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How the U.S. culture wars were exported to Brazil

. Sep 08, 2020
culture wars brazil Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock

During the first days of The Brazilian Report’s existence, reporter Ciara Long pointed out how the arguments of Brazil’s gun rights activists were a copied-and-pasted version of the U.S. National Rifle Association’s playbook. “It’s not just an imported logic, but even the posts, the memes,” Ivan Marques, director of NGO Instituto Sou da Paz, said at the time. But if you pay more attention to it, you will see that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the pro-gun movement. Brazil’s left and right are increasingly importing American culture wars — transplanting discussions without much adaptation to a totally different context.

Just last week, President Jair Bolsonaro tried to spark an anti-vaxxer movement, saying “no-one can force anyone to take a Covid-19 vaccine.” The argument that strict vaccination policies are a violation of people’s personal liberties seems to come straight from the U.S. anti-vaccine discussion. It is, as well, completely out of touch with the Brazilian reality — where 88 percent of citizens would take a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available, according to a recent Ipsos-Mori poll.

</p> <p>Anti-vaxxers in the U.S. have become associated with supporters of President Donald Trump, and vaccination policies have become one of the uncountable battlegrounds for culture wars. While Brazil has its own complicated <a href="https://library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-5/modernization-in-rio/">history of resistance to vaccination</a> evidenced in the famous <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/03/16/history-brazil-dealt-with-past-epidemics/">1904 vaccine revolt</a> in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Bolsonaro’s words are more evidence of this major ongoing cultural shift in Brazil.</p> <p>The shameless adoption of U.S. culture wars has become a calling card for the Jair Bolsonaro brand. A few weeks ago, his third-eldest son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, posted a picture of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old shooter who gunned down Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin. Mr. Bolsonaro said the shooter was defending his property from “terrorists,” and offered his “total support for young Kyle.”</p> <p>The youngest Bolsonaro politician son is known for his unchecked love of all things alt-right and Trump (he frequently wears MAGA hats). One time, he praised fast-food chain Popeye’s Chicken (where he briefly worked) — which has gotten many <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/popeyes-chicken-sandwich-violence-workers-2019-11">accusations of labor rights violations</a> — for stimulating work ethic in him, a value compromised, in his words, by Brazil&#8217;s culture of “samba, caipirinha, and carnival.”</p> <p>However, the unfiltered import of U.S. culture wars is not exclusive to the Brazilian right. In recent years, many on the left have too become active participants in U.S. culture wars.</p> <h2>A history of U.S. cultural influence in Brazil</h2> <p>Brazil and the U.S. go way back, with the Americans being the first nation to recognize the Brazilian independence. And as foreign policy professor Carlos Gustavo Poggio <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/07/22/biden-trump-what-changes-brazil-latin-america/">told the Explaining Brazil Podcast</a>, relations between the Americas&#8217; two largest nations have been traditionally tepid —&nbsp;never too close, but never too distant.</p> <p>Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. has frequently sought to interfere with Brazil&#8217;s internal politics, playing an important role in funding and supporting the 1964 military coup that toppled the left-leaning João Goulart — perceived as hostile to U.S. interests.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the post-war world, as Brazilian elites and intellectuals shifted from a francophile sentiment toward a more U.S.-centric perspective, cultural influence from North America is everywhere to be found, from Disney’s Three Caballeros and its iconic <em>malandro</em> parrot Zé Carioca, to Tupac’s influence on São Paulo’s rap scene.</p> <p>That cultural influence started to intensify already in the 1930s, as both the U.S. and Brazilian governments sought to promote cultural exchanges between both countries. In 1936, then-U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Rio de Janeiro to promote his “Good Neighbor” policy of non-interventionism and economic alliances in Latin America’s largest country. He remarked to those assembled —&nbsp;including then-Brazilian leader Getulio Vargas:&nbsp;</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>“You have done much to help us in the United States in many ways in the past. We, I think, have done a little to help you, and may I suggest that you, with this great domain of many millions of square miles, of which such a large proportion is still open to human occupation, can learn much from the mistakes we have made in the United States.”</em></p></blockquote> <p>Years later, Brazil was the sole Latin American nation to send troops to Europe during World War II. According to historian Andre Pagliarini, a lecturer at Dartmouth University who studies the U.S.-Brazil relationship, “World War II gave Brazilians a definitive sense of their importance in the world, not unlike the feeling after the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Many middle-class Brazilians in the 1950s became convinced that U.S. culture was a sign of progress and should be emulated in Brazil, as opposed to Brazilian culture — associated with backwardness, but this met with significant resistance.