‘The buck stops here’. Expressions of administrative probity and corruption in English and Portuguese

By Jo Pires-O’Brien

In drafting this edition of PortVitoria [no 18, Jan-Jun 2019], which talks about corruption in Brazil and the recent destruction of Brazil’s National Museum, I experienced a long flow of thoughts that intercrossed all the areas of knowledge I am familiar with, including linguistics and history. I decided to take advantage of this experience by compiling my vocabulary of administrative probity and corruption and to wrap it into a didactic narrative that would be of use to the readers of  PortVitoria.

The empire where the sun never sets

The British Empire and its designation of ‘the empire where the sun never sets’ exists only in history, but for all its rights and wrongs, it left as its main legacy the English language. English is the third most spoken language in the world after the Mandarin and Spanish, and the most important language in international relations. According to Guillaume Thierry, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University, English is the first most widely spoken language in the world, when people who speak it as second or third languages are included[1]. Regardless of the ranking of English language, the Anglophone world includes 54 sovereign states and 27 non-sovereign states, all sharing the same historical and cultural roots. The most important Anglophone countries are the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

TheUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or United Kingdom, has considerable experience in administration, which included governing domains, colonies, protectorates, warrants and territories. The largest territorial extension of its history occurred after World War I, when on June 28, 1919, the newly created League of Nations, through the Treaty of Versailles, created the British Mandate for Palestine, covering a vast in the Middle East, which included Transjordan, which was confirmed by the Council of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, and entered into force on September 29, 1923. The incumbency did not come in good time for the UK, because its economy was in ruins due to the war and it had already lost its old position of greatest industrial and military power of the world. And as was to be expected, the British empire declined and ended with India’s independence in 1947. Its last protectorate was Hong Kong, which was returned on June 30, 1997, as stipulated in the leasing agreement of 99 years, with China, signed in 1898.

Language and cultural values

Language is much more than a collection of communication signals, for words and expressions carry cultural values ​​and perceptions. Language and culture are closely linked, and one influences the other. For example, the high number of English idioms of nautical origin has to do with the fact that the British navy dominated the world for almost three centuries. Britain’s long imperial experience taught it not only to deal with the most diverse cultures, but also to develop a sophisticated system of administration, from which came many idiomatic expressions of pride in administrative probity such as  ‘not in my watch’ and ‘the buck stops here’, which are explained below. Thus, whenever someone interacts with another language, it ends up interacting with the culture that speaks the language.

In the ranking of countries by the level of corruption of Transparency International, the predominance of the Anglophone countries is remarkable. Among the 10 least corrupt countries are New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain, while Australia and the United States rank among the 20 least corrupt.

Not on my watch

The expression ‘not on my watch’, whose literal translation into Portuguese is ‘não na minha vigia’, is of nautical origin, as it comes from the phrase ‘officer of the watch’, the officer responsible for everything that happens on a vessel during a certain shift. The expression connotes administrative probity and responsibility. However, the word ‘watch’ alone means sentinel, shift, or administration. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the sense of observation of the word ‘watch’ evolved from the periods in which the night was divided. The Israelites divided the night into three periods, the Greeks into four or five, and the Romans into four. From that sense of observing the passage of time, the word ‘watch’ gained the sense of ‘clock’.

A similar phrase in Portuguese that comes closest to the English phrase ‘not on my watch’ is ‘Eu jamais aceitaria esse tipo de coisa na minha gestão’ (I would never accept this kind of thing in my administration).

Table 1. English expressions using the word ‘watch’ in the sense of ‘to oversee’ or ‘overlooker’.

English Translation into Portuguese
not on my watch não no meu turno; não na minha administração; de maneira alguma;
it happened on his watch aconteceu no turno dele
keep watch mantenha-se de sobreaviso
be on the watch ficar de sobreaviso
watch one’s mouth tomar cuidado com o que diz
watch the pennies tomar cuidado com o gasto
watch this space fique de olho nesse espaço
watch the time fique atento para o tempo
watch your step olhe onde pisa
watch your back proteja-se
watch the President’s back proteja o Presidente
watch the world go by ver o mundo passar

 The buck stops here

The phrase ‘the buck stops here’ translates literally as ‘the responsibility stops here’, or in a more natural translation, ‘the ultimate responsibility is mine’. This expression became well known after President Harry Truman of the United States placed a small wooden plaque engraved with it.

Figure 1. Replica of the plaque that President Harry Truman had on his desk.

