Europe


PutinLiberal interventionists have been attacking the anti-war left over their failure to protest against the Russian menacing of Ukraine. Putin would have cared even less about a few hundred boisterous eccentrics in anoraks and keffiyehs than David Cameron but this is about egos rather than actual concerns. Still, as far as I can tell both tribes have something in common: a tendency to exaggerate the importance of Western behaviour as it relates to international affairs. Britain and the US is at fault for all evils: it is just through its deeds for the leftists and its inaction for the liberals.

The idea that the West forced Putin’s hand seems contrived. It was playing with fire in its support for pro-EU and NATO tendencies in nations around Russia but those tendencies would have been powerful anyway. It might be hard for Britons to appreciate that people can be admiring of the EU but if your average Ukrainian has any idea of the development that its subsidies have been funding in Poland I can understand why they might yearn for a slice of the pie.

What, then, of the idea that Western weakness enabled Putin? I don’t understand it. Yes, it is embarrassing that Obama mocked concerns about Russia but what should he had been doing otherwise? Bush spent eight years barging into this or that country and the Russians still piled into South Ossetia. Why would invading Syria have scared them? It would have shown that America and Britain were prepared to make war on a government that posed no military threat to them. Why would this have lent seriousness to the idea that they might go to war against superpowers? This seems a bit like saying that victory against Tranmere Rovers would make Barcelona fear Manchester City. One of these is not like the other.

According to smarter people than myself, meanwhile, thoughts of trade and diplomatic freezes would not have frightened Putin. Sanctions may bite if they are imposed but the Russians seem to have gambled on their ineffectiveness.

(As mad as the idea of all-out conflict sounds, it is being considered by our commentators. Interventionists have been praising to the skies a piece by the head of Estonia’s national conservatives, which holds that “Western civilization in its decadence has reached the final stage of its degradation” and is blind to the need for “a truly uncompromising fight”. I accept, of course, that the West is in many ways decadent and depraved but why is it only legitimate to state this case when it pertains to its apparent unwillingness to go to war?)

Superpowers almost inevitably push around states that flirt with the idea of escaping their clutches – be it Guatemala or the Czech Republic – and if they want to do it they are hard to stop. There are many problems with comparisons to 1938 but one of them is that Hitler’s Germany was surrounded by nations with enough firepower to crush him like the jumped-up little pseud he was. Putin’s Russia is a large and wealthy place with enough nukes to kill us all many times over. Anybody want to try and order him around? I am sure that actions can and will be taken but the most important standard is that they should be smart, not strong. It was being smart that made Putin strong in the first place.

An addendum. There is one thing that the West deserves criticism for: its obsequiousness towards Russian billionaires. It would not surprise me if this shameless greed has led Putin to think that we are hopeless degenerates. I was reminded of the proposal to sell British visas to the highest bidder. Wealth should play a role in our criteria for accepting migrants, I think – if its investment will be of real value. This, though, appears degrading. It evokes nothing more than high class prostitution. Wealth, moreover, need not denote worth. Crooked oligarchs? Oil sheikhs? Degenerate estate entrepreneurs? Such people can devalue our culture even if they add a few pounds to our pockets.

GenderAgata Pyzik writes on the Catholic church in Poland’s campaign against what it calls “gender”: a catch-all term for liberal ideas that might include sex education, gay marriage and the idea that gender roles are social constructs to be challenged. This has been a significant issue in the country. People talk in dark, amused or bored tones about “gender”, though I am not sure that many of them have a good idea of what the darn thing means.

Nonetheless, I think Ms Pyzik overstates the extent to which this is reflective of Polish culture. God knows I am no expert on the nation that has welcomed me, and a traditionalist revival could be gathering steam, but I see little evidence of this. For all that the church is attempting to rally its flock its audience is shrinking at a considerable rate. The parliamentary group that was established to “fight gender ideologyconsists not of officials of Law and Justice, the leading conservative opposition party, but United Poland: a right-wing splinter organisation of marginal significance. Pyzik’s closing claim, meanwhile, that higher birth rates among Poles who left for Britain than stayed in their homeland shows that the “pro-family crusade is having the opposite effect” is evidence that pointing out that correlation does not equal causation can still be merited.

