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 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:
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.
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.
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 ifhad 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.
My family and I recently became economic migrants, emigrants from a country (Italy) where there are fewer job prospects and where working conditions are generally atrocious. Brexit notwithstanding, at least in London there are jobs, even some with decent conditions, and the public transport and rubbish collection systems work, while the referendum has certainly revealed an extremely unpleasant undercurrent of hostility to foreigners and the status of many who’ve lived here for decades is still entirely and appallingly uncertain, the UK is not, unlike Italy, right on the verge of electing an electing an explicitly fascist government.
Immigration has been the main theme in the Italian election debate, and the direct involvement of the extremist Northern League in a terrorist attack on Africans has received the full approval of their political sponsor, the mummified, mafioso, pedophile, tax-skiving Bond villain Silvio Berlusconi, a creature whose political views and history of corruption on every conceivable level make Donald Trump seem like Joni Mitchell. There is a chance that not only will Berlusconi’s coalition win most seats, but that he, who, given his multiple criminal convictions is unable to serve in government, will choose Matteo Salvini, the genocidally racist leader of the Lega Nord, as Interior or even Prime Minister.
Who am I to tell Italian how to vote? Well, I lived and worked in Rome until two weeks ago, and my wife and baby daughter were both born in the country. (No one in Rome suggested that my daughter was using up resources destined for those who’d been there longer, or that she should go back where she came from. Che strano.) Many of my friends are Italian and/or still live in Italy, although none of them will have considered voting for the far-right. Or at least I should bloody well hope not. This post is offered in a spirit of solidarity – I know that millions of Italians are out on the streets and arguing with their colleagues, friends and neighbours, trying to provide an antidote to the racist poison broadcast nightly on the TV news. Cioè, spero bene.
Although I spent the first week after the Brexit vote listening to this, I’ve come to accept that, regardless of the catastrophic consequences of their actions, many who voted for it were not expressing affiliation with a far-right agenda. The utter contempt and profound cruelty with which the Cameron/Osborne government treated the bulk of the population generated a predictable response in which many thought they were taking part in a new peasant’s revolt rather than a faux-rebellion led by a former stockbroking fascist backed by billionaires. Thus there are reasons excuses for having voted for Brexit, and even (to a far lesser extent, and although I would happily spit on anyone who actually voted for him) Trump. This is not to make excuses for my own country’s racism, but to stress that there are no excuses for voting for the euphemistically-referred to ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right, which includes the fascists). As it happens, Farage’s best friend in Italy is not Salvini, but Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement. While Spain had the indignados, Italy had this group of ingenues, a movement based on a deeply naive opposition to not just corruption but politics per se. Grillo is a master manipulator, and egomaniac and a trickster, and the fact that his blog has been called Europe’s main source of fake news is largely responsible for a situation where even people who see themselves as progressive will tell you with a straight face that vaccines cause autism and that George Soros has a plan to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants. As for the movement’s stance on racism, its leaders declaration that ‘Anti-fascism is not my job’ and his welcoming of members of the even-more-nazi-than-the-nazis Casapound movement has been reflected in the party’s response to the attack in Macerata, which lies somewhere between pathetic and complicit.
The country wouldn’t be in this situation if the governing Partito Democratico had any courage or principles, instead of being unhappily married to a half-hearted and discredited form of neoliberalism, one which involves repeating the mantra of crescita (growth) like they’re invoking rainfall. The Left has at last tried to remake itself, but often seemingly on the basis of personal ambition rather than principle. (The smaller left parties have declared they won’t form a coalition with the PD, but hopefully that’s just electoral posturing.) The widely-despised gurning former PM Matteo Renzi’s insistence that he should continue as leader of the ‘Left’ is suicidal – or rather homicidal, given that his political career will no doubt continue. And speaking of murder, there is also his cowardly response to the attempted massacre in Macerata. Few will vote PD with any enthusiasm, but let’s hope that as many as possible do. Anyone who argues that the parties are ‘all the same’ on this occasion could only be speaking out of profound ignorance of undiagnosed sociopathy.
