I have just read an article by you entitled “An Open Letter to Brazil“. I didn’t like it, Mark. Not because I am a Brazilian with a higher-than-average sensitivity when it comes to “gringos” (I am using the term just because you did, no offense meant) telling us what is wrong with us and our country. Believe me, I don’t care about that: I left Brazil a while ago and if I want to participate in the public debate in my new country (Norway), I must accept that anyone living in Brazil is entitled to share their opinion. And thinking about it, I think it is pretty childish to dismiss someone’s opinion because they are not from that place. I have an Austrian friend who has been living in Brazil for far longer time than I had, and people still show the “gringo” card whenever he criticizes something. I don’t want to be like that.
But nevertheless, I believe you didn’t get Brazil. Any fair analysis of a country should take into account its complexity, cultural aspects and history. You didn’t. You preferred to enlist some well known clichés and, in a very moralist way, decided to ditch them as plain wrong (some of them are, indeed, wrong) and, worst, as if they were the cause of Brazilians (bad) fate.
The Brazil you have been exposed is not the one I lived in for 30+ years. I have had people who hit my car, Mark. They didn’t have to be protected by friends and pretend it didn’t happen. They left notes with their phone numbers. I wouldn’t believe my friends would lie to the police to protect me. I worked as a lawyer for more than 11 years, Mark. I haven’t seen any witness who lied to protect or help my clients (their friends). Most of them used to come to me and say “Look, I will be your witness, but I won’t lie”. Friends lie to help friends here? Sure. Is it as common as you say? I don’t think so.
Once I discussed something with an American friend who lived in Brazil at the time: why despite being a very unjust country, Brazil has not the same kind of poverty found in Africa? She offered me an explanation that made sense to me: its social fabric. Family helps family. What you see as source of corruption, I – and others – see as a counterweight to inequality. We don’t have a paternalistic state here (it exists only on paper), so family is our safety net. But according to you, that’s selfishness. You see, Mark, we come from different backgrounds. I got a chance to study, to travel, to see the world, thanks to the effort and sweat of my family. I wanna give them something back. I don’t care if they expect it or not. It seems right to me. I don’t think that’s punishment for being successful, and perhaps here lies our differences: I believe that thinking otherwise is, indeed, selfish. But the way you mix helping family and not caring about the collective, as if one is causing the other, is simply not true. They are different traces of our culture, but they do not explain each other – only if one wants a quick and superficial explanation.
The culture of wanting expensive and glamorous things and gadgets is not particular to Brazil. In developing countries, sometimes young girls and young men resort even to prostitution to get consumer goods. I am not saying the problem is as big as in Brazil. It just shows that the culture of consuming is a world problem – as you pointed out. I believe that it makes more sense to believe people consume and want expensive goods to feel included, not because Brazilians are inherently vain.
I find it interesting that you assume that policemen who take (and ask for) bribes justify their actions based on their family needs. I guess you know absolutely nothing about the roots of corruption in Brazil. I guess you don’t understand how Brazilians react to authority, and how their lack of understanding of their rights empower those in power. This submissive approach can be traced to our culture of “bacharelism” – ie., from a time that society was divided by those who had an University degree and those who didn’t. This can also be seen in books like “Casa Grande e Senzala” – which you should read. But this oversimplification of corruption shows your lack of understanding of the Brazilian psyche and the kind of superficial analysis that, frankly, is getting old.
I could go on: I could say about your explanation on how crime committed by some poor Brazilians is motivated by vanity – hello criminologists, Mark Manson got the answer to Brazilian crime rates! But your article, frankly, ends up being a collection of moralist rants about how Brazilians do their things and somehow use merely cultural aspects of behavior in an attempt to explain the country’s serious problems. As if the country is made up of super narcissists who do not study or work. Serious, Mark – with whom have you been hanging out in Brazil? The ones I know work from 8-18, sometimes study at night just to get a brighter future. They might come late for dinner when invited – it’s alright, they are expected to arrive late. This is not selfishness, Mark – and here’s where you got it wrong – this is cultural.
Just to clarify things: I don’t like the “jeitinho” anymore than you do. I believe it contributes to the way we end up not building up better communities. But this rant on how people relate to their families and friends, frankly, is what I’d call “sociologia de botequim”. Which, by the way, is how you came up with your economic analysis: on debt (go see the numbers on household debt by countries by GDP, and compare Brazil with other countries before you suggest what you did), it is through credit that many Brazilians have access to some basic items (and yes, to superfluous things as well). On commodities: prices are low now, sure – but they are not that different than those of the last decade (with the exception of the pre-2008 boom). And rewriting the constitution? Really? What, Mark – please tell us – what should/must be rewritten? Is it too socialist? Too liberal? Too what? Because I can give you examples of constitutions that are more liberal / socialist / conservative / younameit than Brazil’s and they are in a better state than us.
It’s not that the Brazilian culture isn’t a part of the problem: it is. But you failed to see the traces of our culture that are the problem and instead focused on your little rants about the way some Brazilians – likely those close to you – behave. You can’t get more superficial than that.
Next time you think you know Brazil and you think you have the answers, before writing an article, I suggest one simple thing: change friends, family, city – change something, because whatever you’re doing to understand the country, it’s not working. As Tom Jobim once said, “Brazil is not for beginners”.