As it often happens, unsolicited wisdom from academic luminaries appears on my Facebook wall indecently exposing the stream of the collective consciousness of my acquaintances and my acquaintances’ acquaintances. The perverse virtue of the platform consists now of washing upon my shores the intellectual intermittence of those far away with a strange aspect of unsolicited intimacy. A form of violation of privacy, if you will. On the lazy morning of a disappointingly cold Berlin sunday, an urgent expression of moral indignation flashed upon my screen above the headline bearing the title of a New York Times article: “Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor? The piece is a fairly generic report of the defense of a group of Romani criminals in French courts. Crowning a map of Europe showing an ‘infographic’–not sure what kind of graphics is that we were shown before–representing the Romani populations of the different countries, Justin E.H. Smith, associated Columiba University, according to Facebook data collection agents, wrote:
What the fuck? ‘Primitive’? Can you imagine anything remotely similar even being suggested in ‘polite society’ about any other persecuted and marginalized group in Europe? Disgraceful, shocking lapse on the part of the Times.
Disgraceful perhaps. Yet, Mr. Smith seemed to have misdirected his righteous anger. The author of the article, who seemed to have left-wing credentials just as solid as this bastion of academic intellection himself, points out that one of the lines of defense that lawyers for the accused Romani used in court was to suggest that the practice of petty-theft and small criminality are traditional cultural element of a community that has been pushed to the margins of political life. In an irony of historical destiny, it is the prosecutor, who demands to treat the perpetrators not as victims of their own cultural primitivism but as individuals who capable of deliberating on the moral status and juridical fitness of an action, chose to break the law and deprive others of their possessions. In fact, the very title of the piece alludes to the defense of primitivism mounted by the Roma lawyers themselves. In so doing, the lawyers along with other campaigners present the Roma as cultural retrogrades incapable of behaving any better than they do. On the other hand, the idea of poverty, present in the title but absent in the presentation of lawyers or prosecutors can probably be attributed to the author himself.
The indignation of this one man was soon lifted by the righteous indignation of a few dozen other academes from the US, Canada and Europe. Most of them happily hurling expressions of indignation and asserting moral demands. The whirlwind of goodness quickly coagulated into a letter to be sent to the editor of the NYT. In its original form the letter contained the following claim:
“We were dismayed to read Dan Bilefsky‘s October 19 article, “Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?” The title pretends to present two sides of a legitimate debate, when in fact the first horn of the dichotomy, as stated, has no place at all in civil society, European or American. The article then delivers what the title promises: a legitimation of the idea, even if it is not lent full approval by the author, that Roma culture must be eliminated, and that until it is the Roma people will effectively be a plague on Europe.
Dismayed they were but that was just the product of self-inflicted outrage. The title of the article does not in any way promise the legitimation of the argument that Roma culture must be eliminated at all. In fact, the author, merely repeats the defense of Roma culture. Understandably, a professional field that has been built on offering judgment and opinion of entire works on the cursory read of title and conclusion of books and articles can hardly be asked to unfold a more systematic treatment of the problem. In addition, it is always more pleasant for American academics to wear the coats of those who suffer. The actual victims can usually not compete for that discursive territory.
The letter turns into a true exercise in political dadaism when Mr. Smith, apparently unbeknown to himself, accuses the Roma of siding with the racial policies of the Third Reich:
We are not in the habit of resorting too quickly to that well-known argument-stopper, the comparison to Nazism. But such speech has truly, without exaggeration, not been acceptable in Europe since the time of the Third Reich.
