We hosted a group of students from Guilford College at the farm last month. The group is studying a semester abroad in Northern Italy, in the castle Ezra Pound once lived in. Pound was an American ex-pat poet and critic of US capitalism who supported Italy’s fascist regime during WWII. His Cantos, some written while in US captivity during the occupation of Italy at the end of the war, still inspire a new generation of neofascists today. I don’t think the students knew much about the history of their host family or even the war as it played out in Italy (neither did I before moving here), but their visit put him squarely in my mind.
We connected with the students because an old friend from when I lived in the anarchist community in Greensboro served as the faculty representative this year for the program. It was amazing to see Mark again after all these years, and as we showed the group around we talked a little about the history of our farm. After lunch we were joined by a group of our friends who live in La Casa della Pace (the House of Peace), a project of Italian former “peace corps” volunteers who live together in intentional community to continue the work they did building bridges abroad at home. Their project is similar in many ways to what we hope the farm becomes, a inspiration toward our future. One aspect of La Casa della Pace‘s work is hosting asylum seekers, so they brought 2 fellows from Pakistan along who stay with them these days.
Everybody worked at hauling wood and planting starts in the afternoon to break the ice, then after dinner we had a discussion about living in community, the immigration situation in Italy, and how we make the transition from institutional structures (like college or a peace corps experience) to life after. What does one do when one finishes a powerful experience abroad but that program comes to an end? How do you keep “that spark” you feel while fully immersed in a program when its expiration date comes around? What can we do when the Italian immigration system, built to accept a few thousand immigrants, receives over a hundred thousand in one year?
I think about Ezra, who left the US disillusioned by capitalism and Marxism and truly hellbent on finding a new way. It seems to me he was looking for new community of support when he left the US. One could say he “fell in with the wrong crowd” as his intellectual pioneering was conveniently appropriated by the politics of the Axis powers. But supposedly he began writing some of his most inspired work on sheets of toilet paper while locked in a US prison cage toward the end of the war, once again alone the isolated. This was a part of the war I didn’t know much about and it challenged my sense that Ezra was just the worst kind of “Americans abroad” stereotype. He is said to have had a mental breakdown in the cage, for very understandable reasons, and this inhumane treatment by his own countrymen, “liberating” his adopted country, left an indelible mark. Reinforcing his sense of the US’ moral corruption and his own extremist view that fascism would lead to new world order, he would return to Italy after being released from a mental institution in the States to live out his later life in the castle.
In these days of rising right wing rhetoric and renewed extremism, I think about what leads people to support fascism. I think about the barber in the village here who casually mentioned while cutting my hair a few months back that “the gas chambers” were the only way to straighten out politics. (I am currently using a boycott of his shop as an excuse for my disheveled appearance) We’ve seen fascism veiled in anti-immigrant rhetoric come close to tearing apart the European Union and the United States, and perhaps I think this is a good wake up call. It’s clear that people are fed up with institutional structures as they exist right now, but we no longer know how to commit directly to one another and many want the iron fist of “The State” (not The Union) to step in and save us. We long for our castles.
In the course of our conversation with the students, someone suggested that if Ezra’s relatives were committed to starting a new chapter in the history of their family’s relationship to fascism, they could take in refugees at the castle. What message might that send, versus hosting students from a country their ancestor forsake?
Sure enough, I’ve just gotten word that as the returned from our visit they introduced their hosts to Every Campus a Refuge, a project started at Guilford that encourages academic campuses to open some part of their space to refugees transitioning into permanent housing. It makes so much sense. Colleges or even study abroad housing are set up with dorms, cafeterias and built-in opportunities to meet other people. It’s a new take on an institutional structure we take for granted as static or inflexible, and it’s a beautiful alternative to building walls or turning inward when we reach unfamiliar territory.