Apropos of the histrionic tone towards immigration that Italy’s runoff elections took recently, it’s interesting to take a look at how the issue was approached in Britain 43 years ago by Enoch Powell, the conservative firebrand best remembered for his “rivers of blood” speech. James Walston has a good bit about this up in one of his posts this week, which I again encourage interested readers to peruse.
Older English readers will remember Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech in which he used Virgil’s phrase (“the Tiber will flow with blood”) to threaten Britain with the consequences of immigration. It was a racist speech which cost Powell his career; Berlusconi and his supporters are using far more inflammatory language and few seem to mind.
The BBC has a fine documentary presentation up which you may watch in six parts on YouTube.
Italy rarely has national holidays that anyone cares about. Milan My building is pleasantly empty at the moment, with most denizens having gone away for a long weekend. Militarism is rarely on display for secular holidays here, although this year has seen a bit more than usual, with the 150th anniversary of unification. Jasmine Tesanovic, born in Belgrade and educated in Italy, wrote that Italy’s alpinicrowding into Turin’s public squares last month reminded her of Serbia’s military and paramilitary crowding into Belgrade in the early 1990s:
These volunteer warriors, loud and bold and claiming to fight for a good cause, resembled the Serbian military and paramilitary which conquered the downtown of Belgrade at the beginning of the Balkan wars.
As she notes, the alpini are in Afghanistan along other NATO troops, and whether that war is a “good cause” is definitely worth questioning, especially in these post-bin Laden days. (It should be remembered that Serbia controversially sent troops as well.) But as anything other than a general condemnation of militaries in general, her comparison rings hollow. Militaries of any kind have certain things in common, namely, as the saying goes, rough men (and in the American armed forces, increasingly rough women). And one could argue, although I wouldn’t too forcefully, that violence in Kosovo was done in the loose name of preventing terrorism, in common with the violence being done in Afghanistan today.
But there the comparisons end: the Yugoslav People’s Army amping itself up for conquest in Croatia and Bosnia in the early ’90s is extremely different from a crowd of “mostly aging, tipsy men,” as she characterizes them, out to do what Italians do best: celebrate in public. More broadly, Milosevic’s wars, opportunistic land-grabs that played on ethnic divide, bear little resemblance to American-led efforts to bring Afghanistan into a broader orbit of nations – however misguided and bungled those efforts may be. This kind of equivocation obscures the politics by other means that is at the root of warfare — a dangerous gambit.
On the level of the personal and the violence of war, this week the Washington Postran a piece based on interviews with three former Navy SEALs who tried to sketch a portrait of the man who shot bin Laden. The piece is more along the lines of patriotic entertainment than reporting – there should be no doubt that any qualified solider, much less one in the Navy’s crack troops, would be able of hitting a target at close range – but it included an interesting detail:
Smith, who served in the SEALs from 1991 to 1999, got together recently with five Navy SEALs, some of whom he’d served with and others whom he’d trained. “They were responsible for 250 dead terrorists,” Smith says. “They know their number.”
That’s 50 dead men apiece. One wonders if every special forces solider has statistics like this. Every society has had its elites who exercise state-sanctioned violence in the baldest of terms, from the Praetorian Guard and the Janissaries to today’s “operators”, recently put in the spotlight by the Osama bin Laden killing. Ruminating on their “number” will show that those who practice it are assuredly of a very different bearing than most of us.
There’s a vivid passage in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men in which Carson Wells, himself an ex-Special Forces operator, reaches the end of his life. Curiously, among images of his mother and his First Communion that flash before his eyes, are those who died before him. Although it probably bears little resemble to reality, it’s intriguing.
May ended up being a very bad month for the intolerant: first Osama bin Laden, then Ratko Mladic, and now Silvio Berlusconi, whose coalition was dealt a serious blow in run-off mayoral elections all over Italy this past week. Of course, Berlusconi’s crimes of philandering and corruption are much less grave than terrorism and mass murder, but the effect he’s had on democracy in a country struggling with economic stagnation has not been healthy for western values.
The net effect of these three incredible events has been to clog Premesso’s news-gathering apparatus with an overload, so apologies for the lack of updates.
