V-Day and Corruption

7 Sep

Folks, if there’s something that Italians really seem to love, I’d have to say that “manefestazioni” is pretty high up on the list. Demonstrations. Oooh, how they love their mass demonstrations in public squares. So much so that on numerous occasions I’ve heard the expression “scendere in piazza” (go down into the square) used as a generic way to say “get angry about” or “do something about.” In Rome we experience them all the time, and to be honest I often wonder if they ever spark any real change. They usually make the news and get press if there’s a large crowd that gathers, and they are generally peaceful. Often they are organized by labor unions or political parties.

The latest in “piazza” demonstrations is planned for tomorrow, and caught my interest due to its grassroots online nature. Usually the manefestazioni are to protest some government initiative, and you learn about them through posters hastily glued all over the city. This one, V-Day, is the brainchild of Italian blogosphere superstar and political comic Beppe Grillo, whose blog is ranked among the most popular on the web. (At the time of writing it was ranked #12 on Technorati.) I actually don’t read Grillo’s blog, but I received an email telling me about V-Day from a former Italian teacher of mine who is Roman but has lived in the States for more than 10 years and is now a US citizen.

So, what the heck is V-Day, anyways? Well, it’s not-so-subtle title stands for “Vaffanculo Day” (a.k.a. F-You Day) and here’s what the official V-Day website has to say about it:

Una via di mezzo tra il D-Day dello sbarco in Normandia e V come Vendetta. Si terrà sabato otto settembre nelle piazze d’Italia, per ricordare che dal 1943 non è cambiato niente. Ieri il re in fuga e la Nazione allo sbando, oggi politici blindati nei palazzi immersi in problemi “culturali”. Il V-Day sarà un giorno di informazione e di partecipazione popolare.

“V-Day is a cross between D-Day (Normandy) and V as in “revenge.” [Vendetta in Italian.] It’s taking place September 8 in public squares across Italy, to recognize the fact that since 1943 nothing has changed. Back then the King was exiled and the nation was in chaos, today we have politicians holed up in huge historic palaces immersed in “cultural” problems. V-Day will be a day for information and public demonstration.”

What’s more, there’s a flyer that calls for a law called “Clean Parliament,” with three initiatives:

1. No to convicted criminals in Parliament. (It states that there are currently 25 parliamentarians serving who have been convicted of crimes.)

2. Two terms. (Currently there are parliamentarians who have been in office 20-30 years. This would call for a two-term limit.)

3. Direct elections. (Currently parliamentarians are chosen by political party secretaries. This would allow for direct election by citizens.)

Normally I avoid Italian politics altogether. I’m not a particularly political person myself, and the system here, with its endless number of political parties and complicated election system, simply boggles the mind. But I found this initiative interesting because just a couple nights ago, at a dinner with some friends, the conversation turned for over an hour to talk of corruption in Italy. Since almost all of the eight people at the table were lawyers, talk was mostly about corruption in the justice system and courts. Everyone was complaining about how corrupt the system is and how it’s getting worse, how easy it’s becoming for judges to be bribed and paid off (apparently the going rate is between €5,000 to €10,000), making it impossible to have a fair trial here in Italy and making it mortifying for an honest lawyer to try to represent clients and make a living. 30-year old lawyers see 60-year old lawyers battling the same problems, waiting in the same five-hour lines to file a simple legal brief in the courthouse, because only one employee is working and even then perhaps will decide when you get to the window that your request is impossible, and send you on a wild goose chase claiming it’s “not in my job description” to file that type of brief. Most judges in Rome (who are assigned lifetime appointments through a government-sponsored exam and are virtually untouchable in terms of negligence) work one day a week, if that, causing cases to get held up in the system for 5-10 years and initial hearings assigned with 2 to 3 year lead times. In short, it’s demotivating and embarrassing for a lawyer, especially when considering the years and years of study and preparation that go into reaching the ability to practice law (an average of 8-12 between university degree, mandatory unpaid 2-year post-graduate apprenticeship, and bar exam that is only held once annually and in two parts).

