Concrete web-magazine

17Apr/120

Die Eidesgenossen Kommen!

When the Swiss newspaper "Die Weltwoche" recently titled "The Roma are coming" - illustrated by the picture of a child pointing a gun straight into the camera - it was but one example of many how the most despiseful of sentiments are pushing back into the public discourse. Anti-Ziganist stereotypes were never gone, quite to the contrary: a public debate on this specific form of racism had never occured in any country of Europe and anti-Ziganism remained entrenched within all European societies. What, perhaps, is new at least in recent history is the straightforwardness with which these sentiments are once again put forward by influental media, leading politicians and large parts of the self-proclaimed elite.

The tropes remain the same: "Gypsies" are dirty, lazy, dishonest, criminal, homeless and unhygienic. So much for the stereotype. It'd be useless, when adressing the stereotypes, to point out what the real situation of the people labelled as "Gypsies" is like. The conclusion, that Roma and Sinti are perfectly normal people, just like everyone else, should be painfully obvious. Yet, even the strongest of evidence to the contrary would not disperse the hatred towards these people, because anti-Ziganism was never about the people identified as Zigani. This particular ideology is a construct of the early modern era and the "Gypsies" were one of several ethnic groups used to project ideas, sentiments and feelings which the developing nationstate and capitalist citizenship wanted to rid itself of.  "Gypsies" were given a set of stereotypes that embodied what the modern man of the enlightement-era sought to overcome. They themselves had never done anything to warrant such treatment.

Using entire groups of people as an ideological "wastedump" was a staple of developing modernity. Whereas the cultures outside of the European hemisphere were accused of "primitivity" - again, as a negative example for what the modern European man sought to overcome - the Jews, for example, where charged with the negative results of developing modernity. The social changes marked by developing capitalism were attributed to the jewish people who became fatally "overcivilized" in the eyes of the "domestic" Europeans: so out of touch with their environment, that they became the embodiment of greed. Women, meanwhile, had all those activities latched upon their backs that could neither earn a revenue in the wage-labor economy that developed during that era nor were of military or political nature, yet were nevertheless of crucial importance to the survival of society as a whole: the reproduction (raising children, cooking, cleaning and other vital tasks that remained unpaid). In every of these cases, the need for an embodiment of the ideological extremes the enlightened man thought himself above tied itself seamlessly to existing perceptions, but changed them dramatically in the process.

Anti-Ziganism served a function for the developing nationstates of Europe, in that they served as a "warning". These people were stateless wanderers who, according to the anti-Ziganist sentiment, were unable and unwilling to settle down, assume proper jobs and respect property. "Gypsies" were once regarded as respectable, yet strange, travellers when they first came to Europe. Medieval society cared little for who they actually were and tied them into their own folklore and spiritual worldview, making the migrants that came to Europe pilgrims on a pilgrimage - and attributing varying sources of origin to them, depending on which biblical location best fitted the regional perception. "Gypsy", for example, has its roots in "Egyptian", despite no Zigani people originating from that country. Pilgrims, however, were to be respected and sheltered in medieval society, which was fundamentally different from the situation the Sinti and Roma found themselves with when Europeand started sorting themselves into nationalities and drew borders on the map they now deemed of eternal validity.

Yes, the "Gypsies" became the embodiment of things the modern European citizen sought not to be. The enlightenment-era man knew his nationality and home, worked hard (in fact, the very prerequisite for being a human for many enlightenment-philosophes was to work!) respected the law and authority and property - the "Gypsy" was an eternal wanderer without loyalty nor home, without respect to law and authority, dirty and lazy. Stereotypes such as these helped the national identities of modern Europe develope. European nationalism grew from the alienation of entire groups of people, including the "Gypsies" on a prominent position.

It should come as no surprise now that, in an era of globalization and the decay of established structures and categories of national identity, there is a considerable reactionary rollback as those frightened by the massive global changes are insisting on their established categories. A rollback that also sweeps Anti-Ziganism back into the public discourse. A similiar situation, albeit in a different context, was created when the authoritarian state-socialist governments of eastern Europe fell and, particularily, when Yugoslavia fell apart. In this time of uncertainty, change and decay of established order, nationalist sentiments became dominant for the political consciousness of large parts of the populations of these countries. Again, the construction of national identity in these countries brought to the surface a lingering anti-Ziganism, which promptly moved to prove the particular perfidious ability of anti-Zigani stereotypes to realize themselves.

What this means is, that people that are generally regarded as dirty, unreliable thieves by the majority of a society will be pushed into conditions of homelessness and unemployment, with lack of personal hygiene and the eventual need to resort to petty crime to survive as a result. In practice, this may take the form of the simple refusal to rent out an apartement to a "Gypsy" out of fears they may wreck the place or not pay the rent, or the unwillingness to hire a "Gypsy" because they are perceived as lazy and criminal. These processes of mass-impoverishment were quite easily observed in Yugoslavia, where, during Titos rule, Sinti and Roma formed an, albeit less well educated than other parts of society, integrated population that was predominantly employed in manual heavy-industry jobs that taxed an expensive toll on the physical health of the workers, yet paid well for that reason within the state-socialist economy of Yugoslavia. With the collapse of Yugoslavia, within the scope of a few years, almost all Sinti and Roma were pushed to the lowest levels of society, often unemployed and homeless merely for the reason that society perceived that as their intrinsic nature.

The picture which "Die Weltwoche" used to illustrate their claims of Roma-gangs roving through Europe was meanwhile taken on a garbage dump in Kosovo - and depicts a boy playing with a plastic toy-gun, not some dangerous child-criminal.

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