That Open Letter to Brazil

 

Simple truths vs. A nuanced argument

In politics and in life, people like simple truths don’t they? It’s far more satisfying to hear someone ‘tell it like it is’ than it is to endure the lily-livered vacillations of a nuanced argument. Just look at what’s going on in the US right now if you’re in any doubt about that. The problem with simple truths is that while they are always simple they are rarely true.

I’ve been thinking over the subject of today’s post for a while and I expect many of you will partly, or entirely, disagree with my thoughts and conclusions. Other opinions are available and if you disagree with mine then fair enough, I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments section (you might even succeed in changing my mind).

The object of my pondering is “An Open Letter to Brazil” that did the rounds a few weeks back. The author is a “writer, thinker and life-enthusiast [who] writes personal development advice that doesn’t suck” (his words). He writes articles with titles like “How to attract women” and “Shut up and kiss her”. Quite the intellectual then…

I know that quite a few of you will already be familiar with the article – it was posted on Facebook by a lot of people, including some good friends of mine, and was even forwarded to me via email by a very smart guy who I respect greatly. I found several aspects of the article quite troubling and wanted a share a few of my thoughts.

 

The Open Letter format

Oooh! It’s an open letter. Open letters are exciting aren’t they? The reader thinks: “Oh man! This guy is blowing the lid off this scandal! He’s sticking it to ‘The Man’ and simultaneously sharing these home truths with the world”. Alternatively it could be seen as rather pompous gimmick – the author is saying “I have something to say that’s important and insightful – the world needs to hear this.”

The distinction between these two interpretations of the open letter rests on how heavyweight you judge the contents of the letter to be. Do you respect the author? Do you believe that he/she is saying something serious, intelligent and well-judged? Well here’s an excerpt from one of the early paragraphs:

 

Like most gringos, I originally came to Brazil for the parties, the beaches, and the girls.

 

Hmmm, let’s move on shall we?

 

Answering the question: “Why is Brazil so screwed up?”

Our ‘life enthusiast’ goes on to tell us that many, apparently confused, Brazilians have sought his wise thoughts on why their country is “so screwed up”. After glossing over (and rejecting) explanations such as systems of government and colonial history, he comes to the conclusion that the problem is actually the people of Brazil – the classic “It’s not me, it’s you” argument.

Let’s take a look at the key conclusions of his in-depth analysis – in each case an element of truth in what he says distracts from the essential fallacy of his conclusion:

  • Everyday Brazilians are corrupt: It’s not just the politicians, we are told. Everyday Brazilians cheat and lie in situations where a gringo’s powerful sense of right and wrong would compel him to tell the truth. Verdict: Bullshit. Is cheating in everyday situations common in Brazil? Sure. But cheating is common everywhere when people think they can get away with it. This is a consequence of Brazil’s problems, not a cause.
  • Brazilians are selfish: Strong Brazilian family ties drive a selfishness which in turn drives (and is used to justify) corruption. Verdict: Says who? Where is the evidence for this? Again, the grain of truth here is that many gringos (including me) find the close-knit nature of the Brazilian family a bit overbearing at times. But it’s a massive leap to say that this has anything to do with corruption.
  • Brazilians are vain: Unlike gringos, Brazilians do not see vanity as a failing. The ‘vanity problem’ is stronger in Brazil than almost anywhere else and it prompts Brazilians to live beyond their means. Verdict: Social media and ‘selfie culture’ were not invented in Brazil. Sure, Brazilians are encouraged to buy things by paying in installments, but that is simply the consumer society combined with a sales technique aimed at people on low incomes. People are successfully tempted into living beyond their means all over the world.

None of these phenomena are unique to Brazil.

selfie-time

Selfie time!

 

A little perspective

I’m not denying for a moment that Brazil needs change. The culture of being late (which, by the way, is common across vast stretches of the world) does the country no favours. The bloated state and bureaucracy, jeitinho, short-termism – these things do make aspects of life and work in Brazil a massive pain in the arse.

