THE BLOG

Brazil's Charmingly Un-PC President

Like President Lula, I am also Brazilian and occasionally engage in cross-cultural communication with a Brit. My husband. Just as Gordon Brown and the chattering classes stiffened in reaction to Lula's white man comments, my husband did, too, with this cultural exchange:

While buying olive oil in a Brazilian central market last year, the customer behind me cheerfully greeted the convivial black sales guy with "Oi passaro preto" (Hiya black bird)! Recognizing this as affectionate Brazilian wit, my mother and I roared with laughter. Offensive? No. Endearing? Yes. We Brazilians are Latin which means we express ourselves in candid, colorful ways. Refreshingly so.

This light-hearted mockery -- sacanagem -- directed at those we care about is the Brazilian version of the Brits' "taking the Mickey out of someone." A lighter version, my husband emphasizes. And it's a far cry from the political correctness that thwarts any brain from naturally engaging its socially cognitive gears. Like the visually engaging "black bird," Lula's use of "white men with blue eyes" to make his point is economic in more ways than meets the eye: The brain's clever use of visual metaphor happens to be the most efficient processor of information.

"When political rhetoric capitalizes on visual abstraction, it leaves a lasting impression on voters' collective minds", says George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley.

So, to be perfectly metaphoric, tame your Irish hackles, Maureen Dowd. No need to engage in Rush-esque behavior by playing ditto-head to the New York Post which described Lula as a bearded "socialist nutcase". With their logic, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich must also be a nutcase (though a blue-eyed one) given he said that "Bill Clinton's Wall Street agenda brought America and the world crashing down with it . . . I hope we are not seeing history repeat itself with Mr Obama."

Downing Street, in charming verbal diplomacy reminiscent of my capitalist husband, says the remarks made by Lula were meant for "domestic consumption." And, what's more, that "people in Brazil are very frustrated and angry at what they feel is the injustice of the situation: a crisis that has essentially come from the banking sectors in places like the United States and the U.K., but is affecting their country."

But, being Brazilian, I think Lula meant it for global consumption. To awaken the collective conscience of the blue eyed. . .and varying shades thereof. And his choice of words not only cut to the white man's chase but unwittingly payed homage to them as well: Anglo-Saxon Englightenment, as Richard Layard the British economist put it this week, says that "progress means the reduction of misery and the increase of happiness, not wealth creation or innovation which are sometimes useful but never the final goal."

One of the intellectual giants of the Enlightenment was Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher whose Theory of Moral Sentiments says that in spite of our self-interested nature, humans have a moral conscience that comes from observing and being connected with others and that human cooperation depends on compassion. "The emotion we feel for the misery of others."

Lula's grand stand this past week echoes Smith's and that of another Brit. Charles Dickens' Hard Times increased sales of his lagging periodical Household Word by railing against utilitarianism. Dickens carefully carved characters reflect proponents of utilitarianism like John Stuart Mill (Mr. Gradgrind, the facts and number-driven teacher) whose use of statistics to justify the unequal distribution of wealth contributed to the harsh socioeconomic inequalities during Britain's Industrial Revolution.

As Dickens drew upon his childhood experiences -- a father in debtor's prison -- to shape his self-described "compassionate knowledge", so too does Lula who clearly lived the hard times of poverty. "I lived through misery and hunger; our family lived in a shack that frequently flooded", he eloquently explained to CNN's Fareed Zakharia the week prior to the G-20 Summit.

Branded a leftist by those fearful of his undoing former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's fiscal and monetary policies before him, Lula instead ran with this economic torch while simultaneously lighting the embers of poverty reduction. The Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program, improved infrastructure in the favelas, increase in low-income housing construction, and annual increase in the minimum wage have all contributed dearly to a more equitable income distribution in Brazil. His popularity rating after almost eight years in office is an impressive 80%.

Lula's actions, along with the long road from his impoverished past to the presidency of the world's sixth largest economy, is what gives him not just the moral sentiment Smith defined but the moral authority to declare the actions of those who brought not just America but the world to its financial knees as "irrational behavior."

With any luck, the G-20 summit will help turn Lula's comments into a Dickensian "household word." Interestingly, those clever Greeks, too, also unwittingly understood the use of metaphor given that the word "economics" is derived from the Greek for household.