In arguing that Poland is going through “a sexual revolution in reverse”, Ms Pyzik does not merely overstate its conservative trends but its progressive past. Her claim that homosexuality “wasn’t penalised” in the People’s Republic is belied by the existence of Operation Hyacinth, which, in the 1980s, sought to form a database containing the names of every Polish homosexual. Many of them were subsequently interrogated by security officials.

None of this is to deny that Poles tend to have far more traditional values than other Europeans to the West. This can certainly inspire obnoxious phenomena. When I read someone like Meryl Streep, though, referenced in Pyzik’s essay, claim that she had thought Poland had “caught up with the west in a social-cultural sense” I do not think that this would be a cause for uproarious glee. Poland has a divorce rate that is far below ours, and far fewer children are born out of wedlock. While Britain bears the effects of fatherless families, meanwhile, fewer Polish migrants have to claim lone parent benefits than those Portugal, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. We are by no means ideal for imitation.

Being the subject of a hit piece by the Daily Mail must be hideous or hilarious depending on the circumstances. Niccolò Milanese, co-President of the think tank European Alternatives,A pantomime at the European Parliament in Berlin was accused of snagging tens of thousands of pounds in European Union grants to author a “‘Marxist’ manifesto for a European superstate”. Milanese replies, on Comment is Free, by saying that the manifesto is one that promotes equal rights and greater democratisation following engagement with European citizens. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, I suppose.

The “citizen’s manifesto” is an intriguing read. Focusing on progressive causes like open borders, gay rights and a basic income, it is introduced with the claim that “rather than relying on fractured national sovereignties”, “we, the people of Europe…want to be empowered to act at a transnational level”. But who does the “we” represent in such sentences? The authors were kind enough to include their methodology to allow us to judge.

The manifesto was formed through “inviting citizens” to eighteen venues in six countries for discussions of their views, before “the most active participants” were invited to another six meetings with “stakeholders, activists, practitioners [and] academics”. To be generous, let’s assume that the invitations were sent to a somewhat representative sample of Europeans. (Though the fact that one of the venues selected was Brighton makes this generous indeed.) How many people are going to take hours from their life to discuss the European Union? I think about politics far more than the average person and I have no more enthusiasm for such an event than I have for a marathon of movies by Uwe Boll. Such consultations can only ever reflect the views of an impassioned minority with marginal interests.

The authors made two further efforts to engage the public. Visitors to their website were encouraged to vote on the proposals that had emerged from the meetings. The fact that the proposal with the highest number number of votes seems to be “ban private beaches” with a whopping twelve thumbs up makes me suspect that few people happened to drop by a website on European democracy. In the end, the authors were forced to take to the streets, where two thousand Europeans were allowed to vote for one proposal that inspired them. That is about as limited a gauge of peoples’ opinions as I can imagine.

Ultimately, such consultations may produce original and intriguing ideas, but the fact that the citizen’s manifesto contains little more than brief assertions of the value of a huge range of ideas limits what chance it ever had of appealing to the brain. As they are so profoundly unrepresentative, meanwhile, they tell us almost nothing about the opinions of the public. I am interested in substantive policy proposals, and in the careful assemblage of public opinion, but I dislike the packaging of ideological ambitions in the wrapping paper of democratic legitimacy. And, for all that I am sure that Milanese and his colleagues have decent motives, this is especially true when I am being told to “get over [my] national ego” by a group whose popular pretensions cannot hide their elite status and tribal nature.

Photograph: Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

QuenelleThe French establishment faces a problem when it criticises the anti-semitic funnyman Dieudonné. He is cool. It is not. A politician like Francois Hollande is a bald, bespectacled, chubby short man with an awkward smile and a nervous manner, while a public intellectual like Bernard Henri-Levy is a foppish sexagenarian who should cover up his nipples. Dieudonné, meanwhile, looks like a cross between Richard Pryor and Father Christmas. As the censorious parties, meanwhile, Hollande and Levy seem shrill, humourless and draconian, while Dieudonné seems as if he is just trying to have some fun at the expense of the powers that be.

