Of bells and balls
For those of us who do not belong to the West, the paradox with nationalism is that it is a foreign idea. It was during the 18th and 19th century in Europe when the idea of a people united by one “spirit” first emerged. “Thisvolkgeist” (folk spirit) or “diwa” in Tagalog was said to permeate in the culture, art and language of the nation.
It finds expression in a people’s common aspirations, faith, pride and other collective feelings — indeed, the national sentiment. The nation’s leader is supposed to reflect this national sentiment in his words and gestures. As head of state, he is officially the face of the nation.
The other irony is that this idea of nationhood, a Western invention, also became one of the reasons for the fall of the old empires in Europe. As soon as the natives in the colonies were exposed to the idea of nationalism, they rose up and demanded their own freedom and independence, stressing their own collective dignity and uniqueness as a people.
Wars and revolutions are waged by arousing the national sentiment, invoking heroic pride and stoking anger and hatred at the enemy. When faced with external threats, governments incite such collective feelings as they aim to prepare the citizenry for the great sacrifice that might come ahead as a result of foreign aggression, economic isolation and other adversities.
For authoritarian regimes, which are likely to experience such reactions from the international community, nationalism becomes a very convenient excuse to rally people’s support for the state. When facing pressures to uphold commitments to universal principles, such as rule of law and basic human rights, despotic regimes justify their rule by invoking cultural relativity or differences of national character.
The nation as an “imagined community” is best represented to the people as a kind of personality, as body and soul. National symbols, folklore and other common narratives that exalt the patriotic values are used and infused with new political meanings in state propaganda.
History is revisited and revised to make it more relevant to current events, in support of government’s version of the story. The national pantheon is reopened to accommodate new “heroes” that exemplify the qualities and ideals of the Strong Leader. Textbooks in public schools have to be rewritten to indoctrinate the next generation on the revised history and values of the regime.
It thus comes as no surprise that President Rodrigo Duterte gave us another retelling of Philippine history, this time the story of the stolen bells of Balangiga, Samar. In 1901, in retaliation to the death of 48 American soldiers after a guerrilla attack, the US Army burned the whole community, killed thousands of residents and took the town’s church bells as war booty. Those bells remain in the custody of the US military.
During his State of the Nation Address, President Duterte demanded the Americans to return those bells to the Philippines as he used that story as an example of the hypocrisy of the American government, which has been criticizing him for his human rights record and his current bloody war on drugs.
The government media and the recently exposed huge army of trolls supporting the President were quick to launch their own online campaigns on the Balangiga story, styling the President as the new nationalist champion, an anti-imperialist leader who’s got the balls to fight a superpower.
And yet, this self-image also wanes at its lack of credibility as he also heaps unnecessary praises to China that is now stealing our islands and marine resources while threatening us with war if we insist on pursuing our claims on them at the international courts. In fact, sounding like a true vassal to this emerging imperialist aggressor, the President recently said that he is delighted that the Americans are losing a lot of their own big businesses to China.
So while it is good that he is now calling for the return of the Balangiga bells, which by the way is a cause that was also pursued with less hype by the previous administrations, we wonder if he could, with the same wrath, demand that China get off our islands.
Of course, he has shown many times that he is not up to it. He says China has threatened war, period. It’s a defeatist attitude made public that only emboldened China to be even more aggressive.
So who’s got balls now? Or rather, who’s got whose balls now?
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