Saturday, March 5, 2016

Enough About Mussolini

"Political Correctness" can apply to a multitude of contemporary social ills. One of them apparently is quoting something (apparently anything will do) from someone who was on the losing side in World War II. I am referring, of course, to the obsessive preoccupation in some quarters with Donald Trump's refusal to distance himself from something he supposedly tweeted (or actually retweeted): "It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep." Apparently the source for his now infamous retweet was @ilduce2016

Now perhaps someone more historically conscious might have recognized the historical reference right away and avoided the apparent trap. Trump's historical knowledge - or possible lack thereof - may itself be a legitimate issue, I suppose, but that is not my concern here. Likewise, there may be some historical lessons from the political crisis caused by the leadership deficit among Italy's ruling elites in 1922 that are worth recalling in ouor present mess, but that too is another discussion for another day.

My concern here is that the obsessive preoccupation seems to be not with what the candidate may have said (and presumably believe) but with the fact that Benito Mussolini may have said it before him. Frankly, I can imagine any number of other political figures down through the centuries expressing the same sentiment (or something very similar). Would it have been different if one of them had been identified as the quote's source instead? It would be one thing to critique that sentiment. But, instead, the criticism seems confined to its reputed author.

Now Mussolini admittedly had the misfortune of ending up on the losing side in World War II. but it is worth recalling that earlier on he was much more favorably viewed by some of his future enemies. And remember that, had he not fallen out with his future enemies over Ethiopia in the mid 1930s, he could conceivably have ended up as their ally against Hitler. And also remember that, had he not foolishly entered the war on Germany's side in 1940, he would probably have died peacefully in his bed, and the same sayings might be remembered very differently today.

All of which suggests we should care much more about the content of what a candidate says (and purports to believe) than about whom he may be quoting. 

For example, one frequently hears quoted, “It is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless,” which (correctly or not) is usually ascribed to Mussolini.  (Again one can easily imagine any number of other political figures having said that or something similar over the centuries.) Much more interesting and relevant than whether Mussolini may have first said it, however, is whether one thinks it might be true and then what significance such a belief might have for Italian politics. 

To me, it does make some sense to suppose that Trump's embrace of the quote about the lion vs. the sheep says something about his worldview, which might be relevant to how he has conducted himself in business and in politics and how he might govern as our president. In contrast, the coincidence that Italy's one-time Duce may have previously said the same thing interests me a whole lot less.

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