There is a simple way to deal with the rise of neofascists like Salvini, but it’s not what you might expect

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Our 13-month-old daughter has developed a new screech which is not just far louder and more grating than anything she’s previously produced, but actually more unpleasant than any noise heard in the universe since at least the Big Bang. Although it’s incredibly upsetting to be exposed to her it’s just her way of remarking that she’s feeling a little peckish, could do with a sip of the old H20, has done yet another poop or wouldn’t mind a bit of a nap. She has had a challenging few weeks during which we’ve moved back from Italy, she’s started nursery and her molars have started to erupt. Plus, over the last few days, thankfully unbeknownst to her, a gang of fascist thugs have moved perilously close to power in her homeland, something which has, whether we like it or not, put her parents’ nerves on edge.

How do we deal with her outbursts of nerve-shredding fury? By giving her exactly what she seems to want: either lots and lots of affection, a fresh nappy, chunk after chunk of banana-wana until she finally stops pointing in the vague direction of the fruit bowl, or by insisting as tenderly as possible that she curl up with her favourite cuddly toys in her sleepy-deepy placey-wacey. As much as she seems to want us to, we never respond with expressions of frustration or impatience; as hard as it gets, despite all the apparent provocation, we accept that she has no understanding of the causes or consequences of her tantrums, and treat her accordingly. She is, after all, just a confused, helpless being in a frightening universe with no other means of articulating her most basic needs, and we are, after all, the only family she has.

As for dealing with fascists, well that’s different, obviously. A combination of physical violence and public humiliation is probably the best bet. They’re not babies, fffs.

The Left could easily win a re-run of the Italian election. Here’s how.

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The results of the Italian parliamentary election are depressing not just to those of us with a progressive mindset but also to anyone who values democracy over violence as a means of governing human societies. The most likely Prime Minister is Matteo Salvini, an explicit apologist for racist terrorism*, as his party is the largest in a (ahem) ‘centre-right’ alliance led by the media oligarch, disqualified fraudster and convicted pedophile/mummified megalomaniac ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi. The largest single party is the populist 5 Star Movement, which has declared it will not enter a coalition. However, given that the notoriously incoherent organisation is led by the (also disqualified) multi-millionaire trickster/friend of Farage Beppe Grillo, who is on record as indifferent to fascism, there’s is a distinct chance that it will hoist the far-right into power.

Luckily the best minds (well, me) have identified a potential escape route out of this nightmare. It starts from the realisation that, despite its appalling result, the governing Democratic Party (PD) still got more votes than Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or whatever it’s called this fortnight. The Left got more support than the Right and would easily win a possible post-horsetrading second round of the election in a couple of months, providing three conditions were met:

