If the MMDA really has to write Dan Brown a letter

If the MMDA really has to write Dan Brown a letter, maybe I would volunteer as their ghostwriter and have the chair sign this:

Dear author,

That literature mirrors reality has long been a subject of debate among students of Art, but allow us to read your metaphor against the grain: the representation of Manila in those passages merely conserve a self-serving worldview that some civilizations are heaven, some are hell; some are supreme birthplace of order, some are inferior dump place of chaos; some are cities of gods, some are gates to eternal damnation unless the gods help them.


1. Imagination

First of all, understand that I have nothing against Manila being reported as ridden with all sorts of social problems that may give urban planners a brain tumor.

Why Tolentino seems to be so removed from the truth, in his letter, is a puzzle I’d like Robert Langdon to dig. His “entry to -excuse me, I cringe – heaven (?)” is a complete travesty when you look at recent studies and reports (emphases mine):

 In the country’s premier city or Metro Manila, an estimated 37% of population or over 4.0 million people live in slums in 2010. By 2050, slum population in Metro Manila alone will have reached over 9 million.- Philippine Institute for Development Studies

“I traveled through the islands. It took me 24 hours to reach Manila. When I got there, I found 16 girls staying in the same small place. Some were as young as 13-years-old,” she said. Maria was trapped and forced to have sex with a number of foreign and Filipino men. – CNN

Breathing has become risky in Metro Manila. The Department of Health (DOH) has warned of a higher incidence of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the summer caused by the worsening air pollution in the metropolis... Most NCDs, such as allergies, acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), cancer and cardiovascular diseases, are attributable to air pollution. – Inquirer


Of course, the Metro Manila Development head is saving his face by telling his own story (well, the “Atty” in his name explains that – no offense to good lawyers). It’s frustrating all the more that he signed it not as head of any other government unit, but the leader of the unit that’s supposed to clean up all the mess that is Metro Manila. Cancer, they say, can be cured by early detection. Isn’t it scary: the head of MMDA thinks all the muck, grime, sex slavery and shit of Metro Manila are “entry to heaven”? I can tolerate people’s twisted versions of reality, but I can’t let this one pass.


Last year, I had some awkward chat with people when I asked them about the Philippines. One, an Australian businessman in Singapore said he’s been to Manila (he stayed in Makati) and he’s not looking forward to returning any time soon because of – he paused, either checking if I’ll be offended or he’s not sure where to start – the filth. From a man in suit, let’s go to a man behind the wheels, a cab driver in Malaysia. Upon learning that my friend and I are Filipinos, he excitedly said he has worked in Manila in one of our casinos, but said, Manila is so dirty dirty dirty – as if he can still taste the squalor in his mouth.


From statistics to experience, I’m trying to put on the table these few counter realities that the MMDA (and others) may consider in the narrative that they are imagining.

We may put up more and more posh condominiums, malls, and casinos in Manila but we can never avert our eyes from all the filth of this megacity – unless one is blind.

2. the Now We Turn To Dan Brown part

It’s amusing that many responded they don’t care about Dan Brown or they won’t buy his book. These comments subtly carry with them an opinion that could range from “That portrayal is not nice” to “Do you really have to fucking rub it in?”

But it’s worthwhile to care sometimes.


The thing is, some people like to pay attention to metaphors, symbols, and narratives being passed around because these are the very fiber that make up stereotypes, prejudices, and world histories. Look around you, baby. In this world of images, you may want to see how powerful images are in projecting identities. Individuals, groups, and entire races face atrocities, now and then, because of images, stereotypes and prejudice against them.


So, we have an author here using a particular metaphor to represent this city, and that metaphor is one of those recycled images of oriental seat of primordial evil that needs to be exorcised, how do we take it? Do we take it as it is and say yeah, the image is accurate, we are doomed in the gates of hell. Do we take it with naive self-centered rejection (like what the MMDA seems to have done) and say, this fiction is exaggerated and you hurt our ego (and we’re not gonna do anything about traffic jams and pollution cuz they’re not real).


Some suggestions:

We can look at the images of ourselves in the passages, and be critical about it without overreading. Accurate or not, is the image of our city as filth and crib of demons, which is reproduced in thousands/millions of copies of a bestseller, important in our relations, and will it matter if this image is actually the exact opposite of godlike civilized supremacy which reigns over our history and culture? And wait a minute, do we give others the privilege of defining who we are?


But please, “Manila citizens” of “compassion towards each other”? Who is he kidding? And why do I feel like drawing hearts and peace signs around the MMDA letter?

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