In response to:

Italy's Dirty Linen from the November 30, 1995 issue

Rome, Italy

To the Editors:

Denis Mack Smith writes [NYR, November 30, 1995]: “Italy’s deeper political problems will be solved only when another election shows whether a discredited political elite can be replaced.”

Today the characteristics of the old political class seem to be reduced to endless blackmail and extortionist threats about unspeakable involvements, corruption and complicity, illegal favors done for colossal sums in exotic banks, and a policy of systematic and arrogant lying to Parliament and to the people.

However, the “glue” that held it together for some decades was certainly not an “Italian” ENA or LSE or MIT. In fact, it went back to the Resistance (and its ideals), the Constituent Assembly and the Republican Constitution of 1946-1948, and also such models as Luigi Einaudi, Alcide de Gasperi, Carlo Sforza, Giuseppe Saragat, Umberto Terracini, Norberto Bobbio, Giovanni Spadolini, and even the much discussed Palmiro Togliatti and Sandro Pertini—models in their dignified public and private behavior as well as in political know-how and statesmanship. This explains the “long duration”: the careers of forty or fifty years for Andreotti’s generation before the downfall, compared to twenty years for Craxi’s generation before the disgrace, and from ten to five—the law of decreasing duration—for their ephemeral successors.

In the new class running for the next elections no one seems to be an alumnus of any school or institution capable of furnishing the basis and the competence for any sort of public activity, whether political, economic, constitutional, administrative, or diplomatic. The training of the new class essentially comes from two sources. Either they are loud “exes” of movements, assemblies, marches, demonstrations, student rallies, with long résumés as ex-juvenile leaders, ex-urban guerrilla fighters, ex-greens, ex-anarchists, ex-“provocatori” or ex-“pentiti,” but without legal or budgetary or educational or industrial experience. Not even experience in those old-fashioned Party schools for cadres. Or they are ex-television favorites, ex-commercial entertainers, ex-publicity salesmen, ex-hawkers of bargain-basement wares and door-to-door junk bonds, with qualifications for performing stunts and TV spots. Government advice mostly comes from company and family lawyers.

This is the current professional background, and spiritual approach, for undertaking the next round of institutional and electoral and fiscal and immigration reforms; for holding talks with Kohl and Chirac; for deciding about keeping the Dini government or bombing Serbia or joining Albania; for negotiating with international bankers without speaking foreign languages; and also for appeasing the furious motorists harassed by alien windshield washers at traffic lights amid heaps of garbage that nobody—citizen or alien—cares to remove.

When the “glue,” indeed, is a television talk show, or a soccer match of ex-comrades in shorts, then the daily about-turns so cheerfully performed by professional showmen become immediately understandable to the electorate—now called “the public.” They no longer belong to the traditional world of political consistency, or the classical conventions of the commedia dell’arte, but to everchanging programs of television variety shows, whose popular hosts and guests do not feel any inappropriateness in confusing roles and performing tricks to entertain and increase their audiences. And in doing so at the expense, even, of the national budget, of the impeachment of ministers, or summit meetings among the industrialized nations. Characteristically, when those stand-up politicians visit a foreign country, they never comment about international affairs, but make wisecracks about the funny lies, or denials of wrongdoing, that they heard in parliamentary restaurants back home.

But one should very seriously acknowledge that today Italy actually feels divided not only into traditional North and South, or conventional Right and Left—with that classical spite about who exploits whom—but above all for and against “illegal aliens,” especially Africans, Balkan peoples, and Asians; and such feelings have deep, and very sincere, historical and anthropological motivations. A half of Italy, or more, traditionally shows an atavistic and ethnic attraction to everything that is “charmingly” against the law, illicit, anarchic, itinerant, clandestine, parasitic, begging, peddling, with an instinctive, ancestral rejection of a national community that is badly held together by Enlightenment illusions on the part of a “European” minority, which is often felt to be an enemy. From this enmity also flows a very ancient and visceral support of any foreign intervention that might sow division and conflict and destroy one’s own domestic adversaries.

Historically this tendency can be traced back to the invasion of Charles VIII of France, who at the end of the fifteenth century was summoned into Italy by Italians to attack other Italians. And since then, without interruption, out of hatred for some “other” Italians, most Italians have divided themselves into factions—French, Spanish, Austrian, and so on. Always under the vengeful illusion (typical of “Italian cunning”) of making foreigners the instrument of their own reprisals. Yet it was always the foreigners who used and oppressed “the monkeys who opened the tiger’s cage.”

Even over the recent decades, we all remember Italian newspapers and magazines filled with articles and photographs praising “our German ally” and glossing over the wartime infamies. And, soon after, great glorification of “our American liberators” on every page. Then, the enthusiasm for the wonderful works of “our Soviet comrades.” Then, in succession, infatuation with every movement or upheaval that, instead of helping to improve neighboring democracies, favored the installation of despotisms in far-distant continents, with vivid excitement about every violent “seizure of power” in remote countries.

We all were ordinarily brought up being “anti” this or “anti” that. Nowadays, the prefix “extra,” as in “extra-comunitario,” is the redeeming label that exempts all foreigners, legal or illegal, white or black, workers or criminals, from the laws—civil or commercial or criminal—and custom of the country (though Italy belongs to the European Community). And a new pro-African faction is welcoming and celebrating the “immigrant invasion” in order to defeat other hated compatriots: It is doing so, moreover, with the same spontaneous impulse that had already exalted the French, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Wehrmacht, the Yanks, the Stalinists, the Cubans, the Chinese, terrorist movements, and the Polish Catholics, in succession, and beyond temporary ideological considerations.

Does this description sound “unpopular”? These are nevertheless the main themes that will be played out in the “critical” upcoming elections among ex-fascists born after the death of Fascism; post-communists who proudly proclaim their rejection of Communism; members of the Northern League who want to annex their provincial districts to Great Europe; factory workers and school-boys puzzled or rebellious about fraternization with Muslim neighbors who do not drink wine or eat ham sandwiches or say “Hail Mary” in church or take girlfriends to discos. Added to these are large masses of unemployed workers confronted with illegal migrants who are patronized by Church and Party with utter disdain for “statistics” or “quantifications” concerning the actual effects of immigration; vast television audiences happy to vote for a “nice” TV star for President; and an eternal “center” in which an unchangeable Italy reproduces itself even among the youngest and smartest of its people.

This Issue

January 11, 1996