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Independence Day 2023 Series: National Identity and Modern Nationalism, Part 2



As I listened to American President Joe Biden speak at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, he reminded me of a separate speech he made in Pennsylvania in 2022 when he spoke about the battle for the soul of a nation. “The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God. That all are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity, and respect. That all deserve justice and a shot at lives of prosperity and consequence.”

To Biden, America is an idea that beats in the hearts of Americans, that it unites the country. “That’s who we are!” Indeed, it is true. While the country was riveted on Arlington, Memorial Day was celebrated throughout the country. The day was to honor those who served in the military and never made it back. People around the United States had stories to tell about the ultimate sacrifices made by their parents, grandparents, siblings who fought in American wars overseas.

“That’s who we are” talks about national identity not in terms of having a social security number or driver’s license, a naturalization paper or passport that identifies one as an American; Biden’s idea of these words was deeper. He admitted that the aspirations of the country’s founding have not been fully realized but averred that every generation has a duty to continue to aspire towards that end.

Thinking about these words made me reflect on what has happened to the Philippines and its current state of affairs, and as a nation leading to this year’s celebration of Independence Day. The impact of foreign domination to the Filipino people clearly runs deeper than has altered the national soul. “All are created equal in the image of God.” Three hundred years as a Spanish colony where the supermajority of its citizens became Roman Catholics and nearly 90% of the population are Christians, why is there such inequality in the land?

Over a century later under American influence, where is the promise of democracy that “all are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity, and respect?” This is clearly for another generation to solve, find its identity as a nation, if the past is prologue to the future, as the Shakespearean line alluded to. This and future generations will have to discern the true meaning of nationalism in the modern context.

So, there is a perceived tension between the good and evil that precipitates such a battle for the soul of the nation. To understand such tension, one must define such a battle in the context of Filipinos’ aspirations for national identity and truly achieving freedom, as they define it.

National identity and modern nationalism are two separate concepts that contextually go hand and hand but are difficult to grasp. Even philosophers and empiricists of knowledge from much earlier centuries disagreed based on their perception of self, human nature, and the state of nature. And so, to understand the meaning of a transcendent event (like the Declaration of Independence), one must delve deeper into such minutia to comprehend their varying views on such matters.

How does a nation retain the knowledge of its past identities through the centuries without understanding personal identities? Personal identities evolve overtime, or does it? Philosophers have debated the concept of personal identities of individual selves from day one to the next, of what constitutes who we are or were, and what happens when we die. This kind of analysis of personal identity provides a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the identity of the person over time.

Consider this. Before the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, locals already worshipped their Bathala much like the Jews who believed in their God of Israel. Along with their Eurocentric attitude that their God and their religious beliefs were supreme to that of the locals, they Christianized them in the name of the Triune God and were told that their anitos or devotional images had to be ditched because the statues of Peter, Paul, and Mary that they brought along with them, were far superior and miraculous.

Philippine revolutionaries rose to the occasion and fought hard with attendant divisiveness. When General Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898, he introduced two symbols to inspire nationalism: Julian Felipe’s Marcha Filipino Magdalo (renamed later to Marcha National Filipina) and unfurled the first Philippine Flag.

Six months later, a 23-year-old Filipino soldier named Jose Palma wrote a Spanish poem “Filipinas” that would later become the lyrics for the march. Three hundred some years later, the Americans came, trampled thy sacred shores and said the same thing that in terms of religious beliefs, the locals acted like pagans because they believed in Roman Catholicism that they practice idolatry at every turn.

Filipinos were suppressed from singing the anthem with its defiant tone but eventually, the Americans allowed it when the country was already pacified and translated the anthem to English with a new name – “Land of the Morning.” The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and hunted the Americans in the Pacific, found them in the Philippines and occupied the country.

Americans and Filipinos fought alongside to hold-off the Japanese invasion but to naught. An American general surrendered along with tens of thousands of Filipinos in the Fall of Bataan and the subsequent Death March that resulted in many deaths among the marchers. The top American/Filipino leadership escaped to Australia with a promise to return.

American General Douglas MacArthur made the Leyte liberation landing with his signature Ray Ban glasses. The special friendship and relationship were forged under such pretense, made the Philippine war veterans apply for recognition and benefits, and all sins were forgiven – but were they forgotten? The Philippine elites collaborated during the Japanese occupation, and with the Americans to build a Commonwealth then a republic. Philippine democracy was born on paper.

The HUKBALAHAP who fought independently from the Americans during World War II against the Japanese, however, wanted total freedom from the clutches of the American Eagle and began their own revolution against the new conquering power. They, however, encountered another enemy who fronted for the Americans – Filipinos who thought, spoke, and acted like their masters.

The Huks became the Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan (People Liberation Army) and their rebellion spanned three presidents (Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino and Ramon Magsaysay.) President Roxas branded the Huks as Communists, and that label stuck to this day to the present crop of Filipino freedom fighters – the New People’s Army. Just like that. One day, being a Huk was a badge of honor only to find that their ideals no longer dovetailed with rich, elitist Filipino politicians in power.

They were rebranded as anti-government forces, hunted down by the military and the Philippine Constabulary, many were killed in action or captured, imprisoned and subjected to heavy tactics torture or treatment. They are now the enemies of democracy, and the people. (To be continued)


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