Friends
March 30, 2003
John Perry Barlow On Being Exiled To America

Barlow on Brazil, our police state, and Delta Airlines CAPS plan in action.


Shortly after I wrote the words above - somewhere over Cuba - I dozed
off. When I awoke, I was in America. It feels like waking from a
beautiful dream into a nightmare. The people at Customs were all
straight out of Brazil, the movie, not the country. Automatic rifles
are everywhere...

The process involved in my boarding this aircraft makes me seriously
question whether I will be able to remain in America.

Maybe I just have to do some readjustment. But I've been flying all
over Brazil, a free country, for the last five weeks and have only
rarely had to produce an ID. My bags were never opened. What metal
detectors existed were set to go off in the presence of pistols and
not trace elements in the bloodstream, and everyone at the airport
was friendly.

This is not how it was at Laguardia.

Despite the fact that I am a Delta million-miler, the counter girl
treated me as though I were armed and dangerous. Worse, as soon as I
hit security, I found that she had marked me for special treatment. I
spent the next 45 minutes watching three of God's less favored
children go through my bags with meticulous literal-mindedness. They
weren't very bright, but they certainly were hostile. And utterly
paranoid.

"What is this, Sir?"

"That's a pen. Here. Let me show you."

"And this?"

"That's a battery for my laptop. Look, it has Apple's logo on it."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I, uhhhhh...."

"Sir, could you tell me why you have three cigarette lighters in your bag?"

"I didn't know I had any cigarette lighters at all." I didn't either.

And so on. I'm not kidding. Meanwhile, they went through nitrate
detection swabs like toilet paper in a cholera ward. They even
swabbed my boarding pass. I knew that neither levity nor irritation
would be my friend, so I struggled to maintain a perfectly blank
affect. I haven't felt such a combination of boredom and terror since
an occasion, 35 years ago, when I was held for an hour by
machine-pistol-toting East German police while their commandant
removed all the politically inappropriate features from my maps with
a lovely little pair of silver scissors.

I'll probably acclimate, but right now I don't know that I can handle
contemporary American reality. Even overlooking frequent humiliations
by the TSA, I think it will be very hard to behold all these furtive
American faces, knowing that behind three of every four resides
support for our President's criminal adventure in Iraq. Then there is
the New Grimness. I've become so accustomed to smiles. But I detected
not a single one at Laguardia. I kept feeling that all this
seriousness accompanied a willingness to regard it a necessary evil
that we're using napalm - a weapon of mass destruction by my
standards - on groups the Iraqis. See
http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/000923.php.

EXILED TO AMERICA

Now I'm over the Amazon, headed north. After five weeks in the
accommodating bosom of Brazil - longer than I've been in *any*
country, my own included, in quite some time - I am returning to the
Belly of the Beast.

I can't tell you how apprehensive I am at the prospect of leaving the
most emotionally healthy culture on the planet and returning to the
most pathological. I can only imagine how much more pathological it's
become after being "embedded" in CNN and the war for 10 days. Or how
mean it will get as the war drags on and sets us all against one
another.

In Brazil, on the other hand, they are trying to get as little of
this stuff on them as possible. Indeed, the city council of Rio
yesterday declared George Bush persona non grata in their city. While
this has roughly the same practical effect as Mill Valley,
California's declaring itself a nuclear-free zone, I can certainly
see their point. It has been nice being in a George Bush-free zone.
But now I am about to re-enter a social condition in which
practically every aspect has been sickened by this man's afflictions,
whether personal, cultural, or political.

I am also leaving the company of someone who is, in his essence, the
Anti-George Bush: Gilberto Gil. I've spent a lot of the last five
weeks with Gil (as he is known to everyone in Brazil) and he has
only risen in my admiration and affection during that time. This is
saying something, since, as you will recall, I was pretty high on the
guy when we met.

I feel that Gil glows with the perfected version of my own soul and
is the embodiment of all the virtues I would seek to manifest in
myself. I've learned an enormous amount from him about how to be a
graceful human being. If only I can incorporate his examples into my
own way of stumbling through this material world...

He may have been born this way, but Gil knows how to *be* love,
giving it freely and sincerely to the crowds that continuously
surround him, and, more importantly, accepting it from them with
humility, as willing to believe that he deserves it from them as he
is to believe that they deserve it from him.

At a Carnival stop in a very poor neighborhood of Recife, the crowd
saw Gil and many in it began to weep with emotion. Later, I said,
"You have the most amazing emotional effect of people. A lot of those
people were crying at the sight of you."

"Well, I was crying too," Gil smiled, and I saw the glint of salt on
his cheeks.

The people of Brazil do love Gilberto Gil. Universally. They don't
love him mythologically, as fans loved Evis Presley, or Jerry Garcia,
or John Kennedy, Jr. or any number of other virtualized
mega-celebrities. They don't simply love him for his lyrical music,
though most Brazilians can sing the greater part of his repertoire
and do. They certainly don't love him because he's now the official
steward of their culture, though they love the fact that he is. The
Brazilians love Gil for the right reason. They know what and who he
is, and they love him for himself. I love him too. I feel better
about my species for knowing that we can occasionally produce a
Gilberto Gil.

But now I'm flying away from his enormously encouraging company into
a culture which is, I fear, incapable of nurturing a heart like his,
or worse, specifically inclined to punish such unarmed decency. But,
as I mean to follow his example, we'll see what it does to me now. I
fear that to be dedicatedly good in a country that's gone as bad as
ours may require more courage and faith than I can muster. But if I'm
to be exiled in America, I'll just do my best to be a Brazilian
missionary, spreading generosity, hope, and the soul of samba. Wish
me luck.

As to the tales of my travels, the textures and tastes of this long
adventure, I don't know where to start or stop. For once, I'm sorry I
don't keep a blog, since I would have been reporting these
experiences as they occurred and I wouldn't have such an
unreadably/unwriteably huge backlog of marvels to convey. Actually,
as I said in my last spam, I probably wouldn't have kept up with a
blog, since I was too enchanted by the moment I inhabited to return,
for raconteureal purposes, to some other moment already passed.

Even before I met up with Gil in Salvador, I was tossed into the deep
end of Brazilian culture. My first night in Rio, I was taken by my
friends Hermano Vianna and Cora Ronai to a party at the home of
singer/composer Caetano Veloso, about whom I knew little then.
(Mountain Girl had given me his autobiography as I was leaving for
Brazil, but at that point I hadn't read it yet.) As a consequence,
this experience was a little like how it would be if, upon arrival in
England, you went to a party at Mick Jagger's house, without ever
having heard of the Rolling Stones.

Just about everybody who was anybody in Rio was there, but since I
didn't know who any of them were, I was able to enjoy getting to know
them without blinded by their local hugeness. There were musicians,
actors, writers, soap opera stars, and miscellaneous gorgeous people,
most of whose immediate presence would seriously alter the behavior
of the average Brazilian. Brazil has its own pantheon, very well
known throughout that huge country but generally unknown outside of
it. In any case, my ignorance was a blessing, since whatever their
fame, most of these folks were very interesting and accessible. (I
would drops names, but these would be meaningless to all but the
Brazilians, who would likely find it a vulgar self-aggrandizement.)

I also got my first taste at the party of a personal deficiency that
would frustrate me throughout my stay. I don't speak Portuguese. This
is a problem. Being restricted to English in Brazil is like being a
stroke victim. One might as well be deaf and dumb. This country is as
mono-lingual as the United States. Indeed, I would go so far as to
speculate that the percentage of Americans who can communicate in
Portuguese is probably higher than the percentage of Brazilians who
can speak English.

Fortunately, Brazilian body language is eloquent. And they are
empathic almost to the point of telepathy. Just as I love the sound
of Brazilian Portuguese, I have enjoyed watching it being spoken.
They are constantly telling long, elaborate stories or delivering
themselves of little orations on the nature of life that are poetic,
philosophical, and spiritually complex. I know this despite
understanding only about one word in ten. If I am to spend a lot of
my remaining life in Brazil - and, at the moment, I intend to - I'm
going to have to learn the language. The fact that it is my favorite
sounding tongue should at least ease its acquisition a little.

From Rio, I went to Salvador de Bahia, the city which is, for most
Brazilians, the capital of Carnival. It is a much more African town
than Rio, with all that implies. It's a good place to learn about
patience. Nothing happens very fast. But they dance better in
Salvador and they're sexier, the hybrid vigor having kicked in big
time. Also, there are mysterious energies that can be felt erupting
there, probably in ways connected to CondomblÚ, the local religion
they've cobbled together out of spare parts from Catholicism and the
Yoruban Ifa religions of Nigeria. This is the same set of beliefs
that became Voodoo in Haiti. CondomblÚ is less scary than that, but
it still has a pretty comfortable relationship with The Shadow. You
wouldn't want to mess with its devotees. But you wouldn't want to
mess with them anyway. They're much too nice.

Every city and town in Rio has a different take on Carnival, as I was
to learn from the sampler that Gil had prepared for me, as well as
Jack and Monique Lang. (Jack was the French Minister of Culture for
about 15 years and is, in spite of that, a really lovely and amusing
guy.)

The Salvadoran version was my personal favorite since it's the most
participatory and energetic. Carnival in Salvador is almost certainly
the best and biggest party on this groovin' globe. A couple of
million people turn up from all over Brazil, putting in 10 hour dance
days for nearly a week, discarding their few sexual constraints, and
digging one another deeply. Cacaša, a mind-altering local sugar cane
distillate, flows like a flash flood. (But, interestingly, despite
the strength of this stuff and the fact that everyone but me seemed
to to be drinking it constantly, I never saw anyone falling down
drunk and I only witnessed two angry scuffles.)

The central feature of Salvadorian Carnival is the "trio electrico,"
a semi-trailer truck turned into a gigantic mobile stage, full of
generators driving eardrum-bruising speaker banks and light shows.
The band rides on top of the trailer and is generally crowded in
among a mob of distinguished guests, primarily featuring the
ubiquitous soap opera stars and other cultural notables. These creep
along about a five mile stretch of oceanfront boulevard, along which
about half a million people are dancing in a paradoxical combination
of abandon and unity.

(The name trio electrico is an artifact of their original appearance
back in the early sixties, when the Brazilian inventor of the
electric guitar rented a flatbed truck and cruised along the parade
route with a electric bass player, a drummer, and a crude PA. Every
band that rides one of these behemoths now is much larger. Gil's trio
band, which included 4 of his kids and an evolving array of guest
stars, probably numbered around 12 at any given moment, though I
never got a hard count.)

Some of these trios are sounded by a cordoned battalion of dancers,
each wearing an identifying t-shirt. These groups are called blocos,
and they are a kind of club organized to celebrate Carnival together.
In Recife or Olinda, a bloco would be led by a little brass and drum
corps and doing traditional dances like frevo. In Rio, they would be
an entire samba club of five or six thousand elaborately-costumed (or
nearly naked) celebrants with huge floats and an overall appearance
that combines Las Vegas, Carmen Miranda, Burning Man,
pharmaceutical-quality LSD, and a Terry Gilliam film.

Membership in these blocos can be pricey, up to 700 Reais. Given the
fact that minimum wage in Brazil is about 200 Reais a month, this
makes for a pretty expensive t-shirt. True to Gil's inclusive
principles, his trio had no bloco, which meant that anyone who wanted
to dance alongside it could do so. This made its immediate vicinity
about the most hyper-energized zone I've ever seen that didn't have
its own solar system. Spontaneous combustion seemed a distinct
possibility.

The lightning rod for all this energy was Gil, who has mastered the
art of gathering the juice, amplifying it with his own spiritual
lens, and spraying it back out into the field. He is 61 years old,
but he played at 11-on-a-scale-of-10 for five and a half hours a
night, never taking a set break or even refuge in the occasional
ballad. I was in his reactor core for all three nights his trio
rolled, sometimes down in the boiling samba on the street, sometimes
up on top (where there was a lot more oxygen). Despite its full-tilt
velocity, his band was tighter than God's wrist-watch. It was an
incredible delight to watch them digging him, one another, and the
holy gift of music.

At one point, he asked me, somewhat rhetorically, if I were having
fun. I considered it for a moment and realized that I was having as
much fun as I am capable of having. And I am something of a fun
veteran.

<<< A Pause for Re-Entry >>>

I'm not having fun now.

Shortly after I wrote the words above - somewhere over Cuba - I dozed
off. When I awoke, I was in America. It feels like waking from a
beautiful dream into a nightmare. The people at Customs were all
straight out of Brazil, the movie, not the country. Automatic rifles
are everywhere.

Eye contact is impossible here and I've just spent five weeks in a
condition were eye contact is so customary and naked that one could
probably live off it. (The only Brazilians who avoid eye contact are
the pickpockets - which is why they are pretty harmless to the
observant - and some, though not all, of the military police.)

I arrived in New York at 7:30 am and took an extra hour to get into
the city since the cops had, to no sensible purpose, narrowed access
to the Williamsburg Bridge down to one lane.

I spent a couple of hours regrouping in my apartment, and I took some
solace in a visit from from my sweet pal Simone Banos and her old
daughter Emma Victoria. I helped deliver Emma Victoria. She is my
surrogate infant and has been a luminous presence since her arrival
11 months. They were the only thing that has made this day tolerable.

At the present moment, I am flying *back* down the Eastern Seaboard
to Disney World, the anti-Brazil, where I will spend the next three
days trying to edify and inspire the American Society of Association
Executives. I guess life is fair, and I have a lot of good times to
pay for, but surely it doesn't have to be so starkly fair as this.

The process involved in my boarding this aircraft makes me seriously
question whether I will be able to remain in America.

Maybe I just have to do some readjustment. But I've been flying all
over Brazil, a free country, for the last five weeks and have only
rarely had to produce an ID. My bags were never opened. What metal
detectors existed were set to go off in the presence of pistols and
not trace elements in the bloodstream, and everyone at the airport
was friendly.

This is not how it was at Laguardia.

Despite the fact that I am a Delta million-miler, the counter girl
treated me as though I were armed and dangerous. Worse, as soon as I
hit security, I found that she had marked me for special treatment. I
spent the next 45 minutes watching three of God's less favored
children go through my bags with meticulous literal-mindedness. They
weren't very bright, but they certainly were hostile. And utterly
paranoid.

"What is this, Sir?"

"That's a pen. Here. Let me show you."

"And this?"

"That's a battery for my laptop. Look, it has Apple's logo on it."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I, uhhhhh...."

"Sir, could you tell me why you have three cigarette lighters in your bag?"

"I didn't know I had any cigarette lighters at all." I didn't either.

And so on. I'm not kidding. Meanwhile, they went through nitrate
detection swabs like toilet paper in a cholera ward. They even
swabbed my boarding pass. I knew that neither levity nor irritation
would be my friend, so I struggled to maintain a perfectly blank
affect. I haven't felt such a combination of boredom and terror since
an occasion, 35 years ago, when I was held for an hour by
machine-pistol-toting East German police while their commandant
removed all the politically inappropriate features from my maps with
a lovely little pair of silver scissors.

I'll probably acclimate, but right now I don't know that I can handle
contemporary American reality. Even overlooking frequent humiliations
by the TSA, I think it will be very hard to behold all these furtive
American faces, knowing that behind three of every four resides
support for our President's criminal adventure in Iraq. Then there is
the New Grimness. I've become so accustomed to smiles. But I detected
not a single one at Laguardia. I kept feeling that all this
seriousness accompanied a willingness to regard it a necessary evil
that we're using napalm - a weapon of mass destruction by my
standards - on groups the Iraqis. See
http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/000923.php.

Do I have enough love to forgive my countrymen? Do I have wisdom
enough to hate only our sins and not those who commit them? Will the
presence of this horror simply defeat me?

I must be careful not to guru-ify Gil. He would hate it . Still, I
find myself wondering how he - who spent time in jail and exile as a
dissident - would relate to this tragedy. I think I know.

At one point, we were driving through a heart-rending zone of
poverty. "Gil," I said, "you seem to have an unusually dilated
empathy valve. How do you handle the suffering this must produce in
you.

"Oh," he said, "I let it be. I do everything I can to change it, but
beyond a certain point, I simply have to let it be."

I wonder if I can let it be. Particularly since it appears I have no choice.

Well, as you might imagine, I have a great deal more to say about
Brazil, but my plane is landing in the Green Hell. Tonight I have to
dine with the association executives, getting to bed early enough so
that I can address them at 8:00 am tomorrow. So. I must cut this off
for now..

I will re-engage this enterprise as soon as I get some time.

Meanwhile, I'm going to do my best to let it be.

Flickering hope,

Barlow

Posted by Lisa at March 30, 2003 10:49 AM | TrackBack
Me A to Z (A Work In Progress)