Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Vesuvio Siamo Con Te

There is an Italian word which I am expressly forbidden from using within earshot of Rachele, even in jest. It is the derogratory term which Northern Italians, and in particular Northern separatists, use to refer to Southern Italians, and has various connotations of backwardness. Rachele quite happily describes the use of that word as racist, despite the fact that no-one could, by looking at skin pigmentation or other physical features, reliably distinguish Northern and Southern Italians. There is undoubtedly quite extensive prejudice towards Southerners amongst Northerners in Italy: car number plates, which identify where the number plate was issued, are apparently often changed by Southerners who move to the North because otherwise they risk having their car vandalised, and, even for football fans, the practice of urging on the volcano, which could kill tens of thousands, across the bay from Naples often seen amongst the followers of Northern visiting sides is particularly unpleasant. Southerners, it does have to be said, do reciprocate to some degree: they seem to regard Northerners, who are culturally less Mediterrenean, as not quite authentically Italian, and have a number of recurrent jokes, revolving around either their polenta eating or the fog in the Po Valley. So far as I am aware though, Naples fans don't go to Florence and habitually call for the Arno to flood the centre of the city again.

Having read Peter Bradshaw's review, I rather suspected that Crash (some spoilers) would be part of a sub-genre of apparently socially conscious films much of whose purpose seems to be the rehabilitation of prejudice under the guise of hard-eyed realism: a kind of replacement of alleged liberal pieties about all just getting along with a set of older claims, rather less holy, if no less sacrosanct to the true believers, about human nature. It's acually a bit better than that, if far from perfect: I think it sees itself as documenting the misunderstandings, the disconnects, that racial prejudice creates, rather than trying to vindicate one group rather than another, even if that even-handedness can look rather like a sin of omission at times. Don Cheadle's opening monologue, claiming that Angelinos, unable to bring themselves into contact with each other more gently, seek open confrontation with each other, certainly indicates that. Ironically, though, I think it itself suffers from a kind of disconnectedness: the encounters of the characters, who seem rather hollow and under-imagined, are too coincidental, didactic and melodramatic to seem naturalistic. Because the characters aren't fully fleshed out, their meetings too obviously manipulated, a sense of ahistoricality, of a lack of context, lingers over the whole film. In a piece which quite clearly trades on its ability to appear to be an accurate depiction of how life in LA actually is, that is damaging in a way it wouldn't be for a more metaphorically minded work.

Whether or not it deserved an Oscar is something I, having not seen any of the other nominations for best picture, am fairly unqualified to judge, although it was by no means the best new film I've seen over the past year- upping my pretentious arts student quotient a good few notches, The Beat My Heart Skipped wiped the floor with it, for example, and The Consequences of Love was equally, though quite differently, wonderful. The technical deficiency, the failure to fully connect the various intertwined narratives, though, does at times lead it to stray into territory which seems to seek to vindicate racial prejudice. Other than in one case, because of the ahistoricality of the characters, it never becomes clear why they hold the various prejudices they do, and so there is no discrimination amongst possible processes of belief formation. More damning is that the one case in which racism is explained is that of the white racist policeman, who, it turns out, resents affirmative action having put his father out of business. For all the pleasures of teasing at the scabs of liberal guilt, that is surely hardly the one to choose to pick clean off in a film mostly about the effects of racism. The way in which political compromises, in the morally damning sense, are entered into for the sake of black voters and not for any other groups also seems rather suspicious to me, and there is certainly something morally dubious about the implied comparison between the differential effects of Ryan Phillipe's unconscious prejudice and Matt Dillon's open racism.

Still, the deeper critique of Crash's disembeddedness, though, is its melodrama. Most cases of driving whilst black don't lead to sexual assault, and then later having to be talked down from shooting policemen or having to be hauled from a burning car by precisely the person who abused you. This is where the Southern Italian experience comes in, I think. Racial prejudice isn't generally as openly violent, openly discriminatory, as Crash implies it is: the mutual misunderstandings which leads to Ryan Phillipe shooting a black hitchhiker seem, to me at least, simply implausible, so transparently obvious, that no-one would fall victim to them. That is not to say it is less dangerous. In a way, it is more dangerous, because more difficult to unmask: the little obstacles, the extra increments of trust that have to gained, of suspicion that has to be allayed, can be difficult to recognise because they are not as openly brutal. That understanding of racism is also, in a way a much more comfortable thing for conventional liberals to deal with, because, for all the implication of Ryan Phillipe's killing, racism as depicted in Crash is not something whose temptations they fall victim to. That open exploitation and use of violence is abjured from, unacceptable precisely because of those features. But direct physical or sexual violence are not the marks of racism: an attitude which regards people of less worth simply because of some racial or cultural category they belong in is, roughly, the mark of racism. I'm not sure whether Northern Italian attitudes towards Southerners are racist, but whatever designator is properly applied to them, it strikes me that the difference from it and racism is probably a difference in degree, not in kind.

9 comments:

Cirdan said...

