Veranstaltungen: Dokumentation

29.9.2003 | Von:
Sergio Benvenuto

Farsighted and Shortsighted

Before the final match of the 2002 World Soccer Cup – which pitted Germany against Brazil – I was struck by how many Italian soccer fans (tifosi) preferred to root for Brazil. And when, after telling them that I instead supported Germany, they asked why, I responded, "because I´m a European". But the Italian fans found this an odd reason, since they felt that being born in Rome or in Naples was good enough reason to support the Roman, Neapolitan, or any Italian team in whatever sport. But no one had ever considered that being European was good enough reason to support a European team against a non-European one.

If the attitude of these sports fans can be considered a strong indicator of cultural and political identification, then European identification is quite poor, or even non-existent.

Sports are not a futile example, since for the majority of average people – and not just in Italy –sports are more important than politics. It is not by chance that our present Italian prime minister was elected after having created a party called Forza Italia, "Go Italy!" Berlusconi grasped very well that Italian identity is strong especially during a sports match. Historians and sociologists may well have underestimated the importance of the sports and game dimension in political and cultural life, our "post-modern condition" is more and more bound to a kind of Universal Game Logic, and our political passions – which we consider ethically serious and grave – often follow more a sports-like logic than an economical or rational one.

For example, many militants support (tifano) their original party of allegiance, despite its having radically changed its program and ideology. Many remain faithful to the DS (Italy´s Leftist Democrats) simply because it derives from the old communist party, even though now most DS leaders disavow communism and pursue a politics even more moderate than late Bettino Craxi´s former socialist party. But these DS militants continue to denigrate Craxi because in the 1980s he was their main antagonist; it is irrelevant that in fact their party thinks in the same way that Craxi did. Analogously, most supporters of Italy´s AN party (National Alliance, which evolved from the former pro-fascist party) may privately continue to admire Mussolini, anyway they support their party which denies fascism. In short, it is pure nominalism. I wonder if often even the left and right line-ups in western countries are by now above all sports line-ups: in fact, governing a complex society requires doing many things which in themselves belong to neither left nor the right. Things must be done, that´s it. Yet a larger part of the electorate continues to think according to the right versus left dichotomy, even if as a matter of fact this corresponds less and less to alternative ways of governing a country.

One´s attitude to America can also be likened to taking sides in sports. Being pro- or anti-American is a gut reaction often conceived in childhood or adolescence, in part influenced by the surrounding adult environment or by early traumas loosely connected to the US image. Those against America will root for anyone who might, even potentially, be able to unsettle US might, be they Castro, bin Laden, a French Gaullist, a communist North Korean "king", a conservative Peronist or a Palestinian kamikaze anything goes, as long as it is against America. On the contrary, those who during a lifetime have rooted for the US team will be inclined to see everything that Americans do as being for the greater Good, and everyone opposed as incarnating Evil. This is the formal, i.e. sports-like, face of ideologies. Thus, I doubt that Italians or Germans, for example, support their teams because of their respective identities: rather, I would say (as Berlusconi grasped) that in the end, they identify as Italians or Germans because national institutions and teams give them the opportunity to choose an "identity" as such.

2. It is not by chance that I have put the word "identity" between quotes. With all due respect for my friends here who have extolled a "European identity", or how to create it, those who, like myself, were formed culturally in the wake of post-modern thought do not believe that a socio-cultural Identity really exists. In fact, the modern term identity is a re-edition of the ancient term essence: to ponder a possible European identity would be the equivalent of asking, in Aristotle fashion, "what is the essence of Europeanism?" I don´t believe that this essence exists.

