IN the span of three short days, a former mayor of the country’s remotest major city, and a Filipino-Australian born in far north Queensland have strengthened — electrified really — our sense of nationalism.
The easiest way to see this as not an exaggeration is to think of that exclamation expressed, separately, when the Balangiga bells were returned on December 15 to the Philippines after President Duterte’s intense lobbying and when Catriona Gray won the Miss Universe title on December 17: “Proud to be a Filipino!”.
To realize this on a deeper level, one has to understand the groundbreaking insights on nationalism of the late Cornell University political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson, which he explained in his academic bestseller, the 1983 book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
For starters, we have to disabuse our minds that, contrary to what an unfortunately growing number of “globalists” — really little brown Americans — claim, it is nationalism, or the intensity of a people’s sense of belonging to this association called the nation, that has been the biggest factor in all countries’ growth and prosperity.
This is an incontestable fact of history around the globe. It is only when these countries have become rich nations that they have espoused “globalism,” a tactic one Korean nationalist economist claimed was a form of “pushing the ladder away” after they’ve reached the summit of their countries’ development.
Most important organization
The nation is the most important organization modern man belongs to since its situation mostly determines his fate. Just think of the grossly contrasting fates of an ordinary Filipino worker’s family if he stays here or migrates to the US.
Anderson pointed out though how difficult it is for a people to be nationalistic, since the nation 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 110 million kababayan (countrymen). But in his mind, when he recognizes and greets somebody, say, in a strange foreign land and calls him kabayan, he does so because from his childhood, he was taught to imagine a community called the Philippines.
Jose Rizal’s genius was 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, the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
Imagining not easy
To imagine a community is not easy, even if the necessary but insufficient conditions exist, such as a shared territory, language, history and nuanced but similar genetic features. There has to be myriad rituals (e.g., the singing of the national anthem at the flag-raising ceremony), martyrs (who make the supreme sacrifice to further the community’s aspirations, as Rizal did), and events (which remind us that we share the same fate, that we are in the same “boat”). These are intended to wrench us out of our ego-centered (or clan-centered) consciousness, and merge it with the community.
But heroes need not only 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. 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?
Manny Pacquiao, who struggled against poverty to be the greatest boxer on earth, is one such hero. One can feel Filipinos’ sense of community electrified in restaurants, basketball courts, and even pubs where his fights were televised, live and projected into a huge screen, during which and where there were no longer rich Filipinos, poor Filipinos, but simply kababayans wildly cheering a Filipino. (The Yellows expectedly tried to douse the surge of nationalism, with BIR chief Kim Henares claiming Pacquiao didn’t pay taxes on his prize winnings.)
Catriona Gray’s victory as Miss Universe inarguably made her such a heroine, perhaps not as great as Manny, but still an embodiment of Filipinos’ aspirations to be an admired people, and therefore helping us imagine our nation.
As one feature article in Vera Files, a blog which normally emphasizes the negative in every single event under Duterte’s watch, said: “There are two things that unite Filipinos: a Manny Pacquiao fight and Miss Universe. The latest Catriona Gray victory is the proof. Getting the crown had become the national obsession…”
Slums of Tondo
What Catriona also did to imagine the nation, and not just be a beauty queen winner, was to mention Tondo which is as Filipino as any place, and one of the oldest communities (existing at least by AD 900) that would be part of the capital of the nation. What she said was: “I work a lot in the slums of Tondo, Manila and the life there is poor and very sad. And I’ve always taught myself to look for the beauty of it and look in the beauty of the faces of the children and to be grateful.”
While little minds claimed she was romanticizing poverty, with the puniest Yellow mind even demanding that she should have protested the alleged extrajudicial killings in the area, Gray reminded us with that statement that we as nation have to help our compatriots trapped in poverty in one of the oldest places of the nation. After all, what use is an organization called the nation, if it cannot lift its members out of poverty?
But a nation is imagined not only in its victories but in its defeats, its tragedies. Duterte’s demand for the return of the Balangiga bells (which many millennials I suspect hadn’t even heard of) was a vivid imagining of the nation.
He said in his state of the nation address in 2017: “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit ‘yun sa amin (Please return them. It is painful for us),”
One can almost imagine Duterte (and by identification, us) time-travelling to the abandoned Balangiga town in the early 1900s, weeping over the deaths of thousands of Filipinos massacred by US infantrymen, and asking, as a balm to the pain of grief, the return of the church bells, which the Americans insultingly took as war trophies. Wasn’t that an amazing exercise of imagining the nation?
And a nation’s tragedy turned into a triumph is one of the best imaginings of a nation. That is what Duterte achieved as he raised his fisted hand in front of the Balangiga bells, now back in the Philippines.