Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Brazil Initiative

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, by Dave Zirin - A Review by Thomas E. Skidmore

In an incisive and insightful review, renowned historian of Brazil Thomas Skidmore demonstrates the shortcomings and oversimplifications present in sports journalist Dave Zirin's book "Brazil's Dance with the Devil." In a short piece, Skidmore exposes the vast landscape that is Brazil, and how Zirin's understanding of this country of continental dimensions is superficially rendered.

October 7, 2014

Brazil is big. The biggest country south of the border. It’s even larger than the continental U.S. It has one of the largest rivers in the world enclosing one of the world’s largest rain forests. Ecologists refer to the latter as “the lungs of the  world” for all the oxygen it regenerates for our planet.

As for its occupants, Brazil is one of the world’s most multiracial societies, after the Portuguese and other slave traders brought more African slaves to Brazil than to any other country in the western hemisphere. It also has a diverse political history, recording every type of government from monarchy, to authoritarian, to parliamentary democracy. Most recently, the country emerged in 1985 from a two-decades long military regime. It is one of the most dynamic economies in the developing world, as a leading exporter of both food and passenger jet aircraft.

A key question facing any traveler tempted to write about a foreign country is on his role: Did I arrive with an open mind or were my pages already tucked in my luggage when I arrived? I am afraid Dave Zirin never asked this question before he published Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.

Zirin, a sportswriter for the Nation magazine, chose to visit Brazil in 2014 to cover the World Cup. He was taking a break from following the latest x’s and o’s of professional sports in the U.S. Once in Brazil, he was shocked by what he found. The scene was chaotic, the landscape littered with soccer stadia in varying states of ill repair or unfinished construction. Worse, the streets were jammed with irate Brazilians protesting that scarce funds and labor were being spent on duplicative or ill-located showy structures, when badly needed schools and hospitals were missing. Rumors flew about the reputedly huge profits going to the contractors and the omnipresent middlemen.

As soccer hosts, the Brazilians played badly at all levels, effectively dissipating their prior reputation as the home of the unbeatable. Brazil’s dream of being the world’s sports center was rapidly vaporizing.

Although our journalist avatar came to cover the World Cup in Brazil, not content to report on the host country’s prowess (or lack of it) on the field, he has chosen to extrapolate from the Brazilian team’s incompetence to a wholehearted blitzkrieg on everything Brazilian, from corruption to dependence on Uncle Sam’s Wall Street.

In the end, Zirin points to Brazil as a wholly unjust society that rewards the rich and leaves the rest to decay. But he disdains the data and analytic tools necessary to penetrate the labyrinth of a complex and highly complicated living society. Instead, he plunges on, piling up ill-chosen metaphors and over simplifications.

Obviously, our author thinks Brazil is on the wrong track. Has the train left the track? Has it broken down on the track? What’s the story? Zirin’s toolkit to address such questions is wanting.

He clearly doesn’t like profits or business. He drags us through favelas to show how hard the other half can have it. Too much government or too little? Murky. The filthy rich enjoy the high life while the poor survive or scrape by. How does such an unjust world hang together?

We gain a clue from his choice of historical mentor, Eduardo Galeano, superannuated Uruguan essayist and a tired radical light of the accusatory left. Galeano’s approach has all the originality of an out-of-date by a century Cuban, a painful ancestral voice in our inter-American colloquy. Galeano’s credo gave our intrepid Dave—just off the plane and onto the beach—the all-purpose label for everything in contemporary Brazil: “neo-liberal.” If it moves it’s neo-liberal, whether elites, masses, economies—you name it.

Neo-liberal is what exactly? Zirin never stops to define his term. It comes across as an especially virulent species of capitalism—something the Nation’s readers would find especially noxious. It’s an evil thing: enough said.

It even stretches to fit the nation’s most successfully populist President of modern times: President Lula. How so? Our author distorts Lula’s economic record, which includes a major income transfer to the poor called the Bolsa Familia, into an electoral trick—done to win political popularity. This is one of Zirin’s most irresponsible distortions. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia  has been one of the most successful direct income transfers to the poor ever to be carried out in the developing world, successfully reducing income inequality—a crucial measure when discussing developing economies that has rarely been actually achieved by public policy. Begun in the 1990s under the Cardoso administration, and expanded thereafter, it—as correctly noted by Zirin—has “helped raise 36 million out of extreme poverty.” In the Northeast, it has helped reduce infant mortality by 50%, a historic accomplishment. But Zirin does not talk about these as achievements worthy of respect. Rather, he dismisses the whole thing as a way for the neo-liberal elite to buy votes—any social good is purely coincidental.

The truth is that Brazil is a mixed public/private dynamic economy with thriving agricultural and industrial sectors.  These are interwoven in an intricate pattern that has been shaped by inevitable compromises over decades of different political phases. One, and only one, of these phases deserves to be labeled neo-liberal. It was associatd with a hard line conservative swing in macroeconomic policymaking by the ‘Washington Consensus’ towards the end of the military regime, which came down to hard money and an indulgence in hard ass austerity. This has been widely discredited and has not characterized Brazil’s economic policy since re-democratization.

Early on, Zirin describes himself as showing some caution. Disarmingly noting that he might feel out of his depth so far from home, he consulted a sympathetic Brazilian, who sounded vaguely in tune with the Nation’s line, although he warned Zirin that “Brazil was not for beginners,” suggesting  conundra round the corner.

Now that he’s back home, Zirin is probably much better suited to calling the Super Bowl. Moral of the story: Yes, Brazil certainly is not for beginners.