September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Still U.S.A. today

By |2018-03-21T18:18:24+01:00January 1st, 2005|Essays|
The 1970 image of actor George C. Scott as Gen. Patton has entered patriotic legend.

he United States, says the cab driver, is a gas-guzzler. It burns history for sport, can’t get enough, and stops for no one. “You remember those big luxury cars in the Hollywood movies, with the fish fins?” asks the driver, craning his head sharply left-to-right to eye his passenger. “America is still like that, so big that everyone around says, ‘Look! Look at that!’ They’re either filled with admiration or jealousy.”

At 68, Giovanni Sterzetti nods and says that sometimes it’s a bit much, the televised waves of aircraft carriers and GIs; he’d prefer that America adopt a Smart Car persona, clever rather than brutish.

But he also admits “someone has to be strong.” It’s that kind of world, in 2004, Sterzetti says, “where if you’re Italian, or even of Europe, you know your place, and it is a small place.”

Views of the United States among Italians as the 2004 election year ended and the first year of the second Bush Administration began were either applauding or disdainful, but shared a common fascination for what motivates the people and the government of the most powerful nation on the face of the planet.

Sterzetti, who began driving a taxi in Rome four decades ago, is like most Italians in holding pronounced opinions about U.S. policy. For him, the war in Iraq is just and necessary. At the same time, he’s convinced that America’s willingness to allow the vertiginous decline of the dollar against the euro is “embarassing” policy that will compromise the already battered tourist industry and open the door to resentment. “With us Italians,” he says, “isn’t it true that America never leaves you neutral?”

It is. The lack of neutrality probably has less to do with the convulsive events of Sept. 11, 2001 or the acerbic presidential campaign of 2004 than the way in which aspects of American culture, whether Britney Spears, nation building or 24/7 television news, are continuously embroidered into Italian culture, though not always seamlessly.

Author Mauro delle Porta Raffa, who writes for Il Foglio and styles himself as a pop Americanologist, first fell in love with America in the post-war age of Westerns and Doris Day cinematic soap operas. But he later stumbled on a darker, more tormented side, contained in the bittersweet novels of Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Jack Kerouac. Struck by their moodiness, he fell in love again, this time “with a country unspeakably rich in truth and contradictions.” So rich, he adds, “that it furnished anti-Americans with material to pad their loathing.” This produces an irony that still intrigues Porta Raffa today, in the full swing of the Bush-bashing era. “Who is more intensely critical toward America, wishing it to be different and better,” he asks, “than its best writers and, in general, members of its radical left?”

No one is harder on America than Americans themselves, notes Porta Raffa, suggesting that outside critiques are but stow-aways into the foundry of unprecedented political and social deliberation America sustains on its own, effectively nourishing both patriotic confidence and profane dissent. It is almost utopian, he thinks, to expect more of a superpower that is so obviously accepting of, even devoted to, transparent debate. The openness reflects an intrinsic optimism from which Europe, battered by invasions, religious strife, and territorial inferiorities, has been forced to retreat.

Self-critical optimism doesn’t trivialize anti-Americanism or mitigate the real sting of anti-Bush sentiment abroad, but it does ironically make America-hating into a quintessentially American enterprise, democratic to the core, and drained of the libertarian mystique still associated with aging intellectuals in Paris and Berlin. This in turn recalls a remark by Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat who twice lost the presidency badly to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. “A free society,” said Stevenson, justifiably worried about the anti-Communist McCarthy witch-hunts, “is one where it is safe to be unpopular.”

Porta Raffa’s take on pluralism and tolerance also helps explain why Italy, half-a-century after the end of World War II and 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reacts to the United States with a combustible mix of admiration, rage, and self-conscious envy. And while there are sincere international fears that American individualism is under assault, sundered to patriotic conformity, the concerns are often either ill-guided or under-informed. Ironically, many Italian observers of contemporary America have never visited the United States. Instead, they harvest details from television, which is tendentially brash, audaciously superficial, and sometimes imprecise. Conversational remarks about America often and not surprisingly reflect the same brashness and superficiality, as well as rhetorical bluster.

