Inquirer News Service
AFTER THE MASSACRE at Amritsar, Mahatma Gandhi said to British officials led by the viceroy of India: “I beg you to accept that there is no people on earth who wouldn’t prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.”
About 10 years earlier, a Filipino said basically the same thing: “I prefer a government run like hell by Filipinos to a government run like heaven by Americans.” It was a sound bite heard around the world. But what all too few recalled was the essential sentence that came next: “Because, however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it.”
To this day, there are Filipinos who, whenever something goes wrong, cackle and say, “Look, Quezon got his wish. We have a government run like hell!” As if it is something uniquely Quezonian-and Filipino-to want to run our own lives, badly as the case may be, rather than entrust it to the guidance of foreigners.
What Quezon and Gandhi said roughly a decade apart is the essence of nationalism: a people, a nation, must have the chance to make good and bad decisions, because there is simply no substitute for decisions made for one’s self, by one’s self. Government will not always be good, leaders will not always be the best, but in the end, a government and its leaders must be selected by the people and no one else. Love of country, nationalism, requires that a people have the freedom both to make mistakes and achieve great things. After all, the lives of individuals as well as nations require learning, and one cannot learn without, at times, doing wrong or making mistakes. Surely it is better to make one’s own mistakes, to collectively endure errors of one’s choosing, rather than undertake the same risks at the direction of a colonial power.
Nationalism is not my country, right or wrong, or everything for my countrymen at the expense of all aliens, but rather a more fundamental appreciation that one belongs to a people who have a country, and that the destiny of that country is in the hands of a people free to make errors but at the same time rectify their mistakes. It involves a sense of stewardship over a particular territory that geography and history have made the primary responsibility of no one else on earth but those who inhabit that territory.
When, as a child, I first asked what nationalism meant, I was simply told, “It means love of country.” There are many kinds of love, as we all discover as we grow up, but fundamental to understanding love is that it requires a sense of self-worth and dignity. You cannot love and be loved, first of all, if you do not love yourself. And you cannot love properly if your love is the kind that is dependent merely on the approval of others, or measured by what you might believe to be the superior love of others. To love one’s country is to love one’s land and people with all their flaws, despite all their wrongs; and to maintain, at the same time, a conviction that one’s love for nation and nationhood will result in a better, stronger country.
As a child, every Aug. 19, I would look at the statue of Quezon in Letran and wonder what it was he was portrayed as being in the act of saying. Eventually I asked one Dominican, who looked at me sternly and thundered, “He is saying, ‘I love the Philippines!'” And the answer satisfied me.
Many years later, I came across a recording of one of Quezon’s speeches, and it is the only one I have committed to memory both due to its brevity and its being to the point. The speech was recorded in the 1920s, when he was first diagnosed with tuberculosis and assumed he didn’t have much longer to live. It goes like this:
“My fellow citizens: there is one thought I want you always to bear in mind. And that is: that you are Filipinos. That the Philippines are your country, and the only country God has given you. That you must keep it for yourselves, for your children, and for your children’s children, until the world is no more. You must live for it, and die for it, if necessary.
“Your country is a great country. It has a great past, and a great future. The Philippines of yesterday are consecrated by the sacrifices of lives and treasure of your patriots, martyrs, and soldiers. The Philippines of today are honored by the wholehearted devotion to its cause of unselfish and courageous statesmen. The Philippines of tomorrow will be the country of plenty, of happiness, and of freedom. A Philippines with her raised in the midst of the West Pacific, mistress of her own destiny, holding in her hand the torch of freedom and democracy. A republic of virtuous and righteous men and women all working together for a better world than the one we have at present.”
These are the basics we often overlook, but which are the requirements for true love of country: A sense of identity. A sense of belonging. A sense of responsibility and accountability to the past, to the present, and to the future. Most of all, a dream of a country that is no one’s but our own, and for which we must always retain the fondest dreams to inspire us as we go about our daily lives.