For almost its entire history, Italy’s League party, formerly known as the Northern League, advocated the secession of northern Italy, which it calls Padania. But European Parliament elections in May called attention to the party’s remarkable explosion in popularity throughout the country: The League won over 34 percent of the vote, including pluralities in parts of southern Italy. The latest national polls have the party at 38 percent, just shy of the 40 percent threshold that would, after a hypothetical snap election, enable it to govern independently.
It’s a stunning trend, and surely it would not have been possible had 46-year-old party leader Matteo Salvini not set aside the party’s secessionist aspirations. But it isn’t quite clear whether northern League voters have been as quick as their leader to forget dreams of an independent Padania. In referendums held in 2017, the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto voted for greater regional autonomy. In the coalition agreement reached last year, the League and the Five Star Movement agreed to work to promptly conclude negotiations on the matter with the two regions (as well as Emilia-Romagna). Those talks are now coming to a head.
This stands in contrast to the thesis of Salvatore Di Maria’s July 2018 book, “Towards a Unified Italy,” which contends that, more than 150 years after formal unification, Italy might finally have hope of becoming one nation. Central to this process is a careful apportioning of blame for the country’s current division. Di Maria devotes most of the book to a systematic buildup and dismantling of all explanations of southern Italy’s relative backwardness that try to shift the blame to the north. He thoroughly details the south’s problems with organized crime, poor infrastructure, government inefficiency, illiteracy and under-education. (Standardized test scores released last week were so bad that the director of the testing institute told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that it was as though a third of students in some southern areas hadn’t attended school at all.)
By no means does the north escape blame. Though Di Maria eviscerates the myth that southern Italy was wealthy and content under the Bourbons, he argues that upon unification, the north failed to devote adequate resources to building up southern infrastructure, created a tax system that disadvantaged southern landholders and inadequately helped inefficient southern businesses cope with laissez-faire economic reforms. The roots of the south’s problems go back centuries, but the north could have done more to help it catch up.
Though he scarcely mentions the European Union or the role of the euro in Italy’s economic struggles, between the lines is a rebuttal to any suggestion that Italy could fix itself simply by leaving the single currency. (Indeed, the north’s economic success complicates such monocausal explanation for Italy’s troubles.) Citing a 2014 World Bank report, Di Maria notes, for example, that it took longer to get a court in Italy to enforce a typical business contract than it did in Iraq or Nigeria. It can take up to 300 days to receive a building permit in Italy, he says, compared to about 96 days in Germany, and connection to the public electrical grid takes approximately 124 days to Germany’s 28. Inefficiencies such as these don’t just slow investment – they kill it.
The south has long been Italy’s ball and chain, but Di Maria finds hope that the north and south can finally unite – in part because they distrust immigrants from Africa and the Middle East more than they distrust one another. Looking at the regional autonomy debate happening in the country now, I can’t say that I share his optimism.
Ryan Bridges, analyst
In the opening lines of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning “The Sympathizer,” the protagonist describes himself as “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Most directly, this is in reference to his life as a Viet Cong mole in the South Vietnamese Army and, after the fall of Saigon, in the Vietnamese refugee community in Southern California, where the restless, humiliated ARVN officers he escaped with are agitating for a chance to restart the war in their lost homeland.
But the role of a two-faced man is one he’s been forced to play since childhood as the son of a French priest and teenage Vietnamese mother. He’s perpetually an outsider, whether at holiday gatherings with the extended family that shuns him, or as a foreign college student in 1960s Los Angeles, or as an Americanized and thus contaminated comrade locked away in a re-education camp as the revolution begins to eat its own. His experience straddling multiple worlds, many of them at war with each other, cultivates in him a proclivity for sympathy and makes him a “man of two minds.” This allows him to change skins seamlessly and play whatever role circumstances and duty demand. But it also makes him strange and wholly frightening – a “shadow standing at the mouth of his cave” – to the zealots, the traumatized and the vengeance-seekers pursuing power or survival amid the ashes of war.
“The Sympathizer” is a haunting, albeit darkly funny, story about revolution and war but also about the complicated experience of refugees in America, who invariably carry their tragedies with them. I read the novel last week in Saigon as part of a continuing effort to revive my lost tradition of pairing fiction with my travels. But it would have been equally fitting to read in East Hollywood, where much of the book is set, or in suburban Houston, where scores of my schoolmates were themselves the children of Vietnamese who fled the war or its aftermath, or in the outskirts of Austin, where refugees from more recent American wars tell similar stories of loss, torn loyalties and learning to live out their own marvelous version of the American dream.
Phillip Orchard, analyst