In previouselections over the last year or so I’ve used this space to share translations of phrases which might persuade people with a vote not to vote for the right. It worked well in the case of the French elections (ahem…) and I regret not doing so before the German ones. This time it’s not all that tongue-in-cheek. The possibility of a fascist victory is extremely terrifying and very real. One hopes that the Italian State, given that it has an explicitly anti-fascist constitution, will refuse to allow a government including Salvini and Giorgia Meloni (aka the blonde Traini) to take power; failing that, there will need to be a popular revolt involving extreme civil disobedience to resist such a prospect. In the meantime, anyone who has a vote, wherever they may be, needs to be warned of the consequences of voting for the right. The phrases that follow are not polite ones, but I find it impossible to think of those who might knowingly allow the return of fascism in the country that invented it with anything other than contempt.
You do know that Italy is a country of emigrants, right? Sai che l’Italia è un paese di emigranti, vero?
Do you think that countries such as the US and the UK should deport all their Italian immigrants? Credi che paesi come gli Stati Uniti e il Regno Unito dovreberro mandare via tutti i loro immigrati italiani?
Will you be happy to see the Italian tourist industry collapse overnight? Saresti contento/a di vedere l’industria turistica crollare di un momento al altro?
Do you think it’s necessary to shoot all foreigners, or just the black ones? Are you planning to go to the Colosseum and murder all the tourists? Pensi che bisogna sparare a tutti gli stranieri, o solo ai neri? Hai intenzione di andare sotto al Colosseo e uccidere tutti i turisti?
Salvini is a terrorist, Berlusconi is a pedophile. Salvini è un terrorista, Berlusconi è un pedofilo.
What attracts you most about the Arancini coalition: the terrorism, the pedophilia, the fact that one of its leaders has blonde hair, or just the fanatical racism? Cosa ti piace di piu del cosidetto centrodestra: il terrorismo, la pedofilia, i capelli biondi di una dei leader, opurre solo il razzismo fanatico?
Would you vote for Isis? Votaresti per Isis?
Have you perhaps considered voting for a non-fascist party? Che tipo di stronzetto sei, cazzo?!
I’m at Fiumicino airport queuing to get on the plane to go back to the UK for Christmas. Word comes down the line that there isn’t enough space for all the hand luggage. This makes sense. Most people travel with far too much stuff these days. Between me, my (Italian) wife and her parents (who’ve gone on ahead) we’re transporting seven bags of various shapes and sizes, containing not just the standard four hundred adaptors and chargers and six hundred panettoni but also rabbits, bears, elephants, one human infant and enough nappies to feed a nappy-eating army.
However, the news that our suitcases will need to go in the hold doesn’t go down at all well with the people ahead of me in the corridor, particularly with a posh-sounding woman and her friend from Liverpool, which is where we’re flying to. They’re annoyed at the apparent incompetence of the staff, who should (how?) have anticipated such an eventuality.
Someone of the attendants come to explain. Although it’s a Romanian airline, both the attendants seem to be French and don’t appear to speak Italian. This also makes sense, because English is the international language of air travel, and they probably spend their days dashing round between random European cities. It’s not a problem, or at least it shouldn’t be, because the queue is mostly composed of people flying home for the holidays.
Personally I’m not bothered by the slight inconvenience. We’ve got to pick up check-in luggage at the other end anyway. But behind me there’s a bald man in his forties with a strong English accent, which is unfortunate because he’s insisting on speaking Italian even though the flight attendant doesn’t understand it. Yoh facho kwesto veyagio chentoh voltey per anoh, he’s complaining. I-ya nev-ah ave-ah such-ah an-ah aysperience-ah. It’s basically the equivalent of the unwittingly hilarious foreign accents that we British love to take the piss out of, and I’ve done so in the past in class, for example by getting Spanish students to speak English with the strongest Spanish accents they can muster in order to focus on the differences. My compatriot fellow passenger sounds like someone who Has Mastered The Language, Thank You Very Much, and now expects to be honoured for it, even when (as in this situation) using it is redundant to the point of farce.
