Happy 150th Birthday, Italy!

By Piero Garau

17 March 2011: Italy's 150th Birthday

"Scores of educated and decent people, old and young, previously given to dismissing flags, national recurrences and anthems as relics of naïveté and crass nationalism, are rallying around the flag as the symbol of a national unity whose demise would mark the loss of everything that is decent about an embattled and troubled nation."

On this day, the country celebrates its 150th birthday. A serene, joyous event, one would think. Not in this country. Not this time.

Piero1.png(Illustrations by Piero Garau for Poerio Press, 2011)

Yes, maybe we are still doing marginally better than Belgium, a country that split in two in all but a formal way. Or Serbia, whose Matryoshka doll vicissitudes suggest the secession game may never end. But those like me old enough, alas, to remember Italy's 100 birthday celebrations fifty years ago, cannot deny that feelings were very different on that occasion.

We never think of 1961 in these terms, but that particular year coincided with the pinnacle of Italy's so called "economic miracle"- and of a curve that everybody thought would shoot upwards forever. 1961 marked the end of a tough, hard working post-war period. A year before, in Rome, the landmark treaty had been signed that would kick start the European Union. Good-quality consumption goods were being exported all over Europe. A tumultuous transition from an agricultural to an industry-based economy and from a rural to an urban nation was all but complete. Hollywood had moved to Cinecitta'. And Cinecitta', Fellini as its vanguard, was conquering the world. TV sets, refrigerators, holidays were not a distant aspiration any more. And above all, the new FIAT 500, that genius of a little car, had instantly become a symbol of everybody's dream of social freedom and prosperity.

Your guest blogger with his Fiat 500, ca. 1961

Back to 2011. In the barest and crudest terms: our Tea Party boys, the so called "Lega Nord", are working for secession. And since they are essential to the present government's stability, they can get away with anything.

Imagine elected representatives from, say, the Virginia Senate walking away from an official session at the first note of the Star Spangled Banner. This is just what happened the other day at a Lombardy Parliamentary session, where a number of Lega Nord representatives, including the Lega boss's son, Renzo Bossi, (nicknamed by his own father "trota" (trout)) walked away in protest at the first note of the Italian national hymn, l'"Inno di Mameli".

Piero3.pngA Proud Trout: Bossi's son and designated political heir celebrated in ancient Lumbard gear and coat-of-arms (Poerio Press, 2010)

What makes this comparison even more disturbing is that my fictional Dixiephiliac senators from the State of Virginia may have, after all, some sort of historical argument to offer - the mystique of an old South desperate to preserve some kind of god-given rural order, the memories of the ravages and blood of a Civil War, and the indignities and humiliations of its aftermath. But none of that applies to Italy's Risorgimento. The first liberal uprising in Europe against absolutist rule took place in Sicily. And following Garibaldi's 1860 expedition, it was the South that enthusiastically joined the North, with Garibaldi at the head of his victorious volunteers handing the South over to his gloating new monarch at the end of his triumphant campaign.

However, many respected historians have produced convincing proof that after the 1861 unification - and not unlike what happened during the American post- Civil War period, -it was the South that suffered economically at the hands of the North, personified by the expanding kingdom of Sardinia led by the libertine and insensitive monarch who would be Italy's first king - Victor Emanuel I of Savoy. The treasury of the vanquished monarchy of the Two Sicilies formerly reigning over the whole South quickly found its way into the coffers of the new king from Turin. Industry was swiftly de-mobilized in favour of the North's manufacturing structure, which became the State's supplier. And all those who turned their disillusionment into dissent were rapidly labeled as brigands (today's term would probably be "terrorist") and hunted down like common criminals. The Catholic Church, as ever, played an important role in this. But today, it is the Northern League that wants to free itself of the dead weight of a still relatively underdeveloped and troubled South. Of course, these domestic replicas of the Tea Parties miss the very sense of the concept of "unity" when applied to nations: something that works only on moral grounds when people sharing a common dream and a common culture decide to get together precisely to help each other reach a common ethical objective.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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