We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse has it. A few months ago, after reading about the treatment meted out to refugees in Britain and thinking about the mood of anti-refugee rage I encounter so often when I’m there, I wanted to write a short piece on how Italy, despite the xenophobic legislation enacted by the previous Berlusconi government and the lackadaisical failure of its successor to address the issue, still maintained a sense of the shared humanity of the other – faint, flickering, barely enough to light a cupboard by, but still, despite everything, alive. You could see it in the tone of TV news reports when people died while crossing the Mediterranean in boats that should never have been allowed to leave their harbours and the port of Lampedusa was paved with body bags. The images we saw were of kids who didn’t look old enough to have left home, never mind homeland, shivering in blankets, drinking something hot, wondering what now? The attitude wasn’t approval, far from it, but there was an ounce or two there of understanding, and of pity. I wanted to talk about this, and about how often ordinary people, on buses, at markets, would refer to immigrants, whether legal or not, as poveri Cristi. They might not want them, but they recognised them. I’ve seen all kinds of people step in when police try to arrest the Africans selling their pirated CDs and fake Louis Vuitton handbags and Dolce e Gabbana shades.
I don’t think this is true any longer. I think the mood has changed and that what looked like a sort of prelapsarian innocence – because, of course, it wasn’t innocence at all, but nuanced and humane – has now been lost. It would be easy to point a finger at the Northern League and its shameful exploitation of racist sentiment in the north, where half the factory workers are illegal immigrants and 100 percent of the live-in carers, without whom the old and ill would be institutionalised or alone, come from outside Italy, from the Ukraine and Indonesia and Brazil. It would be easy to blame the press, which for political motives or worse, has exaggerated the criminal impact foreigners have had, devoting pages to Romanian hit and run drivers and paragraphs to the home-grown kind. It would be easy to blame the last government for its failure to understand the extent to which the agenda – in this as in everything else – was being set by others, which crucially underplayed the security issue, which flip-flopped between the draconian measures taken in Bologna by Cofferati, ex-darling of the left, and the ill-thought-out laissez-faireism of those who wanted to woo the radical youth of the centri sociali, paying lip service to both. It would be easy, finally, to blame the tiny percentage of immigrants who do rape, and murder, and plough down pedestrians in cars they’re too drunk to drive.
They’re all to blame, I suppose, and the people who came to Italy to improve their lives, and those of their families, and who, in doing so, have also improved the lives of those around them by doing jobs nobody else wants at wages nobody else would accept, by looking after the people we don’t have time for, for whatever reason – well, those people are going to have to sit out the storm, hoping their papers, if they have them, are in order, contributing to a national insurance scheme that would soon be belly-up without their money, being humiliated on a daily basis by people who now feel what they had in common with the other has somehow been rubbed away by a too daily contact, by too much friction. On Rai 2’s Annozero last night, someone commented that what we really want from immigrants is for them to work from Monday to Friday and then to disappear until they’re needed again, and this was wryly accepted by almost everyone there. And now there’s a comment on my THES article about lettori in Italy, which shocked me, by someone who left the country because he couldn’t take the racism here. And it makes me wonder how I managed not to see it for so long.