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.

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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.

The Homecoming

“People say we only play for money but i’ll tell you, Mario, that’s not how it is. I love this jersey. I love it for my country, for my family. I couldn’t give a crap about the money – that I can make in Europe or wherever. The players always show up to put on the jersey. Anything else is a lie, you can believe me.”

Ah yes, May every four years is a special time; the return of the country’s illustrious departed sons, those who make the people proud and represent the nation in all its glory, those who despite their absence prove that Argentine genius and, more importantly, balls, are alive and well even if they can’t ply their trade in the fatherland. If they can’t what? Oh dear, it seems we’ve touched a nerve… Of course they could play here but there’s better money on offer elsewhere. Yes. Well, you know, that’s how things work these days… and they do very well there so why would we complain?  I suppose they don’t do so well with the national team, no… Ah, could you spare a cigarette? Thank you. Well it’s probably just a question of tactics, of the manager, of luck, you know, don’t get in a strop about it. Just enjoy the homecoming.

Like those Yanks in Irish or English plays from the 60s onwards who get fleeced and/or murdered, however, the return to the patria can be uncomfortable. To pegamequemegusta’s flawed mind, there are many reasons for this, answers for which are undoubtedly best sought elsewhere. Among those we feel qualified to advance, however, there’s the question of money, which is double-edged: a rift valley-sized chip on the shoulder of many Argentines with regard to the good life of those who triumph in Europe, and, consequently, a suspicion that the players don’t give their all when they are obliged to come back to the homeland. They forget about us, they’re comfortable while we struggle, they’re more worried about getting injured than giving their all, it’s not like the good old days.

No, it’s not. When they won in 1978 all but two of the 22-man squad were playing for Argentine clubs; in ’86 fourteen were doing so; in Italia ’90, eight; in USA ’94 ten (with three goalkeepers making up the Argieball bunch); in France ’98, six (2 keepers); in 2002, two; in Germany 2006, three (two keepers). Besides telling us that Argentine goalkeepers don’t seem to appeal to European teams, these sickeningly nerdy stats tell us that despite the Bertie-like false affluence of Menem’s (touch your left testicle, it’s bad luck even to name him) Argentina in the 90s, there has been a gradual distancing of the national team from the pueblo.

This has been given a further dimension in the past year or so with Maradona’s insistence on playing friendlies with the Selección local, a local team for local people, against rent-a-teams (not even their first teams) like Ghana, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Haiti. The idea is that the Europeans, unlike those still plying their trade in Argentina – those who haven’t forgotten their ways – are too decadent to battle n scrap; thus their undoubted skill must be counterbalanced by the balls of the locals, who will die for the shirt, etc. This nonsense – they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t bring in the bunts – has been made all the palatable by an ingenious stroke of pure populism, sorry, Peronism (for more see the article on next year’s Copa América), which claims to bring the football to the people. And it does. There’s no arguing with it; but it also has the side effect of reinforcing this sense of distance from the national team.

The greatest example of this trend is the greatest footballer in the world, Lionel Messi. Out of all the players he has had to put up with the most crap over the last year and a half. You know an opinion is widespread when you hear your ma-in-law spouting it (on football, of course), and the consensus is that, in Oscar Ruggeri’s words, “Messi is sad when he plays for la Selección”. There is the ‘perfection’ theory advanced by Ignacio Fusco in an interview brought to you by pegamequemegusta a few months ago:

  • Among the many reasons that prevents the Argentine public from taking to Messi is, I suspect, his perfection. Diego’s sins, Ronaldo’s ego, the humble background of a Tevez or an Adriano, they make the fans see the player as one of their own. While Leo is so quiet, so flawless.

This ties in to a fair extent with a larger “war for the soul of the country” as one of you handsome readers put it (Che, Gardel, Diego vs Borges, Cortázar, Messi). Really, though, at the bottom of all this are the straight out accusations of being Catalan, not Argentine. Whether the ignorant rants of truly terrible people on daytime TV or insidious sniping disguised as good-natured ribbing from two-faced sports dailies (not helped by the Spanish, who suggest he thought of playing for them), the attacks began with the tug-of-war over his participation in the Beijing Olympics and reached a nadir after the defeat to Paraguay when Olé said he “sulked like a kid who dreams of being a tennis player but who’s dad insists he plays football”. That father was complaining just last month that “in Argentina we treat Messi badly”. For his part, Messi fils was on CNN en Español on Thursday night and spoke as genially as always: “I hope it’s our World Cup. Even though we had a tough time getting there we could surprise a few people.” And: “People are entitled to their opinions, I respect that. It doesn’t get to me. I’m the first guy who wants to do well for Argentina. I know it’s a great opportunity and i’m going to try and do my best.” What a dreamboat.

