Nationalism then and now

The movie “Quezon’s Game,” which recently had a fleeting but memorable run in some local theaters, is about Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon’s effort to get the United States government to issue visas to thousands of Jews from Europe who wanted to come to the Philippines. Quezon’s insistence stemmed mainly from his profound compassion for a beleaguered people who were frantically fleeing from Hitler’s brutality. Almost as an aside, he also said that the country stood to benefit from the presence of these people who clearly had talents and skills to share.

US High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt agreed with him and supported him, but the politicians and decision-makers in Washington had a different view. They tried to dissuade Quezon from undertaking a humanitarian mission that could have costly diplomatic repercussions. It was clear they did not wish to antagonize Hitler at that point. Moreover, many of them were known to harbor anti-Semitic sentiments.

The subtext to Quezon’s humanitarian mission, however, was his determination to show the Americans that, even as Filipinos were still in a period of transition to self-rule, they could be trusted to know what was right for their country and for humanity as a whole. This kind of assertiveness is what we have long recognized as the substance of nationalism.

It is not often that one finds in the same issue, as Quezon did, the opportunity to defend two values — nationalism and international solidarity — that, today, tend to be portrayed as opposites. All across the world one hears governments invoking the primacy of their people’s welfare to justify closing their borders to the influx of refugees fleeing from persecution and poverty.

Many viewers of “Quezon’s Game” found themselves teary-eyed at the end of the film. I suspect this arose from the heartwarming realization that, despite their poverty, Filipinos were capable of a greatness of spirit that the more advanced nations seemed shockingly lacking in. For, indeed, it seems easier to agree with the common-sense notion that governments cannot be expected to help others if their own citizens’ needs have not been adequately appeased.

Early Filipino nationalism drew its themes and heroes from the revolutionary movements that emancipated our people from foreign rule and oppression. But, after independence has been achieved, what sustains national pride is what a people eventually makes of itself. This is typically measured in terms of nation-building criteria — the strength of its institutions, the dynamism of its economy, the creativity of its people and their achievements in the international arena, and the responsible roles it plays in world affairs. These criteria have little to do with the size of a country’s population or territory.

It is my view that national pride in a globalized world has everything to do with the goodwill a people earns in the eyes of the world out of their efforts to affirm and reinforce universal values and contribute to the welfare of humanity as a whole. Our people can be rich. We can end the scourge of poverty in our society once and for all. We can raise one of the most modern armies in this part of the world. But if the rest of the world sees us as an inward-looking and self-centered people that arrogantly stands above everyone else, or, worse, as a threat to others, I do not think that can be an enduring source of pride.

The complex process that integrates nation-states, economies and cultures into one global society creates new opportunities and new sources of energy never known before. Humanity could end suffering, starvation and poverty on a global scale if it wanted to. But, the same complex phenomenon we call globalization also generates deep insecurities and resentments that cannot easily be accommodated within existing institutional systems.

These resentments become the source of dark impulses that demagogues, tyrants and populist autocrats the world over freely exploit. Left unexamined, such impulses fuel the kind of nationalism that pays no heed to the sufferings and misfortunes of entire populations that lie outside a country’s narrowly defined areas of concern.

This is the nationalism that regrettably is gaining ground in today’s global society. From its perspective, the world is filled with dangers of all sorts that it cannot realistically confront as collective problems. Each nation must fend for itself. The weak have no choice but to align themselves with the strong. The universal covenants and statutes that were formed in the aftermath of the last world war in the name of a just, prosperous and peaceful world have lost their legitimacy. They have become instruments by which the world’s big powers browbeat other nations.

We cannot say these perceptions have no basis in fact. While the original concepts that inspired their establishment remain valid, some powerful countries have indeed either hijacked their operationalization, or opted not to bind themselves, fearing they could be used against them. Perhaps no other country has stood out as an example of this kind of privileged recalcitrance than the United States of America.

But, on the occasion of the 111th anniversary of our independence, it is important to ask where our own people’s long-term progress lies. Does it lie in our withdrawal from those universal covenants that we signed as a responsible member of the community of nations? Or does it lie in the stubborn optimism that, in the end, our people’s welfare is best served when we align our national aspirations and institutions with those of universal humanity?