This is not to take the side of the Jew-baiting joker, though. Coolness, I think, is a talent that need have no correlation with admirability. Vladimir Putin is cool, but I don’t want to live beneath him. The dress and demeanor of his critics have no bearing on the fact that they are right to say that he is a coarse bigot who has wasted comic talents in the service of offence. His charisma, though, is necessary in explaining why sports stars will ape the reverse Nazi salute that he pioneered, as well as numerous smug, grinning Frenchmen, outside synagogues, memorials, the gates of Auschwitz and the school where just last year Mohammed Merah gunned down children for being Jewish.

Populist styles have undergone a gradual change. The ranting of a Father Coughlin or an Oswald Mosley would seem even more absurd today than it did years ago: hectoring and humourless to the irreverent individuals of our age. A new phenomenon is that of the comic demagogue: one who inspires disdain for the unlucky targets of their anger, and provokes change through scorn and satire. Dieudonné is not unlike another big, powerful man who has used his impressive talents in the Jew-baiting business: cheerful British-Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. Beppe Grillo has gone from comedian to candidate in Italy, while Russell Brand could claim to have been the most prominent radical voice of the last year. Now, I am not associating the values of Brand and Grillo with those of the former pair – and, indeed, comic demagogues might have very good ones – but I am drawing equivalence between their rhetorical tactics. Such men use similar methods, for good or for ill.

In a New Yorker profile of Dieudonné, the author noted that he “speaks as if he were baffled that he could ever give offence”. He is not making insults, he’s just telling jokes! One thing that struck me about Brand’s manifesto, as well, was its facade of flippancy: each new demand for an uprising being followed by a wisecrack. It would be a more tedious world if ideas were expressed in terms as dry as a loan shark’s tear ducts but my problem is that when dramatic sentiments are couched in facetious tones, earnest responses can be thought pompous. Well, people may speak and write as they desire but if one calls for revolution, never mind spend time with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one cannot be surprised if people respond in a less than matey, jocular style.

Dieudonné’s populism is a calculated force – exploiting not just the bitterness of les banlieues but the smugness of those middle class people who embrace fallacies about the virtues of offence. One can make splendid jokes that people think offensive. Foolish people, though, think that giving offence is comic in itself. Their laughter springs not from the recognition of truths but from the glee with which they flaunt their own supposed audaciousness. An offended response, then, only affirms their enjoyment. A response is to observe that they might not be so amused if one spoke choice words about their appearance or the nature of their parents’ morals. Another, though, is to state that enjoying the mere infliction of pain on others is not the act of a brave man but a common bully.

Ridicule be excused if peoples’ sensitivities are irrational to the point of being dangerous, and Jewish comedians have had great fun with the hypersensitive tendencies of others of their people, but imagining that this ennobles mocking the murder of people’s relatives by imitating their executioners is like suggesting that hysteria around child safety excuses abduction. How is it not right that people take offence at that? Perhaps Dieudonné has done us a small favour in illuminating a lesson for better natured comics: that sometimes people are reverential for a reason and there are few laughs to be had.

Anyway, thanks to his eccentric football friend this character may reach an audience across the English channel. It would not surprise me if his jokes are too French to appeal here, though nor would it surprise me if that is too optimistic. There is talk, on both sides of the sea, of banning him and his salute, which may be to increase their transgressive appeal. Lenny Bruce is a hero. Sherman Block is not. Still, I feel a great contempt for he and his followers. They pretend to be audacious in demeaning persecution, while elsewhere in Europe Jews face distrust, insults, attacks and, last year, even murder by a thug whose child-killing was then hailed as a heroism in some quarters of society. Cool? No. Nor funny. Cowardly, puerile and at least somewhat ridiculous.

PassportI have no wish to romanticise the Polish people. Were I to be more of a VS Naipaul than a William Dalrymple I am sure I could think of complaints. Yet it remains true that a quality I associate with them is toughness – a toughness that is demanded, in part, by an extraordinary work ethic. There is not much in the way of social support in Poland, and even the homeless scavenge for tin cans that they can sell. The welfare state is a baffling concept for many. Like all peoples, I am sure that they have idlers among them but most people devote themselves to hard work, for less than generous pay. Nice as it is to buy a good meal for five pounds, I do not pretend that it is cheap because of the benevolence of the proprietor.

