Category Archives: decline of empire

On Neutrality and Great Powers

From Henry Adams’ Education of Henry Adams:

Minister Adams felt the same compulsion. He bluntly told Russell that while he was “willing to acquit” Gladstone of “any deliberate intention to bring on the worst effects,” he was bound to say that Gladstone was doing it quite as certainly as if he had one; and to this charge, which struck more sharply at Russell’s secret policy than at Gladstone’s public defence of it, Russell replied as well as he could:–

… His lordship intimated as guardedly as possible that Lord Palmerston and other members of the Government regretted the speech, and Mr. Gladstone himself was not disinclined to correct, as far as he could, the misinterpretation which had been made of it. It was still their intention to adhere to the rule of perfect neutrality in the struggle, and to let it come to its natural end without the smallest interference, direct or otherwise. But he could not say what circumstances might happen from month to month in the future. I observed that the policy he mentioned was satisfactory to us, and asked if I was to understand him as saying that no change of it was now proposed. To which he gave his assent….

Minister Adams never knew more. He retained his belief that Russell could be trusted, but that Palmerston could not. This was the diplomatic tradition, especially held by the Russian diplomats.

Let’s imagine Yellen had a personal financial interest in Russia holding on to Ukraine and had made public comments to that effect, and update the passage for these Top Gun times.

Ambassador Oksana Markarova felt the same compulsion. She bluntly told Blinken that while she was “willing to acquit” Yellen of “any deliberate intention to bring on the worst effects,” she was bound to say that Yellen was doing it quite as certainly as if she had one; and to this charge, which struck more sharply at Blinken’s secret policy than at Yellen’s public defense of it, Blinken replied as well as he could:–

… The Secretary intimated as guardedly as possible that President Biden and other members of the Government regretted the speech, and Ms. Yellen himself was not disinclined to correct, as far as she could, the misinterpretation which had been made of it. It was still their intention to adhere to the rule of perfect neutrality in the struggle, and to let it come to its natural end without the smallest interference, direct or otherwise. But he could not say what circumstances might happen from month to month in the future. I observed that the policy he mentioned was satisfactory to us, and asked if I was to understand him as saying that no change of it was now proposed. To which he gave his assent….

Ambassador Markarova never knew more. She retained her belief that Blinken could be trusted, but that Biden could not. This was the diplomatic tradition, especially held by the EU diplomats.

Rebutting Radical Chic…nella Cucina Italiana

In a fit of radical chic, the Financial Times published Marianna Giusti’s interview with Marxist academic Alberto Grandi, in which the latter “debunks” (a popular activity these days) Italian food traditions, most of which are admittedly as new as Italy’s prosperity. It’s not a difficult task to take on if one has read more than online articles or cookbooks published in the last decade, and Grandi is, generally speaking, correct. But he undertakes his task with the zeal most debunking Marxists have, relishing the zingers and gotchas of slaughtering sacred cows. But where’s the beef? A few thoughts below.

Those who have followed Italian food writing for any decent length of time will also have read a few of Giusti’s lines before — but at least she has a roster of nonne and zie to call.

Italy was a poor country before the Second World War — of course no one could afford rich foods loaded with meat and cheese then. Spain is similar, of course, and I was baffled at some of the veggie-free and meat-heavy dishes on offer in Madrid a few years ago. Those of us with octogenarian Italians in their lives know that in the old days everyone just ate beans, soups, root vegetable, and, of course, bread. All the stale bread recipes! And if you don’t, you can read about it a book like La Luna e i Falò where the Piemontese peasants eat that stuff. Even in A Farewell to Arms it’s clear pasta and cheese is a big wartime luxury, although the wine is omnipresent in Pavese and Hemingway both. Primo Levi writes about fantasizing about pasta when he’s in Auschwitz.
My old haunt, Veneto Sud, is still especially strong on the soups, veggies, and stale bread menu. Maybe a few shellfish thrown in near the coast, and of course, polenta, especially the more north you go. Affettati sliced agonizingly thin to make the pork last all winter. Until recently, my Veneta (DOC) mother-in-law had never had a piadina. For my father-in-law, born in 1925, colazione was stale bread and coffee. Brioche? Mai.

It was educative for me to go to rural Balkans (which was still poor two decades ago) before Italy for see what pre-war other parts of southern Europe were like — many similar southern European food traditions, albeit with a Turkish spin, still being practiced. Most remarkable? The fridges were tiny. Not much industrial food to go in them. Basements for cans and bottles, other stuff fresh. A freezer for the annual pig slaughter.

