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Why Pacquiao matters much in the imagining

A WEEK after my wife Getsy and I came back to our country after four and a half exciting years in Greece representing our country, I was fortunate to have a chance to commune in a deep way and in the most unique circumstances with my fellow citizens last Sunday. This was at the fully packed Bubba Gump restaurant at Greenbelt. There I cheered loudly with my fellow Filipinos for Manny Pacquiao as he made boxing history.

I’m not being sarcastic or melodramatic. Pacquiao that Sunday was the high priest in a communion—very rare for us, unfortunately—that strengthened our republic. In his insightful 1983 book “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,” the respected Cornell University political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson propounded his ground-breaking theory that the nation—a republic if it is a democratic one—the most important community modern man says he belongs to, and often claims he will die for, is really an “imagined community.” It is different from “real communities” such as the family, the clan, the tribe, or even the fraternities to which it is just natural to have an allegiance to, since we get to be acquainted with each and every member of these organizations. These are after all simply collections of relatives or friends we know.

In nations though, even in the smallest ones, the members, as Anderson put it, “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them. Yet, members must have in their minds ‘the image of their communion’.”

A Filipino will never ever meet each of his kababayan. But in his mind, when he recognizes and greets somebody, say, in a strange foreign land and calls him kabayan, he does so, since from his childhood, he was taught to imagine a community called the Philippines. Jose Rizal’s greatness—in contrast to the action-oriented Andres Bonifacio—is that he was the first Filipino to present the imagining of the Philippines not in a dry, theoretical way but in two dramatic novels which used techniques critics say even presaged modern films.

To imagine a community is not easy, even if the necessary but insufficient conditions exist, such as a shared territory, language, history and nuanced genetic features. There has to be myriad rituals and tools to pull out, as it were, an individual’s ego-centered consciousness, and merge it with the community—such rituals as the singing of the national anthem, national day celebrations, and the commemoration of the community’s important events, or such tools as the newspaper, the arts, and even museums.

One of the most important tools for the imagining is the existence and commemoration of its heroes, especially its martyrs. This is because they are the perfect embodiments of the nation, having sacrificed their lives, not for rewards in an afterlife but for the survival of their imagined community.

But heroes need not be martyrs who die fighting for the survival of their nation. They could be members of the community who excel in their fields, especially if they have done this against all odds (think Charles Lindbergh or even the Beatles). For what better way to convince an individual to be a dedicated member of the community if not to demonstrate that by being a member, he could share somehow in the qualities of that hero?

Pacquiao, who struggled against poverty to be the greatest boxer on earth, fits perfectly the role of a hero helping us imagine our nation.

Pacquiao’s power to strengthen the imagining of our community owes much though to modern media technology, just as print media made the first imaginings of nations possible. Real time coverage of the fight allowed us, as it were, to be in Pacquiao’s consciousness itself. That wasn’t the case for Flash Elorde, or Ninoy Aquino. The realm in which Pacquiao proved his excellence—boxing—is also the most suitable for imagining nations as it simulates, as in the case of the Olympics or even Asian Games, the ancient way for competitions among imagined communities—wars. (Contrast that to the impact of the excellence, for instance of Lea Salonga or Charice Pampengco.)

Marxism, with its view that society is divided into irreconcilable exploitative and exploited classes, could not explain the emergence and strength of nations starting in the 19th century. How could nations ever survive if it is torn by class struggles?

Anderson’s theory of imagined communities filled this lacuna in Marxist theory. As he put it, “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

Thus, at Bubba Gump last Sunday, the capitalist owner, the dishwashers, the waiters and waitresses, rich balikbakayan, a former ambassador, young call-center staff, forgot their identities and social status, even their political persuasions, in the hour or so of that welterweight world championship fight, and revered their “Filipino-ness” in Pacquiao. It was a secular high mass celebrating the nation.

Our problems as a nation are to a great extent due to the fact that we have been extremely handicapped in imagining our community. For 400 years, the Spanish colonizers, represented mainly by friars, made us believe—until today for many Filipinos—that our community, next to the clan, was the Kingdom of God. And then for at least the next two decades, again even now for many Filipinos, the imagined community is either Chicago or California.

We are starved of rituals and heroes to help us imagine our nation. That is why Manny matters much.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer