Manny Pacquiao’s demolition of Ricky Hatton last weekend was an opportunity to see political scientist Benedict Anderson’s concept of the nation as an “imagined community” in action.
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.
On Sunday morning the image of their communion was the man from Gen San being hoisted shoulder high in the Las Vegas ring while Ricky Hatton slowly and painfully reacquainted himself with consciousness.
And how did we all participate in this imagined community? Through text messaging of course! As soon as I heard the result, I texted my Filipino colleagues in Indonesia, but they already knew. Globe and Smart must love the imagined community.
Another feature of Anderson’s vision of nationalism is its essential levelling character: "regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” This was one of the only events to be celebrated as fervently in Forbes Park as in Smoky Mountain. To be uninvolved in that left hook was to be unFilipino.
Or as one report put it:
At least 10,000 people watched a free live screening in Pacquiao's dirt-poor home city of General Santos, while in Manila's depressed Tondo area another 2,000 people packed an airless gym to watch the fight. … Across town, a well-heeled crowd of 200 including politicians and celebrities watched at a cafe in Manila's upscale The Fort district.
Alas, squatting in Manny’s corner looking to profit from this glorious moment of deep, horizontal comradeship were the sleaziest members of the Philippine political class. The degree of a politician’s Pacquiaoness almost acts as a barometer of political sleaze, with Lito Atienza somewhere off the scale.
All nations celebrate sporting success, but is seems to me that victory strikes a deeper national chord in some than in others. England’s victory in the 1966 football World Cup, for example, is a far more prominent part of the national consciousness than France’s lifting of the same trophy in 1998. Great though Pacquiao’s victory last Sunday was, this was not a major title fight and I doubt whether Manny would have been feted to quite the same extent in many other countries. (Cebu City Council even plans to erect a statue to commemorate Pacquiao’s victory).
Why is this? For a country like France, secure in its own cultural superiority, sporting victory is enjoyable, but a defeat would not shake most Frenchmen’s conviction that they enjoy a higher quality of life than other less fortunate nations.
For less secure countries like Britain and the Philippines, a KO or a goal is an aspirin offering temporary relief from the contradictions posed by problematic national identities. I have written before abou how Filipinos tend to underestimate their international image and the outpouring of joy at Manny’s flooring of Ricky Hatton contains within it an element of a score being settled, of the little guy’s moment in the sun. England’s victory in 1966 was of the same kind, a final breakout from the post World War II blues.
That brings me to a final characteristic that is common to the insecurity of Brits and Filipinos. Both countries have suffered a collapse of expectations. When my mum was born in 1925, about a quarter of the map of the world was coloured pink, signifying the extent of the British Empire. Her generation saw all of that disappear; by the famous World Cup victory Britain had acquired the nickname “the sick man of Europe.” No wonder some national cheer was in order.
The decline in Philippine expectations has been less spectacular, but no less damaging. In the 1960s, some estimates rank the Philippine economy as second only to that of Japan in Asia, yet the succeeding decades have seen the country slide steadily down the Asian ladder, overtaken first by the Asian tigers, then by China and (hard to take for many Filipinos) India. I remember a friend telling me that when he was a kid his mum would warn him he would end up “like the Indians” if he continued to misbehave—nowadays that would be more an incentive than a threat. In the meantime, the Philippines has become famous only as an exporter of labour; yet the jobs Filipinos perform are often menial, which has contributed to national sense of grievance that I mentioned in my earlier post.
Given such gloomy skies, it is any wonder that Filipinos and Brits make the most of the passing shaft of sunlight sporting success brings? Let’s hope the little patch of sunlight Manny brought the Philippines continues to last, if only to postpone his inevitable entry into political life.