Celebration Capitalism: On the World Cup and Brazil’s Dance with the Devil


If, according to the Grey Lady, soccer is now “the go-to sport of the thinking class,” you’ll want to brush up on your footy knowledge before the World Cup begins on June 12. Fortunately, there are a number of books that examine politics and culture through the optic of the beautiful game. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange traces the Dutch soccer team’s penchant for self-destruction to the country’s Calvinist culture, while Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World describes the successes and failures of globalization by looking at soccer clubs and their communities, both local and global. Most recently, Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, uses data judiciously (ahem, FiveThirtyEight) to challenge our conventional beliefs about both club and national sides. And the most literary of the bunch, Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, waxes poetic about the history of soccer, starting in China five thousand years ago. Lucky for the true footy intellectual, a new addition to this repertoire of soccer nonfiction has arrived just in time for the World Cup.

Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy is a formidable, if flawed, entry into this canon. To be sure, this book is more about Brazilian economic, social, and political history than soccer. In particular, Zirin’s book attempts to capture in nonfiction what its counterparts in the novel (Roberto Bolaño’s 2666) and cinema (Amores Perros) have already dramatized, that is, the matrix of structural violence, political corruption, and income inequality that, according to some, has attended the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America around the turn of this century. These networks of violence are often difficult to discern and distill for the average reader precisely because these are processes and systems at work — in fact, such a task is probably better suited to fiction than nonfiction — but Zirin makes a valiant effort to connect the dots. In Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, he explains the unrest in Brazil in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics with the anger, erudition, and clarity we have come to expect from his sports columns for The Nation. On occasion, however, Zirin is blinded by his own zeal for the subject and fails to consider opposing viewpoints or other causal factors.

Central to the book’s thesis is Zirin’s idea of the “neoliberal trojan horse.” But before we get to that, we should unpack what neoliberalism — a term often bandied about without much explanation — actually means. Generally attributed to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the term has evolved over time and today is deployed primarily as a pejorative by critics of laissez-faire economics. Neoliberalism prizes individual freedom over government interference, regulation, and labor unions. “The assumption that individual freedoms are guaranteed by freedom of the market and of trade is a cardinal feature of neoliberal thinking,” writes David Harvey in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Somewhat dubiously to the Left, this philosophy holds that economic benefits will “trickle down” to the poor, though according to Harvey, “the process of neoliberalism has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers…but also of divisions of labor, social relations…ways of life.” In his account of neoliberalism’s origins, Zirin attempts to explain how an economic philosophy whose “top priorities include crushing unions, privatizing health care and education, abolishing worker protections like safety rules and the minimum wage, and removing environmental protections” became ubiquitous today.

This section on neoliberalism should be one of the book’s most important and elucidating, and yet it leaves something to be desired. Readers are left wondering — at the very least — what those in favor of neoliberal policy found attractive about it in the first place (i.e. promoting economic growth). In fact, neoliberalism in a different context has also described a more moderate form of liberalization; for example, the Third Way under Tony Blair and Bill Clinton aspired to deregulate and rely on the market — instead of the government — to solve problems. Zirin’s critiques may very well be on point, but if he more explicitly linked neoliberal policy to the points he makes on surveillance, inequality, and education in Brazil, he would have created a more textured portrait of the structures responsible for shaping the country as it is today.

That said, let’s consider his basic argument. Leaning on Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine,” Zirin asserts that large-scale events like the Olympics and the World Cup — the “neoliberal trojan horses” — offer countries like Brazil the perfect opportunity to install neoliberal economic policies that their publics would otherwise never authorize. “Nobody wins elections by promising to turn the country into a sweatshop zone,” says Zirin. “So in order to get neoliberal policies in place, the world’s elite need a strategy — some clever sleight of hand.”

