December 16, 2007

What the New York Times doesn't say (updated)

“All the world loves Italy because it is old but still glamorous,” as Ian Fisher wrote in his report on the Bel Paese, published in the New York Times last Thursday. But these days, he added,

for all the outside adoration and all of its innate strengths, Italy seems not to love itself. The word here is “malessere,” or “malaise”; it implies a collective funk — economic, political and social — summed up in a recent poll: Italians, despite their claim to have mastered the art of living, say they are the least happy people in Western Europe.

This is quite true, as well as the rest of Fisher’s wide-ranging report. The malaise is generalized, though, for instance, unemployment is low, at 6 percent, and the Country “does have Ferrari, Ducati, Vespa, Armani, Gucci, Piano, Illy, Barolo—all symbols of style and prestige.” I would say that, in addition, Italy also has hundreds of thousands of highly competitive small enterprises, scattered throughout the national territory, which are the real strength of this Country, but perhaps it’s easier for an American journalist to refer to the above mentioned and well known “symbols of style and prestige,” rather than to spend extra time trying to give account of what is going on throughout the Country. Well, to tell the truth, the Author gives credit to Peter Kiefer, who contributed reporting from Trieste, but the state of the art of the chair-making sector isn’t perhaps as representative as it could seem at the first sight.

Yet, the “malessere” is generalized. It’s mainly a psychological malaise, due to essentially political causes, namely the result of a massive political failure, as shown by La Casta (“The Caste”)—a book, as Fisher fairly noted, which sold a million copies “by exposing the sins of Italy’s political class and how it became privileged and unaccountable.”

But Fisher doesn’t fail to mention and to give scope to the hero of the moment, Beppe Grillo, a comic actor, comedian & blogger who, even though with a reputation for eccentricity, has always been politically engaged, especially in defiance of political uses/abuses, corruption, ineptitude, inefficiency, etc. One of the battles Grillo is being fighting in these days is directed not so much against the politicians as against the system of parties in itself.

What is not so intelligible is that the report fails to mention that both La Casta and Beppe Grillo are somehow being successful in forcing the system to reform itself. Which would be a good reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of this Country. Whatever Beppe Severgnini, as well as other famous Maîtres à penser providentially interviewed by the NYT, might think about the whole matter.
UPDATE December 27, 2007
On December 21, Giuliano Amato, the Minister of the Interior of Italy, wrote to The New York Times in response to the article by the NYT’s Rome correspondent Ian Fisher. Amato argued that Italy is doing fine, the article’s view was “only a parody:”

Take a look at the data. According to the most recent research by Mediobanca, Italy hosts a “fourth generation capitalism” with an export growth rate in the last decade of 6 percent (11 percent in 2007) and a growth in revenue of 5 percent. The industries concerned have become multinationals, with investments in China, and by now represent 33 percent of our productive system.
In trade, Italy has lost position in terms of volume, but not in terms of value. We have started to export higher value products, with higher quality, more research and innovation. This applies not only to fashion, wine and furniture, but also to helicopters, cruise ships, motorcycles, car components, and high-tech machinery.

Mr. Fisher, in turn, answered him, and, in general, discussed the reaction to his article in Italy with The Lede. He quoted for himself, among others, no less than Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher for the pope and the papal household Just today, and Umberto Eco, Italy’s most prominent writer and essayist. But he knows that, “for as long as I am here, […] I will be known as ‘the guy who wrote that story’—and people will either like me or hate me for it.”