MINDFUL OF overstatement Andrea Costantini, a 24-year-old telemarketer from Centocelle, tries striking a palliative balance. “People everywhere feel that America commands and everyone else follows,” he says, before righting himself. “Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against America or Americans. I was just in New York, and it’s a marvelous city. But the great majority of people think as I do, that you cannot solve everything with machine guns.” Costantini is impressed and influenced by the films of Michael Moore, including the gun-control related Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11, which harshly mocked President George W. Bush. Moore’s effect on Italians — he emboldens doubters — reinforces Porta Raffa’s contention that American self-criticism is gladly borrowed by foreign skeptics to make their case. For Costantini, “Iraq is just a toy of the Bush family” The image of the United States, he adds, is worsening. “It’s the country where any young person can go and buy a gun, as Moore showed. [It’s] the country where teenagers open fire at their school.”

Emanuela Evangelista, a 36-year-old Rome biologist, shares these general convictions, but expands their context. She says Bush foreign policy is “too aggressive for my taste,” suggesting Americans are prone to extreme responses while Europeans are mediators. History, she explains, leaves Americans in the dark over how to behave under pressure. “Eighty percent of the population of the planet has a history in which they have had to cope with terrorism, war, fear, and also with mediation with others. The United States hasn’t. It’s a place where the people think they are invincible, and when the slightest thing goes wrong they think they have suffered a crisis, just like adolescents.”

Americans, she concludes, exaggerate the broader terrorist menace because they are up against such a threat for the first time. To cope, they simply lash out, uninterested in the motive of their foes or the consequences of their actions.

Evangelista’s criticisms, common on the left, are balanced by more tolerant convictions. A Dominican nun, Sister Fernanda Nodera, claims Bush would not have won the presidency had it only been a referendum on the Iraq war. “His ethics gave him his victory,” she says. “Many people here don’t realize that America is so religious. This is its strength. There is a tendency here [in Europe] to keep faith an exclusively private matter.”

Nodera also stresses the role of youth, real and symbolic. While some see the United States as a young and politically immature nation, others hail youth as a vigorous, progressive asset. “I have real admiration for America,” says Nodera. “It is a young nation that lives with its youth. With young people, you can bat an eyelash at certain things they do. They tend to do things outside the norm, so we can forgive them. It’s a strong nation that knows its own political weight. There is a strong wave of hostility against the United States in Europe, but these are individual gripes. I don’t think it’s against the whole country.”

White-collar professionals, including businessmen and lawyers, widely decry anti-Americanism, seeing it as a challenge to authority. They identify with rule of law, and the patriarchal obligation it confers on a president, vaccinating him against self-interest and placing hard-line policy in the context of defending a national “family” against the sinister enemies who struck on Sept. 11. “Traditional values attract people,” says Antonio Romano Bosio, a 65-year-old Rome lawyer. “Bush satisfied this.” And Bosio, like Porta Raffa, can’t resist a mention of pop culture and movies. “In the great cinematic tradition,” he says, “John Wayne succeeds in talking to the Indians, while the colonel who studied at West Point cannot. Bush is like John Wayne.”

FOR ITALIAN immigrants, particularly those who arrived here from the Middle East and North Africa, discussion of America’s role elicits jittery responses. Karim Mezran, the Libyan-born head of the American Center in Rome, expertly mixes caution with rhetoric. “The United States is still considered a land of opportunity, democracy and individualism; that perception has not changed,” he says carefully. “The public perception, though, is also that the U.S. government has been hijacked by a gang of ruthless politicians and businessmen. Italian people know that well.”

Similarly, the outlook of Rashid Alkaisi, a Florentine liver specialist from Baghdad, is touched by current events. Alkaisi came to Italy from Iraq in 1974 and stayed on, marrying an Italian. While relaxed and friendly, he claws bitterly at U.S. policy in his native land. Alkaisi sums up what he calls “the American mentality” with a video image in the 9/11 vein: “A sniper shoots someone from a building. Don’t kill the sniper. Knock down the building.”