The attendant who is patiently dealing with his unreasonable requests speaks perfectly servicable English, albeit with a mild Inspector Clouseau accent. He’s polite and helpful. However, the Liverpudlian woman in front of me is also complaining about the situation, which she says typifies Italy, and she should know, because She Lives Here. She emphasises this point by repeatedly telling any Italians within earshot that ‘Non c’è logico in questo paese‘ – there’s no logic in this country. Beh, maybe she needs to focus a bit more on her grammatico. Or, as the Italians say, grammatica, which is their word for grammar, much as their word for logic, a word which their civilisation derived from Greek, is logica. Maybe she should just say what she wants to say in English, which after all is her language and which everyone present seems to speak perfectly well. Perhaps, while she’s at it, she might want to avoid making crass generalisations on the basis of a specific situation which doesn’t even have much to do with Italy per se.
In fact, another fellow passenger (Italian) helpfully intervenes, in perfect English. He explains that it’s not unusual and not really an inconvenience. It’s happened to him a dozen or so times. (He actually uses the word ‘dozen’.) She’s listening to him (I think she, you know, gets the gist) but is still responding in the language of Dante Alighieri and Joe Dolce.
I suspect that the woman, whose command of Italian is actually pretty commendable (quite possibly better than mine), may work as an English teacher. I’m basing on two things, which are actually one: 1) I myself am an English teacher 2) I’m given to projecting my own bad habits onto others. I have, on countless occasions in the past, bolstered my sense of self-worth by insisting on speaking foreign languages when it was completely unnecessary to do so, even though I make my living by helping, indeed encouraging, foreigners to speak English.
The friendly Italian man is presumably choosing to speak English in case there are people present who don’t understand Italian. It’s completely reasonable to assume that I might be one of those people. After all, you don’t get much more an international environment than an airport. Plus there’s the not-insignificant fact that we’re boarding a plane to England. (Maybe he even lives there.) It’s a linguistically fraught situation for those who see their command of foreign languages as a notch on the bedpost of their identity. I’ve written before about my own anxiety around language borders, whether in Portugal, Germany, Mexico, or Italy. I feel belittled and rejected when I’m trying to speak another language and someone switches to English. When I speak another language I feel like I’m making a claim, and desperately want to be recognised, validated. Who, after all, wants to be bloody British?!
The woman’s comment about ‘this country‘ also riled me, because in its petty-minded resentfulness I recognise my own bad habits. I’ve said things like this, probably even this week. Two hours ago I was stomping around the airport looking for a non-existent Terminale 2, cursing whoever designed the airport. Last week doing my application for citizenship I was damning in the strongest terms whichever stronzetto had devised the seemingly interminable and irrelevant questions. While doing my tax documents in Mexico a couple of years back I probably at certain points sounded to any purported eavesdropper like a proto-Donald Trump. It’s very, very easy to essentialise, to attribute any minor inconvenience to the entire people and culture of the country where one finds oneself.
She’s now explaining to us in English, from the perspective of someone who knows everything about Italy, that it takes some adjustment to live here. In England things work…differently, she says. Meaning: better. Meaning: My country is better than this one, the one I’ve chosen to make home. Non c’è logico, she repeats. But it looks beautiful and tastes nice, and that’s all that matters.
I’ve derided the expat mentality before, and it seems that here we have a living and whining embodiment of it. But maybe I’m being unfair. Perhaps she’s had a bad morning. Travelling is stressful, especially when at any given moment someone might – horror of horrors! address you in your own language. So I respond, in a jocular but pointed fashion, that at least people here don’t get worked up about the colour of their passports.
She might have laughed, but maybe she’s not from the same tribe as me. Apparently someone tried to have a ‘Brexit conversation’ with her in her hotel this morning at 7.30. I feel tempted to point out that it’s a very common topic of conversation. People around the world are confused by a country whose good sense they respected doing something so clearly harmful to its own interests. A lot of people in Italy look to all northern countries as emblematic instances of organisation and good sense. I could point this out, but the stewards are here with the sticky labels for our bags. I thank them profusely in English, a language I’ve spoken all my life and taught for the last twenty years. Such people have been funding my lifestyle for two decades; it’s also foreign students that keep my hometown (Sheffield) in existence.
I get on the plane and tell my wife about what happened. It strikes me it would make an entertaining thing to write about on the strictly (well, hopefully) non-whiny expat blog that I keep. I start to take notes but then remember that we have parental duties to attend to and also that we have a long journey ahead and my phone only has 48% of battery life left. What a depressing number.
