Piazza San Giovanni, Rome. 16 October 2021. Photo by author.
October really is an ideal month for a protest, all things considered. The crisp afternoons and auburn sunshine whose glints of light track on ocre building facades and bounce off of hastily made banners; a wind current strong enough to flutter the innumerable flags and balloons representing unions, movements, and revolutionary sentiments yet still merciful to the hair, skin, and cigarette lighter. The world may have Halloween if Italy may have the Ottobrata and a regular schedule of widespread, low-intensity social unrest.
But this one, and this time, felt different. When the offices of the CGIL were breached by Forza Nuova adherents thinly and unconvincingly disguised as ‘anti-green pass’ or ‘no-vax’ protestors, a line was crossed. It was a line that had long been buried, in theory if not in practice. The line which said that fascism could not exist, that it simply could not be allowed to breathe air into its innately putrid lungs. Fascism lay at the heart of a system that took men, women, and children and devalued them, degraded them, and finally destroyed them. The system that was founded in its wake, chaotic though it may be, was designed precisely to avoid the malignancy that infected the Italian state in 1922.
Because the Ottobrata isn’t just ideal for a nice walk or a bit of lively dissent. It is, and was on the very day 16 October 1943, the perfect time for a raid on the Ghetto of Rome. It was the ideal moment for 1,259 members of the Jewish community in the city to be detained by the Gestapo. Of those, 1,023 were identified as Jewish and subsequently deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and only sixteen of them would survive. Photos from the time reveal lovely weather with clear skies just beyond the smoke from mortar shells and a pleasant breeze apart from the wafting of tear gas throughout formerly inhabited apartment buildings.
You might be inclined to think that fascism is a problem from another time that doesn’t concern you. If so, you would do well to find the eldest member of your family and community and ask them. Ask them what they remember.
1. Recognize the insidiousness
If there is one overarching and defining characteristic of fascism, it is insidiousness. For no one is born a fully formed fascist, not even its most infamous masterminds. It starts as a whisper, a gravelly yet not unattractive voice that tells you that your suffering “is not your fault.” Your problems have a face and a name. Best if they are recognizably different than you but not necessary: little by little you’ll begin to sense who is with you and who is against you. And make no mistake, you will be keeping score and tallying results with precision. You will calculate the aggregate and find patterns where previously you had seen none. Things will fall into place, answers that seemed to have eluded you will reveal themselves in vivid detail. You will feel, for the first time, educated. You will feel informed, as if your eyes have finally been opened to the reality that has surrounded you for your entire life. It will feel real. From a whisper, to a roar.
And so it goes until one day you’re clicking or liking or sharing or reposting things that may have once made you cringe. Things that your parents would have grounded you for saying at the dinner table. Things that your grandparents fought and sometimes died to eradicate. But it will feel different, this time. There will be too much truth in it for you to discard in whole cloth. It will whisper to you and speak to a wound that you didn’t even know you had. So you’ll double down and defend them and the defense will feel real and right. You’ll find other voices that echo your own and little by little the doubt will begin to drown in the chorus of like-minded voices. It will help, it always does.
You may also find that you’ve become overly sensitive to criticism and that you find it in the most unlikely places. This too is a rather normal side effect of the insidiousness, for fragile ideas do require a protective shell. They do not do well on their own.
There are two problems that consistently arise alongside the topic, apart from those more obvious ones which form the crux of the current dilemma. The two are related yet independent, cousins bearing resemblance if not affinity. First. We use this word, fascism, as if it is a selection on one of those expansive and endless diner menus that used to exist; it’s the combo platter that gives the most bang for its buck and even includes coleslaw for those so inclined. We call people ‘fascists’ with careless abandon: those who tell us to turn down our music are shades away from those who commit violence in the name of a radicalized truth that only they can see. We use fascism the same way we use love, don’t we? We gut the word, and then we’re numb to it. We don’t even feel it when it stabs us back.
Second. We have become too accustomed to identifying the slide towards fascism by its target rather than its source and as such we excuse it and we absolve it of its most sinister characteristic, the insidiousness. We forget what Hannah Arendt said, what she took tremendous pains to say after having witnessed multiple permutations of the totalitarian worldview that underlies this blight.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
“The effectiveness of this kind of [totalitarian] propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”
“Totalitarian politics — far from being simply antisemitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value — the reality of class struggle, for instance, or the interest conflicts between Jews and their neighbors — have all but disappeared.”
