A quiet debate has been percolating in the back of my mind, as well as that of many others, on when it will be okay to go back to normal.
Or, more accurately, when it will be perceived to be okay to go back to normal: to prepare to celebrate Christmas, to buy a new phone or, most relevant to the usual subject of this space, to eat out in restaurants.
People have been carefully editing the joyful aspects of life that occur in tandem with relief efforts and updates on the death toll of the typhoon from social media, refraining from posting things as wonderful and and joyous as the birth of their first child, or birthday greetings for a loved one.
America, for its renewed chest-thumping, has never been the same nation since 9/11, and it is my gloomy prognosis that the catastrophe will take a great toll on the people’s relationship with the government, which has always been cynical anyway but at least carried the hope of renewed faith in leaders. The ultimate ugliness of the typhoon is not its rage but its aftermath, and the extinguished optimism that the government could protect its citizens.
No leadership in the world, no matter how powerful, can stop a storm. But governments that work can, and should, carry the living to safety and rebuild communities and, eventually, infrastructure.
“Go shopping,” the Americans were told, after 9/11, reportedly by then-president George W. Bush. The rationale behind this was that the economy had to continue moving, or move at a faster rate, to overcome the negative effects of the catastrophe.
This is what some people are urging us to do in the Philippines, to continue to keep the engines running at a crucial time of the year when a disproportionate amount of the GDP is generated. Continue to eat out, while continuing to give, especially in restaurants that pledge a percentage of profits to charity.
This idea works best in countries where tax is collected efficiently and transparently, and even then economists of different political persuasions will give different answers as to whether it is an effective solution. It’s an even more dubious proposition in the context of the Philippine economy and the government structures in place, despite the best efforts for reform on the part of President Aquino.
It’s okay to eat out, but don’t delude yourself that you’re doing it for the country. And even though I’m far from being a rabid right-wing, free-market capitalist, I believe that Christmas shouldn’t be canceled and that we are still entitled to our own personal joys and celebrations even as we mourn with the nation.
Many restaurants and retailers are pledging percentages of profits to charity. The more cynical have cried foul, accusing them of hypocrisy or of using the catastrophe as a marketing ploy. The message behind “Five percent of your meal will be donated to the victims” is, ultimately, it’s okay to come in and eat, you don’t have to feel guilty.
But did we really need a marketing tarpaulin to tell us that? No one can really know whether the motivations behind the efforts of business owners, or of anyone, are opportunistic or genuine, or a mix of both; and perhaps they are ambivalent even to themselves.
If the restaurant owner wants to donate, he has every right to do so or not. It is his conscience, his giving, his charity. If you feel it appropriate to eat out, by all means do so, even in restaurants that do not trumpet their contributions.
But the last priority in your decision-making should be the righteousness brigade on social media, each of whom is more concerned, more well-informed, more moral and more giving than you are, and here’s the receipt to prove it.
They will judge you for your temerity to eat out and celebrate; let them do so.
The only thing worse than a country losing faith in the idea of government itself is a society that condemns joy. The sorrow of a man who has had his family washed away by a wall of water makes the happiness that we have our loved ones with us for one more year that much more acute—and we should have the license to celebrate.
To hear of entire communities that have been displaced makes it that much more poignant when family and friends who work overseas come home for the holidays and want nothing more than to catch up with old friends and to taste real food again. Yet there are those who would cast a frown on these festivities.
It is possible to feel more than one emotion at a time. The pain of loss we feel as a nation makes the happiness that comes our way that much keener, and we mourn the dead as we celebrate that, and those, for whom we have to be thankful.
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