The word ‘buck’ has Germanic origin, and in Old English, it means ‘deer’, or any male cervid. The most common meaning of ‘buck’ in modern English is ‘dollar’. The earliest reference to the use of ‘buck’ in the sense of dollar is 1748, about 44 years before the manufacture of the first dollar coin. It is clear from this reference that in trade between the American settlers and the Indians, the exchange rate of a box of whiskey was ‘5 bucks’, a reference to 5 deer skins. There is another reference dating from 1848, when a fellow named Conrad Weiser, during a trip through the present state of Ohio, noted in his journal that someone had been ‘stolen for 300 bucks[2].

However, the word ‘buck’ has several other meanings, besides deer and dollar, such as price, responsibility, guilt, black man, deviation, bucket, etc. as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. English expressions using the word ‘buck’ (responsibility, money, etc.).

English expressions Natural translation into Portuguese
passing the buck culpar outras pessoas
pass the buck jogue a batata quente para outro
bucks the system ir contra as regras que os outros seguem
bucked the trend fazer algo diferente dos outros
big bucks dinheiro à beça
buck up your ideas organize suas ideias
making more than a quick buck ganhar uma boa quantia de dinheiro
bang your buck obter algo de qualiade por um preço baixo
buck up (v.) ganhar coragem; passar a responsabilidade para um superior;
Buck’s Fizz coquetel feito com vinho espumante ou champagne e suco de laranja.
bang for the buck valor para o dinheiro

Several expressions denoting administrative probity use the word ‘accountable’, which means having an obligation to account for something. See examples in Table 3.

The English words ‘accountable’ and ‘responsible’

‘Accountable’ is usually translated as ‘responsible’, but this translation recalls that ‘responsible’ has a cognate in English: ‘responsible’. The English words ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ have distinct meanings but with overlap. In the New Oxford Dictionary (NOD), the ‘accountable’ entry shows two meanings. The first sense is that of person, organization, or institution required or expected to justify actions or decisions. The second sense appears as ‘explicable’ and ‘understandable’. In the first sense, but not in the second, ‘accountable’ is synonymous with ‘responsible. Yet in NOD, the entry ‘responsible’ shows a single sense: having an obligation to do something, have control over someone, or have a duty to care for someone. In legal language, ‘accountable’ means ‘liable’ or ‘responsible for liabilities.’ A ‘liability’ is an obligation, or a debt, of a legal person governed by public or private law.  The Portuguese translation for ‘liability’ is ‘passivo’, although the word is normally used in the plural (passivos). Therefore, the translation of the words ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ into Portuguese depends on the context. One tip is to examine the original English idiom: ‘accountable for’, ‘be accountable’, ‘accountable to’, ‘responsible for’, ‘be responsible’, ‘responsible to’, ‘responsible party’, ‘solely responsible’, etc.

Table 3. English expressions with the word ‘accountable’ or similar.

English phrase Translation into Portuguese
Parents cannot be held accountable for their children’s actions Os pais não podem ser responsabilizados pelas ações de seus filhos
The directors are held accountable by the shareholders. Os diretores são obrigados a prestar contas pelos acionistas.
Senior managers are directly accountable to the Board of Directors. Os administradores sénior respondem diretamente ao Conselho Administrativo.
Local authorities should be publicly accountable to the communities they serve. As autoridades locais devem prestar contas publicamente às comunidades que servem.
Ministers are accountable to Parliament. Os ministros prestam contas ao Parlamento.
Accountability is a cornerstone of the human rights framework. A responsabilização é um dos pilares da estrutura de direitos humanos.

The English word ‘right’

As NOD shows, the word ‘right’ has several connotations in the English language, not only as a noun, adjective, adverb and verb, but also as a component of several idiomatic phrases. The Collins Portuguese Dictionary & Grammar provides the following translations for ‘right’:

Adjectives: certo, correto, justo;

Adverbs: bem; corretamente;

Nouns: direito; direita (o que não é esquerda);

Verbs: corrigir, endireitar.

The word ‘right’ in many English idiomatic phrases connotes probity, as shown in Table 4.

Table 4. English idiomatic phrases with the word  ‘right’.

English phrase Translation into Portuguese
to do the right thing fazer a coisa certa
to hire the right person for the job contratar a pessoa certa para o emprego
be in the right estar certo
do right by tratar com justiça; fazer justiça
in one’s right mind em sã consciência
not right in the head não está bem da cabeça
on the right track Na rota certa
put something to rights corrigir algo
right-minded de princípios corretos
right enough certamente
too right é claro; é isso mesmo
right on isso

The vocabulary of corruption

Corruption is a plague that exists everywhere, and tables 5 and 6 list words or expressions of corruption in English and Portuguese.

Table 5. Words or expressions of corruption in English and Portuguese.

