In a globalized world, what will happen to national identity? Will it continue to have moral and political relevance in the lives of people?
Globalization compresses time and space. It creates a reality far too elusive for any single nation-state to manage. In such a setting, the national identity that the sovereign state zealously promotes could melt into irrelevance. In the postmodern age, a person’s identity is no longer hostage to place or tradition. Tradition becomes just one vocabulary among many, and identities are assembled from the fragments of multiple affiliations.
The political analyst, Richard Falk, defines the problem thus: “Patriotism in the traditional sense assumes the potential moral agency of the sovereign state. If that agency is being eroded, then the grounds of loyalty are undermined, at least from the perspective of human betterment and meaningful community.”
In the case of the Philippines, the undermining of those grounds of loyalty became serious, beginning in the 1970s, with the massive outflow of Filipino overseas contract workers or OCWs. This phenomenon was a response both to the gradual liberalization of labor markets abroad as well as to the failure of the government to provide its citizens a decent life at home. In time, this led to a moral conviction among OCWs that they owed the state nothing. Marcos even had to compel them by a decree to remit their earnings through official banks.
When a state can no longer defend and protect the vast majority of its citizens from degrading poverty, hunger, unemployment, crime, and disease – can it stop the rapid erosion of its moral and political authority over its citizens? What other value would being identified a Filipino abroad have when Philippine consulates overseas are unable to protect and defend Filipinos in trouble in other countries? What compelling reasons might a Filipino have to hang on to a passport that has also become world-wide an alert-signal to a potential illegal migrant?
I fear that Filipinos have less and less reason today to identify themselves by their nationality. “Filipino” has become a term for a maid in European or Singaporean homes, a prostitute or a dancer in Japan, and an underpaid seaman in a foreign cargo-boat. None of the proud revolutionary beginnings of our society are summoned by the emblems of our national identity. To be a Filipino abroad is to be seen as a rootless nomad, a wandering refugee from economic hardship. To be a Filipino at home is to be part of a community that has failed to uplift the lives of its poorest members, where graft is routinely regarded as an integral part of the nation’s political life, and where young girls are trained at an early age to become Japayukis.
Small wonder that many young Filipinos do not think very highly of their nationality. In a shocking study some years ago, UP professor Dr. Ma. Luisa Doronila surveyed grade school kids, and found that they would rather be American or Japanese than Filipino if they were to be born a second time.
Is this skepticism about national identity cured by the appropriate exposure to our history, culture and traditions? Not necessarily. Today, notes sociologist Anthony Giddens, “traditions have to explain themselves, to become open to interrogation or discourse.” Traditions no longer command automatic respect, as they used to in an earlier age.
In a time of global cosmopolitanism, individuals are exposed to a bewildering variety of life choices and modes of being. They encounter these in their travels, on television and the movies, and books and magazines, and in cyberspace. All at once, an identity based solely on national affiliation appears impoverished. Filipinos now ask what our ancestors never asked before: what – in terms of values – does it mean to be a Filipino? Why is it good to be a Filipino?
The heroes of our nation never needed to explain their nationalism or patriotism to anyone. For in their time, these terms were synonymous with selflessness, dignity, courage, and freedom from colonial bondage. But for a post-colonial generation, what might nationalism mean? If nationalism means a commitment to defend and advance the national interest, then it behooves thoughtful Filipinos to state what is the national interest in a society riven by glaring class differences. Whose interests are these?
It is clear that we cannot continue to preach the virtues of a nationalist consciousness to a generation that is no longer fighting a war of emancipation, without explaining how it relates to humanist notions of justice, equality, democracy, and personal freedom. By the same token, we can no longer expect a new generation to automatically embrace Filipino traditions and customs just because they are Filipino.
I do not believe that the culture appropriate to a globalized world is a naïve cosmopolitanism. But I am convinced about the need to ground our national identity in universal values that are shared by the rest of the human community. This is what a voyage into our past should teach, and what a centennial celebration should express. Otherwise, nationalism is empty, nothing more than ethnocentrism.
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