Impressions of Italy and the European Union in 2009 - Part II.

Continued from Part I.

On a more political level there is something even more ominous and troubling than the mere clownings of Berlusconi and the deteriorating moral standards of the country’s elites. It is the phenomenon of the so-called “ronde,’ (a military term suggesting the patrolling of a military police) i.e., self-appointed vigilante groups who go around big Italian cities patrolling the streets and stopping people according to a profile of those they consider immigrants and/or terrorists. Somehow the two are grouped together. At piazza della Reppublica in Urbino I met an American who told me that he was one of the ronde’s victims. He was stopped, asked to produce a passport and questioned. What was his crime? He sported a beard, and that in itself seems to have rendered him a suspect. If that reminds the reader of the Nazi vigilante groups in brown shirts of the 1930s, he would not be too far from the mark. All this is going on, mind you, in a modern democratic industrialized country, proud of being one of the founding members of the EU.

The “ronde” of course are very much in harmony with the xenophobic philosophy of Umberto Bossi, one of the ministers allied with Berlusconi, leader of the Lega party which advocates the secession of the so called “popolo Padano,” a term Bossi invented, for there is no such people historically; that is to say, the secession of the whole of northern Italy, the most affluent part of Italy, from the rest of the country. Ironically this is happening 150 years after Italian unification and in the era of an allegedly dwindling nationalism within the EU. So when one of the major architects of Italian unification, Cavour, said that “now that we have made Italy we need to make the Italian” and when the Prince of Salina in the novel The Leopard says that we have to change everything so that nothing changes, they were in a way acknowledging that such a union was an artificial political union created from the top down aiming at the aping of European nationalism with no sense of an organic cultural identity of the whole Italian people.

Here too, I would suggest that Italy functions as a mirror to the rest of the EU; for indeed vigilantism and xenophobia is on the ascendancy even outside of Italy, in allegedly liberal countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. Vigilantism suggests that the cultural identity of this brand new European (the “Newropean,” so called) is quite fragile. Churches are now abandoned since everybody is in soccer stadiums on Sunday and religion is tantamount for many Europeans to medieval obscurantism, but then it is resented when Muslim immigrants buy them and transform them into mosques. One begins to suspect that the same slogan can be applied to the EU: now that we have made Europe politically, we need to make the Europeans. One is bound to ask: has the cart once again been put before the horse?

The result in the unified Italy of 1861 was the creation of two countries which pretended to be one: a Northern Italy and a Southern Italy, not to speak of Rome which was still in the hands of the Church at the time. If the reader thinks this an anachronism of sort, that modern Italy has transcended such divisions, he would be greatly mistaken. An event which happened while I was there a few weeks ago is illustrative. An Italian parliamentarian from the Lega Party by the name of Matteo Salvini (who will soon grace the halls of the European parliament in Strasburg) was recently recorded shouting a song at a soccer game which went like this: “arrivano i Napoletani, anche i cani se ne scappano dalla puzza” (here come the Neapolitans, even dogs run away from the stench). Need one say more? What is ironic even here is that all this is happening while the euro-parlamentarians in the EU parliament bravely speak of a European identity beyond nationalism. One is left to wonder as to what kind of Europe the euro-parlamentarian Salvini will be advocating when he gets to Strasburg.

It was at that absurd point that I took three of the students with me for a short trip to Southern Italy while the others went to Venice. They had no idea that there was another Italy from Rome down. When they arrived in Bitonto, they saw an Italy just as cultured and even more affable than the other up north. An Italy where it is possible in a city of barely 60,000 inhabitants (Bitonto) to open a state museum free to the public from a donation of an art collection gathered by Mino Devanna, who happens to be my cousin, over half a century and containing masterpieces by Artemisia Gentilieschi, el Greco, De Nittis, Veronese, Titian, Delacroix, Stella, just to mention a few. Those three students were very glad to have visited Southern Italy. It encouraged three others in fact to visit Naples and Pompei later on. I hope that such visits to the land of Magna Grecia which precedes the Romans, become a regular feature of summer study trips to Italy.

The other two social phenomena which I observed but which I reserve for future articles for they would take us too far afield here, is that of the presence in Italy of the extra-communitarians, that is to say, people from outside the EU who arrive by the thousands, legally and often illegally, mostly Africans and Muslims. Here too, the EU, which could have learned something from the US immigrant experience, is learning its hard lessons on its own, the hard way. Let us hope that there will not be a war of secession there too. The other is the narcissism and egomania observable in the youth of Italy. Here too there is an obvious conscious imitation of one of the worst features of American popular culture. The same youth at times will also be consciously anti-American. It’s like having their cake and eating it too.

There is plenty of food for thought in those impressions of Italy, and I am still ruminating on them. Suffice here to end with this thought, not everything that is progressive and the latest fashion is necessarily progress. It appears that progress is not deterministic and at least some of it may be sheer regression.  

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