Don’t You Open That Trapdoor!

We had similar feelings of unease when we came across a Financial Times article written by Simon Kuper the other day. Titled The Middle-Class Trapdoor, it is essentially a warning piece on the consequences of a possible Greek rejection of the bailout on offer. Kuper uses his experience in the restaurants of Buenos Aires in 2002 as the basis for some dark predictions: if the Greeks don’t accept, they will have to live in the murky world beneath the trapdoor.

Now it’s been a long time since we first saw it, but pegamequemegusta would hardly be the creditable blog it is if we didn’t do some research from time to time. Sure we can’t actually travel beneath the trapdoor, but upon reading Mr Kuper’s piece we were reminded of a series of documentaries from the 1980s that dealt precisely with the situation that would be awaiting the Greeks should they refuse the stringless bundle of cash on offer. The series revolved around the daily vicissitudes of Berk, Boni, Drutt and The Thing Upstairs. In the series, Berk is a butler of sorts for the Thing Upstairs and lives downstairs with Boni and Drutt. In the middle of the room they spend most of their time in, there is a trapdoor. In most episodes, Berk opens the trapdoor for some reason and, distracted by the demands of the tyrannical Thing Upstairs, forgets to close it. Invariably, the monsters that lurk beneath come out and cause mischief until they are eventually restrained and sent back underground, resolving the crisis.

In the episode we are going to watch today in class, however, dear voluptuous students, Berk, fed up with these constant intrusions, decides to nail the trapdoor shut. Yes, my 21st century Adonis at the back, just like the Greek protestors. Despite his best efforts, however, a Thingy emerges and causes all sorts of distress. The Thingy changes the characters into various shapes, thus inverting power relations and creating a situation where Berk, the main figure of authority in this microcosm of the superstructure, is almost gobbled up by his diminutive yet voracious companion Drutt, who represents the lower classes. Indeed, my raven-headed Paris, Boni would represent the Kuper figure here.

Pero… ¿qué me vienen a coger
a mí con la pija muerta?

Pegamequemegusta doesn’t do travel. There are practical reasons for this, of course, chief among them being the loss of our wheelchair to Rusty, our irascible neighbour in the next cave over, and the fact that, midst the privations of last winter, the cat ate our crutches. Even if we were sufficiently mobile, however, we’d have to give the matter some serious thought. For the shallowness of the sensations and impressions stopovers bring, merely dipping one’s toe in the fascinating cesspools that constitute the world’s various cultures, seems as satisfying, as rewarding, as tenuous a grip on the horrifying spectacle that is the world, as absent-mindedly flicking through the channels whilst you glare peremptorily at your electric kettle. Disgracefully sluggish, you tut, I deserve better. 

Of course, living in a foreign country is no guarantee either of getting to the bottom of the host nation’s psyche (let’s presume such a thing exists). Not even skinning one of the natives and wearing his/her hide as a coat is likely to broaden one’s perspective on things too considerably, unless one is looking for insights into the workings of their judicial system. Moreover, many ex-pats tend to associate almost exclusively amongst themselves. They go to ex-pat bars, set up ex-pat 5-a-side teams, etc., and have relatively little contact with their adopted society. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon to find ex-pats who, despite having spent many years in a foreign country, have nothing but disdain for the place, constantly tut-tutting, scoffing and rolling their eyes at the latest fuck-up on the part of the natives. Such wanton ignorance hardly warrants consideration, though. One gets the impression that such people must have had their heads just as firmly up their arses in their country of origin.

When it comes to journalism, and the construction of/manipulation of narratives, however, these matters are a tad more important. For, strangely enough given the ‘globalised world’ many publications love to trumpet on about, there still exists the curious figure of the globetrotting journalist or reporter. Wherever there’s a conflict or a happening, they show up. They’re equally comfortable discussing economics, fashion shows or major sporting events. Most even look good in a flak jacket. From time to time they are dispatched like secret agents to spend a few days in a place – hell, maybe even a few weeks – meet people and write up their experience, invariably with gonzo-style intrusions of the first-person for the devoted fan-reader to relish.

