Between Brooklyn and Brazil: Further Notes on the Pataphysics of Nonexistent Facts

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New York City’s most famous Ralph was never its mayor.

Brazilian political and economic commentators perform their analyses before the fact. Before they know that it actually happened, they have an explanation for it. They present opinion divorced from information. –Ricardo Kaufmann (O Globo: “Chávez Won the Referendum Because He Manipulated the System!”)

If anything characterizes our times, it is a sense of pervading chaos. In every field of human endeavor, the windstorms of change are fast altering the ways we live. Contemporary man is no longer anchored in certainties and thus has lost sight of who he is, where he comes from and where he is going. — The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, quoted in my Spinning the World Backwards.

Writing in Brazil’s Ford Foundation-sponsored Observatório da Imprensa, Muniz Sodré — journalist, sociologist, and director of the National Library — compares Rio do Janeiro to the New York City of the “Ralph Giuliani” [sic] era, in an essay riffing on such commonplaces as “the devil is in the details” or “the importance of sweating the small stuff.”

Pois é.

A New York City presided over by a certain Ralph Giuliani is just a fictional as the New York City bus route driven by Jackie Gleason’s unforgettable character, Rudolph Cramden — or Ubu Roi, or Rei Momo, or Minnesota Fats.

See also

Also writing in OI recently, writer Deonísio da Silva complains that a prominent encyclopedia of Brazilian literature spells his name wrong and states mountains of other non-existent facts, not only about his own life and works, but about the life and works of other prominent Brazilian writers, such as Moacyr Scliar and OI’s own Alberto Dines.

He finds a similar lack of commmitment to accuracy in a recent number of EntreLivros magazine which, ironically, carries an Umberto Eco essay on the fact that the press no longer seems to care about spelling people’s names right:

No artigo, Umberto Eco lamenta “o péssimo hábito de jornais e programas radiofônicos e televisivos nunca saberem como se portar diante de muitos nomes ingleses, acompanhando, por inércia, um mau hábito que já virou regra”.

In the article, Umberto Eco bemoans “the awful habit newspapers and news broacasts have of not knowing how to treat English names, perpetuating, through inertia, a bad habit that has become the rule rather than the exception.”

Ironicamente, sem seguir a advertência de Umberto Eco, em O cuidado com os nomes (p. 82) as palavras “cruzadas literárias” (p. 80) dão Porto Alegre como a cidade natal do poeta, depois de a revista informar reiteradamente, nas páginas 4, 26, 27, 28, 31, 32 e 33 que o poeta nasceu em Alegrete (RS). Mas, para a maioria dos que pegaram a revista, garanto que o que ficou foi a informação das palavras cruzadas: Porto Alegre.

Ironically, failing to follow Eco’s advice, the crossword puzzle gives Porto Alegre as the birthplace of [the subject of the magazine’s cover story] after having stated repeatedly, on pages 4, 26, 27, 28, 31, 32 and 33 that the poet was born in Alegrete. Most of those who pick up the magazine, however, I guarantee you, will come away with the information given in the crossword: Porto Alegre.

I am not just harping on an isolated error here, either.

Examples can be multiplied like Tribbles.

I find them every day in the Brazilian press — including the writings of finger-wagging pundits who make their living denouncing the shortcomings, both real and imagined, of the contemporary press.

And I am constantly embarrassed for my Brazilian colleagues as a result.

Sodré — who as director of the National Library, might in some sense be called “the Jorge Luis Borges of Brazil” — also resorts to something of an “innovation definition” for the English term ground zero. MW10 notes its first acception in 1946:

1: the point directly above, below, or at which a nuclear explosion occurs; 2: the center or origin of rapid, intense, or violent activity or change; broadly : center 2a
; 3: the very beginning : square one

It is really not all that different in its original meaning from “kilometer zero” — the benchmark used to measure the distance along a road. São Paulo’s kilometer zero is located in the square in front of the Anchieta Foundation.

