As I write this on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Philippine independence, the temptation is strong to dwell on the many hardships before us. Exorbitant fuel prices, rising food costs, low wages, a crumbling educational system, corruption in the high places, unchecked criminality, and a selectively toothless justice system: are all these worth our independence? The late Manuel L. Quezon's boast comes to mind: "I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans." Ah, the prophetic irony!
But when you get right down to it, are a strong economy, a law-abiding citizenry, and a bright and glowing future all it takes to make a country? Are these ideals worth fighting for, even worth dying for? Are these even ideals at all? To be sure, these are good things to which we must strive, but if that is all there is, then there's no fight that's needed. One only needs to line up for a ticket and a visa for greener pastures -- patriots need not apply. That largely has been our country's default solution of late: run, run away.
If abandonment comes all too easily, it's because the idea of a country is so hard to visualize, much less internalize. A country, after all, is nothing more than a political fiction; we might profess our love for it, but what is it exactly? Is it merely the geography bounded by imaginary lines? Is it ancestral heritage? Is it history? Is it the people?
It's hard to be inspired by mere latitudes and longitudes on a map; a map, after all, is merely an abstraction. Ancestral heritage edifies only those on the fortunate side of an ethnographic and historical accident; more often than not it devolves into a narrow xenophobia. At best it disenfranchises; at worst, it leads to ethnic genocide.
History? History is the end result of a love of country, rather than its cause. True history is experienced, passed on, and imbibed, rather than force fed through the filter of prevalent political ideas.
Is it the people, then? In our lips and in our minds, we have made our people our ultimate virtue, what with our protestations of devotion to our "kapwa-tao" and "kapwa-Pilipino"; but not so in our hearts and in our deeds, not always, at any rate. Divided as we are along class lines, we often treat each other execrably, whether in the Philippines or out of it.
So what is a country? A country, I believe, begins with a tangible experience -- a "what-is." That "what-is" finds its beginnings in the land: not the land demarcated in maps, but the very land you grew up in, the land of your childhood, whose soil is beneath your feet, whose fragrance is on your nose, whose sounds are in your ears, whose blemishes you embrace. Patriotism can only take root in this sacred connection, so long as it is not traded cheaply for transitory shekels.
It is through this land that one finds a connection with people who share the same experience. It is in this that one finds one's heritage -- not as some ethnographic accident that divides, but in a shared experience that unites. And out of this union in love of country comes history.
From the experience of the "what-is", the imagination must process it into a "what-it-will-be." If one truly loves, one does not love blindly but with open eyes. The eyes should see the defects, but the imagination should see the transformation.
For all their faults and infighting, our founding fathers -- Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo, Mabini, Paterno, et al. -- had this strong sense of "what-it-will-be." Where else does a revolution spring from? For all the perceived failures of their revolution, this at least is what they bought us: the opportunity to imagine freely and to act freely for our own "what-it-will-bes" from our "what-is."
If we do not, then the failure is really ours.