  1. Salvini and the other fascist leaders will have to be physically eradicated. Italy has both a proud tradition of doing this, and an explicitly anti-fascist constitution. Nobody since 1945 can pretend they don’t know what fascists are, and that it is necessary to use all means necessary to eliminate them. An amendment to the Constitution could then introduce a 100% electoral threshold preventing the political participation of such groups. Then there are the Lega’s fellow travellers in the Nazi groups Casapound and Forza Nuova (last seen posting threatening messages on their front doors of their political opponents, a la the Mexican narco gangs with which they have so much in common). According to this ‘hey, let me introduce you to my new best friends in the Casapound’ article in the Guardian, there are hundreds of thousands of (almost exclusively male, overwhelmingly filgi di papà) members of such groups. That’s frightening, but their numbers can be used against them. Simply pack hundreds of them at a time onto rickety dinghies with a maximum capacity of 12 persons (including crew) and push them out into the Mediterranean. Perhaps their alt-right comrades could rescue them when the inevitable happen, and then carry them off to Libya where they would quickly find they actually have rather a lot in common with Isis. Then, and only then, we could, as the Casapound has proposed, bomb Libya.
  2. The voting age in Italy is 18. As is the case elsewhere, it is believed that by that age citizens have reached a sufficient level of maturity and responsibility to make considered decisions about how society is run. However, in these elections millions of people did not make a mature and responsible voting choice. They voted instead for an inchoate ‘anti-political’ political party led by a comedian and convicted drink-driver who uses his blog to spread buffale (fake news) about vaccines, immigrants and much more besides. The anarchist collective Wu Ming several years ago nailed Grillo’s role perfectly. His cult is based around ‘a chaotic programme where neoliberal and anti-neoliberal, centralist and federalist, libertarian and authoritarian ideas coexist’. It feeds parasitically on genuine anger about austerity, and has held back more radical forces such that Italy had no equivalent to the Spanish indignados or the Occupy movement. Its vacuity and naivety has meant that it has acted as a placeholder for the fascists, and in 2018 no one who voted for it could have done so in the belief that its leaders’ promise not to enter a coalition with anyone including the far-right was sincere.
    Unless, that is, they lacked a basic political education, and had developed their understanding of the world on social media, never acquiring the mature relationship with serious adult media which is essential to basic citizenship. Now, as it happens, the exam which all Italians (at least those who finish school) take at 18 is called the Maturità. It seems obvious to me that M5S voters, with their puerile understanding of the world, would benefit from the introduction of a compulsory reschooling phase** during which their would obtain an adequate appreciation for the importance of democracy and their responsibility for perpetuating it. Once they had completed such a course of study, their right to vote should be restored, provided that they take a legally-binding oath to read an actual newspaper at least twice every five years.
  3. The third thing that would reverse the tide of shit that has overrun Italian politics is to ban anyone with the name Renzi from taking part in election for a period of at least 10,000 years. The same goes for anyone (including Gentiloni) who thinks that half-heartedly repeating a neoliberal mantra of ‘crescita, crescita, crescita’ (‘growth, growth, growth’) as if they were praying for rain is a meaningful response to a world in turmoil.  Their replacements could – anzi, must – explore new and radical ideas: degrowth, a universal basic income, and much more. They could even start to face up the challenges of a collapsing climate***. This would be far better than allowing the Left to be constantly hijacked by egomaniacs much more concerned with their own power than improving society. It would mean that the the intellectual vacuum inside the PD (of which the M5S’s vapidity is a contorted and witless pastiche) could be filled with the ideas and spirit necessary to combat the simplistic prescriptions of the fascists. What will in reality happen, of course, is that (although concerted pressure from further left will hopefully have a meaningful influence) the PD will move in a more avowedly anti-immigrant direction. In the words of W-B. Yeats, “i migliori perdono ogni convinzione, mentre i peggiori/ sono pieni di appassionata intensità”. A more inspiring quote for today comes from an anonymous source: “L’unico fascista buono è il fascista morto”.

*The BBC’s Italy correspondent on this morning’s Radio 4’s Today Programme chose to refer to the Lega as an ‘anti-illegal immigrant party’, conveniently omitting to mention that in the attack in Macerata the racist terrorist didn’t ask for the documents of the Africans he tried very hard to shoot dead. Thus did a BBC journalist (whose name I didn’t catch) out himself as a fascist and therefore a terrorist sympathiser. Of course, the Macerata attack didn’t draw nearly as much attention in international and on social media as it would have if had the victims had been white. Maybe, given the almost-universal level of indifference to their fate, #siamotuttisalvini should have been trending worldwide.
** There is irony in the fact that so many M5S supporters are teachers. Well, “teachers”.
***Only joking. That would be of course be ‘political suicide’. Much easier instead to blame outsiders for changing weather patterns and failing crops. Human societies have been doing that for thousands of years.

Italy has a terrorism problem – but it’s not what you might expect

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I’ve been living in Italy now for a year, and on the whole I’ve been made to feel very welcome. No one has put pressure me to go back to my own country or suggested that I’m exploiting essential services that should be reserved for locals, even though during that time my wife and I have smuggled into the country a basically infirm member of our family, one who has no concept whatsoever of hard work, has made no apparent progress in learning the language and appears to have who does nothing but use up vital resources. If it wasn’t for the amount of panolini our baby daughter gets through, Rome’s garbage disposal crisis could be solved at a stroke.

The kind treatment afforded to my family might be considered odd, given that Italy is currently undergoing a wave of xenophobic fervour, one that (for me) recalls the deeply unpleasant events in late 1990s Ireland. Within a few months from around late 1997 onwards, as a result of tabloid campaigns aimed at the small numbers of refugee claimants then starting to arrive (sample headline from The Irish Independent: ‘Asylum scroungers fake ‘torture’!’), black people were getting screamed at in supermarkets and bus queues. Thankfully, nearly a generation later, Ireland appears to have comprehensively pushed back such attempts to turn it into a famously unwelcoming country.

