Monday, March 30, 2009

Do we really have a press corps this bad?

MoDo strikes again

I remember going to some non-discrimination-in-the-workplace course at a company where I used to work. The most memorable part of it was a documentary about an elementary-school teacher who did a controversial experiment with her class to teach them about the irrationality of racism. She divided the class in half with one half designated as "blue-eyes" and the other as "brown-eyes". She then for some period of days would give lectures about how the blue-eyes were good and the brown-eyes were inferior. Later the designations were flip-flopped and the previous "inferior" group got to be the "superior" group.

Now, I have my doubts about both the ethics of that exercise with school kids and also any value it may have as a psychological experiment. But it did show that the kids in that situation would adopt behaviors that in some way internalized their external designation as "blue-eyes" or "brown-eyes". The fact that the designation was arbitrary and counterfactual (all the kids were designated "blue-eyes" and "brown-eyes" at some stage of the experiment) highlighted the irrationality of it and how prejudices based on external designations can be completely misleading.

Today, Maureen Dowd devotes her entire New York Times column to - apparently seriously - talking about in what areas of life blue-eyed people are better and in which brown-eyed people are better: Blue Eyed Greed? 03/26/09. It's idiotic even by MoDo's current standards.

Her hook for this truly weird column was a comment made by Brazilian President Lula de Silva last Thursday in a press conference with Gordon Brown in Brasilia. Lula and other Latin American leaders have complained that the world financial crisis was caused by the United States and other major economies and that the developing world is being dragged down because of it, and so the developed world should contribute heavily to assisting the underdeveloped world in pulling out of the crisis. Aside from being pretty much true, it's an understandable position for the leaders of the developing world to take. And, reluctant as Americans might be to acknowledge it, bitching about Yankee and European imperialism is good politics in Latin America. Argentina still has an ongoing dispute with Britain dating back nearly two centuries over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands.

MoDo rendered Lula's statement this way, beginning with a gratuitous condom reference:

As international lunacy goes, it was hard to beat the pope saying that condoms spread AIDS.

But Brazil’s president, known simply as Lula, gave it his best shot.

At a press conference Thursday in Brasilia with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain — who has a talent for getting himself into dicey spots — Lula started off coughing from some cheese bread he’d wolfed down. Then he suddenly turned accusatory.

“This crisis was caused by the irrational behavior of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything and now demonstrate that they know nothing,” charged the brown-eyed, bearded socialist president.

As the brown-eyed Brown grew a whiter shade of pale, Lula hammered the obvious point that the poor of the world were suffering in the global crash because of the misdeeds of the rich.

“I do not know any black or indigenous bankers,” said Lula.
MoDo shows scorn for what she quotes Lula as saying. But her column is devoted to promoting the idea that there really are meaningful differences between the blue-eyed and the brown-eyed!

Since MoDo is focused on the urgent issue of eye color, she mocks Lula's supposed hypocrisy as a brown-eye. (How did the kids in that experiment start processing information about eye color? Just like MoDo.) She doesn't bother to observe that Lula, like large numbers of his constituents and large numbers all over Latin America are white and of European descent. So it is probably pretty safe to assume that he wasn't saying something he thought would be understood at home as a slam at racial deficiencies of white people. Though most of the children in our American press core can probably process it only that way.

Brazilian President Lula de Silva: MoDo thinks he's loony

I wrote this post in kind of a stream-of-consciousness order. But below I located the Portuguese orginal. And MoDo's translation is hackwork, at best. I'm leaving the other references in though they make the post long because it's a reminder to me how tricky actually getting one of these stories right can be. Of course, if you're MoDo, you don't even have to try.

Britain's conservative Daily Mirror reports it this way (Brazil's President Lula's bizarre rant at Gordon Brown over credit crunch crisis by James Lyons 27/03/2009):

But populist Lula, who like his countryman Pele is known by a single name, warned talks at the gathering would be "spicy".

And he took the opportunity to lay into rich nations.

The president, white and bearded, said: "I am not acquainted with any black bankers. This is a crisis that was caused by people, white with blue eyes. Before the crisis they looked like they knew everything about economics.

"Now they have demonstrated they don't know anything about economics."

Lula said people who caused the slump - financiers who saw themselves as "gods of wisdom" - were not the ones paying the price.

