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Beyond Tribal


By: Victoria G. Smith


I’m writing this fresh from our monumental tour of Italy in celebration of our silver wedding anniversary. I feel challenged to describe the effect this trip has had on me. To say it’s “life-changing” would seem to diminish it, as this word has oft been abused by a pop culture that tends to exaggerate its experience for want of accurate vocabulary or for petty bid for social media attention. Instead of life-changing, I’d say it’s life-defining. Due to earlier true life-changing events, I’ve been set on a specific life path for sometime now, and what I’d needed at this point was clarity on the way to move forward. This trip thus has been instrumental in refocusing my creative life, helping me to define my priorities for the next twenty-five years. What creative goals do I want to accomplish? What kind of lifestyle would best promote such goals? And what environment would be most conducive to such lifestyle? As I try to answer these questions, which are fast forming on a daily basis, I feel as if I’m on fire, about to combust into an explosive level of creative energy. Meanwhile, I reflect on some insights that came to me during the trip.

At tour’s launch, our guide asked each of us to introduce ourselves to the seven other people in our group, and while at it, urged us to answer the question, “What do I hope to gain from this trip?” It seemed like an easy enough question, but I got anxious because it forced me to think beyond giving our usual reply, “to celebrate our silver anniversary.” To honor the milestone in my marriage was one thing, but I knew there’s always been this irresistible yet amorphous pull for me to travel that I couldn’t always heed during the years I was raising our young children, who’d now flown the coop. Now, I just have to name it.

As my goodwill gesture to the group, I embarked on answering what essentially was a very personal question to me as candidly as I could. After all, potentially great friendships initially rest on one party allowing herself to be vulnerable enough in order to test the temperature of the waters into which one is about to plunge. Thus, when came my turn, I replied in something of the following (that is, I’m paraphrasing here because I think I babbled more than elucidated at the time): “I’ve never felt I truly belonged anywhere, not even in my native country, which I know sounds strange but true—except when I traveled. Meaning—no country, no culture felt completely home to me, save in my status as a traveler. I guess this is because my being seen by others as a mere passerby, someone who’s just passing through their lives—this somehow liberates most people to suspend their preconceptions about me long enough to accept me as I am come to them, which then somehow predisposes all of us to a generous sharing spirit that allows us to experience a powerful human connection from our encounter that doesn’t seem possible otherwise. I realize that whenever I’d felt the greatest connection with others, it was not by identifying with the tribal identity of their race, culture, or country, but on the contrary, with the tribeless aspects of their humanity—the things that unite us as humans, such as our universal love for family, good food, great art, and the ineffable beauty of nature. So I suppose I travel largely because I enjoy the experience of feeling in harmony and unity with my fellow human beings—regardless of the differences of our race, culture, or creed. In this sense, traveling is indeed an escapist adventure for me—a chance to sign off of the harsh realities of our twenty-first century civic life which sadly has become less civil and more polarized so that we fail to identify with the common human aspirations of our fellow human beings due to this fashionable focus on our differences.”

Here, thus, I touched on one of travel’s great, if not its greatest virtue: its power to educate and remind us of our common humanity. U.S. President Eisenhower understood this, and so in the aftermath of the Second World War, he initiated the People-to-People Program, which aimed to promote peace through understanding via an international travel program for American middle school and high school students. This program still exists today, and my own children had availed of it in their time. Eisenhower believed that if young minds could be educated about how much different peoples and cultures actually have in common with each other, then perhaps we would distrust each other less and this would avert another world war from happening. The former president must be turning in his grave now since his youth program proved inadequate to stop the recent occurrences of young Caucasian American men marching our streets, wielding tiki torches in brazen display of their continued dogmatic belief in the primacy and purity of their race—a conviction that, when promoted with the otherwise benign-sounding principles of “patriotism” and “nationalism”, make for the same ideology that led us all toward the last world war.

The essayist and intellectual Martha Nussbaum wrote a very interesting relevant article. In her 1994 essay, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism”, recently republished on-line by the Boston Review (http://bostonreview.net/martha- nussbaum-patriotism-and-cosmopolitanism), Nussbaum proposes that “emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve—for example, the goal of national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality. These goals, I … argue, would be better served by an ideal that is … more adequate to our situation in the contemporary world, namely the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world.” I encourage everyone to read Nussbaum’s essay, as the latter delves into a detailed yet easy to follow logical exposition that clearly points the way toward the next philosophical leap humankind has to achieve if we are to avoid the catastrophe that is the inevitable end of current worldwide populist movements’ revival of the old dangerous war games built on grudges based on race, gender, sexuality, and religion.

In my paper, “The Question of Philippine Sovereignty in the RP-US Military Bases Agreement: Some Reflections on the Viability of the Concept of Sovereignty in Evaluating a Contemporary Problem in International Law” (which garnered second place in the 1985 Philippine Law Journal board examinations at the University of the Philippines College of Law and thereby won me the Vice-Chair of the law review), I argue a parallel theory to Nussbaum’s arguments: The principle of sovereignty ultimately presents a weakness to the enforcement of international human rights law when confronting a government that cares not for the human rights of its citizens and relies upon this doctrine to defeat attempts by the international community or any other nation to intervene in its domestic affairs in the name of human rights protection. The grim human rights record of the then Marcos dictatorship conveniently proved my point.

Now I realize why I’ve never felt at home in any country or culture: I always saw myself as a citizen of the world more than as a citizen of any one nation. I drew my identity from being a human being more than being a Filipino or American. Thus, in my poem, Pilgrim I (first published in 1996 in Michigan Law School’s Dicta Journal, and republished in my poetry collection, “Warrior Heart, Pilgrim Soul: An Immigrant’s Journey”, available from VictoriaGSmith.com), a poem I wrote in reaction to the indignities I felt subjected to while undergoing the U.S. citizenship application process, I lament:

“…. I feel beholden not to any sovereign,

save none but humanity itself.

I am a citizen of the world,

a child of humankind:

Do they not recognize their own?

When will they wake up to the truth—that

people are no longer to be separated:

by color or creed,

by sexual orientation,

by laws and jurisdictions?

The divisions among us are illusory as darkness, So we continue to walk the earth

as wandering strangers, Till we find ourselves home

at each other’s hearth.”

Perhaps I’m cursed indeed to be a wandering stranger, for I feel more comfortable in my skin as a traveler than as a citizen of any country as long as the doctrines of patriotism and sovereignty are used to override human rights in the moral and legal codes of nation-states. These canons have served their purposes to promote the right of self-determination of peoples in the aftermath of world wars that blew up the artificial geopolitical borders drawn by the colonial powers, and surely such principles remain relevant to many pockets of conflict around the world where tribal groups still fight against annexation with dominant and often oppressive larger tribes. However, studying the workings of this process through the decades since the last two world wars demonstrates the ultimately nihilistic path of these principles. They are useful philosophical tools to gain freedom with, but this very same freedom that is often hard-won implodes when the same doctrines are used to ultimately deny the human rights of another group of people. One tribe’s human rights do not override another’s—it is only in recognizing we all have a common stake in ensuring equal protection of these rights on a global scale that we ensure each other’s peace and security.

(All rights reserved. Copyright ©2019 by Victoria G. Smith. For updates on her author events & publications, go to VictoriaGSmith. com. “Like” her on Facebook at Author Victoria G. Smith. “Follow” her on Twitter @AuthorVGSmith)

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