In this regard, dear handsome reader, you no doubt recall our hissy-fit at esteemed Sports Illustrated journalist S. L. Price last year. Other examples spring to mind, however. Lara Marlowe used to write an excellent column for the Irish Times, for example, where she would talk about life in Paris, the political and cultural goings-on and other things she was well qualified to speak about. When the US war machine decided to invade Iraq, however, because of her very charm and brilliance at her previous post, she was upgraded to international correspondent, which mainly consisted of sitting in hotel rooms and hoping the yanks didn’t shell her. In the months leading up to the invasion she was sucked into the narrative weaved by the American scoundrels, the once impeccable correspondent committing to print her newfound doubts as to whether we could live in world where we couldn’t be sure if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or not. The root problem in cases like this is not just the irresponsibility of professional journalists holding forth on matters they don’t know much about, but their getting so close to a topic they forget the game is rigged.

We had similar feelings of unease when we came across a Financial Times article written by Simon Kuper the other day. Titled The Middle-Class Trapdoor, it is essentially a warning piece on the consequences of a possible Greek rejection of the bailout on offer. Kuper uses his experience in the restaurants of Buenos Aires in 2002 as the basis for some dark predictions: if the Greeks don’t accept, they will have to live in the murky world beneath the trapdoor. 

Now it’s been a long time since we first saw it, but pegamequemegusta would hardly be the creditable blog it is if we didn’t do some research from time to time. Sure we can’t actually travel beneath the trapdoor, but upon reading Mr Kuper’s piece we were reminded of a series of documentaries from the 1980s that dealt precisely with the situation that would be awaiting the Greeks should they refuse the stringless bundle of cash on offer. The series revolved around the daily vicissitudes of Berk, Boni, Drutt and The Thing Upstairs. In the series, Berk is a butler of sorts for the Thing Upstairs and lives downstairs with Boni and Drutt. In the middle of the room they spend most of their time in, there is a trapdoor. In most episodes, Berk opens the trapdoor for some reason and, distracted by the demands of the tyrannical Thing Upstairs, forgets to close it. Invariably, the monsters that lurk beneath come out and cause mischief until they are eventually restrained and sent back underground, resolving the crisis. 

In the episode we are going to watch today in class, however, dear voluptuous students, Berk, fed up with these constant intrusions, decides to nail the trapdoor shut. Yes, my 21st century Adonis at the back, just like the Greek protestors. Despite his best efforts, however, a Thingy emerges and causes all sorts of distress. The Thingy changes the characters into various shapes, thus inverting power relations and creating a situation where Berk, the main figure of authority in this microcosm of the superstructure, is almost gobbled up by his diminutive yet voracious companion Drutt, who represents the lower classes. Indeed, my raven-headed Paris, Boni would represent the Kuper figure here. But let’s watch. 

Eventually the beast disappears and society’s traditional hierarchy is reestablished. Moreover, while it does not end in a wedding, since this is a comedy, there is no anagnorisis, no awakening to the ‘true’ state of affairs. Drutt does not question his (her?) subordinate status, nor does anyone wonder, aloud at least, if the unseen master upstairs has anything to do with the perpetual misery of the rebellious monsters below the trapdoor. We are left with only one response, imparted by the moralising dictator of the narrative: Don’t you open that trapdoor!

According to Simon Kuper’s article, when the trapdoor is opened photographers can no longer buy the latest novel from Amazon, architects end up having to sell eggs for a living, couples who once owned their own news agency can no longer go to Paris on holidays. The humanity. It’s a shame he doesn’t mention how these people are doing today, now that we are almost at the ten year ‘anniversary’, or even how they were doing five years ago, say. For, just as in the episode of Trapdoor, things in Argentina seem to be more or less back to normal (note: the 90s in Argentina were no more normal than they were in Ireland). 

