Nationalism in a global age

Rizal refined his concept of nationalism while living in Europe.  It was the age of colonialism, when the right or duty of a “higher”  power to occupy a “lower” people in the name of civilization was taken for granted as natural.

In the hands of the colonized, nationalism became a progressive weapon because it provided the framework for asserting the right to nationhood of all peoples who felt unified by a shared past and were conscious of a common destiny.  Thus, civilization became a relative term. And Europe was not more civilized than its colonies; it was just different.

Like most students brought up in the nationalistic environment of the University of the Philippines , I had always assumed that nationalism was a universal value, and that its profession as a political standpoint was always progressive.  It therefore came as a mild shock for me, while a student in Europe in the 1970s, to be told that nationalism could also be a reactionary force, and that the sentiments that fueled it served as the  vehicle for fascism in Germany.

From then on, it became necessary for me to explicitly remind myself of the specific origins of Third World nationalism, and not to assume that my listeners would always have the anti-colonial struggles in mind when they hear the word nationalism.  Indeed, in most parts of Europe, nationalism remains a bad word.  It represents an extreme form of exclusionary politics  based on race, nationality and ethnicity. Its common targets are the immigrant populations, including overseas Filipino workers.

Today, right-wing political parties like the National Front in France are expanding their political base, largely on the strength of their appeal for a France reserved for the French.  This kind of politics has found resonance in Britain, Germany and, more recently, in Australia.  In these societies, nationalism represents a defensive reaction to the influx of foreign workers and immigrants, as well as to the challenges posed by globalization in every sphere of life.

It is ironic.   But sometimes the Philippine left’s fulmination against globalization sounds so much like the European right’s own nationalistic noise.  I wonder what would happen  if roles were suddenly reversed, and the Philippines found itself no longer the source but the destination of immigrant workers.  I’m afraid it would be hellish for  lower class foreign workers to live here.

Our prejudices against other races, except those whose skins are whiter than ours, are incredible.  We often ridicule their way of life, forgetting that westerners often joke about our own manners.  Filipinos who have made it abroad also tend sometimes to be  intolerant of Chicanos and Afro-Americans.  If they could, they would resolutely avoid living in neighborhoods populated by them.

Many Filipinos are, however, slowly discovering   the virtue of a cosmopolitan attitude, not so much in their own country, but abroad where they have had to find work and live side by side other peoples. Living in such culturally pluralistic situations, they have simultaneously found a need to recover and recreate the culture of their ancestors as a source of identity, but without being ethnocentric.  Anthony Giddens’s description of this change is very apt:  “The cosmopolitan is not someone who renounces commitments – in the manner, say, of the dilettante – but someone who is able to articulate the nature of those commitments, and assess their implications for those whose values are different.”

To be a cosmopolitan – a citizen of the cosmos – does not mean renouncing nationalism or obliterating the memory that grounds us to the country of our ancestors.  But it does mean declaring our commitments and intelligently defending them instead of assuming them to be right all the time or appropriate for everyone.  In a world in which more and more people no longer feel bound to live and die in the country of their birth, in which cultures have become mobile and one’s identity is no longer rooted in geography, there will be no room for nationalist fundamentalism.

In October last year, I traveled through Germany as an official guest of that country.  In Berlin, I was met, briefed and escorted by a woman who was born in Holland and continued to hold a Dutch passport.  She has lived most of her adult life in Berlin.  Her husband was born in Spain and became a naturalized German.  She was surprised that I had expressed surprise at learning that her nationality was Dutch.

In Hamburg, the same thing happened.  My official escort was not a German national but a Swiss who was born in Vietnam but grew up and studied in Germany.  Married to a German, she said it was convenient for her to hold on to her Swiss passport.  Her nationality, she assured me, had nothing to do with her political views or personal preferences.  I began to be embarrassed about this fixation with nationality, which is common among Filipinos.

The nation-state is, of course, far from fading away.  The world still transacts its business through nation-states.  But this is not the same as saying that identities are still singularly determined by accidents of birth, race, ethnicity or nationality.  The true social revolution of our time is that persons are now freer to choose who they should be.


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