An election year demands a certain perspective about where our great, increasingly adrift, nation stands in the world. We have been nettled over France lately, with good reason. France claims political and cultural importance, a sad self-deception for a once-great nation. And then there’s Italy. No one—especially Italians—thinks of Italy as politically important, though it has been a welcome ally in Iraq. But Italy is special, a country many of us believe we might live in if we weren’t Americans.
The “fatal beauty” (Byron) of Italy trumps everything else because most people go home after a brief stay. Un-less you have wrestled with the Italian bureaucracy, or lost hours to the ineptness of Italian government and businesses, you don’t realize how uncharming a country it can sometimes be (Italians spend two weeks a year tangled up in lines and have a term for it: lentocrazia). So don’t underestimate the colorless but reliable Calvinist ethos in America that keeps things moving.
Many writers have tried to parse out the lovable improvisation and distressing chaos that is Italy. One of the most lively recent attempts is British journalist Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country (North Point Press). Dark Heart appeared last year in England and achieved great success in Italy, even before being translated. It came out this year in America. As the title makes clear, there are worse things than maddening inefficiencies in Italy. Jones tries to assess them by the novel approach of applying the same standards that we use for other places. He still loves Italy (he married an Italian woman and lives in Parma) but has freed himself from the usual British Romanticism, at least on public affairs. And despite some exaggerations, he has painted a suitably complex portrait of a seductive subject.
The biggest puzzle for any outsider is how Italy can be at once a spontaneous chaos and a functioning society (forget Hayek and “spontaneous order”; the Italians scoff at such grandiose ideas). In a country so chaotic, the social glue comes from direct acquaintance with persons in various client networks and hierarchies, an assembly of big and little, innocuous and dangerous mafias, because the rule of law means little and anyone who tried to follow all the rules would soon find himself penniless, in a lunatic asylum. (Regulation junkies, please note: Italy has more laws than any other country in Europe.)
The “dark heart” of Jones’s title, however, reminds us that behind the good humor and improvisation lie some nasty struggles. Few people know that Italy has had “low-intensity terrorism” for years. Except for notorious cases—the kidnapping of the Christian Democrat Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978, or the bomb set in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, or the assassination of several anti-Mafia judges and prosecutors—the thousands of lesser incidents remain little noted. Yet because of lingering fascism and a large and nasty Communist Party, Italy was one of the ideological battle-grounds during the Cold War, with almost 500 people dead from “the late 1960s to the early 1980s.”
These events produce even more frustration because the Italian legal system prevents a straight verdict on anything. In an event that inaugurated this whole period—a bombing in Milan—the initial suspects were anarchists (another rabid movement among a people generally considered quite docile). Decades later, an investigation concluded that maybe the perpetrators were fascists. But the system’s “rubber wall” makes it impossible to definitely convict—or exonerate—anyone. And when anti-corruption and anti-Mafia investigators come close to real facts, they have frequently ended up as “illustrious corpses.”
This is one reason why many Italians practice a paranoia about all public affairs, which they call dietrologia, the study of what lies behind (dietro) the surface. A large number believe the British Secret Service killed Princess Di, or that America went to war in Iraq for oil, and will not be moved by arguments that, if so, it would have been far easier and cheaper simply to bribe Saddam. Young Italians are inclined to credit the claim that several thousand Jews did not show up for work on 9/11 because Israel’s Mossad warned them away. Jones observes that about soccer, terror, or the Mafia, the dietrologia is the very same, “almost word for word.”
But he practices some unfounded speculation of his own. Jones is a British Methodist and tries somewhat not to let that color his view of Italian Catholicism. Like much else in Italy, the Church operates more on an aesthetic and symbolic, rather than a moralistic and discursive, level. Jones notes this and, over time, appreciates it. But he never challenges his belief that it would be better if Catholics were as discursive and individualist as Protestants. Yet Italian Catholicism, for all the failures and outright scandals, may be closer to early Christianity, which was probably far more communitarian and typological, than are individualist Protestants who return to “the Gospel” largely through reading a text.
Jones’s Catholic friends don’t help much. They misleadingly encourage him to read “not encyclicals from the Vatican but the gentler words from the Second Vatican Council.” He takes the usual swipes against Pius XII rather than looking into the way that Italians and the Church preserved large numbers of Jews in Italy. John Paul II, of course, is harsh and unecumencial: “Even Catholics complain that the incessant traveling and press releases and political stances somehow detract from what’s actually written in the Bible.” All this ignores the real difficulty in Italy: finding adequate space for proper lay initiatives, as much needed in Italy as elsewhere.
But Jones does better in other areas, especially about the Byzantine structure of the Italian economy, which he rightly describes as both large (seventh in the world) and beset by practices of nepotism, conflict of interest, and lack of transparency that would be illegal anywhere else. This, however, is partly a consequence of Italy’s social history and a tax structure that all but confiscates reported salaries and, therefore, forces much economic activity into black markets or “illegal” channels.
Which leads Jones to Silvio Berlusconi, the current Italian prime minister, an amazing figure. He is not only very rich, but his kind of wealth, in the Italian context, is comparable to several figures in our own. Berlusconi owns several television networks (“His Emittenza“), other news outlets, and a publishing house; a major soccer team; and various enterprises including real estate developments. In American terms, he is Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner, and H. Ross Perot all rolled into one, with perhaps a touch of The Donald. But he’s no philistine; he regularly goes to one of his retreats to read the Great Books. And Berlusconi is politically shrewd and mesmerizing as a speaker, even for skeptics like Jones: “When, as occasionally happens at press conferences, I am in the same room as him [sic], I personally find it riveting. He talks and talks and talks. You never want him to stop.”
Berlusconi has performed the magic trick of convincing his supporters that attacks on him are motivated by left- wing ideologues. And attempts to prosecute him for financial irregularities, he suggests, are just more of the same kind of legal harassment that make almost all Italians regard their justice system like many Americans view the IRS. Those who don’t like him believe he is a fascist, a mafioso, or a buffoon (it has to be said that Berlusconi, who often shoots from the hip in sensitive and official public settings, at home and abroad, hasn’t helped himself). I’ve heard him referred to in Italy as Burlesconi.
So as you listen to the presidential campaign this fall or enter the voting booth, be of good cheer. Yes, the country’s a mess, but this could be Italy—without the food, the history, the art, the culture, and the necessarily extralegal and redeeming ingenuity of the Italian people.