The director of Brazil’s national library apparently does not consult dictionaries or standard references on contemporary biography in the name of accuracy.

Brazil’s premier journal of journalism criticism apparently does not submit the articles it publishes to fact-checking or copy editing.

This seems symptomatic to me. The theorists of journalism — which tends to get massively over-theorized in any event — do not actually practice its fundamentals.

The Brazilian journalism corps is like an army of green recruits that’s top-heavy with generalíssimos but lacks experienced sergeants and captains — journeyman professionals who make their living sweating the legions of small details, which, in the fullness of time, will make or break the public’s perception of a publication’s reliability.

** Nota 1 – “O prefeito César Maia disse que não iria permitir que os quiosques fossem cercados para a realização de festas em áreas vips, mas a ordem não foi cumprida. Vasos de plantas foram utilizados para demarcar as áreas restritas. Na altura do Posto Quatro, um vendedor de bebidas seguiu o exemplo e fez uma cerca com um espaço para dez mesas, com quatro cadeiras. Cada mesa custava R$ 100,00.”

Item 1: “Mayor Cesar [“Chairman”] Maia said he was not going to allow the street-vendor kiosks to be besieged so that parties could be held in VIP areas, but his order was not followed. Planters were used to cordon off restricted areas. Near Lifeguard Post No. 4, a beverage vendor followed suit and fenced off an area big enough for ten tables, with four chairs apiece. Each table cost R$100.00.”

** Nota 2 – “Apesar da repressão da Guarda Municipal, os ambulantes se espalharam por toda a orla de Copacabana. Era vendido todo tipo de mercadoria.”

Item 2: “Despite efforts by the Municipal Guard to repress the activity, street vendors are found all along Copacabana Beach, selling every kind of merchandise.”

Estas “notas” são, na verdade, trechos colhidos ao acaso na primeira edição do Novo Ano, em O Globo, a mesma que reitera o “fim da Era César Maia” (onze anos à frente da Prefeitura do Rio de Janeiro) e o início do “Ano da Bossa Nova”, decretado pelo prefeito.

These “news items” are, in fact, passages collected at random from O Globo’s New Years edition, the one that proclaims “the end of the [Naked Mayor Maia] era (11 years leading the city goverment) and the start of the “Year of Bossa Nova” decreed by the Naked Mayor.

O que há nelas de significativo?

What is meaningful about them?

Em princípio, seriam apenas aspectos da informação miúda sobre um tipo de realidade a que teriam se acostumado os habitantes do Rio. Mas é útil atentar justamente para a dimensão “miúda” dos fatos, caso se queira ver abaixo da superfície da gestão – o ponto de partida discursivo de todo marketing eleitoral – das grandes cidades.

In principle, these may seem like mere insignificant details about a type of reality that Rio residents have grown accustomed to. But it is useful to focus on these “insignificant details” if we are to see beyond the surface of the public administration — the rhetorical point of departure for all political marketing — in the big cities.

Taxa de homicídios

Homicide rate

Comparações ajudam, mesmo quando aparentemente desproporcionais. Nos anos 1990, Nova York ressurgiu do caos da depredação e da violência urbanas quanto [sic] o prefeito Ralph Giuliani (agora aspirante à presidência dos Estados Unidos) partiu do “miúdo” para reorganizar a cidade. Primeiro, a política de “tolerância zero”, que não abrandava o rigor no tratamento dos chamados pequenos delitos. Depois, a ousada intervenção imobiliária no Harlem, que vem possibilitando a recuperação progressiva daquele bairro lendário. Michael Bloomberg, o prefeito atual (que também suspira pela Casa Branca), não destoa administrativamente de seu antecessor.

