Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.
When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).
Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).
That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.
Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.
It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.
Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.
I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.
Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.
What’s this world coming to?
In other news, Agnelli heir and playboy Lapo Elkann has publicly announced that he is converting to Judaism.
What IS this world coming to?
Boccaccio’s tale of the conversion of Abraham comes to mind…
Excellent post, Jeremy. I think I am also familiar with the subtle change which has taken place in Italy over the last twenty years: not counting Sardegna in ’83, I first visited the country (and forged my first Italian friendships) in the summer of 1988. What has happened under Berlusconi’s various terms in office is I think very sad for anyone who has spent extended time in Italy, and perhaps a more real and despairing problem for Italians than many realize. Berlusconi’s blissful obliviousness of (or disregard for) the consequences his own careless actions and absolute failure to recognize his country’s huge worth and potential within the international sphere — politically, economically and culturally — has triggered a rapid downturn in Italy’s image abroad. The current situation makes the boom years of the 1980s and early-1990s — when many saw Italy (albeit superficially) as some kind of dreamy utopian destination — seem like a very long time ago. Berlusconi’s refusal to capitalize on this moment in his country’s history has resulted in much of the European press now seemingly quick to portray Italy as a corrupt society teeming with ignorance, violence or racism — issues which have always existed (as in all other societies) but which do the vast majority of Italians a huge disservice and no favors whatsoever. The last thing Italy needs right now is for its own problems to be pointed out by sneering and self-righteous foreign journalists (who sadly, in the UK at least, are often as respected as they are casually informed).
As for Lapo Elkann, the less said the better. God knows what l’Avvocato would have made of it all. His brother John’s not much of an improvement either, but then I’m biased: FORZA VIOLA!
JT, thank you for your thoughtful comment. When I first lived in Italy in 87, aside from the anti-American sentiment I found everywhere, people had a bright view to the future. For the first time in my life, I felt I lived in a place where a humane and humanist vision was applied almost unanimously. The human experience and compassion seemed to come before all else. The other students chided me about the U.S. attitudes toward the death penalty and nuclear power and they had a sense of ethical empowerment… today they have little moral high ground to stand on, sad to say. And it does sadden me because so much of my attitude as an adult was informed and shaped during the years that I lived there… I’m not Italian and it’s really not my place to say… but I love the country and have known and know so many wonderful, hard-working honest, forthright people there who have taught me so much about life and humanity. As that generation of Italians who knew the suffering of the war begins to disappear, so have the ideals that they fought for. The Brunello controversy was a microcosm of this sad shift.
Caro Jeremy, what can I say? From what I read, there are no public demonstrations against SB and no meaningful political opposition. In the meantime, Boffo has resigned, which to me means only one thing. I am wondering how many people have a sense of what is going on in their country.
Most of the conversations I have on this subject tend toward disillusionment. The Italians I speak with are in their mid-20s. They say that Italy has rocked it in the world arena for centuries, and now is a low time. It’s a very level-headed outlook that does not overcome anyone with feelings of despair: It’s just fact.
I don’t know anything about this. Just reporting the word on the street.
There are protests and Silvio’s approval ratings are finally falling.
Many Italians in and out of Italy are very upset about what is going regarding the abuse of the press/conflict of interest.
The opposition party PDL needs to get their act together instead of in-fighting. People need options.
Pingback: Grondwet ownt maffiabaas «
Pingback: DrugPers » Grondwet ownt maffiabaas