Monday, August 19, 2019

What's Happening in Italy? The Fatal Flaw of Democracy

Richard Gere on the stranded NGO ship "Open Arms" off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. A humanitarian intervention that surprised most Italians who reacted by insulting ad vilifying Mr. Gere in all possible ways. This story may be highlighting a fatal flaw of democracy: once leaders discover that the nastier they are, the more they are liked, they tend to overdo it and the result is a spiral that nobody knows how to stop.

A few days ago, American actor Richard Gere appeared in Italy to visit the stranded Spanish NGO ship "Open Arms," the migrant rescue ship that had been forced to remain at sea for days with more than 100 migrants on board. He looked very much like the alien of the 1951 movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," suddenly disembarking from his flying saucer just landed in Central Park. 

For most Italians, the appearance of Richard Gere was a totally incomprehensible event. Where does he come from? What does he want? Who is he to criticize us? Just like in the movie, the reaction of the Earthlings (Italings) was not friendly. Mr. Gere was insulted and vilified in all possible ways in the mainstream media and in the social networks and even by the Italian interior minister in person, Mr. Matteo Salvini. On his part, Mr. Gere seemed to be bewildered at the reaction of many Italians, declaring that he couldn't believe his Italian friends could harbor ''such hatred" against migrants.
For everything that happens, there is a reason and there are reasons also for this situation that would look silly if it weren't tragic (*). Political leaders have discovered that the nastier they are in their declarations, the more popular they are and the more votes they gather. As a consequence, they engage in the game that once was called "rousing the rabble." This strategy was pioneered in Italy by Silvio Berlusconi who consistently targeted the least cultured fraction of voters to gain political power. It is a strategy that works, but it feeds on itself. The more a politician finds he can rise in the polls by sounding nasty and racist, the more the public expects politicians to be nasty and racist. 

The emphasis on finding an enemy to insult and demonize leads the whole debate to become purely internal. Maybe the current situation in Italy can be defined in terms of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder affecting the whole country. Italy is completely isolated from the rest of the world: the English-Italian boundary seems to be an impassable barrier. If you can't read Italian, you have no idea of what's being said and thought in Italy and, conversely, Italians can't read English and have no idea and no interest in what is being said and thought about them in the rest of the world. It may be just a sensation of mine, but I notice that nobody in Italy seems to read what I write in English on the Cassandra blog. Truly, I feel like Klaatu, the alien of the movie, myself. 

It is a race to the bottom: the process feeds on itself and nobody knows how to stop it. It is the fatal flaw of democracy that politicians such as Donald Trump in the US and Matteo Salvini in Italy have learned to exploit to their advantage. And when something is fatally flawed, it can't usually last long.

(*) What I said in this post doesn't mean that there is no such thing as an "immigration problem" in Italy. By all means, there is a problem and a serious one. The population curves of Europe and Africa are out of sync, with Europe on the declining side while Africa is still climbing up. That creates a true imbalance also enhanced by the ongoing climate change. It needs to be managed in some way until Africa goes through its demographic transition, too (might happen way faster than many population "projections" indicate). Reasonably, it is a matter that can only be dealt with by means of international agreements. But, right now, nobody in Italy seems to be interested to talk with anyone outside Italy: the debate is all about whether these people should be let to drown or their ship sunk by the navy. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)