Driving back from the school run, back into the centre of Rome and thus at crawling speed, I get a chance to look around at the billboards lining the roadside. With regional elections due on April 3 and 4, the posters of busty pouting women squirming over now 0.25% lower interest rates have been replaced by campaign posters. The first to catch my attention was unattributed to any political party as far as I could see and contained only the crest of Lazio Region. Two bare arms, one male, one female, were raised with hands clasped together holding an Italian flag. The slogan was “Cresce l’orgoglio di essere Italiani” (The pride of being Italian is growing). I googled the expression in quote marks and got three hits. The first was in a speech by the President of the Republic, Ciampi, in 2002; the second was an ironic (sexually explicit) photo illustration; and the third was a description of visiting an exhibition in Rome on anti-semitism.
By far the greatest number of posters belong to Alleanza Nazionale, a key party in the current coalition government, whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, is the Italian foreign minister. The recurrent theme of the posters is nationalist of course, but with degrees of difference. One slogan might champion the value of hard work, another the value of the family. One echoes the slogan above: In the past there were only a few of us. Now the majority are proud of being Italian. The party’s main slogan is more succinct: One single concern: the Italians (Un solo interesse: gli Italiani).
Yet for many Americans, the idea of being proud of your country is as normal as apple pie. It doesn’t take long to find American blogs with banners and buttons celebrating the blogger’s patriotism. And there’s the difference: patriotism, not nationalism. It’s as if the concept conjugates irregularly: I’m a patriot, you’re a nationalist, he’s a terrorist bent on rooting out foreign influence in his country. For many Europeans, the idea of swearing allegiance to the national flag smacks of the worst totalitarian regimes the continent experienced last century. Saluting the flag is a purely military ritual. This is a feeling that is particularly common in England, I think. Morrissey sang recently,
I’ve been dreaming of a time when
To be English
Is not to be baneful
To be standing by the flag
Not feeling shameful
Racist or partial
-Irish Blood, English Heart*
Now take my own case: born to Scottish parents but raised in England. Lived in France, married a Dutch national. Now in Italy. I cheer Scotland against England, but England against Australia, and France against the Netherlands. Norman Tebbitt, Thatcher’s chief kneecapper, suggested testing citizenship among British-Pakistanis and British-Indians by seeing which cricket team they cheer for. Similarly, French National Front leader, Le Pen claimed the French national football team was not really French when “most of the players can’t or don’t want to sing the Marseillaise”. Fortunately, the “foreign French” team won the world cup and Zidane became the most popular man in the country. Le Pen is a mere detail in history, to paraphrase his own idiocy.
Back to present-day Italy and Alleanza Nazionale (AN), a party born of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) formed after the second world war and composed of ex-fascists. The posters today still have the MSI letters and symbol of tri-colour flame (always a suspiciously fascist icon – the eternal flame, etc.). Yet AN’s leader has managed to heave the party into the mainstream, even veering towards traditionally more leftwing territory. Last year, for example, Fini shocked many of the old guard by calling for recent immigrants to be given the vote in Italy. Even more recently, he called on his supporters to reject racism and xenophobia. This must be confusing for the party members. I mean, why would you vote for a party with fascist origins if you weren’t racist and xenophobic?
Fini promises more policy changes in the future but for now I’ll continue decoding the billboards. And for me, when a politician starts praising the glories of hard work and motherhood, I reach for my revolver, metaphorically speaking, that is.