Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

Institutional racism in America

August 31, 2020

Here is an interesting article about the role that the Senate plays in institutionalising racism in the United States.

There is also growing controversy about the role of the second chamber in the UK. However, the UK’s House of Lords has little real power and the reason to object to it is that it is stuffed with people who are being rewarded for financial contributions to political parties and other shenanigans that add no value to our society. The US Senate, by contrast, is an active enforcer of racism.

By Jonathan Chait.

In a time when institutions across the country have undergone a searching self-examination, the reckoning has only begun for the most powerful source of institutional racism in American life: the United States Senate. It is not merely a problem of legacy and culture — though the Senate’s traditions are deeply interwoven with white supremacy, as Joe Biden inadvertently confessed when he touted his cooperation with segregationists — but of very-much-ongoing discrimination. Quite simply, achieving anything like functional racial equality without substantially reforming the Senate will be impossible.

The Senate’s pro-white bias is a problem the political system is only beginning to absorb. When Barack Obama urged his party to honor John Lewis’s civil-rights legacy by passing a bill to guarantee democratic reforms like voting rights, statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C., and an end to the filibuster, which he called a “relic of Jim Crow,” the mere suggestion was met with a scorching response from the right. “The door to radicalism is getting busted wide open,” warned a Wall Street Journal editorial. John Podhoretz described Obama’s plan as “a degree of norm-shattering in service of the partisan interests of the Democrats that will, quite simply, tear this country asunder.”

Measured against the backdrop of modern Washington tradition, Obama’s proposal would indeed constitute a radical break with long-standing norms. But measured against the standard of simple political equality, his notion is quite modest. It would leave standing, albeit in altered and less distorted form, an institution that stands as a rebuke to democracy. The Senate is a bulwark of white power.

The Senate was not designed to benefit white voters — almost all voters were white when the Constitution went into effect — but it has had that effect. The reason is simple: Residents of small states have proportionally more representation, and small states tend to have fewer minority voters. Therefore, the Senate gives more voting power to white America, and less to everybody else. The roughly 2.7 million people living in Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota, who are overwhelmingly white, have the same number of Senators representing them as the 110 million or so people living in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, who are quite diverse. The overall disparity is fairly big. As David Leonhardt calculated, whites have 0.35 Senators per million people, while Blacks have 0.26, Asian-Americans 0.25, and Latinos just 0.19.

The Senate is affirmative action for white people. If we had to design political institutions from scratch, nobody — not even Republicans — would be able to defend a system that massively overrepresented whites. And yet, while we are yanking old 30 Rock episodes and holding White Fragility struggle sessions in boardrooms, a massive source of institutionalized racial bias is sitting in plain sight.

The Senate’s existence is not the product of divine inspiration by the Founders, as schoolchildren have been taught for generations, but the ungainly result of hardheaded political compromise between people who believed in some version of what we’d call “democracy” and people who didn’t. The Founders mostly hated the idea of a one-state, one-vote chamber. They grudgingly accepted it as (in James Madison’s formulation) a “lesser evil,” needed to buy off small states like Delaware.

Obviously, the Constitution contained lots of political compromises. In most cases, the system has evolved toward the principle of one-person, one-vote: The Electoral College has transformed from a group of elites using independent judgment to pick a president to a pass-through entity; the vote was extended to non-landholders, women, and black people (first in theory, and only a century later, in practice).

The Senate has oddly evolved in the opposite direction. The disparity in size between states has exploded. When the Constitution was written, the largest state had less than 13 times as many people as the smallest. Today, the largest state has nearly 70 times as many people as the smallest. As absurd as the likes of Madison and Hamilton considered a legislative chamber equalizing a 13-to-1 disparity, the absurdity is now fivefold. And it continues to grow.

The Senate has also evolved a routine supermajority requirement, which the Founders did not contemplate. The Constitution requires a supermajority in a handful of expressly defined circumstances, like treaties and removing a president from office. The filibuster evolved in the 19th century, first requiring unanimous agreement, then was reduced first to two-thirds in 1917, and then three-fifths in 1975. Custom used to dictate that filibusters were rarely used tools to register unusually strong disagreement (most frequently by southerners, against civil-rights legislation). Its evolution into a routine supermajority requirement is recent.

