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The Mediterranean at the Dawn of the Third Millennium

Where there is danger, there grows what saves

Friedrich Hölderlin, in Patmos

11.IX.2001 – 7.X.2024. The brutal attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the brutal terrorist violence of Hamas mark the dawn of the new millennium and constitute reference dates for a new era in the Mediterranean region, which is already conditioned by climate change, by the affirmation and crisis of international finance, and by growing migratory flows that have transformed the Mare Nostrum into the cemetery of a genocide produced by financial selfishness and political pettiness.

The Mediterranean is no longer the hub of the West-East conflict, typical of the Cold War after the Second World War, but a place of confirmation of the decline of the hegemony of the West. That hegemony is reduced to identifying itself in 2003 in the disastrous invasion of Iraq by a multinational coalition led by the USA with the neocolonial claim of George W. Bush jr. to impose democracy on that country after the defeat and killing of Sadam Hussein, and in recent months – after the massacres of Hamas – the shameful image of Israel reacting to terrorist violence with the massacre of tens of thousands of defenseless Palestinian civilians. And the US-EU axis appears incapable of finding diplomatic ways to reach a ceasefire, hence it passively suffers the wicked choices of the Israeli Government and the consequences of the failure of the attempts of US President Biden to stop Israel, which is responsible for what is now a genocide. It is a massacre that fuels not only hatred due to belonging to Israel or Palestine, but hatred due to religious faith.

The Netanjhau government becomes a negative symbol of the West, but is also the heaviest enemy of the people of Israel, provoking reactions to the detriment of the Jewish people in the world. And while the Jewish people, who have suffered terrible violence in the name of racial and religious hatred, deserve the utmost respect, History reminds us that it will be hard to extinguish religious hatred.

After the Second World War the West had taken on the face of a US and a Western European alliance opposed to the Soviet Union. During the years of the Cold War, “satellite” countries in the various Souths of the world were connected to either leading Western countries or the Soviet Union.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2022 has once again made the decline of Western hegemony legible in the heart of Europe, posing a question that is a call to responsibility and a guilty “distraction” of the US/EU axis: Where were the US and EU in 2014 when pro-Nazi Ukrainian militias (recognized by Kiev and trained by NATO instructors and still used today by Kiev and the West) operated in Donbass, killing defenseless citizens? And the West, incapable of promoting solutions and paths to peace, today finds itself mired in a war destined to have no end or to record the military victory of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Again, with more specific geographical reference to the Mediterranean, the brutal massacres of 7 October 2024 by Hamas posed the same question, which is a call to responsibility and guilty “distraction” of the USA and the EU: Where were the USA and the EU when, for decades, Israel militarized the Gaza Strip and persecuted defenseless Palestinians in defiance of human rights and United Nations resolutions?

And, again in reference to the Mediterranean, a similar question can be asked about the continuation of an unacceptable Western neocolonialism to the detriment of African peoples, which is confirmed by an unstoppable instability of the current regimes and makes Africa a place of Russian and Chinese neocolonialism.

Climate change produces already massive desertification and hunger, unstoppable migrations, while the financialization and globalization of the economy, with their recurring excesses and crises, facilitate genocides, wars and terrorism, to the detriment of defenseless and migrant populations, and new forms of colonialism thus find in the Mediterranean area a breeding ground made up of fragmentation, conflicts and conditions of institutional confusion. Concomitantly, there is a progressive loss of spirituality, or, even worse, the instrumental use of spiritual values: fanaticism and violence are thus championed from time to time by devious interests, as well as fears, and mixed racial and religious references.

