Original post published here. Thanks to Luca Pisapia and La Privata Repubblica.
“Always historicize.” Fredric Jameson
Children are watching. And they are frightened by our indifference to fascism. When, on 31 March 2013, Paolo Di Canio – a despicable being who wrote repeatedly in his autobiography of his admiration for Mussolini and, amongst many ostentatious tattoos, has the word “Dux” on his arm and on his back a likeness of Mussolini wearing a helmet surmounted by an eagle – was employed as a coach by Sunderland, the usually measured CNN headlined breaking sports news as “EPL appoints a fascist manager”.(1) A few hours later, when the former Labour MP, David Miliband, resigned, the headline became “‘Fascist’ Di Canio’s appointment prompts MP to quit soccer club.”
The BBC was slower, held back by its new policy of “appeasement”. Its first announcement dwelt on the Italian coach’s lack of experience in working with a top flight club. All the same, scarcely had Miliband resigned than the photo of Di Canio was changed – from one showing him as a Swindon Town coach in black jumper and overcoat to one of Di Canio the player, in Lazio strip, greeting the huge Curva Nord terraces and their different noisy groups of far-right supporters with a so-called “Roman salute”.(2) Round at the Beeb, Auntie was doing some rapid emotional processing of what had happened. And from this point onwards, articles about Di Canio appear with the word “fascist” clearly attached.
In “perfidious Albion”, recruiting an admirer of Benito Mussolini to the bench of a Premier League football team – the most-followed football championship in the world, broadcast to 212 countries and with estimated viewers of more than 4.7 billion – is considered an affront to the spirit of the game.(3) Not in Italy. And so the fine distinctions, the hypocritical attitudes, the sarcastic remarks kick off.
So, following Miliband’s resignation, the Gazzetta dello Sport, a daily paper entirely devoted to sports news, offers a completely different reading of what happened. The key word is not “fascist” but “polemic”. This led the former Foreign Secretary – who has recently resigned as an MP to take up a new post in New York, besides the £150,000 earnt for 15 actual days work at Sunderland – to use the figure of Di Canio as a means to an end in justifying stepping down.
The word fascist, which is attributed to Miliband only once, and which he did not actually utter, then took on a different meaning in the Gazzetta: it no longer described the Italian coach but instead the pathetic excuse used by Tony Blair’s former dauphin, legging it after emptying the club’s till. In the words of Jean-Luc Godard, as he firmly denied that an objective account is possible, the choice of how to frame something is an ideological choice. So, here you have the use of the same term with completely opposite meanings delineating not only how objectively the same narrative will be treated in the two countries but also delineating the dominant ideology in the two countries.
In England, fascist is a terrible word and describes perfectly the person at the centre of this affair. In Italy, fascist is an obsolete word, without context, deprived of any historical significance, that only an opportunist would use in order to pursue their own ends. Fascism in Italy is not the bloody dictatorship of Mussolini, it is the “polemic” of the anti-fascist. In Italy, instead, disengaged Great Thinkers (such as these two journalists) are able to tweet with arrogance:
“I, for example, think that it was Miliband who did the fascist thing. Not wanting someone to be able to do their normal job because of their crazy political views seems to be in itself fascist.” (Tommaso Labate)
“I find the farewell of the Sunderland board member more fascist than Di Canio’s salute to the Curva. (Di Canio) has said many times that he’s against violence and hates racism. And I’ll say it again, he’s going to be a coach not the mayor of Sunderland.” (Selvaggia Lucarelli)
One day in April in the Year of Our Grace 2013, the term “fascist” lost all historical context and became synonymous with arrogant and intolerant, but in order to portray the antifascist who opposes fascism, or those who try to historicise and contextualize the word properly. The short semantic circuit has reached its peak: the fascist is someone who won’t let a person be free to advocate fascism. A judicial deviation, an argument born in court and adopted by protesters and television programmes, and which has now also broken through into the left.