He continued: "The part of humanity that is responsible should pay for the crisis." Mr Brown looked ill at ease as the president went on. Cabinet minister Douglas Alexander, who was in the audience, rolled his eyes.
MoDo, who in the Beltway Village is still bizarrely considered a "liberal", refers to the conservative tabloid New York Post and adopts their label of "Brazil nut" for Lula. The Post reported on this by focusing on what they and MoDo apparently thought was a delightful "gotcha" moment in stories like Gordon Brown's Rotten Month and What a Brazil Nut! 'Blame White Bankers' Blast a Lula Lulu, Madame MoDo finding the latter phrase delightful.

Does MoDo even go through the motions of checking on these quotes? I think the white bankers quote was a little crass and certainly not appropriate for American politicians. But Brazil has it's own racial history, as does Latin America, and, guess what, it's not identical to that of the United States! In fact, in the former Spanish colonies, the New World colonization was simultaneous with the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition and an obsession with "limpieza", which in social matters meant "pure blood", meaning white and not Arab or Jewish and certainly not black or New World natives. And those deeply-entrenched social stratifications based on race are still significant today. Only in recent years, for instance, did indigenous politicians first elected to the presidencies of Bolivia and Paraguay, for example. And Bolivia's Evo Morales has not been a Washington favorite, to put it mildly, under the Cheney-Bush administration.

I don't know much Portuguese (though it's similar enough to Spanish that I can make my way through a news article) so I have no idea about the nuances of political language in Brazil. I would guess that Latin American audiences would have understood the reference against that historical background of social stratification by race and resentment of the former colonial powers. The "liberal" MoDo and conservative papers like the Daily Mirror and the New York Post apparently could only procees it as a racialist comment pure and simple. I would like to think that a prestigious New York Times columnist would have at least checked with someone in their Latin American section or a translation service to double-check whether what came out in English as "white with blue eyes" might be a figure of speech or a literary reference with a particular meaning. But this is MoDo, who is known for pimping false quotes from Al Gore and John Kerry.

Jornal do Brasil did run this cartoon at their Web site:

I'm guessed that Lula was speaking in his native Portuguese, because the Guardian reported the same statement in somewhat different English wording ('Blue-eyed bankers' to blame for crash, Lula tells Brown by Nicholas Watt The Guardian 03/26/09. This later Guardian article, 'Blue-eyed bankers' prompt G20 divide by Gaby Hinsliff 03/29/09, actually discussed the more substantive issue of what Brazil's position means in potential policy decisions, a topic presumably much too boring (and much less comprehensible) to Lady MoDo than blue eyes and brown eyes:

The attack last week by Brazil's president, Luis da Silva, on "white blue-eyed bankers" revealed a new anger among some of the world's most populous countries at being dragged into a mess not of their making - and a determination to hold the west to account.

India's prime minister will use the summit to challenge what it says is creeping protectionism costing Asian jobs. China will exact more influence over the IMF in return for bailing it out. Chile's Michele Bachelet used a joint appearance with Brown to stress how, unlike Britain, her country saved vast revenues "during the good times" - which it is now having to spend.

Even George Soros, the currency speculator and major Africa donor, yesterday warned that the G20 must insulate developing countries "against a calamity that is not of their making".
Juan Arias reports the comment for Spain's El Pais in Brown propondrá ante el G-20 un fondo de 100.000 millones de dólares para impulsar el comercio 26.03.2009:

Lula, que siempre dice lamentar que una crisis ajena a Brasil venga a interrumpir el ciclo de crecimiento del país, fue gráfico al describir la situación financiera mundial, que, en su opinión, ha sido originada por "gente blanca de ojos azules"; el mandatario brasileño se refería así a los especuladores internacionales del primer mundo. Interrogado por un periodista británico sobre si estaba adoptando una postura ideológica en el combate a la crisis, Lula ha respondido que se limitaba a dar fe de un hecho: "No conozco ningún banquero negro o indio... Lo que yo percibo es que, una vez más, una gran parte de los pobres del mundo son las primeras víctimas de la crisis".

Además, Lula ha criticado el actual sistema financiero internacional. "No es posible una sociedad en la que usted entra en una tienda del aeropuerto y es filmado y vigilado, y que sin embargo el sistema financiero no esté vigilado ni regulado", afirma.
Arias explains for his readers that Lula is referring by the white-people-with-blue-eyes comment to international speculators of the First World.

