The lies of far-right world leaders are being spread because of a lack of clarity of thought, writes Joyce McMillan.
Last Sunday’s election of Jair Bolsonaro as the new President of Brazil has come as a sickening blow to those who had hoped, after the collapse in the 1980s and 90s of a generation of military dictatorships in the region, that South America was at last firmly on the path to a more democratic future.
That Bolsonaro is a threat to democratic institutions and rights seems clear; he defends the Brazilian dictatorship of 1964-85, has promised a Christian state that will demand conformity from non-Christian minorities, has threatened violence against lesbian, gay and transexual people, is contemptuous of women’s rights, and has made speeches literally threatening to kill his left-wing opponents and their supporters, in order to “cleanse” the country of them. And he is also eager to open up the Amazon basin for commercial exploitation, ending Brazil’s flawed but vital attempts to preserve an ecosystem that is essential to the environmental health of the whole planet; his blinkered reactionary impulses, in other words, could eventually be the death of us all.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that there was an outcry, on Monday, when BBC Monitoring, which compiles international news reports for the corporation, posted a tweet asking whether Bolsonaro is “racist, sexist and homophobic, or a refreshing break from political correctness”. That Bolsonaro is racist, sexist and homophobic is a matter of record; he has said that he would rather see his son die in a car crash than learn that he was gay.
To describe politics of that kind as a “refreshing break” from anything – as if Bolsonaro was a new presenter on some reality television show, rather than President of one of the most populous nations on Earth – therefore shows a bizarre lack of understanding of the seriousness of this political development. Of course a leader who is racist, sexist and homophobic represents a break from the values normally associated with “political correctness”.
The idea, though, that ditching concepts of racial and sexual equality could in some way be a good and upbeat development, and a welcome change, is so politically dangerous to those affected that it should, at the very least, be treated seriously, even by those who support such a move. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion, in other words, that this tweet was written by someone who simply has no idea that politics is not a game, but a serious matter, which can have life-and-death consequences for thousands and sometimes millions of people; and it’s worth considering the possibility that, after 70 years of relative peace and generally growing prosperity, increasingly taken for granted, quite large numbers of people in the West share that same dangerous illusion.
And of course, when we imagine that something is just a game we tend to become much more careless in the language we use about it. The other night, I sat down for a couple of hours to listen to BBC World Service news coverage; and although some of the journalism was excellent as ever, I also heard three clear cases of confusion – in language, and between opinion and fact – that presented a clear threat to public understanding. The first was Donald Trump’s false statement that the USA is the only country that offers birthright citizenship to all those born there, played out during a news bulletin without correction or comment.
The second was an unchallenged statement by an academic Trump supporter that Germany is now full of towns that are “overrrun by Syrians” – again, factually false, but allowed to pass unchallenged. And the third was an interview attempting to deal with this week’s alarming finding, by climate scientists, that the extra ocean heat generated by global warming is 60 per cent greater than had been assumed; in which this threat to a whole vital precondition of all life on Earth – as our oceans become more anoxic and acidic – was framed by the interviewer as mainly “a problem for fish”.
It’s difficult, of course, to imagine how a generation of careless and light-minded thinking about politics and the words we use to describe it can easily be reversed, particularly in the presence of a rising global far-right movement that revels in manipulating the terms of political debate for its own ends. Far too often, supposedly impartial interviewers and commentators now adopt phrases and vocabulary fed into our political language by powerful media and political players with their own non-neutral agenda; all this week, for example, in the aftermath of Philip Hammond’s Budget, you will have heard supposedly neutral commentators describing people in Britain earning £45,000 a year and more as “middle income” earners, when in fact they represent only the wealthiest 10 per cent of British workers.
What is clear, though, is that the scale of the crises now facing us cannot be tackled without the kind of clarity of thought about the nature of our problems, and their possible remedies, that much of our current babble of 24/7 news simply fails to provide. This week, a new group called Extinction Rebellion launched themselves onto the streets of Westminster and onto social media, determined to take direct action to try to force governments to implement serious anti-climate-change policies, instead of continuing to produce weird time-warp documents like this week’s UK Budget, which failed to mention climate change at all.
Of course, leaders like Jair Bolsonaro, and many who consider themselves more moderate, will try – in another abuse of language – to dismiss campaigners like these as “terrorists”. In truth, though, what is most strange and destructive about our time is not the odd act of principled civil disobedience, but the conduct of politicians whose actions increasingly either completely fail to match their stated beliefs, or are based on beliefs that are demonstrably false, and therefore unrelated to the reality of voters’ lives. And when demonstrators take to the streets – as I suspect they will, in increasing numbers – to protest against the obvious inadequacy of our current generation of world leaders, they will therefore be protesting not only against their policies; but also against the sloppiness and corruption of language that allowed their lies and evasions to prevail for so long, to the peril of us all.