English – Natural translation into Portuguese
Backhand. Propina
Birds of a feather. Farinha do mesmo saco
Blacklist. Lista negra; colocar na lista negra
Bribe; bribery. Suborno; subornar
Blackmail. Chantagem; extorsão
Cheat. Prevaricar
Cook the book. Adulterar o livro caixa
Coterie. Círculo social próximo;
Covert. Secreto; encoberto
Cozy up. Engraciar-se
Cyber crime. Crime cibernético
Deflect. Defletir; desviar (a atenção)
Embezzle. Defraudar
Embezzlement. Desfalque; fraude financeira
Extort. Extorquir
False accounting. Fraude de contabilidade
Fickle spirit. Espírito volúvel
Figurehead. 1. Uma pessoa com um título ou cargo mas sem muita
responsibilidade; 2. Figura na proa de embarcação
Forge; forgery. Falsificar; falsificação
Hush money. Dinheiro pelo silêncio
Innapropriate. Inapropriado
Jobbery. Agiotagem; especulação; velhacaria
Kickback. 1. um pagamento a alguém que facilitou uma transação ou
nomeação, em geral ilícito; 2. recuo forte e súbito
Maladminisration. Má administração
Malfeasance. Má administração (tem a ver com a falta de motivação
para fazer o que precisa ser feito, ou adiar o que precisa ser feito; não é necessário haver ações ilícitas)
Misappropriate. Apropriar indevidamente
Misinvoicing. Fatura errada; fatura fraudulenta
Money laundering. Lavagem de dinheiro; branqueamento de capital
Nepotism. Nepotismo
Pay off. Saldar algo como suborno (por algo)
Perjury. Perjúria; perjurar
Pilfer. Furtar; abafar
Pot shot. Provocação; provocar
Prevaricate. Evadir-se, esquivar-se, ou furtar-se de compromissos 
Skimming. 1. forma de evasão fiscal envolvendo não declarar dinheiro recebido; 2. tirar a nata
Slush fund. Caixa dois (p. ex., para campanhas eleitorais)
Suborn. Subornar
Tax evasion. Evasão fiscal
To shop. Denunciar
Turpitude. Torpeza; maldade; baixeza;
Venality. Venalidade. 1. condição ou qualidade do que pode ser
vendido; 2. natureza ou qualidade do funcionário público que exige ou aceita vantagens pecuniárias indevidas no exercício do seu cargo.
(D. E. Houaiss).
Whitewash. 1. caiação; 2. fazer com que o caso acabe em pizza
Wrongdoing. Transgressão

Table 6. Portuguese words and phrases describing corruption.

Portuguese words and phrases English translation
acabar em pizza. Resultado danão apuração de uma acusação de corrupção. to end as pizza (to end as something easily digestible)
caixa dois. Prática financeira ilegal, envolvendo um caixa paralelo onde determinadas entradas ou saídas não são registradas, e, com algum objetivo ilícito. cashier two; slush fund
clientelismo. Maneira de agir envolvendo uma troca de favores ou benefícios; p. ex., quando um político ou partido político emprega processos demagógicos e favoritistas para ganhar votos. clientelism
corrupção ativa. É o crime cometido por particular que dá propina a funcionário público em troca de vantagem indevida. active corruption
corrupção passiva. É o crime cometido por funcionário público que, em razão de sua função, ainda que fora dela ou antes de assumi-la, solicita ou recebe, para si ou para outrem, vantagem indevida, ou aceita promessa de tal vantagem. passive corruption
delação premiada. Sistema empregado pelo Ministério Público para obter a colaboração de réus, oferecendo uma diminuição da pena em troca da delação. rewarded accusation
laranja. Indivíduo cujo nome é utilizado por um terceiro para a prática de ocultação de bens de origem incerta e outras formas de fraude front. A ‘laranja’ usually hides a white-collar criminal by helping him to commit crimes such as money laundering, misuse of public money, cartel between concurrents, tax evasion, etc.
peculato. Crime de apropriação, desvio ou roubo de bens públicos por um funcionário público. pecuniary misappropriation
pixuleco. Sinônimo de propina, dinheiro sujo ou dinheiro roubado bribe; dirty money or stolen money
propina. Antigamente propina era um sinônimo de gorjeta, mas hoje em dia refere-se aos ‘agrados’ oferecidos por cidadãos para funcionários públicos, em troca de favores indevidos. bribe; bribery.
testa de ferro. Indivíduo que aparece como responsável por um determinado negócio ou firma, enquanto o verdadeiro líder se mantém no anonimato, controlando a empresa. figurehead


Language is much more than a collection of communication signals, for it also expresses values. The wealth of English in expressions of administrative probity suggests that administrative probity is a value recognized by English-speaking peoples. The Transparency International’s perception of corruption in the organization’s 2017 corroborates this, showing that among the 10 and 20 most respected countries, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom are in the first group, while Australia and the United States in the second.

