Let’s Be Brazil

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This post first appeared in The Jewish Journal


I have outrage envy.

For nearly two weeks, more than a million citizens across Brazil have taken to the streets to protest political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, a crumbling infrastructure and — yes, in the land of Pelé — billions blown on sports.

“Brazil, wake up, any good teacher is worth more than Neymar!”  That’s what the crowds have been shouting. Neymar da Silva Santos, Jr. is the 21-year-old Brazilian star who’s getting nearly $90 million to play for Futbol Club Barcelona. “When your son is ill, take him to the stadium,” read one protester’s sign, razzing the $13.3 billion Brazil is spending to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the $18 billion it will cost the country to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Even this soccer-mad nation is saying there’s something out of whack with public priorities, and it’s time to set things right.

The massive demonstrations have stunned Brazilians themselves, for their size, their spontaneity and their civic fury. “If you’re not outraged,” an American bumper sticker goes, “you’re not paying attention.” Brazilians are paying attention to their problems, and they’re mad as hell. So why aren’t we?

The Brazilian protests were sparked by a bus fare increase in São Paulo. It’s grimly comical to see American news media explain why a 9-cent hike is such a big deal by resorting to the usual trope for covering social unrest in the developing world, like when the price of wheat goes up a few pennies. To help us understand why this matters so much, our press relates the cost of bread or buses to the minimum wage in distant lands and points out the dependency of their diets on staples and of their jobs on public transportation. Even though millions of Americans below the poverty line can’t make a living wage, and millions more are barely hanging on by their fingernails, the infotainment narrative of life in America is so divorced from the pervasive reality of struggling to survive that journalists assume we’d be bewildered that bus fares could start such a fire.

There are, of course, plenty of dissimilarities between the U.S. and Brazil, a developing nation ruled by military dictatorship until 1985, but there are also plenty of all-too-close analogies between what’s pissing off Brazilians and what ought to piss off Americans.

Income inequality. Brazil is in the world’s bottom 10 percent on income inequality, ranking 121st out of 133 countries. But the U.S. ranks 80th, just below Sri Lanka, Mauritania and Nicaragua.

Wealth distribution. There are only six countries in the world whose wealth distribution – accumulated holdings, not annual funds earned — is more unequal than Brazil. But the U.S. is one of those six.

Education. The annual rate of growth in student achievement in math, reading and science in Brazil is four percent of a standard deviation. But U.S. educational achievement is growing at less than half that rate: 1.6 percent, just below Iran.

Corruption. Brazil ranks 121 in public trust in the ethical standards of politicians, out of 144 countries. But the U.S. comes in only at 54, just above Gabon.

Infrastructure. The quality of Brazil’s infrastructure puts it at a dismal 107, out of 144 countries. But the U.S. ranks 25th – below most other advanced industrial countries and even behind some developing nations, like Oman and Barbados.

Health care. Brazil’s health care system ranks 125th out of 190 countries. But the U.S., jingoistic rhetoric notwithstanding, is only 38th. Among our peer nations – wealthy democracies – we’re dead last, and it’s only gotten worse over the past several decades.

So why aren’t Americans at the barricades?

Our spirits have been sickened by the toxins baked into our political system, which legalizes graft and is held hostage by special interests and a gerrymandered minority. As a result, we are legislatively incapable of dealing with big problems like joblessness, climate change, gun safety, infrastructure, hunger or – based on recent House Republican chaos – immigration. The public investments we’re not making – in schools, teachers, roads, bridges, clean energy – are killing us. Our tax code is the least progressive in the industrial world. The most massive transfer of wealth in history, plus a cult of fiscal austerity, is destroying our middle class. Tuition is increasingly unaffordable, and retirement is increasingly unavailable. The banks that stole trillions of dollars of Americans’ worth have not only gone unpunished; they’re still at it.

For a moment, it looked like the Occupy movement might change some of that. It’s striking how closely the complaints within Brazil about their protesters are already tracking the criticism of Occupy made in the U.S.:  The only thing keeping them going is the police’s overreaction. They have too many demands. Their demands are incoherent. Their demands lack focus. They’re leaderless. They’re young and naïve. They’re drunk. They’re violent. They’re vandals, delinquents, drunks, druggies, terrorists.

Here at home, those charges, and the advent of cold weather, proved fatal. So oligarchs rock, plutocrats roll and Occupy rolled over. Today, with both political parties hooked on special interest money, with demagogues given veto power and media power, hope feels naïve.  You’d have to have just fallen off the turnip truck to look at our corrupt and dysfunctional government and believe that we are the change we’ve been waiting for.

That learned helplessness is what democracy’s vampires drink. Wouldn’t it be sweet if Brazil’s protest movement turned out to be the garlic we’ve been waiting for?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

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  • http://cynicalpharmacist.blogspot.com The Cynical Pharmacist

    Other possible reasons why Americans aren’t at the barricades –

    1. Based on Presidential election results, half of the population supports the GOP and their corporate masters, and even more enable their efforts.

    2. The other half realizes that they are powerless to fight against a corrupted system and have cynically resigned themselves to take what they can get, while they watch how this time in history plays out.

