Why are Brazilians obsessed with what foreigners think about them?

By Daniel Buarque

On a surprisingly warm afternoon last May in London, the Brazil Institute of King’s College hosted a masterclass to discuss the World Cup that was about to happen in the “land of football.” In the middle of one of the lectures, the speaker decided to know the audience a little better, and asked for a show of hands of how many of the people watching him were Brazilians. About half of the public of more than one hundred people raised their hands, to some surprise of the other half. The masterclass had been designed to present Brazil, a country that was about to be on the global spotlight, to those who really didn’t know much about it apart from the basic stereotypes of Carnival, beaches and football, of course. What it ended up doing, however, was exposing one of the most unexplored, and yet fascinating, facets of the “brasilidade”, the Brazilian national identity.

Brazilians are curious, they want to know what the rest of the world thinks of them, and they want to read the opinion of anyone from abroad. Brazilians also love to react to the way the country is described and its image is projected abroad. Seeing Brazil in the foreign media serves as means to confirm how important the country is for the world, or it may justify indignation, as the whole country gets together to protest against international prejudice – it is true, just ask The Simpsons.

What other nationality would be so interested in their own nation as to fill a theatre for a whole day discussing the realities of the land in which they were born and raised? It is hard to think anyone from the UK would be interested in watching a class in any Brazilian university about the reality of their country prior to the 2012 Olympic Games, for example. It is hard to think that anyone from any other country would be interested in hearing a lecture about their homeland anywhere else in the world. We care a lot.

Just look at the national press. Whenever any important news outlet in the “developed world” publishes stories related to Brazil, it becomes news inside Brazil. “Deu no New York Times” or “diz a revista Economist”, have become common titles in the largest newspapers and news portals in Brazil, referring to mentions in the foreign media. And the reason for that is the fact the public loves those stories about the international stories. It is not rare to see articles about what the international media say about Brazil become viral in the country.

We even have a saying about this. “Para inglês ver,” meaning that something is “just to show it to the English,” which has been used for more than a century whenever something is done just as a way to show it to the world, even if its not something real in the country. That’s something that comes from our colonial past, and that already shows how big is the obsession with the image of Brazil, and how far it has come.

I should know about this obsession. I write a blog about what is said about Brazil in the rest of the world, I have been studying this international image of the country and the national obsession with it for years, and I have published a book and written a Master’s dissertation on the subject. So, yes, I may be in part responsible to feeding this frenzy with posts about the image of the country, but my interest in it comes more as a way to understand Brazilians themselves. What really attracts me to it, though, is to try to understand why it happens. Why are Brazilians so interested in what people in other countries think or say about theirs? Why do we care so much?

There is not one simple explanation, but looking at history it is interesting to see that it has always been a part of the national identity, and that it may actually be related to how insecure Brazilians feel about themselves. It also comes from what is known in the country as a “complexo de vira-latas”. One of the reasons commonly associated with the national obsession with the international image is what writer Nelson Rodrigues called the “complexo de vira-latas”, which could be translated as the mongrel complex, “the inferiority with which the Brazilian puts himself, voluntarily, in face of the rest of the world.” Brazil, he argued, moves between pessimism and hope because the country is ashamed of believing in itself.

According to Brazilian writer and professor at UCLA José Luiz Passos, the Brazilian interest in the international image of the country is related to the need to affirmation through the discourse of the other. It could really be related to a inferiority complex. “When a Brazilian sees himself represented, it validates his position. When a Brazilian wants to consume what ‘The New York Times’ says about him, he puts himself in the position of the other,” Passos says. The search for a better international image may be connected to the fact that Brazil has not been an advanced industrial society, and has some considerable capability weaknesses, argues professor Wayne A. Selcher of Elizabethtown College. Because of that, the country started to search for international success through the projection of “a benign image as a self-confident but unassuming, a rising but not threatening, intermediate power pursuing a responsible policy of prudence and restraint with an air of quiet competence,” he argues.

Worrying about the image of Brazil has been part of the local culture even before the country started to exist as such in early 1800s, and has pervaded all of its history. We have worried about our international image since before independence, through the monarchy, the establishment of the republic, the twentieth century, and now, when we try to become a more important global player.

Today this fascination with the reflection of what Brazil is through the eyes of the “gringos” is still strong. It is seen in economics, in diplomacy, in culture and in every news outlet in the country. And this follows the interesting trajectory of a pendulum, just as the rest of the world gets too optimistic or too pessimistic about the country.

While the global financial crisis helped Brazil establish itself as one of the most attractive developing nations, generating international euphoria with its achievements, the recent slowdown of the economic growth has brought a meltdown in the optimism, creating an international disappointment with Brazil.

The international image of Brazil has always fluctuated between extremes like that – from too much optimism, to exaggerated pessimism. The reality, though, is that Brazil is never as good as foreigners think it is when they are euphoric nor as bad as it may be shown abroad in moments like now. Actually, Brazil is a nation like all the others, with a lot of good and bad, striving to improve its reality despite making a lot of mistakes in the process.

What may be different is that it has recently been “discovered” as part of the global community, and its people have started to notice that. In 2013 I have published a book called “Brazil, um país do presente” in which I try to present to the Brazilian readers what this image of Brazil abroad is. My point was that Brazil had achieved its goal of becoming recognized in the rest of the world, present in the minds of foreigners. The title is a joke with the idea that “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be,” and it tries to explain that the important thing is not to know whether Brazil is of the present or of the future, but that it has established its international presence. For good and for bad, it is present in the world stage.