And so the Senate now has the function of allowing the minority of the country to thwart the majority, to a degree even its critics never imagined. Arguing against the Senate, Hamilton warned, “It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third.” The filibuster, combined with the disproportionate growth of the largest states, allows a far more dire tyranny of the minority than this. A filibuster could be maintained by senators representing a mere 11 percent of the public.

In reality, it’s impractical to line up every small state on the same side. (Democrats do have small states.) But in the current Senate, Republicans who represent just a quarter of the population would have enough votes to sustain a filibuster. Even if Democrats win a landslide election in 2020, following another landslide win two years before, Republicans will easily be able to maintain a filibuster against any bill subject to one.

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Since the Senate is inscribed into the Constitution, measures to curtail its distorting effect have centered on abolishing the filibuster and admitting Puerto Rico and D.C. (stripped of the federal areas, which would remain the District of Columbia, and its residential areas constituted as a new state, perhaps called “Douglass Commonwealth.”) The process for admitting new states is just like passing laws.

The addition of D.C. and Puerto Rico, with four new senators between them, would partially offset the Senate’s massive overrepresentation of whites and Republicans. It would not, however, eliminate that advantage completely — or even come all that close to doing so. A Data for Progress analysis found, a 52-state Senate would still give whites decided overrepresentation, but it would ameliorate the injustice.

Podhoretz complains that admitting Puerto and D.C. would “violate democratic norms,” because “the last grants of statehood,” Alaska and Hawaii, did not alter the Senate’s partisan balance. He is implying, without saying outright, that states have always been admitted in Democrat-Republican pairs.

But this is not remotely true. In the 19th century, statehood was a partisan weapon, used mostly by Republicans, who admitted states not on the basis of population but in an open attempt to “stack the Senate.” After they added Montana, Washington, and split Dakota territory into two states (adding another pair of senators) in 1889, “President Harrison’s son crowed that the Republicans would win all the new states and gain eight more senators,” according to historian Heather Cox Boushey.

Alas, it is not just conservatives who believe that states must always be admitted in partisan pairs. Two years ago, Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, confessed not to care at all about D.C. statehood: “I don’t have a particular interest in that issue. If we got one one-hundredth in Rhode Island of what D.C. gets in federal jobs and activity, I’d be thrilled.” And,he said,while he sympathized with Puerto Rico’s case, he opposed it because it would help his party. “Puerto Rico is actually a better case because they have a big population that qualifies as U.S. and they are not, as D.C. is, an enclave designed to support the federal government,” Whitehouse said. “The problem of Puerto Rico is it does throw off the balance so you get concerns like, who do [Republicans] find, where they can get an offsetting addition to the states.”

Offsetting? Who says it has to be offsetting? If Democrats refuse as a general principle to alter a “balance” that massively overrepresents white and Republican voters, they are consigning themselves to permanent minority status in the chamber.

The catch in admitting states is that Republicans could filibuster a statehood bill. But Republicans would filibuster any measure, however watered down, that increases Democratic voting power. (Mitch McConnell has even denounced a bill making Election Day a national holiday as a sinister “power grab.”)

In practice, therefore, any bill to admit new states would require eliminating the filibuster as well, which is why Obama took care to add that his party should change the rules to accomplish it. If Democrats gain 50 senators and the presidency, they would have it within their means to eliminate the filibuster and pass a bill expanding voting protections and admitting D.C. and Puerto Rico as states.

And it is the filibuster that poses the most formidable obstacle to passing any democratic reform. The Senate is shot through with institutionalists, who cling tightly to its traditions and relish the special status the chamber confers on its members. The objective of eliminating the legislative filibuster has gained adherents, but many of the chamber’s older Democrats remain stubbornly attached to it.

