Sometimes a madman is just a madman

After Jair Bolsonaro's victory in 2018, megachurch preacher Silas Malafaia held a service in one of his congregations with the presence of the president elect. The scene has become an icon for the dark times in which we live. Next to Bolsonaro, the preacher said, with his unmistakable voice, that God sent the crazy things to confuse the wise. He also said that God chose the vile and despicable things so that no flesh would boast before Him. But Bolsonaro is not the only nut job capable of causing great damage that has been raised to the position of God's “crazy messenger”. Before he won the fame he now has, the crazy Brazilian right had a kind of John the Baptist. I speak here of Olavo de Carvalho.

Allegory for the triumph of Venus (detail), by Agnolo Bronzino

It's no secret that I considered myself a classic liberal, and of the rarest type in Brazil: I wasn't a social conservative in favor of free market policies, as is typically and stupidly said. Close friends and my very rare readers know this. However, even the few who have been with me for a long time may be astonished by this information: before falling to the side of classical liberalism—and libertarianism—I flirted for a while with the Olavista right—or, rather, the obscurantist right to which Olavo is but one of several facets, and not a very original one since he copies heavily from the dumbest conspiracy theorists in the United States, such as Steve Bannon.

It shouldn't be a surprise that a privileged while male like me bought into these ridiculous conservative discourses that appeal to the most basic prejudices of Brazilian society. We live in a world so complex and crazy that even many of the most oppressed humans adhere to the idea that they deserve the situation of social and economic submission in which they find themselves. The phenomenon of the “poor right-winger” is not something new, although it has become more evident in recent years. Such a thing has always existed here and everywhere else in the world. Recent and contemporary examples abound, from Hitlerist Germany to the United States of the 20th and 21st centuries—I specify the period because there were still worker's movements with anti-capitalist tendencies in the United States until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were almost completely extinct in the early twenties, something that Noam Chomski usually remembers in several of his lectures and interviews.

Indeed, in Germany itself at the beginning of the last century, there were strong social-democratic, socialist and communist movements, but they were wiped out violently when the greatest loser in Austrian history rose to power in the first half of the 20th century. We must never underestimate the issue of loser when we talk about  reactionary and far-right people, whatever they may be. The case of the “young” Brazilian digital influencers who use ficticious names—“Winter”, “Coppola”, “Morgenstern”—says a lot to the attentive observer. There is a need for escapism, especially for those reactionaries that come from a poor and submissive capitalist country such as Brazil. In the case of white Brazilian reactionaries, then, things get even worse: they need years of therapy or some shock that brings them back to reality, and even then it's difficult for them to wake up and realize that they defended a bunch of bullshit.

As Jessé Souza argues when analyzing classic works of Brazilian sociology, such as Casa Grande e Senzala, we were born in a society that was historically shaped by slavery and all the cruelty and dehumanization inherit to it. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to it all through time and the influences that surround us since childhood, even though they are often subtle. That is why it's so difficult to make white people understand that they have no idea what it's like to grown up black in Brazil—when I speak of white people, I mean people who Brazilian society consider to be white, but who in many cases wouldn't be considered white in North America and Europe. Worse, they have no idea what it is to grow up black and poor in our society.

It is necessary to specify “black and poor” and not just use “poor” because many middle class and rich white Brazilians had or still have poorer relatives, people who “worked hard”—something that often makes the situation worse, since whites use these people as examples without understanding that, in a racist society, it's much easier for a poor white person to ascend than for a black person. Now, on the question of knowing or not what it is to grow up black and poor in Brazil, I have no idea how that is. At least, after spending a lot of time in ignorance and guessing, today I know I have no idea. In experiential terms, no one who hasn't experienced skin prejudice themselves can know. The only that is possible for us is to have some notion, however vague and indirect, that being a black person in a society such as ours is an experience full of setbacks. Just take the abundant statistics on violence in Brazil: it is as if blacks and non-blacks lived in different countries, since blacks suffer much more of all kinds of violence.

What I tried to show in the last few paragraphs is a brief and incomplete picture of how easy it is for someone privileged to repeat the historical faults that a society like ours carries. Our society has never seriously dealt with difficult legacies. We never dealt with the crimes perpetrated during our military dictatorship, nor with the crimes committed against the enslaved Africans and their descendants. We never atoned for the genocide committed against native Brazilians, and we never resolved the issue of worker exploitation. We never settled the score with any of these serious faults, so it's extremely comfortable for someone who has a privilege to reproduce speech that justify his privilege: it's comfortable for the rich to justify the exploitation of the workers. it's comfortable for the middle class to justify extreme poverty; it's comfortable for whites to look down on blacks; and it's comfortable for men to mistreat women. However, as much as privileges are things that are difficult to perceive and change, as much as they are ingrained in us, in me, and are easy to be reproduced, that doesn't excuse us.

This is where Olavo de Carvalho and people like him come in play. The anti-vaccine, geocentric and flat-Earther craziness propagated by a reactionary and anti-Enlightenment individual like Olavo de Carvalho is just the syrup on top of the dung cake he sells. The bulk of his message is: “the world must be organized in a hierarchical manner chosen by me.” Olavo and others like him invariably defend extremely reactionary concepts of social and economic hierarchy. They defend racist concepts, whether explicitly or not, and they defend elitism—and many of these hierarchical concepts defended by them are based on ideas long overturned, such as the divine rights of kings.

The arguments used to justify indigenous genocide, the enslavement of Africans, and the absurd exploitation of the working class have already been unraveled and refuted to exhaustion over the past two hundred years, but there is still an insistence on justifying such things, however impossible that may be. That's why Olavo de Carvalho and guys like him always need to curse, swear, scream and kick. It's not possible to defend the existence of a global satanic-communist conspiracy financed by billionaires while maintaining a serious face and using appropriate language. The idea they try to convey is that they are crazy because of a wisdom that is so profound that it transforms their wise minds. This phenomenon exists in the history of religion, both in the West and in the East. There are Catholic saints who are said to have behaved like true mental patients—and they probably were, it just wasn't known at the time. In addition, much has been written and documented about Oriental gurus who act in absurd ways under the guise of “sacred madness”. In recent history, some of these gurus have been know to abuse followers financially and sexually.

As much as we romanticize past figures such as Bodhidharma, who was supposed to have meditated for so long inside a cave that his legs gangrened, this is all unacceptable in a contemporary society. It's unacceptable because it hurts and deceives others. There are extremely negative effects that are repeated in the name of these insane behaviors, especially when they come from people who espouse certain ideological doctrine, as in the case of Olavo and others like him. This man has caused so much evil in our society that future historians will find difficult to measure. His words and attitudes reverberate under an aura of “sacred knowledge”, the aura that his cultists virulently defend. The problem is that they don't realize that sometimes a madman is just a madman. If I want to be even more faithful to reality, I must write that this happens most of the time, and that at other times the madman is just a charlatan who pretends to be crazy. This means that, given the absurdities defended by Olavo de Carvalho, there are only two options: he is either crazy, or he is a charlatan.

By Fernando Olszewski

(This article was originally posted June 3rd, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)