Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Prejudices, Europe, Portugal and Eurovision

The interesting and irritating thing about prejudices dealing with European countries, nations, traditions and so on is that some of them are really, but really, but really-really true while others, even though as much popular as the former, are based only on ignorance, misconceptions, confusions and sometimes they are also based in bad nationalism.

The reason why the song that will "represent" Portugal in the Eurovision Song Contest 2008 is so bad and inadequate is precisely because it is just a good example of how Portugal is perceived by the minds of people with the wrong prejudices about the country. And what makes us sick about it is that apparently that song was made deliberately to propagate and assure that those prejudices are actually true.

The song is a kind of pseudo-fado. The singer dresses in black with golden filigrana ear-rings and tries as most as possible to produce a feeling of lasting suffering with her voice. Song’s title: “Senhora do Mar” (Lady of the Sea).

Then there comes the French guy or the German or the Latvian one saying: "you see? that's Portugal: oh see the suffering! oh the ladies in black! oh the sadness of fado! and the sea motives allways present! Oh nation of suffering people! Oh women crying for their husbands gone to the sea! Oh...", ...

PURE SHITTY LIES THAT'S WHAT THIS IS! If this is the idea an individual has about Portugal, then that individual knows as much about Portugal as I now about the life and traditions of the people from Nauru.

Look, to start with (and we can start from many different angles here), the music Portuguese people listen to is not fado. Who do you think you're gonna find listening to fado in those beautiful restaurants in Alfama (yes, I really think they're beautiful) where fado is sung? Tourists! Tourists, that's what you're gonna find there.

Portuguese people listen to Portuguese music, true, but they also listen to Brazilian music and to Robbie Williams, Shakira, Depeche Mode, U2, Metallica and Take That. Britney Spears and Rihanna. And all those internationally famous. 50-Cent. Leona Lewis. You know, all of those internationally English singing famous bands and people. Actually, Portuguese people listen much more to non-national music than many other Europeans. Take France, turn the radio on to some random radio station and count how many songs in English you will get. Probably none. Probably one after three hours. (And don’t expect anything more exotic than English if you expect not-French singing...). Take Italy, turn the tv on to some music channel. You're gonna be astonished with the number and proportion of Italian rock bands, Italian solo singers, Italian rap, Italian boys bands, Italian...

If ones thinks the music choices of Portuguese people are something paroquial, well, that's totally wrong. Listen to Portuguese radio. If you get the legal 10% minimum of songs IN Portuguese (not necessarily FROM Portugal) you will be lucky. I am not saying that this reality is good or bad. I am just describing how things are. I myself was and still am kind of surprised with the strong hegemony of French music in French tv, of Italian music in Italian radio and tv, of Spanish everything in Spain. I am so surprised because, being Portuguese, I was never used to hegemony, not even dominance, of the Portuguese language on radio and tv. There is no Portuguese hegemony in Portuguese radio, far from that! And there is no Portuguese hegemony in the cd shelves and mp3 folders of Portuguese people!

Take that Portuguese teenager boy or girl from the city of Almada (the one city with the monumental Cristo-Rei statue, I’ll talk about religion within a few paragraphs). He can tell you more about American hip-hop than that same-age teenager from the guetto in Marseille who actively participated in the riots that took place there (and also in most of the imporant cities of France) in 2005.

If there is some European people listening predominantly to national music, that people is far from being the Portuguese (and I am NOT saying Portugal is the ONLY country in Europe where non-national music is hegemonic).

And of course, among the minority proportion of Portuguese music playing in Portuguese radios, fado is just a little minority amid the minority. Unless you select those AM radio stations that pre-retirement taxi-drivers and retired male hair dressers listen to, I actually don't believe one can get to listen to one single song of fado along an entire day.

True, there is Mariza. But Mariza clearly has the status of an exception. And even that exception doesn’t get any air-play in most main radio stations.

Now, from another angle. Portugal is far from being an agricultural country, specially thanks to this horrible Common Agriculture Policy thing that seems will never be abolished or, at least, reformed and, unfortunately, is left untouched by that, hurray Portugal!, way to go Sócrates!, porreiro pá Durão, Treaty of Lisbon. And Portugal is not even a country of fishermen. Thanks to stupid ministers accepting the worst possible deals, the total number of Portuguese fishing ships has been systematically and sharply decreasing since 1986. People have been paid to kill their boats. And the ones still there face sometimes the threats of fishermen from those powerful fishing countries. Portugal is no country of sea men. Portugal is a country of beach people. Period. Ok, that prejudice you might have in mind is true: I haven’t seen yet an European nation eating so much fish as the Portuguese. But I don’t know the eating habits of all the (51?, 52?) European countries...

