Monday, May 25, 2009

This is New Zealand - Asian Edition

I’ll come right out and confess that one of my favourite literary genres is the promotional book. It might have something to do with my dear godmother, who for a number of Christmases in a row gave me books that her husband picked up at trade fairs, including a monumental - and in so many ways, absolutely delightful - History of Methane, a relic of a not-so-distant time when the word emissions had almost exclusively scatological meanings.

Of special and more recent interest to me is the subset of this genre that promotes whole countries and their ways of life. I talked briefly a little while ago about this particular gem

but neglected to make the dutiful point that nationalistic propaganda sprouting from a rich compost of lies and embellishments is hardly the sole domain of totalitarian governments. Everybody does it. You’ll find as much self-criticism in this type of offering as you do in the average national anthem. Nonetheless, these books generally make very interesting reading, precisely in fact because of their specific lies and obfuscations, as well as the occasional truths that seep through the promotional message.

There are some reassuring constants: the people of all nations, we are told, are uncommonly resourceful and ingenious, hard working and interested in pursuing a variety of interests. Sports and the arts play important roles in their lives, as does family. I am looking forward to a book professing that the citizens of, say, Latvia, are a slothful and tedious bunch who loathe children and are really letting themselves go in the fitness department, but it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming (at least not from the Latvians themselves). Also, most countries whose literature I have come across are 'a country of contrasts', which apparently is a good thing.

Predictable niceties are also written about each nation’s great artistic beauty and its rich and colourful traditions. But these aren't ordinary guidebooks, and a reminder of their mercantile aims, often on a very large scale, is never far behind. Here is a page from G. Selmer Fougner's A Good Living Tour of Italy (1955):

The advertisment goes on to say, i
n case you were wondering, that 'graving and floating docks can handle supertankers'. And who didn't tour Italy with his or her supertanker, in those days?

Another point of difference is that these kinds of books invariably project an uncritical and cohesive image of the country's political structures and policies. Look in particular for the ideological statements that underpin the sections on government, welfare and society, if you're into the comparative literature of propaganda. Case in point: the About New Zealand booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign affairs and Trade in 1999 - at the tail end of nine year of National Party rule - which reads as a manual on the virtues of neoliberalism. We learn for instance that
[s]uccessive [New Zealand] governments have shaped an environment for a leaner, more productive economy by championing reform, deregulation and sound financial policies at home, while pursuing open and liberalised trade and investment policies abroad. (p. 27)
We all know that ‘leaner’ means ‘employing fewer people’, but whatever repercussions this transition might have had on the securing of welfare provisions is left unsaid. In fact, the myth of the smooth, harmonious operation of the state machinery invariably espoused by these books can complicate things a bit when it comes to boasting a nation's historical achievements. About New Zealand needs for instance to accommodate both the pride in the pioneering role played by the country in the areas of labour relations and welfare entitlements, and the idea that getting rid of such entitlements was a good thing. Here's what the book has to say about health services:
In the 1930s, New Zealand made history by being the first nation to establish a comprehensive welfare system. The aim was to provide people with security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ through assistance for the sick, the unemployed and for families. A wide range of medical care was also provided free of charge. Almost 70 years later, the cost of providing social welfare has grown. Welfare benefits are now more tightly targeted at those most in need. Today the emphasis of the social welfare system is on providing income support to ensure those facing difficulties can be helped back to self-reliance and well-being. (p. 34)
Deftly, neatly, this paragraph bridges together a far poorer, less advanced New Zealand which yet believed that it should care for its citizens as a matter of duty, to the contemporary, far richer and more advanced New Zealand, where ensuring the people's well-being is just too darn expensive. And naturally none of this is allowed to interfere with the notion that by crossing this particular bridge the country has experienced anything but progress.

As it happens, some time last year I became the fortuitous but nonetheless proud owner of a precursor written in 1986, at the very time when this significant change of ideological course was being charted. I say fortuitous because there was never a time when you could buy or pick up this very lavishly produced book, which was intended as a gift for Chinese businessmen and government officers.

