Last week there was a Robert de Niro season on TV. Watching the quintessential Italian American strut his stuff made me wonder why so many Italians, and particularly Sicilians, leave for the US?
Why was Sicily so poor? Was it always poor? Did some cataclysmic event occur to make it so? If we look at a map of Europe, it is fascinating to see that Sicily was actually the centre of the world for many centuries.
The Mediterranean was the world. It was the great trading superhighway from where all wealth and creativity sprang.
Spices from the Orient were traded through the Levant across the sea to Greece, Italy and the great maritime cities in France and Spain. Guns, dyes and salt, which were the trading currency of the Old World, zig-zagged across the Mediterranean, creating rich civilisations, spawning great art and scientific discovery.
Ideas, as well as material stuff, filtered around the seaports of the “middle sea”.
The Mediterranean was the internet of the world for almost 20 centuries – a great interconnected, real-time facilitator of everything from goods and guns to salt and sex.
And Sicily was at the very centre of it all.
Up until the 15th century, Sicily had it all going. It was rich, sophisticated, tolerant, mixed, multilingual and important. Empires from Rome to Carthage fought over this most significant of nautical prizes. He who controlled Sicily controlled the Mediterranean, and he who controlled the Mediterranean, controlled the world.
Then, in 1492,a great tragedy befell Sicily.
The island was under the control of the crown of Castile and when Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Moors from Spain, Sicily had to follow suit. Although there had been pogroms on the island, Jews had lived in Sicily since the time of Christ in reasonable harmony with the locals.
They had played a disproportionate role in trade as well as in the professions, particularly those of medicine and pharmacy. Jewish astronomers had used their knowledge of the stars to guide Sicilian adventurers for years.
Realising this, the viceroy of Sicily dithered, sending emissaries to Madrid to explain the vital role the Jews were playing, but to no avail.
Gradually, a series of orders were passed which compelled Jews to sell their assets, pay all their outstanding debts immediately and, most ominously, barred them from bearing arms.
Eventually in 1515 they were all expelled but were granted ‘benevolent’ permission to take ‘the clothes on their back, a mattress, a woolen blanket, a pair of sheets, some small change and some food for the way’ .
Within a few years what had been left of Sicilian trade after the devastating first decrees, collapsed to almost nothing. The Sicilian tradition of medicine and enquiry disappeared and entire neighbourhoods fell into rack and ruin.
Economically, Sicily went into a tailspin.
Without the Jewish traders (who had formed only a tiny percentage of the population), no one traded. Without trade, there was no cash and without cash, there were no jobs.
About 200 years later, Charles II realised that he had to do something about the plight of Sicily and in particular something directly to promote trade. So what did he do?
He tried to import Jews!
In 1728 he gave Messina the privilege of a free port and gave Jews the right to return on condition that they sleep outside the city and wear a distinctive sign on their clothes.
This only had a modest impact as such terms were hardly inviting.
In 1740, he allowed Jews to return unconditionally. Unfortunately, those who did return found the locals severely hostile and scarpered quickly.
Then in 1747,when the local Queen had trouble conceiving, the Court was persuaded that she wouldn’t conceive as long as there were Jews in Messina and so they were kicked out again. Sicily reverted back to poverty.
There seem to be two economic lessons we can draw from Sicily. The first lesson is that tolerance works. The Jews were creative, freewheeling and enterprising. They used their heads and toleration reflected a certain attitude in Sicilian society towards enquiry, irreverence and adventure.
Kicking out the Jews was emblematic of a more profound malaise.
It represented an intolerance of creativity, an inclination towards censorship and a strangling of freedoms among the more inquiring minds of the greater Christian population as well.
Economic history tells us that this is the road to ruin. The second lesson is that intolerance, ignorance and superstition are much easier to acquire than to uproot and that such attitudes pertain today in Sicily contributing to its persistent backwardness.
Today, gays are the new Jews.
In the same way that few medieval cities thrived without a bustling Jewish ghetto, few modern cities are economically complete without a vibrant gay scene.
The reason is very simple. Tolerance of gays is a telling modern pointer to tolerance of other things and tolerance has always been associated with economic effervescence.
An American magazine, The Atlantic Monthly recently produced a fascinating map plotting the concentration of gay men and women in various cities and correlating it with income.
What emerged was that the cities with the highest concentration of gay people were also by far the richest.
Obviously this doesn’t tell you which is the chicken and which is the egg, but it suggests that cities which are welcoming to gay lifestyles are also welcoming to something else and that something else is driving economic growth.
The something else might well be the creative industries where gay people are heavily represented, such as the media, advertising, branding, architecture, the arts and the like.
Tolerance of gays also means tolerance of trying new things, being open to new ideas.
It signals being tolerant of other people too, such as immigrants, outsiders and those who simply do not easily fit in. All these have profound impacts on the economy, the way it works and the end results.
If we are comfortable with all classes of people, then we are open to change and, if we are open to change, we can take onboard effortlessly all competitive challenges that are placed in our way.
A good example of the positive economic impact of gay communities is the salivating of estate agents when they hear that gays are moving into rundown areas. Forget Volvos, a gay community is the best and most failsafe leading indicator of urban property regentrification.
In the future, Ireland will have to compete in the creative industries. This is where we will be paid for our brains rather than our brawn. We know that we can no longer compete against the low wage economies nor can we rely on low taxation to offer us a competitive advantage.
For example, Estonia now has zero corporation tax, so ultimately other countries will out-beggar-thy-neighbour us when it comes to tax giveaways. So we have to be smart and to be smart we first have to be tolerant and to be tolerant we have to prove it.
This brings us nicely on to Dr Paisley, who visited us this week. The Leeds Castle talks were interrupted last week so that Paisley could take his MPs back to Westminster to vote against British partnership legislation that would allow gay couples minimal legal rights and to be recognised as ‘common law’ partners.
Dr Paisley broke up the meeting to ensure that the North secured derogation and that no gay rights would be foisted on the God-fearing burghers of Antrim and Down. Apparently, as Sinn Féin are absent from Westminster, Paisley won the day.
Hearts and Minds the BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme discussed this issue, but could not get a single gay couple to appear, which tells us something about the degree of openness up there.
For the North’s economy, the lack of tolerance is a disaster. The lessons of Sicily are there for all of us to see. We have learned the lessons here and the correlation between our 1990s liberalism and economic growth are there for all to see too.
When we were intolerant, strict and priest-run we were poor. When we adopted openness and a tolerance for ambiguity, we got rich. A similar second reformation is now needed in the North.
Otherwise, it will remain an Irish Sicily, loyal to the half-crown when it should be chasing the pink pound.