An Open Letter to Brazil
(Clique aqui para a versão em português)
Carnaval is over. The “real” new year is finally beginning. And tomorrow, I will be leaving, returning to my country.
Like most gringos, I originally came to Brazil for the parties, the beaches, and the girls. Little did I know that I would spend the majority of the next four years within your borders. I would learn a lot about your culture, your language, your customs, and by the end of this year, I will marry one of your girls.
It’s no secret that there are big problems in Brazil. There’s a political crisis, an economic crisis, constant safety concerns, huge income inequality, and now with the outbreak of Zika, apparently a health crisis.
Over the years, I have met many Brazilians who have asked me, “Why?” Why is Brazil so screwed up? Why are countries in Europe and North America so prosperous and safe while Brazil continues to go through the same cycles of growth and collapse over and over again?
In the past, I’ve had theoretical conversations about systems of government, colonial histories, economic policies, and so on. These are clearly some valid explanations for the problems. But lately, I’ve come to another conclusion. A conclusion that many people would probably find offensive, but upon mentioning it to a few of my Brazilian friends, they urged me to write about it and share it.
So here it is:
It’s you. You are the problem.
Yes, you reading this, you are the problem. I’m sure you don’t mean to be, but you are actively participating in the problem and perpetuating it. Every day.
Because it’s not just about Dilma or PT. It’s not the banks or the construction companies or Petrobras or even the crappy Real.
It is the culture. It is the beliefs and mindsets that form the foundation of how the Brazilian people choose to think about their lives and their country.
The problem is what you and everyone around you has decided to accept as OK, even when nothing about it is OK.
Imagine you are riding in the car with your friend late one night. Your friend is driving down a dark street with nobody on it. He has been drinking and he’s not paying attention when suddenly he crashes into an expensive parked car. Before anybody can see what happened, he drives off.
The next day, the police knock on your door mentioning that a car was damaged on a street nearby and they’re wondering if you know anything about it.
What would you do? Would you: A) lie and say you don’t know anything and protect your friend? Or B) tell the officer what happened and force your friend to take responsibility for his mistake.
I believe most Brazilians would choose A. I believe most gringos would choose B. And this is essentially why gringo countries are rich and functional and Brazil is not. In gringo countries, there is a sense that justice and responsibility are more important than any specific individual. It is a social consciousness. It is the bedrock of a highly functional society and to ignore it is a form of selfishness.
Most Brazilians have sacrificed a great deal for their family and their closest friends and because of this, they don’t believe they are selfish.
But I believe that Brazilian culture is inherently selfish. Only caring about your family and close friends is still a form of selfishness.
You know all of those corrupt politicians and businessmen and police and workers unions? You know why they’re corrupt? I guarantee you that almost every corrupt Brazilian official justifies the lying and stealing to themselves by saying, “I’m doing this for my family.” They want to give their family a better life, send their kid to a better school, move and live in a safer neighborhood.
A Brazilian will regularly screw over strangers in order to benefit their family and then call it altruism. This is not altruism. Altruism is giving up your own interests for strangers and for the greater good of society at large.
But there’s also a vanity involved. I was surprised when I first learned that calling somebody “vain” in Portuguese is not seen as insulting as it is in English. Now I believe this is another key distinction between the two cultures.
A few weeks ago, my fiancee and I traveled to a famous beach in Brazil. We were disappointed. The water was dirty. The beach was ugly. The famous rock nearby was half the size we expected.
When we returned to São Paulo and told some friends this, their first response was, “Well, you still took pictures in front of it, right?”
It seems like such a small and innocent statement, but to me, it illustrates the core of another problem with Brazilian culture: people care way more about how they appear than how they actually are.
Now, Brazil isn’t the only country with this problem, but I find it more extreme here than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been.
It’s why rich Brazilians will gladly spend two or three times more for a shirt or piece of jewelry than they should or hire nannies and housekeepers when they could easily raise their own kids and clean the house themselves: because it makes them look and feel more rich. It’s why Brazilians buy everything in 12 or 24 installments: because they want to look like they can afford a television when they actually can’t. It’s why some poor Brazilians are willing to shoot somebody for a motorbike or kidnap a person for a few thousand reais: because they want to appear successful without contributing to society to earn it.
A lot of gringos believe that Brazilians are lazy. I don’t think Brazilians are lazy. On the contrary, Brazilians have more energy than most other people I’ve seen in the world (see: Carnaval).
The problem is that Brazilians focus all of their energy on vanity instead of productivity, on appearing popular and glamorous rather than actually doing something to make them popular or glamorous, on making others think they are successful rather than actually being successful.
Vanity is not happiness.
Vanity is a bullshit Photoshopped version of happiness. It looks nice but it isn’t real and it definitely does not last.
