On our nation’s birthday

Whoever came up with the small-minded idea of using this year’s

Independence Day celebration to trumpet outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s alleged achievements has done the Filipino nation a great disservice.  Is nothing sacred? To conflate the nation’s progress with the Arroyo administration’s supposed accomplished agenda is to add insult to injury.  The problems of political instability, bad governance, and mass poverty that have hobbled the country throughout her nine-year presidency only show how far we are from becoming the free and prosperous nation we set out to be.  Ms Arroyo ought to slink away in shame than steal the limelight from the nation on its birthday.

A good starting point for a reflection on our continuing saga as a people is to recall the day we secured our independence from our colonial masters.  For a long time, this fell on July 4th, which, not coincidentally, is also American Independence Day.

America had wanted us to think of our independence as a gift from a benevolent mentor. This did not sit well with our nationalist historians who wanted future Filipinos not to forget how their ancestors had waged a long struggle for self-determination against both Spain and the United States. In the 1960s, President Diosdado Macapagal responded to this nationalist clamor by re-setting Philippine Independence Day to June 12th , the day the victorious revolutionary forces proclaimed independence from Spain in Kawit Cavite. Ironically, forty years later, his daughter Gloria would devalue the meaning of this special day by making Independence Day a moveable date subject to the expediency of holiday economics.

By assimilating Independence Day every year into a long vacation weekend, Ms Arroyo unwittingly reinstates the meaning of independence as a gift from the powerful rather than as the hard-won fruit of an arduous struggle by a people.  In this we see clearly the contradictory forces that have historically been at work in the formation of modern nations.

For more than 300 years, we were a subject people, a product of conquest.  We were an integral part of the patrimony of the Spanish monarch.  Then, almost by impulse, we began to rebel against the excesses of Spanish rule.  In the course of this long unfocused rebellion, we discovered a sense of community among ourselves that went beyond the ties of language, kinship, and ethnicity.  That realization eventually paved the way for our emergence into a selfconscious people.  This is the narrative of nationalist awakening that furnishes the principal justification for the present Filipino nationstate.

At the point of our emancipation from Spanish colonialism, however, Spain ceded to the United States the fiction of its remaining sovereignty over the islands and its people.  America seamlessly took over and scoffed at our claims to being a sovereign people.  While we had become aware of our shared fate as a people, we were far from being sovereign in our own land.  We remained subjects, a conquered people all over again.

The Filipino revolutionary war against America was short-lived.  It was decisively crushed by American troops with superior arms.  Total US hegemony was accomplished subsequently by the tools of public education.  Mis-education, as Renato Constantino termed it, swiftly produced a docile population.  But, pockets of resistance remained, becoming the nurturing ground for new generations of anti-colonial Filipinos.

In their hands, nationalism became a revolutionary concept, as opposed to its European counterpart which had origins in bourgeois domination and racial subordination.  In its subaltern and populist form, nationalism melded with socialist ideas, almost in defiance of the prevailing Marxist internationalist view of the time that the working people of the world did not have a fatherland.  In the soil of the former colonies, nationalism, wrote Hardt and Negri (Empire), offered “a line of defense against domination by more powerful nations” and “an ideological weapon to ward off the dominant discourse that figured the dominated population and culture as inferior.”  Such nationalism has been politically suppressed in various ways, forcing it eventually to go underground.

In societies like ours, nationalism also offered the modern promise of social integration of populations previously splintered along linguistic, religious, and ethnic lines.   This unification has a downside to it, however.  The quest for a national identity sometimes becomes so dominant as to be intolerant of the multiplicity of cultures and traditions within the nation itself.  Herein perhaps lies the supreme paradox of nationalism.  The forces of emancipation can easily become the forces of tyranny and domination.  No one can probably attest to this better than the Moros of Mindanao.

Filipino nationalism attended the birth of our nation 112 years ago.  In contrast to its European version, our nationalism at one point became a vehicle for the realization of popular aspirations.  It has since shed much of its progressive function. Today it mostly finds expression in pop markers of national identity – patriotic logos on t-shirts, caps, watches, bags, and bandannas, etc — than in sustained efforts to develop our country and people, build on our cultural heritage, and map the future of our nation in a complex and uncertain world.