07 October 2012

Good Italy, Bad Italy


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Early Sunday I walked around my neighborhood on the northerly outskirts of the old city carrying a jacketless copy of the new book by former Economist editor Bill Emmott: Good Italy, Bad Italy, Why Italy Must Conquer its Demons to Face the Future (Yale University Press).

With the colorful cover removed I imagined this smallish black book would shout BIBLE – THAT STRANGER FOR SOME UNKNOWN REASON SEEMS TO BE CARRYING A BIBLE -- rather than a societal critique – THIS IS THE FOREIGNER WHO THINKS HE CAN JUDGE US!

I carried my little black book into the bar this morning, and it sat next to cappuccino e cornetto while I attempted to read about James Bond in the local newspaper.

Later it accompanied me to a haircut, my first ever in Italy, and rested next to clippers, razor and spray bottles. I requested: trim, not too short, and please note the hair above my ears grows faster than the hair remaining on the top of my head. As it turned out I had located an artist of hair. Electric razor and comb made quick circles through my tangle; straight razor never nicked, and we were done in less than a half hour.

Throughout, he chatted in Chinese with his partner, a young woman who watched him closely as if to learn the trade. I tipped him at the end and took his photo, both of which puzzled him greatly.

I looked more closely at my little black book and realized the title glistens from the spine in LARGE GOLD LETTERS. It remained discreet mainly because Italians refuse to look at strangers. They glance once and that’s it. Eyes never meet, never, unless you are buying something or asking a question. It’s like New York, or any city: it’s much safer not to look directly at anyone.

In Good Italy, Bad Italy, Emmott argues against the well-known explanation for Italy’s many troubles, the North-South divide. Italians told him , “There is not one Italy but two, the North and the South.” For an economist like Emmott to try to average them, or think of them as one, is akin to saying someone is on the average comfortable with his head in an oven and feet in the freezer.

Emmott denies the differences matter more than other underlying explanations for the state Italy’s in. “Corrupt politicians aren’t only in the South, and nor are mafiosi, alas, and if we look at other popular worries such as third-rate universities, tensions over immigration or falling competitiveness, they are plainly national issues, not regional ones.”

He argues there is a “divide between selfish, closed, unmeritocratic and often criminal ways of doing things, and more open, community-minded and progressive ways. It is a divide that is just as powerful and sometimes destructive within regions as it is between them.”

There’s a lot to this – a powerful metaphor and a refreshing way to parse the Italian soul.

To support his argument there is Una Mala Italia, Emmott refers to his work exposing the corruption of the Berlusconi government, calling the past 20 years “essentially wasted.” To prove there is another Italy, Una Buona Italia, he points to organizations such as RENA, the Network for National Excellence. “Italy still leads Europe in the proportion of its people, young and old, who volunteer to do unpaid community or charitable work... Italian companies lead the world in selling fitness equipment, sunglasses, cashmere clothing, light aircraft, chocolate, children’s cartoons... There are new anti-mafia movements, towns that have found new post-industrial life or have pushed out the criminals.”

Looking good, Italy. Except for the financial crises, the immense political mess, enervating pessimism and so on. Immigrants give haircuts and serve your morning coffee. Fewer native Italians are having children, there are not enough jobs, a significant sector of young people live outside the country’s borders in order to make new opportunities for themselves.

And that’s only the first few chapters. It’s going to be interesting to see how Emmott supports his theory that Good Italy may prevail.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please let me hear from you. It is easy to post your thoughts here. Due to spammers, I now am moderating the comments. If you are a human, you are in, but you may have to wait a few hours until I OK your pending comment. Thank you!