In this context, new protagonists emerge such as India and China, who “hide” their military apparatus, making the numbers of their respective populations weigh – each of the two countries with over a billion inhabitants – as well as their financial and planning resources, the construction of infrastructural works, and their potential for corruption to the detriment of hundreds and hundreds of millions in absolute poverty. China, in particular, is characterized internally by systematic violation of human rights, while still keeping capitalism and communism within itself, and hence conditions that are typical of the global South and conditions typical of the North interact, from time to time presenting a different and captivating face, i.e., with communist or capitalist realities, from the North or from the South of the world. A heavy neocolonialism without the display of armies follows, which appears less unacceptable (but is equally heavy) than Western neocolonialism with its historical burden of military violence.

It may seem off topic that I refer to spirituality, understood as a vision inspired by respect for the human rights of each and every one. Yet, spirituality today means for me democratic brotherhood, beyond the traditional contrast between the primacy of freedom over equality or the primacy of equality over freedom. And I am convinced that the present, and even more future, condition of the Mediterranean is so serious as to require a radical change of spiritual perspective, through the research and choice of fundamental principles that, moreover, are widely codified in Universal Declarations and Conventions on human rights, and call for the consequent coherence of economic, cultural and political actions.

My proposal is to return to placing at the center of attention and reread, in the light of the times in which we live, values and references such as Race, Identity and God, all of which have been widely manipulated, obscured, considered instrumentally at the service of partisan interests and neocolonial claims starting precisely from the Mediterranean.

The first part of this proposal is to reject the belief that identity depends exclusively on the blood of parents and, instead, acknowledge that identity is an unrepeatable and individual act of freedom and personal experience. Approximately 8 billion human beings coexist on our planet and each has a different identity, differently composed. As many human beings as there are, as many as there are identities.

The second part of this proposal is to defend the one human race. Anyone who distinguishes men and women on the basis of a plurality of races prepares marginalization, intolerance, genocide.

In the Mediterranean, these last two propositions lead to the denial of the category of so-called, i.e., closed in itself. “migrants”: we are all human beings, belonging to the same race, all equal and all different without any discrimination between those born in a given reality and those who find themselves living in that reality.

A final part of this proposal for a radical change of perspective concerns God. Whoever believes that God is one (and I believe that God is one) will have to accept that someone meets God in the square of Allah, someone in the path of Jesus Christ, others in the avenue of Yahweh, but also in the paths of Shiva, Buddha or Confucius as well as in the path of reason. It is necessary to reject religion used as the “opium of the people” and respect religious faith as an impulse and choice for the liberation of every human being.

The Mediterranean, rich in history and cultures, faiths and languages, can be an extraordinary miscellany, a mosaic of civil coexistence, an interdependence experienced as an alternative and against intolerance and conflicts. Is this, just mentioned, an abstract and simplistic response to such a complex and concretely violent reality?

Yes and no, at the same time.

The answer depends on the will and ability to contribute – from the world of schools to that of information, from the world of economics to that of finance, from the world of the family to religious and even artistic realities – behaviors, concrete actions, lifestyles. All this is certainly difficult; and it alone is not enough. It is essential that this change of perspective becomes widespread awareness, but it is equally and completely necessary that this radical change of perspective becomes political action, a compass of orientation for States and international organizations.

This vision, this change of perspective in the politics and in the policies of the many States, is struggling to manifest itself, despite the many strong calls from artists, intellectuals, associations of citizens and spiritual leaders (from those condemned to the torture of migrations and dictatorships to artists and Nobel Prize winners, from isolated prophets of a new time to religious leaders such as Pope Francis). The European Union’s political choices currently appear not to be adequate to the ambitions and potential of the EU, which is itself one of the most extraordinary democratic institutional innovations of the history of humanity. And today, everyone understands that the role of European Union is essential for the future of Mediterranean and for peaceful international coexistence.

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash. The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Penguin, 2017)

In the age of unembarrassed narcissistic statesmanship and pervasive entrepreneurial self-promotion, bombastic assertions have become the norm. The book’s title, under this respect, is no exception.

