Monday, December 22, 2008

more from italy: globalization, easy credit, and echoes of the 1930s

Another 10 days in Italy and I'm back home, just in time for the Holidays and a brief but rather unpleasant medical procedure I won't go into here (hint: it involves drinking lots of liquids). All in all it was one of the most pleasant trips for me but perhaps the most frightening in terms of big-picture developments. I've hinted at these in previous posts, but let me develop them just a little more here.

The good news is that--notwithstanding globalization--Italy, and presumably most of the world, retain their local color. When I last posted I was getting ready to leave Rome, ahead of a torrential flood and a threatened, but then canceled, general strike. Since then I was in Padova, Ferrara, Torino, and Milan, all but the first primarily work stops. None of these places are anything much like each other. Padova retains the Venetian love of good food, fine wine, and after-dinner drinks, a generally indulgent and somewhat showy approach to life. Ferrara, just over the border in neighboring Emilia-Romagna, has a darker and more severe charm alhough it is surely no less and perhaps more beautiful. Turin (Torino), the city of FIAT and Primo Levi, retains the feel of a proud provincial city that is historically vital to the country (it was the first capital of Italy) and outside of it at the same time--a bit like Boston 30 years ago or perhaps Philadelphia today. Milan is all energy and vibrance, New York to Rome's Washington, Tel Aviv to its Jerusalem. If anyone was afraid local differences would fade in an era of standardization, they needn't look any further.

What was scary was that, notwithstanding these differences, there was an air of pessimism among almost everyone I talked to, which cut across regional, class, and (in some cases) even national lines. It was a pessimism that--while expressed first and foremost about Italy itself--contained elements that applied equally to America, China, and the rest of the world. It appeared to affect primarily younger and more thoughtful people, and suggested a moral crisis, a crisis of faith in society and its institutions, that went beyond political categories.

Especially striking were the analyses of the crisis, which popped up with striking consistency. Everywhere I heard the same refrain. Easy credit--in the literal form of credit card debt and inflated mortgages and the more intangible sense of living beyond one's means--had eroded the sense of reward and sacrifice among young people in particular. The differences between classes were getting bigger rather than smaller. Political parties exploited these differences but did little to fix them. Voters talked about solving the problems but in the end sought mostly stability: unwilling to give up their toys, when push came to shove they would sacrifice their very freedom in order to keep them. Rather than solving the problem, America was exporting it.

When people say similar things it is sometimes because they have been prompted to. Indeed, some of the statements above are similar to things that have been written in newspapers, and some are not entirely consistent with each other (it's hard to blame political parties if voters want the same things). Then again, when a number of people in separate conversations say more or less the same things, there's usually something to them.

All of this is especially chilling for someone who is writing a book about Europe in the 1930s. Then, as now, America exported a depression (recession) to European and other countries. Then, as now, there was a spiritual as well as an economic crisis, and people sought leaders who would reinforce traditional values as well as preserving economic security. Then, as now, America turned vaguely left while Europe turned increasingly to the right. I thought this was my (admittedly fertile) imagination at work until the last night of the trip, when I told a waiter in a Milan restaurant that I was working on a book about Italian history. "Promise me one thing," he asked. "Say something good about Mussolini. He was the only one who did anything good for this country." I promised I would give him fair treatment.


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