The email my friend sent me about V-Day was addressed to Italians living in the States (apparently V-Day is also taking place in Union Square in NYC) and said, “Many of us have been forced to leave Italy due to lack of opportunities and possibilities.”

I don’t think that anyone would dispute Italy’s problem of “brain drain.” Some of the most talented Italians leave for countries that have systems based on meritocracy, to avoid the battle with corruption and nepotism in order to achieve career success. That’s because the path of career growth here is often linked to who you know or who you can pay off. I won’t go into specific examples although I know of many of them, and they are incredibly blatant. It is extremely difficult for a talented person to get an important position on brains and hard work alone–it often requires a significant political or personal connection and/or a pay-off. Which in turn leads to incompetence and lack of accountability, continuing the cycle that tends to keep the public system broken.

During my time here in Italy, especially in the beginning, I often used to wonder, “Why don’t they do anything against this?” Why doesn’t the problem just get fixed? Everyone knows it exists! Everyone talks about it! Everyone has examples of injustice and corruption that have negatively affected their lives and growth. Why don’t the public offices work? Why is there such widespread nepotism and lack of opportunities for talented people? Why is the system broken? Just do something about it already!

Most Italians I’ve spoken to have told me, “Yes, of course, it’s awful, and we know that, and we hate it. But, after all, that’s just the way it is.”

This response used to frustrate me. But now, after six years here in Rome and too many stories, I sadly have to say that I have come to that conclusion myself. Rassegnata. Resigned to the fact that the system is the way it is. You either make do, try not to complain too much and do your best, or you leave.

Nevertheless, the manefestazioni continue and Italians keep up their complaints about the system and its problems. The unfortunate part is wondering if there will ever be a way out of a system that has corruption so ingrained into the way it functions that it has become an inherent part of daily life. Where political power and connections are so essential to the average citizen’s quality of life that at times it seems to render one helpless against it. I’m speaking from my experience here in Rome and don’t intend to insinuate that corruption exists absolutely everywhere in Italy; however, at least from what I know in Rome, it is pervasive and detrimental.

I’m curious to see the response to V-Day and what kind of news coverage it will get. In Rome it’s competing with the famous “Notte Bianca,” a city-wide festival with museums and cultural venues open all night with free admission, as well as concerts across the city and shopping open all night, although that doesn’t really start until the evening.

What are your thoughts and experiences with corruption in Italy? Have you directly experienced it or know people who have? Do you think that there will ever be a way to overhaul the system? Are the manefestazioni useful?

What about brain drain? Do you know Italians who have left Italy because of the lack of opportunities?


24 Responses to “V-Day and Corruption”

  1. Clemente Carlucci September 7, 2007 at 10:16 am #

    “Most Italians I’ve spoken to have told me, “Yes, of course, it’s awful, and we know that, and we hate it. But, after all, that’s just the way it is.””

    Unfortunately, this is the answer of a relevant part of the resigned italians. But there are a lot of italians that don’t accept this system.

    With our demonstrations we are trying to treat the political class. We want that they are awared that the italians are tired. And that the anger grow more and more. The V-Day is also a chance to see how many we are. I will be there, tomorrow. I will sign the law proposal. I hope that our Parliament will discuss and approve this proposal. But, if we’ll loose this battle, we will continue the war against the corruption. “We shall overcome” said a famous american. We shall overcome!

  2. Michelle September 7, 2007 at 10:46 am #

    Sigh, I’m pretty much at the same place you are. When I first got here, I thought I could change things with my can-do American spirit. Then I got knocked on my ass repeatedly (can-do spirit can’t fight thousands of years of ingrained cultural attitudes), and I became resigned like you. Unfortunately, I’ve begun to see the protests as a joke. They are as effective as going on TV and yak, yak, yakking about all of the problems on all of those nightly TV programs. All talk, no action. I think talk is easy but many Italians don’t want to take risks. Everyone complains, for example, about all of the job precariousness. I did my part, took a stand and refused to take it anymore. Granted, as a freelancer, I’m just as precarious. But on my own terms and with my dignity intact. But when I suggest Italian friends do the same (“Refuse that crap unpaid contract! If everybody refuses, this system will come tumbling down!”), the response is “Oh, but I couldn’t do that.”
    The other thing is that there are too many people (typically the people who are in power/make the rules) for whom this system works. That judge who works one day a week and gets a healthy stream of bustarelle likes things just the way they are. And it’s not just in the law field. It’s like that all over. I thought I was just having a “brutto rientro” but all this is weighing heavily on my mind lately and I’m more fed up than usual.

