February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Honoring words

By |2018-05-30T15:41:46+02:00May 28th, 2018|Area 51|
Sergio Mattarella's very legal "no."

asual borrowing of meaingful political and ideological concepts can push sane debate toward ill-advised fringes and beyond.

Take fascism. During 1960s upheaval, Western student radicals found it fashionable to call all police fascists, particularly after violent clashes and arrests.

For my progressive father, who’d helped develop American anti-Fascist propaganda efforts in World War II, saw this careless labeling was offensive. Urban police might at times abuse power but they were not fascist. Fascist police and militias were the systematic enforcers of a widely repressive system whose often-nonchalant brutality was openly or tacitly sanctioned by national authorities. Harshness was rationalized as necessary to discipline the common good.

Still, “fascist pig” endured as an epithet directed at unformed authorities charged with keeping racial or political peace, often failing.

Use of the word fascist recently lapped over into hotheaded American partisan dialogue, with some thinkers concerned Donald Trump might possess intrinsic fascist, in this case dictatorial, predilections. In fact, he is thin-skinned, abrasive and bombastic, but so far he’s hewed (albeit reluctantly at times) to the rule of law. He has yet to openly use national institutions as a personal shield or altered authority’s basic power structures. He has a deep suspicion of the FBI, which a true fascist would wilfully take to extremes by reordering the agency so that the juridical system answered to a supreme leader only. That is an unlikely scenario.

Defying what impeachment implies, political figures called for Sergio Matterella’s ouster because he’d resisted an entitlement to govern suddenly considered a birthright by two newly potent (and allied) political forces.

Italy, which endured real fascism, has its own linguistic matches to play with. Increasingly, often ignorantly, the American word impeachment has entered the Italian vocabulary.

There is history here. Some Italians never understood the Watergate scandal or what Americans found so abhorrent about a president manipulating legal institutions to ensure his power. That’s what all politicians do, many said at the time.

Richard Nixon’s 1974 fall from grace was about legality and civics, two concepts Italy can struggle with at times. Nixon violated the constitution by using federal agencies to do his dirty work and then got his lieutenants to lie about it under oath. His ousting was a bipartisan effort.

Cut to Italy in 2018, where President Sergio Mattarella, though eager to end a foul-mouthed political stalemate, nonetheless decided not to sign off on a list of ministers submitted by Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte, the unelected lawyer chosen by the Five Star Movement and the Northern League to lead a new government. Mattarella explained he could not in good conscience accept the choice of veteran economist Paolo Savona as finance minister because to do so would send a perilous message to European Union capitals already uneasy about Italy and the future of its massive debt. Savona, 81, is a longtime opponent of the euro, which he perceives as a currency that favors the strong only. He has on occasion assailed Germany’s controlling role within the EU as a reprise of World War II bullying, only in economic form. His views have made for insults on both sides.

Though entering a minefield, Matterella refused to rubber stamp a key minister whose views defied the spirit of the so-called European project, which Italy helped found.

He was terse, clear and emotionless, taking pains to tell Italians not in the constitutional know — too many, alas – that his presidential role was as a guarantor of national integrity, a key piece of which includes EU participation.

Like it or not, his was a lawful and civically motivated judgment call.

Naturally, the Five Star Movement, the League, and the leader of a smaller rightist party, saw things differently, each taking to social media to circulate the word impeachment so it became a web staple within hours, albeit mispronounced aloud. (The word had come up once before, as a passing fad in connection with then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.)

Defying what impeachment implies — namely criminal misconduct — leading political figures called for Matterella’s ouster because he’d resisted an entitlement to govern suddenly considered a birthright by two newly potent (and allied) political forces.

But if Mattarella erred at all, he did so at the “behest” of a constitution that calls on a president to put caution ahead of partisan ambition. Label his choice biased, brazen or unacceptable, or even unheeding of voter preferences (together M5S and the League picked up just over 50 percent of the March vote). Do not however call it criminal, and think what words mean before using the likes of impeachment. In a true Fascist regime, which has thankfully not existed in the West since the 1940s, calling for the ouster of head of the president would have sent police your way. Words matter.



About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.