Among the Portuguese speaking countries, Brazil was in position 96, among the more corrupt half, but Portugal was in position 29, among the less corrupt. This shows that although there are moral values ​​correlated to language, language alone does not determine the moral values ​​of a society. Administrative misconduct and corruption exist all over the world, but all societies can evolve and improve.

Post Scriptum

After I finished this article, a new stream of thoughts came to me, about the new mentality of judging history on the basis of contemporary ethics, such as those manifested in Cape Town, Charlottesville, and Oxford. Therefore, I want to clarify that the purpose of this paper is simply to offer an English lesson on the vocabularies of administration and corruption. I also point out that the short historical narrative was included only for didactic purposes. In compiling this article, it was not my intention to support the British Empire or to rejoice with the power it exercised over the most diverse peoples. The fact that this work deals with the English language in no way means that I do not recognize the difficult situation of the native languages ​​of the colonized peoples. The relationship between colonizer and colonized has always been fraught with conflicts of interest, which I believe can continue to be solved peacefully by the exchange of ideas and common sense.

1. Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University. The trouble with speaking English as a second language. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/the-english-language-is-the-worlds-achilles-heel

2. Fonte: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/03/dollar-called-buck/

Jo Pires-O’Brien (BA, MSc, PhD) has been an English teacher, translator and botanist. In 2010, she created PortVitoria, a biannual magazine about the Ibero-American culture.


I thank Jackie Meikle (UK) for revising the terminology in corruption in English and Portuguese, and Carlos Pires (Br) for revising the overall text.

[1] Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University. The trouble with speaking English as a second language. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/the-english-language-is-the-worlds-achilles-heel;

[2] Fonte: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/03/dollar-called-buck/;

Niall Ferguson on the networks of today and yesterday

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward. Winston Churchill

I discovered the British historian Niall Ferguson (1964 -) through a seminar he gave at the Long Now Foundation, in San Francisco, about his most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, hierarchies and the struggle for global power (2018) as well as the future of networking, in YouTube. Ferguson’s idea was that the extensive networks of our era, which were made possible by the internet, have made us perceive it through its uniqueness in relation to all other eras of the past. Due to this perception, all the historical analogies of our era are situated in the 20th century, like the 1930’s, with the type of populism that was conducive to fascism, and the 1970’s, with the network British spies that the KGB operative Arnold Deutsch managed to recruit amid the elite of Cambridge University students. But Ferguson offered an analogy that went back centuries, to the period right after the appearance of the printing press in Europe. My desire to find out more about Ferguson’s vision on networks led me to buy The Square and the Tower, which I read with great interest.

In The Square and the Tower Niall Ferguson points that the way to understand the problems of our era is by asking ‘When in history something similar appeared?’ He disagrees with the analogies of our era with the 1930s and the 1970s due to the networks of fascism and traitor spies. To Ferguson, the common traits of networks are their tendency to polarize and attack one another and by looking for this tendency one can uncover the hidden networks of history. Once these networks are uncovered, it is important to disregard their speed for the networks of past centuries were much slower than those of the present. What connects the period that followed the appearance of the internet to the period that followed the appearance of the printing press in Europe is the optimist expectation of what their consequences would be.

After the introduction of the printing press it was commonly thought that greater availability of books was going to lead to more literacy and more education. Something similar happened in the era that followed the appearance of the internet at the end of the 20th century. People initially thought that the internet would remain decentralized and free, and that it would usher a new society formed by a union of ‘netzins’ (internet citizens).

After the appearance of blogging, it was thought that everyone would speak truth to power in their blogs, while the appearance of social media suggested the upended possibilities of social networking. What happened in the two eras above turned out quite different from what was expected. The introduction of the printing press created a network of distribution that polarized the West in various ways. Just a few years after the appearance of the internet, it came under the control of a few companies which created hierarchical structures and allowed the return of monopoly capitalism.

The author explains the dynamics of some of the mightiest networks of the 20th century. Perhaps the greatest network of the 20th century is the European Economic Community (EEC) that was created in 1957 through the Treaty of Rome. Not content with it, they proposed a new treaty (Maastricht) to turn the economy community of Europe into a political one, creating the European Union (EU). Further to that, many hard core Europeans began to ventilate the idea of turning the EU into a European state, which many British politicians find intractable.