Democrats who support the filibuster make two arguments: one self-interested, the other principled. The self-interested argument concedes that yes, it would be helpful for Democrats to pass laws with a majority, but what happens when Republicans have a majority? “I think it would be a short-term advantage and a long term difficulty,” frets Maine senator Angus King. “You know, what concerns me is that this place changes.” Joe Biden, who has hedged on his previous pledges to maintain the filibuster forever, has said, “The filibuster has also saved a lot of bad things from happening too.”

It’s true that the filibuster sometimes stops conservative laws. Over the long run, however, liberals enact more changes than conservatives. This is almost definitional. Looking back over the last 20, 50, or 100 years, most major legislative changes have a progressive cast rather than a reactionary one. What makes the case for reform even stronger is that Republicans can already accomplish most of their goals without overcoming a filibuster. Senate rules allow the confirmation of judges and changing levels of taxation and spending with just a majority. Trump passed his tax cuts with 50 votes, and nearly passed his Obamacare repeal with 50 votes. (King’s warning, “If we didn’t have the 60-vote rule today, the ACA would be gone,” is flatly false.) The filibuster has played hardly any role at all in limiting his agenda.

What’s left of the filibuster primarily inhibits Democrat proposals. Given that the chamber’s one-state, one-vote makeup already favors Republicans, it is bizarre that Democrats would accept a handicap atop another handicap.

Even if none of this were true, and the filibuster thwarted both parties in equal measure, it is difficult to understand why it would be necessary. Many political systems allow a single national vote to constitute a working majority: The Parliamentary majority elects its leader and enacts the agenda it ran on, and if voters don’t like it, they elect a new government. The American system already requires controlling three separately elected bodies — House, Senate, and president — to enact any new law. Why does the system need yet another obstacle to change?

Here is where the principled invocation of the filibuster comes into play. The filibuster forces the two parties to work together. “The whole intention of Congress is basically to have a little bit of compromise with the other side,” argues Joe Manchin, expressing his fervent opposition to eliminating the legislative filibuster. “Our job is to find common and cooling ground, if you will, to make something work that makes sense.”

The simplest rebuttal to this claim is look around you. Do you see a lot of legislative compromise? How many reforms of any importance have amassed 60 Senate votes over the past 30 years? It is odd that senators can still wax idealistic about the filibuster promoting good old-fashioned bipartisanship when its absence is so obvious. Indeed, the same senators who most loudly decry the decline of bipartisanship are also the most convinced that the filibuster enables bipartisanship. Manchin himself has loudly grumbled about his disdain for the chamber, decried its uselessness, and threatened to quit repeatedly. Maybe he should consider the possibility that the rules he seems so attached to aren’t working.

It seems much more likely that the filibuster’s impact on moderation is just the opposite. The Senate’s arcane anti-democratic character enables extremism. By thwarting sensible liberal reforms, it emboldens left-wing radicals who paint the party as hopelessly inept, unable to deliver its promises, and unequal to the challenges of American life. If Biden’s Senate allies allow Republicans to thwart his promises, the left’s takeover of the party will accelerate.

More important, it has enabled the Republican Party’s long rightward lurch. Why should conservatives compromise their principles when they can use their counter-majoritarian power to block change? The Republican Party’s strategic response to a country that is moving demographically against it is not to adapt to the electorate but instead to thwart its will.

The defenses of the filibuster offered by the Senate’s traditionalists have a creepily familiar tone. Here are old, white, comfortable men, hesitant to make a (very small) amount of space in their elite institution for minorities. Whatever wan arguments they can offer for the status quo reek of the musty scent of clubbiness and nostalgia. They can hardly make the case that the system works, but it surely works for them.

Several years of heavy use have dulled the sharp edge of the word “reckoning.” But if there is any institution in American life that needs a reckoning, it is the U.S. Senate.

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The original article is here.

The fight against fascism: UK chapter

March 5, 2019

I wonder if we should Crowdfund money for Tommy Robinson to do a really good Research Methodologies Master’s? There is little doubt he is smart enough to get on such a course, which is why he is such a menace. But would he apply himself to the learning?

