It’s never a good sign when the New York Times has an article about Italy. Though they rarely get as bad as the one about the Lady Chatterly of Calitri, there is always a sense that one would get more acute social analysis from a Lonely Planet guide.
Last week’s article by Ian Fisher on the Italian malaise was not bad. It starts, inauspiciously, with “[Italy] is the place […] where people still debate […] what, really, the red in a stoplight might mean,” while, ever since the point system for driver’s licenses was introduced, everybody stops at red lights. It is what a stop sign means at an intersection which is a matter of debate. (The debate being on whether or not one should slow down before cutting into incoming traffic.) But the rest of the article competently reports on a series of worrying signs about Italian society, economy, and politics.
In an embarrassing show of provincialism, this has been enough to create the mother of all media storms. For the past seven days, talk shows, newspapers, politicians, and “intellectuals” have done little more than discuss and rebut what “The New York Times Says” about Italy’s supposed funk.
I do get myself into a funk when I come to Italy and read newspapers every day. Most of the stories, apart from the one about What The New York Times Says, are too complicated for me to try and summarize, but there is one that has great symbolic value. For several days last week, truck drivers have been on strike, have blocked highways and stopped delivery of gasoline and some food items. In the last round of shuffle of the budget law before it was to be voted by the House (which, amusingly, is called the Room of Representative in Italy) and the Senate, the government added 30 million euros for provisions that benefited truck drivers. This, and a few last-minute other expenses, where compensated by a series of cuts. Research and universities lost 90 million euros. This despite the fact that the Italian government signed a European agreement that sets for all states a goal of spending 3% of their GDP on universities and research, and Italy is currently spending around 1%. This is why, next year, Italian professors should take to highways on their scooters and do a blockade.
On the positive side, the European Research Council has started operations. This is an NSF-like grant-making institution that is going through its first round of funding this year. Italy, at the time of Berlusconi’s government, was one of the states who opposed the creation of the ERC, on the grounds that, if I may rephrase, the ERC was going to take money from member states and assign it on the basis of quality, which is something for which the Italian government would not stand. Italian researchers, meanwhile, did very well on this first round of funding, showing that despite all the best efforts of governments of both political sides, quality has not yet been eradicated from Italian universities.