By Juliane Bazzo
I write these lines not only as an external investigator of facts, but also as a witness entangled in the events. I seek to put into practice the teachings of the Indian anthropologist Veena Das, for whom witnessing is a potent act, one capable of going beyond the account of a particular drama, one which offers evidence of evils engendered in the social fabric as a whole. More than that, according to Das, witnessing helps us to remove debris to live every day in an environment wherein relations of sociability among fellow citizens have been violently damaged.
During the 2016 electoral campaign for the White House, I was residing in the United States for a doctoral internship at CUNY as a visiting researcher. When I left my country, Brazil, to embark on this journey for an academic year, I did not imagine that the presidential race in the United States would become a fundamental element of my own investigation.
Since 2014, I had been studying the multiple agencies acquired by the concept of bullying in the Brazilian context during the aughts for research that evolved into my Ph.D. thesis in Social Anthropology. I was interested in problematizing the evolution of bullying as an idea. Born as a scientific concept in the Scandinavian region, bullying had become the cause celebre in my country, employed for plural and controversial uses. As an academic construct, bullying had become both a “phenomenon” and a “problem” to be solved. In the United States, this concept also reached ubiquity. I planned to get a closer look at anti-bullying research, policies, and programs in United States to support my reflections on the Brazilian reality.
During the United States election campaign in 2016, something unusual happened. The concept of bullying gained special relevance in the public forum and was used to understand elements of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches. Trump’s rhetoric mobilized misogynist offenses towards his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The speeches also questioned the legitimacy of citizenship status of Latin and Islamic people residing in the United States. Another made contemptuous mention of people with disabilities.
Despite the virulence of these positions, at least in New York, I sensed the impossibility of Trump’s victory: here was a candidate who seemed to lack any plausibility to occupy the highest seat in the executive branch. When the election results affirmed a Republican victory, we were astonished. The paradox that sociologists Charles Derber and Yale R. Magrass describe in their book Bully Nation: How the American establishment creates bullying society (University Press of Kansas, 2016) had been confirmed. The United States, a country that stands today as a leader in anti-bullying research, policies, and programs, has elected a proto-typical “big bully” as president.
Stunned by the election result, I resumed my ordinary activities at Queens College the next day. The atmosphere on campus bespoke a deep consternation. That day, I attended a workshop led by Dr. Cathy L. Royal on the importance of individual actions for racial equity and social justice. The election results couldn’t be avoided: many of the students, eyes red with tears, had attended to discuss it. Dr. Royal started by saying, “this is not the first time that this country will be run by conservatives. In fact, this has occurred in much of our history. So, I’m not going to cry today. I’m going to raise my head and keep thinking, acting and bothering.”
Calls for resistance like this echoed throughout the campus and New York City itself. Public debates, artistic interventions, street demonstrations, and official anti-discrimination measures were suddenly everywhere to protect citizens most vulnerable to Trump’s rhetorical hostility. The zenith of these mobilizations, the Women’s March, saw women bearing “pussy hats” taking to the streets across the United States to protest Trump, his policy agenda, and his tactics.
The marches spread to other cities around the world. In Brazil, however, the local progressive press referred to how the so-called “timidity” of women weakened the protest. Reading this news from the United States, I understood this position completely. Despite my sympathy for women in the United States and my solidarity with them in the face of the threat posed by Trump’s insults, the protests reminded me of the urgency and necessity of imperialist critique.
In that sense, I agree with the questions that intersectional feminists in the United States raised about the Women’s March. In a pertinent article published in the UU World Magazine (“Getting intersectional means showing up when there are no pink hats,” 1/19/2018) one year after the mobilizations, journalist Marchaé Grair pointed out that undocumented, lesbian and transgender women, and women of color were already on the streets in protest well ahead of the Women’s March. Grair wondered if the white women leading the Women’s March were willing to increase the visibility of non-cisgender women, non-native women, and women of color. As a woman from South America, her article forced me to reflect on the imbalance of power between the United States and the Global South.
My experiences of the Women’s March were also conditioned by the political crisis facing Brazil. The timidity of the Women’s March in Brazil underlined the social and political dilemmas facing women there. On August 31st, 2016, as I departed for my doctoral internship at CUNY, Dilma Rousseff – the first democratically-elected female president in Brazil and a member of the Workers’ Party – was impeached. Many Brazilian intellectuals understood this crisis as a reactionary legal-parliamentary coup, one supported by the conservative middle class.
When I returned to Brazil the following summer, I returned to another country, one with an illegitimate and authoritarian government. “What right did you lose today?” was the slogan of an independent movement that, through social media, publicized the absurdities of Brazil’s executive leadership. The measures under way were reversing accomplishments in education, labor, social assistance – issues particularly relevant to the most socially- and economically-vulnerable Brazilians. Our only hope for political resistance lay in the 2018 presidential race. But we never imagined who would emerge from that election.
One of the candidates, Jair Bolsonaro, is an open admirer of Donald Trump. A retired military leader, Bolsonaro has operated since the 1980s in the world of politics yet never achieved wide Parliamentary support or meaningful policy gains. His notoriety derived from his misogynist, homophobic, racist, Trumpish stance.
“The mistake of the dictatorship [in Brazil, 1964-1985] was to torture when it should’ve killed.” “I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son. I’d rather have him die in an accident.” “Women should earn lower salaries because they get pregnant.” To a fellow (female) deputy: “I would not rape you because you do not deserve it.” Regarding a hypothetical relationship between his son and a black woman: “I do not take that risk, my children were very well-educated.” These are but a small sample of Bolsonaro’s public statements.
