In a paraphrased old joke, “In heaven the cooks are Italian. In hell they run the government.”
But if you look around Western and Southern Europe these days, surprisingly one country that used to be a governmental laughing stock is now leading the way on immigration, political reform, and European populism. Yup, the Italians.
This is a far cry from when I regularly visited the country in the 80s. Then Rome was fascinating but dirty, Sicily was quaint and had the best-looking young women in the world, Milan was fashionable and lovely, and Florence was perfect. But my most indicative memory was being at a train station in Bologna at about 3 a.m. after missing two trains that never appeared. I was trying to get back to my Army unit in Neu-Ulm, Germany, without being considered AWOL. With my pigeon Italian borne of my passable Spanish I tried to inquire when the next train would arrive. I kept asking “Cuando? (When?) Cuando?” The more I asked the more I just got a shoulder shrug from the station attendant. It drove me batty. Finally, an Italian student who spoke excellent English walked over and told me, “Regardless of the historical cliché, no one has ever made the trains run on time. Calm down.” As frustrating as that was, the guy had a point.
You have to remember, like Germany, Italy only became a unified nation in the mid to late nineteenth century. Before that it was an amalgamation of small duchies, regional rulers, and the Papal States. Perhaps because of a tenuous relationship to the Enlightenment, she had many problems with representative government. Throw in the tension between the prosperous Hun-influenced North and the poorer Mezzogiorno, organized crime, and a very Latin national character that shuns compromise and embraces obstinacy, and you have a good recipe for a political pasta e fagioli that tastes good and spicy but leaves a bitter aftertaste.
After their victory in WWI —yes, they were on our side in that one— they invented fascism before the Boche and also sadly invented the black shirt with suit look. Mussolini was a Captain Crunch-like clown in many ways and his brutality was kid stuff compared to the Bohemian corporal. But terrorize he did and led his country into an ill-fated alliance that ended up with him and his comely mistress strung up by their heels at a gas station on the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Ouch.
Following that governments seemed to come and go every other hour, as they toyed with an Italian brand of communism and dealt with Red Brigade terrorist atrocities like having the bullet-riddled body of a former prime minister (there were a lot of those), Aldo Moro, found in the trunk of a car in the center of Rome.
Through it all though they’ve been pretty reliable NATO allies and a boon to our national security. Fast-forward through forty years of more of the same until 2009 when a comedian, Beppe Grillo, founds a reformist green-leaning political party known as The Five Star Movement. It’s as if a populist Jerry Seinfeld took over the Tea Party and beat the GOP and Dems at their own game. The Five Stars? They stand for the group’s main goals of public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to Internet access, and environmentalism. Okay, doesn’t sound very conservative, eh? As such, we must remember populism can cut both ways.
The party also loathes globalism, is trying to reform the hopelessly corrupt and inefficient national government, likes direct democracy, and is suspicious of the mandarins of the European Union. More vitally, Italy has been hit with the brunt of unlimited EU immigration policies because of her proximity to Africa. Responding to that the Five Star government has gone so far as to threaten to blow boats loaded with illegal immigrants clean out of the water. Last year Luigi Di Maio, the current party president, advocated “an immediate stop to the sea-taxi service” of disposing these immigrants on Italian shores. Along with conservative Eastern European governments like the Hungarians and Poles, they are holding the line on this.
Another interesting party policy is their rule that no one who has been elected twice at any level can be a candidate again. How’s that for swamp draining? They hate career politicians and the political class, who they blame for Italy’s decades of woe. Though, as in many cases of attempted drainage, the bureaucratic and administrative establishment remains. No one is saying Five Star is Trumpian Republican, especially given all the tree hugging involved. Nevertheless, given Italy’s history they are a marked improvement. The government has even just rolled out a new welfare-to-work plan that bears notice.
In the 2018 general election Five Star became the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies, with 32.7 percent of the vote, and formed a government with their allies the conservative Northern League, hence the Italian naval fun above. Five Star currently holds 220 of 630 seats in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and 107 out of 315 in the Senate. Grillo still has major influence in the party. However, the party president is Di Maio and the state prime minister is Giuseppe Conte. Matteo Salvini of the Northern League is a deputy PM.
With their newfound renaissance in government, something that went missing for about two thousand years, Italy may not rule the civilized West anymore. But she has set herself on the road to renewal by a populist government that has major ideas on how to accomplish the needed reforms. The best of those ideas could prove fortuitous for the Italian people.
And the trains?
Well, they’re never going to compete with the Deutsche Bahn anyway. So go have another cig and just wait for it.