I don´t arrive at Sartre´s extreme thesis in his polemic with Raymond Aron on the "essence" of being Jewish, that is, that what we call Judaism is not a cultural identity opposed by the anti-Semite, but that Judaism exists as the effect of anti-Semitism. Applying this Hegelian thesis to our case at hand would mean that Europe exists only to the extent that non-Europeans consider it as such... Anyway, I don´t believe that politico-cultural identities are matters of fact but, rather, I do think that identifications and idiosyncrasies exist. By idiosyncrasy I mean everything that constitutes a specific way of living, an ethos as the Ancients said. This confusion between identities on the one hand, and idiosyncrasies and identifications on the other, should be criticized – or deconstructed as the highbrows now say. Let me cite another Italian example.

Polls tell us that more than 94% of Italians consider themselves Catholic. But what does "being Catholic" really mean? As a matter of fact, less than one third of Italians attend religious services or behave in accordance with the Catholic Church´s doctrines. The majority of these would-be Catholics rarely attends mass, practices birth-control, often divorces and aborts, and in many cases does not believe in life after death, but rather in reincarnation, etc. Not by chance, in his recent book (Il sentire cattolico/The Catholic Way) the philosopher Mario Perniola writes that catholicity is a way of feeling, not a system of dogmas or beliefs: an atheist can be catholic in his guts. In short, when we wrap our conceptual fists around "catholic identity", we will never find in a population common minimum denominators, but a dispersion of features. That is why, we might say, Italians identify themselves as catholic, but it does not at all imply that their identity is catholic. This does not exclude that certain Italian idiosyncrasies have a catholic matrix – for example, certain contempt for writing in favor of oral expression, or a reluctance to divorce even when a marriage is clearly over. But somewhere between idiosyncrasies, which derive from one´s own childhood education and subsequently from unconscious reflexes, and identifications, which regard some abstract labels, falls the shadow of the identity myth.

In Italy today we are experts in creating "identities". The Northern League, the party claiming to defend the interests of northern Italy against the rest of the nation, even created a new political myth by inventing a new nation: Padania. Italy has a long tradition of regional particularities – every region has its own dialect, cuisine and sometimes even music and literature. We identify the hard-headed Piedmontese as "falsi e cortesi" (kind but false); the Genovese as very stingy; the Venetians as faithful to wine, grappa and priests; the Romagnoli as "gourmand communists", Bologna as a city of "libidinous women who like fellatio"; the Lombards like the Swabians are for the Germans, etc. But nobody has ever spoken about Padanian vices or virtues! That is, until Umberto Bossi, the Northern League´s leader, successfully created the signifier Padania. For a historicist intelligentsia like ours, the only good myths are ancient: inventing new myths, as Bossi did, is cheating. And yet, this new identity was successful: today millions of Italians feel like Padanians. No special prior basis is required to build a new identity: common interests can be an alibi or a rationalization to justify the creation of a new game, implying new actors.

Of course, history is also made by conflicts of identities, but this does not take away from the fact that identity is always a myth. Entire populations can massacre each other because they don´t worship the same gods: but this historical drama does not prove ipso facto the existence of these gods. In the same way, some can even kill themselves over the idea of Europe; nevertheless, this sacrifice does not prove the existence of Europe. Thus identity – as Mikhail Ryklin underlined here – must always be deconstructed in order for (ideal) identifications and (factual) idiosyncrasies emerge.

3. This identity illusion manifests itself when, for example, experts talk about cinema. Somewhere along the line there emerged a cliché about the American cinema being geared to the ignorant masses, hence its popularity and success, as opposed to the refined European cinema which aims to a critical and demanding elite. America would supply the mass-media equivalent of canned meat, a base product to appease the universal hunger for the imaginary world and entertainment, while Europe instead would supply the equivalent of a three-star Michelin restaurant, a cordon bleu cinema. This difference would express the deeper identities of America on the one hand – a country of mass rhetoric – and Europe on the other – a continent rendered languid from its accumulation of disenchanted culture.