Another shame is the inclusion of a crude and, frankly, bizarre generalisation regarding the Argentines’ attitude to the corralito:

Intellectually there are two sorts of people: those who don’t believe conspiracy theories (mostly white middle-class westerners) and those who do (mostly poor people). Thus most white middle-class westerners believe that the US killed Osama bin Laden, whereas most Pakistanis seem to believe his “death” was faked as part of some conspiracy. In 2002 most white middle-class westerners believed that Argentina had collapsed due to absurd economic policies, whereas many Argentines blamed a conspiracy led by the International Monetary Fund.

Now pegamequemegusta is all for groundless assertions but it’s disagreeable and cheap to suggest that anyone who questions the probity of hegemonic world forces is an idiot and/or a kook.

In our experience, the Argentines do not foist the blame for the actions that culminated in the 2001 crisis on the IMF. They blame Menem. Even today if you mention his name you’re supposed to touch your left testicle to ward off bad luck. 

Yet neither does it seem too far-fetched to throw some of the blame the way of our beloved IMF. For while Argentina fell more or less alone, – little Uruguay being the only other major casualty – taking out the savings of private citizens, the situation in Greece is rather different. All sorts of powerful interests are keen to keep the Greeks just about alive in order to prevent the contagion they hold in their rotten entrails seeking a new host.

Another questionable part of Kuper’s article is the quote conveniently uttered by Joe Greek Author. Once the trapdoor is opened, he says, “the danger to human rights […] violations is paramount.” Kuper even draws a parallel with the German people’s desperate turning to Nazism faced with their own financial difficulties. 

In Argentina, however, it must be said that human rights, far from being forgotten about in difficult times, like green politics, have been pushed to the forefront. Since the late Nestor Kirchner took over in 2003, they have arguably enjoyed greater status than when the middle classes were able to consume their way to amnesia. Those responsible for heinous crimes, murder, torture and and financial opportunism under the dictatorship finally began to be prosecuted. It’s a tricky business raking over the past like this, and is definitely open to abuse and demagogy (as when Cristina said of the revoking of TyC/Clarín’s exclusive tv rights for Argieball: “They kidnapped our goals until Sunday, just like they kidnapped 30,00 of us”) but on the whole it has been positive. Moreover, pegamequemegusta wonders how far human rights are up the list of preoccupations of those demanding the Greeks disregard all else but the repayment of interest on loans to pay off interest to pay off etc. 

This is not intended to paint too succulent a picture of life in Argentina these days. Essentially Kuper is right: being poor is a bit shit. He probably doesn’t even go far enough. What’s more, the cases he covers in his article as typical of the middle class sound quite strange to us. A couple who own their own news agency are hardly middle class. For us, a teacher is middle class. Then again, the phrase ‘middle class’ is uselessly vague. Moreover, it is somewhat misleading in that it implies a tripartite structure where the other two classes have more or less the same dimensions. It doesn’t take into account the phenomenon of extreme poverty that, we are tempted say, simply doesn’t exist in Europe. You would have to take the lower classes in a European system and then abseil down into the abyss to get a better impression of how far removed those in extreme poverty are from the middle classes. They’re not just urchins in a Dickensian street, they’re people you just don’t even see unless by chance or motivated by some perverse instinct to gawk (or desire to help, we suppose) you make the effort to go and take a look. As in the poem we translated for your ‘edification and guilt’ last Christmas Eve (but which we’ll reproduce now as, ahem, no-one read that post):

Segregation Poem No 1 – Carlos German Belli

(in the manner of a cultured yet primitive painter)

Me, my mother and my two brothers

and many ickle Peruvians

carved out a deep, deep hole,

where we shelter,

because everything above has an owner,

everything’s under lock and key,

tightly sealed,

because everything above’s been reserved:

the shadow of the tree, the flowers,

the fruit, the roofs, the wheels,

the water, the pencils,

and we choose to bury ourselves

in the bottom of the earth,

ever deeper,

as far as we can from the owners,

between the legs of the ickle animals,

because above

are the people who run everything,

those who write, who sing, who dance,

who speak beautifully

and, us, scarlet with shame,

we just want to turn into

dust.