This from The Guardian:

……

Journalist calls police as Tommy Robinson makes video at his home

Far-right activist and Ukip adviser appears at 11pm and again at 5am in retaliation for delivery of legal letter

Peter Walker and Nazia Parveen

Tue 5 Mar 2019 12.53 GMT Last modified on Tue 5 Mar 2019 13.34 GMT

 

English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London

 

A journalist has made a complaint to police after the far-right activist Tommy Robinson appeared outside his house during the night, repeatedly knocking on the door and windows and demanding to speak to him.

Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who is an adviser to the Ukip leader Gerard Batten, filmed himself outside the Luton home of Mike Stuchbery, who often writes about far-right issues.

In the footage, which was live-streamed to the internet, Robinson demanded to speak to Stuchbery, and promised to return again on other nights.

Robinson gave Stuchbery’s street address and threatened to give out the home addresses of other journalists, saying: “I’m going to make a documentary that exposes every single one of you, every single detail about every one of you. Where you live, where you work, everything about you is going to be exposed.”

In a series of tweets sent at the time Stuchbery said he remained in the house and called the police. Robinson went away when officers attended the scene, but according to Stuchbery he then returned at 5am, asking again to be let in.

@MikeStuchbery_
I’ve spent the last few months documenting how ‘Tommy Robinson’ uses doorstepping to intimidate his critics, and how social media giants have enabled it.

So what does he do? Turns up at my house tonight. 1/

Solicitor Tasnime Akunjee said Stuchbery was left shaken following the incident.

He said: “Mr Lennon turned up at Mike Stuchbery’s home address at roughly 11pm and again at 5am. On both occasions he violently banged on Mr Stuchbery’s doors and windows causing alarm and distress to the occupants.”

In a later tweet, Stuchbery said he had made a statement to police, and handed them video and audio footage of the incident.

From comments Robinson made in the stream video, his motivation seems to have been the filing of a legal letter to his family home on Sunday, giving him formal notice of an intended libel action by lawyers representing a Syrian refugee who was allegedly attacked at school.

Stuchbery was among people who helped organise a crowdfund which raised £10,300 to help pay for the legal action against Robinson, founder of the English Defence League anti-Islam street protest group.

Footage of the 15-year-old victim, who can be identified only as Jamal, being pushed to the ground at his Huddersfield school and having water poured on his face attracted widespread condemnation in December.

Hours after the video went viral, Robinson claimed on Facebook that Jamal had previously attacked three schoolgirls and a boy, something denied by the mother of one of the girls allegedly assaulted.

Facebook deleted several of Robinson’s videos for violating community standards after Jamal’s family announced their intention to sue in November.

On Tuesday the page was removed as Robinson was permanently banned from Facebook and Instagram for repeatedly breaking policies on hate speech. Facebook said he broke rules that ban public calls for violence against people based on protected characteristics; rules that ban supporting or appearing with organised hate groups; and policies that prevent people from using the site to bully others.

Robinson said by email that the delivery of the letter entailed “intimidating an innocent woman and her children by sending five men with a dog to the house whilst I wasn’t even in the country”. Stuchbery said on Twitter that the letter was handed to a police officer 50m away from Robinson’s property.

In November last year, Batten appointed Robinson as his official adviser on prisons and grooming gangs, seen as part of a wider move of Ukip towards the far right.

The Ukip leader said Robinson, who faces a possible retrial after successfully appealing against a jail term for contempt of court for live-streaming videos to Facebook from outside a grooming gang case, had “great knowledge” about the subjects.

Robinson has been approached for further comment.

 

More on research methodologies / talking shit:

Meanwhile, after the British Prime Minister yesterday said there is ‘no direct correlation’ between police cuts (plus, she seemed to me to imply, austerity more generally)  and the rise in knife crime in the UK…

If you look at the figures, what you see is that there’s no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers. What matters is how we ensure that police are responding to these criminal acts when they take place, that people are brought to justice.

… it appears she has taken some advice on research methodologies, data regression, significance at the five-percent level, and so forth.

Today, knife crime was the main subject at a cabinet meeting and the vicar’s daughter plans to get jolly serious about tackling it. She did not, however, make herself available in parliament or to the press.

