Thursday, August 24, 2006

Beyond Optimism and Pessimism

As someone who writes on city development, I try to be wary of the mental traps that lie in wait. One of the dangers is seeing only what's bad in the city. It's very easy to point out the responsibilities that other people have failed to live up to. It's emotionally satisfying to take the moral high ground and launch into a jeremiad against the status quo.

The view then becomes one of desolate pessimism, that there is no hope for the city. Hence comes the inevitable conclusion: to pack up one's bags and head for greener pastures, pastures that owe their greenness to the efforts of other tillers.

On the other hand, there's also the danger of saying that everything is as it should be, that the city one lives in is heaven on earth, and that nothing, nothing at all, needs changing. Hence one sinks further into the muck, although that muck has been prettified by the rose-colored glasses of optimism.

Between extreme pessimism and extreme optimism, where does one draw the line? For the answer to this, I borrow the words of GK Chesterton, who pondered on the same question over a hundred years ago:

"Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing -- say Dumaguete. If we think what is really best for Dumaguete we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary.

"It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Dumaguete: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Cebu. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Dumaguete: for then it will remain Dumaguete, which would be awful.

"The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Dumaguete: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Dumaguete, then Dumaguete would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Dumaguete would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck.

"If men loved Dumaguete as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Dumaguete in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her."

I've taken some liberties with the passage. Chesterton, of course, was not writing about Dumaguete but about Pimlico. Pimlico, during Chesterton's time, was an area of London that had degenerated into a slum, and was therefore "a desperate thing." (Perhaps there were people who did love Pimlico, because the place has shed its dismal past, and now the area is fashionable among artists and young professionals.)

This calls to mind that old analogy, that last resort of incompetent apologists, about the small black splotch of ink on an otherwise immaculately white sheet of paper. The apologists will eagerly point out that the black spot becomes all the more glaring because of the whiteness around it. Why, then, should we focus on the miniscule stain and not the pristine purity that surrounds it?

Because: the black spot does not belong there. Because: the black spot is an insult to the purity around it. Because: we want the sheet to be white, immaculately white, as it should be.

In much the same way, I feel that Dumaguete is not yet all that it should be, but I love her enough to want to change her. That, I would like to think, is the underlying philosophy behind the columns I write.