February 24, 2024 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:44:59+01:00June 13th, 2011|"Notebook"|
The boaters at Groton. Courtesy of Groton Facebook page.

t has been a busy few weeks. First came municipal elections in all-important Milan and several other major Italian cities. Recent reports in The Economist and the New Yorker had suggested that the Italian electorate was too dim to resist the tired rhetoric of old hands. Not so.

Milan posters that tried comparing Italian magistrates to the Red Brigades backfired on the troika of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, his Northern League allies, and incumbent Mayor Letizia Moratti. So did Moratti’s desperate claim that rival Giuliano Pisapia, now mayor, was a convicted criminal (he was in fact acquitted on charges of aiding and abetting terrorists in the 1980s).

Berlusconi fruitlessly wooed Northern League voters by promising he’d transfer several national ministries from Rome to Milan, which if it happened would be a symbolic victory for the north-first League. That didn’t work. Nor did the League’s shrill claims that Pisapia would turn Milan into a gypsy camp (it also said he intended to build Europe’s biggest mosque).

I followed the campaign bearing in mind Abraham Lincoln’s adage “You can fool all of the people some of the time…” Its coda turned out to be right. You can’t fool all the people all the time. Not even in Berluscolandia.

Berlusconi insisted the elections were a referendum on him. If so, Milan, Naples and Trieste, as well the League stronghold of Novara, told him they were fed up. Pisapia won 55.1 percent of the vote in Milan, compared to Moratti’s 44.95. But it wasn’t just the north. In Naples, former magistrate Luigi de Magistris, running on the Italia dei Valori platform, won 65.4 percent of the vote. In Trieste, Roberto Consoli, the center-left candidate, earned 57 percent.

Three things were remarkable about these elections.

1. In the 20th-century, major political change has started in Milan, and, for better or worse, spread elsewhere.

2. The left-right, bourgeois-proletariat dualities that have dominated Italian politics since World War II, seemed to blur. Many with vivid personal memories of violent 1970s left-wing extremism struggled to vote for Pisapia but ultimately came around. The results in Trieste were particularly interesting. The city has always honored right-left distinctions and disdained communism. It had Cold War Yugoslavia next door. But an estimated 2,500 center-right voters backed Consoli, who once had a Communist connection.

3. Youth participation was high. Italians with romanticized memories of 1960s activism have long bemoaned politically-anaesthetized youth in the age of Berlusconi. They can stop. The youth vote matched the overall numbers. In Milan, 54 percent of voters between 18 and 24 chose Pisapia, as did 65 percent between 25 and 34 (not really young, but then it’s Italy). Figures were similar elsewhere. Many piazzas were filled with orange-clad young people heralding 2008, Obama-style euphoria.

Why did all this happen? There’s anger at the stagnant state of the economy. Employment prospects are awful. Cutback-laden educational reforms proposed by Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini are widely scorned. There’s also the growing presence of the web-wise Erasmus generation, named after a EU program that allows students take a year abroad anywhere in Europe.

Whatever it is, I’m all for it, particularly the youth involvement.

My own excitement about potential change in Italy was only enhanced when I traveled to the United States to celebrate Prize Day, and graduation, at my son’s traditional New England boarding school. Students received prizes for, among other things, the best history essay, the best middle-school leadership, the best poem, even the best shop student.

The awards and the accompanying speeches represent a unique mix of pageantry, irreverent humor and gravity that uphold the best and most enduring legacy that Britain’s upper class left to parts of the United States. But the protocol and tradition don’t exclude emotion. There was a lot of that as well, including joy, pride and melancholy.

Just as in the Italian elections, youth reigned. Though headmaster, guest and student speakers spoke words we’ve all heard a thousand times, we were again made to believe in their spirit. Anything felt possible. It’s optimism at its best. After the last diploma, the graduates threw their boaters in the air.

We may like to think, or perhaps need to, that our actions create change; that we influence forces of nature and the progress of time. We do not.

Instead, natural forces, whether tides, earthquakes or cycles of human life and politics, obey their own laws. Superior policies, honed intellects and moral pressure are unlikely to bring “regime change” to Italy or to help guide America.

Instead, it seems that only the welling up of the natural force of youth brings change closer to reality. But in the case of Italy, there’s no way around the realization that to get there — for youth and new politicians alike — will first require dealing with lots of dirty laundry.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."