  3. Farfallina ...a roam to Rome September 7, 2007 at 11:18 am #

    Great post!! It definitely rings inside me…

    Like Michelle and you, I also thought that the “can-do American spirit” would win over messy bureaucracy, but the system already put me in my place long time ago…

    A wonderful doctor I worked with kept trying to teach me to only worry about what’s in my hands and stay focused, but to always do something about it!

    The thing is that day by day we do have a little something in our hands!

    Soon enough, I’ll be in Rome and I will be tried and tested… Little by little we all have to do our part, it may not be heroic, but what else can one do!

    Hmmm… I’m not even in Rome yet and I feel as if I’m going through a rough initiation rite!

    I’m not complaining, I willingly chose this path and I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, or do anything else…

  4. SWT September 7, 2007 at 1:34 pm #

    Great post…I think you captured how many of us Americans feel here in Italy as well as the frustration of so many Italians. The corruption is so culturally embedded though that it will definitely take more than V-day but at least it could be a starting point!

  5. Brendan September 7, 2007 at 1:49 pm #

    And that is precisely why I have opted for the “leave” option! Ciao for now…

  6. Brendan September 7, 2007 at 1:50 pm #

    Ooops. I didn’t finish. Yes, this is a great country, wonderful people, beautiful landscape, mind boggling history, but the system is fundamentally broken, it leaves no hope to young, ambitious Italians who don’t wan to “play the game”. I will always be involved with this place, but not in any kind of capacity where I am forced to “play the game”.

  7. nyc/caribbean ragazza September 7, 2007 at 6:09 pm #

    Hopefully the younger generation will not just accept the status quo. The corruption scandals and red tape need to be dealt with.

    I work in a business that is all about you know as well and it can be very, very frustrating. Not sure how that is going to change in Italy, a country where most companies are family run and it’s almost impossible to fire anyone. To be clear I’m not sure the American model the best way either.

    That said,I hear so much about the problems in Italy I was suprised to read that the standards of living and education levels were higher in the Italy than in the U.K. and let’s not forget the riots that almost shut down Paris last year. While Italy does have problems, it is no picnic in other European countries either. I’m curious to see what will happen in France when Sarkozy tries to change the 35-hour work week.

    I can’t remember which expat said it but she said let’s say there was no red-tape, the gov’t worked perfectly and Italy was more like America, it would be paradise right? Well no place can be like that. My parents live a place that most people would consider heaven but guess what? It takes forever to get things done (everyone is on “island time…slow down mon!”, who you know is very important as is which family you come from, and people on the island complain about living there all the time. When I ask them why don’t they move/return to the States, they look at me like I’m crazy. And when the expats start complaining they tell them Air France and KLM have flights daily, haha.

    (please understand I’m not saying expats can’t complain about where they live but I do get how the native islanders feel. I complain about the United States but yet when expats living in America start telling me in strong terms what is wrong with my country I do feel like saying, uhm you can leave, and find myself becoming a little defensive about the good ol’ USA eventhough I know she has her flaws. LOL)

  8. Vanessa September 7, 2007 at 7:35 pm #

    Yes i see it daily around me and it is so depressing. It’s like the whole system here is geared up towards ‘as long as you have a job/ get through, who cares about what else is happening’. No one has any hope for things to improve. Everyone also constantly doing all sorts of stupid job-related-but-nothing-to-do-with-work greasy things to please their boss/ someone who has done them a favour etc. For example my husband (a dr) was told he would be driving one of his superiors to a conference 3hrs away and picking him up again when the boss felt like it (as it turned out 8am on sunday morning) and there was no way he could not do this. How is this at all related to his job??

