Political in the Personal
Obama’s Visit to Brazil 2011
I understand and support the importance of the personal in the political, as was the political instrument for feminist, gay and indigenous rights movements.
Yet I feel critical when considering this relationship in reverse.
Where and what are the limits to the role of the political in the personal?
They say that there are two topics that one must avoid, Politics and Religion. I have found over the years that there is some truth in this turn of phrase. Relating to my experiences hitch hiking, many feel qualified to speak on any subject matter, no matter how abstract or complex. You see its all propped up by the right to free speech. Yet what I find is that one ends up hearing interpreted hegemonic views, usually they echo broader political lines and agendas. Upon asking the source of their views, the answer is referenced from some form of televised or tabloid media. Politics and religion are complex, heterogeneous, abstract disciplines. They demand a vast wealth of knowledge of both structures and theories with their corresponding claims and perspectives. So it seems there are many talking parrots out there, who would be better off limiting their speech on such matters. As beings that possess intellect of varying degree, we attain the capacity to make value judgements, be it conscious or unconscious. It becomes normal and unavoidable. Yet, we all have a certain disposition, all of us adhere to or elevate certain ideas and discard others. Although we all come to be affected by these ideas, it is the messenger of such ideas that we are to be most wary of. Understanding that a critique of which does not equate to a critique of the purporting individual.
Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that ideas and theories analogically do not possess the same properties nor similar physical capacities as the individual. I would argue that this is what has the potential to become a dehumanising force. Look no further than the doctrines of Nazism and the corresponding actions of Hitler; the selective and radical interpretations of Islam with the actions of the September 11 hijackers. Such an internalisation does not allow for space, a space to which one can transform and develop these ideas and opinions rationally.
As a current Politics and philosophy student, these are subjects to which I end up talking relentlessly about. I’ve watched over the years as the various students would get fired up over the ideological attacks from one end of the classroom to the other, the critiques of feminism being misconstrued to become an attack on those that identified as feminists. So in these sticky situations, all one can do is sit back and laugh. Something I found myself doing just last week in class. The group activity and its aims had ended up in a black and white, left and right, hot and cold political discussion. The activity had landed far off the given topic for two of my classmates, a friend from another class and an older man in his 60’s. This man, a bi-product of the Franco era is by political sway a staunch socialist. Needless to say, when this classmate started countering his arguments from her right-wing leaning views, the irritating, irrelevant and unnecessary dialogue unravelled and descended into the emotional. Both had deeply internalised political views, both at polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both emphatically defended their view as if it were only theirs. It reached a climax when the comment “You’d have to be an idiot to vote for the right” was hurled at my classmate. The political attack had penetrated the personal. Minutes later the teacher came over and reminded the two to stick to debating the ideas between each other and not at each other.
In the early months of 2011, the US administration announced that Barack Obama would make a state visit to Brazil. It had only been months since the new President, Dilma Rousseff, had been sworn into office. Dilma had already met Obama in person when she served in the cabinet of the popular former president Lula Ignacio da Silva, with whom she had accompanied for the Brazilian Trade visit to Washington in 2009. Obama’s trip to Brazil was part of a quick tour of the region, which also included Chile and Argentina. The theme of the visit was framed by the US government and an equally interested media as one based around strengthening diplomatic ties. The focal point of the US Presidential visit would be an open air speech in the Largo da Cinelandia, one of the open civic spaces in the old centre of Rio de Janeiro. His visit was highlighted locally as a chance to alleviate tough visa processes on Brazilian travel to the US. The euphoria of the event was beaten up in the media, akin to the nature of the telenovelas that transfix large national audiences. The open air event became advertised on television as a chance to be within eye shot of one of the worlds powerful leaders, even if one wouldn’t understand a world of his speech.