This puts the fantastically entitled This is New Zealand - Asian Edition in a particular sub-category of nation-promoting books, those specifically aimed at encouraging foreign investment and trade. This is a tricky and elaborate exercise that requires a certain amount of grovelling to go along with the requisite pride in the display of the nation's treasures to the chosen bidder. Hence the seemingly peculiar decision - given the overall politics of the book's authors and sponsors - to open with an appeal to the ambassadorship of Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who dedicated his life to the cause of Chinese communism. But do not be fooled: as the contribution of stockbroking firm Renouf Partners makes clear, the book is firmly aligned with the Douglas manifesto and its 'major restructuring of the economy'. In an especially welcome development, we are informed,
a growing financial sector is blossoming, helped by rapid and bold moves to free the economy from a mass of regulations and controls that had developed over the years. It has been said that the "New" is being put back into "Zealand". (p. 113)
(I couldn't find a lot of information about Renouf Partners, by the way, other than in this document by Chris Lee, that lists it among a number of firms that went belly up under Douglas' tenure as a result of having been 'perhaps honestly, but incompetently run'. It sounds like they might have put the "usual" back into "bankruptcy".)

For all the talk of restructuring and radical innovation, the book still boxes New Zealand in its traditional role of primary producer, declaring it from the outset 'a well stocked farm in the Pacific' (p. 17), capable of such feats as - in what is possibly my all-time favourite caption - 'integrating forestry and farming':

The image below of a refrigerated container full of fresh produce opening onto a pristine landscape encapsulates the idea of New Zealand that is being sold to the reader by a list of more or less predictable suspects: the Meat Board, Owens investments, National Bloodstock, Feltex, Wattie Industries, Tasman Forestry, the State Coal Mines and a number of companies servicing the primary sector - even the lone representative of the electronics industry, AWA, turns out to be involved in the production of fruit grading machinery.

One contributor stands out and may at first seem a little puzzling: the Justice Department. It appears that the export envisaged here is expertise on how to deliver a Western-style justice system, should China ever be interested. In the relevant section the reader is helpfully informed that
[o]ne of the dilemmas in any democracy is the tension between the desire to strengthen and extend government powers to provide and effective government, and the need to uphold and protect the rights and freedoms of the individual. (p. 125)
For all the condescension in this particular snippet, the book is deferential towards China and studiously avoids topics that may offend or complicate the picture of what the country has to offer. Therefore it skips directly from the 'ancient times' of Maori settlement to 'today's lifestyle', without so much as a mention of the arrival of the Europeans or the Treaty of Waitangi. It name checks the presence of Chinese immigrants from the second half of the eighteenth century, but glosses over the sorry race relations record that accompanied it. It even contributes to the time-honoured tradition of using Asian as a substitute for Chinese (no other nationality is mentioned). Its Maori content, including some stunning artwork, sets a picturesque scene, but is never placed within the easily domesticated concept of the Maori renaissance, let alone the harsher realities of persistent socio-economic differentials. Moreover, none of the businesses promoted through the book have an explicit Maori dimension, making the customary exploitation of iconography and lore that much more grating.

None of this, however, is altogether untypical. As I suggested above, these kinds of books are often more significant for what they leave out than for what they include. Lacking as they are in critical perspective, they cannot be regarded as documents of a nation's changing modes of self-examination, but rather of the ways in which myths and fictions of nationhood are constructed. Also, they generally have very pretty pictures.

This is New Zealand - Asian Edition. Wellington: Sheffield House, 1986.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fascists on Mars

On the morning of the 25th of April 1994, Justine and I made our way to Piazzale Loreto under pouring rain to take part in the traditional Liberation Day march. Except this time it felt a little more significant than it ever had in my lifetime: less than a month earlier Silvio Berlusconi and his Coalition of the Unsavoury had won the national elections, and the new government - whilst not installed yet - was guaranteed to be the first in quite some time to include ministers for whom the word ‘fascist’ would be more than a generic insult, but rather a factual statement of self-avowed political affiliation.

Three hundred thousand people marched in Milan that day, and most of us didn’t make it to Cathedral square in time to hear any of the speeches. You can see some of the pictures and hear some of the sounds here, but it’s worth considering that number for a moment: three hundred thousand. Imagine yourself in a group of people that size. Now imagine yourself as part of the police contingent that is supposed to guarantee the order. You and what army, right? Later that year, one million people marched in Rome to protest the government’s plans for social and labour reform, and shortly thereafter Berlusconi lost the support of one of the parties in the coalition and had to forfeit his mandate.

But he came back, twice, and is in power to this day. As a result, there is now a far greater degree of normalcy in the idea that people who grew up politically in the Fronte della Gioventù, the main youth fascist organisation, may end up as national ministers. So here comes the part where I very humbly accept Mr Litterick’s invitation of some weeks ago to discuss what that means, politically, for my country, and if we can refer to Italy as being fascist, or run by fascists. If you’ll just allow me a little trip to space first.

