‘Ama ng bayan’ and the crisis of infantile citizenship
In his various attempts to explain the Mamasapano fiasco, President Benigno Aquino III has begun to refer to himself as “ama ng bayan,” father of the nation. Others in his circle, such as Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, have followed suit. Many in social and print media have reacted with snorts of contempt. They see it as a PR ploy to burnish his image as one who cares for his people that distracts from the real question of assuming accountability.
Yet, there’s something interesting going on not just with P-Noy’s (Aquino) recourse to familial metaphors (including narratives of his family’s sufferings), but also to people’s reaction to it. Calling himself “father” means situating Filipino citizens as the “children” of the nation. On one hand, this results in their infantilization simultaneous with his elevation as the father who knows best (a problematic claim given that he’s never been a parent to begin with). It’s also an attempt to appear more masculine and authoritative in the face of having grown up with sisters and being heir to a maternal legacy.
On the other hand, it is not at all a surprising move. There’s actually a long tradition of regarding the people of the nation as children. Think of the Katipunan, which called itself “mga anak ng bayan.” Before that, the rhetoric of Christian conversion under the Spaniards situated converts as “children of God,” while Marian devotion made Mary into a universal mother.
This might also help explain the unrestrained enthusiasm over the papal visit. Pope Francis, as the good papa seen hugging children, gave everyone the chance to imagine themselves as children who are cared for. The Pope momentarily relieved people from having to think about bad fathers: those child-molesting priests and anti-Reproductive-Health bishops whose lineage in the popular imagination goes back to Padres Damaso and Salvi. The Jesuit Francis, in turn, could be situated in the line that goes back to Gomez, Burgos and Zamora, the three secular Filipino priests whose martyrdom was an inspiration to nationalists like Rizal.
When the United States colonized the Philippines, it framed its invasion as one of “liberation,” emancipating supposedly “child-like” Filipinos from the evil clutches of the Spaniards and the racially mixed “gangs” of Tagalog revolutionaries who they characterized as “bandits.” William Howard Taft called Filipinos “little brown brothers,” while American colonial policy was based on an ideology of “uplifting” and “educating” (some would say “miseducating”) the population, further infantilizing Filipinos as incapable of governing themselves. They therefore required what McKinley referred to as the “firm discipline” of white love.
Filipino elites simultaneously accepted and rejected these stereotypes. They resented being patronized by the Americans (though not the patronage), while they themselves assumed this infantilizing colonial vocabulary of “uplift” when it came to governing both the lower classes and the non-Christian population, including, of course, the Muslims. The Marcoses, styling themselves as “father and mother” of the nation, carried these colonial metaphors to their authoritarian conclusion, while Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sought to call herself “ina ng bayan.”
However, there is also a vernacular, not merely colonial, basis for this notion of the child-like citizen requiring parental supervision. In Tagalog, the word for freedom is “kalayaan,” which comes from the root word “layaw,” carefree and spoiled. So the very idea of freedom in vernacular terms already conjures the notion of a child-like citizenry whose every need is supposed to be taken care of by its solicitous parents. Children, in this perhaps middle-class view, are to be spoiled in order to be happy.
Hence, when the parents fail to deliver, children throw temper tantrums. They might even rebel and band together to overthrow the authority of the parents. Such is the stuff of many melodramas, including movies depicting the broken families of overseas Filipino workers, and an undercurrent in talks about coup attempts.
There is another element to this vernacular idea. Kalayaan also requires reciprocity—utang na loob and its enabling condition, hiya—whereby children are expected to defer to the parents who, in turn, are bound to provide for their kids. A contractual relationship is thus built into this familial notion of citizenship. But unlike the liberal-juridical notion of freedom that is common in the West, nationalism as a family romance is based on a particular moral calculus. So long as each does their duty—parents act like patrons providing for their children who, in turn, act like clients—then there is peace in the family. Such has been one of the dominant components of the political imaginary of the Filipino nation since at least 1896.
The problem, of course, is that the nation-state is more than just a family. Citizens are not children, much less clients. Leaders are not parents but elected representatives. Patronage is prone to corruption, especially under conditions of global capitalism. And freedom is not only about material contentment in exchange for deference. In these times, it is also about egalitarianism and democracy. We need a different political imaginary.
Vicente L. Rafael is professor of history at the University of Washington, Seattle.
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