Yet because we have so closely woven the label with the cloth, we tend to ignore or rebuff or repudiate the seeds of fascism, despite the fact that they may sprout with overwhelming speed and heartiness in previously unfertile ground. They are vivid and green, yet we find reasons to be colorblind in front of them. Whether it’s gaslighting, willful blindness, or a total and extended departure from reality, this misidentification allows for people like Georgia Meloni to write things like this:
Il 16 ottobre del 1943, 1022 tra uomini, donne e bambini vennero deportati dal ghetto ebraico di Roma dalla furia nazifascista. Sopravvissero solo in 16. Ricordare questo orrore, il momento più basso della storia d’Italia, è un dovere di ogni italiano. Mai più questo odio.
“On October 16, 1943, 1022 men, women and children were deported from the Jewish ghetto of Rome by the Nazi-Fascist rampage. Only 16 survived. Remembering this horror, the lowest moment in the history of Italy, is the duty of every Italian. This hatred must never again resurface.”
Ms. Meloni does what too many of us tend to do: she conflates and confuses Fascist with fascism and ties a neat temporal bow around it labeled Nazi treatment of Jews before and during World War Two. As such, it is impossible to actually be a Fascist unless you actively advocate for the wholesale policies that the Third Reich and its subsidiaries proposed and implemented. Fascism, to people who think and act like Meloni, is an antiquated bogeyman that The Left trots out whenever The Right starts making too much sense. Fascism is dead, so they say.
It’s a neat trick, isn’t it? Convince the world the devil never existed and even if he did, he’s dead and gone. And it works. And we forget. We forget, we forget, and we forget again.
2. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear
The polemic surrounding the Green Pass and its subsequent implications are an exemplary breeding ground for the insidiousness of fascism; it is the germ-filled waiting room of controversies if you will. It contains all the elements that conspiracy theorists, anti-establishmentarians, and aspiring authoritarians love to see. It is an emergency measure adopted to curb the spread of a disease that is already rife with plot holes. The decision adopted by the Italian government to require workers to obtain the pass (de-facto obligating vaccination, but one complot at a time) or to regularly present proof of negative tests skates uncomfortably close to the thin line that separates voluntary and mandatory. In short, it is a big ask, and there is no way around that. We are forced to think critically about a complex topic that involves complicated intersections between individual liberty and the collective good. Additionally and perhaps to many more importantly, we are being asked to trust the government, trust the labor unions, trust the science. It’s a lot of trust to ask of a society worn thin by exhaustion.
It’s a big ask and let’s be clear, it’s not going all that well in some parts of the country. Dockworkers in Trieste continue to amass in large numbers at the Port to protest the regulations and have faced water cannons and tear gas from police forces subject to the very same rules. Many seem to be fighting against what they call an undemocratic policy that curbs their very ability to earn a living and does so with callous impunity. As I watch videos of them I see people convinced of the merit of their actions and willing to make a sacrifice for what they believe to be the noble defense of our civil liberties. Many of them seem to want the same bright future for their children that the rest of us want. Many of them come from the same towns and cities that have been ravaged by the virus itself. If you watch them, you’ll see it too, and you might also start to wonder how it is that people who look just like you could be so far apart. You might start to think that you’re not so far apart after all. Do you hear it? Do you hear the whisper?
So when someone comes up to you and tells you to stand up against the lies, the propaganda, the system that’s asking you to trust it but not telling you the whole truth, you may start to listen. You may even start to agree. You may start to feel galvanized, inspired. Ideas might begin to bloom in your mind and things might all of a sudden start making sense. And like that, your perspective changes. Things that were once abhorrent don’t seem so bad. You start to play the ‘what about’ game and suddenly every well-meaning request to see your Green Pass becomes an ever more personal attack on your freedom. So you take it more personally and you find others who do the same. And when they ask you to come with them to protest, you gladly agree: that’s what freedom is, isn’t it? And when they find a target you stand with them because together you know what is really happening, what the system is unwilling to tell you. You’re convinced that you finally know what it’s all about and that conviction propels you.