The girl next to us looks Turkish but turns out to be from Moldova. She speaks no English or Italian and my Romanian is limited to place names and words like seatbelt and fasten which I can see translated on the back of the seat in front. She seems not to have flown before, judging by her confusion upon that she can’t make phone calls once we’ve taken off. Despite the linguistic barriers, she’s brilliant at engaging with the baby and distracting her from her favourite game of Let’s Take Daddy-Waddy’s Glasses Off. (Her other hobby on aeroplanes is ripping up inflight magazines, publications which I had thought existed in order to sell high-end nick-nacks and trips to more glamorous destinations, but whose main purpose is I now realise, to give parents a bit of a break.) Across the aisle there’s a guy reading an article in La Repubblica headlined ‘Russia, Iran e altri exploit del gaffeur Boris Johnson’. I wonder what the girl next to is off to do in the UK. It’s wrong to essentialise, but I know that Moldova is often associated with sex trafficking. Still, I hate when people make negative judgments about me on the basis of where I happen to be from to me. Like assuming that because I’m English and live abroad I must be a self-centred, self-hating, whiny and overly judgmental English teacher who thinks they’re some sort of uniquely gifted linguistic genius because they’ve sort of half-mastered a foreign language and who believes themselves to have a God-given right to more and better working options on the basis of their national origin. That’s actually, I hate to admit, not 100% wide of the mark. But I’ve got no interest whatsoever in acquiring a blue fucking passport.
The singer Manu Chao once said of the connection between organised crime and politics:
‘The worst enemy of democracy in the 21st century is not military dictatorships, but mafia dictatorships, and military dictatorships will seem really light in comparison. It’s already happening in Russia and in Mexico, but it’s coming up everywhere, and it’s very very very very dangerous. More and more and places I go, and I have the chance to travel a lot, the mafia is in control.’
This theme feels close to home for two reasons. One is that just down the road in Ostia an apparent alliance between a mafia clan and a far-right organisation looks set to be the decisive element in a local election. The area was partly the setting for the film and subsequent Netflix series ‘Suburra‘, a slightly lurid take on the events which culminated in the Partito Democratico-controlled local council being dissolved for mafia infiltration in 2015 as part of a response to a scandal known as Mafia Capitale. Among many other eye-popping examples of corruption in and around Rome, there were revelations of mafia groups making huge amounts of money from the management of immigrant detention centres.
The far-right organisation known as Casapound is a gang of fascist street thugs. Although their name has erudite connotations (it’s a reference to the Mussolini-supporting poet Ezra Pound), their propaganda consists of the standard racist clichés dressed up in the pretentious but intellectually derisory rhetoric of all Italian fascists. They have a particular focus on ‘heroes’. A recent poster stuck up on a bridge near our flat called refugees, by contrast, cowards. As it happens, Casapound have contempt for actual heroes of Italian history, calling Second World War partisans ‘rapists‘. Nonetheless, their visibility and influence has been steadlily growing, partly because in some of the most deprived areas of the city, such as Nuova Ostia, they have been running food banks and other essential social services, taking over from the State in the wake of the huge public spending cuts of the last decade. In run-down areas of Ostia they got 20% of the vote, and the 8% they got overall means they may well hold the balance of power after the second round of voting.
They’ve also been active around the issue of housing. Distribution of ‘case popolari’ (council houses) is a hugely sensitive issue and thus easy pickings for those whose aim is to divide the poor against each other. They have demonstrated against immigrants or Italians of foreign origin moving into apartments allocated to them. Perhaps sensing an affinity, in the elections this month one local mafia group known as Spada gave open support to Casapound; it was when the brother of the rumoured leader was asked by a journalist about these connections that things took a violent turn. Of course, Casapound spokespeople have since tried to distance themselves from organised criminals, but given that they also deny (among other things) l’Olocausto, such statements should be taken with un pizzico di sale.
The violent contempt which both the far-right and the mafia have for a free and independent media brings me to the second reason these events strike a chord with me. In 2015-2016 my wife and I lived in Mexico, where I had daily cause to marvel at the incredible bravery of reporters who, despite constant threats and regular assasinations of their colleagues, reported on atrocities and the links between the culprits and those in power. Although the far-right is not present in the same way in Mexican politics, it’s not really necessary given how extreme the mainstream parties are; nevertheless, it does have a presence in the army and may have influenced the impunity granted to members of the military in the wake of (one can safely presume) their massacre of left-wing students in Iguala.
