Thursday, September 27, 2018

On National(ist) Characters

A bill meant to toughen laws against the sales of Fascist items such as these in a shop window in Cannaregio was passed by the lower house of the Italian parliament last year. Opposed not only by the party of Berlusconi, but by the country's two ruling parties--the Fascist-friendly Lega (Nord) and the "neither-left-nor-right" Five Star Movement--it has no chance of coming to a vote in the upper house and being made law.

It was only last fall, at the beginning of fourth grade, that our son really began to get into calcio (or soccer).  Up until that time he and I, or he and his mother and I, had kicked a ball around, but he'd never played in anything like an actual game, never learned the game's rules, nor consciously practiced any of its skills.

So I was surprised when he began to come home from school with excited accounts of playing soccer during recesses and lunch breaks with his classmates.

It was in the middle of one such account, after noting that he wasn't much of a goal-scoring threat at present, that he announced "But I am the best in my class at one thing!"

"Really? Already?" I asked. "At what?"

"I'll show you," he said. He made me stand up, then positioned me in the middle of an open space in our dining room. "Now, just stand there," he said, as he retreated to the door of the room a few feet from me.

"Okay, now don't move, just watch," he directed. He jogged toward me and as he passed close by my right side dragged one of his feet so that it briefly hooked my stationary leg and then collapsed into a dramatic full body roll.  

Then he bounced up, smiling proudly, while I exclaimed, "You're the best in your class at diving?!"

"Diving?" he asked, still bright-eyed with the expectation of praise. "What's that?"

"It's the English word for what you just did. It's kinda considered a bad thing to do. Bad sportsmanship."

Now it was his turn to look shocked. "Bad?" he asked. "Why? It helps your team win, no?"

"No," I replied quickly, with more emphasis than I'd intended, springing as it did from my rejection of both the Italian form of his sentence and the stereotypically Italian sentiment it seemed to express.

Up to this point the Italianisms that appeared in his speech (the affirmation-seeking "no" at the end of sentences, the appearance of literally-translated Italian phrases in his otherwise American vernacular) had struck me as cute: bits of local color, superficial reminders of his bi-lingualism.

But, now, heaven help us, what if he was not just sometimes speaking English like an Italian, but actually thinking like one, too?

I took a deep breath, reminding myself not to panic at this thought. I told myself that here was one of those supposedly invaluable teaching moments.

"You know, in real soccer games you get a yellow card for pretending you've been fouled and falling to the ground like that."

"But why? It's a smart thing to do," he said. "It's good strategy. You get a penalty kick."

"But you don't deserve it," I said. "The other player's done nothing wrong. It's cheating. In fact, in America, it's usually the first thing that people who hate soccer talk about as their reason for hating it. They think it's embarrassing to fall down like that and wail and moan."

"I don't wail and moan," he said.

"I know. But maybe it's more important to just play the game fairly and have fun and not worry about whether you win or lose."

"But it's the one thing I'm really good at," he said. "And my team loves it when I get penalty kicks."

"Well, you just started really playing the game. Give yourself time to get good at other things. It takes practice. Just play and have fun and don't worry about winning. And you should at least know that in a real game you'll be penalized for diving."

He looked to be weighing my words, gauging the heft of their validity. But even as he was doing so they began, in my own mind, to evaporate into gassy falsehoods.

I believed everything I said. That wasn't the problem.

The problem--as it began to assume a sticky shape that I'm stuck with still--had to do with my implicit belief that what I'd been expressing had been distinctly (if not exclusively) American values of sportsmanship. And which I'd put forth as distinctly American correctives to what I feared was a distinctly Italian acceptance of, if not outright admiration for, cheating. For a distinctly--or maybe just stereotypically--Italian cynicism.

And this quaint belief, which places Americans at one end of the moral spectrum and Italians at the other, is so common in the English-speaking world that it's no exaggeration to describe it as the foundation upon which not only the American but English conception of Italy rests (indeed, much of Anglo-American writing on Italy would collapse into a heap of plotless banalities without it).

The problem with such a distinction, though, is that it begins to fall apart upon the most cursory examination. The tidy spectrum we've set out is prone to blur as soon as we really look at it; our linear scale becomes a circle. Or a knot.

