When you were here beforeSongwriters: Mike Hazlewood / Albert Hammond / Colin Greenwood / Jonathan Greenwood / Edward O’Brien / Philip Selway / Thomas Yorke
But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
I don’t belong here.
Creep lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management
Creep is probably my favorite song by Radiohead. Although it was apparently inspired by a girl, I think I could use it as the theme song of the love/hate relationship I have with my own country. This song expresses properly the sentiment of discomfort I often feel in my motherland, and that makes me think to myself “I don’t belong here” like Radiohead’s lyrics say (by the way, to me the following is the most beautiful, intriguing interpretation of this song).
Where does this feeling come from? Is it due to the fact that I’m not crazy about pasta or coffee, like most of my compatriots are? Of course not. It’s much more rooted in the deepest layers of the Italian society.
Important caveat. In the rest of this post, I’ll make use of the words nation, country, and state frequently. In this context, I assume the following meanings (the definitions are retrieved from Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries):
- Country: an area of land that has or used to have its own government and laws.
- Nation: a country considered as a group of people with the same language, culture and history, who live in a particular area under one government.
- State: a country considered as an organized political community controlled by one government (I’m aware that this definition probably sounds a little bit unusual to American readers).
In the last three years, I have had the chance to talk to many people from Anglo-Saxon countries such as the US, Canada, and the UK (I’m aware this is a raw simplification because there are so many different cultural components in these states. I hope readers will forgive me for this choice, which is dictated for the sake of simplicity). As I stated in this post, discussing with citizens of other countries and comparing our states is an amazingly useful exercise to understand our own country more profoundly. For better or worse, differences surface clearly, allowing us to broaden our horizons and to acquire new perspectives about our homeland. This comparison also helps us to appreciate thoroughly the wonderful, unique peculiarities our own country offers. And, believe me, Italy still has a lot to offer, like the wonderful place shown in the image at the end of this post. On the other hand, comparing ourselves to other countries brings out habits and hypocrisies that we can’t or don’t want to see, although they are part of our everyday experience. If we Italians were able to see further than the tip of our nose and were humble enough, we could absorb good ideas and behaviors from other countries to improve our society, especially when it comes to managing public affairs.
Speaking of positive habits and cultural aspects that I think we lack the most, I really envy some traits of the foreign countries I mentioned. I hope we’ll be able to adopt these one day, at least to some degree.
- Pragmatism. The Anglo-Saxon pragmatism is visible even in small things that are part of daily life. Take for example how meals are usually eaten in the US. The use of dishes and cutlery is minimized as if people needed to obey an underlying, savvy principle of thrift, cost-efficiency, and practicality. Why in the world do we Italians have to use instead tons of dishes and cutlery to have a meal? Does it make any sense, from a practical perspective? Leaving aside this inconsequential example, it seems that the same pragmatic approach is adopted when coping with more complex issues related to the functioning of society. For instance, in the US, the way trivial civil lawsuits are handled is a fitting example of how to find a practical, viable solution to manage more weighty matters than dishes. Processing such cases simply and quickly by minimizing bureaucracy and paperwork is extremely reasonable to me because it is a smart trade-off between accuracy and getting to a decision quickly—in general, there can’t be justice if it is slow. I think it is totally tolerable that in these cases the judge’s decision may not be “perfect” because he/she did not spend enough time scrutinizing the full range of evidence and listening to a ton of witnesses. As damages suffered by allegedly aggrieved parties are limited, the whole process looks like a sound compromise in terms of social and economic costs. On the contrary, in Italy, there is an overwhelming, bloated bureaucracy even for mundane civil litigation. This causes Kafkaesque situations that could only happen in my incomprehensible country. For example, aggrieved parties often lose money even if they win the case because they have to absorb significant costs, no matter the outcome. And that’s because the legal proceedings are deliberately designed to make cases drag out years, causing significant costs not only for those who are involved directly, but for the entire community as well.
