There’s a memorable scene in Vargas Llosa’s great novel, The War of the End of the World. A Scottish adventurer, Galileo Gall – a phrenologist, revolutionary, for the most part of the story a harmless sociopath – wants to reach out to a remote community – Canudos – in the arid interior of Bahia in Brazil. There, he thinks, a revolution is taking place. He hired a tracker to get him there. But there’s a much bigger problem. And a few yards from the revolution, Gall and the tracker are fighting. They fight, they fight and they fight. Gall’s destiny is within reach; but it’s never been so far away.
And while this is a literary scene, we can see it mirrored in the contemporary world.
In politics, the relevant alternatives are words or violence – as the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro argues in an essay we publish this week. And today, as in the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, as in Canudos, Brazil, words are of no use.
They didn’t serve Gall, who tried to argue while punching the tracker. And today they do little but
insult the insult (what else can we call racism?). It’s almost as if we’re experiencing a “semiotic collapse”, explains Viveiros de Castro to Alexandra Lucas Coelho.
Let us imagine, for a moment, the historians of the future reading the news of the last few weeks. Donald Trump suggests that four Democratic congresswomen should “go back” to their countries (just one of them wasn’t born in the United States). The Congress then approves by a majority (but almost limited to party lines) a condemnation of Trump for his “racism”.
But that wasn’t the epilogue.
At a rally in North Carolina, Trump stood silently before a crowd as they chanted as one to: “send her back”. The ‘her’ they wanted to send back, was Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and the ‘back’ was Somalia, a country she left as a small child when her family sort (and were granted) asylum in the US with her family.
In Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has initiated a register of illegal settlements of Roma to prepare an eviction plan. And the German captain of a rescue boat in the Mediterranean, Carola Rackete, had to face a court in Sicily to defend herself against the accusation of aiding illegal immigration. Her crime? Saving the lives of refugees. The criminalisation of humanitarian aid is now a reality that we see – and few of us are be able to describe it.
In our recent work we have seen this reality close-up – from the anonymous deaths of thousands of people in the Mediterranean to the networks that replicates the anti-migrant discourse on social media – by spreading lies.
A year ago, an almost unexpected political change began to take place in Brazil. Misinformation, climate change, white supremacy, discrimination – the “sabotage” of the world, as Viveiros de Castro calls it, is happening.
How to stop it, is the decisive final question.
Read the full interview in with Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro about Europe’s colonialist view on the world, the consequences of nationalism and the capability of the indigenous population to survive catastrophes (by Alexandra Lucas Coelho).