Of course it's the easiest dichotomy in the world to make, and one which can't help but structure the perception (and lives) of ex-pats as well as visitors. In fact, the temptation to teeter-totter mentally and morally between our new land and our native land (whichever lands they may be) can be irresistible for us ex-pats: finding our new country superior in one regard, finding our native superior in another, deciding to stay in one country or another based upon the final tally of their respective positives.

Indeed, I suspect this kind of teeter-tottering is a defining luxury of ex-pats: those for whom the door back home is still open, even if (or especially if) they declare they'll never use it.

Whereas it's one that's far less available to the immigrant or refugee, whose mobility is unidirectional, away from a place of hardship to a new place they must imagine is better in vitally important ways--and which can't possibly be worse.*

In the mind of the fortunate ex-pat the native land persists as an escape route; in that of the immigrant or refugee or exile, as a source of homesickness or danger (and sometimes both at once).

And so we--or I should say, I--teeter-totter. Trying to assure that our son will be influenced by the best aspects of Italian and American culture, and be inoculated against the worst. Thus, I can't stand idly by as my son takes pride in his skills as a diver--for such awful furbizia!**

And yet just because the English language has no word quite equal to furbo does not mean the cultures which speak it are immune either from employing or admiring it.***

And that's really the problem here, the one that compels me to write this, and one that actually extends far beyond mere furbizia. As much as I'd like to limit the discussion to sports, or to keep the tone light and diverting, sticking to that ever-popular subject of "national characters," from which endless travel columns and best-selling books seem to spin themselves (eg, "THE French"--inevitably meaning a particular sub-section of privileged white Parisians [ie, the writer's own social circle] and ignoring completely all those other people within and without Paris descended from a variety of lands and cultures who are no less FRENCH than the writer's own tiny sample group--"raise their children like this, while Americans, in contrast, do it thusly...." Spew vapid life-style-ly drivel of this sort and you can find yourself given regular column space in the New York Times.)

Such writing is so popular because, liberally seasoned with stale but stubborn notions of high-cultural prestige, it tells us what we've already heard and want to hear more of--and being pre-digested, it goes down so very easily, with a familiar tickle and not the least cognitive effort. 

What troubles me (and not only me) these days, is that whether I teeter or whether I totter, whether I touch down in my native land or in Italy, the widespread corruption, the cynicism, the nihilism, the self-dealing and abuses of power, the intentional degradation of public discourse, the racism, the human rights violations, the attacks on the very notion of democracy and on the possibility of good governance as a merely worthwhile aim are all too much alike.

The purported cultural differences of the blog post I began to write here are swamped by large and dangerous political forces in Italy and America that are very much the same.

Indeed, Italy's new figurehead of a prime minister went so far as to declare during his servile visit to the White House's current occupant at the end of July that "I would say that we're almost twin countries." (A resemblance which anyone other than neo-fascists and white supremacists wouldn't exactly consider a point of pride.)

And with slavering comments of this sort Italy's new prime minister officially embraced the role of flunky, and distinguished himself as the only leader of a major western European country to assume as fawning a pose before the head of America's corrupt administration as the one which America's corrupt leader himself assumed at the feet of Vladimir Putin in Helsinki (though the GDP of Russia and Italy are roughly the same). 

The fact is, the most powerful politician in Italy at the moment (for whom Italy's prime minister serves as merely a friendly front) is every bit the admirer of Vladimir Putin and his criminal state as the current occupant of the Oval Office is, and is equally dedicated to creating his own cult of personality through his trolling tweets and ubiquitous media presence. Indeed, like America's ignoramus-in-chief, Italy's dime-store replica preens upon his own carefully-curated platform of racist and authoritarian provocations, priding himself, it seems, on what he considers to be an oh-so-clever game of peek-a-boo fascism (and here, among many other examples).**** Not only has he adapted one of his American idol's signature phrases to "Italians First," he's even just met with the walking gin blossom credited with his idol's electoral college victory.

And though Italy's new self-styled "savior"***** resembles nothing so much as the feckless mammone (mama's boy) stock character in a low-budget 1970s Italian sex farce, he wields a disturbing amount of power over the country's direction and discourse (though he's not even the prime minister). In this he benefits from the fact that the country's actual prime minister is from the Cinque Stelle party, a party which actually received considerably more votes than the Lega (Nord) party with which it now governs, but whose suggested responses to the very real problems they note in Italy tend to have all the sophistication of an elementary school candidate's promises made while running for the post of fourth grade class president.****** (Cinque Stelle promises universal basic income; Lega (Nord) promises tax cuts--how either one of these two promises, much less both, could be delivered in debt-ridden Italy has not been explained. But they are united, much to the delight of the authoritarian Russian and American patrons they share, in their flirtation with the idea of leaving the EU.)