La Plata, after the World Club Championship defeat of Estudiantes

Though you're close to me we seem so far apart / Maybe given time you'll have a change of heart / If it takes forever girl then I'm prepared to wait / The day you give your love to me won't be a day too late

Not all have been so congenial, however. As the players come back in dribs and drabs it has been interesting to note that there doesn’t seem to be any media restrictions of any kind in place and so these demigods, these ambassadors, these footballers have been speaking their minds. All the accusations and sniping that goes on while they’re away – or they think goes on, at least – seem to take on added venom in direct proportion to the distance of the player. And a couple of guys who spoke yesterday used the opportunity to set the record straight: they were Javier Mascherano and Carlitos Tevez.

Argentina’s captain spoke first and attacked statements made in various places about Maradona’s squad: “As a player it annoys me when you hear certain players being disparaged. In some quarters they’re cutting players but there’s 30 of us all in the same boat and the manager will decide who makes the final squad.” And as he dismissed the allegations of conspiracy that Alfito Basile had levelled at Maradona last weekend (“Sure four days before we had given everything [for Coco] with the Uruguayans biting our ankles off”), he took the opportunity to reaffirm the lengths the players go to to bring happiness to the people: “We travel enormous distances, we do our best, we don’t come here just to waste our time… always with the best possible attitude.”

Tevez with Román when he was a guttersnipe-cum-ballboy in the Bombonera

The filter-less Tevez, as usual, had more to offer, however. He turned up speaking on Pergolini’s show on Rock & Pop and started off speaking about the fact that he knew he had to fight for his place in the team since Argentina have such great players. Before long, however, he was complaining about the hypocrisy of people who lay into la Selección now but come looking for a hug when things go well: “A lot of people who criticise the team do it out of spite. They don’t say ‘Ah well the things aren’t going as we planned but let’s find a solution’, they don’t have the class for that. They just start throwing shit around, attacking the team.” This is because, Tevez says, many people make a living out of Argentina: “La Selección is a business.” For the players it isn’t, however: “People say we only play for money but i’ll tell you, Mario, that’s not how it is. I love this jersey. I love it for my country, for my family. I couldn’t give a crap about the money – that I can make in Europe or wherever. The players always show up to put on the jersey. Anything else is a lie, you can believe me.”

Ah, Carlitos, this is why we love you. Yet I can’t help notice that even you, el jugador del pueblo, the greatest people’s champ since Rocky, seem strangely out of touch. After all, it’s not true that there has been massive criticism of Argentina over the last while. People are too nationalistic for that. Of course there has been much complaining but considering the hole the team dug itself into in the incredibly poor qualification campaign, people had every right to voice what was in the end mild enough criticism. An indication of this is that you, despite being sent off twice in two games, scoring very, very little and taking a holiday instead of playing against Brazil away, are still by far the most loved player.

He was more on the mark, however, when he attacked the powers that be in Argieball: “The standard of football isn’t great. It’s been poor for a while now actually. The people in charge of the clubs think more about money than in the football. They’re not doing things as they should and in a few years things are going to be even worse than they are now.”

Pegamequemegusta doubts that Carlitos was this politically conscious all those years ago when he won the peoples’ hearts. He’s matured, he’s changed, he has inevitably become more estranged from the day-to-day to the extent that he comes back now with the standard criticisms of anyone who lives abroad for a long time. Yet while some will be seen as weak or ‘foreign’, any criticism offered taken as proof of a lingering resentment in their heart at the ramshackle homeland, others will never change in the eyes of the people, no matter what; they will always have a sweet homecoming.

Messi in colloquy with a true Argentine

There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions of any kind in place and so these demigods, these ambassadors, these footballers have been speaking their minds.