Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Myth collides with reality

People engage in dangerous superficiality when, either through lack of insight or fear of complexity, they seek simplifications and believe fanciful things about their countries. They enjoy their myths when things are fine. But when life sours and grim reality surfaces, populations become awake and dreamy generalisations no longer suffice. This is most evident today in Brazil where it was universally believed that the people would rather starve than not have football. May reality shatter myths in Trinidad and Tobago as well.

Last June saw massive street demonstrations in many Brazilian cities against government corruption and World Cup spending. Even demi-god Pele was derided when he called for protests to stop. Today, according to Pew Research, 61 per cent of Brazilians are against hosting the World Cup “because it took resources from schools, health care and other public services”. Four years ago, there was great national optimism about Brazil’s emerging greatness. But with persistent economic sluggishness, inflation and growing joblessness, two thirds of the population think the situation is very bad.

Brazilians are certainly in a dark mood. Neymar, present soccer star, was booed after a lacklustre performance by the national team. Indeed protesting teachers chanted, “an educator is worth more than Neymar.” An apparently bewildered historian, Antonio Risério, expert in “soccer’s role in shaping Brazil’s national identity” was moved to say, “this is the strangest atmosphere I’ve ever witnessed in Brazil before a World Cup.” But is it really so strange? Can a nation of 200 million human beings be defined by a sport? Should we in Trinidad and Tobago be content with being described as ‘fun-loving’? Isn’t that most superficial? Shouldn’t a nation be also characterised by profound views on life, society and civilisation?

I was therefore heartened to read the view of Brazilian newspaper columnist Arnaldo Bloch that “no one swallows the talk anymore about the national soccer team being the patrimony of Brazil, the affirmation of our identity and civility and cordiality”. Great! No nation should be defined by football or fete.

But even when populations wake up, politicians cling to myth. It saves them from thinking deeply about their society. In Trinbago, the great myth is that the vast majority would rather starve than not have carnival, soca and chutney. So, thinking they are appeasing the masses, all politicians dutifully make their annual pilgrimage to the shrine of bacchanalia, and then become bewildered when national animus resumes Ash Wednesday and rages for the rest of the year. But politicians never stop hoping for myth to do the trick.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, defending the $11 billion cost of the tournament, including subsidised loans from state banks, said “the closer we get to the Cup, the more Brazil is going to show its passion for soccer”. Maybe they will, but Ms Rousseff would be short-sighted to think her government would be let off the hook. Euphoria based on flimsiness is short lived.

The Brazilian middle class grew when the economy boomed and it is this sector that has started to reorder priorities. Very anxious about the country’s future, they drive the protests against waste, corruption and poor public services. So today, even deep in the Amazon, the question is “why does a city like Manaus need an expensive and luxurious stadium when a few metres away there’s a neighbourhood without sidewalks and treated sewage?”

Brazil will also host the 2016 Olympics. This is madness, akin to T&T hosting both the Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference one after the other. Why do leaders become so unbalanced to indulge in such excess? Lula da Silva, former president who advanced Brazil’s successful bids for these enormously expensive undertakings, is considered a caring, rational leader. Yet he too was captivated by the illusion that these sporting events would catapult his country into first world status. He said then, “our hour has arrived”. We too believed it was our finest hour with back to back international conferences. But as the middle class is telling the Brazilian government today, the priorities are all wrong. First World status will only be attained with first class education, health, security and infrastructure and this will only be achieved if the economy is on a sustainable growth path and if bloodsuckers do not steal the people’s money. Neither its soccer nor carnival will take Brazil to the top. As myth collides with reality, Brazilians wake up. Dare we hope?