Of course, as has long been said (even by Italy's own dictator), Italy is "ungovernable," its governments rapidly collapsing one after another since the creation of the Italian Republic after the second world war: its national state the subject of distrust, if not outright contempt, ever since it was unified in the last quarter of the 19th century. 

These are not the kind of things one is supposed to hear about the United States, however, if for no other reason than such instability has been traditionally considered "bad for business" (and if America values anything it's "business.") But forty years of unrelenting attacks upon the very idea of a federal government by one of the country's two political parties have produced their desired result, inspiring an a-critical, easily-manipulated Pavlovian response even from those who, in fact, depend upon national programs such as, for example, Social Security and Medicaid.

And, has been demonstrated in the Italian south, a passive, fatalistic contempt for the state (believed to be not only illegitimate but irredeemable) opens up a fertile space for wide-spread destruction (as well as criminality and corruption) to flourish: whether it be the Camorra illegally dumping toxic waste in the countryside around Naples or America's "legitimate" mining industry dumping their own toxic waste into streams, because, after all, the government and its regulations are (according to one of America's two parties) always bad, always to be repealed--no matter what the actual consequences.   

But then you hear a lot of things in and from America these days that I in my naive youth used to think were the defining characteristics of hopelessly corrupt countries far poorer and more dysfunctional than Italy. Even an American citizen's right to cast a vote is no longer assured, and the reasonable expectation that all citizens' votes will be securely recorded and diligently tallied was blown up by the travesty that was the 2000 presidential election--and, amazingly enough, never actually repaired. Indeed, in the succeeding years both the right to vote and the security of the ballot box have become even less certain than they were in 2000!*******

And so... And so, I suppose what I'm really writing about here is why I find it so hard to write any blog posts these days; I'm not a political scientist, nor a political pundit (though the minimum competence for the latter position seems to be extraordinarily low). And this is not a political blog. The problem, however, is that merely recording the official proclamations of both Italian and American leaders puts one in the thick of what can only be considered by anyone with any sense of history to be a political crisis.

"Truth is not the truth," announces the addled lawyer of the current occupant of the White House.

The American administration announces: "We will not cooperate with the International Criminal Court. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. ...for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.” (All as a way of preventing American citizens--and the well-connected private mercenary industry by which they are employed--from being prosecuted for war crimes in places like Afghanistan.)

The most powerful politician in Italy calls for a "mass cleansing, street by street, quarter by quarter."

There is no way to put a benign spin on any of these things.

Nor does it seem responsible to simply ignore them.

Most immediately, I suppose it comes back to my sense that the open secret of most travel writing is that it reveals as much about the writer's native land (or her or his sense of their native land) as it does about his or her foreign subject. For example, I still remember finishing Tim Parks's well-known book An Italian Education with the sense that I'd learned a great deal about his England, its attitudes and morality, but very little about Italy. The book is structured upon differences between the two cultures which Parks insistently hammers home, and its (familiar, reliable) narrative arc moves from his initial and recurrent distaste for Italian ways to a certain acceptance of, or at least resignation to, or perhaps corruption by, some of them.

The difference I assumed between my son's "Italian" sense of gamesmanship and my "American" sense of sportsmanship at the beginning of this post is in keeping with Parks's example of this common approach. It's the engine of much travel writing, of diverting accounts and, in the right hands, of outright comedy. But these days I find myself ill at ease with the approach's underlying logic and assumptions; ill at ease with asserting piquant distinctions when it's the disturbing commonalities that demand attention.

For regardless of which perspective I assume, whether I look from the US at Italy, or try to look from Italy at the US, I see nothing that makes me smile. 