I take some umbrage with the grouchy and puritanical Marxist point of view (also why is FT interviewing a Marxist?) that “everything dear to you is a lie, there are no traditions [left unsaid: there’s only oppression!].” These so-called debunkers are joyless, and I can’t stand Eric Hobsbawm and his quotidian ideas dressed up as something fancy. Married with the FT‘s typical neoliberal ultra-capitalist ideas that we’re all just postmodern blanks slates and life constantly mixing stuff up, it’s even more noxious.

Having said all that, I support syncretic traditions if they celebrate life and goodness. For example, I love Washington’s national mall, even if all the designs are obviously not “authentic” (taking inspiration from the same Palladian villas that dot the Veneto) and it’s a sort of a patriotic Vegas imbued with national character. “Italian” food is much the same and if impossibly rigid recipes in our time of plenty give people what they want, why not? Three cheese chicken tortellini are not to my palate anyway, so I don’t mind someone yelling about the right way to make them.

Finally, as a matter of adopted Chesapeake pride, I reserve the right to jones for at least three items which can’t (or shouldn’t) be found in modern Italy: a proper Baltimore Italian cold cut sub, meatball sub or pizza cheese steak (which I learned when I moved to Italy is a bistecca al pizzaiolo on a sub roll) — although I’m pretty sure all the Italian corner joints, still there in the nineties, are falafel shops by now. But I’ll only eat ’em in Bawlmur, hön.

An excerpt from Octavio Paz’s “Mexico and the United States”

‘Today, the United States faces very powerful enemies, but the mortal danger comes from within: not from Moscow but from that mixture of arrogance and opportunism, blindness and short-term Machiavellianism, volubility and stubbornness which has characterized its foreign policies during recent years and which remind us in an odd way of the Athenian state in its quarrel with Sparta. To conquer its enemies, the United States must first conquer itself — return to its origins. Not to repeat them but to rectify them: the “others” — the minorities inside as well as the marginal countries and nations outside — do exist. Not only do we “others” make up the majority of the human race, but also each marginal society, poor though it may be, represents a unique and precious version of mankind. If the United States is to recover fortitude and lucidity, it must recover itself, and to recover itself it must recover the “others” — the outcasts of the Western World.’

Octavio Paz, ‘Mexico and the United States,’ first published in the New Yorker of 17 September 1979.

Leer en el idioma original:

«Hoy los Estados Unidos se enfrentan a enemigos muy poderosos pero el peligro mortal no está fuera sino dentro: no es Moscú sino esa mezcla de arrogancia y oportunismo, ceguera y maquiavelismo a corto plazo, volubilidad y terquedad, que ha caracterizado a su política exterior en los últimos años y que recuerda extrañamente a la del Estado ateniense en su disputa con Esparta. Para vencer a sus enemigos, los Estados Unidos tienen primero que vencerse a sí mismos: regresar a sus orígenes. Pero no para repetirlos sino para rectificarlos: el otro y los otros —las minorías del interior tanto como los pueblos y naciones marginales del exterior— existen. No sólo somos la mayoría de la especia sino que cada sociedad marginal, por más pobre que sea, representa una versión única y preciosa de la humanidad. Si los Estados Unidos han de recobrar la entereza y la lucidez, tienen que recobrarse a sí mismos y para recobrarse a sí mismos tienen que recobrar a los otros: a los excluidos del Occidente.»

Enoch Powell

Apropos of the histrionic tone towards immigration that Italy’s runoff elections took recently, it’s interesting to take a look at how the issue was approached in Britain 43 years ago by Enoch Powell, the conservative firebrand best remembered for his “rivers of blood” speech. James Walston has a good bit about this up in one of his posts this week, which I again encourage interested readers to peruse.

Older English readers will remember Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech in which he used Virgil’s phrase (“the Tiber will flow with blood”) to threaten Britain with the consequences of immigration. It was a racist speech which cost Powell his career; Berlusconi and his supporters are using far more inflammatory language and few seem to mind.

The BBC has a fine documentary presentation up which you may watch in six parts on YouTube.

Italy and Refugees

Luca Turi: Albanians on the ship Vlora fleeing armed conflict in the Balkans

As Italy struggles to accept massive flows of refugees from the Arab Spring, one hopes that the G7 country has learned something in last 20 years.  As Berlusconi’s channel report that the refugees are complaining about the quality of food and as leghista Roberto Maroni makes doom-laden statements about a biblical exodus, I urge contemporary Italians to look back to the events of early August 1991, when mass looting, rioting, and total loss of civil society led Albanians to flee their country — which was, like Libya, a former Italian colony.