Actually, when Italian cinema was at the top of its prestige – the epoch of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini, Leone, the early Bertolucci, etc. – Cinecittà was also a big industrial machine second only to Hollywood. In the 1950s and 60s, Italy produced many films without any artistic pretensions–of an historical-mythological genre, Italian comedies, spaghetti-westerns, etc.–which enjoyed great commercial success, and exported worldwide its cine-romanzi (soap operas mixing photography and comics), a low culture and high profit product. But this commercial cinema was the body onto which a subtle aesthetical head was grafted. The idea that sophisticated and commercial cinema are opposed is ridiculous: in fact, they are two aspects of the same complex reality. Even today, European countries produce simple films just to make money, but they don´t enjoy the same success that American productions do. They might be somewhat appreciated by a national audience, but they don´t have the dimension to cross the borders, either because they are produced with less money and professionalism than their American counterparts, or because the fragmented European distribution system penalizes the Made in Europe movie. This is to say that we have a big head – Almodovar, von Trier, Moretti, etc. – on an almost non-existent body. It is no small wonder that this head can survive and assert itself without a body.

And yet, the American cinema is not just the oiled Hollywood machine: it is also Altman, the Cohen brothers, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Tarantino, Rebecca Miller and Schafer, etc. But this non-mainstream American production apparently does not leave its mark on the American cinema simply because the amount of mass-produced cinema makes the former appear more an exception than a rule. By the same token, the European cinema is identified with a type of quality product simply because the mass production, which does exist, does not assert itself. It is thus easy to fall into the trap of hasty conclusions about the deep identities of nations. An entire rhetoric on the aristocratic depth of European culture emerges simply as a trompe-l´oeil owing to the flop of European commercial culture.

4. The identification of identifications with idiosyncrasies – I apologize for the stilted construction of this sentence – is typical of any utopia or fanaticism. Every more or less utopian fanatic dreams of a people where each one´s idiosyncrasies coincide with his/her ideal identifications: in short, that each Catholic lives 100% as a Catholic, that each Italian lives 100% according to an Italian identification, and each Marxist 100% according to Marxist ideals, and so on. But we know that, by luck, this will never be possible. I read somewhere that some of the Islamic kamikazes who perpetrated 9-11 had gotten drunk together the evening before; even martyrs of the Islamic cause cannot be completely Islamic, not even the day before their supreme sacrifice.

We all know that Europe is essentially only a geographic and, in the case of EU countries, economic entity, but not at all a cultural, political, or even less military one. Europe is a business of bankers, breeders and traders, certainly not of writers, philosophers, scientists or politicians (each European leader is chosen only by his own nation). I would go further and say that the EU is a slowly expanding economic entity on an exclusively geographic base.

This statement may surprise many: when one thinks of the most globalized sector of human social life today, one thinks above all of economics. But internationalized big corporations are only the tip of the iceberg which bars us from seeing what lies beneath, the many small firms and companies which remain bound to geographic contiguities and fortuities. Let us not forget that the word economy comes from the Greek oikos: home. Thus, despite Microsoft, McDonald´s and Versace, the economy remains largely a short-ranged, short-sighted, home-made thing.

For example, the debate on the causes of the persistent economic gap between Italy´s North and Mezzogiorno has been going on for one and a half centuries. Many ingenuous theories have been proposed and developed, some of an ethno-psychological type – for example, that southerners, spoiled by their warm and clement weather, are less inclined towards earning a living compared to Italians living in colder regions! But common sense tells us that Southern Italy is poorer – like the Balkans, Southern Spain and Portugal – simply because it lies further from Europe´s economic heart than Venetia or Lombardy. Until ten years ago, this "economic sun" – as F. Braudel called it – was an axis which rose in Stockholm, passed south through Denmark, West Germany, Eastern France, Switzerland and Lombardy, and set around Bologna. The European regions (except those of the socialist system) closer to this axis were richer, while those furthest – Scotland, Sicily, Western France, Northern Scandinavia, Portugal and Greece – were poorer. (I am not an economist, but I have the impression that in the past decade this heart of the economy has been shifting toward the West: the Atlantic is again becoming the main axis of wealth, so that countries in Europe lying more to the west are today economically more privileged than those to the east.)

