A mix of racism, ‘Ndrangheta and fear
Gian Antonio Stella talks to Federica Zoja 12 February 2010

Why has Rosarno been given so much visibility by the media? Is it true that some politicians exploited those events?

Three different things happened in Rosarno. Firstly, fraud against Europe and the National Social Security Institute (INPS). The mafia clans had friends and relatives who, on paper, worked as labourers for fake agricultural cooperatives. Then they instead used black immigrants to do the work. This aspect was instantly seized on and exploited by anti-southerners in the North. Then, in Rosarno there was also exploitation by organised crime, which at a certain point decided to get rid of these people. The ‘Ndrangheta discovered that it was not worthwhile and it would be better to take European money and not pick the tangerines. There is not much difference between picking the fruit and paying ‘those people’ or leaving it on the trees and taking the benefits. They chose to get rid of the immigrants. Thirdly, there was also real racism that was triggered when those poor workers reacted. This was not the first time they had been shot at and they reacted, which resulted in a disaster because people were frightened and the media made the mistake of spreading fear. Finally, the fact that they threw the immigrants out of the town, rather than the ‘Ndrangheta ,was negative. There is food for thought in that. They shot at the immigrants and no one else.

All the inhabitants of Rosarno were portrayed as racists, while only a few days later people began to blame the ‘Ndrangheta.

A few days after these events in Rosarno, a listener called in on the programme Prima Pagina (broadcast on Radio3 and hosted by Stella) to emphasise another aspect, saying that the ‘Ndrangheta had added fuel to the flames. This is obvious and blatant. I am not saying that Calabria is racist, but there are racists feelings spreading and they exploded in Rosarno. This is a war between poor people as already seen in Ponticelli (Naples’ eastern suburbs).

Could one say that the north and the south are experiencing a parallel process regarding a perception of instability and danger coming from outside?

Sophocles said “For those who are afraid, everything rustles.” I believe that our country is afraid, confusedly experiencing a powerful disquiet. It is afraid of everything, the economic crisis, losing jobs, not receiving a pension, afraid of TB and the lice immigrants are said to have brought back to Italy and that had been eliminated. This ‘everything’ also includes fear of others, of those who take the jobs Italians no longer like, however, some listeners calling in on radio shows say “if this is way things are going, then our women can work as carers.” This is not true. No Italian woman is prepared to work six and a half days a week and be on duty at night too.

From a European perspective, in terms of intolerance of foreigners, is Italy now dealing with issues other countries have already experienced? Take France for example, where migration is better established because of the country’s colonial history. After seeing the French banlieues in flames, is it now our turn?

France has undoubtedly had great problems, considering that Le Pen (Jean-Marie Le Pen, president of the Front National extreme right party) reached the second ballot in the 2002 presidential elections. One can observe, however, that when a serious right-wing party takes up certain issues without racist overtones, it is possible to put into perspective phenomena such as Le Pen, whose dynamic phase is over. The French Gaullist right has never been racist. The only place where two ministers can call black people ‘bingo bongos’ is Italy.

Using the alibi of ‘provocation’, the borders of political language are constantly moved. Will alarm bells ever go off? And in the meantime the divide between the north and the south increases and anti-southernism is on the rise again…

Perhaps alarm bells will ring when Berlusconi realises what is happening. I believe he has very serious responsibilities. I do not think he is racist, but for tactical reasons he has legitimised the language used by the Northern League in a manner that is not allowed in any other European country. Take Dutch leader Geert Wilders, who is considered a racist in Holland. Well, his speeches would be considered moderate here. “I do not wish to throw anyone out. Holland already has many immigrants and one need to say ‘enough’. We have been too tolerant with those preaching intolerance.” That is what he says. The same applies to Pim Fortuyn (leader of the Leefbaar Nederland, Liveable Holland Party, murdered in 2002 by an extremist left-wing activist) who used to say that Holland’s great open policies had been exploited by ‘others’.
One must also emphasise that the Dutch have experienced very violent events, such as the murders of Fortuyn and Van Gogh. Such events are luckily still unheard of in Italy.

Nothing even comes close to the Northern League’s leader in the European Parliament, Mario Borghezio. Verbal vulgarity and violence are not a characteristic that is exclusive to the Northern League. However, in other countries no ruling party uses the language they use. In Denmark, for example, Pia Kjaersgaard (leader and co-founder of the Danish People’s Party) would not dream of saying the things that Bossi or Calderoli say, although she is tough in defending Danish values, firm on immigration and extremely tough on religion. But she is not racist like our politicians. The only other case of a political party close to the centre of power, which uses language close to that used by the Northern League, is that of Slovakian nationalists who want to throw Hungarians out of Slovakia. But they are not in power; they support the government externally. The Right in Europe is tough in defending its values, hostile to Turkey’s membership and uncontrolled immigration, but they do not use the verbal violence of the Northern League. In racism, form equal substance. Saying “we cannot welcome everyone” is very different from saying “enough niggers” or “enough yellow faces.” And, like it or not, Berlusconi has great responsibility for allowing such language. Let us be clear, the entire language of politics has been barbarised. There are furious clashes in other parliaments too, but “shut up you hideous whore” or “you are a flaccid faggot” as happened the day the Prodi government fell, are things heard only in Italy.