Here are some articles from Brazilian news sources:

Lula e Brown anunciam fundo de US$ 100 bilhões para financiar o comércio Jeferson Ribeiro, 26.03.2009. It gives Lula's statement in Portuguese:

Não podemos permitir que os pobres paguem por uma crise feita por ricos, sobretudo porque ela não foi gerada por nenhum negro, índio ou pobre. Essa crise foi feita por gente branca, de olhos azuis que antes da crise sabiam tudo e, agora, não sabem de nada.
If the Spanish cognates are a decent guide, my translation would be:

We cannot allow the poor to pay the cost of a crisis caused by the rich, above all because I don't know any black, Indian [indigenous] or poor bankers. This crisis was caused by white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis knew everything and, now, they know nothing.
However, this video from UAO Noticias shows what presumably was the actual statement, which doesn't quite match exactly with the text quote, which may have been from a prepared text.

This article from UOL Notícias has a text that almost matches the video, Crise foi causada por "gente branca, com olhos azuis", diz Lula, ao reafirmar que "pobres não podem pagar" por ela do Claudia Andrade 26.03.2009:

"Resolver o problema da crise é resolver o problema da imigração. Porque nós também não temos o direito de permitir que sejam os pobres, que viajam o mundo a procura de uma oportunidade, de um emprego, de um salário, de uma renda, que sejam os primeiros a pagar a conta de uma crise feita pelos pelos ricos. Que não foi causada por nenhum negro, nenhum índio e por nenhum pobre. Uma crise causada, fomentada, por comportamentos irracionais de gente branca, de olhos azuis, que antes da crise pareciam que sabiam tudo e que agora demonstram não saber nada", afirmou Lula.

A declaração foi questionada por jornalistas ingleses. Ao responder, o presidente abordou a questão do preconceito contra imigrantes nos países ricos. "Não existe nenhum viés ideológico, existe a constatação de um fato", disse. "Como eu não conheço nenhum banqueiro negro e nenhum banqueiro índio, só posso dizer que não posso permitir que essa parte da humanidade pague por isso", acrescentou.

{Solving the problem of the crisis and resolving the problem of immigration. Because we also have no right to permit that the poor to be, who travel the world to secure an opportunity, a job, a salary, an income, to be the first to pay the price for a crisis caused by the rich. Above all, not by any black person, any indigenous person, or any poor person. A crisis caused, fomented, by irrational behavior by white people, with blue eyes, who before the crisis seemed to know everything and, now, have demonstrated that they know nothing. ...

[Responding to a question by an English journalist, he said it wasn't a matter of "prejudices against immigrants nor rich countries":] There is no ideological bias, it's an awareness of a fact. Just as I don't know any black banker or any indigenous banker, I can only say that it should not be allowed that this part of humanity pays for this.}
The English translation is mine, with a slight correction where the text version clearly differs from the video.

Compare my translation of the video and text statement just above to MoDo's quotation in English in the sequence it appears in her column:

This crisis was caused by the irrational behavior of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything and now demonstrate that they know nothing. ... I do not know any black or indigenous bankers.
Lula was clearly framing this as an issue of the poor countries being damaged by a crisis caused by the rich countries, a theme which Argentina's President Cristina Fernández has also been emphasizing for months. It's not a matter of the proverbial "being taken out of context". Even if someone thinks the statement might sound inappropriate in American or Brazilian politics, the original statement just doesn't come off like MoDo's translation. Her version makes it come off like a purely racial comment.

Lula's statement was about poor and rich countries, and more specifically about the fact that poor people didn't cause the economic crisis, with ethnic references (appropriate or not) amplifying it.

Lula diz que frase polêmica se referia à situação de imigrantes na Europa O Globo 28.03.2009 discusses the controversial comment.

This page has video of Lula responding to questions about the statement, also from O Globo; Lula seems to be spinning the original statement as a reference to the hardships suffered by emigrants to rich countries. That's not precisely what his original statement says. But maybe in Brazil the career track to become a star columnist doesn't give such a heavy preference to the brain-dead as in America. So he may have thought he needed to come up with a spin that even American pundits could almost grasp. And his original statement on the video did emphasize the problem of immigrants looking for work who are some of the primary victims of the current crisis.

See also Lula comenta repercussão de frase polêmica Jornal de Brasil 28.03.2009.

And like the perfect courtier alarmed at the scruffy masses milling around the palance gates, MoDo immediately follows her quote above with this:

He also told CNN he would press this theme at the G-20 meeting in London this week. He says his past as a poor, hungry, unemployed lathe operator gives him special insight.

"I lived in houses that were flooded by water," he said, adding, "Sometimes, I had to fight over space with rats and cockroaches, and waste would come in when it flooded."
How dreadful for Madame MoDo to have to concern herself with what such a low-bred character might have to say! But she then proceeds to a more pleasant topic, i.e., completely airhead chatter about blue-eyed and brown-eyed people.

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