Of course, this is entirely amiss. The argument that Nazism used to describe non-germanic people (Romani’s included) was a biological argument which held that there was a different biological constitution that made Jews, Romas and their many subgroups, Slavic people, etc, of a lower nature. The Roma defense of their primitivism is not biological but cultural. In some sense, this is very much the argument that underpins American affirmative action politics. Recognizing that black Americans, Latinos, etc have been pushed to the margins of society and been kept by oppression in a state of cultural and societal destitution, the system chooses to make up for it by overlooking standard qualifications. Not only do Americans on the left treat and extend political alms to their minorities, the minorities treat whites and other minorities in the same terms. Very often, black americans have felt quite comfortable treating asians, latinos and africans as primitive brutes and have found ways to treat them accordingly. But what is more interesting though, is to look at the systematic political justification of violence among American minorities both against whites and against other minorities. The allusion to a cultural and social primitivism in the American racial political spectrum is, tacitly or not, ubiquitous.
In fact, this is also fairly common currency in Europe where Spaniard refer in this way to sub-Saharan Africans, Italians to Eritreans and Somalis, Germans to Turkish citizens, but also Turkish citizens about German who eat pork, Morroccans in the Netherlands about the Dutch who tolerate homosexuality, etc. And then, of course, what we may call the Moosbrugger defense of the acts of vandalism and social violence of these groups themselves. ‘Of course we do it, the political and cultural situation left us no alternatives”. So when Mr. Smith asks:
Can anyone even begin to imagine, today, speaking publicly about any other persecuted and marginalized European ethnicity as ‘primitive’, as fundamentally unfit for side-by-side existence with the majority groups on European soil? Can anyone imagine speaking of economically and historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities in the United States in this way?
The answer is of course, yes, we can. Both on the illuminated American soil and across Europe. So the indignant surprise is slightly misplaced for yet one more reason. And then we are given a very strange primer of Roma culture. First we are explained the lack of good American style epic figures to secure Roma rights. If it is not done John Wayne style, it probably cannot be done at all:
Since that time [mid 19th century], there has been no civil rights movement, no Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, to draw attention to the deep, systematic, engrained injustices the Roma have had to face.
It is a bad habit of the American political imaginary to think that if they cannot see ‘it’ or know about ‘it’, ‘it’ is probably because it does not exist. In fact, Romani political life has quite a few significant figures including Delia Grigore in Rumania, Ali Krasniqi in Kosovo, Romani Rose, in Germany, Ceija Stojka in Austria, Zarko Jovanovic composer of the Romani anthem, Jacob Polak or Constantin Nicolaescu Plopsor Really, none?
This, I suppose, is a rather endemic syndrome in the academic left built on the American model of do-gooding anthropology and its spawn: they occupy the voice of the oppressed and build careers on making sure that those voices remain silent or unaccounted for. In fact, this is the more remarkable aspect of this act of academic moralization: Mr Smith and his friends seem to be committed to denying the possibility of allowing this Roma to present themselves as primitive or members of a tradition. It should be left, apparently, to European and American academics to allow or disallow Romas to present themselves in one or other way. Smith is however kind enough to remind us that, at least, Gypsies have offered endless opportunities for minstrelism:
Nonetheless, they [the Roma] have a vibrant and resilient culture, with literature worth reading, films worth seeing, and people worth getting to know. This much they have in common with all cultures.
Well, perhaps in the end, we should let the professional thinkers do the thinking and just let Romas engage in more manageable tasks for which they are clearly better disposed: Jazz manouche and flamenco. And then the letter comes in a Wagnerian crescendo to a final moment of deep political hysteria as we are informed that the NYT article may be ‘paving the roads to the future camps’–as academics like to say.
Bilefsky’s article will certainly not help anyone to realize this, and could very well help to bring about the return of the sort of scenario in Europe that, we fear, now has too many people unreflectively mouthing the words: ‘Never again’.
But then again, Bilefsky, who has now been accused of nothing short of preparing the ideological grounds for the next genocide, has done little more than offer a very tepid criticism of the position taken by the Roma themselves. The author of the article is, in the end, a lot more delicate in his treatment of the question of primitivism than the professional thinkers with their pachydermic stride. Of course, perhaps the title should have been frame by quotation marks to distance Mr. Bilefsky from the claim of primitivism but then one must wonder if the invective of the savants would not have been better addressed to the copy editor.