Corrado Guzzanti is not well known outside of Italy. His sister Sabrina, who directed the political documentary Viva Zapatero! and whose TV work was famously censored by the public broadcaster at Berlusconi’s behest, enjoys a little more international notoriety. Both of them, at any rate, are important public voices who are occasionally allowed to speak in these difficult times. On one such occasion, in 2002, Corrado co-authored and starred in Il Caso Scafroglia, a satirical programme that contained some brutal indictments of the government’s policies, but is remembered mostly for a comparatively light offering: Fascisti su Marte, a six-part film purporting to document the voyage to Mars in 1939 of a handful of fascist militiamen. Much sepia-toned hilarity ensues as the bumbling explorers proceed to claim the ‘Bolshevik, traitorous planet’ for the glory of the regime (you can watch the whole series here). My favourite moments are those that caricature the rhetorical bombast of the triumph of the will, Italian-style: like when the men first descend on the planet and find it to be lacking in oxygen, a problem that the gerarca Barbagli solves by issuing a peremptory order: ‘Breathe!’ Or when Barbagli explains to his fellow cosmonauts floating around the rocket cabin that ‘gravity needs to be found within oneself, in the values of Fascism and in the mission.’

All very benign, all in good fun, so much so that at times you could be excused to think it was an affectionate homage, punctuated by some of the most unwittingly comical anthems of way back then.

These aren't fascists to be scared of. Except if one places Fascist on Mars in the context of the political and cultural work promoted by the Right in the same years and on the very same television channels: a methodical effort of revision underlying the claim that our values derive from pre-modern Christian roots, on the one hand, and the defeat of communism and socialism, on the other. Read against these texts, Fascists on Mars is only marginally less ridiculous than other acts of creative historiography instrumental to that particular cause.

Fascism is integral to this New History, consistent with its teleology, whereas the equal and contrary principles that informed our Republican constitution - to wit, the dangerous notion the work is a right of the citizen and the State is responsible for delivering social justice - are a deviation. To put it another way: the first Italian Republic (1948-1994) was founded on anti-fascist principles, which is why a not insignificant sector of the right wing inside and outside of Parliament could not clip its ticket to power without having performed appropriate acts of abjuration and unbecoming. In the second Republic - which began precisely in 1994 with the new electoral system - this is patently no longer the case, but there is still the small matter of rewriting the history books and the school curricula to reflect this change of heart. Nothing less will satisfy people who used in their youth to take such pride in their belonging.

Because the transition is not yet complete, and the former fascist youngsters who now fill the offices of, say, Minister of Defence, or Mayor of our capital, cannot indulge quite yet in public displays of affection for the old regime and still hope to occupy those institutions, especially in the wider context of international relations with out major allies. This was the scene when Gianni Alemanno, the current mayor of Rome, took office:

More of these lovely pictures here

You could almost physically hear the sound of eyebrows being raised across Europe, including those of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who publicly doubted his ability to work with a politician who would tolerate such displays from his supporters. Alemanno initially bristled, but later went on to express 'pain and revulsion for the inhumanity of Fascism'. A bitter pill, no doubt, and it won't be the last one he has to swallow in order to be allowed to play with the big boys of European politics.

And he's not alone. Even leaders of Forza Nuova, the organisation for fascists who never have to say I'm sorry, have started walking that embarrassing tight rope in the hope of getting closer to the levers of power. Following the recent congress of the movement in Milan, secretary Roberto Fiore said 'I didn't see any Roman salutes'. He is in fact pictured here, first from the left, experiencing a freak occurrence of sudden and temporary retinal detachment in both eyes:

It's like they're daring him to show his hand and return the salute, don't you think? And here's another one of Fiore's mates, Padre Tam, Roman-saluting at a Forza Nuova march in Bergamo.

This fine figure of clergyman, recently in the news for claiming that the Nazi gas chambers were used for disinfection purposes, belongs to the Society of St. Pius X, well known for its anti-semitism and recently re-admitted by the current Pope into the fold of the Church.

