Social march or disengaged carnival?

29 01 2009

By Fernando Franco SJ

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Let me start with the obvious: there were many socially-minded and serious people at the inaugural march of the WSF. There was a lot of fun, a lot of joy, as repeatedly said by the set of artists who enacted the cultural sketch at the inauguration ceremony. The WSF is a joyful feast of young people and this is as it should be. The WSF is a space open to all, and one should not be surprised to find oneself walking side by side with a group from Caritas and an association of gays; to read almost simultaneously one banner proclaiming the right of Israel to exist and another asking for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. If you are not comfortable with this strange combination you would do well to stay home. But those who did not come have missed not only an experience of the true nature of diversity but also the actual difficulty we find in facing it.

The question probably arises from a perception of the relative significance of two components of the march: the celebratory element and the razzle-dazzle element. To be more precise: when does a celebration remain a joyful expression of public sentiment and when does it cross over into the abandoned freedom of a carnival? The cultural context determines the way the WSF inaugural procession is enacted. Bombay and Nairobi were different, and this in no way makes them better or worse than the one at Belem. But what bothers me is that the march at Porto Alegre in 2005 was also quite different from yesterday’s procession. To give some examples: Brazilian trade unions and political parties, as well as NGOs and grassroots organizations were less visible at Belem. The carnival aspects far exceed the number (and dilute the socio-political content) of the banners. The Amazonian indigenous groups marched running, as they normally do, and departed in the same manner. I got the impression that
they were unfamiliar, even ill at ease, with the flavour of the festival. I, for one, never saw in
Porto Alegre an air-conditioned bus converted into a full discothèque on wheels accompanying the procession. Someone remarked to me that those inside called themselves the “infuriated youth”.

Yes, there was plenty of youth, and many of the young people were serious even though the beer was flowing abundantly. Yes, mores and habits change rapidly; while “hippies” had been present at Porto Alegre as well, they did not determine the overall character of the march. It may well be that I am hopelessly out of tune with today’s culture of celebration. But I have the lurking fear that something significant has changed!

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