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A Trip into Berlusconi's Ego-land, or the Right to be Oneself
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-09-28 07:52:53
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“Nothing would count as a fulfillment in a world in which literally nothing is important 
  but self-fulfillment.”

                                                --Charles Taylor (in “Sources of the Self”)

There is little doubt that one of the less positive exports of American popular culture is the penchant, especially on the part of the very young (say between the ages of 18 and 30) for a sort of epicurean, hedonistic self-indulgence and expediency which usually goes hand in hand with a desire to exhibit oneself and to transgress societal rules of decency and common sense. Some call it a natural narcissism of the young going back to Aristotle who quipped that “youth is wasted on the young”; an arrogant sort of self-assertion coming to the fore as a reaction to a conformist society where Big Brother ultimately dictates the rules that count even if superficially the society seems to be fre

Be that as it may, what intrigues me most is the aping of the above mentioned US ethos within the EU, despite a heavy dose of anti-Americanism found there. In some respects the hedonism found in the EU surpasses that in the US which is mitigated by the Puritan tradition. Which perhaps proves an old and even more intriguing social phenomenon: that when a culture adopts the ways of its colonizers it will end up exhibiting the very cultural traits of the despised colonizer (especially the bad ones); in fact it may even become better at it. They say that there is nobody more English than a Jamaican.  

Let’s see how this applies to the culture of the young in present day Italy. What seems to be at work there among the young, and I have experienced it recently in a five week stay at the University of Urbino, is a sort of cult of personality, good or bad, does not matter. What is important is to get noticed and get one’s fifteen minutes of fame. It is rationalized as “the freedom to be oneself” but what is often lost sight of is that such a freedom is a mass phenomenon and not the unique freedom that accrues to the destiny of each existential individual of which a Kierkegaard speaks.

What is important in this misguided “being oneself” is the license to express one’s personality, be it positive or negative, educational or not. It is quite similar to a TV reality show where what counts is the vote of the viewing public; in those shows those who are mostly themselves, win. It is a sort of deregulation of behavior similar in economic term to the deregulation of financial institutions. The end result is a solipsistic society or institutions where everybody does pretty much what he or she likes. We have seen the results of that “deregulatory” philosophy in economic matters. But the phenomenon I refer to is even more disturbing since it is found in the realm of ethics. Its most disturbing aspect is the disappearance of a feeling of shame and guilt for moral transgressions, even for those of a Prime Minister; which is to say, those transgressions no longer scandalize anybody.
Berlusconi is now the prime example of a new Italian super-ego. It is now ok for a prime minister to bring a prostitute to his bed in the house of the people. Berlusconi, in an act of self-evalution has been quoted as saying: “this is the way the Italians like me.”  Vico says that at that point of decadence a society goes crazy and destroys itself. Indeed, the Rome of Nero and Caligula is exemplary here.

In Italy nowadays, as pretty much all over the Western world, the weekend or the summer vacation permits all kinds of illicit behavior punctuated by drugs and alcohol. Even in a school, one is apt to hear loud marauding crowds of students at three o’clock in the morning, completely unconcerned that there may be people sleeping at that time. This was one of my most disagreeable experiences at the university of Urbino this past summer. I know the students were Italians because, even in their drunken stupor, they spoke perfect Italian. And this is not to discount the more numerous positive experiences.

The behavior alluded to is almost aggressive, since it does not tolerate that any restriction or regulation be imposed on one’s sacrosanct “freedom.” This attitude is grounded in the political experience of the young of the 60s when a myth was established; that of an imaginary absolute freedom ending up with the behavior of a Charles Manson who still is uncomprehending as to why he is in jail. Invariably, it ultimately ends in intolerance for the common good and the good of the other.

When one dares to reprimand that behavior one is dubbed a medieval man who should learn to be more tolerant of the modern cultural ethos or get oneself to a monastery. The game seems to be this: anybody who represents a limit to the free expression of my will is an antagonist to me and he needs to be confronted. Ultimately the enemy becomes the weaker or the less powerful who has to submit to one’s will. If it sounds redolent of barbarism, it is. This is exalted by the young as a sign of a free country where everybody can be themselves; a country where all taboos and restrictions have been eliminated. The few that remain are a mere vestige of obscurantism.

The expression “politically correct,” is itself suspect because it represents an obstacle to  individual freedom. One can see how even xenophobia becomes acceptable within this philosophy of licentiousness passing for freedom. Savage individualism becomes a sort of negative value to be defended at all costs. Enter Umberto Bossi and his Lega Party and the infamous “ronde” defending the sacrosanct values of an individual regional culture.

Confirmation of the above statements is a very recent poll (2009) which found that 67.5% of Italians consider it just and fair that any illegal alien from Libya be immediately deported, while 53.7% are convinced that the “ronde” (or vigilantism a la “brown”  or “black shirt”) guarantees more security. And here is another revealing poll: it was asked to 450 university students: what do you think of university professors who enhance their career with stolen examinations or bogus competencies?” Only 41.6% considered such behavior as intolerable. When it comes to private life, however, the attitude changes. When asked if a student who uses cocaine should be socially stigmatized only 24.8% said yes. So, there seems to be a double morality: a social one and a private one, and one has nothing to do with the other. The primacy goes to the right to be oneself, never mind the rights of others.

Many so called Italian “Catholics” no longer confess themselves because they no longer consider their transgressions sins, they are mere assertions one’s right to be oneself. The maxim seems to be “blessed is he who can” transgress with impunity. One can see Vico’s thinking here: transgressing the rules with impunity belongs not to mortals but to the gods. When men begin to think of themselves as demi-gods free to transgress even the laws of human nature, the society is already down a very slippery slope. It is now no longer a question of “Cogito ergo sum” but of “sum, ergo facio.” (I am and therefore I do”). That way, I am afraid, leads to nihilism and final destruction.


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Marco Andreacchio2009-09-29 01:14:52
Dr. Paparella,

It would be hard to disagree with your assessment of contemporary decadence. Our Age seems to have taken Hegel face-value.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

Emanuel Paparella2009-09-29 04:25:27
Indeed, but that is not because Hegel, or Marx for that matter, was wrong on historicism which is inescapable within the human condiion (for angels we are not) but because the Hegelian dialectic predicates that whatever arrives at the end, i.e., the modern, is always the best of all possible worlds. After the holocaust and the gulags that naive myth has been shattered once and for all. I'll take Vico's corsi and ricorsi which are not linearly progessive but more of a spiral with a telos but with concentric recurring eras, any time.

Marco Andreacchio2009-09-30 15:18:42
Dr. Paparella,

There is plenty of room in Hegel for the disenchanted historicism you cherish--and this, without disturbing Vico's name.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

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