[FNPFP ORIGINAL] Between Heaven and Hell: Philippine Cultural Diplomacy after Dan Brown’s "Inferno"

Jan Isaac V. Nolasco
Friday, June 7, 2013

Late last month, the publication of Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, raised a little hell among some Filipinos because of its depiction of Manila. Loosely based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the novel had a character say that in Manila, “I’ve run through the gates of hell.”

The portrayal drew mixed reactions. Several parties took offence and spoke up in defense. The chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), Atty. Francis Tolentino, wrote to Dan Brown, protesting the author’s “inaccurate portrayal.” Tolentino claimed that far from being hellish, the capital is “an entry to heaven.” Some demanded that Brown be declared persona non grata while a Malacañang official asked the public not to be “swayed” by the novel’s portrayal.

Others, however, found no offense. They said that although the book was a work of fiction, its portrayal of Manila was spot-on. Indeed, some even criticized Atty. Tolentino for denying the ugly realities of Philippine social life. Several others wondered what the fuss was about, and one author advised those who took offense to “calm down” and just enjoy the novel.

I take issue with this complacency. Dan Brown’s depiction of Manila should matter to more Filipinos because, although it captures a truth about the capital, it plays and builds on negative stereotypes of Third World countries like the Philippines. One image seems harmless, but the bad press comes from Dan Brown, who has legions of readers worldwide. Many of these readers may have little to no actual experience of the Philippines, and whose only impression of it comes from occasional media and literary references. Given the powerful role of media in subliminally shaping perceptions, “gates of hell” is the last label the Philippines wants.

As such, portrayals like this can dent, if not damage the country’s image abroad. Among other things, it can help turn off potential investors, which can't be good especially with our recently earned high investment ratings. And, as Dan Brown’s depiction operates on existing stereotypes, it can influence how Filipinos are treated abroad, reinforcing entrenched racist attitudes towards and perpetrating outright discrimination against them. The “gates of hell” tag also undermines the Philippine government’s tourism campaign, which undoubtedly costs millions of pesos and contributes to economic development, if not the everyday livelihood of many Filipinos. The “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign has reportedly generated an increase in foreign tourists, and the last thing it needs is more bad publicity, especially when the issue has already been reported in international media.

Dan Brown’s portrayal of Manila also has implications on Philippine foreign policy, undermining its efforts on cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is defined by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as an “effective tool in protecting our national interest, in advancing our advocacies, and in achieving the development agenda of the country in the international arena. ” Accordingly, the DFA established a Cultural Diplomacy Unit to, among other things, “showcase to the world the glorious, unique, and beautiful Filipino culture. ” This it does through “art exhibits, fashion shows, [and] dance festivals” here and abroad. To complement these initiatives, the DFA has taken to acquainting its personnel with Philippine art and culture, teaming up with relevant agencies like the National Commission for the Culture and Arts (NCCA). Just late last month, at the height of the Dan Brown incident, the DFA screened and held discussions on various Filipino films as part of an effort to “expose DFA officers, staff, and employees to the multitude forms of art. ” All these are laudable initiatives, which the “Gates of Hell” label only undercuts; the image is hardly glorious, unique, and beautiful.

Given the importance of cultural diplomacy for Philippine foreign policy, it is quite striking that the DFA did not issue even a statement regarding Dan Brown’s portrayal. While every Filipino is a cultural diplomat in his own way, the DFA should play a role, if not take a lead in these matters; indeed, it should take a page from Atty. Francis Tolentino, who rightly and proudly spoke up in defense of the country. What he said about the Philippines – an entry point to paradise – is still true, despite his denying the (partial) truth of Brown’s portrayal. The DFA has certainly helped promote the best of the Philippines, and it should continue to do so, but its cultural diplomacy should also address the country’s negative image. This is not to condone, defend or deny the dark side of Philippine society, as some (rightly) accuse Tolentino of doing; rather, it is to create, sustain, manage, and maintain a balanced image, one that acknowledges both the sunny and seamy sides of Philippine social life.

This is a lesson the Philippines’ cultural diplomacy can draw from Dan Brown’s depiction of Manila. The “balanced image” approach stresses the need to correct misconceptions and counteract negative, one-sided portrayals like Brown’s. He is not the first person to speak ill of the Philippines, (recall Claire Danes and the Desperate Housewives episode) and he will certainly not be the last. However hard many Filipinos work to give the country a good name, the Philippines still labors under the weight of demeaning stereotypes; and partly because of that, its citizens abroad suffer from outright discrimination and exploitation. Our cultural diplomacy must continually manage this negative image of the Philippines, paying attention to how exactly the country and its citizens are perceived and treated in different countries. The organizers of cultural presentations abroad should keep this mind as they plan film festivals and art exhibits.

It is, however, not enough just to balance negative with positive images. The “balanced image” approach also demands that our cultural diplomacy be wary of giving a too positive image of the Philippines, as Atty. Tolentino seemed to do. Art exhibits and cultural presentations may put our best cultural foot forward, but they must be discussed in light of the politics of representation: what picture of the country does this particular art form present? Does it promote positive, yet Orientalist, condescending stereotypes of Asian, Third World countries? Does it exoticize, romanticize, or essentialize Filipinos and the Philippines? Does it present a complete picture of the country?

These aesthetic and political considerations can give a more nuanced image of the country. More importantly, it can help foreigners understand the socio-political dynamics behind each art work, and help them transcend black-and-white, stereotypical images of the country. Understanding the politics of representation can complement the DFA’s existing cultural diplomacy initiatives, especially its efforts to raise the cultural awareness of its staff here and abroad.

The DFA has also worked with Filipino artists as part of its cultural diplomacy. So as cultural diplomats in their own right, Filipino artists, especially those who aim for an international audience, should also be mindful of how their art creates a specific image of the Philippines. What has been called poverty porn may win prestigious awards, but it certainly does the country’s image no good, whatever else its artistic, technical, and ideological merits. This is not to censor artistic productions; it’s just that there’s more to the Philippines than poverty; its cultural artifacts could and should present a more diverse and sophisticated set of images of the country.

It is true that if only the Philippines cleaned up its act, Filipinos would probably worry less about their country’s image. Political and economic change is perhaps the best form of cultural diplomacy. But since that won’t be happening for quite some time, the Philippines has an image to manage. Once again, Dan Brown is not the first to say something less than flattering about the Philippines. And neither will he be the last.

Jan Isaac V. Nolasco is the Publications Officer of the Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman. He has a BA in Comparative Literature and an MA in Asian Studies.