The campaign in Milan reached histrionic levels of fear and xenophobia, most of it coming directly from the premiere’s own party. The tactic backfired, and John Hooper, writing in the Guardian, quoted Professor James Walston of the American University of Rome, who made an excellent point mirroring my own in the case of Magdi Allam a few weeks ago:
Watson said he feared Berlusconi’s tactics could have a lasting impact on interracial and interfaith relations in Italy. “This type of language has been used by the prime minister, not some neo-fascist maniac on the fringes,” he said. “It will be difficult to bring Italian political language back to acceptable European levels.”
Seeing this tactic lose out was refreshing, and often funny to boot. (Read more of Walston’s excellent analysis, included a piece from which the above quote was taken, on his blog, or watch at interview with him shortly before the eight minute-mark here.) Young Italians may not be taking to the piazze the way their Spanish compatriots are, but they are taking to web and producing hilarious results. Web-savvy Milanesi hilariously parodied the brutish xenophobia online; check out pages on Facebook encouraging people to vote for the mayor today (June 2), a national holiday celebrating the birth of the first republic, or supporting a fictional Muslim district of Milan called Sucate.
In an effort to provide a little context for Magdi’s provocative posters, some reading from the archives in order to illuminate exactly what happened:
The praying at piazza Duomo was connected to protests against the Gaza War and happened on January 3, 2009. Organizers of the protests say that the prayer was spontaneous. Coverage in the Washington Post is here. There was no violence, and the Archibishop of Milan refused to condemn the prayers. As the Guardian reported, the Muslim community actually met with the archbishop and apologized for the prayers.
In the US, the first amendment to the constitution guarantees right to petition, or freedom of public assembly. In Europe, it is guaranteed by article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, if one believes in the authority of European law.
The riots along via Sarpi on April 12, 2007 started when city authorities in Milan began applying fines to the many wholesalers who operated along the street.
Milan’s administration has taken care of this issue recently by completely refurbishing the street, and making it pedestrian-only. Without cars and vans, and with bikes replacing pushcarts, the neighborhood is much more livable now — but arguably one effect the improvements had was to make it more difficult for wholesalers there, who simply moved their operations to side streets.
According to the story, the Chinese rallied around the flag for lack of a better symbol. Since some commentators have pointed out that laws in Italy are often unfairly applied, I wanted to highlight the penultimate paragraph:
Some experts say that the Chinese in Milan have been unfairly singled out by the authorities, and that the authorities have been considerably more lax with native Italians. When laws are enforced in such an inconsistent manner it becomes a case of discrimination, Lanzani said.
Inconsistent enforcement is at the heart of any debate about immigration anywhere, but above all in Italy, where networks of power flout the very laws they are supposed to abide by time and time again.
Some readers have criticized my use of the word “nutjob” to describe Magdi Allam. That is admittedly an imprecise description of a journalist-turned-demagogue whose views are nativist at best and racist at worst. Like Oriana Fallaci before him, Allam has a deep and abiding fear of Muslims in Europe. Unlike Fallaci, Allam was born in Egypt.
Allam made a reputation writing for the mainstream Italian press in support of multiculturalism, the positive effects of immigration, and against the clash of civilization, but had a rather radical change of heart in late 2002. Since his baptism by none other than the pope himself in 2008, he has acquired a fervid fear of Europe’s Islamizication that now dominates the pieces he writes for Berlusconi-owned il Giornale now.
It is a shame that a cosmopolitan writer of such insight now resorts to the kind of ugly race-baiting that garners support from the most virulent and provincial supporters of an ethnically homogenous Italy.
As he says in “Let’s Rebel Against Europe,” Allam has given himself the noble struggle of protecting Judeo-Christian values in Italy. That Christian Europe finds itself in an identity crisis thanks to low churchgoing and low birth rates I do not dispute. That the Catholic Church can use its influence for the good – as the Pope did yesterday in Venice, speaking of compassion of refugees and immigrants I do not dispute either.
But when Italy’s right to display crucifixes in classrooms was upheld using some supremely contorted legal reasoning, the fact that it was an Italian and a Fin that brought the case to court was overlooked by the Italian press. Equating all Italians with Catholicism and integration with religious indoctrination is regressive identity politics. Allam happily practices this.