This legerdemain lies in what former soccer player turned academic Jules Boykoff has called “celebration capitalism.” Quoting Boykoff, Zirin argues that massive, international sporting events like the World Cup offer the state a “‘once-in-a-generation opportunity [for police and military forces] to multiply and militarize their weapons stocks, laminating another layer on to the surveillance state. The Games justify a security architecture to prevent terrorism, but that architecture can double to suppress or intimidate acts of political dissent.’” And what happens after the Games are over? What are those drones that hovered over the 2012 Olympics in Great Britain doing now?

More disturbingly for Zirin, events like World Cup and the Olympics also allow governments to justify the eviction of their cities’ poorest residents. Zirin describes how Brazilian authorities have used the World Cup as a pretext to clear out the favelas in Rio de Janeiro that occupy prime real estate. He isn’t merely pontificating from his armchair, either: Zirin takes us into the cities, and while taking care not to romanticize their poverty, he humanizes the struggle for resistance by speaking with both residents and scholars. These are among the strongest moments of the book.

These favela evictions take on a more sinister dimension when one realizes that most of those being kicked out are Brazilians of African descent. “In 2014, when the official line is that race is ‘not an issue,’” writes Zirin, “it is the descendants of slaves who…live shorter lives, make less money, have more difficulty finding employment, and are more likely to be among the ten thousand people killed by police over the course of the last decade.” For Zirin, neoliberalism systemically attempts to efface poor, dark-skinned Brazilians who live in favelas.

In the book’s last chapter, Zirin reminds us of Brazil’s failure to deliver new schools and hospitals of the same “FIFA-quality” as the stadiums being built in a country already filled with them. More infuriatingly, most of these stadiums will be empty or severely underused after the World Cup. “One idea,” Zirin notes regarding the post-World Cup function of a $325 million stadium constructed in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, “is to turn the entire stadium into a massive, open-air prison — a use with a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, one not lost on those protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government.”

Zirin’s points on heightened surveillance, favela evictions, and inadequate schools in the run up to the World Cup are valid on their own; however, he lumps them together under the banner of general neoliberal evil, and this is somewhat misleading. A surveillance state in a World Cup or Olympic city, for example, could have emerged just as easily under a different type of economy or government — more drones and greater security at the World Cup are not necessarily unique or attributable to neoliberal policy. It is also arguable that the excesses of state capitalism — not neoliberalism — are responsible for the chaos in Brazil, but Zirin seldom entertains alternative theories. Throughout the book, Zirin takes shots at The Economist and the Financial Times for their stances on neoliberal policy, but in the future he might consider their arguments with greater intellectual empathy in order to provide a more objective analysis of views other than his — if only so that he can offer a more comprehensive and compelling refutation of them.

Describing structural violence and complex economic theory in accessible, stylish, and substantive prose — while simultaneously weaving in Brazil’s social and sporting history — is an extremely difficult enterprise. Few books can pull off such a feat, and for this Brazil’s Dance with the Devil deserves commendation. Its yellow card on the issue of neoliberalism notwithstanding, this book will be an essential companion for any member of the “thinking class” who wants to approach the World Cup protests with a critical gaze.

Zadie y Julio, or Ignorance is Bliss

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Writers can be a saturnine bunch. While most are not as fatalistic as Bolaño — “I am among those who believe that man is doomed,” he once told an interviewer — the scars of poverty, political persecution, unrequited love, disillusionment, and/or exile (pick one!) are all over the canon as well as the cult classics. After all, sadness is often what prompts writers to record their thoughts in the first place; otherwise, it’s as French novelist Henry de Montherlant said: “happiness writes white.” So if the life of the writer — for whom writing offers the only solace from vicissitudes of life — is so miserable, how is Zadie Smith so happy?

In her essay “Joy” published in the January 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, Smith says she “experience[s] at least a little pleasure every day. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way.” The pleasure she describes often comes from food — little treats that have the transcendent power to momentarily lift her from the stresses of life: “Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.” These pleasures — which she distinguishes from “joy,” an intensified pleasure also fraught with terror (e.g. raising a child/doing ecstasy) — result from a lack of discernment, and Smith is aware of this. “Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review,” she writes. This comes with some cost, for “where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort.”

