Column: Marian, Karylle and the politics of virtue

Published on December 23, 2008

I have no wish to subject the beautiful actress Marian Rivera to ridicule or innuendo, but something she said last week startled me into thought, and made me reconsider the politics of virtue in a new light.

Obviously I am not referring to her very public quarrel with the luminous singer Karylle, or the past or future shape of Karylle’s relationship with actor Dingdong Dantes. (Like millions of other Filipinos, I too would like to know the answer to the essential question: What did Dingdong do, and when did he do it?)

I am referring to Marian’s outburst on Dec. 15, when she faced the movie press. She criticized Karylle for implying, through her now-famous answering smile, that she, Marian, was pregnant; reading her series of statements online, I was at first entertained and then, to quote Tom Wolfe in “The Painted Word,” “I noticed something!”

It happens, although all too rarely: Sometimes a throwaway line or an ordinary statement hits you with the revelatory power of a scientific experiment or a scriptural passage (choose your poison). Famously, for journalists of a certain age, it happened with Wolfe, who suddenly understood the vapidity of much of modern art when, one fine Sunday morning, he was “jerked alert” by a New York Times critic’s matter-of-fact assumption presupposing that, without a theory, you can’t see a painting. (Hence, the “painted word.”)

Now I do not know if my translation will do Marian’s outraged sentiments justice, so let me quote an entire passage from the Philippine Entertainment Portal report in the original (available, as it happens, on the website of Marian’s television network). “Na-offend talaga ako. Hindi naman ako tanga at lalong hindi na ako bata para magkamali ng ganoon na magpabuntis. Marami pa akong gustong mangyari sa career ko at kung mangyayari man yun, ako na ang magsasabi sa inyo.”

My translation: “I was really offended. I’m not dumb enough and what’s more I am not naive enough to make a mistake like getting myself pregnant. I have many plans for my career, and if that ever happens, I will be the first to tell you.”

In other words, Marian felt offended not because she was accused of immorality but because she was accused of stupidity.

I understand that the actress is enjoying the flush of success after a false start in show business. Her acute awareness of the mistakes that can waylay anyone’s career plans, therefore, is moving proof of the dues she has already paid. But her answer, the wound her pride sustained because she thought she was being accused of being dumb and insufficiently committed to her career, of not knowing how to play the game at its highest levels, betrays an altogether different concept of honor.

For Marian, or so it seems to me, honor consists not so much of personal integrity but the highest degree of professionalism.

* * *

I am reminded of another show business controversy which had the similar effect of disorienting me. I do not remember exactly what it was now, except that it involved a pair of brothers in an exchange of words with (if I am not mistaken) Kris Aquino. The show I happened to be listening to on dzMM was anchored by stalwarts of the entertainment press, one of whom memorably dismissed the brothers’ side with a cutting remark. “These brothers have some gall,” he said, more or less in these words and to the same effect. “They’re not even promoting anything.”

The inversion of the values of the ordinary world seemed to me to be complete: The fact that one side to a controversy had nothing to promote was taken against them as proof of insincerity. Surely it should have been the other way around?

* * *

This is not a broadside at the entertainment industry, of which I am (like many others) an avid consumer. And I certainly want to make a distinction between reporting and mere gossip. I am also keenly conscious that the same inversion of values takes place in other fields, politics and journalism among them. But the model of government we chose for ourselves is a republican democracy—and that model is based on the idea of public virtue.

If I understand the theory correctly, public virtue does not mean the Christian values (such as meekness of spirit) but the civic virtues. John Adams, in one of his many letters, set the tone from the start of the American democratic experiment: “Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.”

Reinhold Niebuhr thought these civic virtues of honor, power, glory were ultimately incompatible with the Christian virtues. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summed it up: “The obligation of the individual, Neibuhr wrote, is to obey the law of love and sacrifice: ‘from the viewpoint of the author of an action, unselfishness must remain the criterion of the highest morality.’ But states cannot be sacrificial. Governments are not individuals. They are not principals but agents … In short the individual’s duty of self-sacrifice and the state’s duty of self-preservation are in conflict.”

Which brings me back to Marian. Could it be her concept of honor is more public virtue than private, more becoming that of a collective than an individual? There is a positive passion, but this time for the personal good.


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