Rob, good stuff. One more data point for you: I once heard one (northern) Italian friend of mine call another (southern) one an 'African'. The connotation of antiblack racism was fully intended as far as I could tell. So, perhaps even consciously, the anti-Southern-Italian feeling is significantly connected with racism.

Rob Jubb said...

Interestingly, Rachele has a friend who happens - so far as I know, it is a case of just happening, rather than ancestry - to be darker-skinned than the average Italian, who gets called the Moroccan, in a way which I don't think is meant as a racial slur. But on the general point, yeah. Tim Parks' 'A Season With Verona' is, if rather too willing to be exculpatory, fairly good on the incidence of racism in (Northern) Italy. Indeed, it probably shouldn't be forgotten that Sicily was ruled by Arabs for periods in the middle ages, and that Sicilu retains traces of Arabic, particularly in words to do with agriculture (they brought various then-advanced techniques).

Jarndyce said...

they risk having their car vandalised

Yes, before they changed the number plate system they did, as did Torinese heading to Milan, etc. And I'm not sure you can excuse the reciprocal racism of the Southerners: my Sardinian friend calls all northerners "Germans".

On Sicilians specifically, see True Romance (1993), Dennis Hopper's exit line specifically:
Sicilians were spawned by niggers."

Rob Jubb said...

"And I'm not sure you can excuse the reciprocal racism of the Southerners: my Sardinian friend calls all northerners "Germans"."

I think this is like the English regarding the Scots as a bit tight-fisted. It is picking up on a conspicuous cultural difference - the incidence of hardline Protestantism in Scotland, the more Northern European, less Mediterranean, social attitudes of Northern Italy. It seems like a display of difference rather than of superiority.

Obviously, the line where pointing out a difference becomes a racist assumption of inherent superiority can be quite difficult to pick out. I think we'd have to say something about inflexibility and explicit moralising of the distinction, where those falling on the wrong side of it become personally culpable or liable - or would if they could be - for doing so, but I'm not sure exactly what. Equally, though, I think that failure is necessarily fatal: not being able to distinguish cases on the boundary, just as we can't point the point where red becomes orange, or a collection of grains of sand becomes a heap, doesn't mean that a distinction doesn't exist.

Rob Jubb said...

To put it another way, it depends on whether you think there is something wrong with being German, such as might make you think it was desirable for them to be killed in a volcanic eruption, or whether you think some group does not share certain cultural features with you, features you might like but the absence of which does not generate desert-style claims about differences in treatment between the two groups.

Jarndyce said...

it depends on whether you think there is something wrong with being German

I'd say she uses it (even when jocularly) in a way that imples she certainly does think there's something wrong with being German. (And notwithstanding the fact that, to those from Sudtirol-Alto Adige or the Walsers in Valle d'Aosta, she's factually-ish right, in the same way that Hopper's character was "right" that Sicilians have an African "bloodline".)

Though one should always remember with Italians that however much they hate each other, they hate Kosovars-Albanians more, at least in the north.

Rob Jubb said...

Well, I suppose you might think there was something wrong with being German, in the sense that there is something less than ideal in having certain generalised cultural traits which Germans possess, without that being racist (of course this doesn't have to be about Germans: we could substitute any nationality here, pick some stereotypical features of that nationality which we don't like - English/British reserve, for example - and run the same claim).

I think there is an important difference between expressing dislike of certain cultural traits and being a racist: racism is crucially concerned not just with disapproval, but seeing whatever is disapproved of as the ground for otherwise unjustified differential treatment. The kinds of attitude which legitimates wishing, even in jest, people's burial under thousands of tons of volcanic ash is not the same as the kind of attitude which regards people as unsatisfactorily Mediterranean in temperament. Think of the apparently once-widespread practice of hissing like leaking gas at Spurs fans, and the difference between that and thinking that Scots are typically a bit tightfisted, or the English rather standoffish.

On another note, prompted by Rachele's announcement that she'll be supporting Arsenal tonight, an example of the lack of Italian, rather than regional, nationalism: allegedly, during the Italy-Argentina World Cup semi-final in 1990, played in Naples, Maradona successfully urged the local fans to support Argentina.

On the Albanians, despite the presence of the Arbereshe and Italian colonialism, this is hardly enormously surprising, although Rachele said that she really liked Albania when she was there, as it had obvious cultural commonalities.

Anonymous said...

I am not Italian so the racist comments are not directed towards me. However, racism is racism however shade you want to color it. Shame on Italians on both sides who use hidden or blatant racism to make themselves feel superior. Remember Hitler and don't carry your racism as a badge. Get your DNA checked for ultimately everyone winds up in Africa. Like it or not bro. Haaaaaa!

aristarco said...

I'm italian, proudly northern,and I would like to tell you that there have always been two Nations in one State.
Northerners do not feel to be superior than southerner but different.
In no statistic tables there are similar data related these two States.
To break Italy and let these two countries to develop more than now.
BR
Aristarco