My first day back in Brazil

My first day back in Brazil, as promised. It is a little confused, but I figure a plan will become clearer. I have “redacted some names and rewrote sections, since even among us friends I do not feel free to make private talks public. This is part of the raw material that I hope to spin into decent narrative by the time I am done in Brazil.

Started my first working day in São Paulo with a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Ling Institute. This event was to announce the winners of scholarships in law, engineering, journalism and business. The Institute was founded in 1995 as a way for the Ling family to show gratitude to Brazil, where they were able to live and thrive after leaving China in 1951. The family lived in Porto Alegre, where I met the sons and daughter back in 1985 or 86. I will put a link to the Institute in the comments. Suffice it to say that they do a lot of good and now have built up an alumni network that is making it better.

Weakness of Memory, Power of Persistence

It was not fair when I approached old acquaintances introduced myself “again.” We had just been acquaintances and that was more than 30 years ago. What are the chances they would remember a random old guy. I did not make an impression that lasted 30 years. The consulate in Porto Alegre the then my colleagues when we closed and moved to São Paulo did a good job of keeping the contact, however.

Spreading Ideas and Ideas Spreading Themselves

Among the people we met a couple very much interested in exchanges, representing top American universities in Brazil. We talked about the ideas as viruses meme, i.e. that like viruses, ideas exist only in human hosts. They are passed along person-to-person and they mutate and develop along the way. This makes it difficult to trace the lineage of an idea, since it almost never belongs completely to one person. The metaphor we use to describe lineage of ideas is just not apt. We tend to thing of it like a tree, with roots and then a trunk representing the “original” idea and then branches. In fact, it is more like a cloud, with changes moving in indefinite directions, cross pollinating, doubling back and tangling.

This is what makes exchanges so crucial. We cannot simply transfer ideas in a linear fashion. They work best when they develop in the seemingly chaotic and evolutionary way above. If a Brazilian student goes to the USA, he learns some things and contributes some things. Ideally, we have feedback loop that may last decades. We study the exchanges when people have only just returned. This is like studying the ground right after the crop has been planted. It may take years for useful and appropriate ideas to develop, and by then many have forgotten about the initial condition that stimulate them.

All this makes it hard to assess effectiveness, but since I want to do just that, we agreed to talk more and maybe think of some concrete examples that illustrate success and then work backwards to figure out how we know. Worth a try.

The Challenges of Democracy

The keynote speaker at the event was Professor Schuler, himself an example of the type of exchange that stimulates ideas. He went on a voluntary visitor program early in his career and credits it with giving him new insights. Since then, he has cross pollinated with American thinkers and institutions, learned from them and shared their ideas. His talk included references to big thinkers, from James Buchanan (public choice theory) to John Rawls (theory of justice).

Technology Changes Put Populism on Steroids

His talk concerned the challenges and prospects of democracy. Brazil has experienced some interesting developments in this recently, but the factors are worldwide, as we Americans know. Democracy does not always produce the outcomes we might like and populists who get elected by appealing to emotion are also outcomes of democracy, not aberrations, features, not bugs.

Democracy has become a little more exciting recently for a couple of related technical and social developments. Social media has stripped away many barriers to information flow. We all have access to too much information, so we seek short cuts. This was once found in institutions. People looked to experts, statesmen, journalists, religious figures … Many of these institutions are now weakened or even gone. We might welcome the weakening of gatekeepers, but the result has not been more deep thinking by ordinary people but rather more emotion. People have stronger belief in their right to express their opinions and more means to do it. And there are new shortcuts in the form of identity politics.

Not What You Think but Who You Are

In the case of identity politics, thinking is rather discouraged, since you are supposed to think for the point of view of whatever your identity is. Other members of the group my not take kindly to heterodox thought and may consider you a traitor or a fool for even entertaining thoughts associated with the “other.”

So we have too much information, weakened mitigating institutions and strengthened capacity for people to speak out and complain, as well as greater incentive to be unreasonable in defense of their peculiar group interests.

I was hoping for some resolution for this problem, but none was forthcoming, except that Mr. Schuler talked a little about values that are essentially outside democracy. Rights and liberties are not – should not be put up to majority vote. If the majority decides to rob and beat the minority, the will of the majority does not make it legitimate.

I am not 100% sure I got it right, both because of my own bias and the fact that he was speaking in Portuguese (mine is rusty) but I think it was supporting my oft-repeated plea that we should draw a bright line between the personal and the political, because only with real pluralism of thought can we maintain a democracy is the face of such divergent and passionate thoughts. I will see if I can talk to him about that. Something to think about anyway.

Democracy Ancient & Modern

The speaker did not mention it, but I thought of Athenian democracy. We look back at that age with great fondness, but it reads better than it was lived. In fact, Athenian democracy was unstable and bellicose. Those who lived with it – including Plato, Socrates and Thucydides – viewed it with less enthusiasm than we do. In fact, the experience of the Athenians put people off democracy for the next 2000 years. It is one reason why the Founders chose to build our republic on a mixed constitution with roots more clearly in Sparta, the works of Aristotle or Rome, none of which called themselves a democracy and featured mitigating institutions to slow things down and cool passion. The legitimacy of any state ultimately depends on the consent to the people, but not on the ephemeral whims of the most vocal.

Lots of Thoughts in the First Couple Hours

I think this initial dive has given me some more idea that I will need to work out about exchanges, even if the ideas strayed a bit. During the rest of the day, I talked with the local staff. They are the biggest resource, since they know what contacts and exchanges we made and what came of them. There are decades of experience and the useful thing is that it is relatively easy to harvest. So far, interesting.

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