It's a bit like watching old boxers fight. That's the image that comes to mind. Old boxers. Fascinating for curiosity's sake, the sight of two aged pugilists putting their thickening bodies through the fighter's ballet at half speed. Of course it's sad too.
I'm not talking about boxers, not really. I'm talking of cold warriors; the boxing image came to mind as I read a recent tit-for-tat between Richard Gott and Celia Szusterman in the Guardian. For those who don't know them, she is a Spanish and Latin American Studies academic known for writing things about los Kirchner's "failed governance" and ticking off South American "new leftists". In the red trunks we have Gott, a journalist known for displaying a picture of Stalin in his house (if the sometimes unreliable Wikipedia is to be believed) and resigning as the Guardian's literary editor after being busted for accepting KGB junkets.* Together, they solve crimes.
Well, not exactly. Together they rehash Cold War arguments with the kind of stolid monotony one expects from dull bovines and brain-battered boxers. Waging the 1960's (still) from an obscure and rusty seat on the left, Gott ignores all evidence to the contrary (i.e. daily reality) in his portrait of the Kirchner's as Leftist heroes standing up for civil rights, national reconciliation, and racial recognition and equality in the face of a rigidly racist and classist middle and upper class rife with an ahistorical belief in Argentina's Europeanism. Talking from the unreasonably naive side of those who labor under the Eurocentric fantasy of a perfect technocratic liberal democracy, Szusterman glosses over centuries of class ruling class discrimination in portraying Los Kirchner as just another pair of populist authoritarians facing a well-meaning middle class. As first I wished the battle had been between Gott and our favorite right wing nutbag and dictatorship apologist (1, 2) Mary Anastasia O'Grady (who presumably has traveled to Latin America once in her life, though you wouldn't know it by reading her). But then I thought, no, this is more interesting than a cliché--this is a real argument.
What makes it interesting is that they're both a little right...and a whole lot wrong. Gott's right that the non-European groups, especially in the "interior", have long been ignored by Argentina's white elites, and Szusterman's unfortunate statement that "repeated censuses have noted that the population of Argentina is 90% white" is a laughable paean to a history of institutional and internalized racism (though I could be convinced that 90% of the population has at least one paleface in the family tree). On the other hand, Szusterman's correct when she notes that "Violence and constant breaches of the law are tolerated or encouraged; the business of government is conducted almost secretively," while Gott's portrayal of Los Kirchner as a team of reconciliation uncynically building a new and brighter Argentina is a joke.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that watching ideological warriors trot out their Argentina suits is depressing and severely unhelpful. Argentina has real problems and it is of no help to be told that I live in a proto-socialist utopia or that if we just tried a little harder we could be just like Germany. The Kirchners do use caudillo tactics, they do use the government purse to stay in power, and they do look the other way when those breaking the law are their allies. And, no, Argentina will never be Spain or Germany; maybe it's not supposed to be. As much as they talk, neither Gott nor Szusterman are doing much to help figure out what the next step should be.
* Journalist ethics restrictions have certainly gotten tougher over the years: according to current NYT policies, I can't even take a free night in a hotel these days. Thanks, man.