It makes me laugh, then, to hear people suggest that Poles travel to England to scrounge. Migrants tend to bring their culture with them, and people who have been raised to work, and to expect to work, and to expect to work hard, for little money, will find jobs. The relatively sizable nature of the salaries will only make them more attractive. I found the statistics to substantiate this hunch, and, indeed, Polish migrants are far less liable to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance than anyone else except Indians. If one is troubled about the effects of cheap labour, for example, one may have different concerns.

This point, I think, illuminates the fact that unless you support or oppose immigration in principle it makes little sense to speak of migrants in the mass. People between and, indeed, within nations can offer different advantages and pose different risks and beyond their desire to better themselves in seeking new homes they need share few characteristics. I realise that I might be expecting too much from this conversation.

Time, then, for some initial thoughts on my new home.

Moving to Poland, of course, is not like moving to India – a place so different from our own that one is instantly and totally disoriented. Its differences areFlag subtle. They catch one off-guard. Stepping out of the airport, I noticed that the vast majority of my fellow travellers were cramming cigarettes between their lips and scrabbling for lighters. I have managed to resist the charms of nicotine but I can understand why others don’t. While food would bloat and alcohol befuddle, cigarettes offer pleasant consolations throughout gruelling days.

Things surprise me. Men scramble about their rooftops, drinking tea and fixing slates. Women drag carts behind themselves, filled with sacks of potatoes. Dogs bark at indifferent toddlers from every other garden. To romanticise is to reduce but, still, if there is one quality that I associate with my neighbours it is toughness. To glance into their stolid, weather-beaten faces is to appreciate the scale of their experience.

The oldest people, who wheeze up and down the steps of my building, have had to face a one-two punch from the nastiest regimes to have menaced Europe. Middle-aged people have had to live through communism, martial law and economic crisis. It may have been after the worst Soviet depredations but they still remember the indignities of life under a militant bureaucracy; of queuing for hours outside shops, only to find bare cabinets and a merchant’s scowl.

This, though, is the past, and Poland is moving on. To drive through the city centres is to be confronted with jungles of scaffolding, and massive pits about which builders swarm. It was strange, as an Englishman, to hear people laud the European Union but why not when its subsidies are feeding this regeneration?

Young Poles have no wish to live as hangers-on. Those of my experience speak of being doctors, dentists, academics and engineers. Some hope to ply their trades abroad but others wish to build their homeland into one that is as independent as it is prosperous. They are often impatient with the Catholic and conservative habits they see as being shackles to the past, and embrace ideals and art of today and tomorrow.

Such trends are not ubiquitous. Polish culture has changed significantly in the past decades. Churches that the faithful filled can now be ill-attended, as the Catholic church endures both the scepticism that accompanies modernity and the cynicism that followed the exposure of clergymen as paedophiles. Televisions emit spin-offs from The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent. My local corner shop sells a paperback translation of one of the sequels to 50 Shades of Grey. Nonetheless, traditionalist impulses have endured.

The last years have been marked by conflicts over the air disaster, in which the President, his predecessor and a clutch of high-ranking officials were killed in a plane crash near Smolensk. Among those for whom Russia still lurks as a threat, there are numerous people who believe that this was an assassination. (Among liberals, this claim inspires the eye-rolling reserved for headlines about Diana in Great Britain.) In Warsaw, meanwhile, as on every Independence Day, nationalists are preparing a march through the city that is liable to end in clashes with anti-fascists and the police. I’m told it happens every year.

It is not my business to tell Poles how they should face their future but I hope that in attempting to directing its course they will draw inspiration from their past. Theirs, as I have written, is a culture that encourages respect for those who came before one, and they have the bravery of their ancestors to inspire them, as well as the resilience and resourcefulness of their fathers, mothers and grandparents. The history of their nation is one of such grave defeats that they can think it too miserable to dwell upon. It is also one of a great victory, though: the fact that despite all the efforts of imperialists on all sides, it has managed to endure. Long may it be so.

ToleranceThe European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs is rarely of interest to anyone outside of Brussels but last month it did something intriguing. It played host to a group going by the unassuming title of the Eminent Legal Experts from the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. This group, formed by numerous ex-presidents and prime ministers, was promoting its Framework Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance, which makes for a fascinating read.

