Brazil’s democracy under threat – the attack against universities as a space for critical thinking

Democracy in Brazil is hanging by a thread. The government’s ideologues are not only trying to silence all critical thinking, they are engaged in re-writing history. Español

Daniel Peres
Daniel Peres
2 August 2019, 12.01am
Anti-dictatorship protesters face Bolsonaro. Wikimedia Commons.

Last year we had an extremely polarized election, certainly the most polarized since the end of a dictatorship that lasted more than twenty years, from 1964 to 1985.

From 1985 to 2013, Brazilian democracy went through a period of steady consolidation. In 2013, however, the scenario began to change. Perspectives on what would have happened are varied, many opposites to each other and still largely in flux.

The fact, however, is that a movement at once conservative and anti-system, emerged victorious in the 2018 elections. Brazil has elected a president who seems to be proud of being anti-intelectual, a president who does not hide his racism, misogyny, and homophobia, who openly defends torture and the murder of political opponents.

Bolsonaro was, until then, only a undistinguished representative, with seven mandates dedicated to the corporate agenda of the military and supported by money from Rio de Janeiro militias. He gains a national stage when, at the moment of voting on the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he screamingly dedicates his vote to a historical figure of the dictatorship, colonel Brilhante Ustra.

Ustra was a known torturer of then left-wing activist Dilma Rousseff. From that moment on, Bolsonaro began to unify a diverse array of anti-Worker’s Party sentiment, anti-leftism, conservative Christianity (evangelical and orthodox wings of the Catholic Church) and supporters of a bigger role for the military in all aspects of the republic’s political life.

On March 31, 1999, another obscure figure, Olavo de Carvalho, was giving a conference at Clube Militar do Rio de Janeiro. A self-proclaimed philosopher and now a digital influencer based in Richmond, Virginia, de Carvalho finally finds among the military the audience he was looking for.

The lecture defends the civil/military coup of 1964 - and the brutal dictatorship that then took root – arguing that it was a better alternative than the supposedly imminent communist revolution (1). He then states following question: "If a single living communist arrived at the end of 1964, he owed it to the Military".

If the military were victorious against the alleged direct communist attack on the state and power, they lost, however, the cultural war

According to Mr. Carvalho, not only did the military allow one or other communist to survive, but it also gave them the freedom to "do what they did, [and] even created instruments, financed communist films, let the communists take over the entire press and the entire university system where today [the communists] cynically exercise a power of censorship” (2).

Thus, if the military were victorious against the alleged direct communist attack on the state and power, they lost, however, the cultural war. The tearing of the bodies was not enough to silence the Gramscian soul that went on to win over the university campuses. The military gained power temporarily, but lost the ideological war. After all, according to de Carvalho, they "had no plan, no ideology”.

With the Bolsonaro government, the ideologue of the barracks comes to the forefront and adds to his audience evangelical politicians and neoliberal economists. De Carvalho appointed two Ministers of State: the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Ernesto Araújo), and the Ministry of Education (first, for a brief period Ricardo Velez, and then Abraham Waintraub). These brought an unprecedented ideological bent to these portfolios. In a text entitled “Trump and the West”, Mr. Ernesto Araújo writes the following:

"alongside politics, in the normal sense of state decision-making process and all that surrounds it, we increasingly perceive the existence and importance of a metapolitics; that is, the set of ideas, culture, philosophy, history, and symbols that act both at the rational level and the emotional level of consciousness" (3).

This set of ideas, however, is alien to modernity. Against the decadence of the West, which knows its rock-bottom in postmodern nihilism, Mr. Araújo proposes resuming a pre-modern, or rather, anti-modern agenda, returning to a supposed "mythical Western cultural tradition", which is represented by none other than Donald Trump and epitomize in his address to the people of Poland (4).

What guides the West as a nation is not human rights, the sovereignty of the people, freedom as an individual right that must be protected against oppression, , or equality; rather the West Nation is guided. by faith in God. But why Trump?

"In calling for God in Warsaw Square, Trump attacks the heart of postmodernity (...). This God for whom Westerners yearn, or should yearn, the God of Trump (...), is the God who acts in history, who is transcendent and immanent at the same time (...) Only a God could still save the West, a God operating for the nation - including and perhaps mainly the American nation.

Heidegger never believed in America as the bearer of the torch of the West (...) Perhaps Heidegger would have changed his mind after hearing Trump's speech in Warsaw and would have said: Nur noch Trump kann Abendland retten, only Trump can still save the West" (5).

There is no argument, however, that supports such a vision, since it finds its grounding, according to Mr. Araújo, in the most inexorable faith, and only in the faith and culture that emanates from it. In fact, all the Theory that guide modern political thought are superficial, proof of the intellectual inanity of the philosophes who, as anti-Christians, fomented the French Revolution.

Thus, it is not by chance that, for the ideologues of Bolsonarism, the high point of the history of Brazil, that mythical past to which, according to them, we must return, is to be found between the years 1806 to 1822, the period in which the Portuguese monarchy was transferred to Brazil, in order to save Christianity (6).

A work that helps to understand this movement of ideas is Pachá, Paulo, “Why Brazilians far right loves the European middle ages, Pacific Standard, 12 de Março de 2019. Accessed in 05/28/2019, and the true Europe from the bloody Napoleon.