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who in that job tried the no-correlation essay question answer herself — despite leaked documents from her own ministry showing its staff do think there is a link — also seems to have decided it is a 2:2 answer (or worse) and is pretending she never said anything.

From Guardian Live:

Q: What do you think of Theresa May’s comment about there being no direct correlation between police numbers and the incidence of violent crime, given your previous role as home secretary?

Rudd says these crimes are heartbreaking. There are many different elements explaining the increase, she says. She says there have been a lot of new government interventions. She hopes they will make a difference. >

I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when the British police came across as so much more measured and thoughtful than the ruling politicians.

 

 

 

 

 

The fight against fascism: China chapter

February 28, 2019

If you missed reports of the shenanigans at Canada’s McMaster University last week, then the following article by academic Kevin Carrico is well worth a read. Universities are letting a minority of Chinese students behave in ways that are utterly unacceptable. One speculates that they do this because many universities depend heavily on Chinese students for fee income, because they and their academics fear the Chinese Communist Party, and because university administrations tend to be pretty weak-kneed.

Colleges should punish international students who engage in threats, racial hatred and intelligence gathering for Beijing

Last week, Rukiye Turdush came to McMaster University to make a presentation on a sombre topic: the arbitrary and indefinite detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in concentration camps in the region that the People’s Republic of China calls Xinjiang.

Unsurprisingly, Turdush is critical of this policy, and rightly so. A group of students from the People’s Republic, however, disagreed with the critical impetus of the talk. They planned in advance to attend and disrupt the talk with shouting and cursing.

Why film the talk? Having experienced this form of intimidation myself, the not-so-subtle message implied is that recordings of the talk will be provided to the Chinese Consulate. This is not mere speculation on my part: the Washington Post has shown that students were in contact with the People’s Republic of China’s Consulate both before and after the talk.

The Consulate was reportedly interested to know whether any Chinese citizens were involved in the planning of the event, as well as whether any university administrators or other academics were present. The students involved also stated that they intended to “look into” the presenter’s son, who is also a McMaster student.

Disrupting events by speakers with whom one disagrees has unfortunately become the new norm on many university campuses in North America. But in terms of disruptions, this case is really only unique for the sheer horror of what the students were trying to defend: a race-based system of concentration camps.

Yet in the decision to film the event, as well as to coordinate with the PRC Consulate, the students involved crossed a significant red line. Here, the “Western-style” political correctness behind the “no platform” trend meets China-style “political correctness,” enforcing Beijing’s carefully protected orthodoxies abroad.

Filming and providing information to the consulate is an act of intelligence-gathering, as well as a threat, insofar as the intelligence is provided to a dictatorship engaged in crimes against humanity.

Not only the speaker but indeed students and academics in the audience could easily be blacklisted from China, and anyone with family in the PRC could see their family bear the brunt of the authorities’ anger.

If anyone present happened to have a Uyghur relative still in China then mere presence at this talk would be more than sufficient grounds to send their entire family off into the concentration camp system, perhaps never to be heard from again.

However, despite the gravity of these students’ acts, more than a week after the event, there is still no hint of any punishment for the students involved. Rukiye Turdush personally told me that she has asked the university if there will be any repercussions for the students, and has received no answer.

After a few mildly shocked newspaper articles, everyone now seems to have moved on.

Imagine for a moment if a group of white students had done this to Native Americans. Or if a group of Afrikaner students had intimidated indigenous anti-racism activists during the era of Apartheid. Or if a group of German students had during the Hitler years recorded and provided information to the German Consulate on Jewish refugees.

Let’s even imagine that a group of Japanese students had engaged in similar behaviour towards a Chinese student giving a talk on war crimes in World War II. The world would be outraged, and rightly so.

Are international students from China, unlike any other student group in today’s universities, allowed to engage in campaigns of racial hatred, intelligence gathering, and threats against those with whom they disagree?

In contrast to the parallel historical examples of white racism and anti-Semitism provided above, ideologies which we can all join hands in condemning, there sadly remains far too much vacillation in the “Western world” about racism and ongoing crimes against humanity in China today.