    A friend of mine recently went to the US for a job. She is a scientist and can’t survive on the totally crap salary here in Italy. She said ALL the other people getting visas at the embassy were professionals leaving for better work opportunities.

    I’m not sure of any solution either, but as long as it suits the fat cats at the top, things are not going to change IMO!

  9. Jeni September 7, 2007 at 8:48 pm #

    Great post. It is so sad and frustrating, and I don’t even live there! I feel for the Italians and expats living with that kind of a system and injustice. It is a bit scary, too. However, you live in a beautiful place, a warm culture, have access to things that I dream about. The bottom line is that nowhere is perfect; everywhere is a trade-off. (It does not make the injustices right, though.) As we all know, the U.S. has so many problems and they have gone from bad to worse in the last 7 years, and that is just the government, not to mention the culture and society. At no other time in history have so many people been so comfortablem which ultimately leads to complacency. While the majority of us in the U.S. are appalled at what is happening in Iraq, how many of us are taking to the streets in protest? The same goes for Italy. Who will take to the streets when life is relatively calm and comfortable? It smells of the fall of the Roman Empire doesn’t it?

    Change does start at the bottom, with the people themselves, so I hope this V-day has some impact.

  10. Piccola September 8, 2007 at 3:29 am #

    Excellent post. This is the very reason why my boyfriend is trying his hardest to find a job here in the States. He’s pretty fed up with the BS in Italy. As educated as he is, he has a job at a University which pays him just enough to eat. Unfortunately, it’s 3:30 am in Italy right now, otherwise I’d call him and have him respond to your post himself. We had a long discussion on this very subject. Nepotism and the like. His intelligence and talents would go much farther here. He is very good at what he does, but as you stated, that means nothing in Italy. I’m going to send him the link.

  11. Sally September 8, 2007 at 3:54 am #

    I love a manifestationi! Most Americans are sooo put out by them because it interupts their vacation plans, holds up travel plans, whatever but I love the intensity and passion that the Italians feel over everything and willing to take the time and trouble to protest. In comparison, let’s review what we protest in America…The war? Ungodly compensation to CEO’s regardless of their poor performance? Guantanamo Bay? The increased cost of drugs under the current administration and his father’s administration? The shocking cost of health care for those that even have it. The price of gasoline and the resulting profit of oil companies. No, none of the above. Only immigration has brought out any significant protest and we are building that fence between California and Mexico to keep them out. Funny we aren’t building a fence between the US and Canada.

    And let’s just review crime. Methamphetamine production/drug addiction is rampant in the US. In order to buy one (1) box (12 tablets) of sudafed for my cold at the local pharmacy, I had to fill out a form to make sure I was not buying it for meth manufacture. Well, and then there are the serial killers and murderers. Cary Stagner (local boy) kidnapped and killed 3 tourists whom he abducted from their hotel in Yosemite and dumped in a campground near my old town. Then he killed a park ranger before he was caught. Then there was the other local boy, Scott Peterson who was convicted of killing his wife who was 8 months pregnant with his son and dumping their bodies in San Francisco Bay. When they where looking for their bodies, the number of other murder victims they found deposited in reservoirs, rivers and the bay was astounding. The newscasters were almost embarrassed to announce finding these bodies but not hers (and just who the heck were these people? Hadn’t anyone reported them missing?). Or the father/son team who shot motorists with a rifle from highway overpasses. And for those of you waxing poetic for the good ole US because we don’t have corruption here, its because you don’t get the US news or TV. You can look up Minneapolis Bridge collapse, Roads to nowhere (Alaska senator has the Congress fund bridges where there is no traffic yet allows the Minneapolis bridge to not be replaced even though it has a very low safety rating. And that is not the only bridge with a low safety rating around.

    I find it interesting that a lot of the complaints are about making a living but we’re also not making any great progress on that either. Any raise that you may receive here is negated by the increase in your health care premium and certainly hasn’t covered the increased cost of gasoline or mortgages.