With this issue in the background, I would encounter my first tiff of the political transcending to the personal. I met Flavio through Couchsurfing in 2008, en route hitch hiking to Mexico. I found good company upon arriving in his home, and shared many thoughtful and interesting discussions about Brazil and the politics of its social and economic development with him. As an intelligent man with a MA in Development Study completed in New Zealand, he had travelled extensively, spoke half a dozen languages and was working with local council in Goias concerning environmental issues. Indeed I found him an admirable character. Fast forward three years and I find myself living in Rio de Janeiro, he has also relocated to the city albeit for English teaching work on the petrol rig located off the oil abundant coast. After catching up on small details, he tells me that he’ll be back in the city the corresponding week of Obama’s visit, along with the chance to see his speech live in the square. I’m interested in why he is going, he is shocked at this question. Brushing it aside, he tells me how this event is a diplomatically important and healthy for Brazil’s economic development and furthermore the social improvements for its people. This is understandably an important goal of many countries, indeed Brazil is no regional superpower for nothing. This is where I start to ask why he thinks Obama is visiting now, as it seems that even the media is remaining silent on it. I am curious in the timing of the visit, being only three days in length; the choice of places, Rio de Janeiro but not Sao Paulo (the economic capital). His open air speech is a curious event to stage for a world leader, given the high crime and lack of public security on a day to day basis in the city. Better still, why haven’t any other Brazilian leaders or presidential candidates attempted a similar style of public event? One starts to wonder whether the massive oil discoveries off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in the last 5 years since the Bush visit have anything to do with it. Then comes the question: What’s in its for the Brazilians? A fair question, given that there is a known decades long history of manipulation, diplomatic neglect and collusion in the countries politics by the US government.
Now I come to the way my questions were received, given that I had fielded questions to him before that didn’t necessarily match his. In none of these opinions, had I mentioned, “your views”, “your opinions”, simply stating what was, and is, a fleshing out of a particularly important political and symbolic event. What surprised me however was his reception to my questions. I am someone who places themselves more towards the political left, albeit one characterised by a critical attitude to all its political ideologies and policies. In Brazil, as I understand, identifying as left-wing is something that transcends the political to the personal. I can’t say I know what it is like to live under a dictatorship, watch the quality of health and education rapidly deteriorate and live with the social implications of that. The personal had been the political for many, for which they had suffered with torture, kidnapping and in some cases, their very lives. Yet we must delineate these ideologies from the subjects that utilised, abused and killed in that cause, this is what we cannot and must not perpetuate. His interest in hearing what Obama has to say is fair, indeed I am eager to hear it too. Yet one does not need to actively participate or passively support an event like this when one can easily read his speech on the US administrations website. For these opinions, I came to be the subject of personal attacks. By not supporting Obama’s speech and the US administrations visit in part because of its ambiguity, he labelled me “immature”. Furthermore what I had put forward had not only “insulted his intelligence”, but had lead him to the point that “(he couldn’t) believe that someone of such intelligence and knowledge of political affairs in Brazil could be so naïve”. He finished the conversation by saying that he’d prefer to have it face to face. I agree, but when you’re living on an oil rig the opportunity barely arises, face to face contact is not always possible. What’s more is that I enjoy to discuss such matters of political importance, the ideas behind them, the observations that can be drawn from them.
I was not irritated by any of his attacks on my character or my intelligence. I have accepted that ignorance is inevitable given the nature of cognitive learning, which depends on time, as well as the size of the brain. Yet what deeply struck me was how personally he had taken this discussion in which I had not once referred to him personally, given that I had not explicitly attacked “his” opinions. In my view they are simply opinions or arguments to which he, among many others, happen to embrace. Obama did not give the open air speech in the Cinelandia Square, it was called off due to fears for security. Instead his speech was delivered to a smaller diplomatic crowd inside the Municipal Theatre. His visit to other public areas occurred under tight security. Many felt let down by all the media hype, after all, they just wanted to see the president. The lead up to the visit had produced much more media than the actual event, and the private affair even more. This in turn made me question the tight centralised media, who peddled the event as a public one which as it ended up, was only made available through its broadcast. As for Flavio, we did not speak to each other about political matters after the event. A shame, given that we had been able to speak at length about many topics before hand.
I have suffered for my outspoken questioning, upon writing this article I realised that he had, for the love of techverbs, defriended me on facebook. Which further strengthened my resolve to write this short manifesto about the dangers of linking or defining ones identity with ones political confessions. What makes me most upset is that someone as intelligent and academically qualified as he is still could not conceive or make the separation of my arguments and their ideological basis. My ideas will change, and so will his, the disposition I may have in one area, may differ in an other, from one day to the next. Do we critique the idea or the messenger? And like all other messengers, the mail they bring one day will also vary from one day to the next. All ideologies have shortfalls and weaknesses so we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. Indeed we shouldn’t place ourselves in that basket either.