Politics & Policy

Bolstered by Bush

Italy's "House of Liberty" cheers for W.

The timing could not have been better for Italian Senator Fernando Adornato’s Liberal Foundation (Fondazione Liberal), which sponsored a national gathering of Liberal Clubs from the major cities of Italy on November 6. Its aim was to launch a new direction for the center-right parties of Italy (the House of Liberty) but, in fact, the whole crowd came to cheer the great victory of George W. Bush. Some 500 persons filled every ground-floor seat of the Sala Capranica, with many standing in the aisles, and two extra front rows filled with major figures from the Italian parliament and a couple of key cabinet officers in the government.

The crowd cheered every new dimension of the victory: the new margin of nine seats in the Senate, the enlarged majority in the House, the 8.3 million more votes Bush received in 2004 than in 2000, the 3.5 million margin over John Kerry, on and on. There was a lot to cheer, and cheer they did–with a visible sense of relief.

A President John Kerry would have meant that the sacrifice of young Italians who stood side by side with Americans in their hour of need in Iraq had been brushed aside, and the Italian Left would have become even more insufferable in their self-assigned moral superiority. The positive gloating of the Italian press–drooling even–when news of the exit polls reached Italy in the late afternoon on election day sent many of the center-right to bed that night nearly disconsolate.

Instead, as we were meeting Saturday morning November 6, headlines blared that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was interpreting Bush’s election as a mandate for a tax cut. To the center-right, it seems, much now seems possible that the week before seemed utopian.

As the only American on the platform at the Capranica, I was the recipient on behalf of all Americans of a warm outpouring of affection, esteem, thanks, and good wishes. Nearly every speaker turned to me to address the whole United States for at least part of their time. As my driver to the airport said the next day, “My father was in the Italian army, unwilling to fight for the fascists (he deserted, and was given refuge in the Vatican), and he told me often, ‘Many young Americans came and died here, when we had no other hope; never forget the Americans.’” One speaker even turned to me to say: “Please tell President Bush for us how much his victory meant to us!” Let this public report stand for the fulfillment of that wish.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the speeches I heard was the brand-new emphasis on the spiritual and moral roots of Europe, on the importance of family, and on the non-conformity of conscience. Most of the European press (and, indeed, most European elites) talk as if Europe must be “laicist,” which is the word they use for “aggressively secular,” in the manner of the French Revolution. Against this, there seems now at last to be a gathering revolt.

One catalyst for this debate was the recent sacking of the very intelligent and able Italian candidate for the Justice Ministry of the European Commission, Rocco Buttiglione, currently the Minister for Europe in Berlusconi’s government. Rocco, as everybody knows him, was a professor of phenomenology at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, and also taught in universities in Italy. Years ago, he had gone to Poland (a leading center for the phenomenological movement, especially with regard to art), where he learned Polish and became a good friend of the young Bishop Wojtyla, who had been teaching in the same field. They have remained close friends. And Rocco may also be one of the most philo-American scholars on the Continent: knowledgeable, insatiably curious, not at all uncritical, yet on the whole admiring.

The panel conducting Rocco’s hearing had never asked Romano Prodi or any other Italian politician, especially of the Left, what he personally thought about homosexual acts. A true answer, if it took the form of “I believe in civil tolerance, but personally I think such acts are not moral,” would have landed any politician of Right or Left in deep political trouble with a significant plurality of Italian voters. That may be why the question has never been asked until now. It was asked of Buttiglione, and in such an aggressive and unexpected way that many in Italy are saying publicly that this was a deliberate set-up, engineered by laicists in Brussels still determined to “ecraser l’infame“–to erase every vestige of Christian faith–from their new laicist Europe.

The trouble with Rocco–and it is here time for me to confess that he is both one of the thinkers in Europe that I admire most, a colleague in an annual seminar on the free society we both launched for Eastern European students after 1989, and a dear family friend–is that he is incurably honest, forthright, and brave. He answered truly–he is the last man in the world I would expect to betray his own conscience. The distinction between civic tolerance (even respect for the consciences of those who disagree) and a reasoned personal judgment of conscience was more than the laicist inquisitors could bear. Tolerance is not enough for them in such matters; total conformity of conscience is now mandatory.

There is another very brave intellect in Italy: Giuliano Ferrara, publisher of his own newspaper, Il Foglio, and host of perhaps the most lively intellectual-political television talk show in Italy. He is so brave that at 8 P.M. on Election Day, with all the bad (but to him suspiciously bad) news of the exit polls in mind, he gave the go-ahead to his courageous front-page headline (in red ink) “HOW BUSH WON” and a whole front page of stories about the victory. Down at the bottom of page one, he also published an explanation, an apologia really, in case he had it wrong. It was an audacious, ballsy act, that front page–the only one in Italy to have the story right on November 3. Michael Ledeen reported that headline on The Corner just after the decision to publish it was made. That front page is now as historic as the Chicago Tribune of 1948 reporting (wrongly in that case) “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Well, at the same time as our meeting in Rome, this same Ferrara was up in Milan on a television panel with Rocco Buttiglione, defending the latter with his typically passionate intellectual acuity against the New Censors from Brussels. Being otherwise occupied, I was not able to see this exchange myself, except for a vigorous snippet on the evening news. It seemed to me that Rocco is slowly becoming the new Giordano Bruno of Italian ideological life, the martyr to conscience who is portrayed as saying: “If you now want to burn a Christian witch, here I am.” Ferrara, his bushy beard flaring away in the television lights as he spoke with energy and passion, was calling for a public defense of conscience against the forces of conformity. A “devout atheist” himself, he was outraged that a man could be barred from the European Commission for expressing a Christian conscience in his personal views.

One striking thing about Italy these days, compared to 30 years ago, is how many former leftists have awakened to the illusions of the Left, and begun flocking to the center-right. Nearly every one mentioned by name in this article is one such, and the numbers keep growing, almost exponentially, among writers and other intellectuals. Everything leftist is increasingly being questioned–economic orthodoxy often first of all, but now leftist cultural politics, too. Even those not prepared to go all the way to the center-right, at least on all issues, are raising tough questions.

For instance, La Repubblica (Nov.7), which I read on the plane, carries a front-page jump column by Eugenio Scalfari, its founder and publisher, under the title “Why We Cannot Call Ourselves Laicists.” After confessing his own secular creed–the creed of the Enlightenment and the great principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality–he writes that this does not end the matter. He notes how the Christian idea of a duty to the most needy and vulnerable has undeniably influenced his creed, and how the Christian idea of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, is a necessary barrier to totalitarianism both Left and Right. The history of the European secular mind cannot be described simply as laicist, he insists, for it also includes a crucial source of light absorbed from Christian faith.

What I conclude after this visit, more powerfully than ever, is that important new currents so visible in the victory of George W. Bush are also beginning to affect very distant places, and that great spiritual changes are beginning to display their first sprouts: a profoundly new vision of our own secular history, more open to religion than formerly; a new attention to the family and to the traditional morality on which its health depends; and a rethinking of fundamental economic principles concerning taxation, state power, and welfare programs. The notion is also gaining traction that the ideas of the Left belong to the 1950s, if not earlier, while those of Bush and others like him point to a new and more creative future.

My e-mails on my return shows similar sentiments being expressed from as far away as Turkey, South Africa, and Slovakia. The Bush victory was more symbolically powerful overseas than I had imagined.

Michael Novak, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and to the Bern Round of the Helsinki Talks, holds the George F. Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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