… 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.’