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It seems that some national caricatures are allowable... if they're complimentary


In the wake of a scandal, Pope Francis has dismissed the five Italians who oversaw the Vatican's financial watchdog, replacing them with a new board comprising only one Italian. Announcing the news on the Today programme James Naughtie put a subtle yet distinct emphasis on the word "Italians". He then interviewed the BBC's revered, earnest Rome correspondent, Alan Johnston, about the story. "They," Naughtie repeated, in reference to the five Italians, "were all Italian, and the replacements were not all Italian." If Johnston was considering saying, "We seem to be lumbering towards a national caricature here,"... he avoided the impulse. Instead, he coyly remarked, "Yes … interesting to note the nationalities involved." Still time to retreat from the brink? Apparently not. "It's part of this effort we're seeing," said Mr Johnston, "to break with this Italian business culture… which can be less than transparent."

I personally tend to think of Italian business culture as being less than transparent, but that's because I've watched The Godfather parts one, two and three. If called to discuss the subject on the radio, I'd have wondered whether it might be racist to suggest that Italians are not transparent. But there has been no outcry, so it is apparently not racist. Some national caricatures are allowable, usually if they're compliments.

I've never heard a Briton in a foreign bar spluttering, "So I have a strong sense of fair play, do I? We'll take this outside." It's also OK to say Brazilians are good at football, and many people are saying it right now. Admittedly some of those doing so will scotch the "myth" of Brazilians having honed innate skills while playing in a joyfully unconstrained way on the beach or the streets. Then again, some of those lauding the Brazilians will attribute part of their skill to the fact that they can all dance the samba. This surely comes close to saying that black people have a natural sense of rhythm, which is only a compliment in the minds of the most retrograde Blimp.

I believe it is permissible to say not only that Swiss trains run on time, but also that the Swiss set their watches by their trains rather than the other way around. There's only a very slight echo there of that business about Mussolini making the trains run on time, and as far as I know, no Swiss person has found it worth his or her while to deny that Swiss trains run on time.

This is perhaps what allows these outcroppings of possible racism to survive. No one has mounted a head of steam against them. Take this, from Radio 5's 606 football forum: "Jose Mourinho is acting slightly unhinged, but to be fair that's just his Latin temperament"? I think the phrase "to be unfair" could be equally well substituted there, but "Latin temperament" is apparently also permissible. At least it is for now, but I suspect the tolerance of the Latins for the phrase is going to be tested severely in the coming weeks.