Category Archives: Politics

Striped shirts and hoodies: dressing for urban disorder

As the media discussion of the London riots unfolded last week – with its talk of hoodies, ‘cardigans’ and the art of looting the right trainers – I was reading about Italian protest movements in the 1960s. Not the better known ‘68ers with their Che Guevara beards and hippy inspired look, but the series of working class protests that took place across the northern Italian cities in 1960 and 1961. They were less ideologically driven and less structured than those of ’68, but no less reflective of the turmoil and inequality of Italian society at the time. They aren’t directly comparable with the London riots but hearing about both did make me think about urban unrest, collective protest and the politics of dress, since it does seem to have a real importance both for those involved and for the press who need to describe and discuss them afterwards. Continue reading

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The Politics of Art: Writing the Arab Spring

Ever since I read the excellent Pereira Maintains in January, I’ve been meaning to write about it properly, but never quite got around to it. A novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi set in 1930s Lisbon, it is told from the point of view of a middle-aged literary newspaper editor who becomes a reluctant witness to the violence and repression of Salazar’s brand of fascism and dictatorship. The story is sparse and simply told; stripped down to basics so much it reads almost like a fable, which Tabucchi uses to pose some powerful questions. What is the point of the printed word in a dictatorship, when newspapers aren’t allowed to inform people as to what is going on? And what is the role of literature, of art in a society such as this? When I went to the Artists in the World panel discussion as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the stark narrative of Pereira Maintains. Continue reading

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‘When the press is gagged, the reader has to read between the lines’… Piero Gobetti and antifascist Italy

In a time of political crisis, when real power eludes us or there is huge uncertainty about what we want or how to solve our problems, words may be the best weapon we have. It is journalism and editorial comment that so often articulate the mood, and the concerns of a society, and through words – whether printed or increasingly online – that we manage to reflect meaningfully on what is going on, and even to sketch out, discuss and debate ideas and possible solutions. The value of good editorial commentary – whether in national newspapers or blogs; Fintan O’Toole or Ireland after Nama – has become increasingly clear during Ireland’s recent years of political crisis. The more immediate Egyptian crisis is another, urgent indication of courageous, independent voices, even if their medium is more likely to be twitter than print newspapers. One of the books I read over Christmas – a brilliant, slim volume by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi called Pereira Maintains and set in Salazar’s Portugal – is another powerful testimony to the editor’s unique potential, and indeed his or her responsibility, to use the printing press to spread necessary ideas and truths, even in great danger. Continue reading

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A ‘ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork’? Cities and progressive politics

Fintan O’Toole’s intriguingly entitled article in Saturday’s Irish Times, ‘The decision that I made on contesting this general election’, got me thinking about a few things. I was enthusiastic about his idea of seeking out people who were active in civil society – whether the arts, business, education or community work – at a local level, but were emphatically not politicians, to contest the election. But at the same time, I could see why such an idea was probably doomed to failure – or at least not to live up to the expectations placed in it – especially given the very short time frame. But it was O’Toole’s citing of Mary O’Rourke’s dismissive comment that all it would amount to would be a ”a few gurus in posh areas” that really made me wonder about why people vote the way they do. Continue reading

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Public intellectuals, trains and automobiles: Tony Judt’s post-war world

It soon becomes clear from reading any number of Tony Judt’s history books that he has a deep fascination with trains. Postwar, his highly acclaimed history of contemporary Europe, opens in a train station in Vienna. The Austrian capital was traditionally the gateway between eastern and western Europe, with its central position and imperial concerns further east. In post-war Europe, the city’s two separate train stations – one with routes heading east, and the other with trains travelling west, but never between the two worlds – became, in Judt’s mind – the ultimate symbol of the tragic and artificial divisions of the Cold War world. A history of railways was also planned until Judt became terminally ill with motor neuron disease. It is one of the many topics that he returns to in his posthumous new book, The Memory Chalet. He was a strange child, so fascinated by trains that he spent whole school holidays riding them alone across London and the south of England. Later, as he tells us, he discovered Europe from the window of a train carriage. Trains seem to mean two things to Judt; they represent the possibility of boundless travel across the European continent, while remaining connected to the landscape in a way that simply isn’t possibly with air travel. However the great European railways and the grandiose nineteenth-century station buildings are also physical reminders of the great undertaking of public service that Europe’s rail system represents. Continue reading

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Fiddling while Rome burns: Berlusconi and the crisis of the Italian Left

Life seemed very normal in Rome when I was there the weekend before last. There were posters everywhere for a march against the Berlusconi government to take place that Saturday, December 11, but protests and popular demonstrations by those at all ends of the political spectrum are a fairly everyday occurence in Italy, and usually cause little remark. When I lived in Rome a few years ago, the brief life of the last Prodi government was nearing its end and I had to share my way home one Saturday with a right-wing protest march heading for the Colosseum, where marchers sported t-shirts with the delightfully Italian slogan of ‘No communists in the family… thank god’. Such marches usually pass without incident, as did the one on December 11. However political tensions were mounting in the lead-up to the parliamentary vote on the no-confidence motion in the Berlusconi government, to take place that Tuesday. Ever since Gianfranco Fini, former leader of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale party had withdrawn his support for Berlusconi’s government last August in a surprising show of statesmanship, it had seemed as if his days as prime minister were numbered. Continue reading

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