All this, however, is theatre, and I get a little impatient with it. We should be more afraid of self-disciplined fascists who know not to do the Roman salute in public, than we are of those whose right arms start twitching uncontrollably when they find themselves in a crowd of like-minded fellows. The Roman salute is our friend, it's a GPS for fascists: look, there they are. But what of the politics? Does monsieur Delanoë have a problem with Alemanno's actual policies, or is it just a matter of decorum, of respectability? Because they're working really hard on the respectability thing, Delanoë needs not worry about that. And when the last one of them has learnt how to use the last of the dessert forks, we'll get to comparing immigration policies, or public policing, or surveillance practices. Does France, does the UK, does Germany think that this exercise will make them look good?

But I don't want to be drawn into the relative fascism quotient of other European powers and besides it still doesn't answer Paul's question. So here goes.

I do not think the regime in Italy at the moment could accurately be described as fascist, in terms of its historical specificity. But I also believe that things are bad, and could precipitate rather quickly. While the Right is busy weakening our institutions and generally making things worse for everyone but friends, family and concubines, the Left offers no credible alternative, no meaningful solution for a significant set of social and economic problems. And if the crisis deepens, as I believe it will, a descent into actual, honest to God authoritarianism could be achieved in very little time. The conditions are there, the action stations well and truly manned.

If it ever comes to that, however, we should not talk of a restoration, of a traumatic return to the past, but rather look back on a long parenthesis of non-actual-fascism that is coming to a close. For we never truly ceased to be fascists: we never dealt honestly with that time in our past; we never demanded true change from our institutions; we never asked that our politicians cease to be corrupt, or treat their offices as anything other than fiefdoms; we never expected our judges to find the culprits when scores were being massacred - using fascist muscle, like the old actions squads but with bombs - in the name of authority and the preservation of the State; we never demanded that the promise of our constitution be kept, and social justice be made to inform a programme of reforms and the country's belated transition into modernity. We acted rather like the man in this photo I shall never tire of recycling: we erased the hated symbol, but left the rest of the edifice intact.

Milan, 26th July 1943. Photo by Vincenzo Carrese.

In 2004 I happened to be visiting home in April and went on the Liberation Day demonstration with my mother, the first time we marched together since I was a little boy. It was a much smaller affair than the one of 1994, although still in the order of the tens of thousands, and there was less of a sense of urgency, a smaller supply of palpable shock and anger. A whole lot less rain, too. But it reminded me - after having been out of the country for almost seven years - of that uncanny kinship, the sense of shared history and common purpose one feels amongst so many like-minded people. Marching on such a day and in such numbers performs an important and far more than symbolic function, too: it stakes a principled claim regarding who we are, about the realities of our past, and who we ought to be and how. It's like a slow-moving, living, breathing blueprint of the Italy that could be.

The squandering of that human capital, of a capacity for mass mobilisation that has no equal in the rest of Europe, begins in earnest the very next day. But so long as the people keep turning up, I'll keep a modest reserve of hope.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Liveblogging the Apocalypse

Florence, 1348. Despatches from the Black Death:
It was the common practice of most of the neighbours, moved no less by fear of contamination by the putrefying bodies than by charity towards the deceased, to drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands, aided, perhaps, by a porter, if a porter was to be had, and to lay them in front of the doors, where any one who made the round might have seen, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count; afterwards they would have biers brought up or in default, planks, whereon they laid them. Nor was it once twice only that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses at once; but quite a considerable number of such cases occurred, one bier sufficing for husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and so forth. And times without number it happened, that as two priests, bearing the cross, were on their way to perform the last office for some one, three or four biers were brought up by the porters in rear of them, so that, whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six or eight, or sometimes more. Nor, for all their number, were their obsequies honoured by either tears or lights or crowds of mourners rather, it was come to this, that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be today.
Whilst the plague rages through the city, ten young people from well to do families repair to a country estate and decide to pass the time by telling each other stories. That in a nutshell is Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, considered by some the first novel, and a historical one at that. The stories themselves are, of course, pure joy to read: funny, dirty, ingenious, they drew on the already lively tradition of the novellieri, were enormously influential amongst European writers for centuries to come and remain the greatest single prose work in Italian literature. But it's always striking to reread that introduction, which undercuts from the outset the genteel escapism of the rest of the book, setting it against the sober description of the death of a city, with the attendant breakdown of the rules of society, of compassion, even of familial love.
Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife: nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers.
According to some accounts, the Black Death wiped out as much as half of the population of Europe at the time. It made landfall in 1347, in Sicily, where it travelled on board Genoese merchant ships arriving from Crimea, and in less than three years it reached the frozen northern extremities of the continent, bringing about what many saw as the end of days. Another witness, Agnolo da Tura from Siena, writes:
I […] buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world.
Siena, until then a power on a par with Florence, would in fact never recover. The pestilence marked the beginning of its decline, and its population nowadays is a fraction of what it was in its late medieval heyday. It wasn’t the apocalypse, but it came pretty close.