In neither Ireland nor Italy have I, as an immigrant, faced similar treatment. Did I happen to mention that I’m white? Of course, most Italians would not knowingly discriminate against people on the basis of their skin colour. Like Ireland, Italy has a long history of emigration, a history of ethnic diversity going back to the Roman Empire and also a more recent one of massive internal migration. But brutal discrimination against people of apparently different backgrounds does exist, and it is coming from somewhere.

That discrimination partly manifests itself in relation to housing. In my time here there have been at least two front-page stories from my adopted city (Rome) in which locals have (apparently) refused to let people with black skin live in their midst. A few months ago an Italian-Moroccan family, one which has been based in Italy for several years, was prevented from taking up public housing assigned to them. Today, Repubblica reports on the plight of an Italian-Ethiopian family, similarly stopped from moving into their new home by a mob of angry ‘locals’ and a certain number of increasingly familiar faces egging them on.

There is a context for these events, specifically in terms of the numbers of recent arrivals. Italy and Greece are being used as corridors by the EU, much like the ones overcrowded hospitals will stick patients in when there’s no more space in the wards. As it happens, there’s lots of space in Europe for newcomers, but, with the odd noble exception, there has been a lack of political will to point that fact out. The human cost of recent waves of migration is not actually borne by Italians, but by the migrants themselves, prevented by the authorities from settling down and by other EU countries from moving on. (A very detailed and moving account of this is given in the 2015 film ‘Mediterranea’.) Many newcomers would like to reach the UK, where, owing partly to the history of the British Empire, they have personal connections and/or can speak the language, which would make it easier for them to continue their lives. The refusal of the British to accept our historical and moral responsibility is utterly shameful. However, the fact that my own country has a history of racism doesn’t mean that I can’t condemn it wherever I happen to be living now.

The conflicts increasingly taking place in Italy are not motivated by the newcomers themselves, but by political forces determined to misrepresent reality in order to provoke division so as to gain power. Racist politicians like Meloni and Salvini are never off the TV, spreading outright lies about the benefits paid to recent arrivals. The country’s leading opposition political figure, Beppe Grillo, makes common cause with the far-right, responding to criticism by claiming that ‘anti-fascism is not my concern‘. But its not those individuals who turn up wherever there’s an opportunity for aggro. Any visitor to Rome will notice the hateful posters of the openly nazi group Forza Nuova, whose thugs were behind yesterday’s racist protest in Rome. Another group which openly boasts of terrorising immigrants and their supporters occupies a substantial building in the centre of Rome. Above the entrance the name of the organisation is engraved in a pathetic pastiche of Mussolini-era iconography.  Just like their counterparts in the US, the UK and Germany, such groups hate their ‘own’ country. One of their piccolo fuhrers is even on record as calling the anti-fascist partisans of the Second World War ‘rapists’. Their objective is the same as that of Isis: to divide people using violence and the threat of violence in order to gain power. It behoves all immigrants, regardless of our status or the colour of our skin, to speak out against them just as we condemn other forms of terrorism. Italy is, in the words of Cesare Balbo, “a multiracial community composed of successive waves of immigrants”, with “one of the most mixed bloodlines, one of the most eclectic civilisations and cultures which there has ever been”. For all the absurd pretensions of Forza Nuova and Casapound, it is not and never again will be a fascist country – alle fine, è il nostro paese, non il loro.

A trip to Genoa

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I’ve thought of Genoa as a Portuguese city ever since, in Dublin in summer 2000, I drunkenly butted into a late-night bus conversation in what I thought was some unusual variety of that language, only to find that the two people were speaking zenese, or genovese, which just happens to share some of the cadences and vocabulary of continental Portuguese.  The latter may not be entirely as a coincidence – history doesn’t record which languages were spoken on Columbus’s expeditions, but as he was born in or near Genoa, prepared his voyages in Lisbon and set off from Spain it must have been a mishmash. The cities thus share a history of maritime expansion, and now live in the shadow of those former glories. Genoa feels to me not so much a city I’ve never visited before as a city I’ve never got round to living in, because back in another Golden Age of Overseas Discovery, that of TEFL, when the mere accident of having been born into an English-speaking environment meant that you could, at the drop of a derisory month-long course, emigrate and earn a decent living pretending to teach English, it was spectacular images of Portugal’s second city, Porto, which drew me there. If the Guardian travel section had instead featured Genoa, I could just have easily ended up in north-east Italy. I might even have ended up marrying an Italian woman*.

