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Edition #9
Rio de Janeiro, 2006

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By Lana Hosser

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Combating cultural puritanism

TAGS: activism, bbc

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“DKANDLE weaves swirling multi-colored vibrant unearthly soundscapes, blending fuzzy and reverberating Shoegaze textures, mesmerizing Dream Pop meditations, sludgy Grungey tones and moody Post-punk strains, heightened with soul-stirring lyricism and pensive emotive vocalizations”

“I don't want my house to be surrounded by walls on all sides and my windows to be boarded up. I want the cultures of all peoples to walk through my house with maximum freedom.” - Gandhi

THE ISSUE

Nationalism has resurged worldwide. In Brazil, it

manifests mainly in the cultural sphere, where, in

the eagerness to value "our popular roots," culture

is no longer seen as a repertoire of great literary,

musical, and philosophical works.

THE DANGER

Besides fostering an unjustified aversion to foreign influences, cultural nationalism hides the real problem: the enormous deficiencies of the Brazilian educational system.

Cultural nationalism, one of the most dangerous ideas to ever afflict the planet, is resurging everywhere as a reaction to globalization. The idea is dangerous because the idealization of one’s own culture leads to the devaluation of others, which fuels national rivalries and wars. Additionally, the invention of a common external enemy creates false solidarities and silences internal contradictions. This idea is re-emerging in Europe in response to the growing penetration of American culture. It is re-emerging in the United States, increasingly convinced of being the chosen people, destined by God to convert the world to the American way of life. And it is re-emerging in Brazil.

Cultural nationalism has been highly influential among us since the consolidation phase of our independence. It all started with the romantic nationalism of Gonçalves Dias. Then came the scientific nationalism of Sílvio Romero and Euclides da Cunha, the modernist nationalism of Graça Aranha and Oswald de Andrade, the regionalist nationalism of Gilberto Freyre, and the authoritarian nationalism of Azevedo Amaral. Common to all these varieties is the theme of the lack of originality of our cultural elites, their compulsive tendency to copy foreign models.

Starting in the 1950s, nationalism became predominantly political and economic rather than cultural. In part, this was the nature of the nationalism of the Higher Institute of Brazilian Studies (Iseb), for which the "reduction" of foreign culture aimed primarily at promoting our socio-economic autonomy, and even of the military, for whom the rejection of "exotic" ideologies served a fantasy of becoming a great power.

With the end of the military dictatorship, political and economic nationalism lost momentum, but there was a curious regression to cultural nationalism. This regression was accompanied by a redefinition of the concept of culture. It ceased to be seen as a repertoire of great literary, musical, and philosophical works and began to be viewed in an ethnographic sense, as a set of values, traditions, ways of doing, and ways of feeling. It was the time and the turn of the "cornbread" ideology. This trend is intensifying today. The more the government is accused of yielding to neoliberal demands, the more it insists on showing its fidelity to our national-popular roots. It seems as if cultural nationalism is filling the void left by the retreat of political-economic nationalism.

This change in function does not make cultural nationalism any less dangerous. Like any ideology, it induces what my generation called "false consciousness." This false consciousness leads nationalists to lament the "inauthentic" character of our culture and attribute it to the influence of major hegemonic centers, without realizing that much of the problem is due to our educational deficits and the impact of the cultural trash spread by the electronic mass media. Now, this industry can be foreign, but it can also be national. American mass culture is undesirable because it is mass culture, not because it is American. Brazilian mass culture produces equally deplorable results.

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The truth is that under the conditions of a globalized world, Brazilian culture can only survive and establish itself internationally by being open to the world. To maintain our cultural identity, we must advance, not entrench ourselves behind barricades. Advancing means, among other things, incorporating the best of foreign cultures. We wouldn't have had Cinema Novo if Glauber Rocha had been prevented by nationalists of the time from reading Cahiers du Cinéma, nor bossa nova if they had stopped jazz records at customs.

Chauvinism is a social phenomenon, not necessarily political. Brazilian society has harbored anti-Portuguese chauvinism in the past, just as it now has pockets of anti-Argentine and especially anti-American chauvinism. Opposing Bush's unilateralism is a duty of all good people, but we must ensure that this political critique does not degrade into cultural xenophobia. There is a slogan against Halloween, spray-painted on various walls in downtown Rio, whose tone is so fascist that one suspects the authors belong to a far-right organization. Apparently, they think only Halloween is an imported holiday, and that Christmas was already celebrated by the indigenous people, with little trees full of lights and cotton fluffs, when Cabral arrived in Brazil. Such pathologies exist in all societies, but they can translate into racist attitudes when politically encouraged.

Some imports are indeed irritating, as in the case of language. But correcting these anomalies by decree is an even greater anomaly. Nothing is more provincial than the French legislation trying to prevent the use of foreign words, as if the French language itself were not an amalgamation of Latin, Celtic, and Germanic contributions, and as if English, which they seek to defend French against, were not constituted in a high proportion of French words brought to England by the Normans. A similar law in Brazil would make little sense because our problem is that most people do not know Portuguese. If you want today's teenagers to stop translating "delete" as "deletar," take steps to ensure they all read Machado de Assis. Meanwhile, I wouldn't worry too much about "deletar": it is a neologism, sure, but already accepted by the Aurélio dictionary and, despite some purists' opinions, seems well-formed to me, constructed from an impeccably Latin root (delere, to destroy, which remains in the adjective 'indelible').

The famous "inauthentic" character of Brazilian culture, caused by the mimetic vocation of our elites, is a false problem. The real problem is the power structure of Brazilian society. The issue is not whether Brazil copies foreign culture, but why internal social relations hinder the popular classes' access to high culture, whether national or foreign. The enemy is not foreign culture but inculture, which condemns its victims to impartial ignorance, preventing them from knowing both Proust and Guimarães Rosa.

*Sergio Paulo Rouanet is a philosopher, diplomat, former Minister of Culture,
and author of "As Razões do Iluminismo."

Text originally published by Veja magazine - Edition 1886, January 5, 2005

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