Allam’s posters offer no proof that he makes a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Showing different-looking faces and habits with NEVER AGAIN emblazoned above them feeds but one instinct: fear, a powerful driver in Italian political life. Once sown, what strange fruit does such fear yield? Read about it in the papers, or in Human Rights Watch’s report that I wrote about when it came out: Africans beaten with bars, Indians set on fire while sleeping, Roma driven out by mobs, mafia exploitation of Africans in Rosarno, further ghettoization and political irrelevance.
Immigration presents massive problems in Italy that are different to the problems in the US, UK or even France. Italy’s late entry into the colonial game, rapid rise to wealth and a tradition of xenophobia based on local rivalries all present extreme problems for newcomers. As a 2008 Brookings paper pointed out, though, low growth, lower birth rates and the lack of willingness of Italians to do low-skill jobs, however, means that immigrants are not only necessary but the only bright spot in an economy that stagnates year after year. Strife all along Italy’s borders, from the Mahgreb to the ex-Yugoslavia, for the past two decades means they are inevitable.
Italy’s immigrants are struggling to find a voice as they come of age, many of them raising children who are passing to adulthood now. But other than a handful of newspapers in the bigger cities and a good website, there is little unity or political voice, and nothing like the Southern Poverty Law Center or Anti-Defamation League in the US or Anti-Racist Action in the UK, in part because immigrants have not ‘made it’ yet. Suspicion of people with different colors and accents runs deep.
The opportunistic and the cynical gladly tap these fears for their own narrow self-interest, and I fail to see how monitoring images that appeal to this cynicism is buonismo. A better example of buonismo would be to dismiss criticism of Allam based on his earlier writings in praise of immigration, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. It is a shame that Allam followed in the great tradition of Italian politicians and leaders before him in choosing to pursue his own narrow self-interest that bound him to Berlusconi rather than to found what could have been Italy’s first multi-cultural or pro-immigrant party; a sort of anti-Lega proving that immigrants could successfully integrate. But perhaps such cynicism is part of full integration.
There are good arguments to be made for preserving Italy’s cultural heritage and for stopping the flow of dangerous, cheap, or illegally made goods. Demagoguery that sustains the politics of fear is not the way to do it. I will give Allam the benefit of the doubt that perhaps the “Department of Identity, Citizenship, Integration and Development Solidarity” that he says he would found might help matters. American citizens do have to submit to a short 10 question test before they can put their hands on the flag and take a short oath. But such ceremonies, like baptisms, are largely symbolic. True integration is cultural and economic, based in tolerance and understanding and not bureaucracy. The test of adherence to a symbolic creed is in the actions it produces. In the case of Magdi, his actions speak far louder than his words or his images.
Journalist-cum-politican Magdi Cristiano Allam loves Italy, he tells us. The Egyptian-born Italian, who made a publicized conversion to Catholicism, seems quick to absorb Italian values — if rampant, no-holds-barred race baiting is an Italian value. Going far beyond provocative and into offensive, his images of Muslims praying in Milan’s piazza Duomo, Chinese rioting against shop closings on via Sarpi, and of a Roma family on a riverbank near a resettlement camp with the legend NEVER AGAIN in Italian above them can be found all over Milan, especially near its Arab and Chinese neighborhoods. I’m not sure, especially in the Chinese case, what the ‘never again’ refers to — cheap labor, goods, shops, and an entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic that the Italians seem to have left in the 1950s?
Mere meters away from the Chinese consulate and from via Sarpi, the Chinese-themed posted shows up. On Corso Sempione, not far from the Egyptian quarter around viale Jenner, the Arab poster shows up. Roma wash windows nearby on via Procaccini. (The perverseness of ‘never again’ is especially offensive in the Roma case.)
The message is clear, and it’s not a tolerant one. The posters assure us that he loves Milan (presumably one in which immigrants make their contribution to the economy and then shut up and stay out of sight) and that he loves Italy (a monoethnic one with silent workers).
If an obvious nutjob like Allam were to be relegated to political sidelines, he would be easy to ignore. But what is disturbing is that he is heartily endorsing incumbent Letizia Moratti in her bid for mayor. Moratti also has the hearty support of the prime minister. That such a mainstream candidate in the financial, industrial and supposed ‘moral’ capital of Italy (an old horse now picked up to flog by PdL, Berlusconi’s party) is anywhere but on the fringes along with the neo-Nazi Forza Nuova where he belongs is incredible. What if David Duke or Nick Griffin actively campaigned for Michael Bloomberg or Ken Livingston? (Such an analogue is, of course, happily unthinkable in Washington, DC.)
But perhaps such sentiments are to be expected in a country where the Lega Nord is in the ruling coaltion, and where Gianfranco Fini is seen as a viable and sane alternative to Berlusconi or Bossi.
Until the opposition is able to do more than make commuting hell on Friday afternoons and mobilize a few columns of art school students to march around Duomo, who carry banners announcing that they are ‘back’ (I presume to the barricades, of which there were none) and nothing more, expect more of the same.
Further down the street, a series of flags of all nations put up for the Expo 2015 showcases Milan’s cosmpolitan nature and promises of worldliness. At the end of one encounters Lega’s tent, where a woman curses the students as delinquents. One wonders what her take on the flags and what they represent is. Among them I note Egypt and Turkey. I half expect Allam or the Lega’s next posters to show off this morning’s tragic crash off of Lampedusa, where another rickety boat spilled 500 migrants into the sea [update: 400 rescued]. That is truly something that should never happen again, but I think that point would be lost on Allam and his backers.
Perhaps they will next celebrate the death of Osama, if they are even that tuned into happenings beyond Italy’s borders. With Lega’s 2009 Indian poster in mind and bizarre violence that it did to notions of race, hegmony and power in the West, one almost hopes that they are not. Geronimo indeed.
BREAKING: The pope in Venice has told Catholics “not to fear others.” Given pious Veneto’s strong LN base, one hopes that this won’t fall on deaf ears. Maybe even Allam will listen.
As Italy struggles to accept massive flows of refugees from the Arab Spring, one hopes that the G7 country has learned something in last 20 years. As Berlusconi’s channel report that the refugees are complaining about the quality of food and as leghista Roberto Maroni makes doom-laden statements about a biblical exodus, I urge contemporary Italians to look back to the events of early August 1991, when mass looting, rioting, and total loss of civil society led Albanians to flee their country — which was, like Libya, a former Italian colony.
By way of trying to get Italians to look beyond their own bell-tower in these days in which the country’s biggest trade partner has become the focus of international news, I quote award-winning Italian journalist Enzo Biagi from the Corriere della Sera of 12 August 1991 (quoted in Paul Ginsborg’s indispensable Italy and its Discontents). Substitute “Libyans” for “Albanians” to try and get a picture of today.
The dream of the Albanians has dissolved, but so too has that of the Italians. The fifth industrial power in the world has not been capable, in three days, of distributing ten thousand cups of coffee… Those plastic sacks of water thrown from above to the dehydrated immigrants, those sandwiches scattered by the solders into the scrambling mob — it was like being at the zoo.
As Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons.” Consider the refugee from a war-torn place as a prisoner of circumstance, and let us hope that the degree of civilization that Italy offers its non-citizens is as high as what it promises its own.
As Sylvia Poggioli reports from Lampedusa:
The people here are angry and they suspect the government wants to exploit the crisis for electoral aims. U.N. officials have criticized the government for being extremely slow in moving the migrants away from this tiny island to bigger and better equipped facilities on the mainland.
Now, keep in mind that the coalition, the ruling coalition, includes the powerful Northern League, which is virulently anti-immigrant. The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, is a member of the Northern League and he’s been warning for weeks of what he calls a biblical exodus from North Africa.
Now, the foreign minister [Frattini] went to Tunis yesterday to try to negotiate with the new authorities there, ways to monitor more carefully the Tunisian coast to prevent the exodus. And Italy went so far as to propose a payment of up to $2,500 to each Tunisian who voluntarily returns home. But the Northern League leader [Umberto Bossi] blasted the idea, saying why should we pay them? We should just pick them up and send them back.