Arriving in a new city involves, Marco Polo-style, recalibrating one’s impressions of all the other cities one has visited or might visit. Thus, in keeping with my assumptions, Genoa does indeed strike me as a version of Portugal’s two main cities, which are both port cities with hilltop palaces descending rapidly to medina-style alleyways. In Genoa those alleyways are called caruggi. They’re immediately reminiscent of the steep, twisting warrens of Lisbon’s Alfama or Porto’s Ribeira – and, funnily enough, they also resemble other parts of Italy, for example, the Barrio Spagnolo in Napoli, but without all the vespas which render that area so unpleasant to walk around. The fact that we arrive just before what looks like an incoming squall puts me in mind of when, in 2009, I got to Trieste, another city I’d long longed to visit. I found it to be windblown, sombre, and not all that welcoming, albeit in a way that was sort of interesting in terms of reflecting on its complex history and just what it was that James Joyce found so compelling about the place. In Genoa, after we leave the station, despite Google’s claiming that our accommodation is only 1.3 miles away, the taxi takes us on an apparently unavoidable detour through winding tunnels, and takes me back to that macabre Mexican masterpiece of Guanajuato. There is a connection, in that some of the silver adorning the palaces and cathedrals is sure to have been siphoned from the veins of the new world, as is also the case from Sevilla to Syracuse. Strolling around Genoa, it does feel a bit like a greatest hits of the best bits of large southern European cities. While some areas recall Sant Pere and Barrio Gótico, with their tiny shops that are also bars and tiny bars which are also shops, others are a little like Rome but without all the bloody tourists, with their segways, their Trump hats and their incessant f*cking pointing.

I’ve always been fond of the Spanish word accidentado (uneven, bumpy)*, which describes the layout of Genoa pretty well. Its endless hilly detours make it enjoyable to get lost in. Losing my bearings happens to be my preferred mode of getting to know a city; however, it turns out that things are different when you’re in charge of a pram. Sudden stunning vistas, cutaways though ginormous 18th century buildings right down to the sea are all very breathtaking, but the prospect of another flight of stairs is less enticing. With the skies still threatening to Do A Houston, I’m excited to see a poster advertising a showing of ‘Eraserhead’ serendipitously starting in just four minutes time; however, it proves impossible to find an impromptu babysitter among the passers-by. Later, when we find a nice, quiet place to eat, our daughter starts to behave like the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave. She soon manages to cover herself in so much pesto genovese she’s almost indistinguishable from Kermit, but with the personality traits of a young Miss Piggy. When, about 20 minutes into this mortifyingly messy and noisy farce, another couple-with-baby arrive, the proprietor quietly sends them back out into the pouring rain, claiming that he’s all booked up for the next month and a half. Then he disappears, possibly to shoot himself in the head.

The following day we explore the Museum of Maritime History, which is so huge and detailed it’s like standing and reading a six-volume series of books, each with 800 pages for each year of the city’s existence. After two hours we’ve managed to cover two of the five floors and are too exhausted to tackle the part about immigration, which is the bit that drew us there in the first place. The captions employ a curious Verfremdungseffekt, in that they present PhD levels of historical analysis written in often purple prose presented in the kind of lighting more appropriate for sending a baby to sleep, which thankfully, eventually, it does. By the time we head off in search of gelati and fasciatoi we’re left in no doubt whatsoever that a) being a galley slave was really not very much fun at all and b) Christopher Columbus definitely did come from Genoa and not, as some have claimed, just outside Swansea.