Comparisons help, even when they seem disproportionate. In the 1990s, New York emerged from the chaos of urban decay and violence when Mayor Ralph Giuliani (now a presidential candidate) “started small” in reorganizing the city. First, the policy of “zero tolerance” which did not soften penalties for minor offenses. Next, the daring intervention in Harlem, which has made possible the progressive recoveryof that legendary neighborhood. Michael Bloomberg, the current may (who also aspires to the White House), sings from the same policy hymnal as his predecessor.

Really?

Mayor Bloomberg’s abandoning of the GOP does not reflect any substantive policy divergences with his predecessor?

The crime rates actually started falling under Dinkins, as every campaign pundit in the blogosphere is constantly pointing out, and as FactCheck.org ratified recently while reality-testing dueling campaign ads by Hillary and “Ralph.”

And see also Giuliani’s Ties to Black New York Troubled (Washington Post, June 10, 2007):

Photo caption: Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani ran afoul of blacks in New York City over what some describe as heavy-handed political tactics and police stop-and-frisk procedures when he was mayor. Body: …. Under policies advanced by the Giuliani administration and carried out by Phillips and other activists dedicated to saving the neighborhood, real estate and retail boomed and crime plunged. It was dubbed the second Harlem Renaissance, and Giuliani seemed quite proud of his achievements there, telling the New York Daily News in December 2000 that “the reality is that my administration has done more for Harlem than any administration in the last 50 years.” [Community activist] Phillips, however, now finds nothing positive to say about Giuliani. Besides being “vindictive,” his approach was “you’re either with me or you’re my enemy,” Phillips, a member of New York’s city planning commission, said in a recent interview. “I can’t see him as president. I would not like to see his hand on the red phone.”

Why is that the case (and I do think it is, after talking, for example, to my buppie bartender friend down at Moe’s Tavern)?

Start by studying up on the Abner Louima torture case.

While holding down a criminal suspect and ramming a broken broomhandle up his ass — I just read about a recent case of the same method being applied by Brazilian police, by the way — Officer Volpe either did or did not say, “It’s Giuliani time!”

Bloomberg’s first budget was widely seen as diverging sharply from the budgets of the Giuliani era, particularly in its approach to negotiations with public employee unions, as a Giuliani supporter and Manhattan Institute think-tanker lamented at the time:

In tone and substance, this is a pretty sharp contrast with the preliminary budget offered eight years ago by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Faced with a projected 1995 gap of $2.3 billion, Giuliani targeted 15,000 jobs for elimination — and pointedly refused to rule out layoffs. In fact, the excessive size of the city’s workforce, and the need to reform work rules and boost productivity, was an insistent theme of Giuliani’s first budget presentation.

Bloomberg officially denies he has presidential aspirations at the moment. He also founded a business information service that is known for its accuracy and reliability.

Brazil’s national librarian seems to be rewriting Giuliani campaign press releases. Dispatches from New York by Brazilian journalists often leave me perplexed in this way. Are we talking about the same city where I live, work, and read the Gotham Gazette religiously? See also

Ora, dirão, Nova York… Mas a comparação é válida, quando se considera que o Rio de Janeiro é hoje, como a maior cidade norte-americana, uma megalópole de 15,4 milhões de habitantes – não mais a saudosa metrópole, onde Tom Jobim não precisava “correr do pivete, tentando chegar ao elevador”. Aumentou de escala a população, a criminalidade, o caos urbano. A comparação é legítima, sim, porque não se trata de poder econômico ou de arrecadação municipal, mas de atitude política. A megalópole demanda um tipo novo de gestor, sob pena de afundar no caos.

Well, you will say, New York … but the comparison is a valid one when you consider that Rio de Janeiro today is, like the big American city, a megalopolis of 15.4 million inhabitants, and no longer the metropolis of sainted memory where Tom Jobim … The population has exploded, along with criminality and urban chaos. The comparison is indeed legitimate because it has nothing to do with economic power or the local tax base, but with political will.

