January 7, 2007

Social Mobility

Will Smith’s new movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, has just opened in Italy. He chose an Italian, Gabriele Muccino, to direct the film -- an odd choice for a film that treats the American dream.

Muccino told him that “distance improves vision” and therefore only a foreigner could truly understand the American dream. Smith took a chance and hired him. In any case, Muccino continued, “America is an idea that belongs to everyone.” When an Italian goes from rags to riches they say, “l’America sta qua”—America is here.

As a European, Gabriele sees and understands the fragility of this dream and the obstacles that exist along the road towards its realization – the social, racial and economic barriers that Americans pretend don’t exist. By recognizing these obstacles, the spirit of the main character could dream more freely.

The current American ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome is the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico who rose to be the Director of the Peace Corps and now an ambassador – quite a story, although one that is best not to tell in certain circles here. It would seem quaint and terribly American, but an argument to be treated with discretion and certainly not in public.

A recent European study put Italy at the bottom of the pile in terms of social mobility. Invisible barriers are very, very strong and this new generation of immigrants born on Italian soil and educated in Italian schools speaking native Italian will be a test. In my son’s prestigious liceo classico in Rome’s historic center, there are no children of immigrants (excluding my son and another girl with a British mother). All those Chinese, northern African, Romanian, Albanian children of immigrants get pushed into technical or professional schools by an invisible hand and therefore kept in their place, at least for now.

When will there be an Italian ambassador with immigrant roots? Not in my lifetime!

Here you simply are who you are as determined by your family roots and social environment. Although you can now enter certain professions more easily and the university is open to everyone, there is always a subtle distinction based on a more static state of “being” than the American “becoming”. In a country based on the individual’s power to break with family and environment and be a free spirit, “doing” and “becoming” are important cultural imperatives. Italy being more group oriented, beginning with the family and circling out in various layers of “in-groups”, places the cultural imperative of “being” and who you “are” higher on the value scale than who you become.

I will talk more about the invisible barriers another time -- starting in school.

A domani,

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