First of all, in a commonplace and probably unaware feat of nationalistic navel-gazing that Uruguay-born Eduardo Galeano taught scholars to keep in check, the book does not deal with America, but with the United States of America (US) alone. Secondly, the book does not deal with class in general, but rather with the economically impoverished and socially immobile working class of Anglo-Saxon (or -British) descent inhabiting that vast country. Thirdly, as the book’s own extensive endnotes reveal, their history has been told repeatedly, studied conscientiously and, whenever possible, quantified, measured and dissected in all sorts of ways. The myth of boundless opportunity and the recurrent edifying rags-to-riches tales may well constitute the backbone of the so-called “American dream”, but US journalism, scholarship, religious and party life, music, literature, drama and cinema have also paid attention to the inopportune yet indubitable rags-to-rags experiences of many poor white US citizens of Anglo-British descent.

As to the seemingly most inflammatory and contentious words in the title, i.e. “white trash”, they are actually apt and accurate, for this particular section of the US population have been identified as such for a very long time, as well as by additional hosts of no less unsavoury expressions: “Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates… Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.” (320) Following chronologically an unending streak of debasing and insulting terms that the debased and insulted cannot but internalise from childhood, the book offers a compelling history of poor, ignorant, brutalised and brutal white US citizens, from the first English colonies on the east coast to today’s “hundreds of thousands of faceless employees who work at a Wal-Mart” for pitiful wages all over the nation (321). They are the people living in bad homes in bad places, who have bad diets and bad teeth, who suffer from bad health and smell bad, who speak bad English and display bad manners. They are those who start badly, fare badly and end badly–unless they get out of this bad rap, which may mean sometimes doing very bad things (i.e. things that middle-class morality and/or the legislator disapprove of).

Isenberg’s compelling history is enlivened by a most competent combination of fluid descriptive prose and many well-chosen, intelligent quotations, typically though not exclusively from unsympathetic observers. Given the standard conditions of illiteracy and misery of “white trash” communities, hardly any testimony has reached us from their past that was not recorded by members of the superior classes, who seldom looked upon such “offscourings” with a kind eye and rarely empathised with their plight, or tried to do much to change or alleviate it. More often than not, the miserable condition of miserable people was accepted as part of God’s order or, later on, as a natural condition, whether cast in the scientific hence unassailable language of agronomy, animal husbandry, Darwinian evolution, genetics or economics. Poverty, according to these accounts, is not only inevitable socially and economically; also, it is deserved, whether morally or biologically.

If anything, fear and loathing have been the regular attitudes of the members of the upper classes, who have habitually had no qualms whatsoever about making calculated use of their inferiors qua cheap labour (e.g. indentured workers and rural tenants), co-oppressors of other poor people (e.g. native Americans and black slaves), perennial debtors, forcible inhabitants and slapdash improvers of the most inhospitable parts of the country (e.g. swamps and natives’ contested territories), cannon fodder, objects of ridicule and sexual ab/use, subjects for social and medical experimentation (e.g. eugenic programmes), users of addictive and unhealthy consumer goods (e.g. tobacco and junk food), sheep-like followers of dubious evangelical preachers, unenriched protagonists of commercially succesful fads (e.g. comic strips and TV shows), and pliable voters in skewed electoral systems allowing for de facto oligarchy and demagoguery under de iure equality and democracy. Latin America’s peones and campesinos could recount similar stories, their haciendas and fazendas showing the same forms of deprivation as the US plantations, their bidonvilles and favelas recalling eerily the Hoovervilles and trailer parks of the North, and inequitable grinding class structures replicating themselves analogously across much of the American continent.

