Back in January, a bunch of copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight arrived in the Philippines, and a customs official demanded an import duty. It’s illegal to tax books in the Philippines-no such duty had been levied in 50 years-but the Twilight importer paid up. The Bureau of Customs, apparently facing a budget shortfall, began to demand the impromptu tax for every new air shipment of books. Importers refused to pay, so huge numbers of textbooks and novels waited in warehouses. For months, virtually no imported books got past the blockade.
Robin Hemley, who runs the MFA program in which I am enrolled, wrote a very funny dispatch on the situation in McSweeney’s . He expected few people to pay attention; stories of corruption in the Philippines surprise virtually no one.
But an illegal tax on books has a different emotional impact than a tax on clothes or computers. Enraged bloggers, clued in by Hemley’s column, felt that their access to knowledge was being restricted by petty officials. Filipino media outlets picked up the story with headlines like “A New Age of Ignorance” and “A Nation of Idiots.” Neil Gaiman tweeted . The U.N. got involved. And after weeks of Internet-fueled protest, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself stepped in to finally free the books.