&nbsp;</p> <p>Anti-Americanism or hostility to U.S. cultural and political imperialism is another age-old Brazilian tradition: from Army lieutenant revolts in the 1930s to fiery left nationalists like former Rio de Janeiro Governor Leonel Brizola. Hostility to U.S. cultural influence in Brazil was more or less a foundational value of the Brazilian left, despite the quest for steady bonds with the U.S. becoming a near-permanent feature of Brazilian foreign policy.</p> <p>Historically, the Americanization of Brazil did not happen passively, as historian Antonio Pedro Tota argues in his book &#8220;The Seduction of Brazil.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>“There was an interaction between U.S. and Brazilian culture. The &#8216;culture shock&#8217; created by the strong presence of the U.S. communications media did not destroy Brazil’s culture, but most certainly it produced new cultural manifestations. It is useful, but not enough, to draw on the notion of cultural resistance to understand this process.”</p> <p>For the leftist student movements of the 1960s, U.S. cultural influence was a form of imperialism. Singer Caetano Veloso, for instance, was famously pelted with eggs, fruits, and vegetables during a music festival by radical students hostile to his American-influenced reimagining of Brazilian culture through rock music.</p> <p>These days, it would be hard to imagine radical students attacking musicians and culture figures for selling out Brazilian culture to the Americans. Last month, Columbia University historian Lilia Schwarz found herself under widespread attack for penning a <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrada/2020/08/filme-de-beyonce-erra-ao-glamorizar-negritude-com-estampa-de-oncinha.shtml">critique of Beyoncé’s latest album</a> “Black is King” in newspaper Folha de São Paulo.</p> <h2>The recent shift</h2> <p>As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has covered, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sought to fashion out a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/13/africa-not-even-an-afterthought-jair-bolsonaro-brazil/">new foreign policy agenda</a> that would see Brazil focus on creating its own set of relationships and networks outside the U.S.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil sought to become a world power on its own terms, building on alliances with other Latin American countries —&nbsp;along with other developing nations. While Lula’s agenda was hardly unprecedented in Brazilian history (even Brazil’s military dictatorship sought to craft a foreign policy agenda beyond the U.S., even establishing <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/04/24/brazil-deal-china-relations/">diplomatic ties with Communist China</a> and being the first country to recognize Mozambique and Angola’s independence), it met significant resistance from middle classes.</p> <p>Mr. Pagliarini told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>: “For many Brazilians, the Workers&#8217; Party administrations forced a decision on the county: &#8216;Are we going to be more like the U.S. or less like the U.S.?&#8217; More Washington-like in how we allocate resources or more like Moscow or Venezuela or Beijing. I know this borders on caricature, but I do think a whole lot of people believe in this dilemma. Like, &#8216;what is so wrong with the U.S.? Why did the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s foreign policy seemingly go out of its way to thumb its nose at Washington?&#8217; Things are obviously more complex than that but I think this distilled a sense of frustrated potential among millions of Brazilians. We might not actually be the U.S., but we could be much closer.”</p> <h2>But what does it mean to be more like the U.S.?</h2> <p>For the historian, many Brazilians imagine being more like the U.S. as “valuing hard work and not expecting handouts, no government-provided basic services nor free college for rich private school kids.” This was evident in Mr. Bolsonaro’s 2018 election campaign, which attacked public services with the Reaganite rhetoric that the state is the problem, rather than a means to a solution.&nbsp;</p> <p>The idea of Brazilian meritocracy is deeply tied to ideas of what a normal advanced country should be like, and people turn for inspiration to the U.S. —&nbsp;a country with no labor protections, paid holidays, and the weakest welfare state in the developed world.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro’s guru Olavo de Carvalho resides in rural Virginia and frequently makes reference to the U.S.&#8217;s &#8220;unique political values&#8221; as superior, or to &#8220;Brazilian stupidity and cultural backwardness.&#8221; As I have previously argued in <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, the new Brazilian right seeks credibility through <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/08/21/bannon-arrest-fraud-change-thing-brazil-far-right/">fanboy-like association with leading conservative figures in the U.S. like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon</a>.</p> <p>&#8220;In practice, the result is that many Brazilians across the political spectrum see a strict kind of caste system in Brazil which, for opposing reasons, they want to see loosened. They see the U.S. free market as a source of dynamism — or social media discourse and activism as a source of dynamism. France is frowned upon as being just as sclerotic as Brazil — at least in the minds of Brazilian conservatives. That’s no model for the kind of change they want to see,” Mr. Pagliarini says.