In short, old, small-scale, short-range economies – which determine the wealth of specific regions – still obey the simple logic of near versus far. If Europe is increasingly an economic unity – and hardly a cultural one – it is because it is above all a "geographical concept" (geographischer Begriff, as Metternich said of Italy in early 19th-century). It behooves countries which are spatially close to unite, even if they speak different languages and worship diverse gods.

Evidence of this is the much-debated decision to admit Turkey into the EU. Between Turkey and Western Europe there is almost no religious, cultural, linguistic or historical affinity. New Zealand and Argentina are surely culturally closer to Europe, but Istanbul is a stone´s throw from Athens. Geography is paramount.

It is important to underline that while the EU is, on the one hand, a great ideal, created in order to overcome bloody, centuries-old European conflicts, it represents, on the other, a catastrophe for other parts of the world. Because, if the EU is a free-market entity within itself, it is protectionist towards outsiders, with deadly consequences for the poorest countries. It is true that Europe is not alone in its policy of selfish closure, the USA and Japan do the same thing. Hence the failure of the Cancun meeting during our meeting here in Cadenabbia. Every cow bred in the EU receives a subsidy which is higher than the per-capita income of millions of individuals living in the third world. Every European family pays 80 euros per year to subsidize European agriculture, so that Argentineans, for example, cannot sell us their meat, nor it is expedient for us to buy agricultural products or textiles from other poorer countries. All the pro-Europe rhetoric, almost compulsory today in some intellectual milieus, will never cancel the simple truth that we Europeans guarantee an income to our wealthy farmers and breeders which pushes millions of people in the third world to starvation. This is the cruel, selfish face of the Union of our "geographic concept".

5. Some might argue that there is a cultural affinity between European countries, not least because of their common Christian roots. In fact, Europe represents the continuing effect of a long-ago cultural split of the Mediterranean unity with the rise of Islam, so Europe identified as that part of the world which persisted in being Christian. When the Vatican insists on the Christian roots of Europe, it is historically correct. But today, with the Americas and Africa also Christian, does it still make any sense to talk of Europe as having a special religious "essence"? An educated Russian from Vladivostok has more of an affinity with an educated person from Vilnius or Beograd than he does with a Japanese or Chinese. Buenos Aires has an air of Rome, Paris and Budapest, and in this sense is a lot more "European" than Istanbul or Tirana.

Undoubtedly there is a "family feeling" in Europe, where in every town you can find McDonalds, blue jeans, Hollywood films, and be bombarded by rock and funk music. It is true that, in comparison to 30 or 40 years ago, European countries more closely resemble each other, more "omologati", homologous or standardized, to echo Pasolini: because Europeans – especially the young – look to Anglo-American models, their customs converge. Fortunately, the USA and the UK are also in many ways Europeanized, so that wherever we go, be it America, Europe or Japan, we find the same things. In some ways, an Italian can feel as much at home in America as in Europe – they find espresso, Italian designers, wines and pizza.

The main reason why Europe is far from having a cultural identity is due to the fact that, unlike in economics, on a cultural level geographic contiguities do not matter but linguistic commonalities do. When you pass the border at Menton-Ventimiglia from Italy to France, you quickly realize that, culturally speaking, you pass from one world to another (except for their common American features). Apart from Chirac, Le Pen, Carla Bruni, Depardieu and Laetitia Casta, the average Italian doesn´t know much about France and the French. They may know the name of New York´s mayor, but hardly anyone in Italy would know the name of the mayors of Paris or Berlin. European countries are neither nationalistic nor ethnocentric: they are glossocentric, from glossa: tongue.

This sense of community owing to a common tongue increases, of course, as one passes from the more cultured and cosmopolitan classes to the less cultured and provincial ones. The cultured and wealthy generally read or speak another language – generally English – while the scope of the poorer less cultured classes is necessarily narrow. Whether we are in Geneva, Lyons or Brussels, we sense a similar background mentality: the forma mentis – which is in fact a forma linguae – is the same. In the same way, people from Zurich, Hamburg and Graz swim in the same cultural waters. But there is a ditch separating a Walloon intellectual in Liege from his colleague in Antwerp--in fact, in Belgium the Walloons refuse to speak Dutch and the Flemish today refuse to speak French.

