Brazil: Why Jair Bolsonaro Would be Wise to Step Back from the Culture Wars

Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights Damares Alves recently declared that boys should dress in blue and girls in pink: but should a government really be telling parents how they should dress their children?

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Should governments take a proactive role in fighting the so-called “culture wars”? (TNH1)

Jair Bolsonaro’s improbable rise to the presidency of the second largest nation in the Americas, and the world’s eighth-largest economy, was aided and abetted by the inexcusable 14 year tenure of the Workers Party. Shameless corruption, brought to light through the machinations of the Petrobras and Odebrecht investigations, was not merely tolerated but encouraged, spreading like a cancer through the upper echelons of PT, and many other political parties.

Dilma Rousseff was impeached, Lula da Silva exhausted his appeals and will now serve a 12 year prison term, and the worst nightmare of the Brazilian left came true. External observers correctly note that Bolsonaro enjoys wildly enthusiastic support from two major power bases: the military, which has always been a powerful force in Brazil, and the country’s significant evangelical population, recently estimated at 27% of the nation’s 208 million people.

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Libertarians and classical liberals have generally been skeptical of these two currents: Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964-1985 was hardly a good thing, and the religious right has taken views on social issues that are antithetical to many libertarian laissez-faire positions.

Nonetheless, Bolsonaro successfully wooed free-market types by pushing his economic adviser Paulo Guedes to the forefront, and promising to resurrect the Brazilian economy by promoting business and entrepreneurship and smashing the shackles of protectionism which he claimed had long held the economy back.

However, it would be rash to suggest that Bolsonaro’s victory represents some hard swing to the right. Yes, the Brazilian electorate may lean slightly more to the right than in years past; yet, many of the same people who once enthusiastically supported Lula during Brazil’s commodities boom, were the same people who, fed up with crime and corruption, supported Bolsonaro’s “firm hand.” This is in a similar vein to the wild popularity of Alvaro Uribe who famously promised a “firm hand, and big heart” in his battle against Marxist rebels. Alberto Fujimori, whose tenure ended in ignominy, also rode a wave of popular discontent to the presidency, defeating famed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in a close election.

For the casual observer of Brazil, the fun-in-the-sun nation seems hardly a breeding ground for political authoritarianism or evangelical religious right conservatism. Now, however, the culture wars have come to Brazil. The biggest display of this battle for the nation’s ideological soul was ignited by the incoming Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, Damares Alves, who took a moment to instruct Brazilian parents on dressing their children.

A conservative evangelical pastor, she ushered in a firestorm of controversy by alleging that “Brazil is entering a new era…boys dress in blue and girls dress in pink.”

With an Israeli flag waving in the background, the remarks were greeted with enthusiastic cheers by an deeply dogmatic audience. And what is wrong with this pronouncement? Is it wrong for governments to involve themselves in matters of tradition, of dress, of child-raising?

In general, libertarians are skeptical of any attempt on the part of the government to make pronouncements on moral and religious education. Classical liberals have long revered the tradition of diversity and tolerance that makes a successful democracy work. We can have divergent views on “culture war” issues. As long as we have equality before the law, the decisions that parents make should be respected.

Therefore, it is neither the proper role for government officials to tell parents how they are supposed to dress their children. We should maintain a healthy skepticism towards the streak of religious conservatism that Bolsonaro is promoting in his new government.

Conversely, however, it is also not the role of government officials to use the state-funded education system to teach children what they should think about issues of gender, sexuality, and morality.

Most parents, of either a left-wing or right-wing bent, are absolutely fine with basic sexual education as part of a curriculum. But that needn’t include value judgments on dress, or state-mandated opinions on hot-button issues like homosexuality, transgender rights, or abortion.

Suffice it to say, that from a civic standpoint children should be taught that we all, regardless of our personal lifestyle decisions, should be treated with love and respect, and should enjoy equal protection before the law, as we pursue our ambitions.

I don’t believe that Bolsonaro is going to restore a military dictatorship in Brazil, but I do believe that the serious economic reforms of Guedes will bear fruit, and revive the Brazilian economy, currently on life support.

But as Bolsonaro sets out on an arduous path of tackling crime and corruption, and righting the economy, he would be wise to take a step back from the “culture wars”…and leave that to parents and communities. The Brazilian people need protection of life, liberty, and property…not a lecture on childrens’ dress.

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