The morning after Brazil’s shocking, numbing 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup (which the commentators on ESPN have been instructed to call, robotically, the FIFA World Cup), my soccer-loving son mordantly read out English translations of the Brazilian headlines, which he had found online. All were brokenhearted—“FIASCO,” “AN EMBARRASSMENT FOR ETERNITY,” “EMBARRASSMENT DOES NOT EVEN BEGIN TO DESCRIBE IT,” and “WE CAN’T JOKE ABOUT IT: WE’RE TOO ASHAMED”—but the key word, over and over, was humiliation: “ULTIMATE HUMILIATION,” “HUMILIATING,” “FELIPE MISSES AND BRAZIL IS HUMILIATED,” “FROM DREAM TO HUMILIATION,” on and on like that.
We know that, although it’s a truth likely still lost on Brazilians, it was just a loss in a game. It shouldn’t be—and really wasn’t—a national humiliation, or anything like it. It was just eleven guys having a very bad day, most of them millionaires who work and often reside abroad. (And worn-out millionaires at that. Oscar, a Chelsea favorite, had played a lot of soccer this year before showing up for the tournament at home. And he scored Brazil’s only goal.)
But, of course, we know just how it feels, and why it registers as more than it is. I write that as a Canadian. We know exactly how it feels, note by note, stomach lurch by stomach lurch, and tear by tear. In 1981, Canada played the Soviet team in the final of the Canada Cup, the hockey equivalent of the World Cup, and the top tournament before the entry of pro hockey players into the Olympics. The game took place in the old Montreal Forum, our hearth and home, against essentially the same Soviet team that had lost to the American amateurs—amateurs!—in the Olympics the year before. It was a tournament on our home ice, organized according to our rules, with our fans in the stands, and the Soviets, our fiercest rivals, simply annihilated us, 8-1. It was, or was felt to be, a national humiliation—a national humiliation on the quieter, chillier Canadian model, to be sure, ours being a less gorgeously incandescent civilization than Brazil’s, without beaches, a preponderance of Victoria Secret’s models (we have Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, blessedly, instead), or the greatest popular-music tradition outside the U.S. (we have Joni and Leonard; that’s enough). But it was a stunning punch-in-the-gut loss all the same, and it still hurts to watch all these years later. (A humiliation and a disgrace was, as it happens, entirely made up not too long after, when Canada defeated the Soviets in the ’84 Canada Cup, and then again in what may be the finest series of hockey games ever played, in 1987.) Still, we know how it feels, and we feel for Brazil.
A lot of people are saying that the consequences of the loss for Brazil may be surprisingly large and, given the rationality of Brazilians’ previous protests against the waste of money on the World Cup, quite possibly salubrious. But it is scary that political upheaval might be set off even remotely because of a feeling of national shame brought about by a loss in onefutebol game. For, in this month of all months, one can’t help but be reminded that the lexicon of national shame and humiliation is probably the single most dangerous and pernicious of all the languages spoken in modern times.
This August, we celebrate the centennial of that greatest Western disaster, the onset of the Great War. The single most astounding thing about its needless beginning is how much it was accelerated by the irrational fear of national humiliation. As I’ve written before, “There are few references to rational war aims [at the war’s start], even of the debased, acquisitive kind; instead, you find a relentless emphasis on shame and face, position and credibility, perception of weakness and fear of ridicule. ‘This time I shall not give in,’ Kaiser Wilhelm repeated robotically (to the arms manufacturer Krupp) in July of 1914. Lloyd George, on the British side, a key actor in favor of war, called for the mobilization of a million men lest Britain not be ‘taken seriously’ in the councils of Europe.” As a rule, a national humiliation that could only be redeemed by the deaths of millions of nineteen-year-old boys is a national humiliation better endured than revenged.
The bad language of national honor and humiliation is tied, Siamese twin-like, to an hysterical crescendo about “credibility.” The permanent pro-war faction in America never tires of telling us how dangerous it would be if some failure to pursue the right array of violent allies to push our ends abroad were to destroy our credibility with the other bad guys. (Although all the previous magical arrays of violent local allies have failed to achieve the desired ends, they know that the next one will work.) Well, some of us are old enough to recall our national humiliation in Vietnam when the North finally won, in 1975, which our credibility somehow survived. (That victory was in many ways a tragedy for the Vietnamese, though the war that preceded it had been, too.) The defeat was supposed to mark the end of American credibility, and so of our influence—except, of course, that it didn’t. It coincided, instead, with the continued rise of the United States and the descent of the Soviet Union, until about 2000, when we relentlessly began to squander our power again, in the fruitless and pointless pursuit of renewing our honor and credibility in the face of a national insult. (Daniel Larison, in The American Conservative, has a fine series on the folly of "credibility" arguments.) We may have national interests (not letting bad people invade our NATO allies, for instance, which we haven’t), and we should profess universal values (not letting helpless people get killed in large numbers, for instance, if we can realistically hope to stop it). But these are rational calculations, not emotional heavings. The only national humiliation lies in giving way to the illusion that such a thing exists.
There is no such thing as national honor, or if there is it should be synonymous with national common sense. Our honor, as people and countries, lies in being seen to conduct ourselves with kindness and mercy to the less fortunate, not in winning games or battles. Nations lose wars, and games, for many reasons, none of them curable by reprisal or self-mutilation. The Brazilians should be inclined to fix Brazil because Brazil needs fixing, not because they lost a game, of a kind that they will very likely win the next time they play one like it. Nations are not humiliated in this manner, though sometimes the pride of their rulers—or of eleven players and a coach—may be. We should banish for good the language of national honor and credibility and humiliation, and replace it with the language of common sense and self-interest and sanity. Add the language of pleasure, of sex and romance, to that, and no one will argue—certainly not, even with all their pain this week, the Brazilians.