We still reject your panic mode: Bolsonaro and Brazil so far

We at the Secular Humanist League of Brazil (LiHS) have a great deal of sympathy for Spiked Magazine’s “radical humanism” and the work of its editor Brendan O’Neill. We tend to concur with them that resistance to humanism is not only at the right-wing, as it’s normal to assume for almost every not-so-young humanist today after many decades of threats coming from the so-called “religious right”, in the context of the global conversation about human rights, science and progress.

Spiked and O’Neill have been at the forefront of criticism against the identitarian, post-modern-influenced “New Left”. They understand a “radical humanism” means defending freedoms and reason no matter where and no matter against whom. A radical humanist is prepared to lose friends defending humanism. Maybe that’s the “radical” part, even though we wouldn’t normally jump on any bandwagon praising any kind of “radicalism”. Radical ideas are often radically implausible.

The English-speaking world of Spiked and O’Neill’s is not identical, of course, to our Brazilian context. However, the sources that they often criticise are now the same international sources that are panic-mongers about president Jair Bolsonaro, who took office five days ago. As we told the German outlet Humanistisch International, Bolsonaro is no friend of humanism. The idea of humanism is clearly alien to him. However, reason demands not only that we disapprove of him for his ideas and words, but also that we make an accurate evaluation of his actions, not falling prey to panic, which would be both irrational and counter-productive. Unfortunately, this latter response is exactly what many humanists are doing, led by a dispirited radical left that is both among them and among our friends. A radical left that is in many ways anti-freedom and therefore anti-humanism by definition. Anti-freedom, for instance, when making up innovations on the limits of free speech that are not warranted by our received understanding of free speech.

English-speaking people in many ways are accustomed to freedom. It comes naturally to many of them. They wouldn’t imagine that every single social problem can only be solved by government intervention. It might be changing (as it seems to be the case with the outrageous law against ‘offensive’ pornography in Britain), but ever since John Locke and John Stuart Mill, British people don’t often see a lot of difference between liberalism and humanism, for how could we live well as individuals if forces more powerful than us prevent us from doing whatever it is that we want to do as jobs or in our bedrooms? Brazilians are often not like that. Saying some problem must be solved by government intervention is almost a knee-jerk reaction for many. For historical reasons, Brazilians are more prone to see government intervention as normal, no matter the costs to liberty. If you want to pay minimum wage to a single employee, government intervention makes you the “bargain” of one employee for the price of three. If you want to provide services on your own, it’s not uncommon that you’d be obliged by law to pay a third of what you make in taxes. As a result, millions of Brazilians are unemployed or “informally employed”, living on the edges, and suffering.

If a (radical) humanism is pro-freedom, what are we to make of Brazil’s enormous, oppressive, anti-free enterprise government? What are we to make of the many parts of the left-wing who approve of this state of affairs and cry out in anger at every attempt at lessening the heavy presence of the State in the individuals’ lives? English-speaking people on the left must understand that they are often not the same species as Latin American leftists. While socialism has only recently begun to be presented as not so evil as the received wisdom portrays it in the US, it’s never been fully discredited in Latin America, so the element of authoritarianism is always present on both sides of the traditional political divide. To give you a practical example: recently we’ve seen a legitimate, serious Stalinist organisation spreading their word on southern university campuses in Brazil, praising Stalin as the father of the people. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen swastikas drawn in various places during the presidential campaigns, but most if not all of them were the creations of Bolsonaro’s opposition trying to discredit him with false flags. There is, therefore, a double standard here, in which the authoritarian errors of the far right are recognised, but not those on the far left. Yes, we have the full spectrum of being on the left, with non-authoritarians defending nothing but an achievable welfare state, for instance. But with Latin America you never know the full extent of authoritarian elements being eschewed from acceptable, mainstream parties and discourse. Equally wrong is how Bolsonaro’s supporters seem to see every left-wing thing as full Communist.

Bolsonaro has partnered with liberal economists like minister Paulo Guedes, who want less government and more individual autonomy. It’s something very, very new in Brazil. In doing so, Bolsonaro is denying a long past he had as an interventionist member of parliament. If humanism means accepting freedom as a whole, including in the economic area, then there’s reason to be hopeful about Brazil. Of course, this hope needs to be balanced out with Bolsonaro’s conspiracy theories about communists and many social freedoms behind a humanist’s support and concern for minorities and women. But still, we insist that he be judged more on actions than on words, like in fact everyone should be.

But panic-mongering is fashionable. Take The Independent, for instance, in a piece they’ve published about Bolsonaro’s first acts as president. It wrongly claims that food was “seized” from reporters perceived as ideological opponents by Bolsonaro on his inauguration day. It claims Bolsonaro is targeting LGBT people, and all evidence they have of that is his government’s choice of words for an institution that decided that “LGBT” is within “human rights” and therefore need not be mentioned. It might be a step towards persecution, but it’s not sufficient to claim what The Independent has claimed.

Also, so far no lands from natives or quilombolas were expropriated by the government (and expropriation would be more ideologically resonant with the Venezuelan government, fiercely opposed by Bolsonaro, then with his government who claims to respect private property). But yes, the institutions responsible for the demarcation of theses lands were changed in a worrisome direction. This piece by the Independent is an exercise on spin, not a level-headed evaluation of what’s happening in our country. It’s shameful, therefore, and it would be rightly criticised by Spiked and O’Neill if they knew what we know.

To summarise:

  • Bolsonaro has yet to do anything extreme. He has not done anything extreme to date, and it’s too early to claim he has.
  • Most of his most extreme words are old, he’s toned down his discourse even though he’s still in the adversarial mode he espoused while running for president.
  • Brazil has serious institutions and there are no legal avenues for Bolsonaro to pursue anything resembling fascism.
  • The left-wing Worker’s Party, who has governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016, has the larger numbers of seats at both chambers of parliament.
  • The Federal Supreme Court is also an independent alternative to curb anything extreme done by Bolsonaro as president.

We at LiHS refuse to fall prey to panic. We will not be pressured by often anti-humanist panic-mongers to see an imaginary Armageddon. To us, Bolsonaro is a continuity in the difficulties we’ve witnessed in the 9 years since we started our work. Difficulties whose source were never restricted to one single political tribe. You can be sure we will not let slide any major actions he could take against our values. But we are not an organisation that serves vacuous political tribalism. Our one and only commitment lies with humanism. Irrational fears are not humanist.

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Eli Vieira is the president of the Secular Humanist League of Brazil.