When I was a high school student in Connecitcut, in 1996, the teacher wrote on the blackboard the word “fascism” and, underlining it, he turned to the class and asked:
“Do you know what fascism is?”
At the time I was pretty shy, because of my young age and especially since I was one of the only two foreign exchange students in that big school. Despite that, in that moment I raised my hand with no hesitation and answered in one breath: “a political movement founded in Italy by Benito Mussolini, which led the Country from October 28th of 1922 until the end of the Second World War in 1945.” Then I turned my head around and I saw the rest of my class with open mouths. They had never even heard my voice before that intervention. One of them, with a baseball hat and an earring, which I will never forget, interrupted the silence saying “so you’re smart!” At that point the teacher, Mr Morales was his name, reacted with: “Of course, being Italian he probably knows the life of Benito Mussolini the same as we know the one of Thomas Jefferson”.
Apart from the fact that it’s not exactly the same, because growing up in a city such as Rome, which has more than 2500 years of history luckily still visible, Mussolini represented only 20 years of it. Maybe in proportion the comparison could be for them to know the life of their previous president, George Bush senior (Bill Clinton had just been elected that year).
But when the teacher started explaining his lesson, I understood the distortion in the USA – like all around the globe – in regards to the meaning of the term “fascism”. It seems like they were mixing up the two terms “fascist regime” and “fascist attitude”, in history the first one and in the way of life – thinking and acting – the second one.
I realized that the second one is now prevailing in the common sense and it is completely obscuring the first one. Why?
As a matter of fact, Mussolini’s government was the first one or at least the most eccentric one to have such characteristic of “authoritarian attitude” after the fall of the absolute monarchy in Europe. In reality, he gave a name to some illiberal nationalism, which was not existing the same way before. From then on, “fascism” became a so over commonly used word to describe all the future examples of that kind of government-attitude around the world. As well as from this point on, some personal attitudes in private. An inevitable social-cultural process.
But who really knows what Mussolini “Ventennio” (20 years) was, may admit that his nationalism and his authoritarianism was only one aspect of his government. Standing to the fact that the huge mistake of the racial laws, following the failure alliance with the Third Reich (another frequent historical error is to put fascism at the same level with nazism), condemn definitely Mussolini’s regime on the face of the history. But we cannot always make “the whole grass a bundle” (“di tutta un’erba un fascio”, which last word, “bundle”, on a casual double meaning, gives the origin of the term “fascismo”), especially if we are not talking about politics but we are referring to architecture and art. Because these ones are matters the American professor of Italian studies touched on last week’s article in the “The New Yorker” titled “Why Are So Many Fascist Monuments Still Standing in Italy?”, generating – of course – a strong reaction from the Italians all over.
If we move on to the topic of architecture, infrastructures, urbanism, sport and other arts (such as cinema), the judgment of the fascist regime (not the common-known “fascist attitude”, for who has understood the difference) was far from a condemnation. It can only obtain, instead, a positive review. When this kind-of-professor states “Italy should remove the fascist monuments and buildings” she has to know that they are an absolutely positive part of the urban architecture in the Italian beautiful cities; that there are towns which were entirely founded and raised during the fascist era, so that in that case they should be totally erased. If she says that these buildings negatively influence our new generations, my answer is that our new generations should learn from history, with no oblivion, and if she wishes a brain-stormed generation that grows up between Apple Stores or Starbucks without knowing about Cicero and Marco Aurelio or the way our mothers and past generations cook the Carbonara (yes, sorry, it’s not veggie), well, luckily she will only succeed with some Americans but surely not with the Italians.
And, an even funnier point is that she pretends Italy should remove fascist symbols from their cities, she should remember (or she should know, preferably) that the capital of her Country, Washington DC, is completely full of fasces (in Italian “fasci littori”, the symbol of fascism, which are everywhere: on the wall of the American Congress behind the Presidency, on the arms of Lincoln statue’s chair, on the quarter dollar, etc.). Should we ask the American government to remove these fascist symbols from those institutional sites? Or, should we finally understand that this symbol represent something much more far away in history – the ancient Roman export of civilization to the barbarians of the time, through the Rule of Law – and that this was only copied by Mussolini the same way as by the American architects of the time who built up their future capital DC? Shouldn’t a professor of Italian studies, at least, be aware of that?
Yes, she should. I also need to remind her that if she claims against a remarkable and indisputable Mussolini’s sentence such as “a people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, navigators, and transmigrants”, asking to remove it because it was said when Italy invaded Ethiopia, during an historical period when all World Powers had colonies, so should we not ask to rename the New York City Airport only because John Fitzgerald Kennedy increased the American imperialist action in Vietnam, ordering the assassination of the Vietnam President Diem? Of course not.
Who is Ms Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of this claimed article, to judge and criticize Italy and Italians only because they don’t want to destroy those monuments, those buildings, those cities, and those symbols? Is she sure she studied so deeply the Italian history and society to teach about them?
Waiting for some answers, which may never come, I really hope, as many Italians do since last week, that she would never teach, to the innocent students of the New York University, about a Country and a population she doesn’t know.