I am not an absolutist defender of free speech, and, indeed, think that few people beyond the fringes of libertarianism are. I would convict people who incite violence against others, and exclude people who cleave to oppressive values. On the other hand, I am daunted by the scale of censorship that the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation demands…

Penal Sanctions

(a) The following acts will be regarded as criminal offences punishable as aggravated crimes

(i) Hate crimes as defined in Section 1(c).

(ii) Incitement to violence against a group as defined in Section 1(a).

(iii) Group libel as defined in Section 1(b).

(iv) Overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism

(v) Public approval or denial of the Holocaust

(vi) Public approval or denial of any other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal.

My attitude towards censorship depends, in large part, on social context. A society in which a group faced high levels of violence against minorities, for example, would have more reason to prohibit radical speech than a society in which bigoted attacks were rare. Given that most European countries do not host endemic levels of upheaval and conflict, I see no reason for the breadth of these measures. Why, for example, should people be convicted for approving of totalitarian ideologies? What harm are the poor fools of the Stalin Society doing?

The threat against people who commit “group libel” is intriguing. Here is the definition of the offence…

(a)”Group” means: a number of people joined by racial or cultural roots, ethnic origin or descent, religious affiliation or linguistic links, gender identity or sexual orientation,or any other characteristics of a similar nature.

(b)”Group libel” means: defamatory comments made in public and aimed against a group as defined in paragraph (a)–or members thereof –with a view to inciting to violence, slandering the group, holding it to ridicule or subjecting it to false charges.

I like to think that I would not ridicule anyone for their privately held beliefs, still less for physical characteristics. I do not see the point in going out of one’s way to be offensive. Yet it is sinister that people would convict those who disagree. The kind of atheist who insists that religious people are stupid is obnoxious, but why should they be arrested? And what of those people who have been accused of being insulting? By these standards, yes. Unless they’re young, of course, in which case they’d be sent to “undergo a rehabilitation programme designed to instill in them a culture of tolerance”. This defies satire.

To enact these rulings would demand unprecedented levels of authoritarianism. If we are to take the proposals literally, Stalinists, fascists, Islamists, revisionists, Christian fundamentalists and anyone who is overtly critical of or rude to a faith, race, sex or culture would be taken in by the police. Millions of others, meanwhile, would live in fear of offending anyone who might tar them with the devastating label of intolerance; stymieing efforts to debate or research the ideas that concern them. We would be left not with peace and open-mindedness, then, but fear, suspicion and the fraud of insincerity. Is this among the “mutual concessions” that the authors begin by demanding that we make in multicultural societies? It is not a sacrifice that I believe is merited.

Perhaps it is not worth getting too bothered by this paper. It is not close to being accepted as policy. Yet our leaders have embraced preposterous assertions of “tolerance” before. Caroline Ashton, head of the EU’s foreign affairs, signed a statement that insisted on respect for “all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to”. Joseph Smith? Reverend Moon? L Ron Hubbard? Large numbers of people, meanwhile, have been detained for posting offensive tweets or Facebook updates; measures that, somehow, has failed to end Internet rudeness. There is cause to be troubled.

It is sad, in a way, that the pluralist dream of the open exchange of ideas and acceptance of cultures has been replaced by this tyranny of tolerance; where different people are united by their mutual unease. It is a dreadful idea, though, which should not, I think, be tolerated.

CieplińskiWe know, of course, of anti-communist struggles in the East: from Solzhenitsyn and the literary dissidents to the protests of the workers of Solidarity. Am I merely projecting my ignorance, though, when I suggest that we have paid little attention to those rebels who chose armed resistance? I can find no English language books on Poland’s cursed soldiers, Latvia’s Forest Brothers or the Ukrainian Insurgents Army.

These could be unsympathetic, which made them less compelling objects of interest. Some groups formed awkward alliances with the Nazis, in order to fight against the Soviets, and some committed atrocities. Under Mykola Lebed, for example, members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists slaughtered thousands of Poles in an attempt to purge their homeland of foreigners. (Lebed, strangely, went on to be hired by the U.S. intelligence services.)

These groups were diverse, though, regardless of Soviet attempts to cast them as fascists and bandits. What I find awesome, indeed, is the fact that many partisans resisted fascist occupation and took up their arms once more against the Soviet oppressors. While much of Europe was celebrating peace, a new war began for them.

