Dec 6, 2012

American and Italian Hypocrisy

I started my lecture “The Mediatic Construction of a Leader” with the following quote: “Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend (attributed to Albert Camus, but I never found it in one of his articles or books). Therefore, I have declared two things: how much I care about friendship; the difficulty of an Italian (me) in facing the theme of leadership. The motivations are somewhat obvious for those who have a minimum knowledge of Italian past ad recent history: Fascism and Berlusconism — along with the narcissism of the center-left competitors. Moreover, I pointed out the absence of an Italian Myth. What’s the “Italian Dream”? Wine, olive oil, fashion, art, soccer, etc. are not enough. They do not define what we stand for as a people. The past is past, and a foundation myth always connects the past, the present and the future of a community. The Italian anarchist attitude — everyone is a leader of him/herself — and the struggle to imagine any form of trust and commitment outside the confines of the family — amoral familism — constitute the two other main cultural explanations of our trouble in being leaders (and followers). Thus, I’ve shared my “grand dichotomy”: the Skeptic (nihilist, cynic?) Italian versus the American Believer. Charismatic leaders do not grow as mushroom. Kharisma is a “divine gift”, and — following Max Weber — the charismatic authority disrupts tradition and rests only on the person of the leader. Charisma is “… A certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super-human, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (Weber M., 1922/ 1947 Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 358). Such a charismatic leader has a new prophecy, vision and mission. Any leader like that out there? I’d say… NO! Your president Barack Obama — to be clear — is following the American Dream in any words he pronounces… Thus, in terms of ideas, he is a traditional or a rational leader (still following Weber’s ideal types). I have then constructed a playful narrative about leadership. Taking a short cut, I was clearly being ironic toward the American credo in leadership. I’ve showed the two presidential candidates wearing a sports jacket right after the hurricane Sandy… The unavoidable presence of their wives and the “happy family” picture — although brilliant and truly charismatic, someone single will never be the President of the US.

Not happy of expressing the feeling of triviality that an average European might feel in seeing such a show, I pushed it further on, touching the General Petraeus sex scandal. And I’ve then juxtaposed the wife and the mistress pictures…Saying: “Everyone in the world is wondering why he did that… An incredible puzzle”.
At the peak of my typical Italian sarcasm and political incorrectness, I’ve shared my last thought, that goes in the opposite direction. General Petraeus resigned, our former president Silvio Berlusconi never did; and he never had a true pressure by Italian people for doing so. Many Italians where amused by the sexual adventures of the prime minister. The Italian ethical relativism stems also from a survey about Berlusconi’s behavior toward women, family and homosexual: 16% admire him, 25% are indulgent; 5% real fans (total: 46%). Only 37% of women (18-29 years old) consider Berlusconi’s behavior offensive (the percentage drops to 28% for Italian women between 30 and 44). The average Italian annoyed reaction toward what is considered the typical American puritan hypocrisy, turned into something else: hypocrisy indicates that there is a value. You cannot cross that thin red line. If you do, the public opinion will condemn you, and you are out. I wish we had such public and collective hypocrisy; it would have saved us from a 20 years long squalid show — that keeps going on, just watch some Italian TV. A letter from Italian journalist and historian Indro Montanelli to the Pulitzer prize winner Edmund Stevens explains the difference between American and Italian hypocrisy. Read it all. Below the translation by Alexander Pinoci, and here is the Italian original version.
Montanelli: An American Lesson
A letter written in the early 50’s by Idro Montanelli to Pulitzer Prize winner Edmund Stevens: A comparison of the weaknesses of two peoples