On a more cheerful note, religiously minded idealists and philanthropists (e.g. J.E. Oglethorpe in chapter two), progressive men of science and politicians (e.g. R.G. Tugwell in chapter nine), and the sporadic successful white-trash social climber (e.g. Davy Crockett in chapter five) are also recalled and accounted for. No clear-cut, straightforward recipe is offered to explain how, when and why upward social mobility may become likelier for members of the functional underclass–as the great Canadian-born economist J.K. Galbraith characterised employable white-trash individuals and other members of the lower classes in the US. (Galbraith is cited in Isenberg’s book in connection with the notion that pockets of utter destitution continued to exist in the affluent society emerging in the US after the second world war; 265.) Beneath them, one should not forget, there is also a dysfunctional underclass of variously named knaves, prostitutes, beggars, vagrants and addicts (Marx’s controversial Lumpenproletariat), as well as impoverished old pensioners and/or ill people, whether physically or mentally or both. Such a vast group of US citizens, according to Isenberg, is also part and parcel of white trash, whose sensationally publicised record of crime and violence is a reminder of the shady roots of much English immigration in the 17th century.

Good farming practices, education, institutional aid or private patronage, diversified job opportunities, enlightened legal and fiscal systems, and the unmeasurable but essential phenomena of talent and luck are variously recalled at several different points in the book. Nevertheless, its author never commits to any clear synthesis or one-size-fits-all solution. More modestly, while displaying cases of upward social mobility, she acknowledges the conspicuous differences in relative poverty between slave-holding economies and free-labour ones (cf. chapters three and seven), as well as the considerable achievements of F.D. Roosevelt’s and L.B. Johnson’s social policies (cf. chapters nine and ten). Something can be done to reduce poverty and increase the chances for poor white US citizens to lead a better life; indeed, something has been done and proven workable in the nation’s history. Yet history, whether tragically or farcically, is not inherently bound to repeat itself.

Under this respect, in the new preface included in the 2017 paperback edition (the original publication for Viking Press having been issued in 2016), trade unions are briefly acknowledged too, this time by quoting the famous media tycoon W.R. Hearst who, in 1904, asserted: “Wide and equitable distribution of wealth is essential to a nation’s prosperous growth and intellectual development. And that distribution is brought about by the labor union more than any other agency of our civilization” (xvi). More or less revolutionary movements such as Protestant radicalism (e.g. diggers and levellers), “Jacobinism”, anarchism and communism are only mentioned as derogatory terms in connection with the wealthy’s condemnation of all rebels and threatening dissenters (166). Fear of them, somehow, is never openly presented as an effective incentive for the wealthy to grant concessions, or even temporary respite, to the underclass, even if the terror of major social upheaval, especially qua slave rebellion in the South, is discussed as an important political factor in the context of the Civil War.

No charts and numbers are to be found in this book. The historical prose chosen by Isenberg has a far more literary quality and overall tone than the run-of-the-mill academic publications to which she refers in her lengthy and valuable endnotes. This stylistic choice might explain by itself the book’s success in terms of sales. No clear-cut, explicit criteria for key-terms are presented either. “Class”, “identity” and “race” resonate all over the book, but no specific definition or theoretical foundation is given, which might be a way not to antagonise the book’s readers and therefore appeal to as many of them as possible. The same fuzziness colours the standards of poverty and deprivation or, conversely, of wealth and well-being, that should help us distinguish between and within classes. Thus, in the final chapters of the book, pathologically obese white-trash individuals appear all of a sudden, after an account of centuries of emaciated and starving white-trash ancestors, whom hunger forced into geophagy. (Not far from the US southern coastline, today’s Haitians still consume large amounts of mud cakes, aka mud pies or dirt cookies.) Such shortcomings may displease exacting academics, but that should be no major concern for the book’s author. Incisive, instructive and interesting, her book has already reached a large readership in the US.

Rikke Andreassen & Kathrine Vitus (eds.), Affectivity and Race. Studies from Nordic Countries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015)

The book’s title announces that two concepts are of crucial importance in this publication: affectivity and race. The book’s subtitle places its content geographically: in the Nordic countries; or better, in Scandinavia, since there are no studies comprised in the present book that deal with Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Continue reading Rikke Andreassen & Kathrine Vitus (eds.), Affectivity and Race. Studies from Nordic Countries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015)