In her blissful critical indifference, Smith recalls Julio Cortázar. In his essay “Only a Real Idiot,” (originally published in Spanish as “Hay que ser realmente idiota para…” and collected in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds), Cortázar reveals the ostensible secret to his contented existence: his stupidity. By stupidity, Cortázar refers not to some sort of deficiency in his faculties, but rather his similar lack of discernment. Briefly, in the essay Cortázar relates a scene from the theatre, where his more sophisticated friends inform him that the Czech mimes and Thai dancers he’s so enamored of aren’t exactly anything special — in fact, they’re highly unoriginal, poorly directed, and ordinarily outfitted. And yet — “even though I understand perfectly how right they are and that the show was not as good as it had seemed to me…I was simply transported, idiot that I am…”

By stupidity, then, Cortázar is talking about his ability to suspend judgment, his ability to regard the Czech mimes and Thai dancers as the beau idéal of theatre; he’s talking about his ability to be swept up by the beatitude of the banal. He rhapsodizes about this sort of minutiae, saying,
My enthusiasm was not just aroused by the duck but came from something that was given material form in it, that might also appear in a dead leaf balanced on the edge of the bank, or in an orange crane, enormous and delicate, framed against the evening sky, or in the smell of a train car as you enter with a ticket for a trip of several hours when everything will rush by, stations, a ham sandwich, the buttons for turning on and off the lights (one white and the other violet), the automatic ventilation system…
Cortázar watching theatre is thus like Zadie Smith eating a pineapple popsicle. There’s a romanticism at the heart of both of their personalities that reminds them to be mindful of the all-consuming beauty that surrounds them — in fact, in Cortázar’s 1984 Paris Review interview, he admits, “I have to be rather careful when I write, because very often I could let myself fall into…an exaggerated romanticism. In my private life, I don’t need to control myself. I really am very sentimental, very romantic.”

These flourishes of happiness are ephemeral. The curtains close on the Czech mimes and Thai dancers, and only the wrapper of the pineapple popsicle remains after eight minutes. These are but individual moments of glee that sustain the rest of their day, moments that offer a respite from something — what exactly I’m not sure. Writing? Not writing? Reality? The demanding fictive realms in which — wait, I think I’ve just heard an incredible name. The horizontality of the “Z” beautifully balances the verticality of the “I.” It’s assonant. And when lowercased, almost all the letters are the same height!…Forgive me, I’ve been overcome by the aesthetics of the beautiful name I’ve just heard. Names, like words, make me happy. The mimetic sibilance of “fissiparous” or “susurration.” Spanish nouns — including “la idiotez” — with z’s to die for…I’m sorry, where were we? Ah yes. I’m still not sure if these moments Smith and Cortázar speak of serve to magnify pleasure or to offer succor to the stressed. Don’t ask me — clearly, I’m just another idiot.

Image via David Shankbone/Flickr

Tumblr as a Commonplace Book

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Over 46 million blogs exist on Tumblr. That figure is peanuts compared to the 845 million users on Facebook or the 462 million on Twitter, but the five-year-old company is currently enjoying a period of exponential growth. Given the its simplicity, this newfound popularity should come as no surprise. After all, it’s easy to use Tumblr — you hardly have to do anything. While users certainly have the ability to post original content to their blogs, the vast majority choose to “reblog” content previously posted by other users. In other words, to tumble is to appropriate — not generate — content. Almost every blog on Tumblr is a pastiche of images, memes, or quotes that belong to others. Whether Tumblr represents a unique form of self-expression or just another way to bookmark online curios is a different question; at the most basic level, however, we can say that each user’s blog represents an amalgamation of (possibly related) content. This ability to easily aggregate others’ content has allowed the platform to carve out a sizable niche on the Internet and earn the distinction of being one of today’s hippest (and most valuable) Internet properties. That said, we should recall that Tumblr is not the first technology to engage in this practice. Consider the early-modern European analogue to Tumblr: the commonplace book.

