Category Archives: freedom

Fashion Week Begins

And what will she do with Thursday's rags when Monday comes around ?

The fashion week party, or rather, pre-party drink like one of those early punk shows I went to when I was a boy: you feel you have total freedom to do whatever because everyone is doing anything. A man is a fluorescent toga-like dress with his whole head shaved except for a little random-seeming tuft on the side with a long lock sticking out of it attracts no attention, and his example was only the most egregious. There were weird Americans with platinum hair and bangs eating cherries that the bartender popped into their waiting open mouths, strange Milanesi discussing the best clubs in (actually outside) the city in English to each other and telling me the ones in town were filled with ‘rednecks, politicians and mafiosi,’ a hyper-active, hyper-competent bartender who fulfilled my request for ‘un negroni – FORTE,’ Germans dressed for a soccer game, and a tortured electronic version of ‘Killing an Arab’ blasting from the DJ booth. As I was waiting for my drink, which was suitably strong, one thought went through my head:  “Men from Kentucky and Italy are dying in Afghanistan to preserve this way of life.” I didn’t see the picture of Hemingway hanging up on the wall which, until I got there, was the only thing I knew about the place.

In the middle of the throng on the street was our humble little Meet-Up group of mainly Italians looking to practice English: the mag ed dapper in his blazer, drinking a beer from a bottle and wondering why he didn’t check that it was fashion week before, and above us, the mass of the Duomo, stained glass ablaze for the third time this year, watching over us all, the gold eye of the Madonnina peering down to via san Raffaele of a Thursday night in September. Brought to Heel by Levi Law

Hon. Levi

While trying to research publication information on the Italian guidebook that profiled my home state, a visit to, which just opened this year, revealed the following warning:

Dear Customer,

It now seems certain that by September 1, a law on the price of books in Italian will come into effect. The main article states: “It shall be allowed that, on the sale of books to the end consumer, by whatever means or method, including mail order, even if such is brought about by electronic commerce, will have no discount to exceed 15 percent of the cover price.”  In compliance with this law, we will continue to offer great prices on our selection of millions of titles in foreign languages. Soon we will offer you the opportunity to choose from a catalog of hundreds of thousands of used books.

Please be assured that you will continue to find very low prices on Music , DVDs and Blu-ray ,Video Games , Electronics , Computers , Gardening and Garden , Home and Kitchen , shoes and bags , watches and many other categories in the future.

Thank you for your trust in Amazon and we reaffirm our commitment to continue to offer not only competitive prices and free shipping, but also the best buying experience.

The team at

PS Till August 31, we will be offering one last opportunity to purchase up your favorite books at prices never before offered. See, for the next few weeks, more than 235,000 books in Italian that we’re offering at a discount of at least 40% cover price.

The law in question is the Levi Law, named after the 52-year-old Democratic Party senator who also introduced a law to gag bloggers in 2007 (the “Levi-Prodi” law), which hasn’t passed yet. (Prodi, darling of the Anglo press for his liberalist views, gave his name to law by virtue of being Prime Minister when it was introduced.) According to Corriere della Sera, over 1000 people signed a petition against the law and sent the petition to Italian President Napolitano.

Back home, where Wal-Mart rules the roost, I miss my neighborhood book and music vendors. There is an argument for small stores and the specialization that they provide. Transactions can transcend mere consumerism and can be a learning experience and create community. Anyone who’s ever had a favorite book or record store knows this feeling. (I can cite Hawley-Cooke and ear X-tacy in Louisville and Normal’s in Baltimore as contributing heartily to my current ethos and worldview.) Italy’s small stores, when they provide this experience, are to be valued and appreciated. But at a time when Italy’s economy continues to stagnate, for the 40th-odd quarter in a row, with low growth that is the fault of too many small businesses and low international investment, this doesn’t seem like a particularly savvy move.

For whatever reason, Hon. Levi seems particularly harshly opposed to the internet as a means of facilitating communication and commerce in Italy. That he is a typical figure of the Italian left should help explain why Berlusconi has held reign for most of the past decade and a half.

But, Italy’s parliament’s slowness this time may be to the market’s advantage. As the iPhone and various tablets take over e-reading, the law may not have much effect.  Amazon has already signed an agreement with Mondadori to distribute ebooks, and Edigita, a consortium that includes RCS and Feltrinelli, will distribute 1000,000 books from 30 different publishing houses.

I wonder what Tim Parks, who spoke eloquently about the rising costs of publishing to the Foreign Press Association in Milan, might have to say about this.


The Washington Post reports that even in a weak economy, there still is a niche for small, independent booksellers:

The small, independently owned bookstore is staging a modest rebirth in the midst of a bone-killing economy and the exponential growth of online retailers and e-books.

I wish someone would tell Italian lawmakers that you can actually have Amazon and good, small bookstores too.