    3. It takes a lot of time and effort to continuously fight against a corrupted system. “They” have enough money to finance enablers to help them achieve their goals. “We” can’t afford to be out in the streets protesting.

    75% of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, or less. Our time is spent working two marginalized jobs in order to keep from going hungry or becoming homeless.

  • Gerard

    The right wing has convinced average and poor Americans that they have something in common with corporations…..that these folks ought to blame those with even less for their problems so that the elite can steal the country right out from under us while we look elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

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    75% of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, or less. Most of our time is
    spent working two marginalized jobs in order to keep from going hungry
    or becoming homeless.

  • Elise Cain

    When people can’t protest… The oligarchs shut us down… If Occupy could have stayed fully entrenched I would have stayed with it to the end. The numbers were growing. The powers that be… are not the people.


    every one in this country is scared, i for 1 would love to protest but everyone here is sheep

  • tom garner

    Hmmm – love the article, but i take issue with the notion that “Occupy
    rolled over”. There is no doubt in my mind that Occupy influenced the
    protests in Brazil, just as *we* have influenced one of the largest
    protests in recent years in the U.S. – March Against Monsanto *grew* out
    of Occupy Monsanto.

    We never intended to sleep in tents and
    fight in the streets. We intended to do just what we did. – Bring
    attention to Some Really Big Problems that are happening World Wide,
    with Wall Street being the central figure and home of this stifling

    Moyers (and company) have repeated our message on several occasions and
    many of us within the occupy movement have taken notice… this is not
    the time to start throwing disparaging words at the one group that continues
    to work tirelessly to *Shout to The World* about these pressing issues!

    We would all have been better served had you chosen to tell people to join with and/or contact us. http://occupywallst.org/

  • Henrique Malta

    It’s not so simple… The protests are being hijacked by fascists and the right-wing media. And the middle class is being complicit: the left-wing political parties that go to these demonstrations are being chased away by people singing “no parties”. It’s not just that they don’t have specific demands; rather, that they don’t know what they’re thinking, what they’re fighting against. With Occupy Wall Street, it was very clear: it was Wall Street and this predatory form of capitalism from the last few decades. Many protesters in Brazil don’t know their enemy very well; and for many, who are beginning to outnumber everyone else, the enemy is the left.

  • Michael Eckford

    Still way off the radar are struggles like those of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kayapo. Brazil is as much of a criminal as China, America, Harperland or any other subsidiary of GlobalCorp. Boycott the Federation Cup! Boycott FIFA!

  • http://freedomoutpost.com/2013/04/dhs-are-you-willing-to-die-for-your-king-i-am-willing-to-die-for-mine/ mountaindaisy

    And on your last sentence, both Right and Left can agree, I believe. The entrenched Political Class is who we have objections with and wow, do we ever outnumber them!. Michael Hastings was killed, to keep journos in line. That is the Elites last line of defense. Say when and where Bill! And I have a whole boatload of freedom-loving friends I can bring.

  • Maria Hechinger


  • Judith Lawson

    Ah … garlic. Noticing how many people are glued to their little screens and ear buds,

    who ask me to “Shut up — I don’t want to hear it,” when I mention something really
    important in a non-threatening conversational way I’ve concluded the only hope for
    revolution in this benighted country is a collaboration of the very young and thinkers

    over 60. We could emulate the Portuguese revolution where hundreds of thousands
    sang and marched in the streets carrying red carnations and leaving flyers everywhere.
    Peaceful, huge by the standards of that country and that time, filled with song and story and flowers … and successful.

  • dorothee

    Ive been thinking the same thing over the last few days – when are we going to wake up?

  • Steve Johnson

    Something’s gotta give…

  • Anonymous

    Big difference: Brazil is on its way up, the US on its way down.

  • roger

    I think all of this left vs right talk found in the comment section here is a huge part of the problem in the US. I´m American, but live in Brazil. There is no liberal or conservative bashing going on concerning the protests. People have diferent ideas of how to solve certain problems here in Brazil, but everyone agrees that the protests (minus the violence, of course) need to happen. Years of coruption transfered from the dictatorship straight into the political mold of today have left the population feeling jadded and helpless when it comes to politics, until now. As deliaruhe pointed out, Brazil is on its way up, and these protests play an important role in turning the tides of coruption in the country so that it can continue to grow.

  • Theresa

    This was on facebook. Worth watching.

  • Theresa

    Sorry, I tried to take a video from facebook to here about this topic, but it did not work.

  • ummango.blogspot.com.br

    As an American living in Brazil, I am all for the protests. I see some of the connections that you are making between Brazil and the US, but I think it is hard for those outside of Brazil to understand just how pervasive and horrible the corruption in Brazil is. And I also think that it’s hard to understand how complacent Brazilians have been for over 20 years about their problems. There has been a widespread attitude that “there is nothing we can do” and as a result many here have just resigned themselves to living with the corruption, poor education, and sub-par infrastructure. You may think that the American government is corrupt and dysfunctional, but it has nothing on politics in Brazil.