America in flames; slavery and history
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - June 8, 2020 - 12:00am

It’s more than a week now, that the riots in America continue. The death of a black man, George Floyd, while in police custody has enraged Americans of all races, and an incompetent President has continued to divide the nation instead of uniting it. This, the pandemic and economic collapse threaten the survival of the nation itself. Then, there is the national election in November, and so many Americans hope that the United States will have a new President.

Racism, America’s most serious problem, is almost universal; all through history, so many nations were afflicted by it. Racism is not genetic; it is acquired from history itself. Racism and discrimination, which go together, are the ugly face of civilization. Slaves were born into it or they were sold as payments for debt. But look at what the slaves built – the Great Walls of China, The Pyramids. Perhaps, 4000 years from now, a historian will conclude that the slaves of the 21st century are the overseas workers.

Certainly, China, with its recorded history of 4000 years, is also perhaps the oldest racist nation, its people prisoners through all of China’s history. It is the same history now which powers China’s hegemonic thrust, unobstructed by so called humanitarian values. In June, 31 years ago, Deng Xiaoping, China’s economic architect, ordered the massacre of hundreds of young demonstrators at Peking’s Tiananmen Square. The roots of slavery (and discrimination) are very deep in history, slaves as booty in war, slaves born to be thus. With the United States, slavery and discrimination against the Black people in terms of history is quite recent; it came with the imperial development of the Americas and the demand for cheap labor in the cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations in the American South. The American Civil War in the 19th century was basically economic in origin but it acquired strong racist elements demanding the abolition of slavery. Great reforms were made, but racism continued to persist  not just towards the African Americans but also towards other minorities. The demonstrations raging in American cities have drawn together the diverse peoples of that country.

History – everything (almost) starts from there.

Almost always, we are imprisoned in it. The demands of nationalism are compulsive because nationalism is exclusive. We Filipinos try to ignore the rigid facts of history itself, and we consider Lapu-Lapu a Filipino hero when there was no Filipino nation at the time that he was killed; the Filipino nation is an imperial creation.Tribes become nations and nations become empires. Some endure for a thousand years and some vanish in a century. Historic change sometimes comes abruptly (and sometimes slowly) because history is made by men, and their lives are finite; one cannot really predict what happens to them and their thinking. It always follows; nationalism often morphs into racism.

I was in Moscow in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the October revolution. Who would have ever thought then that within the next five decades, the Soviet Union would collapse. The Russians were then racist, too.

Racial discrimination was rampant in the United States. In 1955, I spent a weekend in Atlanta, Georgia in the American Deep South. In restaurants were signs Negroes not allowed. There were separate sections in the buses for colored people and segregation in the schools and in housing. Who would ever think in 1955 that a “Negro”, Barack Obama, a “Negro,” would be President be the 44th President of the United States and would be elected to serve 2 full terms.

Questions, questions

Today, in our part of the world, changes are also happening. Some of them unrecognized because they are so close and so familiar to us. We have seen in two generations how economic power has shifted and how China has become the world power that it is now. What will our country be when Duterte goes, and how will the region be like when China reaches the apogee of its power? Is the United States in a period of irreversible decline? Will we be able to manage climate change? Will a nuclear war wipe out a vast portion of the world populace including ours? Will we ever reap the good from robotics and artificial intelligence?  We cannot know the answer now, but as nationalists, we can continue to aspire for a nation that is just and sovereign.

The future of America

In its national agony, are the days of the American empire numbered? Are we witnessing the collapse of a great nation? I don’t think so – in fact, we see the rioting, looting and mayhem in America, a symptom of national awakening. This is not the first time the United States has gone through a traumatic upheaval, and each time, it has survived much stronger. Its longevity and its capacity for renewal lie in the freedom of its people, their questioning and searching for solutions – a search that enriches and strengthens them. Trump is a minor incident in American history.

Meanwhile, here in our country, the outrage is there is no outrage.

If this virus is China’s ultimate weapon, it has already won World War III. Unfortunately, however, friend and foe and even China itself had suffered and will continue to suffer; a global depression is about to commence as businesses, big and small, have collapsed, and unemployment everywhere has risen. It is obvious that the global supply chains – particularly the food chain – have been disrupted, and the possibility of global famine looms. Agrarian countries like the Philippines can take more punishment than the industrialized countries, but for us, even that resiliency may not hold. The full force of this pandemic has yet to come. There will be more casualties, particularly in the overcrowded slums. The back to the province program is good, but the food shortages will nullify it. And the return of our overseas workers will aggravate the crisis.

The past two months have shown the sorry incompetence of our government and our leaders and have brought out the worst of the Filipino character. Yet, this pandemic itself provides us with the opportunity to reshape our own society, but to do this, we need to reshape the Filipino character. So, it’s back to Solita Monsod’s classic question: What kind of people are we?

This week we celebrate our Independence Day; perhaps, we should bring to mind that freedom is always fragile, nurtured out of conflict. That traumatic American Civil War brought forth America’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln. In his Gettysburg address at the end of that war, he reaffirmed not just the American ideal when he declared: “All men are born equal.” It is also ours.

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