We are at risk of plunging into chaos! Itself a crude example of a gabbling political marketing meme. In Brazil, I tend to find, bagunças are all too common, actual chaos is much rarer than reported, and yet armies of moral virgins make their living confusing bagunça with chaos for fun and profit.  See also

Meanwhile, the fact that one of New York’s keystone employers just booked something like $20 billion in losses is of secondary importance? Please.

See

Political will plus fifty cents will not even buy you a Snickers bar in a Bed-Stuy bodega.

The megalopolis demands a new kind of manager, lest it sink into chaos.

We are teetering on the brink of chaos!

I paraphrase what Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayl(e): I know New York City. I have lived in New York City for over a decade. New York City has been very, very good to me. And this here, Senator, is no New York City.

Ou talvez não seja necessário ir tão longe na comparação. A mesma edição de O Globo revela que São Paulo, pelo menos no que se refere à taxa de homicídios, praticamente igualou a façanha nova-iorquina, reduzindo em 73% os índices de crimes de morte.

Or perhaps we need not look so far afield for the sake of comparison. The same edition of O Globo reveals that São Paulo, at least with respect to its murder rate, has practically equaled New York’s feat, reducing its murder rate by 73%.

If you find the official crime statistics credible, that is.

Many don’t, and for credible reasons.

But even if you do: The New York homicide rate is <5 per 100,000.

São Paulo murder rate: still, what is, between 25 and 30 per 100,000?

And as local observers have noted, indices of “Giuliani time” police violence have not subsided along with the general violence. Striking, this.

A patafísica da gestão urbana

The Pataphysics of Urban Planning

Não adianta separar as competências estaduais e municipais, já que os problemas estão interligados em suas causas. Mas no Rio é gritante a evidência do abandono da cidade por parte do governo municipal, indiferente à transformação do espaço urbano numa espécie de “corte dos milagres” medieval, onde se incentiva a degradação ambiental, tanto em áreas florestais quanto nas ruas. O espírito de desrespeito a normas e regras é abrangente. Não dá para se distinguir a favelização consentida da depredação de equipamentos coletivos ou do inchamento da população de rua.

Yada yada.

É esta a atmosfera geradora do fenômeno que o sociólogo e poeta alemão Hans Magnus Enzensberg chamou de “guerra civil molecular”. Ground zero (“marco zero”) – a idéia de terra arrasada, que solicita reconstrução – é o nome dado em Nova York ao imenso buraco que restou das Torres Gêmeas. Aqui pode ser o nome da gestão da coisa pública.

Yada yada yada recondite literary reference to a German “poet-sociologist.” From the likes of whom God save us all.

O inquietante é que as proclamações jornalísticas do “fim de uma Era” ou as inquietações cívicas transparentes nas cartas de leitores de O Globo não apontem para nada de alternativo às soluções contidas no velho jogo da política eleitoral. A política, tal como a conhecemos e como revelam as habituais pesquisas de opinião, já entrou definitivamente no domínio da patafísica, isto que o poeta e dramaturgo francês Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) definia como a “ciência” das soluções imaginárias, onde as coisas se tocam apenas tangencialmente, “empurradas pela barriga”. Na patafísica da gestão urbana, a cidade real é tangenciada – por factóides, imagens televisivas e internet –, jamais considerada em sua vicissitude concreta, que se verifica nos pequenos acontecimentos do dia-a-dia. Daí, a importância de se enfatizar jornalisticamente o “miúdo” e, no limite, prevenir contra as eventuais surpresas que nos reserva a patafísica eleitoral.

Yada yada yada recondite literary reference to the father of surrealist dramaturgy. 

The man knows when Alfred “By My Green Candle” Jarry died, a century ago — reported last words: “Bring me a toothpick!” — but not the name of the mayor whose policies he thinks Rio de Janeiro should emulate — about which he displays a fair degree of ignorance.

Which seems symptomatic to me.

Life imitates (absurdist) art, but the art of nonfiction writing has no corresponding duty to life as she is actually lived.

Quack.

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