Thursday, September 23, 2010
NEW YORK TIMES
THE OPINION PAGES
September 22, 2010, 9:00 pm Curse of the Scorned Class
By TIMOTHY EGAN
PHOTO BY PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS
.MILAN, Italy — Beware, they told us in the train stations of northern Italy, of the Gypsy baby trick — an old ruse by Europe’s most reviled underclass. A woman will suddenly ask you to hold her child, and then just as you fumble to respond another Gypsy will grab your wallet.
Watch out, they cautioned us in the lovely Turkish port city of Kusadasi, for the Gypsies who prey on tourists along the waterfront. An old lady will bump you, while a teenage hooligan grabs your bag. The Gypsy old-lady trick.
Those Gypsies, known by the less pejorative term of Roma, are getting kicked around the continent again, hardy perennials of European scapegoats. Unspoken characterizations based on ancient stereotypes — they are shiftless, clannish, prone to petty thievery and to begging, prostitution and dark motives — are now out in the open.
In the early days of a Mediterranean fall, one finds open hostility toward the Roma, encouraged by governments in a Europe that likes to think of itself as enlightened. France, following the lead of the Italians, Danes, Austrians and Swedes, is trying to expel the Roma in their midst.
In the words of The Economist, a journal known for bloodless prose, the European Union’s biggest ethnic minority pose “the continent’s worst and most ill-managed social problem.”
Travel is good for many things, not the least of which is testing your national values against those of other countries. Whenever I hear the United States dismissed as a nation of fat people who’ve lost their creative nimbleness, I counter with jabs about in-bred monarchs who haunt rehab clinics between clubbing stints. Or poke at the absurd class system that still prevails in parts of Old Europe. And how can you not laugh at the recent mass marches in France by people being asked to push their retirement age back to — gasp! — 62? Or the classification of hairdressers as a hazard profession in Greece, and thus worthy of an even younger retirement trigger?
But perhaps the best way to judge the health of a nation’s heart is by how it treats the shunned. Plagued by low poll numbers, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy this summer set out to dismantle Gypsy camps and deport the people to Romania and Bulgaria. It has proven to be a popular move at home, but prompted a stinging rebuke from the European Union’s justice commissioner, Viviane Reding; she compared the expulsions to ethnic cleansing by the Nazis.
Reding called the French initiative “a situation that I had thought that Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.”
As often happens when the morally indignant let their passions get the best of them, the justice commissioner’s comparison was over-the-top. The Nazis considered the Roma racially inferior, and targeted them for mass murder. At least 19,000 died at Auschwitz alone, and another 30,000 were shot in the occupied Soviet Union and Baltic states, according to the United States Holocaust Museum.
Sarkozy’s deportation, by contrast, is simply a crass political move, and a huge hurdle for poor people who have to gather all their belongings and start anew in another country.
Americans don’t have a “Gypsy problem,” as such. But bad economic times tend to bring out base instincts. Sarkozy’s role model might just as well have been Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona with the invertebrate political principles.
Earlier this year, Brewer was well down in the polls, unlikely to win her Republican primary unless she fell in with mob mentality against illegal Mexican immigrants. She made a series of outlandish statements — about beheadings in the desert, about the majority of undocumented immigrants being drug mules — and signed a constitutionally questionable law aimed at harassing brown people. It worked! She’ll cruise to reelection, no matter that she was unable to complete her prepared remarks in the easiest part of her only debate performance. And so what if her statements about border violence were false; the fear-mongering did the job. Mexicans and their beheadings — yipes!
In truth, crime at the border is down considerably, with recent F.B.I. figures showing that the region is now one of the safest parts of America.
At the same time, Muslims in the United States are now being swiped by the broad brush of bias. Of course, the poison strain of violent Islam is a threat on many fronts — but has very little to do with the majority of practitioners of the world’s second-largest religion. No one blames Christians for the fact that America’s worst domestic terrorist before 9/11, the bomber Timothy McVeigh, was inspired in part by a crackpot and racist strain known as Christian Identity.
In the 19th century, Mormons in America were tarred, feathered, run out of town, their homes burned, their leaders executed. Shakers, those celibate furniture-makers who fussed too much over the modernity of pants zippers, were also harassed. And of course, Jews have faced generations of rejection, from limits on their admission to certain schools to the many private-club prohibitions against them.
And yet, the turning of fresh generations seems to bring with it more open doors and open minds. Depending on whether Americans listen to their better angels during our own spasm of intolerance in 2010, we can look at what is happening to the Roma in one of two ways. It is either a recognizable view across the pond and into a mirror, or a gaze at something we still find repulsive — but largely alien.
Posted by Morgan at 10:56 AM