One more recent person of global significance that doesn’t exactly cover the city in gloria is the renowned comedian/trickster/drunk-driver Beppe Grillo, leader of the at-best-incoherent at-worst-openly-racist 5 Star Movement. His blog has been called Europe’s number one source of fake news stories, navigating us to a brave new world where nothing is true except for what’s published on certain implicitly trusted highly ideological websites. His influence helps explain why newspapers are full of stories about parents withdrawing their children from school so that they don’t get forcibly injected with chemtrails. Grillo emerged in the same decade as a more laudable local character: Fabrizio de Andre, whose classic album ‘Crêuza de mä‘ (roughly, ‘Crossing the sea’) gives the name to a beachside bar we visit in the picturesque beachside suburb of Boccadasse***. The album, with its genovese-dialect North African-influenced songs about lives lost at sea, resonates; as we walk around Genoa, we see graffiti in support of those who have more recently been forced by circumstances to seek a better life elsewhere.

Such solidarity recalls another famous episode in Genoa’s history: July 2001, when the city played host to massive anti-globalisation demonstrations focussed on the G8 summit. That spirit very much lives on in and around the carruggi. There is some remarkable anti-gentrification graffiti. One such slogan calls for the immediate expulsion of the ‘creative middle class’. There are posters for a Right to the City conference, slogans condemning the immigration authorities and opposing deportations, and graffiti referring to the recent alleged rape by carabinieri police of a young tourist. Genoa sees some cruise ships but not as many Barcelona, where tourists themselves have been the focus of furious protests. The area (called, I think, Madalena) looks a lot like a busier version of Alfama, particularly because this week I’ve been following Momus’s escapades in Lisbon, a city which some are calling ‘the new Berlin’. It reminds me that in the fifteen years since I left that area has also changed, with the arrival of new waves of tourists and gentrifiers and the settling-in of new immigrant communities****.

It’s only a few steps away from the emblematic museum-like streets with their 18th-century palaces and ‘lifestyle stores’ that we happen upon some of the more vibrant side-streets. There seems to be more variety of immigrant groups than I’ve found in similar cities, for example Bilbao. Visa services are on offer to quite a range of language speakers: Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bengali and Welsh (possibly not Welsh); Latin American sex services are available to tutti quanti. There are some African tailors’ shops which seem to come straight from the streets of Kinshasa. We come across one lively bar where there seems to be a very energetic argument going on between Columbians and Venezuelans. It’s our last night, and I never could resist the lithesome rhythms of bachata, so we quickly load up on cheap rum, sell the baby to some passing zingari, and start to make the most of what’s left of our short holiday. Tl, dr: I’ve been to Genoa, it’s good, you should go there too, adesso scappo a cambiare la bimba.

* Piuttosto che una terrona :-P.
**Apparently, unsurprisingly, the word also exists in Italian.
*** I was first introduced to the music of both Fabrizio de André and (much to my wife’s chagrin) Franco Battiato by a visiting friend of a friend around ten years ago. I’m currently passing on the favour to our seven-month-old daughter, who seems to respond positively to the particular melange of melodies, instruments and rhythms of ‘Crêuza de mar’. Or it could just be that she secretly understands
zenese. The fact that most Italians had to turn to the translations of the lyrics (included with the original album) in order to figure out what the songs were about suggests to me that genovese is, like a number of regional cosiddetti variations on Italian, not actually a dialect, but rather a language.
**** Dublin has also changed a great deal since I left.

Milano: Odissea Lombarda

img-20160924-wa0009Io non ero propio entusiasto all’idea di visitare Milano, avrei preferito andare a Venezia piuttosto che Verona, ma sopratutto perché la mia prima visita li non ha avuto grande esito. Nel 1997 siamo arrivati da Dublino per un paio di giorni ma dopo avere cercato un albergo per diverse lunghe ore in mezzo del Milan Fashion Week, poco colpiti dai graffiti, dalla cacca di cani, dall’attitudine poco accoglienti dei milanesi, abbiamo deciso di prendere il treno notturno e viaggiare invece alla cittá eterna. Poi, molto anni dopo, quando ho conosciuto quella che sarebbe diventata mia moglie, sono rimasto veramente impressionato dal fatto che lei non c’era mai stata. Ammirevole, lodevole, e quant’altro.