Regular readers will know that I’m not fussed about being topical. 1348 is as good a year to discuss as any, as far as I’m concerned. But I am nonetheless struck about how distant in time, how staggeringly old news the swine flu outbreak already appears. Two weeks ago at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning I learned that such a thing existed from the radio bulletin. By eight o'clock that evening, the New Zealand Minister of Health was giving a press conference about the first all-but-confirmed cases in the country. This thing seemed to travel almost faster than news! There was little time to digest, understand, prepare, know what to think.

Initially I thought that the local media - bearing in mind we don’t watch much television - provided useful, measured coverage, heavy on the expert advice. A picture began to form, along the lines of: this may not be a pandemic, but it’s best to be prepared for the worst. Outside of Mexico, the strain seemed mild and responded to treatment. It was a matter of setting the appropriate systems in place and waiting to see how it would all pan out.

Waiting is not something that our media are very good at, as it turns out. Newscasters abhor a vacuum, and they quickly lost their nerve. Ben Goldacre started having to turn down offers to appear on shows to claim that the whole thing was a media beat-up. Somebody had to get the blame for the world not coming to an end, dammit! Or at least not coming to an end in orderly fashion, at the pace of the news cycle and in time for the six o’clock bulletin.

That’s how the media see the world, as a stopwatch. But the time of information is hardly linear: it skips and jumps, demands instantaneous, real-time access to what is current and at the same time is obsessed with forecasting what will happen tomorrow and the next day, be it in the stock market, on the weather front or inside your blood. It works forward as much as backwards, as Richard Grusin has been busy arguing for a while with his work on premediation. Recently he had this to say:
[M]edialogically we are already experiencing the pandemic. Our media experience in the run-up to a pandemic that might never occur is very much of a piece with, and in many cases identical to, the media experience we will have if a pandemic does occur. The effect of this virtual pandemic is at least twofold: to prepare us affectively for a pandemic if it were to happen, so that the public could deal more effectively with the shock of the disaster; and to provide us with the affective, medialogical experience of a pandemic whether or not it ever materializes.
That’s all very true, but I think there is another aspect to it: namely, that the virtual isn’t yet real, and the more the media insists on staking a virtual claim on how the future will unfold - often borrowing explicitly from the modes of cinematic narrative - the more these representations will strike us as fictional. You carry on in this fashion for long enough, and soon every human event on a global scale, no matter how legitimate a story, becomes an object of systemic scepticism bordering on the paranoiac.

I’m not an expert on conspiracy theories (unlike, say, Mr Dentith), but it seems to me that one could trace their confounding relationship with electronic mediation back to the uncanny film of JFK's assassination, so revealing and yet so inconclusive, a seemingly direct apprehension of the real yet without the means to get to the truth; and later most especially with the Moon landing, the very unlikelihood of that live link with outer space, and an astronaut turned chronicler of his own deeds. It all defied belief, as if scripted. And scripted it was: a camera was waiting, already deployed on the ground, to film Armstrong as he stepped off the ladder. The American flag was rigged up so that it would appear to wave, as it would have on our planet.

By the time we got to 9/11 this level of ultra-sophisticated, self-reflexive mediation was already built into the event, and Manhattan became quite literally a soundstage for murderers. Radical doubters were quick to seize the opportunity and in time came up with a whole new word to describe themselves: truthers. The Internet is their breeding ground, and fittingly so, since after all a healthy and sometimes unhealthy distrust of the mainstream is what keeps so many of us going here in cyberspace, is what motivates us to look for alternative voices and find and measure our own.

In the meantime, the real gets lost in the time shuffle and the news makes truthers of us all. It is all already a nefarious machination, from the exhilarating moment when the graphic announces that there is breaking news. By familiar paradox, it's the multiplication and constant enhancement of how our means to describe the real that makes mediated events appear simulated. Take the swine flu virus. Within days, it had been photographed

Represented as 3D graphical art

Turned into street performance

And had its amino acids sequence translated into a piece of ambient music.

