You can’t put the shit back in the cow: a note on racism in Italy and in Italian wine today

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Above: an image from Oliviero Toscani’s 1989 United Colors of Benetton campaign (via the Benetton corporate website).

Responding to an Italian-Swiss reader of his weekly column in Tempo in 1969, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote on “unconscious class hatred”:

    Racism [directed toward jailed Italians] is unconscious class hatred.

    Compare it to American racism, which, until now and even today, has been unconscious class hatred.

    But from the moment that negroes began to combat it and to become self-aware as an impoverished class, the obscure and indecipherable racial hatred directed toward them has become clear-cut, easy-to-decipher class hatred.

    It is the same type of hatred that an Italian bourgeois feels for a communist but not for “lazy southerner” or a jailed countryman.

(The article was republished posthumously in Il Caos [Chaos], Mondadori, 1979. You can read it in its entirety here. Translation mine.)

I selected this famous quote for my post today because of its reference to racism in the U.S. in the late 1960s.

I’m too young (at 46 years) to remember what racial tension felt like in America then. But like most Americans in my generation, I have a vivid awareness, informed by journalism and literature, of the racial and class divide that shaped cultural discourse at the time.

Today in America, hate speech or even speech that indirectly condones racist attitudes is entirely unacceptable in mainstream society and media. Just think of Trent Lott and his political demise after he praised “Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist Dixiecrat presidential bid” in 2002.

In 1969, things were much different in our country, even among educated and enlightened citizens who considered themselves liberal at the time (the racial attitudes of my grandparents on both sides of my family, for example, would be entirely intolerable today).

In many ways, thanks to the EU’s policies on migration and immigration, thanks to globalization, and thanks to trans-Atlantic dialog facilitated and emboldened by social media, Italians are becoming self-aware of their own attitudes on race and class for the first time in their history.

When Tuscan winemaker and land owner Martino Manetti apologized for racially charged comments that appeared on his Facebook earlier this week, he took a page from a familiar model.

“The method is always the same,” wrote the author of a Repubblica article on the widespread and sadly tolerated use of racial epithets in Italian society last year. “First an insult is hurled… Then, an apology is issued. Then atonement is announced and assurances are given that racism has nothing to do with it…”

It was all a “goliardic” joke, wrote Manetti. In other words, a form of satire.

“I’m not a racist or a Nazi,” he wrote.

To this, one veteran Italian wine writer responded, borrowing from an agricultural aphorism, “you can’t put the shit back in the cow.”

By no means do I share or condone Manetti’s attitudes, his use of racially charged language in social media, or his half-hearted and morally bankrupt apology. If you follow my blog, you know my politics, my attitudes on intolerance, and my ideological convictions. I’ll let you fill in the blanks when it comes to how I feel about Manetti and people like him. For me to utter my intolerance of intolerance here would be in bad taste.

But I do think that the episode can be ascribed in part to the “unconscious class hatred” that Pasolini described in his 1969 essay. At the time, Italy was grappling with another migration issue: the wave of southerners who were moving north to take part in Italy’s “economic miracle,” its post-war recovery.

They were the terroni, the lazy southerners.

Today, Italians attitudes on race are challenged daily by the influx of north-African, Roma, and Chinese immigrants. Add to this mix the pressures of a prolonged recession, continued political turmoil and instability, and the eyes of Anglophones who follow the vicissitudes of Italian life seamlessly and incessantly through social media.

In many ways, they are like the Americans of 1969: for the first time, many Italians are having to come to terms with their own attitudes on race and the way that people beyond Italy’s borders view those attitudes.

For the record, as I’ve stated before, I am not encouraging anyone to boycott Manetti’s wines. That’s a decision for every wine lover to make in her or his own mind and conscience. I don’t drink the wine and his racially charged comments didn’t come as a surprise to me. When someone served me the wine in November, I simply said thank you and didn’t drink it.

But as an observer, chronicler, and lover of Italian culture — enogastronomic and otherwise — I felt it was important for me to write about the Italian blogosphere’s reaction to the revelations. I love Italy and the Italians that much, warts and all. And I know to digest these episodes cum granu salis.

My interest in Italy — and especially in the writings of Pasolini and Gramsci — changed my life radically and helped me to form my own views of class, race, and ideology when I was a student. I highly recommend both writers to you.

Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti… warts and all.

2 thoughts on “You can’t put the shit back in the cow: a note on racism in Italy and in Italian wine today

  1. Pingback: Bianchetta: one of the Veneto’s long-lost treasures, now revived | Bele Casel

  2. Pingback: Italian wine resources, Prosecco’s lost treasure, and Parzen family update | Do Bianchi

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