*That the country of supposed refuge can indeed offer horrors just as bad and maybe even worse than the country from which immigrants fled is the explicit motive behind the current American administration's signature policy of separating the children of immigrants from their parents at the Mexican border--and, furthermore, to carry the brutality all the way to its awful end, of making absolutely no effort to assure the children's return. Yet, this is just the latest example of a mobster approach to policy justified by appeals to "national security" with which a surprising percentage of Americans have shown themselves to be quite content over the last 16 or 17 years. Other examples have included torture, kidnapping, and the illegal use of mass surveillance--all crimes, both national and international, for which no one has been brought to justice.

**You'll find a discussion of the word furbo here; and good examples of why even the most well-meaning attempt to define the term is hazardous in the series of comments at the end of the piece. 

***After all, to take a minor example, it was not an Italian candidate for the nation's highest office who proudly declared in a nationally-televised debate that not paying his share of taxes "means I'm smart"--although not paying taxes is supposedly one of the defining traits of Italians.

****In contrast to America's authoritarian wanna-be, Italy's has never even managed so much as to play the role of a big success on a television "reality" show: prior to getting into the profitable business of race-baiting and fear-mongering, his most notable achievement had been managing to spend 12 years in college without managing to earn a degree of any kind.

*****Lest you doubt the degree to which Lega (Nord) has become a cult of personality, consider the last of the new names being considered by Lega (Nord) in its attempts to evade the seizure of €49 million for which the party is liable after being found guilty of fraud (located in last sentence of this article. And if you doubt its fascist orientation, consider the French-inspired first option in that same sentence: "National League.")

******The official leader of Cinque Stelle is a 32 year old whose, ahem, extensive and in-depth preparation for his current role as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Development, Labour and Social Policies consisted of dropping out of college, maybe/kind of working as a journalist, and serving short stints as a webmaster and an usher at Napoli's soccer stadium. His father was a local councilman with a neo-fascist party, however, which must make the current company he keeps in Italy's government seem very familiar indeed.

********None of which, however, impedes America's unshakeable belief in its right to instruct others: see last week's remarkable report that the US is warning Congo about the dangers of electronic voting machines. The US is obviously speaking from experience in this case. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


With the beginning of the school year last week the amount of wheeled luggage clacking over the city's paving stones and clunking up and down its bridges--wheeled luggage of which there was already no shortage--has increased a bit more, as it's the preferred method of getting all one's school materials to and from school. With no cars outside the school to carry a child between (domestic) door and (scholastic) door, and with no school lockers within, such bags (and the sounds they make) are one of the distinctive features of Venetian childhood education.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Fortune and Redemption in the Blue Haze of This Morning

Giuseppe Benoni's 17th-century Fortuna weather vane preens atop the old Republic's customs house, foreground; Palladio's church of Il Redontore (the redeemer) in background.

Saturday, September 8, 2018


Two different arrivals at two different times of the afternoon on two consecutive days of beautifully-clouded skies.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

8 Views of Sunday's Regata Storica

The yellow caorlina of the Remiera Francescana was the surprise winner of the six-man race, challenged by the red second place boat for much of the long course before running away with it at the end. For our friend Mauro Ceciliati, the lead rower of the yellow boat, this first place finish came 35 years (and a boat's load worth of other regata pennants) after his very first Regata Storica victory in the Giovani race of 1983. 
There were no surprises, however, in the other two adult races, as Romina Ardit and Anna Mao dominated from start to finish in the two oar women's mascareta. Sometimes referred to as "le gemelle," because they share the same birth date (though they're unrelated), this was the pair's 11th Regata Storica victory (they won 8 straight before taking time off to have children, and have won three straight since their return to action).  

While the only difference in the result of the two-oar men's gondolini race was that instead of the cousins Rudi and Igor Vignotto once again claiming the first place pennant for the 16th straight year, it was Rudi Vignotto and Giampaolo D'Este who won easily (Igor Vignotto was sidelined by health issues).

One of my favorite things about the parade of boats that preceded, as always, the races, was that this year it was led by a Zattieri del Piave: a replica of one of the river rafts which carried timber from the mainland into the lagoon, thus providing quite literally the foundations of this city built upon millions of pilings (as well as the name of the Zattere, at which such rafts were docked).

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Local Color: Traffic Jam Before Today's Regata Storica

A brief back-up on the Grand Canal after today's customary parade of rowing clubs and historically-themed boat which always precede the afternoon's slate of races. The races themselves went off without a hitch, and featured a pleasant surprise in the 6-man caorlina race. More images of all this tomorrow.