In Populism’s New Chills, Let’s Cultivate Our Gardens

With all that’s going on in the world, it may be time to make things with one’s hands, a most therapeutic exercise. The act offers solace and hope in the face of commotion and chaos.

January 17, 2024 06:06 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

Are you a DIY person? I certainly am. When my mind becomes too full or my heart too heavy, I go downstairs and tinker around with my toolset. Tinkering makes me feel productive and lifts my spirits. It’s good for my soul.

Memory of a rose at dusk, photo by the author

My heart has been heavy lately. Last week, a video of hundreds of Italian men clad in black and standing in neat lines made the rounds on social media. But this wasn’t 1924 — it was January 7, 2024. These men in Rome were commemorating the events of Acca Larentia, a street in Rome, where two teenage fascists were killed by ideologically opposed activists on January 7, 1978. A third teenager died in a confrontation with the police a few hours after the first ambush. 

The Italian constitution has outlawed neo-fascist gatherings and organizations since 1952 (the Scelba Law). At the commemoration last week, one speaker called out, “To our dead comrades,” and the orderly crowd answered in a chilling unison, “presente.” The men repeated this ritual three times while lifting their arms in a fascist salute. We are here, present. And then they dispersed. Some have now been identified by the police.

The press and political and judicial institutions are putting pressure on Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her government for a reaction. They are still waiting. In the past, Meloni has expressed her admiration for the reign of Il Duce. The logo of her current party, Fratelli d’Italia, still harbors a tricolor flame, symbol inherited from the fascist tradition.

2024, Rome, Acca Larentia

A trip down memory lane

On Monday, I spoke with Alberto Burgio, the reviewer of my graduate thesis in philosophy and history. We hadn’t spoken for 25 years. Burgio has aged a bit, and so have I. This kind professor taught twin subjects, History of Philosophy and Philosophy of History, at the University of Bologna. He even had a go at electoral politics some time ago. So, I thought, perhaps he could help me understand what’s now going on in Italy. How is Italy, and how are Italians doing, after one whole year under the far-right Fratelli d’Italia government. 

After some catching up and realizing neither of us excelled at small talk, we dove into the heart of the matter. Burgio recounted the years he spent in active politics, during which he noticed what he called “a profound inadequacy of today’s political personnel. At least in Italy, the habit of thinking over long periods of time has vanished. It’s as if history didn’t exist and everything is contained within the day’s news cycle.”

Events, thoughts, discourses and new practices form in the long run. They take generations. Similarly, memories and habits cannot be undone overnight just because some government officials decided to put a lid on them. The fascist past has become taboo in Italy and, at the same time, it has come back to life. However, the taboo is not helping anyone understand how history impacts the present.

As students in Bologna during the 1990s, we addressed our professors only by their last name, except for a few who invited us to use their first names. I still called the professor by his last name.

I suggested to Burgio that today’s confusion may stem from what we perceive to be the unkept promises of Enlightenment. Yes, he noted, kindly redirecting my musings, the Enlightenment does offer a frame of reference, but we should remember that most people have a shorter perception of the past. Most people do not look beyond a couple of generations. In the second half of the 20th century in Italy, there were great social advances, but people today are feeling the loss of the material comfort they had formerly gained. Laws protecting workers and various elements of the social safety net are now being dismantled. Children of those who reached adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s now have a hard time finding work. 

Burgio explained that people are confused. Their material comfort has diminished, and what’s left appears to be in danger. They have lost their bearings: their north and their south and what’s right and what’s wrong. This loss of orientation may explain why people end up voting against their interests, or why some groups vote for the far right. The temptation to seek a strong voice with simple answers is powerful. In countries with a history of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, such as Spain, Italy and even France, people have a tendency to look for a structure and hierarchy. To me and to my professor, this is regrettable.

This loss of orientation could potentially be resolved through vibrant social dialogue. This might reconnect different social strata. Dialogue is always a work in progress, and it takes time, dedication and patience.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

On winter days, when I can no longer deal with thinking about war, mounting populism and fascism’s enduring charms, I like to work with my plants. I take rosebush branches or lemon tree cuttings, put them in vases and cover them up with plastic bags so they retain their moisture. Hopefully, they will become new plants. I can then take a deep breath and look forward to a greener and more fruitful garden. 

And when my greenhouse is full and I can’t fit any more cuttings or saplings, I get down to mending, embroidery, sewing tote bags, knitting scarves or, as I am doing these days, reupholstering old chairs. 

The stapler and the pruning shears, the needles and the tape measure, these are my silent companions. My colleagues at Fair Observer and in other contexts tend to be exceptional conversationalists, but at times, I need silence. The kind of silence that lets me hear the tinging of a needle falling on a tiled floor. 

In these times of rising tensions and political uncertainty, the act of creating, recycling and restoring becomes, for me, a subtle form of resistance. While we are seeing a surge in conflicts and populist movements, my small corner, adorned with blooming roses and revitalized chairs, becomes a refusal to succumb entirely to our world’s disarray. The careful craftsmanship, the intertwining of threads and the restoration of forgotten furniture speak to a commitment to enduring values, a commitment to the slow and steady sedimentation of time.

So, while wars are scarring the earth and taking people’s lives, let us continue to plant seeds, both literal and metaphorical — the roses and lemons of resilience. I hope for a future where craftsmanship, care and consideration prevail over political movements focused on power and prevarication and economic forces seeking to monopolize markets and dominate our lives.

At Fair Observer, we are home to vibrant social dialogue that is much needed for our times. One of our goals is to help people find their bearings and discover a new sense of orientation. We are caught between two worlds, one dying and the other unborn. We cannot see around the corner and this uncertainty is causing much anxiety and even fear. 

This January, it is time to cultivate both our real and metaphorical gardens. Only then will we have a better future.


Roberta Campani
Communication and Outreach

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