Mussolini and Hitler Were Both Elected

In the Italian election of 1924, Benito Mussolini’s National List, a coalition of fascists and nationalists, won 65% of the vote. Mussolini immediately became Prime Minister. He then gradually took total control of the government. In 1926, after a 15-year old boy tried to assassinate him, Mussolini banned all non-fascist political parties. Mussolini’s National List was dissolved, since it was no longer needed. It had no competition. Italy wouldn’t hold another multi-party election until 1946.

In the German presidential election of 1932, Adolph Hitler lost to the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg. In a parliamentary election a few months later, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party won the most seats. With the Nazis and other far-right parties having a majority in parliament, von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor. Before Hitler, the Chancellor was a relatively weak position. Hitler immediately began accumulating power. The Reichstag fire in February 1933 contributed to Hitler receiving the authority to make laws on his own, without involving parliament. In 1934, Hindenburg died and Hitler assumed total control of the government.

In the American presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump received fewer votes than his opponent but became president anyway. Since then, he has attacked the press, the Department of Justice and the FBI. He has threatened to end an investigation into his campaign’s relationship with Russia. He has expressed his admiration for foreign dictators and continues to claim that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. He has not done anything to investigate or inhibit Russian interference in the next election. He has ignored the law by continuing to profit from his personal business. His latest offense was to take thousands of children from their parents and lock them up with no plan to reunite them. The Republican-controlled Congress, supposedly an equal branch of the government, has done nothing at all to stop him.

We take comfort in the fact that the president is incompetent. He doesn’t seem to have the skills necessary to obliterate a democracy and the rule of law like Mussolini and Hitler did. But what if there is a terrorist attack before November? Or an assassination attempt? Would the president declare a national emergency and delay the election? Would the Republican Congress do anything, considering that they’ve done nothing to stop him so far? Would Fox News finally draw the line?

I’ve avoided the news for the past four days. Maybe things have taken a major turn for the better. If so, nobody has told me. Assuming things have continued on their downward slide, we may have a long way to go before we hit bottom.

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg

Family Lexicon is an autobiographical novel, first published in 1963, by the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. I read an article about it recently and since our local library had a copy, I brought it home. I almost stopped reading it two or three times but kept going.

It’s a strange book. It tells the story of the author’s family in the 1930s and ’40s. The author doesn’t say much about herself. For example, she only mentions in passing that she’s gotten married the two times it happens. Instead, she describes the personalities, activities and especially the conversations of her parents and four siblings. The rise of fascism and the war play a relatively small role (people are arrested by the fascists, or taken away by the Germans, but not much is said about it). Ginzburg concentrates instead on the day to day lives of her family and their friends. The book is often amusing, but you have to put up with a lot of numbing detail (my mother said this, my father said that, we took a walk, the maid got upset, the new apartment was nice).

Her father is a biology professor who tells most everyone around him that they are “jackasses” and “nitwits”. Her mother is an easy-going sort who tries to see the good in everyone and everything. Her sister and three brothers are less interesting and get less attention. It’s the distinctive way the characters, especially her father and mother, talk to each other that’s the most interesting thing about the book.

Family Lexicon has gotten renewed attention because of last year’s new translation. If you’re interested, you can read positive thoughts about it here, here, here, here and here.

A Pessimist’s Pessimist

Giacomo Leopardi, born in 1798, was the son of a minor Italian aristocrat. He spent most of his youth in his father’s extensive library. By the time he was ten, he had taught himself Latin, Greek, German and French. Leopardi suffered from poor health throughout his life and died at the age of 38. He is now considered one of Italy’s greatest poets.

He is also revered as the author of a massive intellectual diary, first published in 1898 in seven volumes. Originally titled Pensieri di varia filosofia e bella letteratura (“Various thoughts on philosophy and literature”), it’s now known as Zibaldone (“Hodge-podge”). Last year, a complete English translation was published for the first time. (The translated text is 2,000 pages long, so if you’re interested, an electronic edition might be a good idea.)

In addition to being a great poet, Leopardi was one of Western culture’s great pessimists. Arthur Schopenhauer, probably philosophy’s most famous pessimist, had this to say about him: 

But no one has treated [the misery of our existence] so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi…. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect [The World as Will and Idea].

More recently, Tim Parks summarizes Leopardi in The New York Review of Books (behind a paywall):

Obliged by frequent illness to pass his firstborn’s right to inherit to his younger brother, troubled by constant problems with his eyes, frail and almost grotesque, Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.

In a later biography of his son, [Leopardi’s father] would write of Giacomo in this period that “setting himself to thinking about how one breathes” he found he could no longer breathe… “Thought,” Giacomo wrote in a letter in his early twenties, “can crucify and torment a person.”

Maybe more careful thought, perhaps a life devoted to philosophy, might help? That’s what Plato and Spinoza recommended. Leopardi is skeptical:

Those innumerable and immense questions about time and space, argued over from the beginnings of metaphysics onward,…are none other than wars of words, caused by misunderstandings, and imprecision of thought, and limited ability to understand our mind, which is the only place where time and space, like many other abstract things, exist independently and for themselves…”

In his review, Tim Parks suggests that if Leopardi were writing Zibaldone today, it would be a blog. I wonder if he’d throw in a few lighthearted posts to generate traffic.

Hearing Amanda Knox

Amanda Knox has again been found guilty of Meredith Kercher’s murder in Perugia, Italy, four years ago. Fortunately, she has no plans to visit Italy again. It also seems highly unlikely that she will ever be extradited, given the highly questionable evidence in the case and the way in which she has been treated by the Italian criminal justice system. It’s worth repeating that there was no physical evidence implicating her, the prosecution couldn’t come up with a motive and she (a 19-year old in a foreign country) was pressured into confessing.

A few months ago, I wrote a few posts about my experience as a prospective juror in a criminal trial (not murder, just insurance fraud). For some reason, people (or computer programs) kept accessing those posts as the months went by. Maybe it was because I expressed some relatively “non-liberal” opinions about our own legal system. But cases like Amanda Knox’s should make us wonder how often innocent people confess or plead guilty in order to stop their interrogations or get a shorter sentence.

In a similar vein, it’s amazing how often our legal system plods along, refusing to respond when new evidence comes out showing that someone in prison was wrongly convicted. It’s as if the judges and prosecutors are more committed to defending their earlier decisions and victories than in serving justice (maybe that shouldn’t be amazing at all). That’s one of the points Amanda Knox makes in a recent interview she gave to the Guardian (the video is available here). Some in the British press were especially merciless in depicting her as a sex-crazed nut job. I hope this interview gets widespread attention. It shows her in a very different light.