And when the glass breaks on the window panes of a labor union headquarters where you have no business being, or the terrified nurses of a hospital ward put their bodies between you and the patients that cannot run for cover, you might stop and look at the shards collecting at your feet. You will see your own face reflected, your body, and your hands inflicting that damage. Your mind, connecting them all together and together to an idea. Your mouth, curling around insults and epithets. And you don’t know how you got here. You don’t know whether to back down or double down and which direction to go for either. It goes without saying because it came without saying. It is insidious. And you are far, far from where you wanted to be.
There is, of course, a wide and important gap between those who oppose the Green Pass for any number of reasons and those who are unabashedly fascist in both name and deed. But those many gorges are frequently served by bridges, constructed and maintained by attractive and well-packaged misinformation. You think you’re safely on one side until you’re not. And then before you know it, the bridges fall.
3. The antidote to Fascism is inexplicably long wait times
I was late to the rally that had been organized by Italy’s most powerful labor unions, where leaders and political figures would be speaking to members that had come by train, car, or bus into Piazza San Giovanni in Rome. I had every intention of being in the crowd at the assigned time both out of curiosity and solidarity if such things can combine without combusting. But before that, I had arranged to meet a friend, one of my most beautiful friends of whom I stand unreservedly in awe. I think by now she knows it and is magnanimous about it, which only amplifies my esteem for her. It’s a vicious cycle.
Before it even began, our plan showed signs of fraying: I was held up and arrived later than planned, she couldn’t go to the protest due to unforeseen circumstances. Nevertheless, our meeting was as warm as ever, each of us apologizing and accepting apologies in unison and making our way in no particular direction. We talked in non-sequiturs and walked in non-sequiturs; anyone behind us would have been furious. But we ambled and rambled until we thought it might be wise to have lunch so that she could return home and stand guard and I could go fight fascism with a full stomach. Entering into one of the more well-known and ever so gently gentrified markets, she led us to a stall at the far end of the complex where aromas mixed and mingled and sent direct signals as things that most definitely should be eaten. Orders placed and fizzy adult drinks procured we got to the business of catching up and digging deep, two of the highest quality activities that human beings have at their disposal.
The two men behind the counter at the stall were friends of my friend, and they breezily chatted about the comings and goings of this pecorino and that Vermentino. It was all so genial that it seemed wrong to ask my friend if she had noticed the unfathomably long wait time for the few dishes we had ordered, an interval that bore no discernable resemblance to what food service in the modern world has come to mean. Not only had she noticed, but she pointed out that this Godot-like delay was something of a signature for the establishment. As they were friends and she was too polite to say anything, she said nothing. So we waited, watched, and laughed as nothing at all happened.
The most fascinating aspect of this scene was how entirely unhurried it was and how very unintentional it felt. No one apologized for the wait, nor did they look particularly bothered by the fact that it apparently required forty-five minutes to reheat a polpettone slice and an additional thirty to sauté seasonal vegetables in unctuous local olive oil. The two genuinely kind people had taken nonchalance to a tortoise-like degree in the one industry where efficiency is measured in brutal strokes and human error is guaranteed erased or your meal is free. And yet, there was nothing painful or disappointing about it. It was unnervingly funny and in its way, stunningly beautiful. And the food, once we got it, was gorgeous. If ever so slightly undercooked.
By the time we finished lunch, I found myself still some kilometers away and only then realized that the transit lines would not be running around the city, controlled as they are by the same unions that were marching. Between the walk there and the train I needed to get home, there wouldn’t be as much time as I wanted to spend at the actual assembly. But to love is to be present, even if only for a moment. As I walked down the Aventino and past the Circo Massimo, Rome seemed emptier and quieter than a usual October Sunday. If this were New York, a day like this would have meant that everyone was tucked away into bars somewhere watching a football game. I would have walked past windows full of rapt viewers and seen my own reflection kicked back at me, a misfit full of sad stories who never did quite know who to cheer for and never found a place at the counter.
But it wasn’t that and that wasn’t me, so I walked on and passed through ancient arches and over cobblestones that had yet to have been uprooted. As I got closer to Piazza San Giovanni the crowds thickened and the confluence of various shades of red issued from t-shirts and flags and bandanas formed into a sea of crimson, punctuated by jackets and other reminders of the fast-approaching chill. I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of people were there or not there, and I will not give you an account of scuffles that did or did not happen. I do not know how genuine the intentions were of each person who made their way to the square and it would not absolve them of their sins anyway. I cannot say that I agree with any or all of their beliefs, save for the one which said that fascism simply did not pass for political discourse. I do not want to speculate on the justness of their cause or anyone else’s, for I have no reason or right to be heard on the matter.
