Monday, May 04, 2009

Italy good and bad

Two news items in the course of twenty-four hours capture almost perfectly the contradictions that characterize modern Italy, and make the country so frustrating for people who follow it closely.

The first item concerns FIAT which--fresh from its acquisition of a stake in Chrysler--is currently trying to buy Opel, GM's European subsidiary, at what one suspects will be a bargain price. FIAT tends to be treated as something of a joke in the United States--it was said to stand for "Fix it again, Tony" when it used to sell cars here--but for many years it was the largest automaker outside of the U.S., Germany and Japan, and if things keep going this way it may be so again. A visit to the FIAT website finds snappy new models, environmental sensitivity, and a multilingual/multicultural approach--the kind of things Americans sometimes sneeze at but which are exactly what makes for success in a global economy.

The second concerns Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose wife is asking for a divorce based on assorted misbehavior by her husband, the most recent example involving his choice of a number of attractive younger women as candidates for the European Parliament. The affair was made even more lurid, if that's possible, by her statement that "I cannot stay with a person who keeps company with [frequenta] underage women"--an apparent reference to Berlusconi's attendance at the 18th birthday party of the daughter of an associate, of whom partially naked photographs have appeared in the Italian media. At current writing, Berlusconi looks likely to survive the affair politically; his reputation, such as it is, is another matter.

The historian Paul Ginsborg believes that the dominant theme of postwar Italian history is the successful development of the private sphere coupled with the failure to develop an equal sense of public commitment. The stories above capture, in an unusually stark way, the fullness of this contradiction. Italy is (depending whom you ask) between the sixth and eighth largest economy in the world, and in cultural terms it is probably in the top five. But until its public life matches its private accomplishments, there will be many who don't take it seriously, and that is unfortunate for all concerned.


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