But let’s take a step back for a moment shall we? As Mrs Eat Rio remarked while reading his article, “This guy needs to read a book. ”

Are Brazil’s problems really explained by a weak-willed or morally bankrupt population? You can’t analyse Brazil’s present without considering its past. Ignoring the effects of colonial history and a 20 year military dictatorship (actively supported by the CIA) just isn’t on – especially when the person in question is a US citizen. Sorry if that elicits groans, but there’s no statute of limitations on history. If I wrote a character assassination of India without acknowledging the huge part the UK played in the country’s past I would expect to be called out on it.

 

Brazil the victim?

Am I condescendingly characterising Brazilians as helpless victims of the evil, all-powerful US? Am I suggesting that Brazilians can sit back and blame all their present and future woes on outside forces without taking any responsibility? No. My point is that substituting the complex historical and socio-economic explanations for Brazil’s current situation with “It’s you. You are the problem” is bullshit.

 

The way forward

There is one part of the letter with which I agree: it’s hard to feel optimistic about Brazil’s short- and medium-term future right now. I’m not advocating communism here, but seriously, the gap between rich and poor here is insane and needs to be addressed (#VaiPraCuba!). When many rich Brazilians in this country take no account of the advantages that their privilege has brought them (education, health, security – in short: opportunity) and instead blame the problems of the poor on some kind of moral weakness, how can you feel optimistic?

When a sizeable section of any population has little opportunity and even less to lose, crime happens. Of course humans aren’t robots so it’s not a black-and-white cause and effect scenario. The poor who work their way out of poverty (or simply live an honest life) are often the harshest critics of those from disadvantaged backgrounds who fall into crime. “I made it out of this situation without turning to crime. Don’t use it as an excuse for your laziness.”

But taking a macro view of the population (as governments must) we know that low living standards and a lack of opportunities make for high crime rates and associated problems. At the individual level it might be a moral issue, but when dealing with a city or country as a whole, it is up to the people in power to provide sufficient viable alternatives to crime.

Beyond that I have to admit I’m not really sure how you turn around a situation that is so ingrained. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions that actually work. Telling an entire nation that they should simply ‘be better people’ is neither insightful nor helpful.

10 replies
  1. Richard
    Richard says:

    Hi Tom, interesting post, of course the original stirs the emotions of many of us living here. I have to say his terminology of all Brazilians are corrupt is wrong- however there is a certain degree of “lawlessness” how many restaurants still only accept cash? How many pirate film and software CDs are sold every day? How many people employed for cash only? Drink driving? Buying counterfeit or stolen property? People selling lunches for cash on the street? Being charged to park by some little shit so he doesn’t key your car as soon as you walk away?
    Everyone sat around a bar sinking a few beers will say Lula is a crook (me too) Dilma is dirty (naïve IMHO) and then pay their bill, check their Twitter feed to find where the road blocks are and knowingly break the law. I am not even talking about the scumbag robbers, I am talking about that guy in the office, your neighbor.
    I could go on, I have a whole manifesto but will save that for discussion with drinks in our hands

    Reply
  2. Richard
    Richard says:

    In conclusion, if everyone was more law abiding from the richest to the poorest this country would stand a chance of meeting some of its potential at least.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hey Richard! I guess my feeling is that the guy is employing a circular argument. Apparently he is attempting to answer the question “Why is Brazil so screwed?”. Well what do we mean by “screwed”? We mean the economy, crime and the corruption. So telling us that one of the explanations for corruption is that there is corruption isn’t exactly very helpful. I definitely agree that not all Brazilians are corrupt, but also accept that there is a lot of everyday corruption like you mention (the flanelinhas, etc). A more interesting question is “Why is there everyday corruption?”. I guess it’s a combination of things – cops (etc) supplementing their woefully low pay; lack of enforcement and yes, to a certain extent, cultural acceptance. But I maintain that it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.

      I just don’t believe that the solution lies in telling the population to be better people – when did moralising actual change anyone’s behaviour? It’s just a powerful way of strengthening the ‘us and them’ mentality and making privileged people feel morally superior. A move in the right direction would be to make serious attempts to cut down all the insane levels of bureaucracy, do more to support small businesses and generally improve the situation for the poorest sections of society. People don’t want to cheat and steal – but if there aren’t realistic alternatives then that’s what they’ll do. That’s human nature, nothing specific to Brazil (in my opinion 🙂 ).

      Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Thanks John! I guess the guy is used to writing in that slick style that appeals to people – I was kind of disappointed in how many people seemed to think that it was a decent article. But then it is appealing to be told what you want to hear – that’s how demagogues work.

      Reply
  3. Dominic Parry
    Dominic Parry says:

    Great post, Tom. I’m happy and proud you decided to write about this text. This poor Mark fellow seems to have fallen into the trap of being told so many times (by Brazilians) that Brazil’s screwed up beyond repair and that he, as a gringo coming from a super awesome country like the US which has zero socio-political problems and where everyone loves paying tax and not shooting people, is far above them morally and intellectually, that he actually believes this to be true. Brazilians try to point this out to me the whole tkme, and that’s my main criticism of Brazilians…being actually too critical of themselves as a people. Occasionally I see this happen to other gringos, who go through a tough time here and try to make out that where they’re from things are so much better than here, that they’re doing Brazil a favour with their presence. Hell, I opened a business here and I’ve had my ‘TIB’ moments where I’ve criticised the local people, shirking away from the fact that I could be doing more to sort out the problem and should just shut up and keep going, because the advantages massively outweigh the disadvantages. But hey, like all Brazilians, I’m human. It’s when you go past those feelings and actually start believing in your superiority as a gringo, even to the point of being compelled to write an open letter to the entire nation, then you are simply an utter tool.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Thanks Dom! I too have moments where my frustrations with aspects of life here boil over. But I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who can resist the temptation to accept simplistic explanations/solutions. As for the guy who wrote the original letter – he makes a living writing ‘life advice’ and dating strategy – I think that says it all.

      Reply
  4. Charles Nankin
    Charles Nankin says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Tom. I am however glad that his letter touched more people than yours. The more light that can be shone on the situation here, the better, especially among the wider international community.

    We want a fresh start.

    Shame on you for doing the (Western) PC bit and covering up an important element of the problem – the culture – as it relates to a society that represents the largest waste in our world. The callousness of being able to do that while living alongside the average carioca, and right at the very moment of such deep, wrenching soul-searching that they are passing thru!!! Whoar 🙁

    Unfortunately it is you who are the moralist – by taking the article as a letter of condemnation rather than one of simple observation of the dynamic that is at play. Then you seem to say that all societies are essentially equal (try explaining that to someone in somewhere like Yemen), and if they are not equal its because of the US and therefore we are not going to talk about any current-day choices that people have to make.

    The guy is not trying to rate/rank Brazil and put them down, he is trying to look forward. You and your wife apply a judgment aspect to his observations ie to say that he is wishing to condemn Brazilians and put them down a notch. This perhaps reveals more about how you see the world.

    You then proceed to go off trying to deflate his observations which is quite frankly, in the minds of a great many brazilians of all stripes, pissing against the wind.

    If you are reading this blog and don’t read portuguese, please understand that there are many Brazilians who desire change, that the situation here is not just a “pain in a Brit’s arse” when he wants to get something done, and that many desire a certain degree of change not only in Brasilia but in the formative values of the culture.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi Charles. I wanted to get a better idea about you and your attitudes to Brazil and life in general. Your name came up in several articles related to Brazil, South Africa and Israel:

      • Here is the Facebook post where Charles explains why apartheid in South Africa was a good thing for the country’s black population. Don’t miss the 14 comments (all from Charles) which essentially say the same thing: Blacks were better off under apartheid.
      • Here is a racist rant from Charles on the Facebook page “Boycott Brazil” (created in protest at Dilma’s refusal to accept Dani Dayan, a prominent member of the Israeli Settlement Movement, as Israeli ambassador to Brazil). In this excerpt Charles explains that part of the problem with Brazilians is that they have Arab genetic components (yes, seriously): [Brazilians] will not respond to normal moral logic, and of course will never respect any compromise you make. It might be prudent to be aware of the partial Middle Eastern cultural and genetic influence (thru the dominant Arabian/Berber political influence in the pre-discovery Iberian peninsula; their vice president is Lebanese etc). Wow! Just wow!

