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A Chat about Italy with Professor James Walston

Professor James Walston

In case you are unaware, James Walston is a professor of politics at the American University of Rome.  Professor Walston is often consulted by the world’s press when it is looking for expert observations on Italy.  Well I was lucky enough to have had a chat with James Walston recently about Italy today, and what Italy was like when Walston first moved to the country.

James Walston, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, has been in Italy for around 36 years, so he’s seen a lot and follows Italian politics closely, which is to be expected seeing as his is a political scientist and professor of politics.  Walston is also married to an Italian, which is something else that will have provided him with insight into Italian culture.  In other words, he knows Italy very well.

In September this year, Walston wrote an article which appeared on the web site of Foreign Policy, a global magazine of politics, economics, and ideas.  Walston’s article was entitled The Bordello State.  For those of you not in the know, ‘bordell0’ is an Italian word which means ‘brothel’.  As if the title of Walston’s article were not provocative enough, he opened it with a quote from Dante’s Pergatory: “Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, nave sanza nocchiero in gran tempesta, non donna di province, ma bordello!”  Translated roughly this is “Alas enslaved Italy, inn of sorrow, a ship without a helmsman in a great storm, not a queen of her provinces, but a whorehouse.”.  A succinct summary of Walston’s impression of contemporary Italy.

Waston’s article provoked an official reaction from Italy’s Ambassador to the USA no less.   Indeed, Mr Ambassador Giulio Terzi weighed in with what was an attempt to counter criticism of Italy’s beleaguered master, Silvio Berlusconi.

Walston’s original article is here: The Bordello State – Italy’s descent under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The Ambassador’s response, here: The Truth About Italy

And James Walston’s reply here: The Truth About Italy: James Walston Replies

Read the comments too.

Chatting to Walston

Professor James Walston
Professor James Walston

I did not dwell on the Bordello articles. No. Instead I asked Professor Walston whether he’d seen much change for the better in Italy over the last 36 years.  He replied that he had not seen much, but when egged on a little, added that Italy is doing much better at cracking down on its age old problem of the mafia than in the past.  As well as knuckling down to the organised crime issue, Walston also feels Italy had become a truly multi-cultural nation.  I’m not sure every Italian will be happy about this – Umberto Bossi, the leader of the oft times anti-foreigner Northern League certainly won’t be.

Interestingly, Walston believes that through the years Italy has come to be identified as a serious player on the world’s stage, even if at times, I would say, it comes across as being more of a circus act than a serious nation.

At the end of the day though, Italy is a rich and powerful country, so it does command quite a lot of weight internationally.  However back in 1974 when James Walston arrived in the peninsula, Italy was not really considered as a world player, even if it was.

I had to raise Berlusconi, so to speak, so here’s a little on what Walston believes might happen in the near future.

What about Berlusconi?

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Walston is of the opinion that while Berlusconi is down, he is by no means out.  Mentioning the possibility of elections in March, he stated that Berlusconi does stand a chance of gaining a majority in Italy’s upper house – the senate – owing to Italian electoral law in which “The coalition that wins the largest number of seats in a region is automatically given 55% of that region’s seats, if it has not reached that percentage already”.

The outcome of elections with regards to Italy’s lower house – the Chamber of Deputies – is not as clear, in that votes are counted on a national basis, and it is less likely that Berlusconi would win enough votes to control both houses.  Still, the message is clear: Don’t exclude Berlusconi just yet – unless he decides to do a ‘Craxi’  – my words – not James Waltons – and exile himself!  See this article from Australia’s ABC News: Exile an option for besieged Berlusconi – in which James Walston is also quoted.

And Fini?

There is uncertainty surrounding Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s estranged political partner turned adversary.  Indeed, Italy’s electorate might punish Fini for his betrayal of Berlusconi, feels Walston.

It is probable that if it comes to crunch time and national elections are called, the Berlusconi faithful will be plugging Fini’s betrayal aspect as hard as they possibly can, in an attempt to reduce popular support for this particular pretender.

How about Italy’s left?

Walston thinks that there is a generational battle under way – in that the young left is trying to assert itself over Italy’s old and traditional left, but Italy’s, possibly, budding new left is nowhere near ready to take over the reins and rejuvenate left of centre politics in Italy, let alone win a March election.

The Outlook for Italy?

Rather bleak.  In James Walston’s eyes Italy is a country without direction.  When someone who is a world renown expert on Italy expresses such an opinion, perhaps certain people should sit up and take note.

You might also like to see James Walston’s latest article on Foreign Policy: Bunga Bunga Forever – which takes a look at how incredibly weak opposition to Italy’s prime minister is; an opposition of seemingly “unprincipled machine politicians” which seems utterly incapable of exploiting Berlusconi’s weaknesses to their political advantage.  The article reinforces Walston’s opinion that Italy does not know where it is going.

The time for dithering is over, but Italy moves ever so slowly, and as Professor Walston noted, not a lot as changed for the better in Italy in the 36 years he’s been here.

I hope to have further chats with Professor Walston, and, with a little luck, I might even meet him – this is something I’d look forward to.


You can find out more about James Walston via this Wikipedia entry: James Walston or by reading his blog: ItalPolBlog with Walston

Photograph of James Walston kindly supplied by James Walston himself.

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