For the offended

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Other people, other places....

     To say the world has shrunk is a cliche. Better to say there are rows in the audience you don’t see, distant rows, far back, countless rooms of people you don't know who are nevertheless watching, or will be. That video you shot of your third grader playing chopsticks can circle the world forever, bringing smiles or sneers in China, or India, or Sweden.
     Or Brazil, to take a more recent, specific example. Consider Wednesday, when I entertained readers in Chicago with a thumb-to-nose-and-waggle-fingers column mocking the International Olympic Committee for selecting riot-torn Rio de Janeiro over Chicago for the 2016 Olympics. The paper ran it on the front page. I was pleased, heard many appreciative chuckles from our readership, and only vaguely wondered if anyone in Brazil would care. Nah, how could they?
     Wednesday came and went, laughs were had, fist-bumps exchanged and no harm done. That, I figured, is the end of that.
     Then came Thursday.
     “You could just stay shut,” wrote Felipe Anderson, which I had to think about a moment before I realized the “fuetbol” fan was saying, “shut up.” Actually one of the nicer messages, the opening salvo of a Twitterstorm of abuse. Dozens and dozens of messages, in both English and Portuguese. “Se estamos preparados ou não, não é problema seu,” wrote Renan Goes, of Londrina, Brazil. “If we are prepared or not, it’s not your problem.” Some needed no translation. “Coluna idiota” wrote Pedro H.
     There were several references to the Boston Marathon bombing. Numerous allusions to shooting, some cryptic (“Rotten gun children,” wrote someone calling himself Senor Sebastian). A variety of obscene suggestions, plus several sincere invitations, or demands, that I come to Rio to investigate the situation myself (an idea which I wholeheartedly embraced, and passed on to my boss who said, in essence, “Forget it.”) Even a mention of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, which struck me as reaching into the hazy past.
     Some implied that we Americans are arrogant. “You are not the owners of the world,” wrote Johnny Machado. “Just don’t try writing about things you don’t know about, Mister Steinberg,” wrote Aline Harbs. “And stop being so American.”
    Some were quite intense. Dimitris Meimardis wrote five times. “It seems every clear to me that you have absolutely no clue about the protests here.” Yes, well, probably. It was more a lighthearted bit of fun for Chicagoans on the train than an attempt at serious international cultural analysis. It may be that Brazil doesn’t have the tradition of journalists rendering their own opinions, because a number of writers seemed aghast at that.
     While there was a good deal of insult delivering, many seemed quite Canadian in their sincerity, and I reminded myself I had vowed to stop taunting distant places after sparring with the hurt denizens of Toronto.
     Honestly, I forgot. The fire bell rang and I stirred on my straw, got to my feet and had bolted out the door before I knew what had happened.
    Eventually Thursday afternoon I had to go to a meeting over at the Aon Center. It was fine weather and I had meant to walk, but I had spent so long chewing over these tweets of Brazilian outrage, time was running out, so hopped in a cab. My eyes locked on the flag hanging from the rear view mirror.        
     Oh my. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
     “Is that the Brazilian flag?” I asked. The driver said it was.
     “I’ve just been absorbing abuse from Brazil…” I said. That remark flew by, so I asked how Chicago compares to Brazil.
     “It’s a lot colder here,” he said. “I bet it is,” I said. I asked him where in Brazil he is from, and he said Sao Paulo, so I asked how Chicago compares to Sao Paulo, and he said, “There are a lot fewer residents.”
     “Right,” I said, “Sao Paulo has, what, 10 million people.”
     “Twenty million,” he said.
      Wow, I thought. Twenty million people. That’s a big city. A lot bigger than Chicago. It’s easy to feel you are the greatest thing in the world when you don’t know any better. Suddenly I was reminded of the time I went to the top of the Willis Tower with a pair of Yanomami Indians visiting from the Brazilian rain forest, brought here by some missionary group. We gazed over the vast expanse of Chicago in silence, a 25-mile view on a clear day, and I asked the obvious question — what are you going to tell your fellow Yanomami about this when you get back to Brazil?
     They thought for a moment.
     “We call ourselves, ‘The People,’” one finally answered, through a translator. “And we call where we live, ‘The Place.’ But I will tell them there are other people, and other places.”
     That’s a good message for all of us to bear in mind.


  1. THAT is much more of a graceful and sweet post, Neil – I am the one who mentioned the 1968 riots to you via Twitter ☺

    You have to put your first article in context to understand all the anger it caused among Brazilians. Let me just start by saying that the media in Brazil is very concentrated. It is a true oligopoly, not to say a monopoly. One TV station – founded with the support of Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 60’s – controls 70% of the Brazilian open TV market. Three newspapers and one national magazine, together with this TV station, dictate the main stream public opinion in a country with 200 million people. It is shameful. Media in Brazil is not democratic. And this media, who belongs to 3 or 4 families, has a very clear side: they are against the Workers Party government (the party that brought the Games to Brazil), no matter what. So, you can imagine, every time they find an international article criticizing Brazil, specially when it comes from our rich and admired American cousins, they gladly echo it. Your article was everywhere in the last couple of days. And what was just meant to be a lighthearted article for Chicagoans, as you said, became political ammunition for the opposition in Brazil, which the corporate media is its loudest voice – because of the successes of the Workers Party in the last 10 years in Brazil, the real opposition (the other parties) is very weak right now, so the corporate media took its place.

    Other point to pay attention to is the fact that USA has hosted 9 Olympic Games already, among Summer and Winter editions. The whole South America has hosted none. Ever! And to see an American complaining because you are not hosting the Games for the 10th time didn’t play well to our ears. Where is the Olympic Spirit? ☺ This, together with the problems you pointed out yourself about Chicago, who looks like Rio in many aspects – not the weather – , and the many other arguments brought to the table by the article reader’s commentaries – many of them not in a very kind way, to say the least – you had a combination of ellements to make Brazilians very angry.

