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The ‘nation’ thing? We have a problem there

In his insightful 1983 book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Cornell University political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson propounded his theory that the nation, the most important community modern man belongs to and often claims he will die for, is really an “imagined community.”

It is different from “real communities” such as the family, clan, tribe, or even fraternities to which it is natural to have an allegiance since we actually meet, talk, and interact with each and every member of these social groups.

In nations though, citizens, 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.

To imagine a community is not easy, even if the necessary conditions exist, such as a shared territory, language, history and nuanced genetic features. There has to be myriad rituals, beliefs, and national heroes (Paquiao?) to transform an individual’s ego-centered consciousness, and merge it with the community, as it were. These are rituals such as the singing of the national anthem, marking national celebrations such as our Independence Day today, as well as tools such as media, the arts, and museums. Tragically, wars make it easier for people to imagine their community. Strong nations are those whose citizens imagine their countries as if they were so real as to die for.

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 they are 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.”

Our big problem is that we have been extremely handicapped in imagining our community. For 400 years, the Spanish colonizers, represented mainly by friars, made us believe that our community, next to the clan, was the Kingdom of God.

In fact, the usual term for nation, bayan (bansa is a relatively new word imported from Malay) refers to “town”, as in “pupunta ako sa bayan.” And what is the town? It was forcibly created by the Spaniards to facilitate their conquest, with the Church built at the center of the town, and peasants required to stay there in the nighttime. “Sambayanan”, a term activists in the 70s intoned with solemnity, actually referred to the congregation of the faithful in the town’s church—i.e., the Catholic Mass.

Until today, the Catholic Church and other religious organizations—from the Opus Dei to El Shaddai—are viewed by majority of Filipinos as their most important community, and not the nation. So even if politicians steal from the state’s coffers, which weaken its ability to forge a nation, these people don’t feel anything wrong, as long as they regularly attend mass, and donate millions of pesos even, to their Church.

This community called the Philippines has also been fragmented by massive migration, both permanent and temporary as in the case of OFWs, which account for about a fourth of our work force. In the case of those who migrated, they have obviously chosen another community to imagine—leaving those left here striving to leave this community.

While many OFWs ironically become more nationalistic, i.e., strive to imagine the nation when they are abroad, they are handicapped in doing so by their sheer distance from their homeland. As they spend more and more years abroad, the imagining of the community gets harder that they focus solely on their actual communities, that is, their barkadas (usually province mates) or Filipino associations abroad.

Our biggest handicap as a nation though has been our elite. In contrast to the ruling classes in other countries who are credited for building their people’s sense of nationhood, our elite have historically not only allied themselves with our Spanish and then American conquerors, but also strived to become like them.

Even at the start of our recorded history, that is, when Magellan arrived in Cebu, the Filipino elite was not just a Datu Lapu-Lapu who fought the invader but a Rajah Humabon who was not only very hospitable to the intruder but embraced quickly his religion—so the Spaniards would help him defeat his enemies. Humabon and not Lapu-Lapu has been our elite’s role model.

Ask any business magnate you know, and the likelihood is that their children studied in an American university and live abroad as citizens, mostly in the US. A disturbing trend is that our Chinese-Filipino businessmen even send their children to Chinese schools here. To learn Mandarin, which will be very useful to them when they become businessmen, one father told me. But what kind of national consciousness would that son have?

Most of our elite considers the country merely as a place to make money in, and Filipinos as a horde of consumers. A big chunk of their assets are kept in the US, Spain, Singapore, and now China. Having a residence, a home, in those countries—for the rich from the Ayalas to Manny Pacquiao to Loren Legarda—has long become de rigueur for the rich, old and new.

I do hope I’m wrong. But how can we build a nation, when our elite, and now a big chunk of the “middle class”—OFWs and those who have migrated to the US—don’t really care about this imagined community?

The nation-thing? We have a problem in that department.

* * *

Nelson Navarro, a well-respected intellectual and biographer sent the following comment in the newspaper’s Internet version on my column last week on Mr. Cesar Virata:

As an alumnus of the college when Cesar Virata was dean, I am offended by the very thought that his name will be forever attached to the university and the nation he has dishonored beyond words.

He was after all a major pillar of the dictatorship he served to the very last minute and which he has never repudiated to this day. He has blood in his hands and the ruin of the economy happened during his watch beside Marcos. He can never feign innocence and use his being a “technocrat” as a defense.

This amounts to mental dishonesty exhibited by Hitler’s minions at the Nuremberg Trials who brazenly argued that the Holocaust “would have been worse” if they had not served the Fuehrer hand and foot–and immensely benefited from the effort.

I am told that it was a cabal led by a departing regent who maneuvered to “honor” his ally and co-conspirator under Marcos rule by bypassing the University Council and springing a surprise on the aghast Fred Pascual and the Board of Regents. It was a railroad, plain and simple in the Marcosian tradition. Pascual and company should have stood up against this cabal but allowed themselves to be bamboozled. They should redeem themselves and join the UP community in exposing this dirty trick and reversing their misguided decision.

Cesar Virata can spare us all a nasty fight by quietly “refusing” the “honor” that he did not ask for. We will gladly suspend disbelief. On the other hand, I think he should dig his heels and allow UP an honest-to-goodness soul-searching that it never had after the dictator fell and his minions turned balimbing. We never learned and now we have Virata to remind us that the darkness remains.