And yet it seems that the Northern League is also gaining votes in the South, as the ‘only political force defending Italian values.’

I do not believe that is entirely true. For the moment Silvio Berlusconi is managing to keep the various elements of the PDL united. Gianfranco Fini’s evolution has him increasingly standing out from his party and I believe the change is sincere. Of course it is possible that there is also the desire to be considered as a more European leader. I am sure he has calculated the risk. Political culture in Italy is a serious problem, far too long delegated to television channels and thus to Berlusconi’s commercial ones. He himself is responsible for this xenophobic change, for example when he said that Milan was an African city. On the other hand, the Left has played a defensive role for years as far as racism and immigration are concerned, without ever finding the right words to answer back.

How do you consider the Church’s position on these issues?

The Church had enormous historical responsibilities on racism, but since John XXIII there has been epoch-making change. John Paul II did everything possible, no one has ever taken such a stand against racism. His ‘Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People’ is the most open document ever written on the Roma people, to the extent that it would even be hard to read it out loud in many European quarters. Pope Ratzinger has always sided with immigrants ever since he was Prefect for the Faith. I interviewed him after the shipwreck caused by an Italian patrol boat in the Otranto Channel. He said “One can defend the legacy of a people, but one cannot live on an island separated from the rest of the world, especially today. A closed attitude of the kind “we are fine and we do not want those experiencing problems’ is I believe immoral politics.” I believe he has not changed his mind. Even when the Osservatore Romano dismissed Monsignor Marchetto (Secretary for the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People) saying that he spoke “of his own accord”, he obviously knew he still had a degree of Vatican backing. All in all there is a degree of ambiguity.

How important are ethics to a journalist?

One cannot work as a journalist without an ethical perspective. One can hurt people in this job and at times one makes mistakes. Who knows how many mistakes I too have made. I believe that the ethical dimension of a journalist is like sanctity for Catholics; hard to achieve but one must try. For example, I think that Oriana Fallaci was a great journalist, but I do not think she was the best. In my opinion there have been others as good or better, people like Tommaso Besozzi, Goffredo Parise, Indro Montanelli, or Giorgio Bocca. In the last period of her life, Fallaci spoke to people’s emotions, and, as is easier than doing the opposite, she brought out bad feelings and thoughts. I think the challenge lies instead in making people think and that this is really useful. It is best do bring out the best in people, not the worst.

How did your last book come into being and, generally speaking, your need to analyse in-depth a subject well beyond the restricted borders of a newspaper article?

I write a book to really understand a subject totally. I commit myself to read books that I would otherwise never read. I commit to research and to keep an open mind. This book needed writing and I had been thinking about it for a long time. My first ant-racist appearance was in the theatre in 2004, for the Corriere della Sera Foundation, together with Bebo Storti and the Compagnia delle Acque. Then, after the European elections, when there was a clear racist attack at a continental level, I made up my mind in the spring of 2009. It turned out to be more complex than I had envisaged; I had problems with the two chapters dedicated to the Jews. So much had already been written… And then there was the extremely delicate subject of the racism expressed by some Jews in today’s Israel. I hope I managed to be sufficiently balanced. Reactions have been positive.

On the subject of delicate issues, what do you think of the idea of introducing a 30% limit of foreign students in Italians schools?

This is a complicated subject. I think that before one has a Via Anelli (the so-called Bronx in Padua, closed in December 2009), it would be best to make administrative choices that avoid ghettos. They are not good for us and not good for immigrants either. To make such difficult choices, however, it is necessary to eliminate racism from the equation. Policies involving quotas in schools could make sense. It depends how they are applied.

In conclusion, is there in Italy a desire to look into the mirror, to address racism? And why is there not the same desire to address the issues of the south?

At the moment there is an interest, although I was aware I was sailing against the wind with this book. Let us say that I read books that were at times difficult and even boring, to provide anti-racists with as many arguments as possible against racism, since once cannot always be defensive. As far as racists are concerned, they will not be able to say that I am incoherent. I find it equally unacceptable to hear Bossi called a ‘shitty paralytic’. I organise meetings in schools precisely for this reason, to instil doubts in the minds of those whose opinions differ from mine. As far as Southern Italy is concerned, the worst aspect is that the south no longer believes in itself. They are resigned to things as they are. It is serious enough that northerners believe less and less in the south’s redemption, but the real problem is that southerners themselves no longer believe it is possible. There is a part of this country that has a hypertrophic view of itself, and another part that has become increasingly sour, alienated and in search of small and crafty revenge. Then luckily, there are some immensely bright exceptions, with people who set off and conquer the world. Sadly, however, the community in the south no longer believes in itself.

Translated by Francesca Simmons