The mafia relies upon silence, (omertà), which means that anyone investigating it is taking a huge risk. Mexico is not the only dangerous place to be a reporter. Donald Trumps’s new Best Dictator Friend in the Philippines once remarked that ‘Just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination’; this week, in the company of and to the apparent amusement of Trump (who rumours have linked to the mafia for decades), Duterte openly referred to journalists as ‘spies’. There have been an increasing number of reminders over the last few months that the global infrastructure of human rights was a response to the horrors of uniformed fascism: General John Kelly’s recommendation to Trump that he use a sword he’d been presented with on journalists carried many chilling and probably deliberate echoes. Truimp’s attuitude to political power is very reminiscent of that of any number of notorious Mexican political figures. As I wrote in December last year:
‘We don’t have to stretch our powers of speculation to imagine what a world run by and for Trump would look like. Basta ver what has happened over the last few years in the State of Veracruz: massive corruption and abuse of power backed up by the murder of anyone who investigates or speaks out.’
Of course, the fact of the relationship between fascists and the mafia will be no revelation to anyone who is from Italy or who follows its politics. In the decades after the fall of Mussolini’s regime, the far-right Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge, which allegedly included Silvio Berlusconi, was involved in targetted assasinations, huge financial scandals and attempts to manipulate the political situation to the advantage of far-right elites. Journalists were very often targetted for intimidation and murder. We recently went to an exhibition in Rome of photographs by the phenomenally courageous Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, who documented several decades of violence in Palermo against anyone who trod on the toes of the mafia or annoyed their political servants. There are echoes of this period in the writer Roberto Saviano’s reaction to events in Ostia. He puts them in the context of the long history of the relationship between fascists and the mafia from the 1920s onwards. Few are better placed to understand what goes on behind the headlines – he has lived in hiding for the last eleven years because of his work exposing the neapolitan Camorra.
In 2011, Saviano shared the Olof Palme Prize with the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho ‘for their tireless, selfless and often lonely work in support of their ideals and for human rights’. Such bravery made me feel guilty that after a while in Mexico I stopped reading the newspapers every day. Although La Jornada was mostly in black and white, the accounts of mass killings around the country were just as shocking as the lurid front pages of the more sensationalist publications, with their blood and gore and the neverending telenovela of El Chapo. Of course, the bogeymen identified in the press or on TV may not tell you all that much about how power operates behind the scenes.
As it happens, the poet, theatre and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in Ostia, in an apparently mafia-style killing in November 1975. Although his last film, ‘Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom‘, with its almost unwatchable scenes of human brutality, was set during the final collapsing orgy of fascist rule, it wasn’t a historical document about the barbarities of the Second World War, but rather an analogy to something deep within the Italian State. It was, in a sense, a film in which Silvio Berlusconi was a central character; tales of his underage bunga bunga orgies recalled the scenes in which venally corrupt businessmen cavorted with uniformed sadists. Last week the newly politically-revitalised Berlusconi announced the cabinet he hopes to appoint after the general elections next year, with a prominent role for the openly anti-immigrant ‘centrodestra’ figure Giorgia Meloni and the position of Minister of the Interior reserved for the up-and-coming fascist demagogue Matteo Salvini. It’s starting to feel like there could well be a Salò Part 2.
*The term ‘centre-right’ is a ubiquitous euphemism in Italian politics, and speaking of ubiquity, anyone wanting to understand why Italian society sees regular outbursts of repugnant anti-immigrant sentiment needs to take into account the fact that Meloni and Salvini are never, ever, not even for a second, off the fucking TV.
It’s always sad, upon leaving Venice, to see your first car for however many days. Despite the city’s constant floods of both (fellow) tourists and the sea itself, and the fact that every nook and cranny has been filmed, photographed and fetishised thousands upon thousands of times, every time I step out of the station and see the thoroughfare being plied not by cars but by boats, it fills me with joy. Venice encapsulates another way of being.
That opening paragraph has itself probably been written many thousands of times. Henry James wrote of Venice that ‘There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.’ Marco Polo, or at least Italo Calvino’s version of him, described dozens of impossible cities in the attempt to capture something of his hometown*. In his essay ‘Contre Venice’, Regis Debray described it as ‘constructed more by writers than masons, more by painters than architects, more of words than of bricks’. It would be impossible to compete with Jan Morris’ description: ‘Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.’
Having nothing new to say about the city where I, my wife Chiara and our nine-month-old baby recently spent a weekend, I’ll just write, solo per un cambiamento, about me instead. Or, at least, refer instead to something I wrote about Mexico City, in which I treated it as a piece of immersive theatre, one with an oversupply of extras. Venice presents a similarly intricate and elaborate set, but for this performance the organisers have sold far too many tickets. There is an excess of spectators but not enough actors: the population of actual ‘Venetians’ has now fallen to 56,000, and the set is falling to pieces. The catering is also famously below par considering the prices**, but you can also sleep on the set, although doing so will cost you – like Punchdrunk itself, the elite tickets, with their special privileged access, don’t come cheap. Our train from Rome pulled in next to the latest iteration of the Orient Express, of which I later read that ‘the service is intended not as an ordinary rail service, but as a leisure event with five-star dining included’. Apparently if you pay an extra special premium there’s a chance your murder will be investigated by Mr. Hercule Poirot himself.
It was not my first visit to Venice. In September 2009 I walked around and visited as much of that year’s Art Biennale as I could without my legs giving way and my brain exploding. I’ve since lost my notes, which were mostly sun-addled reflections on art, cities and the art of getting lost in cities. I stayed in Cannaregio in a hostel with a curfew of 10pm, so my hopes of spending my nights doing coke with Ai Wei Wei ended up in the canal***. Some of the time I hung out in Campo Santa Margarita. I’d read about this slightly-out-of the-way square in this book by Sophie Watson, in which she writes:
‘This is a public space which is irregular, haphazard and ordinary. Its ten entrances/exists invite random paths to be taken, its benches, scattered across the square, lure the old and young to pause for a while, its lack of cars entices kids to play and chase the pigeons, its market stalls bring locals to shop, its calm and bustle, light and shade, mark it as a place to gaze, chat and rub along with others with ease.’
As it happens, the (excellent) hotel I booked online this time turned out to be right in the square, which as Chiara remarked has quite a Spanish (or, erm, Catalan) feel to it. Although gentrification has had its effects in the fifteen or so years since Sophie Watson was there, with little in the way of local shops and an abundance of tourist-oriented cafes, compared to the alleys near Rialto and St Mark’s Square there is a sense of character, one which reminded us of Genoa‘s caruggi***. I don’t know how ‘real’ it is****, or how many of the fabled 56,000 live nearby, but there’s a supporting cast of rowdy students keeping things lively on Friday and Saturday night. Staying in a hotel with a baby turned out to be once again problematic, but I think I’d feel a bit guilty staying in an Airbnb while walking round all day denouncing gentrification. Between Tripadvisor, Airbnb, Uber and Google, the internet has had a flattening effect on tourists’ experience of place, with so many of our interactions with a city and its people mediated via a screen. At least Venice is resistent to Uber, and Google Maps is not much use when the blue dot which supposedly represents you and your family keeps leaping around the jumble of tiny alleyways with the boundless energy of a nine-month-old baby overexcited by the rare privilege of cosleeping between two utterly exhausted parents.
Although the white sands and turquoise seas of Azumel on the Cancunian coast are some distance away, the huge tourists cruise ships and the tens of thousands they spill out every day have a similarly deleterious environmental impact. Many seem to come not just in pursuit of the cultural capital which the Venice brand affords, but also on the hunt for Louis Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choo sunglasses, and all the other high-grade symbols of post-modern Konsomterror fascism. Such devotion to the acquistion and spending of ostentatious social capital is in keeping with tradition. Writing about Venice at the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Pynchon described it as a site for European elite pleasures, principally spas and gambling. Nowadays being seen takes the form of uploading one’s instantaneous images and gestures of superconsumption to Instagram. For tourists in the age and image of Trump, as in Calvino’s city of Tamara, things seem to be ‘valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things’.
