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Are Stereotypes About Southern Europeans Fueling Austerity Rhetoric?

You donu2019t have to be an ultra-conservative to fear seeing America turn into one of those Mediterranean lands. No doubt itu2019s a prospect that disturbs plenty of Americans across much of the political spectrum. is hereby launched, with special thanks to History News Network editor David Walsh, an excellent harbor pilot who has steered this new vessel out of its dock and headed us toward the deep waters of America’s mythic narratives. Now we’re free to explore wherever we like. Welcome aboard the maiden voyage.

Most posts on will begin with something in the news that jumps out at a myth-seeker, like this gem: The states should reject increased Medicaid funding from Washington, now that Chief Justice Roberts has given them that option. Why? because if the federal government spends more, “sooner or later you become Greece or Spain or Italy.” That explanation comes from Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who was Newt Gingrich’s press secretary when Gingrich was Speaker of the House.

You don’t have to be an ultra-conservative to fear seeing America turn into one of those Mediterranean lands. No doubt it’s a prospect that disturbs plenty of Americans across much of the political spectrum.

How else explain the constant drumbeat of criticism of those three nations in the U.S. mass media? Yes, there’s an economic argument made, which Galen compressed into this sound bite: “If you keep expanding unemployment insurance and expanding Medicaid and expanding food stamps,” eventually “the money runs out….the government cannot keep growing without fraying at the seams.” That’s what most Americans, who get their news and views from the mass media, think is happening to the Eurozone’s three southernmost members — a stark proof of the dangers of “big government.”

And lots of Americans think they know why it’s happening: Those Spaniards and Italians and Greeks would rather take from the government teat than work hard to take care of themselves.

The only problem is that the facts don’t bear out this stereotype. There’s no correlation between how productive workers are and how well their national economies are doing. If you measure productivity by GDP per hour worked, the way the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development does, Spanish workers are more productive than those in Finland, Canada, or Australia. Italians are more productive than the Japanese or Israelis. Greeks are considerably more productive than South Koreans.

Nor is there any correlation between government support for human services and the health of the economy. Some nations are doing much better than the Mediterranean three, even though they have government-funded safety nets as generous or even more so. Places like Sweden, Finland, and Canada are hardly fraying at the seams.

Why, then, are the problems of the Mediterranean three so consistently blamed on their social safety nets? And why is this dubious explanation so rarely questioned in the American political conversation?

Much of the answer surely goes back to that fictional image of the lazy southern European who would rather lie around in the sun and drink than put in an honest day’s work. It’s a time-honored stereotype in the U.S., part of a time-honored tradition of stereotyping

For most of our history, most Americans of northwest European descent took it for granted that every nation had a distinct characteristic. In the nineteenth century and well on into the twentieth, “everyone knew” — at least everyone who lived inside the dominant public discourse — that Greeks love to eat and drink. Italians love to sing (especially opera) and drink, and make love.

What about Spaniards? Well, there weren’t too many folks living in the U.S. who had emigrated from Spain. But south of the border, there were those millions of Hispanics, speaking Spanish. In mythic terms they couldn’t be separated from Spain itself. And “everyone knew” that that they loved to do not much of anything at all, except drink, make love, and make trouble.

The prevailing myth of “national characteristics” arranged them in a hierarchy: Italy and Greece were somewhere in the middle, well below northwest European lands, but well above Africa and native Americans. Spain, represented by Latin American Hispanics, was a notch below its southern European neighbors.

But all three nations had two things in common, in the heyday of this mythic view: First, dark skin. Before World War I, when large numbers of Greeks and Italians came to the U.S., they were widely seen by lighter-skinned Americans as a different race. Only gradually did they become “white people.” Hispanics — and thus Spain itself — have remained largely outside the “white” preserve, despite the Census Bureau and other official agencies counting them as a certain kind of “white.”

Second, southern Europe was not predominantly Protestant. Now that anti-Catholic prejudice has tapered off so much, it’s too easy to forget how virulent it was for most of American history. Most Greeks were not Roman Catholic. But they practiced a form of Christianity even more foreign, mysterious, and thus intimidating to American Protestants.

The lack of white skin and Protestant faith was a literally damning combination in the mythology that prevailed at least through the mid-twentieth century. Like every myth, this one has its internal logic: White Protestants are uniquely blessed in their determination and ability to control their bodily desires. That’s why they work so hard, foregoing today’s pleasures for tomorrow’s earthly and heavenly gain.

Darker-skinned non-Protestants, lacking this capacity for deferred gratification, obviously would rather indulge now at someone else’s expense. In a word, they are lazy. In another word, they are sinners. And the wages of sin, it turns out, are plummeting wages or outright unemployment in this world as well as eternal perdition in next.

So there is no reason to take pity on their suffering. they’ve brought it upon themselves — which is the basic message underlying the story of their economic suffering in the American mass media today.

Of course the facts of American labor history tell a very different story. Immigrants from Italy, Greece, and Spanish-speaking lands have typically done the most arduous (and often dangerous) work for the lowest pay, because they were determined to build a better life for their children. (The greatest roadblock to today’s anti-immigrant crusade is the business community’s acute awareness of this fact.)

Again, the question arises: Why has it been so easy for a mythic perception to eclipse obvious empirical truth? In this case, we should recognize that, like most myths, this one may have a kernel of truth. Southern Europeans are willing to work as hard as northern Europeans. But there probably is a significant difference in their cultural view of what people do when the working day is over.

The Northwest European Protestant traditions insist on a myth of absolute self-discipline, 24/7. To the south, there seems to be more acceptance of some degree of indulgence in sense pleasure once the work is done. (Perhaps the Catholic and Greek Orthodox theologies of confession, penitence, and indulgence play a role here, but that’s a question for specialists to debate.)

Of course Americans of Northwest European heritage knew that there was plenty of indulgence in their own communities, too. But their cultural traditions demanded that it be kept secret and largely denied. The best tool for denial is to point the finger of blame at some “other,” who is labeled, by definition, sinful. That makes “us,” the total antithesis, by definition virtuous. So a difference in cultural orientations got blown into a dichotomy of saints against sinners.

This dichotomy dominated the discourse of white America through the early twentieth century. Only gradually did it fade in the last six or seven decades. the Latino community, along with the African American and native American communities, still suffer from it in quite overt ways.

Does this mythic heritage directly affect the way American media report, and American people perceive, the economic situation in southern Europe? There’s no way to prove it. But the disparity between perception and empirical economic facts, plus the scarcity of discussion about that disparity here in America, suggest that some unrecognized factors are at work beneath the surface of our political culture. The mythic tradition I’ve sketched here must surely play a part.

Whatever those X factors are, they have very real consequences in the real world. A headline in the New York Times (mobile edition, July 5, 2012) sums it up: “Washington’s New Austerity Spreads Around the Pain.” Of course the pain isn’t spread evenly. As always, the lower down you are on the economic ladder, the more it hurts. But if most Americans are persuaded that they need more austerity to avoid the dread fate of becoming Greece or Spain or Italy, the pain will only get worse.

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