Another important network of the 20th century is by the World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization for public-private cooperation, founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab (1938 -). The WEF is not jut for chief-executives of multinationals and selected politicians, but also by any leadership formal or informal. Such is the power of the WEF that even though it is perceived as a bastion of capitalism, even socialist politicians and statesmen have attended their annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Nelson Mandela attended it in 1992, right after his release from prison, and returned a couple of times after he was the President of South Africa.

Some 20th century individuals were genius at creating networks. Two notable examples that Ferguson cites are the Hungarian-American investor George Soros (1930-) and Henry Kissinger (1923 -). Soros is mentioned in chapters 1 (The Mystery of the Illuminati) and 49 (Breaking the Bank of England) while Kissinger is only mentioned in Chapter 2, Our Networked Age. Regarding Kissinger, it is pertinent to mention that Ferguson has written a biography of Kissinger, covering the period until 1968 (Kissinger:1923-1968: The Idealist; 2015). Soros defeated the pound and became a millionaire by tricking the creation of a network of copy-cat investors.

Networks from other centuries other than the 20th are also described in this book. Some examples the Masons in Scotland, Freemasonry in America, the American Revolutionaries in Boston, the house of Bourbon in France, the British campaigners for the abolition of slavery, the British Empire, the ‘Round Table’ of world powers, etc. Other networks that Ferguson describe are that created by the American rev Political parties such as the Democratic and the Republican parties in the United States.

The understanding of networks is still very limited. Many people tend to think of networks as level playing fields but the reality says otherwise. However, many networks are hierarchies where the top node controls those below. Examples of hierarchical networks are the socialist and fascist regimes of the 20th century. Stalin and Hitler were notorious for their paranoia regarding dissenters and dissenting networks. Even the egalitarian networks created through social media have harmful consequences in their failing to segregate between the honest and the dishonest content. Although most people understand the measures of success of in social networks, such as the number of visualizations, followers, and likes, few realize that these social networks also serve dishonest and unethical causes. For the curious minds wanting to gain a deeper understanding of our age and its networks, The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson fits the bill.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities. Ferguson has authored fifteen books in popular history. In 1998, he published The House of Rothschild: the World’s Bank: 1798-1848, his 6th book. The second volume, covering 1849-1998, will be published in 2019.

Jo Pires-O’Brien, a Brazilian-British, is the founder and editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture worldwide.

Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka and her friendship with Pope John Paul II

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (1923- 2014), the woman who gained posthumous fame for having had a friendship with Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) for more than thirty years, was a Polish American phenomenologist philosopher. In this essay I try  to show that although it was Tymieniecka’s  friendship with Pope John Paul II that has caught the interest of the greater media, she was an accomplished individual in her own right.

Continue to read in PortVitoria, magazine of the Iberian culture worldwide.

A journey to freedom. The life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Like millions of other people, I was startled by with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to which I responded by trying to read about Islam in particular and religion in general. In my quests for answers I tried to read what the experts had to say on both subjects, and to listen to their debates in YouTube.  I was already a convert to atheism or anti-theism in 2006, the year when Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett published Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In addition to these, I read other books, and listened to many debates on the subjects of religion and Islam on YouTube. I was particular fond of listening to Christopher Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011), the award-winning British social critic and notorious atheist who died prematurely to esophageal cancer. He praised a unique book published in criticizing the misogyny and the cruelties committed under the sanction of the Koran, the ‘holy book’ of Islam, published in 2006, by  a young black woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Although I read more than most people I am by no means a book worm. When in January 2019 I ran across a brilliant lecture by the British historian Niall Ferguson (1964 -) in YouTube, I immediately decide to buy his book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, published by Penguin in2018. Because I learned in one of his YouTube interviews that he was married Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I decided to buy her book Infidel, published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, in 2007. I bought both The Square and the Tower and Infidel in digital edition, and I read them both during a holiday to Seattle in January 2019.

Below is a short biography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born Ayaan Hirsi Magan) that I found at the end of Infidel, in which she describes herlife in Africa, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands.

“Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, was raised as a Muslim, and spent her childhood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, Hirsi Ali came to the Netherlands as a refugee, escaping a forced marriage to a distant cousin she had never met. She learned Dutch and worked as an interpreter in abortion clinics and shelters for battered women. After earning her college degree in political science, she worked for the [Dutch] Labour Party. She denounced Islam after the September 11 terrorist attacks and now fights for the rights of Muslim women in Europe, the enlightenment of Islam, and security in the West.”