In both the North American and Australian contexts in which I have worked, racism is, for obvious historical reasons, perceived as the sole purview of a white majority. This notion and its particular vision of victimiser/victim can complicate discussions of the realities of Chinese racism.

Matters become doubly complicated when this intersects with the ostensibly anti-Orientalist idealisation of China as untroubled by the perennial problems of ‘the West’, widespread in both the popular imagination and academic writings.

For example, as a researcher on PRC nationalism and racism, I have academic colleagues who have expressed to me their discomfort with the idea that there could be racism in China. After all, ethnic identity in Chinese is expressed through the idea of minzu, which is markedly different from the idea of zhongzu as a blood-based race.

Ethnic identity in China, they say, is more open and fluid than the rigid constructions that have plagued us in the West.

That certainly sounds nice, but there really is nothing fluid or open about arbitrarily and indefinitely holding a million people from Turkic minority groups in concentration camps. Nor is there anything fluid or open about shouting down and harassing speakers attempting to raise awareness of these modern-day concentration camps.

All are manifestations of a malignant Han racial supremacism with deep disdain for an “other,” the troubling implications of which are becoming increasingly apparent by the day to anyone willing to face facts.

During my decades of travel in China, countless friends have confided in me that Uyghurs are different: dangerous, natural criminals, disease carriers, prone to terrorist violence, and inherent risks to social stability.

These ideas were already disturbing enough when they were used by interlocutors to argue that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities lived on an earlier stage of evolutionary development behind the Han. And of course, there is disturbingly limited space in both popular culture and academia in China to push back against such racism.

As a result, I have watched with trepidation as these ideas have provided the foundation for the development of an expansive network of concentration camps today in what was to be, just a few years ago, “the China century.”

It is of course disturbing that some students from the PRC, given the opportunity to learn important truths about the PRC government’s behaviour today, choose instead to maintain an information bubble in which any information that is not in the People’s Daily is somehow deceptive slander against an always “mighty, glorious, and correct” Party.

Yet we have truly reached a new level of “disturbing,” now that these students are attempting to intimidate and silence discussion in the Western world of the Chinese Communist Party’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

And undoubtedly the single most disturbing aspect of this entire affair is that when faced with this blatant supremacism, the response has been far too weak.

If the McMaster students involved in threatening and providing intelligence on Rukiye Turdush would like to attend a university in which the Communist Party’s crimes are not openly discussed, and wherein they can actively collaborate with the Beijing regime in its wars against the Uyghurs, there are plenty of such universities in China.

Allowing these students who have engaged in racial profiling, intelligence gathering for a foreign government, and intimidation and harassment to continue to study at McMaster without punishment sends the completely wrong message.

And this is a message that students will remember: that this type of behaviour is acceptable, or at least that they will not face any repercussions for it.

If the University truly wants to create an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination, fear, and racism, the students involved in this affair must be held responsible for their actions.

Doing so will send the right message, not only to potential future offenders, but also to all Chinese, Taiwanese, Hongkonger, Uyghur, and Tibetan students in the West: we will not allow the persecution that you face at home to follow you here.

Holiday reading and viewing: booze, race, nationalism

July 23, 2013

English beach

 

Since I am sort of on holiday this week, I have decided that everybody else should be too. So here is weekend reading re-dressed as holiday reading.

 

1. First up, to get us started, a great discussion of the role of alcohol, and of alcohol addiction, in writing.

Next, the serious stuff.

Here are three articles on questions of race and nationalism.

2a. Orville Schell and John Delury offer a thoughtful piece about China’s need to move on from the narrative of national humiliation that the country’s schools and politicians have fed the population ever since 1949 (and indeed longer in the case of early converts to the communist party’s cause).

2b. In the United States, Barak Obama can no longer avoid speaking out about the Trayvon Martin case.

2c. Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) reflects on the mindless racism of Italian politics, but ends with his ideas that just maybe Gianni Letta represents change. Would that it were so!

3. Third, a near miss. Gideon Rachman in the FT (sub needed) has a thoughtful piece on Putin’s Russia but fails to nuance it with what Putin’s government is doing to put Russia back on an economic development path — in essence, reining in the oligarchs and bringing cash flows from national mineral assets back under public control. Putin may be a revolting man, and yet may also be a revolting man whose time has come.

