November 2003

Nice Place to Visit, But...

by Joseph Pivato

Accenti COMMENTARY : Nice Place to Visit, But... by Joseph Pivato
Like many Italians around the world I have a love-hate relationship with Italy. I was born in Italy and have always considered myself lucky to have grown up with Italian language and culture. I am proud to share in the reflected glory of the great Italian artists, musicians, writers, saints, scientists and inventors. On the other hand, I am not happy to be associated in any way with the negative images of Italians. This includes the stories of organized crime so popular in the American media (see L'Orfano, ACCENTI, March/April 2003) and the reports of political corruption in Italy so common in newspapers, including Italian publications.


My family came to Canada in 1952. We left behind an Italy struggling with post-war devastation and poverty. We were happy to go to "America" with its rich diversity and great opportunities. Like many other immigrants we sensed that our departure was also helping Italy since we were no longer a drain on limited jobs, social services and land resources. We slowly began to become Canadianized.


Only after we settled in Canada did we realize that we had also left behind other Italian problems: a bureaucracy which is Byzantine, a poorly funded education system, a complicated tax regimen, a system of job placement and career advancement based on connections and a general lack of civic responsibility. We are reminded of these different systems and social values every time we visit Italy. Many Italian immigrants get nostalgic about the old country, about their relatives, their little home towns, the beauties of the landscape, but not about these arcane systems.


Since we grew up in Canada one of the differences that we notice in Italy is the attitudes towards paying taxes. Life in Italy is complicated by taxes on many goods and transactions. Italians have developed ways of avoiding taxes. The use of barter is one example. Evading taxes is illegal, but very common so that almost everyone is complicit in this parallel economy. Some people rationalize this by pointing out that the political system is corrupt and they do not want to support it with their tax money. Italians often shrug this off with hopeless resignation. The contrast to our North American experience makes us appreciate Canadian forthrightness.


What can we say about the peculiar political values and practices in Italy? For two decades we have been reading about tangentopoli, about prime ministers and other high ranking leaders who used their office to commit crimes. We read about prosecutors and judges being assassinated. We hear about self-serving political parties like La Lega Nord which want the north to separate from the rest of Italy and which preach racist policies towards minorities and immigrants to Italy. As immigrants to North America who suffered some forms of discrimination, we find it hard to reconcile our own values towards an open society and the new legislation of "Fortress Europe" being drafted in Rome (see Truglia, ACCENTI, July/August 2003).


Along with significant political reform, one of the systems that needs drastic reform in Italy is the educational system. The university system is a national one controlled by bureaucrats in Rome. It is grossly underfunded and poorly managed. In North America university job placement uses open competition, and career advancement is based on achievement and merit. In Italy both are based primarily on recommendation from senior academics or other people in positions of power. This often means that the better trained, most productive or creative people are not the ones who are recognized with positions or rewarded with promotions. It means that those with connections or family ties are advanced over others who might have more merit.


The Cambridge educated academic, Domenico Pacitti, is the world's leading expert on Italian corruption and writes for a number of English and Italian papers. He edits the human rights journal, JUST Response which regularly exposes cases of grave injustice in the Italian educational system (see One issue relates the case of Italian Canadian graduate student, David Aliaga, who in 1991 was literally cheated out of his Ph.D. from the University of Calabria by what is termed "bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption in Italian academia." Aliaga's twelve years of appeals have fallen on indifferent ears in the Italian university ministry in Rome.


The result of this unfair system is that for decades young scientists and researchers have been leaving Italy to work in other countries where they know that support and funding for their work is based on objective evaluation and merit rather than cronyism. Writing in The Scientist (August 2003), Philip Hunter reports that the brain drain has worsened steadily in the 1990s and includes the top scientists with leading edge expertise. We must ask how there can be true critical research and objective investigation in a closed system of favouritism. Can Italy afford to lose this research and development?


The system of connections extends to everyday life. Does someone in an extended family need a job? Somebody in the family will have to know the right people to get it. When there is no real open competition for a position, how do we know if the best qualified person gets the job? How do you evaluate earned qualifications, training, skills or hard work in a system based on nepotism, cronyism or favouritism? And when there is little mobility, what incentive is there to do the best work?


These systemic problems are producing a gradual but noticeable decline in the quality of life in Italy: air, water and soil pollution, traffic congestion, noise, crowding and waste management. Governments seem incapable of dealing with these problems effectively. Is this due to political corruption, lack of know-how or civic indifference?


I have images of narrow city streets decorated with dog droppings which pedestrians must navigate. I have seen country roads distributed with prostitutes, whom people pretend not to see. And garbage illegally dumped in fields which some pretend not to smell. Beaches are spoiled with industrial pollution. Is the dominant Italian philosophy ma chi se ne frega (who cares)?


The general decline of Italian culture is epitomized in their TV programming. Italian TV is ugly and, worse, it is unoriginal in every way. RAI and the other stations produce parodies of the worst American TV shows: pseudo Las Vegas dance numbers, bimbos acting mindless on stage, imitation game shows redundant with meaningless activities, dubbed old American shows, and Brazilian soap operas. Italian popular music is sounding more and more like a poor imitation of the worst American popular music which is a poor imitation of itself. What is Italian rap music?


Where are the original Italian films on TV? Where is the authentic sound of Italian music? Is there any New Music in Italy? In Canada we have seen original Italian films in the past two decades which are openly critical of contemporary Italian society. There is Mediterraneo which suggests that escape from Italy is preferable to the hopeless status quo. Gianni Amelio's Il Ladro di Bambini and his later film, L'America, focus on systemic corruption and indifference. Even the nostalgic Cinema Paradiso and the idyllic Il Postino identify a dark underside in Italian society.


While these films engage us in a critique of Italian society, the same is not true of Italian mass media. The late Indro Montanelli was one of the few journalists dedicated to truth and justice, and was a constant scourge to politicians and academics. We sense a political fatigue among Italian intellectuals. And we must ask: is everyone in a position of importance complicit in the system of connections?


We must remember that the present Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a mass media baron whose companies control TV networks, newspapers and publishing companies among other businesses. Do we attribute the decline in Italy's TV programming to him? Many Italians democratically elected his right-wing party to power so they share the responsibility for what is happening in Italy.


My grandfather, who worked as a stonemason in Ontario, returned to Italy to fight in World War I, along with hundreds of other patriots. My father fought in World War II. They risked their lives for a better, more open Italian society. But we do not find a just society in the Italian peninsula today. Like other former Italians, there are many things that I like about the old country. I will continue to value my Italian culture and language. I will occasionally take a trip to Italy, and every time I will be reminded that I am lucky my parents decided to come to Canada.



Raised in Toronto, Joseph Pivato teaches literature at Athabasca University in Edmonton. He has published several books on Italian Canadian writers and is the editor of The Anthology of Italian Canadian Writing (1998).



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