites of summer. Her life story of dedication to science and research, and a lifelong passion to teach the young, culminating in the Nobel win, was no match to the story of a poor lass from Palawan, a former housemaid as the story tells it, to win a beauty title. A Nobel prize versus a beauty title? In the Philippine context, which is more important and more vital to our national existence, is a given. The prominence of the stories tell it all.

The stories on the Nobel prize visitor were buried in the obit pages. The beauty pageant stories were on prime time TV and on Page One, a long-running melodrama which the country never gets tired of.

( Full disclosure. I kept track of the pageant. Due to some genetic tweak - our family comes from a long line of sharecroppers and carabao herdsmen and we look like sharecroppers and herdsmen - a next of kin, the granddaughter of my late father's brother, was in the pageant. To our joy and astonishment, she was among the Top 15.)

Of course, the boxing event in May is the topic that is never missed by our newspapers and major TV networks. When the "fight of the century" as it is called was signed by the "Pacman" and "Money," the only news item that gets a bigger media play than the match is the Mamasapano tragedy. The efforts to tell the Binays that they are a bunch of dispensable arrivistes may pop up today and disappear the next day. But the "fight of the century" should be covered up to its insignificant detail on a daily basis, or else the republic would collapse.

How a boxing match could have a vise-like grip on the attention of a nation is a question that non-Filipinos ask. But we know why. Pacman and his bouts have been our deliverance from our humdrum, poverty-stricken lives.

Basketball is the other constant in our otherwise underwhelming existence. Stories about the professional league, about sandlot games and just about every small commercial league get daily media play. Brown men can't jump and the imports have been NBA wash-outs or D-League bench warmers. But what the heck. The country is a hoops-crazy nation like no other and the sad reality of our zero competitiveness in no way dents the passion for the game.

Some of us dream of other things. A Filipino topping the GMAT exam. A Filipino teenager stunning Silicon Valley with a coding prowess, attracting all sorts of angel investors and venture capitalists in the process. Or a Filipino proclaimed as a Nobel winner. Or, the decision of the government to allocate billions of pesos for tech hubs and agri R and D. These are hopeless dreams.

With a country in stasis and about to march to full Kardashian-hood, it will take centuries for the same old, same old narratives to change.