THERE’S BEEN so much said about the Filipino’s love for fiesta and for celebration. But there was little of this in the celebration of national independence 2012.
Unless one awoke early enough and turned on the TV set, there was nothing much to be seen of the flag-raising ceremonies around the country, led by President Noynoy Aquino in Barasoain Church in Malolos. One major daily had nothing on top of the fold to note the importance of the date. One other newspaper put a cover page to observe the anniversary, but the drama was lost in the murkiness of the design.
For as long as I can remember, government also organized a parade which gathered government workers and families to the Luneta Grandstand, a public ceremony that would be televised by major networks. There was the traditional vin d’honneur hosted by the president in Malacañang. But this party is for diplomats and public officials. Okay, our centennial celebration in 1998 was a record event that went on for weeks and months. But, most years, we generally let our independence day go pfft.
When I was in the grade school, we still celebrated our independence from America on July 4. The obligatory assignment to come up with art work for the bulletin board or for essays on what it means to be free may be too trite an exercise for this new techie-generation. I can only imagine what these kids could come up with their new audio-visual tools.
But June 12 happens just as school starts. I do not know if teachers are organized enough to involve their students in lessons that can teach the meaning of this date. For all our failed opportunities, it is a proud moment in history, one that has made us the first in Asia to declare our independence from colonizers, which we followed impressively with the writing of a libertarian constitution and the convening of a republican government.
Why fuss about history? I think that is part of our problem. We do not exercise mind and spirit to learn what being a nation involves. We do not have the kinds of collective ceremonies that can remind us of what we have achieved or help us imagine what we can become.
Dictatorships invest their national rites and rituals with great pomp and circumstance. They know the power of collective celebration to instill the ideals of nationhood. I was in Jakarta for their festive celebration of their national day during the years of Suharto; and I left quite moved by the fervor of their celebration. Everyone invited to the celebration at the Istana sang, prayed together, recited pledges, sat in silence as a young Indonesian approached the head of state—as both went through symbolic motion and gesture to represent the covenant between leader and nation.
I do not know if the Indonesians still have this ceremony. If they do, I would venture to say that it would still serve the purpose of seeding patriotism deeply in the national psyche, which would be just as important in a democracy as it was then in an authoritarian systems.
Living in the United States during the turbulent and fractious sixties, I did not miss the underlying force of their Fourth of July celebration. Families gathered in parks and backyards to hail the summer, yes, but also to stand together and watch fireworks against the evening sky, generally feeling good about being American. National sports events timed around the date created big events, to honor the flag and listen to the crescendo of their anthem sung well. But mostly it was small town America, in festivity. The US was about to move into another age, with serious divisions on civil rights and later on Vietnam. But at that point, they had gone through over a century and a half as a free nation and Americans still felt proud of their country as leader of the free world.
Much has been written about America’s age of crises. David Brooks, not exactly writing on my subject, points to the current difficulties that Americans have to recognize and respect the authority of leadership. In the spirit of the times fostered by the Internet, bumper stickers “Question Authority” express a simplistic opposition to all authority.
In a democracy, Brooks reminds us, the task is “to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs.”
The corollary is as important. We also need to learn to be good followers. Brooks writes that the point of such “democratic followership” is not just the discernment that can tell good and corrupt leaders apart; but the recognition that however good and talented we may be as individuals, we can “only thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.” We can only truly become a nation, when we see ourselves as bound together by that larger reality that makes us, Filipinos, as citizens of this republic, with separate and different responsibilities to one another.
No, this is not a call to empty rite and ritual, which during the Marcos regime were used to distract the public from the abuse of power of authority. This is not a call for blind and mute subservience to elected leaders.
It is a reminder that choosing to be a democracy binds us all together to a faith in our sovereignty, our freedom, and our democracy. Sometimes, that faith needs to be stoked by symbol, by music, by collective remembrance of who we are and how we can become great together.