Speaking of upper and lower classes is far too simplistic. It even implies a fairness, a naturalness to both categories, as if they were inevitable or karmically justified.

This is getting far too hip, so to conclude we’ll say: on the one hand, if, nearly ten years after the 2001 ‘crash’ in Argentina, not so many people are able to lead what the Financial Times regards as the good life, things have more or less acquired an acceptable enough level of stability. More, say, than that enjoyed by Berk, Boni & Co. The debate in the run-up to this October’s presidential elections are not dominated by what programs have to be cut but rather more willowy questions of what the country is all about and where it wants to go. On the other hand, only now are we seeing some of the real effects of the 2001 implosion. Whereas, thankfully, in Ireland almost all of pegamequemegusta’s friends and acquaintances are lucky enough to have both their parents, in Argentina many people we know frequently have to attend funerals for the parents of friends and relatives. Although the Irish parents are all in their early to mid-60s, over here people are losing loved ones in their mid-to-late 50s. The strain and day-to-day difficulties inherent in working longer hours, having fewer rights and benefits, little or no holidays, having to do more just to get by, living more uncomfortably in general, they all take their toll. Not to mention the shortcomings of a health system still struggling to recover from neoliberalism. People simply die younger.

This is not the Heart of Darkness image Kuper seeks to evoke with his cheap trapdoor metaphor.  It’s not tragedy. It’s just FT-sponsored capitalism. Perhaps that’s what the trapdoor is, che.

A Miracle in the Congo – an xmas message

TP Mazembe’s journey to the final of the World Club Championship paralysed the DRC. It increased Katumbi’s chances of success in the elections. The fervour was not confined to Lumumbashi, the wealthy capital of Katanga, where everyone votes for him. It spread to the entire country, which was 168th out of 169 in the UN’s development programme. And 60% of whose population live in absolute poverty. Where about 45,000 people die every month from hunger, malaria and AIDS. Numbers that contrast sharply with the the wealth of diamonds, gold and copper, as well as coltan, a key material for the mobile phone and computer games industries. “Historically, the source of the various conflicts in the Congo has not been the racial or ethnic question so much as it’s been the country’s enormous mineral wealth,” wrote Kambale Musavuli. While Avatar, James Cameron’s box office smash, may be set on Pandora in the year 2154, the same story of multinational companies raping a country for its resources is taking place now in the Congo.

To balance out our indignant attack on Argieracism last week, today we bring you an, er, equally indignant tale of mass murder, starvation and football but one that shows Argiejournalism in a somewhat better light. While arguably not so topical nearly a week after the final, and we daresay aimed more towards Argentines since anyone writing in English would be more likely to parody Kurtz than invoke him, it’s a well written piece from one of the few sports journalists in Argentina who practices the essay and essays  (ahem) to raise the bar, Ezequiel Fernández Moores.

It’s actually the second piece of his we’ve translated over the past few months, and that piece, too, was titled A Miracle in Polokwane, after Palermo scored against Greece. While Fernández Moores, or his sub-editors, may have a thing for miracles, though, the piece seems to contradict the idea that TP Mazembe’s victory was all that miraculous, or that it really matters given the sheer scale of the misery in the DRC. In any case, we thought it noteworthy.