      So, bearing that in mind I’d be pretty alarmed if you agreed with me on anything! All the same, if you’re going to say things like “Shame on you” then I guess I should respond. I’ve done my best to organise/summarise your ‘points’, then followed each with my response:

      CN: You are doing the Western PC thing of covering up an important part of Brazil’s problem – its culture. This is callous because you are living alongside “the average carioca” so you can see their suffering.
      TL: At no point would I characterise Brazil as a country without problems. In the original post I mention jeitinho, bureaucracy and everyday corruption – I also acknowledged this in my reply to Richard’s comment. The point I was attempting to make is that the reasons for Brazil’s problems are rather more complicated than simply “they have a culture of corruption and cheating” (for the record, I also find your idea that their shortcomings can be explained by Arabic genetic influence to be pretty abhorrent). As far as I can tell, you are suggesting that I am being callous because 1) There are many hardships for “average cariocas” that I live alongside and 2) because I don’t agree with you.

      CN: You are being a moralist by interpreting the letter as condemnatory. You say that all societies are equal and if societies are not equal it is due to the US.
      TL: I have to say you kind of lost me with this one. To clarify, I’m not saying that I think all societies are the equal. I’m saying that I think that, given the same opportunities, people are basically the same. Rather than seeing cultural corruption and saying “I’ve found the explanation – these people are corrupt”, I prefer to think a little further and wonder what might have caused this corruption and consider how it might be remedied. Unlike you apparently, I don’t believe their Arab “genetic influence” has anything to do with it. I believe if you took a kid from the favela and gave him/her the life and opportunities of a rich resident of Leblon, the child would grow up to be indistinguishable from the other residents of Leblon (for better or worse). And vice versa of course. A quick version: If you subject a large section of a society to shitty, unfair conditions then a large chunk of them will turn out bad. Similarly, if the rich and powerful are allowed to get away with cheating and stealing then that’s what they’ll do; and not really because they are ‘bad people’ but because that’s what a section of every society does when given the opportunity. That’s why we have laws, checks and balances, etc.

      CN: You say the guy is trying to put down Brazilians, but actually he is just being constructive. By interpreting this as condemnation you reveal something about yourself.
      TL: There are many people who take huge, personal offence at the slightest criticism of Brazil. I am not one of those people. In fact I have offended such people several times over the years, both here on the blog and on the Facebook pages. Since I arrived in 2010 I have spent much time thinking about and discussing the various the problems of Brazil, trying to understand why it is like this here and not in other places. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but, sorry, I really don’t believe that Americans or Europeans (or Israelis) are just “better people”. It’s a tempting argument because it allows us to feel superior, but I reject it. What is constructive about telling Brazilians that they are corrupt, selfish and vain? This is the same logic which states that poor people are lazy, that rich people are morally superior. I think the bit where you say “you reveal something about yourself” is insinuating something but no idea what.

      CN: By trying to deflate his observations you are disagreeing with many Brazilians, therefore you are pissing in the wind.
      TL: Again, I’m not saying that Brazil has no problems. I’m not saying that Brazilians are happy or even that they should be happy! I am disagreeing with the guy’s rather simplistic explanation of the cause of Brazil’s problems. If the right-wingers in this country want to bat their saucepans out the window at the sight of one corrupt/inept politician then fine – but the idea that the other side is so much better and purer is nuts and I’m happy to disagree with that, even if it’s a view held by many. At least the ideology of the centre and left tries to address the problem of inequalities of wealth and opportunity, even if the application of that ideology is not wholly successful.

      CN: Many Brazilians desire change. The problems here are bigger than your minor day-to-day inconveniences. People want change not just from the Politicians in Brasilia but also in the very nature of the average Brazilian’s values and culture.
      TL: It scares me to say this, but I think I just found a point of yours with which I agree. Regularly passing crack addicted children who are sleeping on the street, and seeing ragged, ravaged old men and women scratching a living on the streets, is a daily reminder that my minor day-to-day problems are just that – minor, bordering on irrelevant. Of course people want changes and improvements at all levels of society, from the cheating politicians to the brutal police force, from crime and violence in the favelas to the stealing and nepotism in the boardrooms. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me that the fundamental difference here is that I simply disagree with this bloke’s conclusions on 1) what is causing the problems and 2) how to fix them.

      Reply
      • John Napper
        John Napper says:

        Well said Tom.

        Actually I wasn’t going to add a reply, but there’s no ‘like’ button. I don’t think I need to add anything, just agree with everything you have said in your detailed response.

        Reply

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