In qualche modo, da sempre associo Milano a un certo, come dire, fighettismo. Dopotutto é il luogo di nascita di Berlusconi e di tanti suoi piccoli discepoli dal maglione sulle spalle e scarpe da barca che ho dovuto tollerare in classe a Londra per tanti anni. Milano sempre mi é sembrata una cittá dove la gente usa gli altri come se fossero specchi, un posto senza, come dire, sostanza. Comunque, ci sono romani che anno una opinione abbastanza piú positiva della seconda citta del paese. Quando dissi a una collega che ci andavamo mi rispose ‘ah, la citta dove tutto funziona’, pensando ai mezzi, l’assenza relativa di spazzatura per strada e quant’altro. Ma Milano é anche la terra di un forte movimento sociale e radicale, c’a dato anche Dario Fò e Umberto Ecco, tra gli altri. E visto che la Chiara stava faccendo un corso di una giornata intera (una roba sui rifugiati*) sono stato un attimino intrigato di scoprire ció che m’ero perso dall’altra riva del Pò.

Quindi é cosí che ho fatto senza volerlo (e senza medaglia!) la Maratona di Milano. Tra navigli, parchi, piazze soleggiate, avenues francesissime, mercati rionali, stadi di calcio e quant’altro, ho camminato 26 miglia. M’e piaciuta tanto la cittá che dopo avere lasciato l’appartamento airbnb alle 9 di mattina non ho visto ragione di fermarmi e ho continuato fino alle 6 del pomerriggio. Non é stato facile, ma ho trovato tante cose belle e capito che Milano é, in qualche modo, in almeno alcune quartiere – e io ne ho visto abbastanza – piu pulita e anche piu variegata di Roma. Certo, io ci sono stato poco tempo, ma m’e sembrato che il livello di integrazione delle communitá e piu sviluppato a Milano che a Roma.

Comunque. 26 miglia. Eccolo. Wow. Poi, dopo una deliziosa ma piccolisima cena peruviana bagnata da piú-che-sufficiente pizco sours e birre artiginali da rimpiazzarare tutte le calorie che ero riuscito a perdere, siamo arrivati, grazie a Uber, stanchi morti, a casa, dove un utilissimo amico su Whatsapp mi ha ricordato una piccola cosa: la maratona non é ‘soltanto’ 26 miglia. C’é di piu: un altro 0,2188. Ecco perché alle 9.45 di sera mi sono rimesso a camminare, dentro dello ‘spazioso’ (secondo Airbnb) ‘minisculo’ (secondo realtá) appartamento. Tutt’ora non sono assolutamente guarito della mia odissea lombarda. In qualche modo, la prossima volta andró in bici piuttosto che in tram. Niente piú maratone.

* Dove, come al solito in Italia, non c’era tempo per domande e risposte. Ma perché?!

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Chi è veramente di sinistra voterà sì

Nota bene: I now accept, having read and talked and listened a great deal more on this topic that I was very wrong on this point. People who voted no are generally very aware that they were not doing so at the behest of Salvini or Grillo. See, ad esempio, qui. Or qua.

Everywhere you look in Roma right now you are confronted with the word NO, and it is notevole that it is often not possible to distinguere between the posters of the ‘left’ and what is known here eufemisticamente as the ‘centre right’ (i personaggi principalof the Italian ‘centro destra‘ make Steve Bannon look like a member of the Tea Party). Disgraziatamente, the tattered ruins of the Italian left seems to have learned assolutamente nulla from the Brexit and Trump débacles, and it is oltremodo tragico that so many who think of themselves as progressisti are succumbing to il canto delle sirene of the trickster Grillo, who in the words of the leftwing collective Wu Ming has “confined the potential energies of an uprising against austerity to a discursive cage which makes a parody of political conflict”. Of course the riforma constituzionale is not by any means ideale and the whole referendum was una idea del cavolo in the first place. In modo molto simile, the European Union has never been perfect and Hillary Clinton was chiaramente not the best candidate for the Casa Bianca. Però, the left’s campaigning for the no side – inspired, like the ‘Lexit’ and Jill Stein campaigns, by a mix of ingenuità, cinismo and misplaced opportunismo – will help ensure that next week we will see Salvini (an outright teppista fascista), Grillo (choice quote: “l’antifascismo is outside my purview”) and Berlusconi (any italiani wondering who this ‘Silvio Berlusconi’ character is may like to fare una visita to the internet website google.it) brindando alla vittoria and being congratulated by Le Pen, Putin, Trump, and mentre che ci siamo, probably Assad. Qualsiasi persona con coscienza e cervello voterà sì. Anything else is francamente just puerile.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/27/matteo-renzi-politics-italy-european-union-brexit-trump