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‘Heneral Luna:’ What is nationalism?

The movie “Heneral Luna” is a remarkable film that should fuel the embers of nationalism in this country. It should be viewed by every single Filipino, especially the youth, whether here or abroad.

This is especially so because nationalism is at its lowest point in our history, or even, I’m afraid, on the verge of extinction.

 John Arcilla in the role of the revolutionary general in the movie Heneral Luna.
John Arcilla in the role of the revolutionary general in the movie Heneral Luna.

Just look at the highest official of the land, President Aquino, who has never ever pinned the insignia of the Republic on his chest, and instead prefers the yellow ribbon that was the gimmickry of American PR firms advising his mother for the February 7 election campaign in 1986. The yellow ribbon now dominates the logo of the Liberal Party, with the Philippine flag that had represented the party’s rousing call for nationalism for 60 years all but obliterated. If he had his way, Aquino would have even replaced the sun in our flag with his yellow ribbon.

Just read the sophomoric articles in an online news site written by naïve young people bragging that they are “citizens of the world,” oblivious that there is no “world” state that would give them the protection afforded by a state. The only citizens of the world are those listed in “Forbes’ Billionaires:” they don’t need nations. For them nations are just markets or places for their factories.

Not a single one of the presidential and vice presidential candidates has made nationalism an issue, even as foreigners now control our telecom and power sectors, and so many Filipinos think of abandoning the nation. What political leader now talks about the nation the same way Ferdinand Marcos in the 1960s promised he would “make the nation great again,” with one state firm’s slogan being “we’re building a nation?”

There’s an economic basis for the decline of nationalism: 5 million Filipinos have left the country for good while another 5 million have been spending most of their working lives as OFWs. If your fraternity had so many members leaving, could you pretend it’s morale has not plunged? EDSA I was transformed not into a celebration of a strengthened nation but a quasi-religious event of Mama Mary and her messiah Cory saving her faithful.

What we called a brain drain in the 1970s has become a massive leak, with the best and the brightest, from engineers to bankers to academics, yes, even top journalists, leaving the country.

Two reviews of “Luna” reveal how nationalism is so misunderstood that it stands for practically nothing.

Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito reduces nationalism to an emotion, a feeling of ‘oneness’ with our countrymen. That he doesn’t understand what nationalism is becomes evident when he claims that there is a lack of such “oneness” among those who oppose the BBL, those who lambast government for its inefficiency, or those who violate traffic laws. The latter two examples show he confuses civic duty for nationalism. His condemnation of those who are against the BBL (which he supports) on the ground it would dismember our nation shows he doesn’t really understand what a nation-state is – that two of its essential elements are: a clearly defined territory (from which a Bangsamoro would cut away) and a unified armed force serving one nation (which could be undermined by an armed force disguised as the “ Bangsamoro police”)

Xenophobia, Habito thinks

Like most of our Filipino “citizens of the world” who have long jettisoned nationalism in their world-views, Habito dismisses Philippine nationalism as a “xenophobic kind that seems to disdain anything, or anyone, foreign.” He caricatures critics against foreign monopolists as those who don’t care about “the jobs they (foreign firms) could provide for Filipinos.” That echoes the argument of the movie’s traitor Felipe Buencamino, who believed Philippine annexation into the US would bring about prosperity for this Asian nation.

It’s eerie, though, how Habito’s main reaction to the movie, which is to condemn what he claims as “xenophobia,” is similar in tone to that of my colleague, Nicole Cuunjieng. “Luna” makes Habito worried about and warns against “xenophobia” and “crab mentality.” Ms. Cuunjieng raises an alarm over the “Dangers of Heneral Luna.” I suspect she means the “dangers of nationalism.”

She depicted Luna and the insurrectionists’ thinking as: “Oppose America at all costs – forget that people were dying, that the cost of such persistence was Americans burning villages wholesale, loss of livelihood.”

But more than a century before the Americans’ adventure on to these Islas de las Filipinas, the US cavalry had become experts in “burning (Native Indian) villages wholesale,” for basically the same reason: to pacify them, so their stupid notions of earth as owned by no one would give way to privately owned plantations and cattle ranches.

Cuunjieng suspects that “a poor Visayan farmer most likely didn’t trust the Tagalog revolutionaries in the North,” and therefore, would have hesitated to join the Revolution.

However, there were, in fact, as many revolutionary movements against the Spanish and the Americans in the Visayas, and I haven’t read anything that has even hinted that Visayan revolutionaries worried about their comrades in the North.

In fact, one of the most tragic and bloody episodes of the war against the US occurred in Balangiga, Samar. It was there that the infamous Gen. Jacob Smith, after he was ordered to hunt down the heroic revolutionaries in Samar in 1903, gave his troops the orders: “I want no prisoners. I wish for you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me . . . The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness. . . . ”

image005His troops did just that. Thousands of flammable nipa huts were quickly burned and at least 2,000 Warays were killed, including women. Smith even specifically ordered all boys above 10 years of age shot. That news reached and shocked America. The New York Journal on May 5, 1902 showed a firing squad of US troops aiming at Filipino boys, with the caption: “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.”

New York magazine cartoon shocked the nation with an American general’s orders to massacre Filipinos above 10 years old.

Blame the resistance

Are we to blame the Philippine resistance to US imperialism for that? That’s just like saying that the 1987 Mendiola Massacre or the Hacienda Luisita killings would not have happened if people just stayed at home and watched telenovelas.