MarianMarian Bernaciak, a son of peasants who became involved in the Polish resistance, led his men for four brutal years against the Nazis. Once the Russians had proved themselves to be as cruel as the fascists, he led an anti-communist unit for another year: freeing political prisoners, publishing dissident works and frustrating the Soviets and their local allies. Finally, after being surrounded by communist troops, he was forced to kill himself.

Łukasz Ciepliński won the Order Wojenny Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military honour, for destroying six German tanks in 1939 in defence of Poland. He directed anti-communist resistance until 1947 when he was arrested, tortured for three years by the NKVD and shot in the back of the head. His wife and children were ostracised and forced to live in poverty.

inkaAll kinds of people fought to defend their countries. Danuta Siedzikówna was a 15-year-old girl when she joined the Polish resistance against the Nazis. After the war she tried to embrace civilian life but was forced to struggle against Soviet repression. In 1946, she was captured by Polish Stalinists. Though tortured, she refused to betray her comrades. She was executed days before her 18th birthday.

Such courage, and such evil, should be remembered. The Stalinist campaign against resistance movements was barbaric. Tens of thousands of people were sent to the gulag and thousands more were executed, often on trumped-up charges. Before dying, they could face unimaginable sadism. Adolfas Ramanauskas was a Lithuanian partisan who was captured and taken to a KGB prison in Vilnius. A report dispassionately noted his condition…

The right eye is covered with haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball. Multiple haematomas in the area of the stomach, a cut wound on a finger of the right hand. The genitalia reveal the following: a large tear wound on the right side of the scrotum and a wound on the left side, both testicles and spermatic ducts are missing.

Let us never allow the knowledge that the Soviets fought as our allies blind us to the evils of their own oppression. Arguments about the relative levels of depravity between the fascists and the Stalinists are of some academic interests but the differences, if and where they existed, may not have seemed relevant to people who endured them.

There is a reason that the Polish rebels were named the cursed soldiers. Anti-communist resistance, be it in Ukraine, Lithuania or Poland, could never withstand the might of the Soviet Union. Its forces were crushed across the East and its members went down in the history books as fascists, terrorists and thieves, to be spoken of with disdain if spoken of at all. Only in the past two decades have their respective peoples been able to honour them.

It is only natural that we have remembered the Maquis more than the Forest Brothers, and the Warsaw Uprising more than the cursed soldiers. The Nazis were our foes, and, besides, there was no prohibition on researching and speaking of the fight against Nazism. They deserve our memories, though, in many cases, for a struggle that was futile but courageous, dignified and moving.

LeonardThe soaking of Belgian archbishop Andre Leonard by members of the eccentric feminist collective FEMEN on the grounds of his opposition to homosexuality is proof that topless atheistic women can embody the same attitudes as berobed male Islamists. They are not equivalent to those who march against blasphemous films and bloggers, as the latter often hope to kill and not dampen their foes, but their fanaticism is unpleasant and irrational.

FEMEN claims to have attacked Leonard “during a session of public advocacy of hatred”. It was, in fact, a debate with the philosopher Guy Haarscher. Disrupting the free exchange of ideas? That is an odd way to stand up for liberalism.

The activists state that they were opposing Archbishop Leonard’s efforts to “impose…chastity on the gay community”. “Impose”? Belgium is a free state. Leonard can no more impose celibacy on its people than I can impose Seinfeld or sardine sandwiches on Britons. He holds obnoxious views – comparing homosexuality to anorexia – but people are entitled to obnoxious views. If you think they should be punished for their beliefs you are rather like the theocrats that FEMEN claims to oppose.

These women know their target audience, and the slogans daubed across their breasts, gleefully photographed by the paparazzi, were written in English rather than Dutch or French. “Anus Dei”, one of them reads, which sounds like a joke from a homage to The Da Vinci Code by the guys who made Epic Movie. “My Body My Rules” another claims. Where your body is, and what it is doing, is subject to rules, and rightly too. This is how civil societies protect the freedom of speech and association from the self-importance of the mob.