This glossocentrism can be seen today in the Iraqi crisis. Is it pure coincidence that the three countries which sent more troops and equipment to Iraq in 2003 are the US, the UK and Australia, that is, three English-speaking countries? For most politologists, the fact of speaking the same language is irrelevant, and yet, if we investigate the political opinions spread throughout various countries, we realize that linguistic communality is a determining factor. For example, it is well-known that in the last two years anti-American sentiment greatly increased in all European countries; but France, Germany and Russia lead the group of Western countries sympathizing least with the US, while the UK remains the most pro-American of all European countries. Does the simple fact of a common language explain the substantial British approval of the American war in Iraq, in contrast with the strong opposition of public opinion in the countries speaking romance languages and in Germany?

This is a good subject for inquiry: what disposes somebody who read Milton and Shakespeare at school rather than Dante, Goethe, Racine or Cervantes to accept the Rumsfeld doctrine, or at least to be more indulgent towards it than other westerners? Which specific trait does a basic education in each linguistic culture favor that entails some political options rather than others?

6. The ruling elite is globalized, while the subject masses are provincial. Today, a struggle of horizons seems to be substituting the classic Marxist class struggle. Very often the poorer less cultured vindicate their narrower horizon against those having a wider one, that is to say, against who have more culture and more income. This difference is embodied in the difference between today´s two prevailing media: cinema and television. The first, owing to Hollywood production, is basically a worldwide unifying factor: movie stars, mostly Anglo-American, are well-known to all and almost everybody has seen blockbusters like Titanic. Television, instead, developed on a national and linguistic basis: Italian TV stars, for example, are famous only in Italy. If cinema tends to globalize the world, television tends to fragment it. It is not by chance that the rich and educated elites snob television (except for CNN, ARTE or Al Jazeera) while boasting to follow film festivals like Cannes or Venice: this preference is a status symbol, a way to define one´s own horizon.

An analysis of the French vote on Europe in 1992 proves my point. Half the French voted for Europe, half against it. But the choice for or against Europe ran absolutely independently from traditional political leanings: being leftist or rightist did not imply any preference between the two options. The only real important variable was instead socio-cultural: going up the social ladder (towards higher incomes, degrees, professions, or residence in the bigger and more prosperous cities) favored the European Union, while going down the same ladder found more hostility. How can we explain such a polarization? The sense of belonging to Europe is specific to the richer and more educated classes – and most of us here are examples of this. Who is economically or culturally poor does not feel that they live in Europe, but rather in their own state or own region.

Thus, we might say that the privileged elite is more "farsighted", while the masses are more "shortsighted". One´s horizons depend on one´s place in the social hierarchy. Sometimes the revolt of the masses which frightened Ortega y Gasset – today´s short-sighted masses – takes on a clearly political form: Le Pen´s French National Front, Haider´s Freiheitliche party in Austria and Italy´s Northern League are the better known examples of this revolt of a new social fringe. What makes demagogues like Le Pen, Mégret, Haider, Bossi or Fortuyn so scandalous is not, as is often said, their fascist leanings – many of them are not fascists at all – but the fact that they give voice to the short-sighted social strata. Contempt toward these "populist" parties and leaders is really class contempt, a rejection of those who dare to carry their small provincial horizons into the grand sphere of politics.

7. This difference of horizons was evident even during the national unification of some European nations. Italian unification in the 19th century was effected by the educated bourgeoisie, while the majority of Italians – mostly illiterate farmers at the time – felt no connection at all to the Risorgimento. Moreover, the Italian lower classes did not even share a common language: they mostly spoke only their local dialect.

