Is patriotism passé?

Is the Philippines worth dying for? On June 28, 1892, the eve of his return to the country, Jose Rizal eloquently stated the affirmative case on this question.

Aware that he had become controversial and was likely to be hounded by the Spanish colonial authorities from the moment he stepped on the shores of the motherland, he wrote: “I have always loved my poor country and I am sure that I shall love her until death if by chance men are unjust to me; and I shall enjoy the happy life, contented in the thought that all that I have suffered, my past, my present and my future, my life, my loves, my pleasures, I have sacrificed all of these for love of her.  Happen what may, I shall die blessing her and desiring the dawn of her redemption.”

Four and a half years later, the colonial government sentenced him to die before a firing squad. Rizal was the quintessential patriot. But he had the wisdom to distinguish between the country and its government. He did not equate the people with the government that ruled it at any given time. Indeed, even as he attacked the religious orders in the Philippines, he was conscious of the difference between religion and the friars.

Encountering Rizal’s words today, the generation of young Filipinos might be awed by the national hero’s intense love for country.  But, rather than draw inspiration from it, they might just as easily dismiss it as suitable to a time when the nation was not yet free.

That would be a misunderstanding of Rizal’s ideas. More than the dream of an independent country, it was the vision of a proud, modern and prosperous nation, where citizens enjoyed equality in their rights, which spurred him to make the kind of personal sacrifice he offered to his native land. That vision, I believe, continues to demand the sacrifices of patriots.

The country is formally free, but the masses of its people remain shackled to poverty, patronage, ignorance, and superstition. There is prosperity, but it is shallow and not self-sustaining. There is wealth, but only a few privileged families control it.

Those who have much to contribute to the nation’s growth find little hope in its future.  They care even less about its past. They prefer to seek their personal fortunes abroad, many of them choosing not to come back. The things that give them shame as Filipinos increasingly overshadow the things that make them proud.

Is the Philippines worth living for?

This question came to me a few weeks ago when I was invited to contribute some thoughts to a project that aims to instill a stronger sense of patriotism among students who are recipients of government science scholarships.

The government spends enormous amounts of money to educate its citizens. Some—like its science scholars—are the recipients of special privileges to turn them into world-class scientists and engineers who can be useful to their country.  A number of them are sent abroad to pursue higher studies and specialization.

Many choose not to come back.  The successful among them become part of the international community of scholars and scientists, and the country justly takes pride in their achievements abroad.  But, the government’s persistent wish is for them to eventually come home and lend some of their time and expertise to mentor local scientists and professionals.

The question that the project was grappling with was: Does the State have a moral right to demand return service from the scientists and engineers whose careers it nurtured in their early years? If so, what is a fair return for the government support that scholars enjoy during their period of study? The present arrangement requires one year of return service for every year of scholarship at a local institution, and two years return service for every year of study abroad under government fellowship or sponsorship. Return service typically means working at a government institution, although, more and more, it requires nothing more than the obligation to work in the Philippines for a certain period and share one’s training and experience.

Nowadays, the idea of a legally binding contract might not appeal to students who have been raised in an atmosphere where all education is regarded as a right or an entitlement.  They would probably be horrified by the thought of pledging a portion of their future to an anonymous State in exchange for a scholarship.  The more they think government is corrupt, the more they would resist the idea of public service.

I was the recipient of a similar grant in the late 1960s. I felt so privileged I didn’t care how many years of return service the University of the Philippines demanded of me. As it turned out, it didn’t really matter; I had no problem spending the rest of my life in the university.

The idea of a return service contract might not even arise if every generation thought of its future as basically inseparable from that of the country from which it is sprung. But, today, we know that is no longer the case. In a world that is shrinking—where barriers of nation are becoming irrelevant—young people cannot be faulted for wanting to seek opportunities for personal growth outside the country. Abroad, a cosmopolitan ethos calls upon them to set aside narrow loyalties, so they can assume their responsibilities as citizens of one universal community.

This, to me, is the dilemma that confronts those of us who think of Rizal’s vision as an unfinished task. We continue to rely on the strong identification and commitment created by patriotism to realize Rizal’s dream of a free, democratic and prosperous country. But, we must do so in full awareness that, elsewhere in the world, patriotic sentiments are being harnessed to a bellicose and bigoted nationalism.

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