GYPSIES, VAGABONDS AND THE CURSE OF THE “OTHER”

These are tough times to be an outsider. Amid the panic of collapsing economies, France and Italy are deporting their gypsies, Americans are persecuting illegal immigrants, and German Chancellor Merkel has made it clear that Turkish workers would never truly be part of their adopted country, no matter how many generations their families had lived there.

Countries with  multi-trillion dollar economies are blaming their troubles on a relatively small number  of weak, rootless people. This kind of thing has happened before, and we don’t have to invoke  the Nazis,  everyone’s favorite bad guys, to prove it. In fact one of the most widespread examples of “othering” took place at a time we usually think of as enlightened – a time a lot like our own.

The turn of the century as a prosperous and exciting time for many; but behind the veneer of wealth and education lived  an enormous underclass. Their numbers increased with the approach of the new century, as years of prosperity gave way to an orgy of financial speculation, followed  by an international economic collapse. Whole strata of society become drifters – known as “vagabonds” in Europe, or “tramps” in America. Often, rather than lend a hand to these drifters, cities enacted measures to keep them away and countries passed laws to make them disappear.

Nowhere was this panic more dramatic than in France, where the number of rootless people dwarfed the population of gypsies today. Hundreds  of thousands of farm laborers were put out of work by the mechanization of agriculture,  and craftsmen were replaced by industrial production Meanwhile, the vineyards had become infested with phylloxera—a sap-sucking insect that devastated the wine industry. Whole villages emptied as families lost their livelihoods and land.

As many nations do with their underprivileged today, France decided that the drifters were the “other” — different than settled folk and a threat to orderly, bourgeois society. The government set up tough anti-vagrancy laws and detention centers for vagrants. As the numbers increased, increasingly harsh measures were prescribed, including life sentences for habitual offenders and exile to Devil’s Island. (America’s “army of tramps” fared no better. A Chicago newspaper advocated poisoning some of them in order to turn others away from the city. The dean of Yale Law School called them, “incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savages.” )

Researchers  scrutinized “vagabondage” as one would study an agricultural blight.  Scholars presented papers analyzing the “inferior classes,” and “social garbage.” According to the prevailing view, the economic depression had not caused the problem, but merely aggravated an inborn tendency. Many social scientists saw vagabonds as an evolutionary accident — a throwback to an earlier time in human development — “wild beasts misplaced in civilized society.”

Nothing seemed to diminish their numbers. But then – quietly, gradually — the problem went away.

No one knows exactly why. Undoubtedly millions of poor folks disappeared as cannon fodder during World War I. After the war people began to the think differently about the poor, perhaps because of the shared sacrifice they all had endured. Vagabonds and tramps were no longer the “other” – condemned by moral and genetic deficiencies –  but unfortunate fellow citizens. European governments created social welfare programs to help the unemployed get back on their feet. By the mid-1920s, nearly 40 million people were receiving unemployment insurance in Europe. After the Great Depression, the United States initiated similar social programs.

The unemployed and outsiders will always be with us, and it’s tempting to blame them for the difficulties we share. But history has shown each generation that the poor and rootless are a symptom, not a cause. Making them disappear will not solve our problems.