In short, European cultural unity is far from being a reality: it is an ideal, a political project, an ideological construction. It is a symbol proposed for identifying ourselves, but not at all an identity.

Some might be amazed to hear an Italian speaking in such a way: Italians are known for being the most pro-European of Europeans. But the case of Italy´s love for Europe is proof of what I´m saying. What does being pro-Europe really mean? Recent opinion polls showed that 3 out of 4 Italians are not at all interested in problems concerning the EU–the lowest interest level among Europeans. On the other hand, 2 out of 3 Danes – who present themselves as the least pro-EU of all Europeans – are greatly interested in questions concerning Europe. Thus, Renato Mannheimer, Italy´s "Gallup", concisely concluded that "Italians are pro-Europe but they don´t know why" and that "the pro-Europeanism of Italians is based mostly on emotional reasons and hardly at all on rational considerations." In general, we can say that the pro-Europeanism of many populations is in direct proportion to their ignorance of Europe.

It has been said that for Italians, pro-Europeanism is a compensatory reflex for Italy´s long history of local provincialism, of narcissistic closure in its own language, culture and campanili (bell-towers: a metonymy for one´s own town). In short, for Italians Europe is just a myth. Italians are very much pro-Europe but very little European: they are this way by identification, not by idiosyncrasy.

Of course myths are essential to history: revolutions are not only the effect of economic interests, but also of myths, philosophies, religious passions, and ethical tropisms. In recent decades many politicians and intellectuals have constructed and promoted the Myth of European Unity. Only the future will tell if this myth can be effective.

8. The dream of a federal Europe envisages a future Europe as a larger version of Switzerland: a prosperous country where different languages are spoken, with wide local autonomies, but with a strong common patriotic feeling – and one army. But it is precisely this single European army that would be the most difficult thing to achieve. In fact, as von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means: but you cannot have one army to make wars if you don´t have one politics.

While European economic interests tend to converge, political interests don´t: this is because politics (especially foreign affairs) is not simply a corollary of the economy, but rather mobilizes strong cultural assumptions which vary from country to country. In fact, each western country has its own foreign policy which has remained the same since the end of WW2, and which is part of both the identifications and idiosyncrasy of each country.

Great Britain, whether governed by Labor or Conservatives, long ago decided to follow the US wherever it went. France instead, under all governments, has proposed itself as the leader of an alternative model of world order, dominated not just by the US, but by all important western countries. Since 1945, Germany has followed a political pacifism to make the world forget two centuries of Prussian militarism. Italy has always had the same foreign policy: pro-Americanism balanced by strong pro-Europeanism and pacifism, and substantially pro-Arab without being out rightly anti-Israel. Berlusconi´s government tried to modify this by shifting towards an even stronger pro-Americanism and pro-Israeli stance, but with scarce results to date; Italian public opinion sided massively against present American policy, disavowing its own government.

9. Despite all this, as an Italian I am pro-Europe, but precisely because I don´t believe in European cultural unity. I don´t believe in the European myth but I like Europe. I don´t believe in a European identity, for example, I don´t feel any closer to, or find more interesting, certain European countries than I do North or South American or Asian ones. I like Europe´s intrinsic variety, the fact that it can be so many things, and also their contrary.

The richness and beauty of Europe consists precisely in its non-identity, in its multiplicity. Europe in fact resists a uniform model of globalization not because of what Europeans think or believe, but because of what Europe is: a patchwork of very diverse languages, cultures, histories and feelings.

This is why, for example, unlike many, I was pleased to see the EU so divided on US policy in the Middle East. It is true that this lack of political unity temporarily weakens Europe politically: but it makes Europe a livelier place of confrontation, discussion and experiment than other parts of the world. In the end, neither the bloody divisions between Ancient Greek cities nor the later divisions between the kingdoms of Christian Europe prevented either Ancient Greece or modern Europe from becoming the cutting-edge of world civilization. Analogously, the political weakness of Europe might have some strong implications, one day.


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