Friday, March 27, 2009

High-Wire Chutzpah

I told this joke over two years ago on this blog (and more times that I can recall in social conversation). It's the one about a mule that can do any kind of work on the farm, provided that first you whack him on the head several times with a two-by-four "in order to get his attention." I find it a good way to approach our chronic cultural problem of evading (if not outright denying) our sense of reality. I suspect that this is the sort of thing that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had in mind when he spoke at a press conference held in conjunction with a visit to Brazil by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As reported for BBC NEWS from Sao Paolo by Gary Duffy, Lula offered his own interpretation of how the world can come to be in economic crisis:

It is a crisis caused and encouraged by the irrational behaviour of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything, but are now showing that they know nothing.

It takes high-octane chutzpah to invoke such language in a diplomatic setting, leaving it to Brown to keep up diplomatic appearances, which, according to Duffy, he seems to have done:

If Mr Brown appeared uncomfortable with this claim, he did his best not to show it.

The press, on the other hand, was more interested in the smell of blood in the water and tried to get Lula to elaborate. Surprisingly enough, he obliged:

As I do not know any black or indigenous bankers. I can only say it is not possible for this part of mankind, which is victimised more than any other, to pay for the crisis.

Without trying to be an apologist, I think it is important to recognize that these are the words of a man whose ox has been seriously gored. Back in September it seemed as if Brazil had been blessed with a new source of wealth in the form of potentially vast deepwater resources of hydrocarbons. At that time Lula had the chutzpah to start laying down plans that indicated that, as I wrote at the time, he was "more interested in resolving existing problems of education and poverty than … in turning his country into the next 'engine of economic growth.'" Indeed, he went so far as to take this discovery as an opportunity "to rethink the very nature of governance," by virtue of being liberated from those who, regardless of the color of skin or eyes, "appeared to know everything." All those plans must now be on hold when both the price of oil and the very "wealth of nations" have been thrown into question by circumstances that can be traced back to those aforementioned (if undiplomatically so) "Masters of the Universe" (now trying to be "masters of rehab").

So was today's chutzpah nothing more than a man whose ox was gored trying to gore another man's ox? Would answering that question determine whether the chutzpah carried a positive or negative connotation? I doubt that there is a clear answer to that second question. My guess is that if these words had come from the mouth of Hugo Chávez (who already holds a Chutzpah of the Week award), then the Western press would spare no effort to condemn him as a "red menace;" but, since both the United States and the United Kingdom see Brazil as an important economic partner, the media will go to great lengths to make sure that Public Opinion (perhaps as personified by Jacques Offenbach) will cut him some slack. (For the record I have no idea of the color of Brown's eyes.) For all we know Lula was well aware of the extent to which Public Opinion really wants to direct her anger at "sticking it to the rich;" but, if he was playing to that anger, then his chutzpah is taking him to the brink of demagoguery. My personal feeling is that there is no clear call on the nature of this particular act of chutzpah, but the act is strong enough to justify Lula receiving his first Chutzpah of the Week award. Whatever else we may say about him, he invoked an interesting strategy to get the mule's attention.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Steve, both instances of your mule joke -- today and two years ago -- leave out the part that makes it funny -- the love and kindness part. Here's a version randomly gleaned through a web search:

The Priest and the Mule

A priest was walking down a dirt road one day and came upon a man with a mule pulling a wagon load of two-by-fours. The mule had stopped and sat down. The man was yelling and pulling on the mules' reigns trying to get him to move. The man was angry and was using many foul words on the mule. The priest came up to the man and said, "If you want one of God's creatures to do what you want him to do, You must treat him with love and kindness".

The man then told the priest, "If you can do any better, than you are welcome to try".

With this the priest went to the rear of the wagon, pulled off a two-by-four board and walk to the front of the mule and looked the mule in the eye and then took a mighty swing with the two-by-four, hitting the mule across the head.

The man in shock said, "I thought you must treat him love and kindness"?

The priest then said, "You are, but first you must get his attention".