Update #2:

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the closing of mega-stores like Borders. I’ll never forget being at the flagship Barnes & Noble store in Baltimore‘s Inner Harbor shopping district, watching a clerk tell a customer over and over again that Invisible Man was in the science fiction section. The customer stood his ground and said, “no, not H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Assured by his computer monitor, the clerk told the customer that that book didn’t exist.  I’m sure that up in Washington Heights, Ellison did a series of half-gainers in his grave. And you shouldn’t have to guess the races of the characters in this story.

Duomo & Sarpi: stories behind images

In an effort to provide a little context for Magdi’s provocative posters, some reading from the archives in order to illuminate exactly what happened:

"What can be more excellent than prayer?"

The praying at piazza Duomo was connected to protests against the Gaza War and happened on January 3, 2009.  Organizers of the protests say that the prayer was spontaneous.  Coverage in the Washington Post is here.  There was no violence, and the Archibishop of Milan refused to condemn the prayers. As the Guardian reported, the Muslim community actually met with the archbishop and apologized for the prayers.

In the US, the first amendment to the constitution guarantees right to petition, or freedom of public assembly.  In Europe, it is guaranteed by article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, if one believes in the authority of European law.

The riots along via Sarpi on April 12, 2007 started when city authorities in Milan began applying fines to the many wholesalers who operated along the street.

Every tree and every blade of grass appears to be enemy soldiers

Milan’s administration has taken care of this issue recently by completely refurbishing the street, and making it pedestrian-only.  Without cars and vans, and with bikes replacing pushcarts, the neighborhood is much more livable now — but arguably one effect the improvements had was to make it more difficult for wholesalers there, who simply moved their operations to side streets.

Elisabeth Rosenthal and Elisabetta Povoledo reported on this for the New York Times, as did the BBC.

According to the story, the Chinese rallied around the flag for lack of a better symbol. Since some commentators have pointed out that laws in Italy are often unfairly applied, I wanted to highlight the penultimate paragraph:

Some experts say that the Chinese in Milan have been unfairly singled out by the authorities, and that the authorities have been considerably more lax with native Italians. When laws are enforced in such an inconsistent manner it becomes a case of discrimination, Lanzani said.

Inconsistent enforcement is at the heart of any debate about immigration anywhere, but above all in Italy, where networks of power flout the very laws they are supposed to abide by time and time again.


The Trap

I first encountered Adam Curtis via 2004’s The Power of Nightmares, which I watched while I was a graduate student. It was an interesting and provocative thesis — that the rise of the neocons had a parallel in the rise of radical Islam, and that both were based in the politics of fear. His style of film collage, often heartily ironic, mixed with unadorned interviews, fit the subject matter well. More than anything I appreciated his quest to see big-picture issues — something rare for the political commentator, who tends to get bogged down in details.

I was excited to have the chance to watch 2007’s The Trap this weekend, another three-part series for the BBC. The unlikely threads he traces here are even more ambitious than those in The Power of Nightmares — and accordingly, are sometimes more tenuous. All the same, the similarities he sees between game theory, pharmaceuticals and the DSM, performance targets in government, and Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty are fascinating, and those are just the bigger issues he touches on.

Initially I disagreed with his characterization of John Nash. I didn’t like the way that he played up Nash’s schizophrenia and played down the rigor of game theory. As anyone who’s every struggled through a game theory problem set knows, it’s a challenging discipline and not merely Cold War paranoia. Nash comes off badly in the first episode but Curtis is more sympathetic towards him in the second, when he admits that the assumptions behind the actors in game theory — that human beings are necessarily always totally rational and coldly self-interested — is flawed.

The greater problem is that this assumption is not limited to merely game theory but is common to all of modern economics. Curtis seems to place the origin of the modern era’s increased control and anxiety squarely on the shoulders of this limited understanding of the human condition. I think most practicing economists realize that the model of human beings as mechanistic and calculating is just that — a model. As Curtis glibly points out, no out actually acts this way, aside from economists themselves and psychopaths. But that’s a shortcoming of a science that tries assiduously to measure utility, the quantification of which has been contentious since the days of J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. It’s an imprecise science that deals with data precisely.

The problem, I’d argue, is when political leaders base all of their actions on this admittedly limited model, assuming that the model of human beings that it presents must be as rigorous as the methods with which it treats datasets and trends.

At any rate, it’s a fascinating film that tries to cut to the big-picture issues of what ails us in the modern era. Most filmmakers and TV producers skirt such diagnoses. Other 20th-century giants that get an interview include Friedrich von Hayek, James M. Buchanan,Thomas Schelling, R.D. Laing, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Alexander Haig, Samuel P. Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and Jeffrey Sachs. How can you go wrong with a cast like that?

If that’s not enough of a sell, pop addicts should like the soundtrack which features Yo La Tengo, Brian Eno, Morricone, LCD Soundsystem and music from the Godfather, as well as Shostakovich and Sibelius.

Finally, for those interested in Italy, Paul Ginsborg has correctly identified the kind of liberty that the current prime minister is always going on about as Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty.  The third episode is all about how negative liberty has been appraised and unleashed in Britain, America and the rest of the world, so it deserves a careful study.