Dear Edmund,
I have some objections to your feedback on American hypocrisy. First of all, I have not noticed that hypocrisy is more widespread in America than elsewhere: as found in Italy, for example. I did notice however that it is of a different nature. With us hypocrisy is not a social fact. It belongs to the category of private iniziatives, and as such is exercised for private agendas. Italians, for example, can’t ever get together with each other to sponsor a useful lie for the interests of the State or of a social class, as it happens in America, where every now and then big a gross collective lie is launched, in which those sponsors engage the pretense for the rest to believe in. With us not even the fascist dictatorship managed to impose conformity. The people applauded Mussolini but gave him the minimum necessary in order to continue to live in peace. Italo Balbo, Governor of Libya, who I once visited in Tripoli, said to me, pointing to his black shirt uniform: “You see what I have to do to support the family?”. This is more or less the answer that the old Rossini gave to the young Wagner, when he asked him why and how come he stopped composing. “What do you want? Before, when I had to support many children, I was forced to believe in the importance of music. But now my children are grown up and provide for themselves … “.
Hypocrisy in Italy is dictated by a sense of the “opportune”. It is petty, practical and utilitarian. When an Italian wants to change political affiliation, it is not a question of conscience, but a simple calculation of convenience. Fifty years ago, in Capri, a wealthy English family requested me to set out the path in order to convert the inhabitants into Protestant Christianity. They somewhat succeeded in this task simply because all neophytes had the right to eat for free. But at some point they discovered that every Sunday the neophytes went for confession to a Catholic priest, who had given them the permission. Meanwhile, the missionaries had fallen completely into economic distress because the neophytes had little faith, but huge appetites. And in the end it was these “hypocrites” who came to feed the English without expecting in return their conversion to Catholicism.
No, a real and proper hypocrisy in Italy there is not; and there is not for the simple and not very noble reason, because Italians do not have ‘ideals’. They accept themselves. Do not strive to be different and better than what they are. In America the hypocrisy is born from the desire to be better. The American woman who, before making love with a man who is not her husband, drinks herself to stupor stimulating her desires with alcohol, as a means to be able to exculpate her actions the next day . Her excuse is veiled under an ‘influence’ which justifies her actions and it is certainly hypocritical., Nevertheless, she remains ‘virginal’ within the delusory illusion of a self serving ideal of false honesty and cleanliness to preserve against her own weaknesses. I remember my indignant surprise when, in the aftermath of my first erotic American experience, I found myself treated with extreme coldness by my companion who refused to talk about it. I was furious. As a good Italian, I found it offensive and disgraceful that a woman had forgotten or felt disgust for a night of love with me. And I could not forgive her.
This attitude, not even today I comprehend nor like, but think I understand the reasons. My mind accepts them, even though my temperament rejects them.
You are hypocrites also in politics, when you, for example, talk against colonialism, you, who are the sons and heirs of the most ruthless colonization in the history of man. Let me tell you the language that you use at the UN is a little out of place and more fitting to be heard from the mouth of redskins, but is not fitting to be used by those who exterminated the Indians. You oppose the French in North Africa in favor of the natives against whom they have done a lot less than what you did to your native population. Now, it is true that you treat the Indians fairly and humanely today, much more so than the French do the Arabs. But you also have it easier, having reduced the Indians to a small minority that cannot compete against you, even though fully equal to whites in law and rights. You are preventing the Europeans from doing in Africa and in Asia, what your European fathers, did in America. Politically, perhaps you are right. This I can affirm, as a countryman and pupil of Machiavelli who taught me the distinction between politics and morality, but not you. For you Americans, politics and morality must coincide. But sometimes even you admit that that they coincide badly. So much so, that I’m reminded of what Disraeli said of Gladstone: “I do not blame them for cheating because every politician does so. I reproach them for saying that it was God’s ‘will’ who slipped them the winning Ace”.
Nevertheless, I admire your hypocrisy and I understand that it is a social force of incalculable value. Roosevelt was a big hypocrite when he “forced” the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor while swearing to American mothers that their children will never ,,, etc. However with that act of hypocrisy he put you on the side of good vs. evil and gave the U.S. soldier a weapon far mightier than the atomic bomb: Righteousness. In short, he, a Puritan, a good Machiavellian Catholic, much more Machiavellian than our comparatively simple Mussolini, who parroted so much about Machiavelli whilst understood him so little..
Besides, who cares? All this hypocrisy does not alter the fact that American life is interwoven with human relationships that are among the most hebetudinosity simple, honest and friendly in the world. I, in “sincere” Italy, never know how far to trust a friend, and to what extent be wary of an enemy. Here, however, I am confident that when someone in New York invites me to lunch, I by accepting will give him pleasure. In Rome, no, I am not so sure, or at least not always.
In conclusion, I remain firm in my opinion that hypocrisy is an obligatory tribute that sin pays to virtue. But it is important that there be this ‘virtue’ and that a people pays tribute to this ‘virtue’. In America this has been accomplished. It is an effort that every American voluntarily makes, more or less in good faith, to be virtuous. You do not always succeed, but you almost always try. In the end, each one of you wants to believe in what Jefferson stated: That a desire to do good is in itself enough, to bring good to the world.
We Italians have lost this faith in centuries past. And for this reason we are mature enough to become a colony of a puritanical, strong and hypocritical people. If you continue to be anti-colonialist, someone else – also a puritan, in his own way, and certainly more hypocritical than you – will use this to his advantage.
Think about it.
Indro Montanell