Toxic hope

Although it wasn't always so, it's been a few years since I started appreciating philosophers and writers who see the world as a terrible and deceitful place. Terrible because it is full of pain and suffering. Deceitful because it makes beings capable of feeling pain and suffering fight with all their strength to remain alive and perpetuate the species they belong to. Because of my appreciation for pessimistic philosophers, the pandemic and all that unfolded afterwards didn't shock me so much. I'm perturbed, of course. Anyone in possession of a small amount of common sense is perturbed by what's happening. But there aren't any big surprises.

The Raft of the Medusa (detail), by Theodore Géricault

We live in the universe of entropy. It's normal for things to decompose. I wouldn't be surprised if the phenomenon of life were only another way for the universe to increase entropy in the end. To become undone through several different forms of friction is the rule in a universe that belongs to entropy. Everything gets undone sooner or later. Covid-19 is only a new form of friction that undoes a certain species of living beings, us. And covid-19 is only one of the diseases that ravage the world. It's not even the first great epidemic humanity has been through. However, there's a bizarre aspect in the current pandemic that other epidemics didn't have: the existence of deranged scientific denialism in a world dominated by techno-science.

Those who espouse pessimism also do not find it shocking that millions of people in the world base their lives in magical thinking and inflexible doctrines that make them deny the dangers of a disease. For readers of Cioran or Schopenhauer, the flux of human history is not the stage of a constant and assured progress. In truth, history isn't even a dialectical process in which the irrational is an indispensable moment that ends up contributing with the advancement of reason, as it is in Hegel. No. For the pessimist, human history only is. It has no purpose or direction. We're adrift in a chaotic temporal ocean.

Even more correct would be to think human of history as a product of a fleeting and ironic force, a force that always tempts us with the possibility of reaching new heights, only to show us new horrors once we reach the next peak in its unending climb towards nowhere. In fact, all of the planet's natural history can be thought of that way. Every time life on Earth goes through (supposedly) beneficial mutations, every time a new species comes into existence, it is as if the ironic force behind reality contemplates new and deeper forms of pain and suffering. We are the product of a perverse natural engineering.

This process went on for a few billion years and then nature made the homo sapiens. One of the major differences between humans and other species of animals is our apparent capacity of volition, of choice, of purposeful action. We ponder when faced by a situation and we act in different ways. In early modernity, between 1500 and 1800, it was believed that our capacity of volition would make us act in the most rational ways possible, something that would supposedly engender a constant betterment of the world. But in the 21st century — the century that brought us the smartphone, fast internet and supercomputers — there are millions of human beings who can read, write and have internet access that deny the covid-19 pandemic. Those people derail any effort when in comes to social distancing and even vaccination. In the vast majority of cases, they base their actions on magical thinking and religious or ideological fundamentalism.

This varies all over the world, of course, but Brazil was contemplated with a disproportional number of crazies in this delicate moment of contemporary history. That our people, on average, have poor education helps explaining the reason why dozens of millions of Brazilians totally believe in the grotesque stupidities their pastors and their president say everyday. Yes, the lack of good education helps explaining the rapid growth of flat-Earthers and antivaxers in these lands. It also helps to explain the insane faith people have in hydroxychloroquine as an “early treatment for covid”. However, ignorance alone cannot explain how so many have joined in the lunacy of our times, at least not completely. There are plenty of doctors and nurses that defend hydroxychloroquine, have doubts about the vaccine, and go against the WHO's recommendations. All we have to do to attest to this is look at the insane actions taken by Regional Medical Councils and even the Federal Medical Council.

Ignorance also doesn't justify the crudeness of people, and even when this crudeness comes from some of the poor who had precarious education. Even they seem to have been smarter, less fanatical, less guided by charlatans and demagogues. Back in the day, people used to talk about “Gerson's law”, which was based off of a cigarette commercial that had a soccer player named Gerson. This tongue-in-cheek law postulated that every Brazilian likes to take advantage of others, and that this was the cause of Brazil's underdevelopment. Besides being an extremely prejudicial view, it doesn't stand scrutiny, since all over the world the elites have taken advantage of their poor and working peoples. This happened even in the first world. But the self characterization of Brazilians as street-smart became classic in the last few decades of the 20th century.

I have to ask: does a street-smart, savvy person fall for the hilariously stupid preachings of billionaire evangelical preachers such as Valdomiro Santiago? Does a savvy individual believe in Flordelis' Christianity, a Congresswoman and evangelical preacher accused of murdering her husband? How can a street-smart person have no doubts regarding the words that come out of president Bolsonaro's mouth? To me, these things are the mark of a gullible people, incapable of cutting the heads of their own Louis XVI and Mary Antoinette. It is the opposite of smart or savvy.  If there's something we do as a nation is not take real advantage. Where do our ills come from, then? Would they come from our political, economic and social system, derived from our 1988 Constitution? Would Brazilians have “too much rights” as conservatives love to say?

