Sources of moral vigor

We thank  Sarah for choosing to defend herself  and suffer imprisonment rather than silently accept the degradation of being raped by her employer.  We are grateful to Mansueto for showing that the Filipino is not just a spectator in the Olympics but can also win medals despite the absence of meaningful support for national athletes.

But beyond simply proving that the Filipino can rise above his/her stereotype miserable image abroad, Sarah Balabagan and Mansueto Velasco have done this nation a less obvious but more valuable favor. In their individual ways, they have rekindled its moral vigor, as Ninoy Aquino did in 1983 and as Flor Contemplacion did in 1995.

Between long spells of chronic demoralization, every society needs intervals of collective celebratory convulsion.  Ours is no exception. The dull rhythm of national existence and its recurrent problems can often stupefy  a people.  The French sociologist Emile Durkheim worried precisely about this as he contemplated the fate of an industrialized and bureaucratized Europe.  He scanned the horizons of social life for those occasions of “creative effervescence”, when members of society are moved by passions “of such an intensity that they cannot be satisfied except by violent and unrestrained actions, actions of superhuman heroism or of bloody barbarism.”

Simpler and less bureaucratized societies provided for such necessary discontinuities in daily life through carnivals, “festivals of frenzy”, and ritual discharge of emotions.  Spectator sports and mass culture supply diversion and entertainment to today’s societies but they fail to break the ordinariness of  modern living.  The last time we had something like this was during the long vigil for Flor Contemplacion as she awaited execution in Singapore.  We lit candles and burned flags, and in one moment of unbridled collective outrage, we moaned our resentments and frustrations.

Modern societies have sought to tame these spontaneous social outbursts because of the unpredictability of their consequences.   As they cannot (and should not) be totally prevented,  the state tries to contain and enlist them in the service of national purposes. The whole practice of political modernization and statecraft is geared in fact towards the replacement of  popular mobilization and diffused agitation with institutionalized events like elections and independence parades.

That is why the government’s majestic presence is very much visible in the return of Sarah, whereas it was ineptly absent in the vigil for Flor.  It is also why the government will most certainly exult in the triumphant return of Mansueto, whereas it was virtually paralyzed by the suicidal return of Ninoy Aquino.  The real eruptions cannot be managed by anyone.  They are solely expressive in purpose and immediate in their gratification.

Though both state-sponsored, the liberation of Sarah and the triumph of Mansueto are nevertheless perfect occasions for the recuperation of collective morale.  While the government and politicians may try to score political points from these events, the celebration of the heroism shown by these two brave Filipinos will serve another purpose – in the words of the writer Zygmunt Bauman,  “the momentary synchronization of  sentiments.  Feelings are shared, but they are shared before having been articulated and instead of being spelled out: the sharing itself is foremost among the feelings shared….”

Of the two events – Sarah’s repatriation and Mansueto’s success – it is the boxer’s triumph that will be more readily exploited by the state. On the other hand, the young maid’s experience would be more difficult to assimilate into the state’s official narrative.  How would the official account explain the presence of a Filipina domestic helper of minor age in a strange country like the United Arab Emirates?

As she emerges from the plane that brought her back to her country, Sarah is met by three other Filipinas with whom she shared jail life, a fitting reminder that there may be other Sarahs languishing in many jails around the world.   As the news of her release sweeps the nation, the distressing announcement is made that the ban on the deployment of domestic helpers to Singapore has just been lifted, a sobering reminder that  our people’s troubles are far from over.

Flor Contemplacion’s tragic and unnecessary death in the hands of the Singaporean state made Sarah Balabagan’s safe return possible. Her execution and the last-minute attempts to prevent it restored a sense of solidarity to an uncaring and divided nation.  They forced the government to recognize its duty to protect those among its citizens who choose to work and live abroad because of lack of opportunity at home.  Sarah’s release from an Arab prison proves what can be accomplished by the timely and sustained official intervention of a concerned government.

On the other hand, Mansueto’s conquest of the Olympics has given us cause to believe in ourselves again long after we have become accustomed to commemorating defeats in our national life rather than victories.  His boxing has done far more for our self-esteem than can possibly be claimed by the empty slogans of the state or the patriotic speeches of politicians.  We must all revel in this victory then, and shout our glee to the world because it is a long time since we have had a chance to replenish what Bauman calls “the reservoirs of sacred unity.”


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