The face of a nation

This editorial cartoon, published on the Canadian National Post of May 18 2011, has prompted the Italian ambassador to Canada to write a letter to the newspaper, stating his displeasure over a satirical commentary that in his view is “gratuitously offensive to Italian government institutions and to the Italian citizens who select their leaders, as do Canadians, in democratic elections.”
I have to admit it, when I first saw that cartoon I also could not bring myself to laugh (well, not right away) — but not for the reasons expounded by the ambassador in his letter, with whose content I disagree.

Laughing at the cartoon for me, a citizen of both Italy and Canada, is indeed difficult. My first, “gut” reaction, however, is not one of anger, or resentment toward the cartoonist or the newspaper, but rather of sadness and shame. This is due to the brutal, appalling accuracy of the portrait that the cartoon paints of the present state of my country of birth. There is, unfortunately, nothing “gratuitous” about it. What it purports to humour is not fictional, caricatural, paradoxical — it is all firmly grounded in reality, and that is precisely what makes the entire situation so embarrassing for an Italian living abroad.
Common citizens, even those enjoying some worldwide notoriety, can only bring disgrace upon themselves with their criminal or imbecilic actions. They can never in fairness be regarded as cogent expressions of the moral yardstick of their country. Elected officials, on the other hand, by definition are also the face that a nation collectively chooses to show abroad.
Every tasteless joke they make (especially during high profile international meetings), any reprehensible action in which they engage, much less any allegation of wrongdoing to which they may be subjected or for which they may be investigated — all of that inevitably affects the country’s standing in the eyes of the world.
And you know what ? As long as we are talking about someone democratically elected, in fact precisely for that very reason, all of that is perfectly legitimate, and fair [0] — quite the opposite of what implied by the Italian ambassador, in his letter.

No sane person would, for example, base on the remarks of Danish director Lars Von Trier any claim that neo-nazism and anti-semitism may be presently riding high in the the country of Denmark, or opine that Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s are in the end really Austrian family values. Any commentary or cartoon suggesting anything even close to that, would indeed be outrageous, mean-spirited, “gratuitously offensive” to Danish or Austrian people, and justify their indignation — until, that is, the countries of Denmark or Austria were to make Von Trier or Schwarzenegger their head of government. At that point, I think that the international community could not help but take notice, and react accordingly; most foreign governments, commentators and laypersons could be safely expected to draw at least some conclusions (likely not good ones) about the priorities and values of the Danish or Austrian people.

That is not to say, of course, that people should not be free to elect the person who, in their views, best serves their interests — but they have to be ready to live with all of the consequences of their choice, including what it will do to the international reputation and prestige of the nation. When the majority of voters elect to send to office a person who conducts himself (also, and possibly especially while in power) in ways that are widely regarded as improper, that are not tolerated of elected officials elsewhere, and gets away with it consistently at home, one of the consequences is that the country (yes, the whole country [1]) becomes the butt of the jokes of the rest of the world — deservedly so, want it or not, regardless of any political orientation.
Expressing irritation, taking offence as if all of that were untrue, unfair, out of line or unwarranted, is simply disingenuous. Whining and crying foul are not the honourable thing to do in these cases — shutting up and looking down seems more dignified.


[0] Obviously, it would be absurd to hold citizens responsible for the outlandish actions of their leader, if that person’s power grew not out of the ballot, but rather the barrel of a gun. The suggestion of the ambassador of Italy that by deriding a democratically elected government, the cartoon humours an entire nation, is actually correct — but it misses the point that the cartoonist wanted to drive home, which is exactly that that elected prime minister has become an embarrassment to the whole nation, not just to himself.

[1] In the process, of course, stereotypes of all sorts about the country’s inhabitants suddenly become fashionable again. In fact, if one were to list all of the negative repercussions vis-a-vis the international community, of electing a leader who makes himself the world’s laughingstock, satiric news headlines would not even make it to top ten.

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4 Responses to “The face of a nation”

  1. transientreporter Says:

    Yet, I spent much of late 1990s (and, I suspect, you did as well) defending Bill Clinton’s private behavior as irrelevant to his job as a public official. In the end, its Berlusconi’s political deeds that upsets you and embarrasses you. If he were a good liberal with sensible policies – and not a corrupt, cantankerous right-wing shit – I suspect all his whoring would not seem as big a deal.

  2. transientreporter Says:

    By the way, Massimo, could you confirm for me that the Italian word for “relegation” is “Sampdoria”?

    Welcome to Serie B.


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