What is the first thing you picture when dreaming up Brazil?
The truth is that of course in such a vast place all of these images are reality. But here, today, instead of a long, dense history of tribal warfare and colonial conquerors alongside some snide comments about how, in this case, Imperial Portugal had nothing on Imperial Spain
I would prefer to minimize this story into something decidedly more modern and local. We have all had enough of aggressive dictatorships and power mad strong men subduing people under whichever political perversions strike their fancy, haven’t we? I don’t want to engage in a bleak study of crime, punishment, drugs, economics or death. All of these subjects are certainly valid positions to undertake, and in the fifth largest nation, both in size and population, Brazil has enough intricacies and stories to tell that a study could go on forever–especially considering how much more is happening there every single day.
But I want to find something ‘good’ to discuss, being mired, perhaps, in the depressive swamp of human history that so many of these recent studies have exposed. And so I return to those first three images posted: Giant Jesus with a great view of Rio de Janeiro; soccer, futbol, rah-rah-rah–Reynaldo! And the sometimes pornographic celebration of the beginning of Catholic Lent that is Brazilian Carnival . . .
Yes, this is where I plan to go. I would love to avoid the current Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro,
a prudish, stick-up-the-ass bigot who seemingly fulfills all of the stereotypes about the people who hate homosexuals first and foremost, condemning even the pinkest hint of this with repetition and overemphasis, but that is impossible when speaking of Brazil today. As a matter of fact, after experiencing his first Carnival while in office, Bolsonaro immediately took to Twitter to warn his legion of far right-wing followers about the degenerate nature of the Catholic celebration, and stating how Brazil had to win the nation back from the hedonists and degenerates. This is the video he posted, and I warn you in advance that it is explicit (although I honestly could not find an example that was uncensored in at least some way. If nothing else this robotic clip explains the circumstances):
So what is Carnival anyway? How long has it been a part of Brazilian culture, and has this classical religious ceremony descended, either gradually or over a long stretch of time, into a debauched orgy of selfish, in-your-face, momentary pleasure? This is what I’d like to explore: the meaning of Carnival:
Yes, there has long been a party in Brazil, as well as numerous other South American and Caribbean nations and islands (an especially fine example occurs annually in Trinidad and Tobago:),
and it’s purpose is to prepare the world for the coming of Lent, that 40 Day remonstrance of the soul of all the sins the believer has committed over the past year. Lent is a ritual of self-denial and penitence, meant to remind the follower of their insignificance in the light of God and Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. Carnival takes place from the Friday before Ash Wednesday until that morning, when dirt is smeared on the forehead in the stations of the cross to remind everyone that they, too, will soon die.
But before these grim rituals, people love to go wild in paradise, perhaps with an idea of what the Garden of Eden must truly have been like.
Somehow each of these images, the revels and violence, fuse together quite naturally, and perhaps this, if we wish to attribute sincere concern for the people of his nation to Bolsonaro (something nearly impossible to do), then maybe his crackdowns make sense. After all, Brazil is (despite my unwillingness to make this a central theme of this essay) deeply burdened with crime and violence.
Yet Carnival is an international celebration, not just in Brazil, but everywhere across the world. Some call it Mardi Gras
and most nations, and states within nations, celebrate this week of pure id-based joy in some form or another. Here:
One thing that is quite notable about the manner which Carnival is celebrated is that it often turns this event at the start of the holiest days of the year for Christians into a highly charged and politicized debate on sexual freedom. Gay rights groups take these very public days as a platform to promote their ideas on freedom.
Brazil has been especially welcoming to LGBTQ organizers during Carnival, and this has caused a deep division in the culture, as anywhere in the world attempting to mix religion and freedom together is bound to. But in Sao Paulo–a city that features a Sexual Diversity Museum–
civic engagement takes it a step further by promoting many of these social groups in the days leading up to Carnival, even sponsoring competitions run by “Sera que e?” (“Is he gay?”) and Mihnoqueens, a drag group that performs intricate dance routines, and parties all night long with an endlessly rotating gang of trans DJs. This is considered just one among the numerous highlights of Carnival within its community in Sao Paulo.