Maintained by writers such as John Milton and Ben Jonson, commonplace books were personal notebooks teeming with aphorisms, quotations, and annotations. In a world without Wikipedia, the commonplace book was especially handy for argumentation, for it was a reservoir of useful wisdom that could be memorized and deployed in rhetoric and composition. In fact, in his essay “The Commonplace Bee: A Celebration,” Princeton professor Anthony Grafton writes that the 16th-century humanist Justus Lipsius argued exclusively via citations he memorized from his commonplace book. Lipsius, who once offered to recite Tacitus with a dagger to his throat, liberally quoted other greats like St. Augustine, Cyprian, and Cicero in order to broadcast his erudition and insulate himself from criticism. “When challenged,” according to Grafton, Lipsius “replied, calmly, that his opponents, even if already old men, needed to go back to school.” (Maybe Lipsius served as inspiration for Newt Gingrich — last week’s New Yorker “Talk of The Town” noted that Gingrich has amassed dozens of shoeboxes’ worth of interesting quotes on scraps of paper since high school.)

But perhaps the phenomenon of keeping a commonplace book dates back even earlier than the Renaissance. Grafton notes that Seneca, first-century Roman Stoic philosopher, likened the commonplace book to a literary honeycomb:
We should follow…the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in. These bees, as our Virgil says, “pack close the flowing honey, and swell their cells with nectar sweet.” We could so blend these several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.
Here Seneca described the intellectual synthesis that results from annotation in the commonplace book. His words also illustrated the dominant strain of thought regarding the commonplace book’s purpose, in which the book guided its owner en route to erudition. Given the onerous demands on those who wished to be learned, the commonplace book would serve as the ideal aid to scholars. Erasmus nicely situates us: “Anyone who wants to read through all types of authors (for once in a lifetime all literature must be read by anyone who wishes to be considered learned) will collect as many quotations as possible for himself.” No small task.

True, like Tumblr users, owners of commonplace books actively compiled information. True, the “quote” button on the Tumblr dashboard seems especially reminiscent of commonplacing. And true, Tumblr serves as a memory aid in a similar vein, allowing one to bookmark and revisit content that, in the abyssal space of the Internet, might be impossible to find without the right keywords the next day. Tumblr may be all of these things, but it’s definitely not the study aid described above. But before we bust this analogy, let’s consider the commonplace book’s less serious purposes. While championing its role as a scholarly tool, Erasmus also extolled the commonplace book for its whimsical qualities. In describing Thomas More’s daughters, avid keepers of commonplace books, Erasmus delighted in the frivolous aspects to their art of commonplacing, observing, “they flit like so many little bees between Greek and Latin authors of every species, here noting down something to imitate… there getting by heart some witty anecdote to relate among their friends.” Entertaining friends with a witty anecdote — learned casually “here” and “there” — seems more like preparation for cocktail party repartee than for a career in academia. The Roman writer Aulus Gellius’ nonchalant approach to commonplacing resembles that of the average Tumblr user as well. Gellius, who Grafton introduces to us in “The Commonplace Bee,” said that “[he] used to jot down whatever took my fancy, of any and every kind, without any different plan or order.” Such carefree recording of interesting quotes is not different to what one sees on Tumblr, where untold numbers of daily, inspirational, or random quotes circulate in the site’s unpredictable ecosystem.

So commonplace books did not always serve scholarly ends — fine, you say. But what about the question of audience? Commonplace books were very private documents, while Tumblr pages are public. Well, this is only notionally true — the audience for a random, non-celebrity, unspecialized Tumblr blog is effectively zero. (Trust me — I speak from experience.) In this case, if information is public but not accessed by anyone, is the distinction between public and private still germane? The possibility that someone else — say, a future employer or girlfriend — could access one’s Tumblr blog could introduce an element of image-consciousness, but it’s unlikely that this fact would substantially alter the content of one’s collection of material created by others.