- Conciseness. Another characteristic of these societies that I love is their intrinsic conciseness. Redundancies are minimized, people usually go straight to the point, and generally substance triumphs over form. In this regard, I think that the English language epitomizes this concept very well. Minimal grammar, word efficiency, and clarity are crucial elements that—along with wars and historical processes—have made it the only truly international language, especially in economics, science, and technology. Its syntactical structure made of relatively short sentences and simple, rigid rules is the expression of an underlying mindset that seems diametrically opposed to the Italian one. For this reason, when writing for this blog, I tend to compose lengthy, elaborate clauses that don’t sound natural in English at all. Syntactically, they would sound natural to Italian readers, who are used to a more verbose communication style. My mother tongue is also characterized by a vast vocabulary and flexible rules, which can be bent and stretched quite freely. For sure, these features allow a writer’s creativity to flourish, making it possible to author worldwide masterpieces like the Divine Comedy. The other side of the coin is the fact that Italian can be a potent tool to write confusing and ambiguous documents. If used with cunning—or even bad faith—it turns out to be a perfect weapon to create grey areas. These leave room for a wide range of different interpretations, thus creating an ideal situation for the ruling class and other powers to muddy the waters in their favour. From this point of view, the Italian language is similar to English: both are accurate mirrors reflecting characteristic traits and peculiarities of the native speakers’ underlying cultures.
- Composure. When I think about the proverbial Anglo-Saxon composure, the first thing that comes to my mind is the British monarchy. Even though this institution seems anachronistic today, I think that its symbolic value is still intact and tangible. Since the end of WWII, in Europe we have had 70 years of peace. As such, in this time span the Queen of England hasn’t had to face any truly dramatic situation in which she had to exercise her leadership to unify and guide her country (Her Majesty will be probably called to play such a role again after October 31st, 2019 but this is another story). In the peaceful decades she has spent on the throne, however, she has had to deal with thorny situations she could do without, such as Princess Diana’s affair and subsequent death. Although the Queen always has billions of eyes upon her, she keeps up her British composure diligently, no matter what. She is not allowed to show her feelings, which she has to bury deeply and relentlessly under the thick mask imposed by her position. I admire this royal composure, which, to some extent, I think is a common trait of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, initially forged throughout decades of the Victorian era and embedded in the famous expression “stiff upper lip“. Take the following short clip, for example. An ordinary British citizen criticizes the work of the UK’s Prime Minister firmly but respectfully. Would this scene be possible in Italy? That’s hard to imagine, really. The protester’s face would be purple, he would gesticulate wildly with both hands, and speak up inappropriately. After a few seconds, he would be taken away by policemen. Wikipedia describes this composure as the great ability to exercise “self-restraint in the expression of emotion”. To a certain extent, this capability is relatively common in Northern Italy, where I live, as well. However, a significant portion of the Italians don’t consider it a virtue. They think that expressing our emotions openly and publicly is a good thing. Frankly, I often find this behavior annoying if not even irritating in certain occasions. That’s why I largely prefer the English way.
- Accountability and responsibility. In terms of accountability and responsibility, the Anglo-Saxon and the Italian approaches are at the end of two extremes. I think this is mostly due to the different religions that have been dominant for centuries in Britain and Italy after the Protestant Reformation. In my opinion, Catholicism has had detrimental effects on how we Italians relate to individual responsibility, although I can’t explain why the same is not necessarily true for other deeply Catholic countries. Simply put, the Roman Catholic Church has taught us that you just have to say some prayers to atone for your sins and ease guilt. Luckily, the era of commercialization of indulgences ended long ago. Nevertheless, the message conveyed by the Catholic Church is still severely harmful because it has made generally acceptable the idea of individual irresponsibility. In practice, this means we Italians tend not to pay attention to the consequences of our actions because we don’t expect to pay a significant price for our mistakes. Beside the personal sphere, this mindset is detrimental when found among public officials. Public-sector employees and managers often overlook the importance of their duties and the decisions they take. As such, they don’t realize the devastating consequences their careless and/or inappropriate actions may have on the national community. On the contrary, Protestant culture developed a strong sense of individual responsibility. Regarding public management, this concept was eventually combined with a strongly felt public spirit. The outcome is the figure of the public servant, which doesn’t exist in Italy. The words used to describe this profession say it all: public employees’ intrinsic goal is to serve the state (responsibly), which is nothing more that the community of all citizens.