    And, for a while, everyone was even pretty afraid to complain because they didn’t want to be put on a list, have their phones tapped or the FBI come knocking on the door. Some teenaged girl in Sacramento, 13-14 years old was pulled out of class and interogated by the FBI without the consent of her parents for having a drawing of Bush with a knife through his hand on her blog. Yes, we are paying the FBI to defend America from our own teenaged girls with facebook or myspace blogs.

    And yes, I am proud to be an American but its not like we don’t have our problems even though we are a great county. Sorry to be the anti-rant, but given the choice of the bella vita and the rat race, I would put up with some manifestazioni and God Bless anyone willing to take the time to care.

  12. Autumn September 8, 2007 at 4:22 pm #

    Good post, even though it made me sick to my stomach. Having dealt with a divorce and child custody case for two and half years and three different lawyers with no end in sight, it hits close to home.
    Maybe the judges in my case wil be inspired to make a decision if I scrounge up 5 to 10,000 euros?

  13. Elizabeth September 8, 2007 at 5:30 pm #

    Italians do like a good show and there is nothing better than a demonstration to make you feel like you are doing something. Unfortunately, while demonstrations are fun for those involved and they look good (the ole appearances count thing), but I have never seen change enacted this way. The governing forces are sooooo far removed from the people out there on the streets.

    My sons will soon be heading down that road towards work and career — will they have to leave in order to have a chance? One is considering medicine. Then I read the newspaper on the same surnames over and over in a large Roman hospital. How will they manage to find an adequate “support system” to at least get them on their feet?

  14. Kataroma September 8, 2007 at 6:04 pm #

    Great post, Shelley!

    Where to begin? I agree with the American posters that indeed nowhere is perfect-but I guess you can only really understand the Italian reality if you live here for a long period of time, especially if you try to live on the Italian economy. I don’t think I would have understood it before I moved here and lived it either. It’s impossible to describe to someone who has never lived in a country like this.

    What Shelley describes is the reason my OH and I plan to stay in Italy for the time being (his business being the #1 reason for me moving here) and then leaving. We need to make a decision about whether to move to his country (the Netherlands) or one of mine (Australia and the US). It’s sad – as there are many things we both like about Italy and we have great friends here – but, especially if we have kids, we want to live in a place where they have a future.

  15. Kataroma September 8, 2007 at 6:26 pm #

    Oh and just wanted to say in response to Sally above – it’s not a choice between the “bella vita” and the “rat race.” That is pure stereotype. In both places, most people are forced to run the rat race but the difference is that the (potential) rewards of running the race well are much greater in the US (or whereever) than in Italy. Here, you may be a good little rat and graduate #1 in your class from college but you’ll still see the rats with well connected families getting jobs while you scrounge around doing unpaid “internships” until you are 35 just trying to make ends meet.

  16. Julia September 9, 2007 at 10:52 am #

    Hi, sorry to be the spelling Nazi:

    M-A-N-I-F-E-S-T-A-Z-I-O-N-E pl.(I)

    I personally don’t vote in Italy but fully support Beppe Grillo. You should read his blog, very very educational.

  17. grillo??? September 9, 2007 at 4:26 pm #

    Beppe Grillo modernizing Italy?? he sort of welcomed the killing of Prof. Biagi, who wrote the only law who tried to modernize italian labour markets, giving jobs to millions of younger italians. just a vile populist.

  18. Alex September 9, 2007 at 5:49 pm #

    Beppe Grillo is against the LAW of Biagi, not Biagi himself. And there are many people that non approve that law! Yours is an opinion that many not share.

    And I agree with you about tha fact that Grillo is a populist…maybe becouse is a comedian. And I love it.

  19. Kataroma September 9, 2007 at 7:03 pm #

    Beppe Grillo kind of reminds me of Michael Moore in the States. He’s a populist, on the left and can sometimes be a propagandist. But in both Italy and the US they really need people like Grillo/Moore to make a stink about extremely important issues.

