The Geopolitics and Ethics of the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Jim Yu
by Jim Yu

The only part that was not scripted was James May’s broken ribs.

Much has been written about Top Gear’s Patagonia Special, which aired in Britain over the holidays. The show premiers on BBC America this week. Bloggers and journalists wrote, ad nauseam, about the authenticity of the inflammatory license plate and the barbarity of the Argentines. Nuanced discourse? Not so much. Let’s delve deeper.

First, a little bit of background. The Falkland Islands is a remote British possession in the South Atlantic near Argentina. Argentina, which refers to the islands as Islas Malvinas, claims them as its own. In 1982, the military dictatorship in the South American country miscalculated Britain’s resolve and naval power and invaded the Falklands. Quickly, and tragically, the British fought the poorly trained and poorly commanded Argentines, killing over 1,600 soldiers. Argentina was humiliated and its people quickly realized that their leaders were incompetent. A paper tiger–disrobed emperor moment, if you will.

The Cliffs Notes version: Argentina was humiliated, and it was made worse given the pride and machismo of Argentine men.

Then, we have Top Gear. It is an irreverent, vastly entertaining BBC series about cars. The show tries to come off as improvised and unpredictable, but is in reality heavily scripted. Its star, Jeremy Clarkson, has famously insulted virtually every ethnicity, nationality, celebrity, and political party under the sun.

Last year, Top Gear went to Argentina to shoot a special. Clarkson drove a Porsche 928 with the license plate “H982 FKL”. Argentine nationalists took this as a big F*** YOU, as they interpreted the plate to read “1982 Falklands”. This was made worse by the fact that the show was filming in Tierra del Fuego, an Argentine province which includes the Islas Malvinas.

As the Top Gear crew with the offending Porsche 928 entered Tierra del Fuego, enraged Argentines threatened violence, threw rocks at the crew, and chased them out of the country.

I watched the special for the first time last weekend, after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. These thoughts came to mind:

  • The license plate: I am convinced that Top Gear knew about the significance of the Porsche license plate going into Argentina. The license plate might have been a concoction of the BBC art department. Or, it might have been a real license plate that was truly registered to the Porsche. No matter its provenance, Top Gear knew it would piss off the locals. Shit stirring was its intent. It just underestimated the extent to which the shit was going to be stirred.
  • Humiliation: As Americans and Brits, I humbly ask you to stand in the shoes of the Argentines. Imagine yourself from a country that was never a world power, that was not always a democracy, that does not have a .900 batting average when it comes to wars. In a time of turmoil and doubt, you were certain of only one thing– that your military was strong. One of the few sources of the military dictatorship’s legitimacy was its perceived strength. That belief was shattered when the British, whose seat of power was 13,000 kilometers away, kicked the shit out of your proud sons in uniform. You’re down. And with the current Fernandez regime, the economy is not so hot. Inflation is high and so is underemployment. This is a perfect recipe for nationalism and blind rage. How would you feel if a bunch of rich Brits, and one clown, came to your ‘hood with a car that coincidentally reminded you of the year in which your country was brought to its knees and your brother lost his life for a meaningless regime’s hubris?
  • Freedom of speech: Every country has its own norms and laws. Some we agree with, others we can live with, and still others are downright barbaric. But there is the notion of a universal right to freedom of speech. Of course Clarkson and Top Gear had the right to put H982 FKL, or even 1982 FALKLANDS, on a license plate. It is their right, no matter where they are on this planet.
  • The ethics of courtesy: While Top Gear had every right to say what they wanted, was it right, was it ethical, to say what they said through the license plate? If I go to your house, can I just start insulting your wife and kids? If I visit your church, can I just start insulting your god and your beliefs? And from an ethical point of view, is it right to inflame the locals if there is a chance that the locals might rise up (reasonably or not) and physically harm your film crew?
  • Charlie Hebdo: And that leads to the insane tragedy that took place in Paris last week. We all agree that the cartoonists had every right to draw insulting works. We all agree that to react with assassinations is absolutely unacceptable. It is downright evil, let alone misguided. But as I watched the BBC crew getting pelted with rocks, I guiltily thought– those people had it coming. Was I wrong? Is it a matter of gradation? Is it a matter of absolutes?

As a postscript, I want to disclose a little bit of my personal background. Some bona fides, if you will. I was born and raised in Taiwan and Japan, countries that have lost wars and lived through humiliating times. I majored in Latin American Studies, focusing on the military dictatorships of Cold War Latin America. I have also traveled by bus, albeit briefly, through Chilean and Argentine Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. And most importantly, I am a long time fan of Top Gear.

Image source: The Telegraph

Jim Yu
Jim Yu

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  • Namesakeone Namesakeone on Jan 20, 2015

    I have a hard time believing that the episode was completely staged. As another poster noted, the "H982 FKL" plate was issued to that Porsche 928 from new; Clarkson (or the Top Gear staff) researched, discovered and purchased that particular car just to tick off the people of Argentina? Sure, maybe they figured it could lead to some problems after the car was purchased, but anything more stretches the limits of credibility.

  • PCP PCP on Feb 06, 2015

    To the author: If I were to say 'what an idiot you are', would you think 'Oh, I had it coming'? Just asking, not saying...

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