- Condemnation of deception. In this post, I talked about how Balkan cultures consider tricking one’s opponent in sports competitions to be a virtuous act. This mentality is common to other Mediterranean cultures and the Italian one is no exception. Besides sports, we elevate this “virtue” to even more important areas, however. Regarding the relationship we have with our state, a significant portion of us even believe that it is legitimate to do everything possible to cheat our state, for instance to work around fiscal laws and evade taxes. In some circles, this “ability” is even admired and socially approved as a form of individual skill that should be imitated. This “philosophical” legitimation of deception lies in the cultural background of Italy, where the father of the “the end justifies the means” approach, Machiavelli, was born. On top of that, there is another pertinent fact that most of us think further legitimizes this foolish belief. I mean the idea that the state also cheats its citizens. In this regard, I admit that our state does everything possible to fuel a sentiment of distrust towards it. Intolerable waste of public money, oppressive fiscal pressure that is not counterbalanced by excellent public services, and suffocating bureaucracy are clear examples that explain why a large portion of us see in our state not an ally but an enemy.
- National sentiment and public spirit. Last but not least, I would like to mention what I think is the most relevant factor that marks the deep, rooted difference between the Anglo-Saxon countries and Italy. In a nutshell, most of them are nations, while we are just a state. 150 years after the unification of Italy, the lack of a true national sentiment still pervades our social fabric. Paradoxically, as time goes on, traditional divisions deepen and further weaken an already fragile civic sentiment. In essence, I believe that most Italians don’t feel to be part of a larger community to which their fate is inextricably linked. This explains our basic distrust of almost any state institution and public authority in general. This mentality is further strengthened by the perverse combination of irresponsibility and legitimation of deception seen as a form of cunning, both of which I described above. All this makes many Italians view our state as an institution that it is right not only to distrust, but even to cheat to citizens’ own advantage. It is therefore clear how we are light years away from the typical Anglo-Saxon high esteem of state, which is brilliantly captured in the famous phrase “my country, right or wrong“.
To conclude, when I talk with citizens of Anglo-Saxon countries and discuss these matters, I hear them describing things that look completely normal to me, but that unfortunately are exceptional in Italy. Of course, all that glitters is not gold and these foreign states aren’t perfect either. I wouldn’t be surprised if the points listed above might sound a little bit cliched and superficial to disenchanted readers who know what the Anglo-Saxon societies are actually like. When it comes to respecting tax laws, for instance, the US and the UK are probably the most hypocritical countries in the world. They have their own fiscal heavens and specific regulations, purposely designed to hide money and evade taxes very easily. Nevertheless, I feel that in these countries there are some strong values shared across the majority of the population and a common mentality that together work outstandingly well as a powerful social glue. And I would love that such values were a little bit a part of the Italian social fabric too. That’s why I frequently feel like a stranger in my own country and even wonder from time to time “What the hell am I doing here?”
While I was editing this document, a fact occurred in the UK that I can’t fail to mention here. I’m talking about the Supreme Court ruling related to the suspension of Parliament. I think this is an outstanding, blatant example of the Anglo-Saxon composure I tried to describe above.
With all due respect, Lady Hale, President of the British Supreme Court, looks like your beloved and caring grandma, who is used to gift you the fanciest and most expensive present every Christmas. Despite this sweet and reassuring appearance, I think she owns an amazingly strong character combined with a complete control of her emotions—it is no coincidence she is the first woman to serve as Deputy President of the Supreme Court. During the public reading of the ruling, she read a document whose consequences might change the history of her country and will probably be devastating for the political career of the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Nevertheless, she had been reading for about 14 minutes calmly and unhurried. Although she was aware of the weight of the sheets in her hands, she didn’t let any of her feelings surface because she knew it would have been inappropriate and unprofessional. Although she was aware she was slapping Johnson in his face in front of the country and the entire Europe as well, she kept a cool head, as every leader is supposed to do in critical moments. Can it get more British than this?
Featured image source: https://www.aconsciousrethink.com/7567/dont-belong/