He continues: “Bush boards an aircraft carrier and says, ‘The war is over.’ He errs. We can excuse him. Colin Powell reveals to the UN a liquid enclosed in glass and claims it is proof that Iraq is constructing weapons of mass destruction. The Bush Administration claims Osama bin Laden is a friend of Saddam, and that Iraq had something to do with the [attack on the] Twin Towers. A series of lies. A man who represents an entire nation, the United States, can’t lie. It’s shameful. Bush speaks for all, so it’s shameful [and] … this resonates across the globe.”

If Italians remain divided over U.S. policy in Iraq, as Alkaisi’s tirade would suggest, they are also ambivilent over the merits of nation building. Alkaisi insists “you can’t export democracy, democracy must be created from within,” while Alessandro Santucci, a 39-year-old Tuscan trucking executive, counters that “if it wasn’t for the United States the world would be a hotbed of war.” The world, he adds, is a safer place because of Bush’s re-election, “and this is good for Italy because we are, along with England, America’s strongest allies.”

Generation also plays a role. Rome clothing store owner Paris Valentini, 79, is an unshakable supporter of the United States. “I was impassioned about everything American,” he says, claiming his shop was the first in Italy to stock Levi-Strauss jeans, in 1957. It is the United States, he adds, that shoulders the fickle West’s burdens. It must deal with problems “that Europe is not capable of solving. Europe cannot not be counted on — only the UK. If Europe is free today it is thanks to the Americans. … We should show a little gratitude.”

Valentini, who recalls American military trucks hauling food and flour to impoverished post-war Italians, reflects the “liberation” sentiment that resonates among older Italians. They cherish the United States for its World War II sacrifices on behalf of Europe, and specifically for freeing Italy from Fascist and Nazi rule. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has astutely tapped into such sentiment to position himself and his center-right allies close to the Bush White House. It has also given Berlusconi means to differentiate himself from the addled Italian left, which for years chose communism as an antidote to American primacy. “Anti-Americanism,” says Valentini, “derives from an ideology on the left that turned its gaze toward the Soviet Union and never stopped.” Rarely has Italy, which in the mid-1980s quarreled repeatedly with the Reagan Administration over Middle East policies and Palestinian rights, identified so persuasively with Washington. Berlusconi’s encouragement of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war surpasses even than that of Tony Blair, his British counterpart, in its resoluteness.

MEASURE AS deference to myth, the position make sense. Italians who reject what they sense as an excess of American nationalism and militarism nonetheless embrace the American presidency as an office that possesses a transcendental connection to democracy. These Italians tend still to associate the Oval Office as much with John F. Kennedy as with Bush, though many were born well after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.

Some, like Letizia Alvisi, who teaches Italian literature at the International School of Florence, are mesmerized by the details of American power. Alvisi, though no expert, says the divide between Europe and the United States is widening, and that the departure of Secretary of State Colin Powell in favor of Condoleeza Rice will only worsen a tenuous situation. “Powell was the only one … who knew foreign policy. At least he created a balance, a contrast. [Rice] is like Bush’s daughter. She adores him.” Adoration, Alvisi asserts, is hardly the preferred trait for a foreign policy chief.

Alvisi’s insight into Rice’s character is particularly intriguing in how it reflects the Italian inclination to offer conversational ruminations about the foibles of American political leaders, as if such leaders belonged not just to the United States but to a kind of celebrity congress. Media saturation certainly lubricates such reality show familiarity, but for Porta Raffa it’s part of an old story: Italians still suckle insecurely on Americana, whether Elvis or Eminem, the Big Apple or Hollywood, Redford or Roberts, FDR or JFK. The Bush presidency, finally, is second to the existence of the White House.

“Why do we stay ‘American’ in spirit — myself and thousands of others — even though John Wayne, Alan Ladd and Doris Day betrayed us in one way or another by weaving myths and telling us about a country that didn’t exist? It’s because we love the culture, the democracy at the heart of things, the institutions. And by the thousands, anti-Americans fuel their hatred on the same contradictions.”

But it’s a life-affirming contradiction, concludes Porta Raffa. And it endures.

Sharla Ault, Suzanne Bush, Kristine Crane, Giovanna Dunmall, Marta Falconi, John Pitonzo, Jessica Ricci, and Paul Virgo contributed to this report.

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.