I will argue that Brazil's greatest problem is not systemic, nor moral, but a mixture of several factors that do indeed touch on systemic and moral issues, but aren't reduced to them. There are prosperous, rich and less dysfunctional countries that, like us, are market economies with some sort of basic welfare state. There are many prosperous and less dysfunctional countries in which immorality and corruption abound. For example, what we consider slush funds in Brazil, secret accounts in which businesses pay off politicians so they are prioritized in future construction projects, is legalized in first world countries and referred to as “lobbying.” Besides this, wealthy superpowers don't care about lying in order to invade and destroy other countries — if this is not the epitome of corruption, then nothing else is. Our greatest problem is something else: we are sadistic towards one another. All it requires is a little bit of power in order for us to exercise this sadism, and when we have a lot of power sadism becomes an uncontrollable vice.

Although there are several criticisms that can be made about Jesse Souza's theses, his book, The Elite of Backwardness (A Elite do Atraso in Portuguese), paints a very well defined and succinct image of our national formation. It explains where this sadistic streak comes from by showing how slavery, massacres, and everyday violent relations between the powerful and the powerless, became entrenched in our culture and even psychology. If you are a pessimist like me, the book also paints another dark image: the complete lack of hope that we'll be able to deal with our great challenges in the foreseeable future. I know that's not Jessé Souza's intention, on the contrary. As a public intellectual, his objective is to search ways for us to overcome problems. I agree we should try. But certain things are very unlikely to happen and go against all the evidence.

I feel sorry for those who spend their days on social media and news outlets appealing the population for common sense and respect for the safety rules. We just need to observe the actions of the vast majority of Brazilians during one year of pandemic to conclude that trying to alert the public is a pitiful assignment. It's been over a year. Every day there are specialists and commentators on all kinds of media alerting about the risk of covid-19 getting out of control. Although I'm not a specialist, I also tried to alert people close to me, and I also joined in the online effort to support social distancing and mask use. Did it help? A little, yes, but way less than it should.

There was never a lockdown in Brazil, only weak distancing measures. Because of this, what many specialists predicted last year has finally happened: we are the most pestilent country in the world today. We have now the greatest acceleration in the number of new cases and in deaths by covid-19. My mother and I had covid-19, even though we took care and isolated as much as possible. That was in December. Still in the first months of pandemic in Brazil, an old friend from Manaus died of covid-19. He was an ultraconservative supporter of president Bolsonaro. His last profile picture on Facebook had the phrase “fechado com Bolsonaro”, which literally translates as “closed with Bolsonaro” but actually means something like “I'm together with Bolsonaro”. He was 43 years old, had been recently married and was a father.

I had lost contact with him in the last few years, and learned of his death through friends we have in common. They were outraged with the president because Bolsonaro has been dismissing the dangers of covid-19 from day one, something that contributed to the death of many people, including this old friend. There's only one problem: all of these friends that came to tell me about his death had also voted for Bolsonaro in 2018. Not long before this happened, all of them were firm believers in crazy conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Yes, the president has contributed to the mayhem. But this old friend of mine had a college degree, he graduated in economics. It's not like he was destitute, with little schooling. There's a limit when it comes to transferring the responsibility.

Don't get me wrong. Bolsonaro, his ministers and his generals should get life in prison, at the very least. What they are doing is genocide, even if indirectly, through the virus. I'm in favor of a Nuremberg style tribunal judging them in the future. I'm also in favor of the same penalties that were available at the Nuremberg trials, although I know our 1988 Constitution doesn't allow for the death penalty and special tribunals. I say we work around it or something, they must be punished somehow. But we also can't pretend that dozens of millions of Brazilians contributed to this chaos by unnecessarily crowding together in shopping malls, by not wearing masks and by believing in conspiracy theories they read on WhatsApp. Of course the main culprits are those on top with the power to influence the masses. The more economic and political power one has, the bigger the responsibility. However, we are also guilty. We failed as a civilization.

Even worse than this failure, however, is our incapacity to change course. That's where my complete lack of hope comes from. As I said before, the pandemic has been here for over a year. The alerts have been made everyday for over a year. But even though the population is alerted, many of us ignore the danger. Yes, Bolsonaro's supporters ignore science, but there are many progressives who oppose Bolsonaro going out to bars, parties, and ignoring mask advice. All one has to do is to look at social media stories to know this is true. There comes a time when hope stops being a virtue and becomes a grotesque vice. It is as if the hopeful told inspiring stories of overcoming the odds to an audience of cows just before they enter the slaughterhouse. We are at the same time the hopeful and the cows.

This metaphor defines the human condition well even if we don't take the pandemic into consideration. But it matches perfectly with Bolsonaro's Brazil and its response to covid-19. That is why, from now on, I cannot say I care too much about what's happening in the country. I'll care, of course. But I cannot fool myself and despair as a consequence of this self deception. I'll keep helping the efforts of those who appeal to common sense, yes, but knowing that the alerts will end up falling mostly on deaf ears and change little. The changes that do occur will mostly be for the worse. I'm sorry, really, but I cannot condone the lie that we will get out of this fix better than we were before, and that we're doing a good job despite everything. We are not doing a good job because speaking with lunatics is hopeless. We are also not going to get out of this pandemic as better people.

by Fernando Olszewski