Hirsi Ali’s biography is instructing and captivating. Narrated in an honest, straight forward style, it provides a window to cultures that most of us know very little about and at the same time reveals the development of the writer herself, leaded by her inquisitive mind. Alongside her life’s timeline, the reader can perceive the development of her understanding of her culture and the Islamic religion. It is remarkable how she evolves from being a devout and uncritical Muslim to a critic of the Koranic fanaticism that holds back the Muslim world.

At a very young age, she begins to question the domination of males over females in Islamic societies. As she comes of age, she starts to question other things such as the way it sanctions atrocities and violations of human rights such as forced marriages and marriages of underage girls, honour crimes, and many other hard held prejudices such as the notion of purity and the practice of excising parts of the feminine genitalia, in the West known as female genital mutilation (FGM). Two things in this book that cannot be overemphasized are Hirsi Ali’s first hand account of Islamic culture and the remarkable way in which the author adapted to the West. Although she could have opted for a quiet personal life, she chose to put her own life at danger in order to campaign for the mental emancipation of all Western Muslins.

In addition to Infidel Hirsi Ali has published  Atheïstic Manifest (in Dutch; 1995), The Caged Virgin: A Muslim’s Woman’s Cry for Reason (2004), Heretic: Why Islam needs a reformation now (2008), Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations (2010), and Heretic (2015). Hirsi Ali’s books have been translated to various European Languages, which is congruous with her objective of helping the Muslims of the West to free themselves from the many shackles associated with the Koranic fanaticism that holds back the Muslim world.

PS. Hirsi Ali’s campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) has been successful. In 1st February 2019, a 37-year-old woman from Uganda who allowed her 3 year old daughter to be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) was convicted for this crime. The mutilation took place on 28 August 2017. The mother dialed 999 stated that the girl was bleeding, and the victim had to undergo emergence surgery. Police were alerted the following day, after the surgeon  found evidence of deliberate excisions with the use of a scalpel. The girl later stated that she was held down and cut.

Why it is important to understand our cognitive bias

Joaquina (Jo) Pires-O’Brien

Man has a number of defining traits that are present in every human society, irrespective of their level of advancement. These defining traits, which are referred to as ‘universals’, is what define or characterize human nature. Perhaps the two most important universals of man are the ability to think rationally and the proclivity to form societies.

Certain universals are conducive to populism and are easily manipulated by populists. An example of that is cognitive bias, a systematic error that often results from our brain’s attempt to simplify the way we process information. As I stressed in a previous post (Why populism is die-hard), populism is a two-sided coin, with the head of a demagogue in one side and the wreath of direct democracy on the other. Direct democracy is a totalistic and repressive regime, for it lacks the system of checks and balances that is necessary for a fair system of governance. The antidote to populism must me sought in education, especially in the knowledge of history and human nature.

Man’s ability to think rationally, and to remember and learn new things, comes from some 100 billion neurons located mainly on the cerebral cortex of the brain, which together with the spinal cord makes our ‘central nervous system’. Man`s large cerebral cortex evolved in parallel with the more ancient nervous system that all animal have, which is referred to as ‘peripheral nervous system’. While the cerebral cortex is responsible for man’s cognitive functions, the peripheral nervous system, which consists of 12 pairs of cranial nerves and 31 pairs of spinal nerves,  is responsible for our motor control as well as for our senses such as smell, taste, vision and hearing.

The fact that man’s actions are guided either by the central or the peripheral nervous system caught the attention of two eminent Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman (1934 -) and Amos Tversky (1937-1996) at the last quarter of the 20th century. They demonstrated that the peripheral nervous system is responsible for man’s fast thinking, while the central nervous system is responsible for man’s slow thinking, referring to these two systems as System 1 and System 2. They also slowed that System 1 is often unconscious, and that System 2 is always conscious. Kahneman and Tversky spent many decades studying the System 1 and System 2 of thinking, even after Tversky left the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they both taught, and moved to Stanford University in 1978. Kahneman was able to spend many sabbaticals as a visiting professor in various universities in the United States. After Tversky’s death in 1996, at age 59, Kahneman carried on with their research, and in 2002 he received the Nobel Prize in economics (shared with Vernon L. Smith), for his contribution to the field of behavioural economics. Kahneman’s  2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which became a best seller, explains to the general public the research that he and Tversky carried out. Here is how Kahneman explains man’s two systems of thinking:

System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (20).

System 2 ”allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentrations” (21).

As Kahneman stresses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is unwise to accept without question the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, as well as our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, for our brain is prone to cognitive bias, the tendency to favour information that conforms to one’s existing beliefs and to discount evidence that does not conform.

