Negative stereotypes are often substantially true, but the talking classes have no way of dealing with such cases. At any rate, most don’t – but Peter Godwin does.
Back in 2001, Godwin wrote a wonderful, wonderful article about Gypsies, an article that should be an example to all of us. Here’s how he does it:
He starts with the annual Gypsy pilgrimage to Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small town in the Camargue. The local don’t welcome the Gypsies: partly it’s the theft and mounds of garbage, but there are personal reasons as well. He talks with the owner of a local cafe – who points to his empty eye socket. ” I lost it in a fight with a Gypsy. He pulled a knife on me.”
He visits a village of Slovakian gypsies – 10% of Slovakia, and set to become the majority by 2060. That’ll be the day.
The village is nested to an established Slovakian village. “A little brook choked with rags and bottles, tins and plastic bags, runs down through the Gypsy quarter, whose 300 residents are crammed into shacks made of logs and mud. Improvised roofs of sheet metal are weighed down against the tugging wind with rocks and old tires. It is a scene of medieval squalor.”
Not a single Gypsy there had a job. That all ended in 1989: only the Communists manged to get any work out of them. They lived off welfare, but were not the lowest of the low: they looked down on another nearby Gypsy village, who ate dogs. “We often sell dogs to them,” says Irena. Godwin then talked to a Slovak shopkeeper, who hated the Gypsies a whole lot. ” “They should put all the Gypsies in a paper boat and send them to Africa.” She also complained that the local Gypsies stole their dogs, for some reason. Godwin meets another Gypsy in her store, asks him if he has any dog lard for sale, and is instructed to follow him home – to a much more prosperous-looking village. ‘ Immediately I’m surrounded by a great crowd, many of whom are proffering jars of congealed dog fat. “We feed dog lard to our babies, and it makes them strong,” says Horváth. ‘
Godwin gos on to Romania, where the Gypsy traditions are different – many were metalworkers, and most were slaves until the late 1800s. Many became rich selling off the metal from the old Communist factories, and I get the impression that their method of gaining title to that salvage might not withstand close scrutiny. Godwin talks to Ştefan Mihai, a prosperous metal merchant. Ştefan say that he has not encountered much anti-Gypsy prejudice, but he has plenty of his own. “We absolutely won’t do business with any Roma we don’t know, because they are dangerous. But with Romanians it’s different. They don’t try to cheat you like Roma do. We have no problem with Romanians—we employ them as chauffeurs and bodyguards.”
Later, Godwin visits some Gypsies in a small Transylvanian village. ‘A young man and his friends are telling me about tsigani de casatsi—house Gypsies—”bad ones, who don’t work on the land like us but just steal for a living.” [ Like us !] Without warning, he wrenches my notebook from my hands and shoves me against the car. I am punched in the kidneys, and my arm is twisted behind me. A blade is held to the side of my neck, and suddenly I am surrounded by roaring Gypsies, maybe 30 of them, more appearing every few seconds from the surrounding houses. My translator, Mihai, is punched in the head. “Money! Money! Money!” his tormentors bellow. ” They take all his money.
There is a nice photograph, this being National Geographic. It shows a group of teen-age Gypsy beggars, with simulated sores and ulcers for enhanced begging ability. The 15 year-old girl looks pregnant. The caption says “Only the pregnancy is real.”
Evidently you can say anything you want, even the truth, if you pad every hilarious account of incompetence and depravity with skilled assurances that you’re not prejudiced. The last line is typical : “historically their skill has been to survive among a great diversity of hosts, among those always more powerful and entitled than themselves, enduring both the fist of hostility and the bear hug of forced assimilation by remaining nomads of the spirit.”
Reminds me of a Jersey way of talking, in which you can get away with saying that someone has frequent sexual congress with his alpaca, as long as you keep interjecting “But I don’t mean that in a bad way”.