But the opposition to these gay rights celebrations frequently use the same religious backdrop as the activists to criticize everything they claim to be standing for. Once again, President Bolsonaro takes center stage. From a man who once stated that he would be “unable to love” a “gay son,” and that he would “prefer him to die in an accident,” (also that if he “saw two men kissing” he would “beat them up,”) the furious response attempted to pave the way to a new acceptance. Bolsonaro once even boasted that, “Yes, I am homophobic, and proud of it!” and has laughed at the very notion that people in Brazil are coming around toward accepting homosexuals.
They ran positive slogans like “Carnival is about fun! Say no to LGBT phobia!” The response to this, inevitably, was oppressive violence followed by a sneering silence from the government. One member of Brazil’s congress members, Jean Wyllys,
after the murder of his close friend, councilwoman Marielle Franco
fled Brazil, declaring that the nation was no longer safe for people like him. Both Wyllys and Franco were and are Socialists, both homosexual, and Franco had the additional strike against her in the Bolsonaro years of being a black woman (here are a few more quotes from the current President of Brazil regarding these last two: When asked how he would react should his son fall in love with a black woman he said “I don’t run that risk because my sons were very well educated.” He even claimed that the descendants of slaves were so lazy that they “don’t even manage to procreate anymore.” He also referred his children by stating, “I’ve got five kids. Four of them are men, but on the fifth I had a moment of weakness and it came out a woman.”)
Franco’s murder has transformed from an obvious violent act of hatred into a very plausible conspiracy theory involving the President himself. The two people arrested for the crime (almost a year after it happened) are both former police officers, both of whom had been photographed chummily with Bolsonaro. One of Bolsonaro’s son’s even dated one of the killer’s daughters. And while these are superficial suspicions that do not prove anything (like so many other things in this era of utterly contemptuous personal and political corruptions everywhere in the world), the curious alignments of circumstance surely make these notions worth a further look.
But back to Carnival and what this chilling wind has done to the festivities.
This past year’s carnival, while still a glittering festival of gaudiness, ostentation, and the sheer ebullience of purging one’s soul, also grew increasingly occupied by political dissatisfaction in a place where the President serves more like a cult leader to his dedicated following than anything resembling a national leader. Scenes like this were increasingly seen between the back drop of masks, floats and nakedness:
All we can say, I suppose, is that no matter how hard we try, how much we want our old traditions to continue on as they always have before, not only does change always come, but resistance to change often transforms the world in unexpected ways. Radical integrity for a just cause may be morally valid, and some of the actions provoked even worthwhile, but the oppressive nature of in-your-face demands do not really seem all that different, should we attempt to see things with historical hindsight, than the brutal demands of failing leaders, desperately clinging onto their power, vested in an old way of life that simply does not make sense any more. As much as sincere activists might hope for it, one cannot force change upon an entire society. The end results of this have always been totalitarian regimes–the Lenins and Stalins and Hilters and Mussolinis–all those reactionary movements that overtake the world once the old ways have fallen and people are too terrified to imagine the creation of a new world from whole cloth–and so we continuously sink back into the petty, tribal hatreds that have vanquished so much of our human value. We merely blame others for things not being exactly the way we want, like an infant shrieking at a door for not opening at their command.
For all of the beauty of celebrations, of glorious traditions, there are some on-going trends–things even older and longer and more thoroughly ingrained than anything simply called ‘religion’–that have been crippling society since we first realized that rocks were good for smashing. Bolsonaro, Maduro, fundamentalist Imams, radical left and right wing leaders–hell, let’s just say it–indifferent, selfish, greedy turncoats like Donald Trump who believe that the world is somehow only for themselves–these are the founders of every opposition movement they despise. These are the easy targets for blame, these refracted mirror images of ourselves gone to the opposite extreme. And so in Bolsonaro, sweet Brazil, do not forget to see yourself no matter how much you may love or hate him. I have no doubt that he sees a good deal of himself when staring into you.
©2019 Lance Polin