DA VINCI Code author Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, contains what’s only one of many comments, asides, and observations about the Philippines or something Filipino from such sources as tourists, journalists, book authors, and others who’ve either visited the country or read about it.

Inferno’s heroine, British doctor Sienna Brooks, describes Manila as “the gates of hell” for its poverty, interminable traffic jams, pollution, and a sex trade among whose horrors are parents who pimp for their children.

It’s a novel, and neither reportage nor history. But it comes pretty close to truthful journalism. Who’s going to deny, unless it’s Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chair Francis Tolentino, that the traffic jams in his jurisdiction are horrendous enough to try the patience of saints?

Unless it’s Benigno Aquino III, who’s going to deny the horrific poverty of the slums surrounded by oceans of garbage that contrast so sharply with the high-rise buildings and humungous malls that are being built all over the country? And unless you go around with your own supply of oxygen, who’s going to deny that the pollution not only in Manila but in every Philippine city as well is thick enough to choke an elephant, if the Philippines had elephants? As for the sex trade, and some parents’ pimping off their own children, aren’t both in ample evidence not only in Manila but also in such tourist havens as Pagsanjan?

But it’s not only the traffic and the chaos of Philippine streets, the poverty and the sex trade Western writers, journalists and pop culture denizens have taken note of. A 2007 episode of the US TV series “Desperate Housewives,” for example, put down Philippine medical schools when one of its characters, played by actress Terri Hatcher, suggested that her gynecologist had misdiagnosed her problem, and demands that she look at his medical diplomas, “because I want to make sure they’re not from some med school in the Philippines.”

The Hollywood actress Lucy Liu, in an appearance at the David Letterman “Late Night” show of October 15, 2012, even managed to comment on Filipino complexions by declaring that “If I get really dark, I’ll start to look a little Filipino, it wouldn’t match. If I start getting darker, you know what I mean?”

Both remarks, as superificial as they were, elicited outraged reactions from many Filipinos — as did a November 1, 1987 Atlantic Monthly (now simply The Atlantic) piece by James Fallows. The difference is that Fallows, a Harvard alumnus and a prize-winning author, had enough insights into the Philippines for his observations to raise the hackles of people whose “nationalism” consists of a refusal to recognize what ails the country.

Fallows argued, in his piece “A Damaged Culture,” that “the Philippines illustrates… that culture can make a naturally rich country poor. There may be more miserable places to live in East Asia — Vietnam, Cambodia — but there are few others where the culture itself, rather than a communist political system, is the main barrier to development. The culture in question is Filipino, but it has been heavily shaped by nearly a hundred years of the ‘Fil-Am relationship.’ The result is apparently the only non-communist society in East Asia in which the average living standard is going down….

“Most of the things that now seem wrong with the economy – grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty, land-ownership disputes, monopolistic industries in cozy, corrupt cahoots with the government — have been wrong for decades.
“‘Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite.’ The precise phrasing belongs to Benigno Aquino, in his early days in politics, but the thought has been expressed by hundreds of others. Koreans and Japanese love to taunt Americans by hauling out old, pompous predictions that obviously have not come true. ‘Made in Japan would always mean shoddy. Korea would always be poor. Hah hah hah! You smug Yankees were so wrong!’ Leafing back through Filipinology has the opposite effect: it is surprising, and depressing, to see how little has changed.”

Fallows’ insights notwithstanding, the fact remains that if every government official, journalist or plain citizen were to respond to every negative allusion, reference to, or description of the Philippines, Filipinos or anything Filipino, nobody would get anything else done except issue protest letters and statements, write indignant editorials and columns, or draft manifestoes demanding apologies from foreign book authors, magazine editors, actors, and anyone else who has something remotely to do with the media, and therefore the way a place and a people are likely to be perceived.

It’s inevitable that someone somewhere, particularly in the so-called developed countries of the West, would have something nasty to say about the Philippines and Filipinos, or anything else that doesn’t quite fit their concepts of how people and places should look, feel, behave, or even smell like. That’s because, let’s face it, not only is there so much to say about this country, the emphasis the Philippines puts on the tourism industry’s also an invitation for other people to assess what it has and what it doesn’t have. Nobody wants to end up bleeding in some alley without his passport and euros instead of having the fun the Department of Tourism is taking the greatest pains to advertise as this country’s offering to the world.

But there’s also virtue in listening to others’, not necessarily foreigners,’ criticism, snide remarks, hasty conclusions, or even malicious put-downs. Whether as superficial and unfair as the comment of a character in a series that after all is about bored housewives (the country does have good medical schools), or as perceptive as Fallows’ piece, they may contain some element of truth, and should lead to some kind of self-examination, and what’s even better, doing something about it.

Filipinos can’t do anything about their complexions, which by the way ranges from dark to fish-belly white, but they can — they should be able to — do something about the traffic, the sex trade, and even the poverty. Otherwise Manila and many other places won’t be just the gates of hell; if things go on as they’ve gone on for decades, they’re going to be part of hell itself.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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