But the most serious flaw in the analogy regards the information society in which Tumblr exists: we live in an archival age, in which memory has reached a point of near-irrelevance. With the right keyword, we can instantly recall any message, photo, or article instantly. That memory is never endangered by the specter of forgetting endangers memory more than ever. Thanks to this ultimate memory aid, we never have to remember anything, so we forget. In the age of the commonplace book — an age of admittedly considerably less information — scholarly minds whizzed with quotations, constantly maintained because anything, if forgotten, could be lost forever. The stakes were high: aphorisms, entire speeches had to be deployed in conversation or rhetoric by heart — they weren’t just talismans to be reblogged because they seemed neat.

But maybe we’ve been too critical of Tumblr. It may lack to scholarly direction of the commonplace book, but there’s beauty in minutiae. What seems to be trivial could be of utmost importance. At the very least, the indirect, more playful medium of Tumblr is not inconsequential — its value just may not be legible to us yet. As Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei famously declaimed, “In this material world, the space for thought is narrowing; the world is lacking in imagination and meaning. Stories, dreams, fantasies — they could all become vehicles for expression.” That China has blocked access to Tumblr testifies to the platform’s potency as a vehicle for expression. Maybe we’ve underestimated the power of the reblog.

In the case of the commonplace book at least, we have been operating under the assumption that the accumulation of knowledge is a noble enterprise, almost beyond reproach. Nietzsche, naturally, presents the dissenting voice. In “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” he writes that information only serves to weigh us down. “In the end modern man drags an immense amount of indigestible knowledge stones around with him, which on occasion rattle around in his belly, as the fairy tale has it.” Within the sphere of Tumblr, this question rears its head as well — do we really need to refresh our Dashboard again to see if Zooey Deschanel or our ex-boyfriend has posted something new? From this Nietzschean point of view, the acquisition of knowledge doesn’t only fail to improve our lives — it makes them more difficult.

Oscar Wilde would agree. In “De Profundis,” he wrote, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” In the practices of commonplacing and reblogging, this last phrase has literally become true: their passions a reblog. While Nietzsche warned us about history’s capability to imprison us, Wilde would be more concerned that these technologies could efface our identities and, as a result, diminish our capacity for original thought. On one’s Tumblr page, consciously or not, one forms one’s identity by appropriating other people’s words and images. And when using a commonplace book, as demonstrated by Justus Lipsius, one undergoes an exercise in recitation, not ratiocination. Wilde is right — these collections, online or in print, induce a sort of intellectual passivity.

In ultimately questioning the dangers of both the commonplace book and Tumblr — departing from the initial task of sorting out the imperfect analogy between them — we’ve now said so much as to say nothing definitive. We’ve evaded responsibility for an all-consuming conclusion and instead now sit at the intersection of these two technologies, at once so similar and so different. Consider the Tumblr blog. Consider the commonplace book. And then, finally, consider your consideration of the two.

Image: Wikimedia

Cooped up in a Bookstore, Just to Stop Reading

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The rustle of textbook pages turning, the hasty unzipping of oversized book bags hardly disrupts this venue’s overflowing intellectual energy. The pounding clatter of fingers pressed against greasy laptop keyboards – a soothing symphony to knowledge, it seems – fills the second-floor air, redolent of fresh Starbucks coffee. College students donning the ubiquitous ‘H’ logo, tourists doing likewise, a few bums clad in sweatpants, and the other denizens of Cambridge flock here, traveling up the cascading staircase past the stack of Malcolm Gladwell books to check out all three floors of the establishment.

It is June 2009 and I take my place among the overstressed, sleepless, and nascent literati at the Harvard Coop, a popular bookstore just outside the campus of one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. School is never out here. A seventeen-year-old high school student, I wasn’t researching a thesis. However, I had enrolled in two creative writing classes for the summer and desperately needed to begin on my final project: a piece of creative non-fiction of up to fifteen pages.

Hours had flown by in my dorm room in Harvard Yard’s Thayer Hall without progress. Instead, I had voraciously consumed my eclectic – and completely electronic – literary diet of news, soccer blogs, and The New Yorker online. Reading was, and still is, my favorite tool of procrastination – and how easy it is thanks to the Internet! I am loathe to brand my online perusing a “waste” of time – in fact, I’ve probably learned more about writing this way than I have in school – but, for all the putative benefits of this side-reading, it gets me off track. Fast.