4. Finally, a heartening curiosity. Teach First seems to be working. It is now Britain’s single biggest recruiter. So it turns out that smart people often do care, and don’t reflexively sell their souls to a law firm or investment bank.

 

‘Corrupt, smut-driven, racist and lawless’…

January 11, 2010

 … that’s right, it is The Guardian’s columnist Martin Kettle explaining why he has fallen out of love with Italy.

Like the steady stream of northern European literary greats from Goethe to Browning to Keats and Shelley (stay in a house in Rome associated with these and more if you wish…), Kettle admits to a youth in which he fell for ‘a world of the senses, where the heart ruled the head, where beauty replaced ugliness and where easygoing moral naturalness replaced all the buttoned-up severity of the protestant world’.

All that, however, is over for Kettle. He dismisses his love affair as a naive, adolescent fling: ‘Italy has never been the liberal Eden that progressive Europeans sometimes delude themselves into imagining it to be,’ he writes. Instead, Kettle is now focused on an all-too-common kind of Italian who allows Silvio Berlusconi to be elected three times, just as a certain kind of parallel American allowed George W. Bush to be chosen twice. The difference, says Kettle, is that where Bush gave rise to Obama, Berlusconi has produced no such credible, corrective liberal reaction. It’s all right, right and more right.

The outburst gives rise to a riposte in The Guardian from the deputy head of the Italian embassy in London, Giovanni Brauzzi. There isn’t much to Brauzzi’s comment – beyond its inevitable counter-indignation – yet there may be something to Brauzzi’s tangential implication that Italians are less racist than popularly perceived.

The hook for Kettle’s article was a house-to-house search by police in a town near Brescia for illegal immigrants in the run-up to Christmas. Kettle referenced John Hooper’s report for The Guardian from Coccaglio where what has been dubbed ‘Operation White Christmas’ (the conservative town council denies having come up with the racist epithet) took place. He didn’t however reiterate Hooper’s point that in a town of only 8,000, 3,000 people marched in protest against Operation White Christmas.

How racist is the average Italian? I confess that I have no answer to this question about which I can demonstrate any conviction. I am willing to say that the average Italian is parochial – little-travelled, largely ignorant of the wider world, unaccomplished in foreign languages – but that is not the same as the charge of malicious racism levelled by Kettle.

In defence of Italians (inasmuch as this term means anything), poll results published on December 3 by the German Marshall Fund of the US, which cover each major European and north American state, show Italy in quite a liberal light.

Less than one-quarter of Italians, for instance, agreed with the statement ‘Immigrants take jobs away from natives’, whereas more than half of Britons did. Only about one-tenth of Italians agreed with the statement ‘Legal immigrants have no equal rights to benefits’, but 45 percent of Britons did. Most Italians favour giving voting rights to immigrants where most Britons do not. And marginally fewer Italians than Britons agreed with the statement ‘Legal immigrants increase crime’. Both Italians and Britons are against giving illegal immigrants the chance to obtain legal status (unlike the super- and uber- liberal French and Germans).

In the Brit-Italian comparisons it should probably be borne in mind that Britain has a higher proportion of immigrants in its population than Italy does, and that the number in Britain increased very rapidly in the past decade (though quite rapidly in Italy as well; in Britain the demand came from economic growth, in Italy from a shrinking indigenous population).

There is, of course, one constant in attitudes to immigrants around the world: everybody, in every country, thinks there are way more of them than there really are. In the survey cited, the average American estimated that immigratnts make up 35% of the US population (versus reality of around 14%). In Canada the estimate was 37% (reality 20%). And in Europe the average stated was 24% (versus actual highs of around 13% in Spain and Germany). Which all reminds me of the following conversation with a local bar owner some years ago… Bar owner: ‘I’m thinking of getting a Rottweiler.’ Me: ‘What for?’ Bar owner: ‘Albanians.’ Me: ‘But we haven’t really got any Albanians around here.’ Bar owner: ‘But we might have.’


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