Bossi and his similar-indignant followers — “paying immigrants?! But the state doesn’t pay us hardworking Italians! They’re treating immigrants better than their own people!” reeks of a selfish insularity that isn’t hard to imagine in the land where one needs not look beyond one’s own family home, or town steeple at best — one that should be brought into sharp relief by the disturbing images of Iman al-Obeidi‘s silencing and forced evacuation from the Rixos Hotel yesterday.
That the two countries have different interests regionally goes without saying. But what Italy and her elites — different to France and Britain, for example — seem to have a hard time realizing is that the degree of involvement that the country has in the region and in Libya specifically means that the country cannot continue to idly sit by. The lamentable reaction to the many (non-Libyans) coming ashore in Lampedusa reflects this idleness.
Some have said that Eni is essentially the foreign policy arm of the Italian government. Be that as it may, it would be heartening to see the government doing more than simply throwing its hands up into the air, occupied — as usual — with the naval-gazing exploits of a philandering prime minister.
My impression is that, despite every news media outlet on earth coming out and saying that that Italy really had nothing to celebrate, most non-leghisti Italians actually did feel like celebrating, and Turin’s packed squares, riverbank, and streets were a testament to this last week. On via Po, someone hang the above banner, addressing leading leghista Roberto Calderoli, one of the six senators who stayed in session in Montecitorio in Rome: “Roberto, we’re celebrating. If you’d join us, we’ll give you a beer!” No doubt they’re busy plotting how to exploit refugees from the Arab spring to the League’s advantage.
For at least a day, the participatory nature of Italian celebrating won out over the lose-lose implications of the Libyan crisis, the nuclear question, Rubygate, youth underemployment, brain drain, slug-like growth, and all the other problems that everyone is acutely aware of.
Now, although the celebratory spirit in Turin was palpable, the sign enjoining Calderoli to join the festa is evidence that there are those in Lombardy, the Veneto and Piedmont who have their reasons not to celebrate independence. However, it’s a bit circular at best to go to a place like Bolzano to find this out. Many of the people in Sudtirol/Alto Adige would have objected to being under Rome even in the glory days of the miracolo. Talking to what amounts to ethnic Austrians about their pride in being “Italian” — especially when the Republic has done everything possible to keep them happy in Italy — is specious reporting. A shopowning leghista in Treviglio or San Dona’ di Paive would’ve been more incisive.
A couple of days after the big bash, I was having lunch with some friends in a nearby restaurant when the Tripoli-born owner came up to speak to us in good English. He began by talking about a trip he’d made to the States in the middle of the Reagan years — when Libya was being bombed, actually. Although cowed by the icy reception he got at Laguardia, his mood improved when he made it to San Francisco, where he appreciated how people loved the food, the weather, the sea. Marveling at this diversity, he told us, “the United States are not so different than my country — although they are united, they are not all the same!”
Human Rights Watch released a report on the state of racism and xenophobia in Italy yesterday. The results are not cheerful reading.
I wrote about this two years ago for the American, and it’s not heartening to see that things have been in a continued downward spiral.
As usual, the Italian press reacts with typical oversimplification and indignation: “Human Rights Watch says Italy is racist,” say Liquida. The timing of the report is important, as the island of Lampedusa is receiving an ever-greater influx of refugees from the ongoing war in Libya. The Italian press stokes unfounded fears of military retaliation (nicely debunked here) while interior minister Roberto Maroni asks the EU for €100m ($138m) and stokes fear by quoting wildly-vacillating numbers of immigrants in Libya (presumably destined for Italy’s shores).
The goings-on on the other side of the Mediterranean have got normally isolated Italians in an ever-more pessimistic tizzy, abated, in some part, by the festivities last week, which I found were a nice distraction from an otherwise parlous state of affairs – although everynewsoutletout there took pains to explain to unfamiliar readers that Berlusconi’s hold on power is thanks to the anti-immigrant or xenophobic Northern League.
What remains to be seen is whether the government will cynically rush through more anti-immigrant measures based in the culture of fear stoked by the media. If so, then the question remains to the aging elites in Rome who push for such legislation in a country with one of the world’s lowest birth rates that posted a 0.1% growth rate at the close of last quarter: who will do the work in the Italy of the future?