I’m not alone though. According to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study, kids ages 8-18 spend over seven and a half hours a day glued to computers, cell phones, televisions, or other electronic media. What is more, the authors of the study note that today’s youth actually get 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content through multitasking. Any teenager will tell you this isn’t remotely surprising – and, for me, it instantly recalls the image of my friends instinctively whipping out their cell phones to furiously text, even during a conversation or while watching TV.

Still, I’m a bit of an outlier. According to the study, only one in ten young people reported reading newspapers or magazines online; for those who did read online, the average time spent on this activity was a mere 21 minutes.

It’s just so easy to get immersed in a piece. A mere click on my IBM laptop opens up the Chrome browser, and from there, the stories, videos, and links tantalize me thanks to the myriad gadgets on my iGoogle page. I really want to finish writing the overture, the introduction to my piece – but what if Nick Kristof posts a new blog entry, what if that famous soccer player tweets me back, or what if someone wrote on my Facebook wall? I can’t resist. It takes less than a second, so I just hit the “F” key and “Enter” to check the ubiquitous social-networking site once more.

Three notifications.

But I had to get my assignment done: a four to fifteen page piece for my creative nonfiction class. And as they say, desperate times…call for one to cut off the Internet.

So I planted myself firming at the place with the spottiest wireless reception on campus: The Harvard Coop bookstore.

There, I thought, I could focus, motivated by a collegiate atmosphere teeming with brilliance, students tapping away at their literary masterpieces on pearl white Macbooks or furiously scribbling proofs of theorems belonging to esoteric branches of mathematics.

Buoyed by my change of milieu (and lack of Internet), I sat, ordered a coffee, wrote – and actually got several pages done in a few hours.

But never at the Coop did I realize the obvious irony of my situation. A student, who procrastinates by reading (of all things), must hole himself up at none other than a bookstore… in order to do his work and stop reading. Perfect sense, right?

It was my professor who had to point this irony out to me as we conferenced over the writing process and the piece.

My myopia speaks to the differences between my peer group (dubbed Gen M^2 by the Kaiser Family Foundation study) and those only just slightly older. Despite the fact that I had, on many occasions, spent several hours reading books off the shelves at the Coop, I paradoxically saw it, a comprehensive bookstore, as the only place where I would not succumb to my proclivity for procrastination – the only place where I would not read. In hindsight, it seems that Harvard’s cavernous Widener library would be the only place more inane for me to go at the time.

But why didn’t I realize my folly?

Perhaps it’s just the incipient laziness of my generation. Reading something online – a blog post, a news story, a feature article – is downright quicker than pulling out a book. You can scan, highlight – and if you lose interest – move on to another work in a matter of seconds. While this raises the question of whether “reading” online is tantamount to just leafing and scanning through a print copy, it’s efficient and easy.

And with high-speed Internet essentially universal, I see no logical reason to physically use a book when everything is more conveniently online, on a screen. In fact, I could have theoretically completed all of my assigned readings for my two classes using the Internet in lieu of in my expensive textbooks; in many cases, I still did that regardless of the fact that I had bought the book. My peers would likely do the same; the Kaiser study reveals that the only media activity that actually failed to increase among young people over the past ten years is traditional print media. Indeed, the study indicates a roughly 25% drop in print newspaper and magazine readership since 1999. Why? The answer lies in said convenience, as well as the Internet-saturated, online-only culture in which I have grown up.

Mine is the generation of the Kindle – er, iPad. Apart from the little remaining sentiment felt for the hard copy, we are inexorably moving entirely online. And as for those last remnants of nostalgia, our inherent resistance to change? They are the life support to which current print media clings. The problem is, sooner rather than later, the support will wither, wane, and expire as the online revolution – one which I experienced on a Cambridge summer day at the Coop, one which lives each time a teen types a text message – tweets on.