The country’s resilient civil society outlasts one government after another—as well as media predictions of disaster.
In Rome on a recent evening, after a day spent wandering with my wife and two children amid the ruins of the Forum, I spent a half hour in the apartment we are staying in scanning headlines from back home. Coming upon several articles in the New York Times about the current political turbulence in Italy, I realized that great newspapers, like great civilizations, also decline.
Here was an article, by David Broder (not to be confused with the late Washington Post journalist), on the newspaper’s op-ed page, sensationally titled “The Future is Italy, and It’s Bleak.” Broder, who is “at work on a book about fascism in contemporary Italy,” offers a thesis about the country that must have brought tears of joy to the paper’s editors, who have spent the last six years publishing alarms on a regular basis about a coming fascist takeover of nearly the entire world—maybe even the Hamptons.
According to Broder, the sudden downfall of Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, who offered his resignation after a right-wing party led by his predecessor refused to support a key energy bill, represents the beginning of the end for Italy. The disintegration of the consensus that Draghi’s government had enjoyed since Draghi stepped in as the country’s leader last year creates a vacuum that could be filled by another right-wing party, the Brothers of Italy, led by the charismatic Giorgia Meloni.
A victory at the polls for Meloni and her party in September, when new elections are set to be held, would be a depressing setback for Italy, but Broder sees it as something far worse: as a veritable resurrection of Mussolini. He begins with what he considers an “ominous” phrase from Meloni’s best-selling memoir, “if this is to end in fire, then we should all burn together.” He admits, however, in a parenthetical aside that the line comes from a song in a Hobbit film.
Meloni is a down-to-earth figure, to be sure. But that, in Broder’s eyes, is not her only fascist feature. He believes that Italy will be vulnerable to a fascist takeover this September because, as the Marxists used to say, the material conditions are ripe for revolution. Italy is, Broder declares, “heavily indebted, socially polarized and politically unstable.”
In the old days, editors at the op-ed page would have asked for some examples of the conditions Broder lists. Modern Italy has been politically turbulent, but hardly unstable, since the end of the Second World War, and the society is far too intricately layered, tension upon tension, to be simply “polarized.” Yet Broder’s argument falls perfectly in line with the Times’s (journalistically lucrative) project of scaring the wits out of its readers on a regular basis. Its editors even assigned a reported piece clearly inspired by Broder’s op-ed to Jason Horowitz, its Rome bureau chief, who shaped his reportage to reflect Broder’s thesis.
Horowitz is a fine reporter, and it was troubling to see him following a party line, as well as to watch him, usually adept at puzzling out the serpentine complexities of Italy’s politics, stumble over the current intricacies. One element of the right-wing’s withdrawal from Draghi’s coalition was its disagreement with his support of Ukraine, yet Meloni has voiced her own unequivocal support for Ukraine. This confuses Horowitz, who approvingly quotes “some [unnamed] analysts” who “see her support for Ukraine as a cunning move to distinguish herself from [Matteo] Salvini and make herself a more acceptable candidate for prime minister.” But since Salvini made a series of stumbles as deputy prime minister a few years ago, his popularity has eroded, and he poses no real threat to Meloni. More likely, Meloni supports Ukraine out of a mix of perhaps some principle and her awareness of the fact that, according to a Pew Research Center poll, only 11 percent of Italians surveyed said that they trust Vladimir Putin to act rationally and responsibly as a world leader.
Horowitz, however, has his marching orders, and despite Meloni’s public declaration of support for Ukraine, and her rejection of any chance of Italy’s exit from the European Union, he still wants to make the case that Draghi was all that stood between Italian sovereignty and Russian hegemony. His reasoning? “Italy,” he writes, “has among Western Europe’s strongest bonds with Russia. During the Cold War, it was the home of the largest Communist Party in the West, and Italy depended on Russia for more than 40 percent of its gas.”
Well, Italy—along with France and Germany—depended on Russian gas for practical reasons, not out of some ideological attachment. And the idea that because Italy once had Europe’s largest Communist Party means that Italians are predisposed to embrace Russian aggression is not just plain wrong, but almost dishonest. From its outset, the Italian Communist party hewed to its own line, from pursuing a commitment to parliamentary democracy to denouncing the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Even as the wily Italian Communists were taking tens of millions of dollars from the Soviets, they were defying the party ideology whenever it radically conflicted with liberal Western values.