The research of Kahneman and Tversky is also relevant to political science, where it can explains why voters do not always chose the best candidate. Populists know that people are normally thrilled in hearing something that confirms what they believe. Cognitive bias is a universal trait in man. It is an important reason why populists get away with their dishonest tactics. The intelligent way to fight populism is by educating voters not only about history but also about human nature, especially the pitfalls of cognitive bias.

PostScript. As psychologists have shown, our cognitive biases are pitfalls of error and bad judgement. Here are some of the most important types of cognitive biases:

  • Confirmation Bias: This is favouring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
  • Availability Heuristic: This is placing greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.
  • Halo Effect: Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about his or her character. This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate their other qualities.
  • Self-Serving Bias: This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. When you win a poker hand it is due to your skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds, while when you lose it is due to getting dealt a poor hand.
  • Attentional Bias: This is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. When making a decision on which car to buy, you may pay attention to the look and feel of the exterior and interior, but ignore the safety record and gas mileage.
  • Actor-Observer Bias: This is the tendency to attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people’s behaviours to internal causes. You attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.
  • Functional Fixedness: This is the tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. If you don’t have a hammer, you never consider that a big wrench can also be used to drive a nail into the wall. You may think you don’t need thumbtacks because you have no corkboard on which to tack things, but not consider their other uses. This could extend to people’s functions, such as not realizing a personal assistant has skills to be in a leadership role.
  • Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information you learn. If you learn the average price for a car is a certain value, you will think any amount below that is a good deal, perhaps not searching for better deals. You can use this bias to set the expectations of others by putting the first information on the table for consideration.
  • Misinformation Effect: This is the tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event. It is easy to have your memory influenced by what you hear about the event from others. Knowledge of this effect has led to a mistrust of eyewitness information.
  • False Consensus Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you.
  • Optimism Bias: This bias leads you to believe that you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.

(Taken from a psychology site)

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.

Why populism is die-hard

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

People who can influence others can also turn this ability into power. Like so many things in society, the exercise of influencing others can be carried out in an honest or dishonest way. The honest way to influence others is by telling the truth and allowing our interlocutor to make their own conclusions. The dishonest way is by not telling the truth and by appealing to feelings under the skin rather than to reason. Populist politicians are characterized by their dishonest tactics of reinforcing people’s bias. We can think of populism as a two-sided coin, with the head of a demagogue in one side and the wreath of direct democracy on the other. Direct democracy is potentially totalitarian and repressive for it lacks the system of checks and balances that is necessary for a fair system of governance.

Populist politicians have been around as long as the polity itself. In ancient Greece they were called demagogues (δημαγωγός or dimagogós). The demagogues of history are today’s populist leaders, and populism is a new name for demagoguery. The existence of a large vocabulary to describe populists is an evidence that they have been around for a long time. Here are some synonyms of populist: demagogue, rabble-rouser (agitador de ralé), agitator, troublemaker, instigator, firebrand, revolutionary, insurgent, etc. There is also a rich vocabulary to describe the unfortunate who fall under the spell of populists: commoners, crowd, mob, gang, herd, masses, pack, pack, riffraff, rabble, etc.

One would be wrong to presume that it is easy to combat populism. Both populism and the quick and emotional thinking that makes people vulnerable to it are intrinsic to human nature. When Aristotle stated that ‘man’ was the ‘thought bearer animal’ (ζῶον λόγον ἔχον, animal rationale), in Nicomachean Ethics I.13, he did not mean that human beings were rational all the time, but simply that man had rationality while the other species of animals didn’t. Aristotle actually described man as the ‘social animal’ (ζῶον πολιτικόν), where he emphasized society-building as a central trait of human nature.

The great biologist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) named the human species Homo sapiens based on man’s capacity to think rationally. However, man’s ability to reason is often unused. In everyday situations, people’s action comes from emotional reflexes rather than by the use of reason. Trusting one’s instinct more than one’s rationality is one of the idiosyncrasies of human nature. It is also the reason why people are seduced by the sweet talk of populist politicians. This realization suggests that ignorance about human nature is a big hurdle in the fight against populism.

The ongoing crisis in Venezuela is a textbook example of what can happen when we chose a leader by instinct rather than by a careful analysis of character. It all started in 1998 when Venezuelans elected Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), a charismatic military leftist, and a master populist. It is true that Venezuela’s economy prospered during his first years in office, but that was due to a period of global economic boom, and not due to Chávez’s good governance.  What really happened was that Chavez’ socialist policies, all funded by high oil prices and unchecked borrowing, weakened the resiliency of Venezuela’s economy. After the global recession of 2009, the economy of Venezuela began to falter. In March 2013, when Chávez died of cancer before the end of his fourth term, he was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro (1962 -), who Chávez himself had handpicked as a successor. Venezuela’s economy was already in dire straights when Maduro took office, but Maduro’s decision to carry on Chávez’s policies gave it its final blow.