Even for the centre-left newspaper, La Repubblica, the watchwords were “upheaval” and “polemic”. Immediately by an article that reported (in a small paragraph halfway down the page) Miliband’s indignation, there is an entire piece featuring our compatriot Di Canio’s disdainful response, talking of “stupid and ridiculous accusations”. But it is in next day’s print copy that the apotheosis is reached when the paper’s correspondent Alessandra Budel writes, referring to the protests of the football supporters, that for them it was obviously of little importance that the Lazio player always claimed that he gave a “sporting significance” to the Roman salute he gave his fans, paying a hefty fine but continuing to say that his gesture was not a “political one” but rather one of “affinity” and closeness to the Curva.
This attempt to justify his actions is enough to make not only those defeated by fascism turn in their grave, but also those who suffered under it.
Bizarrely, La Repubblica and its “giustizialismo” is outdone by a much worse right-wing English tabloid, The Sun.(4) The scandalous tabloid actually gives the Italian daily, run by Ezio Mauro, a lesson in journalism, interviewing war veterans who are “disgusted and outraged by the hiring of Di Canio. Let’s just remember that during the Second World War Nazi bombers killed 267 people and injured over 1,000 in Sunderland. Di Canio is the ideological bedfellow of these assassins. By giving the post to a fascist we have allied ourselves to a depraved ideology that preaches hate and has no place in football or society.”
In England, those who were disconcerted by the fact that a self-proclaimed fascist would be training one of their teams were not only Sunderlanders, from a Labour bastion, or the Durham miners for whom this has uncovered wartime memories and protest that “employing Di Canio offends the memory of those who died fighting against fascism”.(5) Even The Daily Telegraph, well known for its close affiliation to the Tory party, chose to host an editorial by the unionist Dan Hodges (“Paulo Di Canio is a fascist. Time to boycott Sunderland”) that highlighted the importance of the role that football played in German Nazi propaganda. A far cry from La Repubblica’s downplaying of Di Canio’s Roman salute as a “sporting” act and therefore “not political”.
Even the Daily Mail – a frequently boorish and racist tabloid sometimes known as the “Daily Hate” – found space on its pages for the angry Sunderland supporters and their new coach’s fascist views and published an informative editorial on the neo-fascist culture and anti-Semitism within sky-blue Lazio’s Curva, described as “one of worst in all of Europe”.
The Repubblica-style fine distinctions between proto-fascists and deniers are the same that the Daily Mail links to the carefully positioned far-right blog, RightMinds. It is clear that the editorial line of the Democratic Party (PD) affiliated newspaper, on a topic as fundamental as antifascism, has now become comparable to the point-of-view of the most extreme and furthest-right general circulation newspaper in the British media spectrum.
For the London correspondent of the Corriere della Sera, the moderate newspaper of Northern Italian bourgeoisie, Di Canio’s fascism is merely a (serious) weakness, while the main editor, Mario Sconcerti, in one of his usual delirious solipsisms, wrote:
“Mussolini was the first to understand great football’s power to communicate and bring together. He made the national team (the Nazionale) one of the strongest reference points of fascism. The players were symbols of national richness and ardour. Peppino Meazza was affectionately called Il Ballila; Monzeglio was the Duce’s tennis star. When he was found at Salo by the partisans, no-one so much as harmed a hair of his head.”
Perhaps Sconcerti is trying to suggest that should a partisan meet Di Canio today he would greet him with respect, or perhaps he is simply imploring his readers not to harm a hair of his own head.
Anyway, whilst the Corriere della Sera was writing this bollocks, James Lawton, editor of the Independent, was putting football itself under discussion. Under the headline “Paolo Di Canio’s appointment at Sunderland makes us ask what football clubs really mean to us”, he wonders whether football, with the appointment of Di Canio, has lost its purpose of educating and serving society: “What is a football club for? Is it supposed to reflect some of the deepest values of the community in which it has always had a vital place?”
But on 3 April when Di Canio was to take part in his first press conference as coach at Sunderland, the Corriere della Sera dictated the editorial line of denial to the Italian press: “Enough politics, just football”. And the Repubblica and the Gazzetta dello Sport fell in behind.
Having emptied the word fascism of all historical significance, the narrative now should just deal with football.
It would be a pity if we didn’t give a passing thought to the role of the usual Bolsheviks of the British right-wing press in continuing to raise the question of fascism. The Daily Mail poses the most obvious question, that is, why was there no clear answer during the entire press conference as to where Di Canio stands in relation to fascism? “New boss Di Canio ducks the big question: Are you a fascist?” The unanswered question reached Qatar with an Al Jazeera headline: “Paolo Di Canio deflects fascism questions.”
