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.


  1. Ownership, I think, is made possible when people are still willing to talk about what needs to be done to bring the city from where we are to what we envision it to be.

    Reflecting on our session the other day, a barangay captain said it is fool-hardy to expect the city government to resolve all the problems and concerns they have listed down. It is only by working together that we will be able to do more.

    I was only able to say, "Amen."

  2. Hi, Willy: thanks for the comment. Cities, particularly small cities, are far more concrete (and easier to love) than countries, which tend to be much more abstract. I'm happy I live and have roots in Dumaguete.

    Vision, though, seems to be not a strong characteristic of the average Filipino, as you've mentioned in your blog (I hope I didn't misread it). Anyway, a topic for a much longer post.

  3. The thing is, there is just a lot of hypocrisy in our society...people are just too onion-skinned, or should I say coward, to accept straightforward criticisms. People accept awards they do not deserve. If you look at the awards in our society, who are those receiving the awards? Can you tell which part of the society they belong.

    There are just no efforts in the part of the elites to put those at the lower rung of the society upwards. They do so only if these people do their wishes. If not, damn. Even if the refusal of these people to follow their wishes is valid, even righteous.

    Most members of the old elites are just plain wicked. They deceive people with good publicity about them, hiding the real facts about them. And I know, one day, their downfall will come...

  4. I first came to Dumaguete in 1982 but I fell passionately in love with her when I came back in 1992. Right there and then, I announced that I was making her my permanent home.

    I loved Dumaguete as I found her in 1992. I was selfish enough to wish she would never change...I loved the small town appeal yet with a little of all the conveniences that can be found in big cities.

    Having came from Ozamis and Manila, Dumaguete was completely a new experience for me. For the first time, I could walk the streets even at night without fear of being molested or ripped off.

    BUt that was then...

    How I wish Dumaguete could go back to that time ...

    I do acknowledge that changes have to be made now for the better. My greatest fear is that those changes will take us towards the direction of Cebu and Manila.

    In that case, the Dumaguete I fell in love with will be lost forever...I might as well have stayed in Manila and raise my family there.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Olga. I think what's important is to keep the spirit of what you saw in Dumaguete vibrant and alive, at the same time allowing for change. Change is a necessity for any living thing, cities included. And it's necessary to articulate this vision of what we want Dumaguete to be, rather than letting outside forces dictate it.