Thursday, May 19, 2016

In memoriam of Marco Pannella

Since I heard the new earlier today, I've been trying to collect my thoughts and my emotions with regard to the passing of Giacinto (his real name, I never completely forgave him for betraying it) "Marco" Pannella. I'll try to express them in the lines that follow.

To understand the greatness of Marco Pannella we need, of course, a bit of historical perspective. We need to remember an Italy that was under the double servitude of two churches: the Catholic one and the Communist one. In an eerie symmetry, "the only true freedom is serving Christ" and "the only true freedom is freedom from need" kept echoing and reinforcing each other. It was to this Italy that Pannella brought the message, almost unheard, that individual freedom does matter, that it does matter whether people are free or not to decide about their love life (he fought for the right to have a divorce) or their child bearing decisions (he fought for the right to have an abortion). Later, he campaigned for the right of consciousness objection to, and the abolition of, the mandatory military service, for the legalization of drugs, for the rights of the LGBT community, for the rights of prostitutes, for decent living conditions for the inmates of jails, for the importance of rules and limits in the life of the State and, in particular, in the administration of justice. He wasn't the originator of any of these campaigns and, of course, he wasn't alone in them. His genius, on the contrary, was his ability to offer himself as the symbol, the embodiment and the charismatic leader for the inspirations of entire categories of people who, otherwise, would not have found a voice. The Partito Radicale I knew, and for some years was part of, was a wonderfully diverse collection of weirdos, originals and outcasts of all sorts. Just being in it all together, being able to give a political expression to our being different each in his or her own way, was already a political victory of sort. Some of the battles we fought together are now so much part of today's common sense that they sound almost trivial. Other, like the legalisation of drugs, are only now entering the main stream. Some are still as much radical now as they were back then.

To his genius in choosing the most groundbreaking contents for his campaigns, Pannella added a probably even greater genius in the choice of his methods. It is difficult now, after witnessing the antics of Berlusconi and Grillo, to remember a time when the democratic discourse in Italy was made inaccessible by its own grayness and by the boredom it never failed to provoke in whoever tried to develop an interest in it. I'm old enough to remember when the only TV political programme was "Tribuna Politica", practically "Question Time" without questions. Political discourse was either totally devoid of content or contained only coded messages from politician to politician, expressed in the most obscure of jargon. To this depressing landscape, Pannella brought his hunger strikes, his appearances at "Tribuna Politica" with a gag on his mouth to protest, ironically, for the lack of TV exposure, his acts of civil disobedience, his verbal intemperance, both in quantity (he could speak for hours in Parliament) and tone. It is easy now to lament the parody of this political showmanship we see in the less capable and less responsible hands of Berlusconi and Grillo, but this should not make us forget how groundbreaking it was and how much it helped to bring to attention some truly progressive and, at least at the their outset, minoritary campaigns.

A man always so groundbreaking in his thought and action was, inevitably, also a man of many mistakes. One was bringing organisational chaos to the Partito Radicale at the very time when, with the Mani Pulite anti-corruption judicial campaign, it could have become the receptor of people's anger, as instead was the Northern League. Another was his misjudgement of Berlusconi, in which he wrongly saw a liberal. And there was the (so paradoxical for such a libertarian) authoritarian way in which he lead the party. On more personal note, this was the reason why I once clashed with him. I went to the party's national conference and I (a very young new member) decided to collect signatures for a change with regard to some small, but to me meaningful, mechanism of internal party organisation. I took the mic (in front of 3,000 people and live on national radio) to illustrate my proposal and found some appreciation in the audience. At that point Pannella took the mic himself and attacked my proposal with the very strong tones he always used. My proposal, of course, at that point was crushed in the vote. I was, however, proud to have been defeated by such a giant and the experience gave me a precious insight into the mechanisms of authority and charisma.

At the end of that conference, however, I witnessed a more positive, although equally scary side of that charisma. I saw Pannella's closing speech and I will probably never experience anything so powerful in my life. I felt as if I was attached with strings to each and every of his words, as if he was playing me like a fiddle. I was, even, responding to each and every of his gestures, pauses or changes in tone. I looked around and noticed that the same was true for all those around me. I felt grateful that a man with such communicative powers had decided to campaign for sometimes hard to sell liberal issues, instead of just exploiting populist fears and prejudices. If he did, he could have been a Mussolini (fortunately Berlusconi and Grillo, although populists, are much less capable).

That speech, however, was closed in such a beautiful and uplifting way that I forgot all my fears. Pannella raised his hands to the sky and promised to his audience: "With these hands we will keep reaching for our dreams!". So, thanks, Marco, for reaching out for our dreams with such formidable hands. May the rest of us keep doing so for long.