For the first time in nearly two years, I’m visiting Brazil. It’s been a curious experience.
As I walk around São Paulo, the city where I was born, I keep noticing the miracle of normalcy. Not only does Brazil look the same as it did when I left, but everyday life also seems to unfold as usual.
Drivers are stuck in the same traffic jams; travelers still pay ridiculous amounts of money for food at airports; the multitudes silently commute to their jobs; drunks sleep on the sidewalks; shopping malls teem with eager middle-class consumers; the same ubiquitous white noise permeates the city as a kind of a certificate proving its restlessness.
Given the apocalyptic news I’ve been reading about Brazil since I left back in 2015, it was an almost odd surprise to realize that the country hasn’t sunk into some form of black hole. Or has it?
“People are desperate, they don’t really see a future here,” a dear friend of mine says over a beer. Indeed, a few days into my trip, another close friend tells me about his own unemployment story and lack of prospects. “Está foda,” he says. “I have no idea of what to do.” With few exceptions, I’ve heard different versions of the same gloomy narrative. People tell me they dream of migrating to Canada, Uruguay, Miami, Sweden. “If only I had a European citizenship,” says a third friend.
There’s nothing rigorous about my survey on Brazil’s morale, but my impression is that we have somehow reverted back to the 1980s – the so-called “lost decade,” when the grand project of nationhood, inculcated into people’s minds during the military dictatorship, finally came tumbling down.
As someone who experienced that moment as an infant within a highly political family, I do have some recollections of how terrible things were back then – but I also remember the normalcy of living in awful times. To put it frankly, everything sucked so much constantly that you simply stopped thinking about it. You just go on with your life: get stuck in traffic jams, commute to your job, do some shopping, get drunk.
Normalization of the abnormal?
Cornell University professor Thomas Pepinsky recently wrote about authoritarian states. He says that what we fantasize about as abnormal and deviant tends to invisibly become an apparently harmless routine. When I walk through São Paulo and talk to people, I wonder which forms of abnormality, which new dramas and anxieties Brazilian people are naturalizing right now – and which movement, if any, will be able to break the spell of this naturalization. And I cannot find answers. Things still seem too volatile right now to afford explanations.
The struggle for clarity will, in my opinion, define this new year. After 2016, a year of traumatic and historical rupture, 2017 might prove to be transitional, a year in which nothing in particular is achieved, but where we might at least come to grips with the haze obscuring what lays ahead of us. That alone would be a tremendous step towards a more optimistic 2018.