My series of Q&As continues with Emanuele Ottolenghi. Born in Bologna in 1969, Emanuele is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and the Middle East Centre, St Antony's College. We first met at a lecture given in Oxford last year by his friend, Michael Ledeen. Emanuele is a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, and was an outspoken opponent of the recent UK campaign to boycott Israeli universities. His website is at www.emanueleottolenghi.com.
We did the interview by e-mail. I've added links where appropriate.
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Q: Is anti-Americanism an elite phenomenon in Italy, or is it fairly widespread?
A: I think the general attitude is similar to other European countries. There's a mixture of love and hate, resentment and envy coupled with attraction and emulation. I'm reminded of the time when McDonald’s started opening its outlets across the country. Restaurant-owners in many cities pressed the authorities to deny the necessary licences, in the name of food quality. They did so as if it were the Middle Ages and they were a guild. The truth is that they feared competition from a cheaper and sexier business. They lost, of course, but earned much sympathy. Nobody made the simple argument that if you don’t like McDonald’s you should simply avoid going there.
When McDonald’s sought to open near the Spanish Steps in Rome there was more outrage about the danger posed to the historical patrimony. As if selling burgers was more offensive than selling spaghetti. Fast forward fifteen years, and you see the McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna regularly packed with tourists and teenagers, but few others. Italians still mainly stick to their Mediterranean diet and love their small, family-run restaurants with their typical local food. (McDonald’s, incidentally, did not ruin the heritage of Rome or anywhere else. If anything, it did the contrary, by restoring old buildings and respecting the urban and architectural configuration. A McDonald’s sign in Piazza di Spagna does not look much different from the ‘Da Luigi’ billboard of many a trattoria.) As elsewhere, many hate America while at the same time loving its music, its food, its casual fashion (Italians love such American brands as Timberland, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers etc). America’s soft power is attractive, even seductive.
Q: And what about attitudes towards America's "hard" power?
A: Anti-Americanism is integral to much of Italy’s politics. There is a confluence of two dominant cultures. One is Catholicism, the other is Communism. Communism is defeated, but its cultural legacy, is still very strong, especially in the anti-globalisation and anti-war movement. While Marxism has been abandoned, Third-World-ism and opposition to free markets are still potent. America, along with Israel, is the embodiment of evil in the eyes of many of these people. As in other countries, in the most extreme cases, the heirs of Communism in Italy are now embracing the Islamists across Europe and the Middle East, based on a common aversion to America and the Western values it represents.
Is this a strong movement? I don’t know the numbers. But they are the only ones, today in Italy, who can mobilize two to three million people to march against the invasion of Iraq, or who can turn the streets of Genoa into a war zone. They are the only political force who can bring the country to a halt when there is a general strike, and bring their supporters in the hundreds of thousands to cheer and boo the mainstream left when they campaign for election. In Italy, the anti-American Left holds the mainstream Left to ransom, and it will have an important say if Berlusconi is ousted in next year’s parliamentary elections.
Political Catholicism is another force to reckon with in Italian politics. While not anti-Western in the manner of some elements of the Left, it shares some of its views, especially on themes of social justice, aversion to capitalism, Third World-ism, suspicion of America, and an inclination to believe in the existence of sinister forces hiding behind the scenes. (Conspiracy theory is an Italian speciality. It even has its own Italian word, 'Dietr'logia', or 'Behind-o-logy', that is the tendency to see sinister and hidden influences ‘behind’ things). Hence, the dominance of anti-American feelings in important segments of the Catholic world in Italy. Obviously, not all Catholics embrace these views and not all Catholic politics are anti-American. But to ignore it, and to ignore its relevance to Italian politics, would be a mistake.
Once one takes these three cultures (not always reflected in policies and parties, but very much present in media and political discourse ) there is not much space left for a strong and rooted pro-American party. Pro-American sentiment exists, but it is less widespread than the current government's general posturing suggests.
A: Both, clearly. The Economist did an outstanding job at outlining why he is unfit to govern. Italy’s economy seems to be in terminal decline. Many of the laws his government introduced are shameful. Many opportunities were squandered, and most of all, the enraging combination of red tape, dysfunctional services, waste of public monies and questionable practices remains a fixture of the landscape.
True, some of these features are not to be blamed on the political class alone or even on Berlusconi, given that they predate him: to have a corrupt official, you after all need a citizen who is buying the official. But Berlusconi had the time and the political majority to make a change – on the economy, on the fiscal system, on public services, and on the political culture of the most beautiful and most dysfunctional country in the European Union. He did not. What a waste. Especially because at the foreign policy level he understood the true nature of the new cold war we are caught in, between Western values and a new form of totalitarianism.