Daniel Buarque is a writer, journalist and MA in Brazil in Global Perspective from King’s College London. He is the author of four books, including “Brazil, um país do presente” (Brazil, a country of the present), about the international image of the country. He also writes the blog Brasilianismo, at the Brazilian news portal UOL, covering news related to how Brazil is portrayed in the rest of the world. He is active on Twitter.

Stupidity is endemic like never before in Brazil

I have lived most of my life in a lower middle class neighborhood of São Paulo called Ipiranga. Technically, it is where Brazil was born in 1822, when a Portuguese prince declared our independence from Portugal (yes, I know that is pathetic). Ipiranga is a region that always votes conservative, but it was far from being a place of bigotry. In recent years it experienced a real estate bubble that brought foreigners and wealthy paulistas for the first time since the 1930ies, when industries first set here. Some of those new neighbors aren’t rich, though. They are desperate miserable Haitians.

About 20 of them crashed into an empty building 100 meters from where I live. The place belongs to São Paulo’s archdioceses and it was unused for decades. Still, the Haitians got no empathy from their new neighbors. At our local supermarket, I heard elderly clients say these people are here to form a mercenary army to keep our self-evident communist dictatorship. I heard neighbors make the same comment twice. Preemptively, I mentioned the stupidity of all this to my mother. I feared she’d be dragged into that nonsense. I never felt I had to do such a thing, but Brazil 2015 became a very, very stupid place.

Protesters in Porto Alegre use anticommunist rants… against a Catalonian independence flag

Chants like “Go to Cuba” have become trendy in protests, whenever someone that looks slightly leftist is around — a red shirt can do that trick. Lunatics mistakenly scream that Brazil’s Constitution would allow a military intervention since the current administration has links to the Petrobras scandal — although none of them are connecting to the commander-in-chief of those troops. Even neonazis have come out. Truth be said, those peculiar groups aren’t the majority in the protests, but they are often welcomed and rarely criticized openly enough for others to draw a line between demonstrators and wackos.

Part of the communist delirium started with Glenn Beck like columnists and bloggers years ago. They were responding to a growing online community of government sponsored columnists and bloggers who, with a bit less tenacity, attacked mainstream media and the opposition. Since 2011, the meanness is mostly on the right, feeding itself from smears of the 2010 presidential campaign and social media. Some truth and a great deal of lies now become Facebook threads, Whatsapp messages and anonymous emails. The hoaxes are multiple: here are pictures of people President Dilma Rousseff killed during the dictatorship, take a look the scandal of a maid that wants her to pay alimony after they lived together, see how she faked her cancer…

Former President Lula and his disgraced chief of staff José Dirceu, who was condemned for corruption, were also targets of that stupidity. The first was accused of owning shares of the world’s largest meat processing plant in the world. Another hoax claimed he was making money out of a change in Brazil’s outlets (!!!). Old accusations came back and got a lot of attention, including one stating he lost one of his fingers on purpose in a sweat shop so he could get a pension. The latter was involved in so many accusations — some true, many untrue — that he personifies now the hatred towards his party.

Of course not all the idiocy belongs to right-wingers. A few days ago I heard a leftist say that protesters that recently took to the streets against President Dilma Rousseff should be punched down “like Trotskyists did to the fascists downtown São Paulo in 1934.” It is as if Brazil had not changed at all in 80 years. Others that are obsessed with the Worker’s Party (PT) say that corruption at Petrobras means nothing because you have to do what it takes to finance campaigns, keep alliances and remain in office. They often claim that corruption accusations are a plot of the opposition and mainstream media to overthrow Rousseff.

These are just a few of the hundreds of bizarre comments that are around. It is clear that the rise of social media made all this possible and it is evident that corruption at the federal government played a key role in the antagonism towards leftists (even though the Worker’s Party is as leftist as the Democrats are in the United States). But the level of stupidity has to do with something deeper: Brazilians are okay with lying to make a political point. We used to go along with the tide. Now that there are two sides, people of low education, no matter how wealthy they are, find it hard to engage in honest dialogues. That goes for lower, middle and upper class.

That has made Brazil’s society as divided as the American, with less filters to tell truth from nonsense and more risks to democratic values. All those mean spirited comments from left and right became part of normal political conversations, as if those bizarre topics came from facts, and not from spin doctors and crazy militants of the opposition or of the ruling coalition. The filters in the media matter less and less, people seem to want more opinions than facts. Our journalists, including myself, could do a better job if we were equipped to deal with our complex political landscape and try, at least, to end hoaxes. We can’t even do that at this moment.

Some will say that kind of stupidity existed in Brazil prior to the 1964 coup d’État.  But this is 2015. Brazil is a much better country that has absolutely no links to communism. Our finance minister went to the Mecca of neoliberal economic policies, we have an investment grade economy, a housing bubble is on the rise… Add those anticommunist wackos to those that believe Brazil should become a military dictatorship to get rid of communist influence. The result is intellectually catastrophic. Although there are many idiots on the left, those on the Brazilian right are now the vast majority. Brazil’s current level of idiocy has a lot to do with them.

Brazil is stupid like never before. And it won’t get better anytime soon. To those that want to report on Brazil or understand what the country is going through politically, I say listen to what I say: don’t listen to anyone. Not for now.



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