These raw revolutionaries are good at attention-seeking but hopeless in the defence of civilisation. I have little idea, indeed, what they hope to defend. Liberty is clearly held in low esteem, and beauty is only of use in attracting photographers. One of their early stunts, purporting to be a defence of Pussy Riot, involved the felling of a cross with a chainsaw. To aim such boorish insolence towards a symbol that is revered by millions of peaceful Europeans, and that has inspired much of our greatest art and architecture, stinks not just of callousness but of philistinism. The struggle against religious and political oppression is, as I have said, one in defence of the brain and the heart. Unreasoning thuggishness defies them both.

Dark Heart of ItalyOne of the odder sentences that I have written on this blog implied that post-war Italy had been, in general, okay. This was, in my defence, intended to suggest little more than that it had not descended into complete barbarism. The sceptical responses, though, alerted me to my ignorance of how enormously corrupt the nation’s state has been. They stoked my interest in the country.

While European nations were basking in the comfort of wealth it was easy to forget the troubles of their recent histories: of the oppression of Francoist Spain; the junta that ruled over the Greece; the wall that bisected Germany and the violence, conspiracies and paranoia that were features of the Italian Republic. The destabilising forces of the Long Recession have been opening old wounds and revealing infections that had quietly spread.

On the week of the Italian elections I have been reading Tobias Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy – a decade-old critique of the state under Silvio. Berlusconi’s Quimbyesque faux pas and fornications have given him the image of a depilated Boris Johnson: corrupt, yes, but in a mischievous rather than baneful fashion. This is erroneous. A man whose ownership of the Italian media makes that of News International in Britain appear modest, this repugnant Narcissus has made a joke of law and order from his perjury in denying his membership of the sinister masonic elite P2 to his 2012 conviction for tax fraud. As he has swaggered from court to court, meanwhile, his neglected country has sunk into a mire of economic stagnation, cultural decay and rampant criminality. Having fleeced the place you would think that he would be greatful but he has had more kind words for Mussolini than his own citizens. Italy is, he says, a shit country that makes him sick.

Yet Berlusconi is a symptom more than a sickness – one that wreaks harm upon the body but is not the underlying cause of the disease. As Jones elegantly details, the Italian state is a bureaucratic monster designed to mimic the processes of investigation and accountability without achieving results. (This evokes thoughts of the country’s bowels rather than its heart.) Thus, the Piazza Fontana bombing remains essentially unexplained after three decades of investigation. Thus, Giulio Andreotti, a perennial wanderer of the corridors of power, was still imposing influence years after he was found to have colluded with the Cosa Nostra. Thus, an investigation named “clean hands” could turn into a corrupted joke.

This obstructs efforts to resolve the systematic problems that bedevil Italy. So, the state failed to address political alliances with the mafia after Paolo Borsellino, who, in his last words on video, warned of such collusion, was assassinated and now the Camorra is still dumping toxic waste around a cancer-ridden Naples; the ‘Ndrangheta is gobbling up millions in EU funds and Cosa Nostra is, though quieter, very much alive.

As Jones writes, too many Italians have found cause to accept the status quo: with an indifference towards society that has been abetted by some of the worst popular culture this side of the Jersey Shore; with a complacent catholic belief in absolution that is not allied to a desire to force the sins to end and, it seems, most of all, a stoical belief that nothing better can be expected. When, as it has seemed, everybody is corrupt why not elect Berlusconi? Better the devil one knows and all. When other investigations have been so thankless why bother trying to prosecute corruption? Life is finite after all.

This is a lamentable if understandable attitude that defies the achievements of much-mourned heroes of Italian life. I suspect that more and more people have recognised this, though. While your pockets, plates and glasses remain full it is easy to ignore the rot inside the woodwork but when coffers and stomachs are emptied the smell grows more offensive. Beppe Grillo may or may not be a force for good but the enthusiasm that has him towards power is evidence of great dissatisfaction.

The book has not dampened my interest in and enthusiasm for Italy. It is among the few countries I would dearly love to travel to. For the architecture, yes, and for the art, and for the food, and for the women, and for, well, the overarching appreciation of beauty that it is growing rarer in the modern world. Beauty, though, is not just inherent to aesthetic but ethical virtues. This is the beauty that – as in our country, and in others – can be observed in individuals but not the culture at large. It is the beauty of truth and courage: the beauty of Dante, and Garibaldi and Cavour; of Falcone and Borsellino, and Grassi and Puglisi. May it bloom like roses across our nations.

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