A: I think they are a spent force because the logic of the political game has changed. The Christian Democrats were kept together by anti-Communism more than anything else. Aside from the blow inflicted to the party by its chronic corruption, once the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Communist Party had to reform itself, the world of Catholic politics split, some adherents going to the left and some to the right. The "unity of Catholics" is still lamented as a lost asset and romanticized as the golden age of Italian politics, but the truth is, those days are gone.
Nevertheless, much of the old political order is still very much in place. It never truly left us, but only assumed a different disguise. Never was the novel by Lampedusa, The Leopard, more relevant to understand the vagaries of Italian politics. "To change everything so that everything will stay the same" was the motto of the book, and the description of a political culture that still defines the country. I think you still, by and large, have that. The next elections are not going to change it significantly.
Q: Is there such a thing as neo-conservatism in Italy?
A: Yes, although it has its own distinctive Italian version. The focal point of Italian neo-conservatism in Italy is, in the press, the Italian daily Il Foglio (for which I write). There is also a think-tank in Rome, called Magna Carta, which is close to neo-conservative thinking in many ways. But the truth is that one should speak more of Theo-Conservatism in Italy, given that many of the most vocal supporters of American neo-conservative inspired policies are strong supporters of a muscular alliance between the Church and pro-Western forces in the name of Western values. The Italian neo-cons are much closer to the established church than their American counterparts.
A: I read his book with great pleasure. I can relate to many experiences he recounts. I even agree with some of his conclusions - I think I made it already abundantly clear to you that my views of Italy’s future are not that upbeat. Still, I think that he makes some glaring mistakes in his judgments - more on details than on the broader picture to be sure - because he seems to follow too much the mood among his friends and close social environment, sometimes showing a glaring lack of understanding for some aspects of Italian politics. Nevertheless, his overall assessment seems sound to me.
I loved his description of the way Italians get away with illegal building and tax evasion, thanks to the fact that governments periodically forgive such violations in exchange for citizens declaring their crime and paying a flat fine in exchange for immunity. It's a sort of legalized bribery that punishes law-abiding citizens, awards dishonesty and breeds a culture of disrespect for the law. When you live in a country where you can count, every so many years, on the government making certain white-collar crimes legal as long as you pay a fine, you have no encouragement to follow the rules. If, on top of that, you also factor in a frustratingly complex set of rules regarding taxation, building permits and bureaucracy in general, you see why hopes for a better, healthier and more ethical performance are low.
Q: Should Italy abandon the Euro?
A: Absolutely not. With such irresponsible handling of the economy, the Euro guarantees that the private savings of a nation will not lose value even when the economy finally tailspins. If we still had the Lira, many Italians would feel more vulnerable. Besides, thanks to the Euro interest rates, public debt is more manageable. Even though prices have gone up unreasonably in Italy as well as everywhere else as a result of the Euro. But maybe we should ask the opposite question: should the Euro abandon Italy?
Q: What are your favourite Italian and American films?
A: A long list. On the Italian list - and with the proviso that since I left Italy in 1993 I've had little chance to see Italian movies as often as I wished - I would put Bicycle Thieves, Nanni Moretti’s Il Portaborse, Ettore Scola’s La Famiglia, Bertolucci’s 1900, Troisi’s Ricomincio da Tre and Il Postino. As you can see, most of them are relatively recent, except for one. But I also remember fondly Totò, De Filippo and Macario, all names that are less known abroad but that capture more than anything else, the Italian tragicomic experience. American movies? Hard to tell. I go to the cinema to switch off, so I watch more trash than anything else. If I want to be intellectually stimulated I read a book… By the way, you should look into Israeli movies sometimes, some amazing things coming out of that industry recently. I recommend Turn Left at the End of the World, Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi, A Time of Favour, and Broken Wings, among others. All available on DVD on Amazon, with English subtitles. Superb movies.
Q: Will the Italian film industry ever produce another Fellini or Antonioni?
A: Hard to tell. I'm not a movie expert, but it seems to me that the world of cinema and TV in Italy is affected by the same problems that beset every other aspect of the country. A corporatist culture, lack of funds directed to worthy projects, too much politics, and little investment in the future. I'm afraid it's much the same with Italian academia as well.