    Although one can argue, and many do, that Brazil has enough problems to solve before thinking of hosting such a big event, the Olympic Games is an opportunity for a country that is being asleep for decades to show the world we are here. Although a big chunk of the money will certainly deviate to corrupt pockets, the investments that will come with the Games can make a big difference to the life of many citizens and businesses. Although Brazil is far from being an Olympic sport’s power, the Games in Rio can mean a big push to our athletes. And on and on.

    Like the taxi driver, I am a Brazilian living in the USA. America has welcomed me with arms wide open. And because of that I really regret your boss not allowing you to go visit Brazil so we could do the same to you. Right before we steal your wallet ;)


    1. Sucesso do PT? inflação fora de controle, economia parada, maiores escândalos de corrupção da historia....

    2. Inflação fora do controle? Acho que o amigo anda assistindo muita Rede Globo. Apesar de todo o terrorismo midiático, a inflação ainda está perto do menor índice histórico e dentro da meta do governo - no segundo semestre vai cair ainda mais, espera pra ver. O desemprego, este sim, nunca esteve tão baixo em toda nossa história. 20 milhões de pessoas saíram da linha da pobreza. Programas sociais brasileiros são reconhecidos pela ONU como exemplo, acabou de acontecer com o "Mais Médicos". Economia parada? Vá ver a situação atual de Espanha, Portugal, Itália e inúmeros países desenvolvidos, inclusive os EUA atualmente, para ver o que é "economia parada". O mundo todo está mergulhado numa crise econômica séria e a situação só não está pior no Brasil porque o governo não tomou as mesmas medidas conservadoras dos tempos de FHC. Sobre escândalos de corrupção, acho que você precisa ler urgentemente o livro "A Privataria Tucana", best seller no Brasil, todo baseado em documentos legais obtidos na justiça, para saber o que é realmente corrupção. Seu modelo de político honesto deve ser o José Serra, tô errado? Patético. Sem contar que o Mensalão, que você provavelmente se refere como o "maior escândalo da história", teve início no governo tucano e, apenas por causa da mídia amiga e de um judiciário totalmente parcial, ainda não foi julgado. O amigo lê a Veja e vê o Jornal Nacional e acha que sabe tudo de Brasil. Muito triste.

    3. Here is Google Translate version:
      Inflation Out of Control? I think the friend walks watching too much TV Globo. Despite all the media terrorism, inflation is still close to the lowest level in history, and the government's target - in the second half will fall further, expect to see. Unemployment, but this has never been so low in our history. 20 million people have escaped poverty line. Brazilian social programs are recognized by the UN as an example, just happen to "More Doctors". Economy arrest? Go see the current situation in Spain, Portugal, Italy and many developed countries, including the United States today, to see what is "saving stop." The whole world is plunged into a serious economic crisis and the situation just is not worse in Brazil because the government has not taken the same conservative measures the times of FHC. About corruption scandals, I think you urgently need to read the book "The Privataria Tucana" bestseller in Brazil, based on all legal documents obtained in justice, to know what is really corruption. Your model should be the honest politician José Serra,'m wrong? Pathetic. Not to mention that Mensalão, you probably refers to as the "biggest scandal in history" began in government and Toucan, just because of media friend and a totally legal part, has not been tried. Friend reads See and watch the National Journal and thinks he knows everything Brazil. Very sad.

    4. I don't think Neil was saying the Olympics should have been held in Chicago. In fact I think the majority of people were glad the Olympics were not held in Chicago. It is a losing proposition. I don't think Montreal has paid up yet for the Olympics they held and that was in 1978. I think the Los Angeles Olympics was the only one to make a profit and that is because they had most of the structures already in place.

      You don't need an Olympics to make people aware of your country. The majority of people already know about Brazil.

  2. Neil,

    I'm one of those who was glad that Chicago didn't get the olympics. Given the finances and the commuting nightmare, it would have been a disaster for ordinary people. However, I had a hard time understanding why they put it into Rio. Tourists are prime targets down there if you believe any of the online travel advice sites. I still don't get it.

  3. Now you've picked fights with Canada and Brazil, what country will you anger next through satire?

    I would vote for France, but they seem to have thick skin about this sort of thing. Might I suggest picking on Belgium? Those waffle eating choco-monsters have it coming, if you ask me!

  4. @Scott. I'm shocked, that you would suggest I go after the most benign country in Europe, an innocent nation of capitulators and pacifists, the straight road between Germany and France, the Chimay-swilling, lilly-livered ... it just comes naturally, doesn't it,

    1. Neil,

      You might want to read up on the history of Belgium during the first world war and rethink your statement about a "nation of capitulators and pacifists". They did try to remain neutral which did them no good when Hitler's troops smashed through the country. Even so, they still held out for 18 days while their neighbors in the Netherlands folded after only five days. That's the difference between being a nation of cheese eaters compared to chocolate consumers. Of course, Holland always gets a break from the press compared to Belgium. :-)

      It doesn't make much sense to me. Holland gave the world clogs, cheeses and oodles of dikes. Belgium gave us "french" fries, waffles and chocolates.

    2. It was a joke. One of my best friends is Belgian. You are right though, "More fierce than the Dutch" is the definition of damning by faint praise. They also gave the world Tin-Tin. Enough said.

  5. Congrats Neil. You have now joined The Simpsons in pissing off Brazil. Now you have to do the same to France & Australia & you'll match them!


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