Fado, suffering, tradition, women in black,... religion. When one talks about Portugal sooner or later there comes the sentence "oh the Portuguese people are very religious". Here I don't believe the problem has to do with ignorance. Here, the problem has to do with a confusion of concepts with respect to a truthful fact. The concepts are "religiosity" and "religious homogeneity".

Religiosity means something like the proportion of people from a, say, national population who attend regularly, say, a week the religious celebrations of his/her religion. It can mean whether a proportion of people actively seeks religious knowledge or take part in religious events. And this is summed across all existing religions in a given country.

Religious homogeneity means most people in a country identify themselves with the same religion. This concept, in practice, means the proportion of people that, independently of their religiosity levels (see previous concept), declare they belong to or they identify themselves with a certain same religion. Belonging to a religion is a very, very loose concept: as far as I know, you can identify yourself with Islam or Budism without the need for member-card; further, you can identify yourself with Catholicism even without having been baptised. Thus, it is actually very easy, zero cost to belong, just belong!, to a religion (at least in case of those religions that already existed before tele-evangelism...).

Now, it is really interesting a question whether those countries with high or low levels of religious homogeneity are also the ones with high or low levels of religiosity. A serious study can be done about this, it is really not difficult to be done and it might have already been done (probably, the results within certain groups of countries might be different from the results pooling all countries). But at this point, I believe it is simply not that clear whether a correlation exists between religiosity and religious homogeneity and, if it exists, which sign it takes. Ok, one can think of, for instance, Saudi Arabia: high homogeneity and, from "common sense" (extremely prone to fail...), high religiosity. But I can also tell you about a small Eastern European country with high homogeneity in Lutheranism or Christian Orthodoxity and, at the same time, probably due to the communist repression, very low levels of religiosity.

About Portugal: true the religious homogeneity is extremely high. And there are many reasons for that. The most interesting reasons are possibly the political ones. If you are not Portuguese and you believe Portuguese people listen and sing to fado every night looking at the sea, you will never imagine how much politics can be subsumed to an apparently naïv (and so oldfashioned and so against the winds of progress and so medieval and anti-scientific...) "eu sou católico".

Now whether Portuguese people have high levels of religiosity, that's a completely different story. Sure some people go to the mess: grannys and grandpas older than 68. But not even all of them: go to Alentejo (as an example), to those villages like Grândola, Cuba, Sines,..., and talk with the old people about religiosity, catholicism and, of course, priests. Mention “priests” (“padres”) to them. You will be really surprised with their reactions, attitudes and oppinions about "religiosity in Portugal".

Assuming religiosity levels among muslin communities in Europe is higher than religiosity among European christian communities, it only takes to realize that the proportion of muslins on population is much higher in, say, Germany or the Netherlands to conclude, not out of prejudice (but we are holding an assumption here!) that Germany and Netherlands may really be more religious a country than Portugal.

Another example: here in this beautiful Firenze, facing the beautiful hills of Fiesole, there are churches everywhere (and they sure are accountable for a great part of the city’s beauty), and one can listen to their bells daily. Also, in London and Oxford one can listen to the call for pray sent from the many minarets.

But how many church bells can one listen to in Lisbon? How often?

Of course, you can tell me about all those dozens and dozens of religious processions taking place all across Portugal specially during summer. But that’s just like football: a collective kind of experience, a party, something rather exterior, no deep religious sentiments involved. Also, and probably more important, that’s just tourism (more about tourism, a crucial thing, below).

In any case, use of some credible data source (World Values Survey is a good starting point) is definitely needed if one wants to address religiosity in Portugal or somewhere else with a minimum of seriousness. But if one wants to keep believing Portugal is a land of little people living in little houses that go fish while their women cry at the beach and sing fado, then, well, you probably don’t want to know about data and studies and surveys and all those complicated non-colourfull things (ok, for you, I won’t tell you Santa Claus does not exist).