A: Unfortunately, in most cases, they are one and the same. There is, strictly speaking, little racially inspired anti-Semitism today in Europe. But while everyone loves to hate the extreme right wing jackboot anti-Semitism of neo-Nazis and the like, the claim that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism is a ruse. Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people. To oppose Zionism (anti-Zionism, that is) means to either deny that the Jews are a people, or that the Jews, though a people, do not have a right that every other people in the world in principle does enjoy. The former means denying the Jews the right to define themselves on their own terms. The latter means singling out the Jews, often based on the assumption that the Jews, as a collective, must be held to a different moral standard from anyone else.
In both instances, limiting the options that Jews have in terms of the opinions they hold or the identity they wish to give themselves, and singling them out and holding them to a different moral standard, this is anti-Semitism. A different thing is, of course, opposing this or that Israeli policy, this or that Israeli government. But anti-Zionism is never an argument on merits; it is an argument about the right of the State of Israel to exist and about the right of the Jewish people to identify with it, to support it, to sympathize with it and to move to it if they so wish. It has to do with what Israel is (and the Jews are). That, to me, is unacceptable, and to most Jews today, it is plain anti-Semitism.
Q: Will the Palestinians have their own state ten years from now? Where do you see the Arab-Israeli conflict heading?
A: Ten years is a long time and predictions are hard to make. I am afraid that a Palestinian state will not bring peace to the region, certainly not under the present circumstances, and I am afraid that a Palestinian state will be another failed state at worst, and another Arab state with all the dysfunctions of Arab states at best: inefficient, corrupt, authoritarian, oppressive, and weak. Not exactly a recipe for peace and stability.
Q: Netanyahu - visionary or opportunist?
A: Opportunist, with a capital O. But his books on terrorism are some of the best writings on the subject and have anticipated much of what happened in the last five years. So, visionary as well, also with a capital V. His performance as Israeli ambassador was superb, and his act as finance minister impeccable. It is when he goes beyond that level that he is out of his league. Netanyahu, in my view, is not cut for leadership. But he has other impressive qualities and should stick to those: spokesman for Israel, expert on terrorism and economic policies. He is a neo-liberal of course, something that many dislike. But that has nothing to do with him, it has to do with the policies. And I, for one, happen to support neo-liberal economics.
Q: You wrote a column recently calling for the Iranians to be barred from next year's World Cup unless they agree to suspend their nuclear programme? What are the chances of that happening?
A: Pretty low at the moment, but if there’s a will, there’s a way. This is precisely what the Europeans and the Americans have to start discussing. If military intervention is both risky and counterproductive, if economic sanctions are ineffective (if there’s one thing we can learn from the oil-for-food program and the Iraq sanctions regime, that is the lesson) then other means must be used. We need to be creative.
A sports ban is one tool to put pressure. Another one is human rights. Each time Iranian dignitaries show up at Downing Street or the Foreign Office, I wish Tony Blair and Jack Straw would take them to the press conference that always follows and raise the issue of Iran’s poor human rights record. I wish that every time European VIPs go to Iran, they would made a point of seeing human rights activists and dissidents BEFORE meeting with the authorities. These are small and relatively inexpensive gestures. They don’t lose business to European firms. They don’t affect negatively the already over-stressed oil market. They don’t harm long-term commercial interests. But they leave a mark. The lesson of our engagement with Soviet dissidents applies to Iran more than anywhere else.
A: I think both. Her rhetoric is incendiary, but that was always part of her writing style, so I would not make too much of it. Plus, there’s no denying that she captured the public mood. Her last book sold almost a million copies in less than a month. I think that says something. Italy’s man in the street reads her books and buys her argument. I have some problems with some of her comments and remarks, about the details, but I think that on many issues she is right on the mark.
Q: If you could choose to live in any European city, which would it be?
A: New York - Europe’s West Coast.
Q: What's your favourite place in the US?
A: The National parks out west. I fell in love with the big sky country of Montana, the glory of the Rockies, the beauty of the deserts in Southern Utah, Arizona and Wyoming, the majestic views of Yellowstone. I was taken there this summer by an American friend of mine who is an authentic lover of the West, and to me the embodiment of all that is good about America (Hi Bill!). I can’t wait to go back and explore some more.
Q: What’s the one Italian trait that Americans should try to emulate? And vice-versa?
A: The unparalleled sense of aesthetics that Italians have, in all walks of life, from food to clothing, from design to style of life - all that makes Italy the "Belpaese". That’s one thing that Americans – and indeed everyone else – should try to learn. What should the Italians learn from America? That democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Not a shoddy business run by a privileged few to serve the interests of their friends and which the poor citizen has to learn to dupe or dodge to survive.
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To see my Q&A with Michael Moore's biographer, Jesse Larner, go here.