    I’m pretty pessimistic about actual change happenning through v-day though.

  20. Shelley, At Home in Rome September 9, 2007 at 9:16 pm #

    Great discussion, folks! Thanks for all the thoughts. I’m glad that most people understood that this wasn’t a “rant” against Italy…per carità, I moved here voluntarily and know better than to complain needlessly about the bureaucratic problems we face here; since I live it, complaining would only make facing it more depressing. Rather, I wanted to highlight a cultural phenomenon that I find hard to explain…damaging micro-corruption that is basically tolerated.
    In any case, I saw a short blurb about V-Day on last night’s news and I saw a short article in one of today’s newspapers. The article had a slant not so much towards the political action as towards the stunned senior citizens (anziani) who found themselves in the midst of a demonstration of 30,000 people in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, who weren’t alerted to the manIfestazione by the traditional media outlets, and how the Internet is becoming a powerful tool for organizing grassroots campaigns.

  21. Michelle September 10, 2007 at 10:33 am #

    Do you live in Italy? The Biagi law did NOT give jobs to millions of younger Italians. The Biagi law (and perhaps this wasn’t its intent but its the way it was put into practice) allowed companies to enslave (younger and older – the law didn’t really discriminate) Italians as low-paid and unpaid interns without offering them any hope of being hired with real contracts. I’m not sure if you consider having a job working long hours for free with no benefits, no vacation, no retirement and no possibility of buying a house or being indpendent. Basically no hope for any kind of future. But that’s not my definition of a job. Nonetheless, the killing of Biagi can’t be justified regardless of how horrible the law or how horribly it was interpreted.

  22. Shelley, At Home in Rome September 10, 2007 at 11:22 am #

    Click here to read an excellent article by TIME’s Rome correspondent Jeff Israely on Italy’s parliamentary excesses, from just a couple weeks back.

  23. manofroma October 30, 2007 at 6:59 pm #

    >can-do spirit can’t fight thousands of years of ingrained cultural attitudes

    So true. May I add an *expert* view of those “ingrained” attitudes me being Roman since 10 centuries plus being a history fiend as well?
    Let me do it my very un-pragmatic way, (more or less what I posted in Beppe Grillo’s English blog):

    I think the problem with our Republic is deeper than the can-do attitude can mend, being somewhat the same old problem we used to have at the times of the much older Republic, i.e. our dear mighty Res Publica which was starting to rule the known world but was not so Publica after all, two hundred families roughly having ALL in their hands.

    Too far away, the Roman Republic? I do not think so. 100 hundreds years is only 4 generations, and deep patterns of behaviours are much *ingrained*, as you well said.

    I know this is not a can-do active contribution being probably only intellectual non-utilitarian meditation from a 60 years-old man of Rome.

    But pls look at almost ALL Latin countries around the globe, where more or less aristocratic elites tend to keep ALL for themselves again and again. And the French? They had to kill the nobility in one of the greatest slaughters in history (French Revolution: a slaughter which of course I am not now proposing as a solution, no, no, no, lol).

    I might be influenced both by my history addiction and my new blogging experience on ancient Rome. I nonetheless believe in what great French historian Braudel wrote: great civilizations never die.

    Yes, they never die, this unfortunately being so true not only for our virtues (of which few are left) but for our flaws as well (of which many still remain): this selfish tendency – among the rest – to keep ALL, giving to the plebs *panem et circenses*, which were like mass-media today, though less manipulative maybe than modern circenses.

    And now, Gracchi (the revolutionary brothers) are up again, as if confirming that deep counter-behaviours can survive as well.

    These blogs of course bypassing the official media channels and mobilizing 100,000 people in a snap cannot but be considered a danger. A great danger indeed.

    I am old, and watching. With a bitter smile …

    All the best

  24. manofroma October 30, 2007 at 7:03 pm #

    Excellent post and debate, by the way. I only recently found this site thanks to an American friend.

    It is a must read to me now.

    Arrivederci o miei simpatici anglosassoni!


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