The slow pace and sparse language of analysis, sober reflection and bearing of witness cannot compete with that level of time compression, the sense of being instantly there, in the event, critically involved, able to pass judgment and even decry the media spectacle itself or the advice of the WHO. When the pandemic shall come, as many virologists believe it will, we might refuse to recognise it, and die sceptical, stoic, invincible, like the towering aliens of HG Wells, cursing a common, unseasonable cold.


The last word this week goes to another witness. You had to dig pretty deep in the days after the outbreak to get the news from the epicentre, hear the voices of the Mexicans themselves. One such voice, recorded by Massimo Calandri for La Repubblica, belongs to writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and urges us to reflect on the slow, quotidian apocalypse of a society in decay, a disease immune to the news cycles, but no less virulent or deadly:
Take note, my friend. In Mexico City beat in unison the hearts of the first and of the third world. The cruel paradox is that in this city there are more university students than in New York, more clochards than in Paris, more poor than in New Delhi, more murder victims than in the England of Jack the Ripper, a police force more corrupt than Thailand's. […]

I live in a bubble, holed up in a burrow, and I wait. […] I spend my time at home, I read, I take some notes. And I reflect on the misinformation, on the efforts of those who tell you that this is a plague-stricken city. We obsess about the disease, and forget the permanent political crisis of this country, the shameful inefficiency of the federal government, the frightful economic crisis that eats us alive, the arrogance of the criminal organisations and the politicians, the daily massacres perpetrated by the drug traffickers. […] [Instead] they tell us - and tell you - another story, that of a metropolis and a country in the grip of the plague.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The History of Your Blood

I owe it to my ancestors never to become a vegetarian. The family blood is literally mixed with that of cows, pigs and fowl, and if there is any defining feature of the culture of South-East Lombardy, of generations of rural folk who could yet not be called farmers because they didn’t own any land, it lies in the gestures and rituals that for them spelt survival: the rearing, the killing, the preparing and the sharing of animals and their flesh.

My mother speaks often of her own grandmother’s duck scheme. It worked like this: in spring she would buy eighty or so ducklings at the local market and for the next six-seven months she would take them every day to the local canal, la Comuna (meaning 'common property'), where they would paddle downstream and eat and frolic. By the end of the day, they would have travelled a good couple of miles. So in the afternoon my great-grandmother would grab the nearest relative and a long clothes-line and trot after them, then the two of them would stand at each side of the canal and use the clothes-line to beat the water and guide the ducks back home. Day in, day out. In early winter, she would kill the ducks, salt the meat and place it in terrines sealed with the animals’ fat. For months, that meat would complement the diet of a family of eight.

For my great-grandmother was a rasdora, a honorific of the Mantuan dialect that signifies the apotheosis of the housewife, and specifically in the area of nutrition. The rasdora was a woman capable of ensuring that her family would eat, and eat well, on little or no income, a task that required in equal parts resourcefulness, back-breaking work and extensive knowledge passed on by one or more of your female elders. I’ve heard very traditionally-minded and staunch patriarchs speak of the rasdoras they knew in hushed tones. They were the single greatest resource a family of little or no means could have.

And naturally my great-grandmother’s family had its own pig. That too would be bought in the spring, just out of piglethood, and reared next to the house, but you couldn’t do that on food scraps alone, and the feed was expensive. So my great-grandmother grew some corn in a portion of the little plot of land that the family accessed as sharecroppers, and from there came the corn flour to feed the pig. Then come November the days would start getting shorter, and especially so for the pig, but its parting gift to the family - under the auspices of the local masalin, the pork butcher - was a true gift of life: lard, dripping, salame, bacon, cotechino (but not ham, much less what is known outside of Italy as prosciutto, or Parma ham, for that was a luxury reserved to the families who could afford to let a pig grow up lean). Lard alone provided the condiment for the whole year, in the days when fat had none of the negative connotations it carries nowadays in the first world. And of course, proverbially, nothing went to waste (possibly sexist implications open in a new page). There are in fact throughout Italy a variety of elaborate recipes and methods to turn porcine ears and feet into true delicacies.

Then came World War II, and the post-war, and with it economic transformation and a sudden burst of affluence, after untold generations of debt and toil, of perpetually living at the edge of survival. For the chronically undernourished, this translated among other things into access to cheap lard, oil and butter, in the shops - you no longer had to make your own - as well as to a host of other foodstuffs. And if you could finally afford to buy oil and butter, why in the world would you use lard? So families stopped rearing pigs. Pork and salame and ham and cotechino didn’t disappear from the tables, naturally, but their production became part of an industry that soon came to resemble our burgeoning manufacturing. Large scale enclosed feedlots started to appear - my father used to call them maialifici, pig factories. When he knew we were about to pass one en route to my grandparents’, he would urge us to close the windows, and yet the stench would find its way into the car.