There have been two referenda recently in Veneto (the region around Venice), and the first was actually useful. In June, locals voted to ban huge cruise ships from docking in the lagoon (although oddly enough, despite the fact that it’s an issue that inspires great anger, we only saw two small no navi flags hanging from windows). The other was over regional autonomy. Paul Mason, displaying the typical excitability of the British Left in the Guardian, optimistically talked it up of it as another laudable example of the desire for popular self-determination. In fact, the cause was promoted by the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League), which has led a long-running campaign of chauvinism against parisitic southerners. On the Sunday, elections took place in Sicily, and Berlusconi’s party took power with the aid of the same far-right party. The ubiquitous term ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right) often appears to be a euphemism, given how ready its acolytes are to side with the ultradestra, aka the fascists. On the same day, local elections on the coast near Rome, in the area where we often go to the beach in the summer, gave the balance of power to the openly fascist Casapound. The area around Venice is famously traditionally conservative, but fortunately by no means everyone from Veneto is a right-wing stronzetto. We also came across a poster for a show THAT! VERY! NIGHT! by one of my favourite comedians, Natalino Balasso, whose work is so uproariously entertaining and and genuinely daring that it is well worth learning Italian (and the odd word of veneto) for. Unfortunately, before I could get my hopes up too high, Chiara reminded me that trying to find an impromptu babysitter in a city populated almost exclusively by tourists would not be an easy prospect.
Given that this is an odd-numbered year, there’s currently another level on which to experience Venice: the Art Biennale. Like so much else about the Venice experience, it proved too hard to take in much of it, especially with a pushchair in tow. We managed to take a look at the Iraqi pavilion, in which I came across a typically brave piece by one of my favourite artists, the Mexico City-based Francis Alÿs, who presented a video in which he paints and erases on a handheld board images of fluttering flags on Iraqi tanks just a few feet away. Nadime Hattom was showing images from her own family history, captioned photographs capturing landmark moments in the lives of relatives, with the people themselves erased. It was a deeply haunting experience, one later echoed in the pavilion of the Syrian Arab Republic, an eerie space whose ostensive theme is the ruins of Palmyra. Blood red is the predominate colour on collages produced by Syrian and Italian artists. It might make for some awkward reflections, but luckily the baby decided to stage some sort of screaming protest against war and/or in favour of milky-wilky, and we were forced to gratefully abandon the building. She did subsequently show some interest in the joint exhibition at the Prada Foundation by Thomas Demand and two other German artists. Its apocalyptic title (‘The boat is leaking. The captain lied’) comes from the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s morbid classic ‘Everybody Knows’, and its scope and intensity defy my powers of description. I’ve always found something intriguing and unsettling about Demand’s photographs of cardboard recreations of photographs of bland bureaucratic environments, and here, in the midst of rooms and rooms of material addressing in one way or another global collapse, he presents an enormous photograph of some sort of vast control room which he has also recreated in cardboard and blank paper. The room, on even cursory inception, proves to be a simulation, a mere illusion. No one is in control*****.
On the theme of simulation, it turns out that Dubai (like LA, London, etc) is to get its very own Venice. That might ease some of the pressure on the original; or, like roadsigns advertising soon-to-open car parks, it may only increase the tourist traffic. Venice is a simulacrum, an aging Disneyland pastiche of itself, but it’s one that it would be impossible to truly create elsewhere.
* I wrote about my own hometown here.
** Although just for the record, thanks to judicious timing we ate very well in Tripadvisor’s top-recommended restaurant over in Giudecca.
*** This was before the Soros dollars started to roll in. *** Reminds me and my wife, that is. I’m not sure about the baby.
**** I love the use of the capital letters and the quotation marks here.
***** The exhibition also features a new poem by my old new favourite poet Ben Lerner, but luckily the baby had a total meltdown before I could digest any of its typically brain-aching connotations.