In short, outside Italy no-one feels like giving up the political question and going back to the well-trodden ways of football. Outside Italy, fascism is not polemic; it’s a dark period in history which should be thought about every day so that it’s not repeated.
With the praiseworthy exceptions of only two mastheads (Il Manifesto and Il Fatto Quotidiano), the Greek chorus of the Italian media consistently reports with one harmonious voice Di Canio’s declaration “I’m not a fascist”. And it stops there, without depicting it as apostasy. Nor does it show any intention of attempting to dismantle this belated, ridiculous and self-interested renunciation of principles.
Once again it is the right-wing British tabloids which put things back in their place. Although in Italy a denial is no longer denied (and does take effect as soon as it is uttered), across the Channel things are different. The press investigates the motives for the denial, and reports facts that can support or contest it. The Sun relaunched the question by publishing photos from 2010 in which Di Canio is pictured at the funeral of the ex-terrorist Paolo Signorelli, in amongst a mass of shaved heads and “Roman” salutes.(6) A story at which, in Italy, nobody would bat an eyelid (apart from the two praiseworthy examples mentioned above), but in England has made all of the papers – including the Daily Mail.
The “Daily Hate” even went so far as to investigate Di Canio’s fascist roots in the Roman neighbourhood Quarticciolo, and reminds Italians that in the country where Mussolini reigned with force and terror for twenty years, it is an offence to be a “fascist apologist”, although everybody pretends not to remember this. The words of the chief foreign writer David Jones – “Under the nation’s anti-fascism laws it can be a criminal offence to make such an inflammatory gesture in public, yet no one is ever prosecuted, even though it is regularly seen at neo-fascist gatherings and soccer stadiums” – are those that we should have seen in any article in the Italian press.
But it isn’t like that, and once again it’s the Sun which poses the question: “If Di Canio doesn’t support and has never supported the fascist ideology, why did he go to the funeral of a man who’d spent eight years in prison for a massacre in which 85 innocent people were killed, then acquitted for the offence of mass murder but found guilty of associating with an armed gang.
Simple questions, which evidently only make sense in Britain and the rest of the world, where you can be on the right and also consider anti-fascism one of your values. Not in Italy, where 20 years-worth of dumbing-down by the Fininvest/Berlusconi media have made it seem that anti-fascism has been relegated, along with the left, to the vintage section – memorabilia from the 80s to be displayed from time to time to entertain one’s friends. A post-modern object, emptied of its historical significance, that one doesn’t take seriously any more.
In the rest of the world, the Italian denial of its history produces astonishment and indignation. When the Guardian’s HQ in Manchester asked Lizzy Davies, their correspondent in Rome, to write a piece about how the Italians had reacted to the storm which had raged in the North East of England after the appointment of Di Canio – and therefore about the opportuneness of employing a declared fascist in an educational role such as football coach – they were astounded at what she wrote. And indifference to fascism cannot be dismissed as merely “tiresome and irresponsible”.
(1) Mussolini assumed the title of Duce (Leader). Dux is Latin for leader.
(2) The stiff-armed salute associated with fascism is sometimes said (without evidence) to derive from a custom of ancient Rome. Lazio is the region which includes Rome, of course, and the club has a common ground with Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in the city.
(3) The phrase “perfidious Albion” has been around since the mediaeval period and has more recently acquired a humorous air. Not so for Mussolini and the Italian fascist regime, though, which used the term for propaganda purposes especially during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and the Second World War.
(4) Giustizialismo is the over-zealous and at times politicised pursuit of justice. It fosters the idea, very popular in the Italian centre-left, that the magistrature and “non-corrupted” political forces should be in alliance against the corrupt, in order to “clean” the Italian political system.
(5) South Shields, the constituency Miliband represented, is the only one in Britain since the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act which has never returned a Conservative MP.
(6) A militant in the Italian Socialist Movement (MSI) which emerged from the embers of the Republican Fascist Party and founder of Ordine Nuovo (a neo-fascist party forcibly dissolved by the Government in 1973). He was accused of ordering two murders and having taken part in the Bologna massacre, later acquitted but found guilty of association with an armed gang.