Opinion: Remain vigilant in defense of democracies


Published: 01-15-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

“It is easier for a man to burn down his own house than to get rid of his prejudices,” English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon wrote in the 13th century, and eight centuries later we’re witnessing those words actualized not by Marxists and Communists but by demagogues and autocrats posing as believers in democracy.

Burning, from Brasília, Brazil, where seditionist protesters stormed government buildings in a visionary city, to Budapest, Hungary, which is today led by a right-wing nationalist prime minister whose language has evoked Nazi racial ideology.

Burning because too many people have failed to rid themselves of prejudice.

As many readers have come to learn, I once studied to be an architect before embracing a call as photojournalist. To this day, however, I’ve never abandoned my passion for architecture and today my bookshelves still bear some design books I owned at that time, from a dog-eared copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I read in high school, to works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, to my favorite, a well-worn, well-thumbed copy of Eero Saarinen’s book on his work, a gift from my brother.

Another, which I hadn’t looked at for years, is an early work on Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

It came to mind, on January 8, 2023, to be precise, as I was watching footage of the insurrection in Brazil, when I started seeing images of insurrectionists raging through Brasília; seditionists raging through buildings familiar to me.

Familiar to me through photographs of a visionary city, imperfect and beautiful, designed by Niemeyer and built in the 1960s upon an empty plateau in the center of that vast nation to symbolize both a break from its colonial roots and a place of inclusion for all its peoples.

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For many Americans Brazil, the only South American country where Portuguese is the official language, is known for the Girls from Ipanema, The Boys from Brazil, Brazilian waxing, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

Some Americans, and all Brazilians, know it as a country, independent since 1822, where Portuguese colonists imported nearly five million enslaved Africans between 1501 to 1866, where more enslaved Africans were imported into Brazil than to any other country.

Even fewer Americans, and all Brazilians, know it as a country where an American-backed military coup d’etat overthrew its 24th president in 1964 and established a military dictatorship that lasted for 21 years, all supported by a CIA-backed state terror campaign against regime opponents, intellectuals, and left-wing dissidents known as ‘Operation Condor.’

Today we know it as a country that successfully fought off American-inspired insurrectionists to preserve its democracy.

On January 8, 2023, two years and two days after the insurrection in Washington D.C. and just days after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva as president, thousands of Brazilian insurrectionists, inspired by the man Lula defeated, former president, Jair Bolsonaro who claimed that the country’s 2022 elections were “stolen” and “rigged,” pillaged the halls of its Congress, stormed the presidential palace, and desecrated its Supreme Court, all while destroying priceless artifacts and cultural patrimony.

As an American who values freedom and democracy, an American for whom pluralism, civil liberties for all and an open society are essential elements in sustaining and growing a viable and dynamic nation, last week’s insurrection in Brazil was a reminder not only of how fragile democracies are but of how interconnected are opponents of democracy and freedom.

Of how vigilant we must be in confronting them.

Democracies are irreplicable, combustible treasures, nourished and sustained not by walls, plunder, and military coups but by ballots and ideals, by reverence for libraries and for centers of learning, by understanding that all peoples are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Sadly, today, from our House of Representatives to Israel’s Knesset, from Brasília to Budapest, from Ankara to New Delhi, democracies are going up in flames, threatened not by Russia and China, threatened not by intolerant regimes in some Islamic nations nor by the Taliban or Boko Haram but by people who look like us.

Democracy’s enemies were once defined as Communists, Marxists, Anarchists. No longer.

Democracies are today threatened by people we know: by racists, religious nationalists, supremacists, armed militias, unreconstructed demagogues and autocrats, by mendacious far-right talk show hosts and pundits on social media all of whom fear transparent, vibrant, diverse, deliberative, and egalitarian democracies.

Today, threatened by people who would rather burn down their shining cities on the hill than rid themselves of prejudice, remain vigilant.

Remain vigilant.