</p> <p>U.S. dominance has brought about a remarkable shift among Brazilian intellectuals, who no longer look to Paris for inspiration, but to North America.</p> <p>This is in part a reflection of the sheer financial dominance of U.S. higher education through soft power programs that lures high-potential students (evaluated for their leadership capacity) to American universities, where their perception of America and its policies will be shaped. Notable <a href="https://eca.state.gov/fulbright/fulbright-alumni/notable-fulbrighters/heads-stategovernment">Fulbright Scholarship program alumni</a> include Brazil&#8217;s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the country&#8217;s first female Supreme Court justice, Ellen Gracie. U.S. influence is evident across Latin America, leaders like Chile&#8217;s Sebastián Piñera or Colombian former President Juan Manuel Santos also stand out.</p> <p>But the fact is that many of these ideas about the U.S. don’t hold up to scrutiny but it’s what many Brazilians think the U.S. is. So those on the right and to an extent on the left who look to US for models are in a way chasing a product that has decades of marketing behind it but isn’t actually what they think it is. The U.S. is in many ways all-too-similar to Brazil, in that it is defined by racial strife, inequality, lack of state capacity and a demagogic and corrupt political class.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/3ulkklC6bRRy1yXQvDqUjH" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The new Americanization of Brazil</h2> <p>What is happening now is different to previous iterations of the Americanization of Brazil. Rather than receiving cultural movements such as funk or rock and then refashioning in a distinctively Brazilian way, Brazilians seek to participate directly in U.S. culture wars and pop culture as a form of self-identification.&nbsp;</p> <p>The result is that Brazilians are fighting U.S. fights against other Brazilians.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazilians seek to craft an identity as more American than their fellow countryman as a way of signaling their own social status or cultural capital from slang to fashion sense to consumption, for instance, one of the markers of being middle class in Brazil became an obligatory trip to Disneyland in Florida or closer-to-home dining out at an Outback steak house or enjoying a Jack Daniels while wearing a Metallica t-shirt.</p> <p>As Mr. Pagliarini puts it, “the Americanization we see happening today is in some ways more sophisticated because it’s not just average Brazilians seeing ads for Coca-Cola and aspiring to be that, but it is also more shallow in a lot of ways. There isn’t a broad reordering of Brazilian society imbued in how the Bolsonaro children see the U.S., I think. It’s more about finding validation for reactionary Brazilian common sense in an idea of the U.S.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Social media is key to this shift.&nbsp;</p> <p>You are now able to engage, follow and interact in real time with cultural movements and figures anywhere in the world regardless of where you are geographically located. You can stream Beyonce’s new album simultaneously with millions of Americans fans for instance or consume Fox News as much as any ageing provincial bigot in the exurbs of a medium-sized U.S. city.</p> <p>There has <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/03/20/jair-bolsonaro-donald-trump/">never been a more pro-U.S. president than Jair Bolsonaro</a>, he has tied his political fortunes to the U.S. in an unprecedented fashion, putting <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2020/09/01/brazil-makes-concessions-for-u-s-despite-cuts-on-steel-quotas/">U.S. foreign interests above those of Brazil</a>. He even went as far as prostrating himself in front of Mr. Trump to say “I love you.” To which Mr. Trump reportedly answered: &#8220;Nice seeing you.&#8221;</p> <p>Shopping mall tycoon Luciano Hang, who is accused of illegally funding Mr. Bolsonaro’s disinformation network, has made his mall brand distinctive through the almost indescribably tacky plastic Statue of Liberty replica that visually pollutes the scenery in front of his shopping centers.</p> <p>For those on the left seeking inspiration after a series of historic defeats, the <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/06/03/why-black-lives-matter-protests-taken-off-in-brazil/">Black Live Matter Movement seems an obvious source</a>, given that it is tackling racist policing in a country where law enforcement seems to be even <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/05/23/favela-black-lives-matter-brazil-rio-police-brutality/">more racist and brutal</a> than in the U.S. </p> <p>However, only a relatively small layer of Brazilians can truly learn and interpret the signs, symbols and language of U.S. cultural politics, which then in turn becomes a market of social status and political insight in Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>The truth is as I remarked earlier is that in many ways U.S. society is as broken and unequal as Brazil, social mobility is a thing of the past and nobody seems to be offering a real way out of its mess. Perhaps the real lesson for Brazil is that the U.S. is almost as dysfunctional and doesn’t offer too much hope in terms of possible solutions to Brazil’s crisis — given the fact that only the U.S. has recorded more deaths from Covid-19 than Brazil.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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