A Miracle in the CongoEzequiel Fernández Moore, La Nación (21/12/2010)

They looked like footballs. They were decapitated heads. They were being collected by Kurtz, Joseph Conrad’s mysterious character in The Heart of Darkness, and surrounded his hut in the jungle. Conrad never said as much but Kurtz was probably based on Leon Rom, the man in charge of the Belgian troops when the Congo was the private property of King Leopold II (1835-1908). Rom decorated his bed with human heads. So Adam Hochshild tells us in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. He says the Belgian King’s brutal regime led to the deaths of between four and eight million people in the Congo. And that a further five million died in the latest war, which is why what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo currently features the UN’s largest peace-keeping force. The country that suffered centuries of colonialism, murder, ransacking and starvation, knocked out the South American team for the first time in the semi-finals as TP Mazembe Englebert made it to the final of the World Club Championship in Abu Dhabi. Javier Zanetti’s Inter won easily. With eight South Americans in the starting eleven and the Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o as their standout player. No Italians. Hardly even any Europeans.

El sueño del celta (‘The Dream of the Celt’), the latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, tells the story of Irish nationalist Roger Casement, one of the only personages in Hochschild’s book to come out with any credit for being one of the few people who publicly denounced the murderous activities of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo. Claiming to be on a humanitarian mission, the Belgian king controlled with the utmost brutality territories extending over more than 2.5m km² – an are larger than England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. The enslaved natives who did not meet the required quota were mutilated and whipped with hippopotamus hide, which would often be fatal. If they escaped, their families were raped and tortured. Vargas Llosa spoke of ‘genocide’ on Spanish television. He also said that Casement added a fourth C to the three staples of the colonising mission: Christianity, civilisation, commerce. The fourth was covetousness (codicia in Spanish). Leopold ended up leaving but four Belgian companies remained on in the Congo, no longer managing rubber plantations rather seeking out minerals such as the uranium that the United States used to make the first atomic bomb. In 1941, 28,000 Belgians controlled the fate of 15 million Congolese. A ‘model colony’, schools and hospitals began to appear in the Congo. Education remained in the hands of the religious missions, who also encouraged the growth of football. The Jesuit Raphael Kethulle was honoured in 1997 when a stadium in Kinshasha was named after him, the same stadium that in 1974, under the name ’20th of May’, was the backdrop to the Ali-Foreman showdown. In 1939, Benedictine monks founded FC Saint Georges, now known as TP Mazembe.

The powerful copper mine union (Union Miniere du Haute Katanga – UMHK) was behind, along with the Benedictine monk Gregoire Coussement, the foundation of the first Congolese FA. The UMHK, David Goldblatt says in his book The Ball is Round, pointed out that football was a good way of distracting the workers. Until, that is, in 1941 when state troops killed hundreds of striking workers at a football stadium in Lubumbashi. In the town formerly known as Elizabethville, capital of Katanga province, TP Mazembe was founded. In 1950 the religious authorities at the club stepped down and it became Englebert FC, owing to the club’s new owners, a Belgian tyre company. Englebert FC and Vatican FC, from Katanga and Johannesburg respectively, played the first ever international game with all black players in front of 40,000 people in 1950 in Lumumbashi. A few years previous, black players were allowed to play against their white counterparts, but they had to do so barefoot. Paternalistic colonialism was best expressed in the Tintin comic Tintin in the Congo: “Today i’m going to tell you about the Fatherland: Belgium,” Tintin says in one of his famous comic strips, in which he calls the natives lazy and ignorant and insists that even the elephants speak better French than they.

Oh dear

Belgium was obliged to grant the Congo independence. The first free elections in 1960 were won by Patrice Lumumba. His inaugural speech, a formidable piece of rhetoric attacking colonialism and racism, offended King Baudouin. A rebellion, with the direct involvement of agents of the Belgian government and the CIA, kicked off in Katanga that led to the murder of Lumumba six months later. Four decades later Belgium apologised. Lumumba’s family are still seeking justice in the courts of Brussels. In 1965 the anti-communist Joseph Desiré Mobutu seized power. Katanha hailed the triumphs of Englebert in 1967 and 1968 and as a result added the TP top their name, Tout Puissant (All-powerful). Mobutu gets into football and invests heavily in the national team. The Congo win the African cup of Nations in 1968 and then, as Zaire (the name change was ordered by Mobutu), win the African Cup of Nations again and qualify for the World Cup in Germany in 1974. The dream ends with a humiliating 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia in Gelsenkirchen. Mobutu survived a while longer. His personal fortune mushroomed to some $4 billion; the dead hecatombed to 200,000. The events in Rwanda in 1994, in the war between the Hutus and the Tutsis, precipitated his exit. Laurent Desiré Kabila, who had fought alongside Che Guevara in the 1960s, took power. He, too, was murdered. The war, that included Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe. Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda and 24 different armed groups, ended in 2003. Between three and five million people died.

