The preeminent eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico became, after his death, a voice of the Risorgimento (“resurgence”) – the name for the concerted attempt by an élite group to forge a unified nation of Italy. The many cultures that called the Italian peninsula home, with the many voyagers who sailed by and stopped a while, ensure that Italy was characterized, perhaps more than anything, by cultural plurality. The old Risorgimento chestnut – “We have created Italy; now we must make Italians!” – originates in this perceived obstacle.
The solution, as our man Vico understood it, was to culturally mediate among the groups, to find not just common ground, but a shared civility. The end goal? Incivilmento. A social contract, an agreed-upon culture.
In incivilimento the process, Vico maintained, is initiated by certain people — or temosfori—who act as the first cultural mediators between different human groups. (Temosforo is itself an invented term from perhaps the Greek, [tèmis], knowledge or law; [foro] carrier. Oh, Vico.)
My life work, both formal and informal, has been to develop and interrogate my own Theory of Culture, exercising a broad definition of culture. I was delighted when I learned this neologism, which I came across last summer when working on a mammoth editing job for an academic transcript whose theme was right up my alley, At the Roots of Italian Identity.
On that note, I have been compiling, thanks to scattered conversations with Italians and others over the years, a brief list of what Italians think Americans are up to in America:
1 – Everyone’s just getting richer and doing so well because there’s so much work and we pay no taxes.
2 – No foot on the neck of any American over there!
3 – Everything is free and easy!
4 – My personal favorite: some version of We’re all basically 1%ers living in SoCal, eating sushi and admiring the Pacific from Malibu, or strolling through Central Park.
Point counterpoint! A collection of overheard What Italians say about Italy:
1- The healthcare system is dysfunctional!
2 – The tax man will get you in the end.
3 – You can’t start anything here.
4 – It’s impossible to get anything done.
5 – If you’re not “connected,” forget about it.
6 – Everyone and everything and every institution in Italy is corrupt.
7 – Our elections are a joke.
A few of my humble observations regarding What Italians take for granted:
1 – Universal healthcare for all ages, all conditions, everything, guaranteed. Of course it has its systemic drawbacks, as do all systems, but by and large, with experiential knowledge of both countries’ systems, the Italian system is equitable and accessible and serves its purpose. Italians have no understanding of the Wild West scene in healthcare that Americans live every day. Paid for by the public.
2 – Universal education starting at three years of age, with excellent snacks and lunches. Paid for by the public.
3 – High-quality education in public institutions. Paid for by the public. (Downside: Italy has the lowest four-year graduation rate in the EU – 22%. Many start but never finish.)
4 – Many employment protections. (There are downsides to this as an employer – hard to hire, impossible to fire… this is the case in much of the EU. And another downside is that there is effectively no open labor market, and it’s the holy grail of a professional to obtain an indefinite contract, since it’s basically the equivalent of a traditional university tenure.)
5 – Guaranteed holiday time – twice as many holidays (14 official federal holidays) as opposed to the US (7), with plenty of ponti (long weekends, where you take off one or two days if the holiday falls midweek), and paid leave from jobs.
6 – The tredicesima. Employees receive an extra monthly paycheck in December – the thirteenth month. If they are in one of those “tenured” jobs.”
7 – A retirement without wearing a greeter vest at the door of a retail establishment when you’re 72. Which is not actually a retirement anyway, let’s be clear. Retirement, or a drawing back, literally means to draw down, not to draw the short stick and never get to rest in your later years.
8 – Family time. Italian culture understands and values family responsibilities, of children to aging parents, of parents to young children, extending outward to the family at large. See my lengthy analysis of this in a 2017 post, Italy: Who’s Taking Care of You?
9 – Excellent and affordable frequent train service throughout the country.
10 – Affordable excellent food that they know how to prepare at home. Hardly any fast food.
11 – Nice local wine and olive oil.
12 – A country with varied geography – Alps, Apennines, ocean, forest, lakes, cities, ad infinitum.
13 – Founding EU member state.
A few years back I wondered what the world would be like – more specifically, what America would be like – if our culture were able to put down its insularity and inquire with curious minds how things work in other places. An enormous, collective fact-finding mission, if you will. Sort of like delayed study abroad. Perhaps a period of two to four weeks, paid for by the commonweal to anyone willing to go see for themselves. No tourist activities, but a lot of hands-on community inquiry. I am accustomed to cultural woolgathering and grant that I betray my own outlier status on this point as a temosfora. The more we see, the less we fear, and the more we know. In most cases, and eventually, the more we release anxiety. There are so many ways to be. There are easier, gentler ways to be.
It’s well worth a moment to consider how we view ourselves versus how others view us culturally, even as a starting point.
I fully expect additional points/counterpoints, from my own desk, and from inquiring friends in all locales. Let’s hear it.
Love, A Temosfora