By way of trying to get Italians to look beyond their own bell-tower in these days in which the country’s biggest trade partner has become the focus of international news,  I quote award-winning Italian journalist Enzo Biagi from the Corriere della Sera of 12 August 1991 (quoted in Paul Ginsborg’s indispensable Italy and its Discontents).  Substitute “Libyans” for “Albanians” to try and get a picture of today.

The dream of the Albanians has dissolved, but so too has that of the Italians. The fifth industrial power in the world has not been capable, in three days, of distributing ten thousand cups of coffee… Those plastic sacks of water thrown from above to the dehydrated immigrants, those sandwiches scattered by the solders into the scrambling mob — it was like being at the zoo.

As Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons.”  Consider the refugee from a war-torn place as a prisoner of circumstance, and let us hope that the degree of civilization that Italy offers its non-citizens is as high as what it promises its own.

As Sylvia Poggioli reports from Lampedusa:

The people here are angry and they suspect the government wants to exploit the crisis for electoral aims. U.N. officials have criticized the government for being extremely slow in moving the migrants away from this tiny island to bigger and better equipped facilities on the mainland.

Now, keep in mind that the coalition, the ruling coalition, includes the powerful Northern League, which is virulently anti-immigrant. The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, is a member of the Northern League and he’s been warning for weeks of what he calls a biblical exodus from North Africa.

Now, the foreign minister [Frattini] went to Tunis yesterday to try to negotiate with the new authorities there, ways to monitor more carefully the Tunisian coast to prevent the exodus. And Italy went so far as to propose a payment of up to $2,500 to each Tunisian who voluntarily returns home. But the Northern League leader [Umberto Bossi] blasted the idea, saying why should we pay them? We should just pick them up and send them back.

Read and listen to the whole interview here.

Bossi and his similar-indignant followers — “paying immigrants?!  But the state doesn’t pay us hardworking Italians!  They’re treating immigrants better than their own people!” reeks of a selfish insularity that isn’t hard to imagine in the land where one needs not look beyond one’s own family home, or town steeple at best — one that should be brought into sharp relief by the disturbing images of Iman al-Obeidi‘s silencing and forced evacuation  from the Rixos Hotel yesterday.

There are more compelling anti-war arguments out there that take diminishing state resources into account; here is Bob Herbert’s American perspective.

That the two countries have different interests regionally goes without saying.  But what Italy and her elites — different to France and Britain, for example — seem to have a hard time realizing is that the degree of involvement that the country has in the region and in Libya specifically means that the country cannot continue to idly sit by.  The lamentable reaction to the many (non-Libyans) coming ashore in Lampedusa reflects this idleness.

Some have said that Eni is essentially the foreign policy arm of the Italian government.  Be that as it may, it would be heartening to see the government doing more than simply throwing its hands up into the air, occupied — as usual — with the naval-gazing exploits of a philandering prime minister.

I thought it was the USA…

…or just another country?

Damn lies? Or statistics?

I’m not sure what’s more depressing — the amount of ‘worst’ categories that my adopted country is in, or the amount of ‘worst of the worst’ categories that my native country is in. But something about the data seems off to me — was this chart assembled by the paper of record or actually by the IMF? I don’t doubt that other industrialized nations routinely outperform us; some of these categories are quite well-documented (healthcare availability, life expectancy, income disparities) but all the same, this reeks of a certain school of woe-is-me-American declinism that’s of limited use, if not simply tiresome. But: statistics are interesting, as long as one understand their uses and abuses.

Intuitively, I’m not sure what to make of Italian food security being at the same level of Israel (who, incidentally, did not get the dark red ‘worst of worst’ mark that the belpaese did).  Unscientifically, it’s hard to believe that anyone starves in Italy — but much easier to believe that many families find it hard to ‘make it to the end of the month,’ to translate the Italian phrase.  Rising food prices play a role in that, but according to a recently-unveiled Euripes report (quoted here on MSN),  public debt and the cost of energy and housing are the main culprits.

Mortgages and rents are not affordable for two out of five Italian families, and 40% of households have difficulties in paying rates and fees. A worrying picture emerges when you compare the data of 2011 with the previous year: 40% of Italian families has trouble paying their mortgage, compared to 23.2% in 2010, and 38.1% have trouble paying rent, versus 18.1% in 2010.