As Bertrand Russell once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. Chávez and his successor Maduro were under educated and overconfident. Neither of them had the minimum qualifications to administer a state. Chávez revealed how little he knew about the history of his own country when he changed Venezuela’s name to ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’. He was the worse kind of ignorant, the kind who is ignorant of his own ignorance. The historical research on Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) reveals that he was a dubious character and that his military brilliance was highly exaggerated. Chávez gave another display of his ignorance during an interview with a foreign journalist, when he said that he didn’t think the United States landed on the moon and didn’t believe in the existence of Osama bin Laden. As for Maduro, his subservience to Chávez is the greatest evidence of his limited intellect. Another evidence of Maduro’s ignorance was his lack of judgment during his first presidential campaign, when he told the Venezuelans that the spirit of his ‘father’ Chávez had visited him in the form of a bird and invoked ancient tribal curses on his political enemies.

Everybody knows that populists are charmers. What only a few people know, is that below the seductive pull of a charmer is a narcissist skilled in reflecting people’s beliefs to create a deep rapport and an intense connection. A populist’s goal is to further his power by enhancing his presence and influence. The recipe for achieving this objective hasn’t changed in millennia. First the populist leader picks the largest segment of a population – invariable the downtrodden and least educated. The populist addresses people in their own dialect, a tactic to pass as one of them, and while doing that, he promises a lot and exaggerate his prowess. But the populist’s discourse is not a piece of his mind. He simply regurgitates to people what people already believe, generating an emotional thrill that will lure the support of people.

The ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ is a recent example of what happens when a country falls under the spell of a populist leader. History has countless other examples. The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana once said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Such is the recalcitrance of populism that the knowledge of history is not enough to stop people from falling under the spell of populists. The intelligent way to fight populism is by transforming individuals through education, so that they will be less likely to fall prey of populists. Education is a journey of discovery about the world and about ourselves. History has valuable lessons about the world, but to gain knowledge about ourselves we should study human nature.  There are traits in human nature that are present in every human society, which is why they are called ‘universals’. One such universal is cognitive bias. As stated earlier, reinforcing people’s bias is part of the strategy of populists to entice followers. Our cognitive bias weakens our ability to think rationally. Once we recognize this, we will be able to take the necessary precautions not to be drawn by the amazing magnetism of populists.

Please check my next posting: Why it is important to understand our cognitive bias.


If you read Portuguese, click here to read my posting on the history of Latin American independence, where I discuss Simon Bolivar and the other liberators.

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.

Brazilian identity and politics

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The building of a Brazilian national identity began with the country’s independence from Portugal in 1822. Since then, it has taken different forms that accompanied the evolution of Brazilian society throughout history. Among the various scholars who described the Brazilian national identity, Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) is the most outstanding. Although he was only 33 years old when he published Casa grande e senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) , this book remains unsurpassed as a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of Brazilian society, based on history, geography, literature, folklore, and art. The thesis Freyre developed in this book is that the Brazilian society was shaped around the sugar cane industry, where the Portuguese colonizers and the Brazilians – peasants, native Indians and black slaves –, maintained a peaceful relationship, and as a result of which the Brazilian society emerged as a nation of mixed-blood population that evaded the scourge of racism.
Freyre was well acquainted with the two major literary movements of the twenty century in Brazil, “Modernism”, which took off in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and ‘Regionalism’, which was based in the Brazilian Northeast. He wrote:

These two movements will probably stand as the most significant in revolutionizing the letters and the life of Brazil in the direction of intellectual or cultural spontaneity, creativeness, and self-confidence set against the tradition of colonial subordination to Europe or the United States.

About the Modernist movement, Freyre cites the writer Mario de Andrade (1893-1945), who had expressed regret that the movement “did not go far enough in developing its social implications”. This note by Freyre is a testimony of his genius with which he distilled the essence of the Brazilian society. However, there are plenty of social implications in the character Macunaíma that Andrade introduced in an eponymous novel that appeared in 1928.

Macunaíma: the proverbial Brazilian scoundrel
Most critics recognizes Macunaíma, a character created by Mario de Andrade , as the proverbial Brazilian scoundrel. Macunaíma is the son of a native Indian woman, born black, with an adult body but a child’s mind, which would explain some of his vices. He is hyper-sexualised, lazy, glutton, and as if that wasn’t enough , a megalomaniac who believed he could manipulate monsters and deities and control the universe. Read more

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, the magazine for the Iberian culture.