It is not surprising, therefore, that philosophy and sociology, as well as the humanities are under strong attack in Brazil by President Bolsonaro. The public justification offered is budgetary - they would be prioritizing other areas, which they present as having greater economic potential, that is, the government would be taking funding away from the Humanities and investing in technical areas in order to provide better return for the taxpayers and the students.

Just as there are a single faith and a single God (even under different guises), there is also a single, stealthy, disguised, treacherous other

However, the unacknowledged motive is no different from one that led Hungarian dictator Viktor Orbán, an ally of Bolsonaro, to make the continuity of the European Center University unfeasiblenamely, an attempt to eliminate any space in which the country is thought and discussed, in which its problems are examined and possible solutions advanced.

Philosophy and Sociology are the first to be attacked because, as long as they are active and free, the obscurantist narrative of national identity they would like to sell will not prosper. In the world of ideas, all that the Bolsonaro government, its servants and its guru have to offer, is the most chilling obscurantism, is mystification, and outright lies.

Olavo de Carvalho, as a philosopher, is ridiculous. His books have nothing truly philosophical, but only bullshit, to uses Henry Frankfurt terminology. They borrow from fifth-rate irrelevant thinkers in order to justify an easy, but illusory, salvation, all with an air of great depth. It is a promise of initiation and salvation for a soul that finds itself lost in the midst of a materialism that dominates all:

"The new spirit world emerges in an outer panorama of sinister desolation. Only the man of faith can see the seed of a glorious future. To those who see him from the outside, from the point of view of the ancient world, he promises nothing but growing darkness, the dissolution of the sacred values of the Empire at the hands of the hordes of barbaric invaders" (7).

Those who see the world from outside are those who have not been touched by faith, are those that follow the paths of modernity, of reason, of freedom and equality, of Enlightenment. Clearly, there is no way one can engage oneself in a reasonable dialogue with this preaching to the initiated.

Philosophy is not understood as dialogue, as a joint effort of reflection, as an understanding of the human experience that seeks its expression in the form of a set of concept and ideas. It is not understood as the activity of judging and sharing judgments, of seeking, together, guidance to deal with the vicissitudes of existence in its most diverse figures. On the contrary those who are not touched by the same faith appear as an enemies, as infidels.

Just as there are a single faith and a single God (even under different guises), there is also a single, stealthy, disguised, treacherous other: cultural Marxism, communism, which has been insinuating itself since Epicure.

Even before Bolsonaro took office, public universities began to be attacked, under the accusation of indoctrination, or of disseminating Marxist-communist ideology. That Brazilian public universities are responsible for 95% of all the research and science we produce is something that can be left aside, given the much more important mission of saving the soul of the nation.

Brazilian universities are autonomous, so the Bolsonaro government has limited power over them. Universities as educational institutions respond to an independent legal framework, and in this sense are relatively protected from the arbitrariness of an authoritarian government.

The same, however, cannot be said of the research that is carried out in them. Here the power of the government is much greater as it controls the allocation of resources. Philosophy, sociology, and humanities will certainly be deprived of resources to continue any and all research and investigation activities.

The liberal-conservative league produces firm steel, capable of facing the left even with the dominion that this created over the media and the academy

We, philosophers, sociologists, progressive intellectuals linked to the humanities and the arts, are going to fight with all our forces against this ideological project that is being installed. We must resist this. We must vigorously oppose, with criticism and discussion, project that the Minister of Foreign Affairs defines in the following terms:

"What is emerging in Brazil and in other countries with other formats but the same spirit, as in Trump's Poland, Hungary, and the USA, is precisely this, the liberal-conservative amalgam, where the desire for an open economy and the defense of individual freedoms are added to the promotion of the values of patriotism, faith and family (...)

The liberal-conservative league produces firm steel, capable of facing the left even with the dominion that this created over the media and the academy (...) The strength of this league comes, perhaps, from the fact that it corresponds to the essence of the human being, who wants both freedom and security, prosperity and pride of himself, peace and adventure, joy and transcendence" (8).

With such essentialism, who needs critical thinking? After all, why take the risk of the indeterminate, in the face of certainty so well assured? For Mr. Araújo, concepts like "democracy", "social justice", "human rights", are all superficial. As if the human essence, as defined here, is really deep-felt: a liberal-conservative league that would respond to those listed values.

While militant students, answering the call of the President, film teachers in the classroom, whose lectures prove to be opposed to the thought government officials, the Ministry of Education, Abraham Weintraub, as largely reported, openly states that “communists” (i.e., all those opposing his views) should be shot in the head.

Brazil has numerous problems. The biggest of them is perhaps to determine who we are, so that we can orient ourselves together and deliberate about our destiny and common goals. Brazil still needs to be constituted, as Benedict Anderson says, as an imagined community.

We will not do this by denying or relativizing our past of slavery, our past of political authoritarianism, especially the dictatorship that raped us for more than 20 years back in the 60s and 70s. We will not do this by despising our culture, our music, and our literature. We will not constitute ourselves as a people without the work of the humanities, of philosophy, of sociology, of history, of anthropology.

Brazil can still return to the path it traveled under the governments of Itamar Franco, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, and Dilma Rousseff. Democracy is not easy, it is not simple, it is never perfect. Democracy is neither easy nor simple, and it is never perfect.

There is much to be said against each of these past governments. However, none of them have distanced themselves even a millimeter from democracy. Every single one of them has lived with tough opposition that it respected. Those who do not recognize themselves in this process are those defeated by the political openness that brought an end to the dictatorship.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData