In 1978, my father and I went to a soccer game at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, which I knew about from the Guinness Book of World Records because 199,854 paying spectators had crowded in to watch Brazil lose the 1950 World Cup final match to Uruguay. (Maracana has been upgraded at vast expense to host the World Cup final next year.)
|The Maracana Moat, RIP|
Neither my father nor I had paid much attention to the threat of crime. We'd been traipsing all over Rio that day, walking through a favela in the early morning, taking city buses all over. When we wound up in the Maracana neighborhood, I suggested seeing if there was a soccer game at the famous stadium. Sure enough, Santos (Pele's old team) was visiting from Sao Paulo and their late afternoon game was just about to start. We paid $0.55 each, which got us below-field standing room next to the deep moat that discouraged spectators from expressing their disenchantment by storming the field and lynching the ref.
The sun went down while we were watching the game, so as a rare gesture toward prudence, we decided to take a cab back to our hotel at the beach. But, when we came out we found that there were no cabs around. Cabbies weren't crazy enough to go to the Maracana neighborhood after dark in 1978.
I was starting to get a little concerned, when a four-foot tall bodybuilder walked up and told us that American tourists shouldn't be wandering around here after dark. The short but extremely muscular Brazilian said he was a tour guide for a large group of Germans and we should ride back to Copacabana Beach on his bus. So, we got on with all his German clients.
On the bus ride, our rescuer asked where we were from and when we said Los Angeles, he said, "You'll probably think me a freak, but I've always wanted to visit Muscle Beach in Venice." This was 1978 when the ideal had been for several years to look like Bruce Dern. I was going to tell him that my impression was that in L.A. weightlifting was becoming big, very big, but I never said it — maybe I got tripped up trying to remember how to pronounce the name of that guy, you know, the one with all the muscles and all the consonants in his name, S, w, z, n, r, etc. — and ever since, I've felt bad that I couldn't reassure this very nice fellow that he wasn't a weirdo, he was on the cusp of the Next Big Thing.
A lot of things have changed since 1978, and I'm sure that when Maracana hosts the 2014 World Cup final, Steps Will Have Been Taken to make sure that tourists are perfectly safe. But what about all the other cities in Brazil where matches will be held?
But, don't even think about it. Thinking is bad.
ESPN gave sportswriter Bill Simmons his own magazine, Grantland, because Simmons, as one of my commenters once said, is a master at reproducing in text the feel of what a really good discussion about sports with your college buddies is like.
But, Grantland publishes a lot of non-Simmons articles that sound like they were written by authors whom nobody would want to be buddies with. For example,
As the 2014 World Cup looms, how should we talk about the problems in Brazil?
By Brian Phillips
So far in Brazil in 2013, there have been two soccer-related decapitations, which apparently might remind people that Brazil will host the World Cup next year, and the movie City of God was filmed in Rio, and, oh, yeah, there's a lot of crime in Brazil.
But, remember, Noticing Is Bad.
... How do you feel, hearing these stories? I don't mean how do you think you're supposed to feel; I mean how do you feel, in fact? Are you intrigued? Disturbed? Sad? Curious? Titillated, in the way that horrifying real-life stories can sometimes leave you titillated? You don't have to answer. Just think about it.
Two points make a trend. Here are two gruesome stories about soccer-related beheadings in Brazil. On the surface, they have little in common. One is — best guess — about gangs sending a message. The other is about a local conflict that warped into mass insanity. But, well, 2014 is a World Cup year, and Brazil, you might have heard, will be hosting. The second decapitation story had barely hit the wire before a portion of the Western media lined up the horrors and drew the only logical conclusion: Tourists must be in danger.
Of course, they couldn't just come out and say so. There's an art to these things. "Beheadings raise concern of violence in Brazil," USA Today announced in a headline.1 CNN declared that "experts say" (they don't quote any) that the concerns thus raised "might make fans think twice about bringing their families to Brazil." Bleacher Report furthered the mystery experts' speculations on the raised concerns, arguing that the violence "may" affect "the type of tourist that decides to come to Brazil to witness football's greatest tournament, with families unlikely to take young children." "How will this affect the World Cup?" was the golden thematic arch bridging countless articles about a story that's only indirectly tied to the World Cup at all, and after reading enough of them, you could almost appreciate the dead-soul directness of this Buzzfeedy link bait–shriek from PolicyMic, posted after the Pio XII decapitation: "This Horrific Video Will Completely Change Your View of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil."2
This is all, of course, code language, and it's not especially subtle code language.
It's a code that pops up again and again when a developing or newly industrialized country hosts the World Cup. The code works on three, possibly four, levels, and it makes me want to throw my desk through a brick wall, so I'll try to be as precise as possible about the various sleights of late-colonialist hand I think I can trace here.
Take the following sentence; it's from USA Today, because of course it is, but it could be from anywhere. It goes: "The news of a second decapitation this year in Brazil has raised questions about whether such heinous crimes may deter foreign visitors considering a trip for next summer's FIFA World Cup." What is this sentence trying to do, apart from draw the brightest, straightest line between "the news of a second decapitation" and "next summer's FIFA World Cup"? Is it really aiming to tell you that Questions have been Raised about World Cup attendance?3
Maybe; but I submit that in this instance, the surface level of the code — "questions raised" — is just slippery journalistic-ethics-ese for "Hey, if you go to the World Cup you might get your head chopped off." That's the second level, the primal fear bit. It's not safe down there. Those people are crazy. And note that we've been led to this level by a turn of phrase insinuating the possibility of a World Cup disaster — ostensibly because of attendance problems ("deter foreign visitors"), but what you're actually imagining at this point is a bloodbath ("heinous crimes"). You're being invited to construct a fantasy in which several hundred thousand tourists less well-advised than USA Today readers like you make the trip down to Brazil and are slaughtered in their replica kits. That's the third level. Blood-spattered Wayne Rooney jerseys strewn throughout the streets.4
And I'm sorry, but that's not the only fantasy you're being invited to construct.
The top level of the code is the one in which you feel yourself to exist within a protective bubble of law and security, outside which all is madness. Here in this Holiday Inn Express in Lincoln, Nebraska, you are safe; in South America, life is cheap. That is not simply a fleeting implication, my friends, that is a media strategy and a worldview, and it is not one in which you are encouraged to regard all your fellow humans as equals.
Sidebar here: Murders involving decapitation are vanishingly rare in the United States (they are vanishingly rare everywhere), but they happen. In 2012, a New Jersey woman cut off her son's head and put it in the freezer before stabbing herself to death. In 2013, a 49-year-old school nurse was found headless in a South Florida sugar cane field. Two points make a trend. Concerns have been broached about whether Germans will still come to Disney World.
Of course, foreigners interested in visiting America destinations other than Disney World are concerned about crime Here's the Washington Post's summary of the French government's warnings to their nationals about where to avoid in the U.S.: "16 American cities foreign governments warn their citizens about," including this alert for visitors to Washington DC: "Le quartier Anacostia n’est pas recommandable de jour comme de nuit."
Second, two points do suggest which way the probability distribution might be shifted. The fact that this guy can't find two beheadings in the U.S. in this decade that are tied together thematically the way Brazil's soccer decapitations are suggests that decapitations aren't really a Thing in contemporary America, the way beheadings are a Thing are in, say, contemporary Mexico. (Of course, in Brazil, everything is related to soccer.)
The reality of course is that all these lectures about "How to Talk" aren't going to change the fact that, according to Wikipedia's list of the 50 cities in the world with the worst murder rates, Brazil has 13 of them. To put that in perspective, the U.S. holds down four positions in the Top 50, and if I gave you six or seven guesses, you'd probably get all four right: New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore. (Talk about stereotypes ...)