These assertions are both outrageous and absurd. Until it was too late, no reasonable Brazilian believed Bolsonaro could win the election – an uncannily similar phenomenon to Trump’s election in the United States. As Bolsonaro’s popularity grew, however, Brazilian women were catalyzed into action. Women compose the greatest share of opposition to Bolsonaro. Opposition coalesced on Facebook under the group “Women United Against Bolsonaro.” Within days, thousands of members would join.
The opposition took to the streets of several cities on September 29th, 2018, crying “Ele não!” [“Not him!”], the group’s Facebook hashtag. I joined the march held in Curitiba, in the State of Paraná in the south, joining my friends and their mothers. Women of all ages, colors, gender identities, sexualities, class background, and occupations came to protest. Passages were made for women in wheelchairs. Political and social minorities convened to find an alternative candidate to Bolsonaro. Such a coalition was unprecedented in Brazil but made visible only in the alternative press. Although Brazil’s traditional media outlets ignore the political strength of Brazilian women, global media has taken note of their voices.
After the protests, the women’s coalition remained firm and intensified when Bolsonaro got enough votes to enter the second electoral round. He conquered Brazil with no cogent governing agenda, instead relying on a rhetoric of hate, promising that he would implement military order and restore Christian morality. Such a platform emerged in response to the visceral dissatisfaction felt by many Brazilians, a dissatisfaction that snowballed through fake news in social media to emerge as a crisis. For many women, myself included, immersion in the campaign has been a vital necessity. We canvassed, posted, called, emailed constantly to support the opposition.
Politics colored everything around us that season. The day before the second election, Roger Waters, a member of Pink Floyd, came to my town for a concert. During his Us + Them tour in Brazil, he trumpeted his characteristic antifascist and anti-systemic message. Audience reactions were mixed. Waters mentioned Jair Bolsonaro on his list of ascendant neo-fascist rulers in the world. Bolsonaro’s voters voiced their frustration to Waters, saying they were at the concert to listen to music, not to talk about politics. Their position didn’t sway Waters, who continued to speak out against neo-fascism.
Because Waters’s show occurred on the eve of the election, he was legally prohibited from mentioning any candidates by name. Fans were eager to see how Waters would react to these restrictions. The concert already had an atmosphere of protest. Waters stopped his show shortly before 10pm to show a huge screen displaying in Portuguese: “This is our last chance to resist fascism before Sunday. Not him!” Half of the stadium booed while the other half cheered. This mixed reaction was disappointing and chilling, an omen of the 80% vote Bolsonaro would receive in my town.
After inciting cries of “Not him!” Waters displayed an ironic message: “It’s 10 o’clock. Obey the Law.” Perhaps incredibly, the boos quieted when the singer voiced a critique of Trump while performing songs from his album Animals. “Trump is a pig,” read a poster Waters displayed onstage.
The display was accompanied by a selection of “Trumpisms,” eerily similar to Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. An enormous inflatable pig flew over the audience, saying: “Stay human.” Opposition members to Bolsonaro gave a standing. Faced with the result of Bolsonaro’s victory the next morning, I remembered the students’ reactions at Queens College after Trump’s election. We too were overwhelmed by sadness and fear for the future of our country.
The similarities of hateful speech and despotic tactics between Trump and Bolsonaro are no coincidence. Many intellectuals– Noam Chomsky in the United States, Christian Laval in France, Jessé Souza and Vladimir Safatle in Brazil, to name but a few – have already pointed out that such elements are symptoms of the transformations inherent to global neoliberalism. This transformation has been dismantling welfare structures in favor of market liberalization since the 1980s. In their opinion, this phenomenon indicates both the strength of neoliberal intervention but also its weakness: to sustain itself, this socially-unsustainable mode of government requires increasing levels of authoritarianism. Understanding this weakness is our greatest opportunity for resistance and change.
Dr. Simon Springer, a professor at University of Victoria in Canada, published a provocatively-titled article in 2016, “Fuck Neoliberalism” (ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, v. 15, No. 2). “Our community, our cooperation, and our care for one another are all loathsome to neoliberalism. It hates that which we celebrate. So when we say ‘fuck neoliberalism’ let it mean more than just words,” Springer asserts. It is time, he says, for efforts to create a “new world ‘in the shell of the old.’” This sentiment has resonated with me: how can we retain resistance and creativity despite a shattered social fabric? The misogyny, racism, and homophobia magnified in Bolsonaro’s speeches encouraged people to voice the same across the country. Many others remained silent, complicit. Many of these people are my family, friends, co-workers, leaders. Many of them voted for Bolsonaro. How could they make this choice?
Over the last days of this turbulent year, many Brazilians like are astonished and frustrated by these events, which culminated in the inauguration of the new president. Those same last days reminded me of French anthropologist David Le Breton’s teachings on silencing and walking as forms of resistance politics. For him, both acts safeguard our inner dimension through moments of external storm. They also expand our consciousness, allowing us to access what is still unknown and to imagine the new.
I perform these simple acts, silencing and walking, by reading alone in public spaces. This is a particularly unusual habit for a modern Brazilian, who is more likely to be immersed in their smartphones rather than a book. The reading rates in Brazil are at a historic low. My stance derives from my irrevocable belief in the power of books. It is no mystery why undemocratic states censor books, discourage reading, and persecute writers. A book in my hand is my form of protest. When I voted against Bolsonaro last fall, I carried with me Women, Race, & Class, by Angela Davis. Similarly, many other Brazilians brought their favorite books in protest against what Bolsonaro represented. For the time being, I continue to read, publicly, without apology, while I seek answers for this devastating election.