Martin Sheen and the urban poor

The actor Martin Sheen was in Manila this week, not to promote a movie, but to focus public interest on the situation of the Filipino urban poor.  Not too many people know that Sheen’s background is working class, and that for many years now, he has quietly championed the cause of the poor and the marginalized in his own country.

He is not a big star like Kevin Costner or Richard Gere.  But Filipino viewers remember him for the characters he has played in many movies, mostly working people who resist the powerful and expose the biases of the system.  Here is an actor who lives his films.  He is not one of those celebrities who take up a cause overnight just to advance their career.

I would have loved to have him on “Public Life” if it were not for the fact that I had already scheduled another topic during the week he was here.  I am glad, however, that Philippine media covered him very well.  Television footage showing him kissing children in the slums and holding the hand of a young boy he has “adopted” as his spiritual son was powerful.  On the wall of a family’s shanty that was about to be demolished, Sheen was caught by the cameras scribbling this message: “They can never demolish your spirit.”  No event has lifted the morale of the country’s squatters more than this single visit of Martin Sheen.

Yet, something bothers me when someone from outside the ranks of the urban poor – and I do not mean just a foreigner – descends upon them and, after a few days of visiting with them, decides to speak for them.  The scene was cinematic, as all demolitions of poor people’s homes are, and Martin Sheen, possibly overcome by the emotion of the moment, faced the cameras and told the Philippine government to “listen to the people, and not to big business”.  I think he is accurate in his assessment that the government has not done enough for the ordinary people of this country, and that it is indeed big business that has received most of its nurturing attention.

But, I think, it is one thing for Martin Sheen to hold this belief as a member of an international fact-finding team, and quite another to play the role of  the urban poor’s spokesperson.  To insert oneself between the oppressed and their oppressor is to run the risk of being the former’s patron, of perpetuating the same discourse of powerlessness and sponsorship that ordinary politicians love to engage in during elections.  The temptation to speak from the earnestness and clarity of an advocate’s perspective in the face of the seeming hesitancy and inarticulateness of the people is the biggest dilemma that nongovernment organizations (NGOs) face in their work with communities.   The wisest and most politically sensitive of them resolutely resist this temptation, for to submit to it would be to reduce these communities into their clients, and to claim for themselves the role of patrons.

“The indignity of speaking for others” was how the French intellectual Michel Foucault saw it as he agonized over the role that an honest person can play in the struggle of others.  Foucault wrote extensively on the discourse of power, even as he was deeply involved in the clamor for reforms in the prison system and in the treatment of the mentally-ill.  How did he define his role in relation to the prisoners and patients whose cause he had taken up?

To a question like that, Foucault, the writer-activist, once gave this reply: “My role is to address problems effectively, really: and to pose them with the greatest possible rigor, with the maximum complexity and difficulty so that a solution does not arise all at once because of the thought of some reformer or even in the brain of a political party. The problems that I try to address, these perplexities of crime, madness, and sex which involve daily life, cannot easily be resolved. It takes years, decades of work carried out at the grassroots level with the people directly involved; and the right to speech and political imagination must be returned to them…. I’d like personally to be able to participate in this enterprise without delegating the responsibility to any specialist, much less to myself….In a word, it is necessary  to do away with spokespersons.”

In a way, we are a nation of spokespersons, of self-appointed champions and advocates.  And if there is a society in which Martin Sheen’s advocacy would be perceived as natural, that would have to be our society.  Not only are we easily dazzled by celebrity, but we remain in the grip of a strong hangover from colonial and feudal days. The disparities in wealth and power in our society are so wide we cannot imagine the poor and the powerless as ever developing the capacity to understand the complexities of their own situation or to find their way out of it.  That is why in place of painstaking grassroots work, even the best of political activists often dedicate themselves wholly to advocacy.

But I do not wish to be misunderstood.   I still believe that it was very classy of Martin Sheen to have come and express his solidarity with the urban poor.  The brutal demolition of their homes has happened so often in this country that it no longer warrants the sustained attention of the media nor the sympathy of a numbed public.  If it takes the presence of a foreign celebrity to re-focus media interest on the scandal of persistent and degrading poverty in the slums of Metro Manila, then Martin Sheen’s visit has certainly been worth every minute of it.  But there is tough work ahead, and more than any other sector of our society, the organized urban poor know that no one else can do it for them.



Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx, conversations with Duccio Trombadori, trans. by R. James Goldstein and James Cascaito, Semiotext(e), 1991.


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