Today the Democratic Republic of Congo has as president Joseph Kabila, one of Laurent Kabila’s ten children. His former ally but potential rival for the 2011 elections will be Moise Katumbi, the governor of Katanga province and president of TP Mazembe. Katumbi is a kind of African Silvio Berlusconi or Roman Abramovitch. Owner of copper and uranium mines, Katumbi has pumped €8m into the team, endowed the club with an extensive sports complex, a private plane, an academy for two thousand kids as well as paying out wages of $3,300 a week in a country where the average wage is $120. For one match in the African Champions League he promised a victory bonus of $250,000. Their rivals, Monomotapa, the Zimbabwean champions, had an annual budget of $200,000. TP Mazembe’s these days is around $10m. I’m told all this by Steve Bloomfield, a journalist I met in South Africa. That World Cup was disappointing for the African countries, but TP Mazembe’s triumph has avenged those particular setbacks. Bloomfield himself saw Katumbi go down to the dressing room to give orders at half-time in one game. The French manager, Diego Garzitto, left and was replaced by the Senegalese Lamine N’Diaye. “If I have to choose between politics and the club, i’ll stay with my club,” Katumbi told Bloomfield for his book Africa United. “Any politician would say the same thing,” Bloomfield tells me.

TP Mazembe’s journey to the final of the World Club Championship paralysed the DRC. It increased Katumbi’s chances of success in the elections. The fervour was not confined to Lumumbashi, the wealthy capital of Katanga, where everyone votes for him. It spread to the entire country, which was 168th out of 169 in the UN’s development programme. And 60% of whose population live in absolute poverty. Where about 45,000 people die every month from hunger, malaria and AIDS. Numbers that contrast sharply with the the wealth of diamonds, gold and copper, as well as coltan, a key material for the mobile phone and computer games industries. “Historically, the source of the various conflicts in the Congo has not been the racial or ethnic question so much as it’s been the country’s enormous mineral wealth,” wrote Kambale Musavuli. While Avatar, James Cameron’s box office smash, may be set on Pandora in the year 2154, the same story of multinational companies raping a country for its resources is taking place now in the Congo. Avatar is the Congo, Musavuli says. “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” Conrad wrote in The Heart of Darkness in 1899. Kurtz, whose last words are “the horror, the horror.”

Finally, while this blog is supposed to be about insults and provocation and we fear we’re becoming far too hip, we shall ne’ertheless close with a rather excellent poem that really, you know, it really puts things in… in… perspective. By Carlos Germán Belli, it was sent to us by one of our legion of dear, handsome readers and immediately translated for your edification and guilt. Happy x-mas:

Segregation Poem No 1Carlos German Belli

(in the manner of a cultured yet primitive painter)

Me, my mother and my two brothers

and many ickle Peruvians

carved out a deep, deep hole,

where we shelter,

because everything above has an owner,

everything’s under lock and key,

tightly sealed,

because everything above ‘s been reserved:

the shadow of the tree, the flowers,

the fruit, the roofs, the wheels,

the water, the pencils,

and we choose to bury ourselves

in the bottom of the earth,

ever deeper,

as far as we can from the owners,

between the legs of the ickle animals,

because above

are the people who run everything,

those who write, who sing, who dance,

who speak beautifully

and, us, scarlet with shame,

we just want to turn into

dust.