The nation in our imagination

The annual celebration of a country’s Independence Day is always an occasion for kitsch.  On such a day, the state invites its citizens to pause from their ordinary preoccupations in order to imagine themselves as the collective inheritors of a great tradition of struggle and heroism.

In the past, the high moments of that tradition were selected and mounted on independence parade floats, and became the essential representations of a nation’s glorious beginnings.  From the grandstand, politicians would proudly behold this montage of freedom and achievement and passionately pledge their generation’s fidelity to the founding fathers’ original dream.

These days, however, it is more common to find such explosion of patriotic images on television, the natural home of all kinds of kitsch. Accompanied by the stirring sounds of nationalist songs, pictures of the nation’s heroes from various periods are flashed on the screen like living icons of a nation’s capacity for courage and selflessness. Sometimes a viewer might be struck by the inclusion of an unfamiliar face or name, or by the glaring omission of someone more deserving of such fame.  But the tyranny of the flashed image overcomes such critical reflection, and so the day passes without delay and the nation once more achieves itself in the imagination.

But, if, as the scholar Benedict Anderson contends, the nation is a product of the imagination, it should be interesting to examine how we Filipinos imagine our nation the rest of the year, when we are not consciously playing our role as legatees of a heroic tradition.  I suggest that the profile of the nation as an imagined community is best discerned from the images also provided by television.

It would have to be a nation of crooks and weirdos, of rapists and murderers, of drug addicts and prostitutes, of homeless children and irresponsible parents, of ignorant citizens and unaccountable leaders. It would have to be one in which life has become so debased that nothing is newsworthy unless it deals with an adult raping a child, or a drug-crazed unemployed man taking somebody hostage, or a desperate Filipino mother in Singapore taking the life of her own children.   It would have to be an ungovernable nation, fit for recolonization, in which government officials spend all their time stealing public funds, and citizens cannot turn to policemen for help because the police department is also the haven of criminal gangs.  It would have to be a nation wholly undeserving of its own flag, a nation that seems to delight in seeing its leaders play the role of sidekick to foreigners.

A nation’s self-esteem depends very much on the images by which it portrays itself.  A nation whose mass media habitually showcase its underlife, and project little of what it does to create a better life, cannot possibly look to the future with hope.  Every nation has its problems, its share of scoundrels and deviants, but you can tell a demoralized nation by the relentless way in which it mocks itself.  Such a nation confines its celebrations to what its heroes achieved in the past, and has little to report of what its nameless heroes in the present are trying to do to make its institutions work.

Neither a centennial celebration nor an annual patriotic independence parade can cure the profound self-disgust that the Filipino nation is made to feel by media’s daily portrayal of Filipino low-life.  The tone of such reportage is so completely derisive that one wonders if the media imagined itself a separate nation.

These reports seem wholly unaware of the self-referential character of the nation’s news.  We are invited to laugh at the freaks and the unfortunate among us, to shake our heads at the brazenness of the crooks in public office, or to feel sick at the consistent ability of thieves who raided the public treasury to avoid prison.  Through all this, we find ourselves giving in to a strange and distant resignation, as if what we were seeing was not our own nation.  We feel no empathy; we are detached spectators of our nation’s recurrent tragedy.

I am not at all suggesting that a country’s mass media must become the purveyors of a nation’s delusions.  But I am saying that neither should they be the unrelenting and unsympathetic mirror of all the nation’s failures and weaknesses, which makes any effort at self-improvement seem futile.  It is difficult to sustain a nation’s hope in its future in the face of a daily assault against its self-esteem.  Outside of the annual festivals, when we take time to remember ourselves as a nation, the mass media must make room for a celebration of those little achievements that make the Filipino nation a work in progress.

Pride must outweigh shame, said the philosopher Richard Rorty in his book “Achieving Our Country”.  He was talking of America, a nation that is not known for its humility, at a time in its history when its own intellectuals could only think of it in disgust.  Rorty’s words have a clearer resonance for Filipinos:  “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement….Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as it should be ashamed of.”

It is time we imagined ourselves as a nation of hope.


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