2. Have you, nonetheless, found yourself in a hotel with a baby? (Are you, by any chance, in Venice, of whose labyrinthine layout of abruptly-terminating alleyways connected by thousands of pushchair-defying bridges Google Maps understands less than your 9-month-year old pride and joy, and which has worn you all out to the point where even this simple sentence is making your brain hurt and your eyes feel heavy, even if you’re not in Venice and don’t have any children?) Has no amount of lullabying and milky-wilky and shush-patting and promises to stop insisting that she eat bulgur done any good? Is your desperate 2am googling now being soundtracked by the sound of that selfsame caterwalling infant? Are you worried that not only will you, your partner and the baby itself get no sleep but also that you will incur the wrath of your fellow guests and the hotelier, meaning furious looks in your direction at breakfast, if you even survive that long? If so, here is the second tip: look away from your phone and think hard. What was the name of the car park/airport/train station you arrived at? Will it still be open? If so, pack your things immediately and head back in that direction. If not, invent a time machine and get a flat through Airbnb instead.
3. Is your baby upset because you forgot to ask the hotel for a cot? Call reception NOW and demand they bring you a cot. If necessary, threaten to put on Tripadvisor that the hotel belongs to Harvey Weinstein. Should that not work, go to reception and start screaming and screaming like a 9-month old baby until they get you a cot from somewhere.
4. Is your baby still crying? Have you already toyed with the idea of throwing him/her out of the window/into the nearest canal, only to be overruled by your partner? Dang. Here’s something that might work, but it relies upon your being incredibly rich and having a huge amount of cash about your person: simply buy the hotel and have the other guests thrown out onto the street. It may also be a good idea to have them removed from the city/off the island itself for the duration of your stay, so as to avoid any awkward encounters which might spoil your holiday. (This also serves as the answer to the question #whatwouldtrumpdo?)
5. “Go on a boat trip or something”. That’s a suggestion from my partner, who to be fair hasn’t slept very well. The idea comes from the fact that we are now on a boat trip. The baby is in her pushchair; she’s asleep. Behind is there is the sound of another baby, whose voice is exactly like our child’s, having a total f*cking meltdown. Welcome to Venice!
6. There is no number 6.
7. Just having a look at Venice. Jesus I’m exhausted. Might get another coffee soon.
9. Where’s number 8?
8. Ah, there it is.
10. Take the baby out into the corridor to calm her down? Go outside for a walk at 3am? Mind you, I did try both of those things, they don’t work. Best stick with number 1. Oh look, Murano. Let’s see what effect her screaming has on a huge variety of very expensive glass products of differing shades and textures. Maybe number 1) should have just been never, ever take a baby to Venice. I wonder if there’s an Italian equivalent of Centerparcs?
Last month a couple in Turin, Italy, almost lost their 7-year-old daughter to tetanus. Questioned as to why they hadn’t had her vaccinated against the disease, they said that they were blameless: information they’d encountered in the media had convinced them it would do more harm than good.
I live in Italy, so I know it’s not the newspapers and TV that are at fault, but rather social media and the internet. One blog in particular has been called Europe’s main source of fake news: that of Beppe Grillo, stand-up comedian turned political leader. The movement he created (the ‘5 Star Movement’) now runs both Turin and Rome, and if there were a general election tomorrow would probably win the most parliamentary seats. It has mostly been built up online on the basis of a truly populist progamme, principally against corruption and the ‘casta’ (political establishment). Although it resembles the left-wing party Podemos in Spain, it’s by no means progressive, particularly in relation to immigration.
One of Grillo’s pet bugbears is ‘big pharma’, a euphemism for those transnational pharmaceutical companies which profit from the sale of vaccines. The fake link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first ‘discovered’ by then medical researcher (now disgraced former medical researcher and Trump cheerleader) Andrew Wakefield in 1998. ‘Anti-vaxx’ sentiment has been particularly influential in Italy, with compulsory immunisation programmes leading to large numbers of parents who have read online or been convinced by friends that vaccines cause disease withdrawing their children from school altogether. This presents a huge problem for society – not only are such parents putting their own offspring at risk of illness and death, they also jeopardise the ‘herd effect’ – when a certain percentage of a population has been vaccinated, the chain of infection is broken and the risk of any member of that group becoming infected is vastly reduced.
So far our 8-month-old daughter has had two sets of vaccinations, including tetanus, polio, and meningitus. We’re due to take her again on Dec 28th, but we’ve decided we just can’t go through with it this time. Why? Well, it’s very simple: we’ll be away on that date, visiting family in the UK for Christmas. We’re going to postpone her appointment until we get back the following week.
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.