C’mon, the Americans were the new colonialists at the turn of that century, scouring the Philippines for gold, cheap sugar and coconut oil that was the raw material for their margarine and soap industries. They were also rushing to compete with European powers to pillage China, and planned to use the Philippines as – using the modern term – forward deployment sites to that country. The Americans killed an estimated 100,000 Filipino revolutionaries and civilians, including those who died of starvation as a result of the US Army’s favorite technique of embargoing rice supplies to suspected rebel areas.

 Where Guantanamo may have started.  US troops using “the watercure” torture against a Filipino revolutionary.
Where Guantanamo may have started.  US troops using “the watercure” torture against a Filipino revolutionary.

Cuunjieng raised the question that the revolutionaries may have just wanted “to be masters of the land . . . who nobody trusted would be anything but the new conquerors filling the shoes of the West.”

That kind of view would make us think that Mahatma Gandhi just wanted to be a new master replacing Lord Mountbatten, Mandela replacing F.W. de Klerk in South Africa, or Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam replacing some French general.

In contrast, academic Richard Javad Heydarian in his review of “Luna” in Huffington Post correctly appreciated the heroism of the Revolution: “‘Heneral Luna’ captures the zeitgeist of this noble period in Philippine history, when Western-educated Filipinos confidently demanded equality with the Western civilization and valiantly risked their lives to build an independent nation.”

Heydarian also noted in his review: “(The Philippine revolution was when) Filipinos stood as a beacon of inspiration for nationalists across the world. In From the Ruins of Empire (2012), Pankaj Mishra shows how the Philippines’ struggle for independence, first against Spain and later against the Americans, inspired nationalists across Asia. For scholars such as Benedict Anderson, the Philippines’ nationalist movement, inspired by the works of Rizal, was a trailblazer in Asia, representing the first post-colonial struggle in the continent.” (Emphasis mine)

I wonder how Asia and the world would look now if the Katipunan warriors allowed themselves to be overcome by fear that if they revolted, the Spanish or the Americans would burn their villages wholesale and their countrymen would lose their livelihoods.
To admire “Luna” more, and to understand nationalism, one would have to study again what a nation-state really is.

Most important organization on earth

First, whether you like it or not, the nation-state in the modern era is the most important organization to which a human being belongs.

It is a progression from our identification with, membership in, and loyalty to the family, then a clan, a tribe, then a region. In this country, the most important organization many Filipinos primarily identify with is the “Kingdom of God,” the Church, whether it’s Catholic, born-again whatever, or INC.

That is the result of more than three centuries of Spanish brainwashing – their main method of subjugation, because few Spanish soldiers wanted to be stationed in this goddamn typhoon country. The myth the Spanish imposed on us: We aren’t a subjugated people but are children of God under the care of the friars.

However, it is not the Church but the nation-state that makes the laws you have to obey, the kind of society you will live in, your level of prosperity, even your lifespan. It is what the nation-state does that will determine whether millions live in prosperity or in misery.

No nation on this planet was created without violence: The earliest nation states were kingdoms warring other kingdoms to delineate their territories, or as in the case of China, the victory of the state of Qin over five kingdoms. The modern state’s bureaucracy, in fact, grew out of the logistical system for efficiently getting taxes from its subjects and feeding its army.

Nation-states were also monarchies where a new middle class, which emerged because of capitalism, revolted, and beheaded most of the nobility. The only nations created not through violence are those tiny ones one like Liechtenstein tucked away in the Alps or miniscule island nations like the Maldives and Nauru.

Heydarian also correctly explains: “(reading history closely), one is confronted with the uncomfortable truth that nation-building was an intrinsically violent process that sought to shift individuals’ loyalty from their families and tribes to, in the words of Benedict Anderson, an ‘imagined community’ called nation.”

The reality is, however you define them: strata of people (the ilustrados in our case, the landowners in colonial America, the revolutionary intelligentsia) create the nation. If polls as Cuunjieng’s academic friend, Leloy Claudio, preposterously suggested determined what nations should exist, there would be no nations on earth.

Capitalism’s requirements pushed these early kingdoms-that-became-nations to subjugate less-developed communities, those backwater areas we now call the developing countries.
Guess what happened? The well-to-do youth of those colonized areas – educated in those modern nations or in their schools like Rizal, Luna, Sun Yat Sen, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong, discovered something very important.

They realized that the wealth and power of these conquering Caucasians were due, not to their physical attributes nor to some superior mental faculties, but to the fact that they had a superior form of social organization – the nation-state, which had emerged as the most efficient organization to harness the energies and talent of a group of people they call their citizens. “Kami rin!” they must have thought.

If the Spanish or the French or the Dutch or the Americans did not have a nation-state, they couldn’t have accumulated the wealth – through taxes and monopoly grants – to construct war ships, galleons and armies with the most technologically advanced weapons.

Nationalism is “merely” the realization and appreciation that the nation-state is the organization, a fraternity if you will, which is in this era of humanity is the most important organization that will determine not only your fate as a human being but also all the millions of future members of that organization. Of course, it’s not just a mental event, but actions to put that knowledge into practice.

It is also the realization that nation-states are essentially selfish, and whatever they do is for their self-interest. The Philippine tragedy has been that while most of us are selfish – with little concern for the nation – we don’t believe that nation-states like the US, more than a hundred years ago and today, are motivated purely by self-interest. That is one of the many lessons of “Luna.”

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