And that’s how we got to the Perote valley, and the Granjas Carroll mega farms near La Gloria, were the first cases of the recent swine flu outbreak are said to have occurred. Granjas Carroll de México is a subsidiary of the American food giant Smithfield:

It’s trademarked, so it’s got to be true, right? And you can read up about their many responsible initiatives here. Under Animal Welfare (another one of those categories where the company is ‘raising the bar’) you’ll find a quote from Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, affirming that
Smithfield's announcement that it will phase out sow gestation stalls has started an important trend. It has been an industry leader in animal welfare initiatives, and the conversion of farms to group housing is a welcome development.
'Gestation stalls' don’t seem too bad to start with, do they - until you realise that what they mean is ‘crates’. But ‘group housing for pigs’ sounds positively idyllic. Except the Granjas Carroll operations near La Gloria boast a yearly production of nearly one million hogs. Must be one impressive housing development. I wonder what the schools are like.

If you can read Spanish, here’s a report dating back to 2006 from Mexican newspaper La Jornada warning of the lack of regulation and safeguards regarding the then yet-to-be-established complex, and offering a cautionary description of the black water mixing excrements, urine and biological and chemical residues which would likely flow out of it and into the valley. For a bit of context, one needs to bear in mind that in 1985 Smithfield had received, as Al Jordano explains,
what was, at the time, the most expensive fine in history – $12.6 million – for violating the US Clean Water Act at its pig facilities near the Pagan River in Smithfield, Virginia, a tributary that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The company, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dumped hog waste into the river.
Another report from La Jornada dating this last 11 April, which is to say days before the swine flu outbreak became publicly known, details the intimidation of the activists protesting the environmental havoc caused to the valley. (Warning: graphic picture, and more gratuitous use of the Spanish language.)

And so it goes. The agrimonsters migrate from rich countries to poor countries, in search of laxer regulations and communities and politicians more desperate to create jobs. In that environment, birds and people and pigs play a game of flu pinball that spreads across borders at the speed of global trade and in the latest instalment of which, as of this morning, it is reported that in Canada humans have started passing the flu back to pigs, opening the way for more mutations. In this light this stunning installation by Sierra Leone-born artist Patricia Piccinini for the Venice Biennale of 2003 acquires an even greater depth of meaning:

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family

The symbiotic relationship with our porcine cousins passed down by generations of rural families becomes here literal enmeshing, a monstrous yet tender post-human diorama of silicon, acrylic, human hair, leather and timber.

We are, perhaps, after all, the same species, which may raise cannibalism questions vis-à-vis the bacon you just had for breakfast. But, in spite of everything, I cannot bring myself to renounce the dietary habits of my elders. I might have romanticised their ways a little bit, glossed over the scourge of bovine tuberculosis that was rife at the same time as my great-grandmother pastured her ducklings, but some of those systems and methods were sound. I just wish it were possible to integrate them into saner and safer farming practices, be inspired by the perfectly self-contained biodynamics dictated by poverty - maximum reuse, minimum waste - in designing environments that can look after the animals, ensure biodiversity, and yet produce enough food, not to sustain our perpetual first world binge, but rather nourish the hundreds of millions who survive on a third or less of our daily intake of calories.

But perhaps it just isn’t possible, there simply is no way to farm organically, or enforce the law and demand more of our regulators, and still produce food that is cheap and plentiful enough. Perhaps it’s one of those games of Russian roulette with a bullet in every chamber, a choice between eating today and succumbing to a pandemic or a climate meltdown tomorrow; another one of those impossible trade-offs between economic development on the one hand and safety, justice and the preservation of the commons on the other. Perhaps tomorrow's pandemic, like yesterday's earthquake in a city that dared to grow too fast, is the bill at the end of the meal that you knew all along you couldn’t afford.

A couple more things. On that Piccinini piece: I do urge you to click on the link to view it in greater detail along with the rest of her very inspiring work. I have yet to see any of it in the flesh - as it were - it must be quite an experience.

Also, Russell has a succinct and well linked piece on the history of H1N1, with local data on the disproportionality of the effects of the Spanish flu on the poor.

Okay, class dismissed.