All of this being sad, it is clear why the Portuguese act that will go to the Eurovision Song Contest 2008 is not representative of anything; at least, it is for sure not representative of what Portugal truly is today.

However, because the wrong prejudices exist, because most tourists only travel in order to see what they want to see (no, no, no, most people really don’t travel for surprises, people are all emotionally conservative, even stalinists are so), and because tourists must be convinced something special, different and unique exists, selling this black dressed-suffering from “saudades”-fado singers is “good for tourism”. And that’s why even though not autentic, even though not genuine, the pseudo-fado singer that will “represent” Portugal in the Eurovision 2008 contest is deliberately selling the prejudice of a country of sailors and sad singers of fado.

“Good for tourism” - here we find something that might not yet have entered the category of prejudices but, still, it is a truthful generalization about Portugal. It is annoying this component of the Portuguese mentality of always thinking about tourism, about tourists, about what foreign people might say about us, the Portuguese. This is a really widespread, deep common piece of the Portuguese mentality. In order to take pride on something it is absolutely fundamental to get recognition from abroad. No, definitely Portugal is not like, say, a Denmark that produces a strangely original type of cinema that probably most people outside Denmark don’t know while Dannish people themselves don’t even minimally care whether their cinema gets to be known or not. No, in Portugal, a writer needs to be translated and sold abroad in order to finally have his/her merits nationally recognized.

So here it is (unfortunately) a negative and really-really true prejudice about Portugal that possibly most non-Portuguese people don’t know about: Portuguese people care a lot for tourism and for foreign oppinion; Portuguese people are extremely self-aware when it comes to the contact with the foreigner; and this is as valid at the personal scale as it is at the institutional one. Should someone get to know and to believe in this truthful prejudice, then it will be much easier to understand and perceive how some manifestations of culture and, specially, of religiosity can be artifical. Indeed, some of those “good examples of the Portuguese deep religiosity” are nothing but things made for the tourist (with the wrong prejudices).

But does this all mean Portuguese culture and traditions are not unique, not genuine, not interesting and solely made for the unaware tourist? No, definitely not!!! The specificity of the way of living and being Portuguese, the culture, the eating and drinking, traditions, etc. (I would say here “everything”) - they are definitely interesting and beautiful and worth to experience. Actually, since I am living away from Portugal that I realize how wonderfully beautiful Portugal is. I also realize how pessimistic Portuguese people can be about their reality, which is sometimes so unfairly perceived. I realize how so many problems sometimes believed to be specific to Portugal, difficulties supposedly felt only or more intensely in Portugal, are in fact far from being typical of Portugal, are truly as common across Europe as, say, beer and football. Examples abound: bureaucracy, corruption, ...

Now it is also wrong to assume Portugal is just like the picture given in this sixteen page-brochure sponsored by the Portuguese Government and a set of Portuguese companies and distributed with the March/April 2008 issue of the Foreign Affairs magazine. If Portuguese high-ways are excellent and we have the longest bridge in Europe and there is this monstruous dam built already so many years ago and yet no one really knows what it is for (except Spanish agriculture and golf firms...) – that’s because some politicians have been paying favors to some business people, and some business people have been paying favors to some politicians.

If there seems to be plans for building another bridge crossing the Tagus river, most probably in one of the widest parts of its estuary, and plans for a high-speed train to Madrid and at the same time plans for, possibly, a gigantic airport for the city of Lisbon that will actually be less functional than the already existing airport (which even though receiving investments at the present and in the future, faces the threat of being closed down) – if all these plans exist, well, the reason is the same: exchanged favors between politicians and business people. The usual.

Further, don’t expect a country to be all that technological when the concentration in the market for internet service provision is simply obscene and the proportion of drop-outs younger than eighteen is simply tragic. But still... Portuguese homebanking was clearly ahead of time and Portuguese ATM machines apparently can do everything but serving cappuccino!

My point is that wrong prejudices about Portugal exist and the caricature image they give about Portugal is also much less interesting and captivating than the true reality of the country. This reality is not as technological, efficient and dynamic as international marketing paid by the Government and companies can lead one to think of. But in its genuine truth, Portugal is really a country worth to know and experience. It is really worth to enjoy. And if international recognition has to be so much important for the Portuguese, we should let ourselves be recognized for what we truly are, which, in my oppinion, is much better than those artificially sad women singing in black.


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