What I will say is that there was a current that ran through the crowds, a sense of solidarity that was unmistakable and poignant. It was not solidarity in the overwrought sense of political machinations but in the simpler, quieter sense of empathy, or recognition. I watched people laugh and chat with each other and speculated on whether they were old friends reconnecting or new ones finding threads to bind themselves together. There was music and dancing and perhaps because of the masks that we have all become accustomed to wearing people seemed less self-conscious, a little more willing to be brave and dance. People yelled, and chanted, but no one screamed. There was movement but no aggression, action but no violence. It was not perfect, and the speeches that were ostensibly the point of it all had probably been new phrases in an old ceremony. I’ll never know because I was late. But it didn’t matter. I hadn’t missed anything.
So few of us go anywhere for the speeches. We go, and we join because we’re suffering. We are all of us, every one of us, hurting. We are all looking for some way to stop the hurt. I do not know your way and you do not know mine. All we can hope is to agree on that one common denominator that prohibits our pain from being transformed into violence and directed indiscriminately. That’s what we have. That’s what we can do, for each other. None of us is doing well, but somehow we find each other and suffer together and it makes the whole thing a little more bearable, a little less rubbish. For it is, as the great Ursula Le Guin once wrote,
“Our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
-The Dispossessed, 1974.
The protest gradually turned into a procession, making its mighty way towards Roma Termini for the legions, like myself, had trains to catch. The natural route passed through Esquilino the first neighborhood I had ever loved in Rome, where I found a Sri Lankan takeaway that reminded me of a stall just outside of the Gare du Nord that I would stop in every time I came back to that tiny flat in Paris I had. It is a memory inlaid onto another memory because de Certeau was correct: we never write on a blank page. The atmosphere continued along the streets surrounding the Esquilino market and commingled with the smells that were a combination of fresh and fermenting foods, typical and particular to markets around the world. People who may never have passed through the area, with its thriving and unapologetic immigrant culture, walked in jovial packs and sat with coffees or juices or mint teas in front of the Teatro Ambra Jovinelli, an Art Deco building easily missed if you are easily distracted. I will not say that the great walls of prejudice tumbled that day as white Italians and non-white Italians shared a green space that belonged equally to all of them, but when the afternoon light hit just right it looked like a little more than peaceful coexistence.
Termini Station loomed over the entire scene. The design details on the via Giolitti facade are a living inheritance from the fascist architect Mazzoni, an irony likely lost on most of the people who streamed in from the protest. And perhaps, it is better that way. They clustered under triumphant arches and brutalist rafters in their red shirts, pointing at the departures board with the now flaccid ends of their revolutionary flags. Knowing too well that my train would leave from the furthest possible point I walked past the groups whose debates had moved from how to dismantle the fascist infrastructure and settled more firmly into whether it was too early or indeed too late to have a panino (both, and neither). Still solidly full from a lunch that had taken its time to arrive I didn’t enter the fray, thinking instead of how well I would use the hour and a half ride to organize my notes and thoughts, and how far I would let my mind wander. As it turned out I need not have worried about having enough time to procrastinate. The train was delayed, first by ten minutes, then inexplicably by forty minutes. There was no one to ask, no information to be given, and no assurance that the train would come at all. In this great cathedral to efficiency for which fascism and even Fascism have become synonymous, the trains were not running on time.
Because things are late. We are late, and we make excuses for it when ultimately there is nothing at all, but the time we didn’t make or have or use as well as we might have wanted. Our inefficiency is infuriating and maddening in equal measures. We humans break promises and fail to finish and we take too long to do things that should come easily. Alluring though it may be, we are not built to be automatic. I am not well and neither are you. But I suspect, if the day allows us, that we might get closer to it. Close enough to dance across it without trying to figure out why we waited so long to get there. I think that we might get our statues against the sky and that it might be enough, for now. This is what we have, it is our antidote on a brisk October day that slowly fades into night above and around us. This is how we fight, and this is what we win.
I am late sending this article to print for no other reason than that the words did not come. In the meantime, the lower house of the Italian Parliament passed a motion to disband the fascist Forza Nuova, proposed by a center-left coalition. The center-right passed their own motion banning all extremist groups, and each will now go forth and be debated. It’s inexplicably long in coming and there is no assurance that anything will change. Better late than never.
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