Broder’s bleak view of Italy continues: “Economic growth flatlined across the past two decades while eye-wateringly high public debt has forestalled efforts to revive the country’s fortunes. Youth unemployment is constantly high and regional inequality deeply entrenched. In this atmosphere of decline, where prosperity seems implausible, the Brothers of Italy’s message—that national salvation can be found only in the abjuring of migrants and defense of the traditional family—has found a receptive audience.” Leave aside that in Italy, where the politics of opportunity was invented 500 years ago by Machiavelli and Guicciardini, anti-immigrant sentiment and family values are not sufficient issues on which to base a fascist revolution, which gained its momentum in the 1920s from a profound economic crisis bordering on social chaos.
It took Paul Krugman, who, whatever one thinks of his politics, is one of the few remaining adults at the newspaper, to restore a sense of proportion—and to offer a lesson in Italian politics. The Italian sky is not falling. “No,” Krugman tutors Broder about Italy, “it isn’t fiscally irresponsible. No, it’s not incapable of running its internal affairs.” Far from being “eye-watering,” Italy’s debt over the past decade was not as high as that of some other European nations, or Japan. Nowadays, Krugman writes, “Italy has been quite disciplined in its spending,” running “consistent primary surpluses” until the pandemic, surpluses larger than those of other European countries. He instructs Broder that though Americans’ incomes are higher than those in Italy—not to mention those of other European countries—Italians live longer. Krugman understands that longevity is the most accurate marker of a country’s stability and well-being. As for the higher incomes, Italians don’t need them. Here in Rome, the cost of living is something like 40 percent less than New York, 60 percent lower if you include the cost of housing.
But while he begins by rightly saying that he has no idea what will happen in Italy, Krugman seemingly caves in to his paper’s agenda by the end, nearly repeating verbatim the title of Broder’s op-ed: “I agree with David Broder: Italy may well represent the West’s future. And it’s bleak”—never mind that Krugman had just spent his entire essay debunking Broder, point by point.
In Rome, you experience concretely the everyday assimilation of changing cultural styles throughout history. The city is filled with obelisks dating back to the Roman conquest of Egypt, after which Egyptian artifacts were all the rage. The history of the city is, on some level, a struggle between water and stone, and even the different types of marble used for buildings were associated with, at various times, a choice that reflected high status. In America, meantime, we are in the throes of a new journalistic style in which young journalists mask their ignorance behind a canny cynicism about every living form of culture and society. Are you unsure of your interpretation and judgments of events? Then paint your analysis in the darkest, most catastrophic terms, and you will appear worldly and disenchanted and impossible to deceive.
A few days ago, I took my family to the Protestant cemetery to visit Keats’s grave. He died in an apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps one February night in 1821, at 23, in the arms of his kind friend, the painter Joseph Severn. The two men are buried alongside each other. Severn’s devotion greatly moved my son. Hoping to inscribe a vivid memory, I recited the final lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”—which had the desired effect of luring my children off their phones.
After picking up a map of the cemetery at the entrance, I had been gladdened to find that Antonio Gramsci, Italy’s most famous Communist, was also buried there. We slowly made our way through the shaded and tiered cemetery, past sculptures of weeping angels, from the resting place of Keats, the son of a humble caretaker of horses at the stable of an inn, toward Gramsci’s grave, which was on the other side of the cemetery from Keats’s. About halfway there, just past the graves of Shelley and the Beat poet Gregory Corso, we encountered two workers raking leaves off the graves and tidying them up. I asked one in Italian if he knew where Gramsci’s grave was. He answered me in perfect English: “Why are you interested in Gramsci?” He was in his mid-sixties, wearing a straw hat, his face leathery and dark and sporting a wry, amused smile. I told him that though I had traveled a long way politically since then, I had admired Gramsci when I was young, and that I retained a fondness for his ideas and for his feel for ordinary people. He smiled. “I have grown very skeptical of the working class,” he said, leaning on his rake.
His companion, a younger man with thick glasses, smiled as well. I asked the older man what he thought about Draghi’s resignation, and he replied that it was a tragedy since Draghi had made Italy economically stronger and more hopeful about the future. I mentioned Meloni and he shook his head. “Well,” he said, with that wry smile, “we had Berlusconi for many years.” He meant, I think, that Berlusconi was gone—as were scores of avaricious, incompetent, and corrupt emperors and popes. Italy, however, remains, with its infinite variations of class and region and subculture; with its social guarantees and expanded individual freedoms and elevated standard of living, so vastly different from the 1920s; with its invincible civil society, so strong that it can outlast one government after another, amid the perpetual motion of Italian politics, like the swirling lines of Baroque painting, a testament to Italian political skill rather than proof of its absence. Meloni may well become prime minister in September, as the liberal media secretly hopes she will—more American book contracts and page views! But whatever happens, Italy will endure.
Photo by piola666 / iStock
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