Vanity is self-defeating. If you need to buy something that’s way more expensive than it should be to feel special, then you are not special. If you need to pay someone to make you feel special, then you are not special. If you need to hurt somebody or lie to somebody or cheat somebody to feel successful, then you are not successful. In this case, shortcuts do not work.
Instead, what vanity does is causes you to tolerate shitty behavior from those around you. When you’re so concerned about what others think about you, that others will see you as glamorous or fun or popular, you are willing to tolerate bad relationships where your partner constantly cheats on you, bad friendships where your friends are disrespectful towards you, or bad family relationships where you are left unappreciated and unheard.
In Brazil, if someone is an hour late, everybody else stops and waits for them. If someone wants to leave and go on their own, then they are an asshole. If somebody in a family fucks up and wastes all of their money, other members of the family are supposed to give money to them. If somebody in the family gets a great job and makes a lot of money, they’re supposed to give money to everybody else. If someone in a group of friends doesn’t want to do something, everyone else is expected to not do it. If someone in a group of friends wants to do something on their own, they’re seen as antisocial and selfish.
As a gringo who generally doesn’t care what people think about me, I find it very hard to not see these situations as disrespectful and self-sabotaging. In circumstance after circumstance, I watch Brazilians reward the victim and socially punish the person who independently succeeds.
When you reward a person for failing or losing or doing something wrong, you give them no incentive to ever improve or get better. In fact, you make them completely reliant on those around them rather than teaching them how to support themselves and how to create something out of themselves.
When you punish somebody for being more successful than others, you discourage the most talented and ambitious from creating the progress and innovation that the country needs. You hold back the very people that are going to pull you out of this mess in the first place and you make room for the manipulative and mediocre leaders to take their place.
Don’t you see?
When you socially punish people for their successes, then the only way to be successful is to be a lying, deceitful asshole.
That is, you get Brazil.
Sometimes the best thing you can do to a friend who is always late is to leave without them. Because this forces them to learn how to manage their time and respect other people’s time.
Sometimes the best thing you can do to a person who wasted all their money is let them struggle and be desperate for a while. Because that’s the only way they will learn to be responsible in the future.
Sometimes the best thing you can say to a family member who is upset is simply to “get over it” because how else will they ever move on with their life?
I don’t want this to sound like I’m the gringo who knows everything. I don’t. And god knows my country is pretty fucked up too (I’ve already written a 15-page article about fucked up shit in the US).
But soon, Brazil, you will be a permanent part of my life. You will be part of my family. You will be my friend. You will be half of my child when I have one.
And it’s because of this, I feel I must share all of this with you openly, honestly, and with the love in which one friend speaks frankly to another, even though it hurts.
And also, because it’s not going to get better.
Maybe you already realize this. But if you don’t, then I will be the one to tell you:
It’s not going to get better anytime soon.
Your government will simply not be able to pay everything it owes soon unless you redo your entire constitution. The big businesses that drive your economy borrowed way too much cheap money back in 2008-2010 and they’re probably not going to be able to pay it back. Many of them will go bankrupt in the coming years causing an even worse crisis. Commodities prices are at extreme lows and show no signs of going higher, meaning there’s no more money coming into the country. You are a population of debtors and over-spenders in a shrinking job market and your taxes are so high that they are strangling productivity out of the population.
You are fucked. You can get rid of Dilma. You can get rid of PT. You can lower taxes and redo your constitution (and you should), but it doesn’t matter. The mistakes were already made years ago and you are going to have to live through it.
You are looking at at least 5-10 years of lost opportunities. If you are a young Brazilian, much of what you grew up expecting to achieve will no longer be available. If you are an adult in your 30s or 40s, your best economic years are likely behind you. If you are over 50, well, you’ve seen this movie before, haven’t you?
It’s the same old story, just a different decade. Democracy did not fix the problem. A strong Real did not fix the problem. Bringing millions of people out of poverty did not fix the problem.
The problem remains. Because the problem is the mentality of the people. The problem is certain facets of what is an otherwise beautiful and exuberant culture.
O jeitinho must die. The toxic vanity must die. The lack of accountability in your relationships must die. And the only way to kill these things is through enough Brazilians consciously choosing to change them within themselves.
Unlike the external revolutions that have been so common throughout your history, your revolution needs to be internal, a coup that takes place inside your heart and inside your mind.
You must choose to see things in a new way. You must set new standards and expectations for yourself and for others. You must demand that your time be respected. You must expect the people around you to be accountable for their actions. You must prioritize a safe and strong society above your own interests or the interests of your family and friends. You must let those around you handle their own problems, just as you must not expect anyone else to handle yours.
These are the choices that must be made every day. And until this internal revolution takes place, I fear you are destined to repeat the same mistakes for many more generations to come.
There is a joy inside Brazil that is both rare and special. It’s what attracted me to this country many years ago and it will keep me coming back. I just hope that one day that joy has the society it deserves.