Obama Abroad

by Michael Blim

In Rome, the 64 bus takes all — pilgrims, pickpockets, and just folks — from the Stazione Termini to the Vatican. Though still an armpit-in-face experience, Roman hygiene, commercial deodorants or both have improved, so that one can focus one’s senses on the scene rather than devote some to avoiding smells. While traveling from the Piazza della Repubblica, where the old second hand book stands now must treat with new five star hotels winnowed out of its old colonnades, past the Quirinale and the Banca d’Italia, the last institutional redoubts not under Berlusconi’s control, the Via del Corso, Largo Argentina, and finally over the Bridge into Vatican City, I listened in on an animated conversation among three Roman women of a certain age returning home from a late afternoon walk in Centro. Though their dress was modest, almost matronly, there were enough rings and things to indicate that they were respectable and expected to be taken so. One sported more than a bit of coral and butch, red-dyed hair, suggesting to me that they were ladies of the neighborhoods rather than of the center. Proper, ordinary Roman women, in other words.

Obama-smile-415x253 Obama and American health care was on their minds. What kind of a country was it, they wondered, where half of the people don’t want health care reform? Obama was doing the right and obvious thing, and was being defeated by the lobbies. One opined that Obama was a failure, but her two companions argued that after only one year, it was too soon to tell. The lady in coral was indignant: she would never step foot in America, because what if she got sick? The uninsured don’t get treatment, and the poor are left in “mezzo la strada,’ in the middle of the street, with all of the indignity and danger being left in the street implies.

Three days later, amongst several of Italy’s elite, the refrain was the same. Americans left the uninsured sick in “mezzo la strada,” noted a parliamentarian seated to my right as we discussed the decline of the Italian leadership class amidst the splendor of the main sala of Siena’s Banca Monte dei Paschi, said to be the world’s oldest bank. Obama, once America’s knight in shining armor seemed to be becoming to them America’s Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of power in a barbarian land. Despite the travesties of current Italian politics – Berlusconi is currently being tried for bribing a judge and consorting with the Mafia in proceedings he refuses to attend while Italy’s equivalent of AT & T was caught wittingly recycling billions of drug dollars made by Calabria’s mob – my hosts found themselves morally refreshed by America’s abysmal example. It took their minds off their troubles.

As I traveled over the Alps and onto Sweden, I expected more of the same, perhaps with more than a little sanctimony mixed in, and deservedly so. What state on the planet could be said to be a true welfare state if not Sweden?

Once more, my hosts wondered about how Obama could be defeated by lobbies and his own party for something as fundamental to human life as national health insurance. Yet the Swedish view, I found, was a bit more complicated than the moral horror exhibited by the Roman women or the self-satisfied assertions of European civility in the face of American barbarism expressed by a few of Italy’s power elite. For one thing, my Swedish hosts like me were still astonished at the “just war” hubris of Obama’s Nobel speech, and even embarrassed by the way in which their national moral vision had been compromised by a meddlesome prize committee. Obama for them was no knight in shining armor, but rather a representative of American power and its interests, including those that fought him on health care.

Still the Swedish welfare state had taken some doing, and thus leaving people in “mezzo la strada” was simply unfathomable – not even a trace in my hosts’ memories. Unlike the Italians, however, who believe that the state should be exploited for anything one can get, equality be damned, Swedish political ethics are founded on the belief that the state must guarantee equality of treatment, while the citizen must strive to earn that universal regard by not putting one’s self in “mezzo la strada,” or by getting out of the middle of the street as soon as possible. If it takes the maximum resources of the state to restore equality of condition, fine. But a person has a duty to the state as the democratic guarantor of the common good to use public resources wisely so that one can contribute constructively once more to the common good.

One of the reasons I found myself in Stockholm was to serve as the external examiner of a Ph.D. thesis on the Swedish underground economy, which constitutes about 6% of the annual gross national product. The comparable figure for the US is 9% and a whopping 27% for Italy. The investigator, now Dr. Lotta Bjorklund Larsen, found some simply amazing things, the most important in my view was that even in the incidence of using illegal labor and avoiding taxes on the labor were widely diffused but involving little “thefts” from the Swedish tax ledgers, Larsen’s informants acknowledged that their acts deprived the state of much-needed revenue for the welfare state. Some actually were glad about it. No pseudo-America tea-party crazies they, but the sentiment was nonetheless that they had paid “enough” into the common coffers of the Swedish state. Some said that they weren’t getting enough back from the state, even if their children had gone to terrific schools for free, and the same kids now enjoyed parental leaves that allowed their parents to enjoy grandchildren in their fifties, instead of their seventies as in America.

Some Swedes, perhaps middle class or lower middle class, were rebelling against their welfare state, if in every small ways.

One senses that the Swedish social compact will survive, as will their puzzlement over America’s failure to provide the minima of social protection.

Yet, in some ways, the Swedes lie closer to our bosom than do the Italians. The Swedes too insist that individuals improve themselves, and that they keep their end of the social bargain.

Our Obama. One senses that in Italy, he would be treated as a candidate for public office cynically as a naïf who couldn’t Machiavelli his way out of a paper bag. In Sweden, his mix of moralism and paternalism would go well, even if his imperial designs would be treated with outrage and ethical irritation.

From what I could gather on a bus, in a board room, or in an academic aula, Europe still has hopes for Obama, even as many here, including me, have just about given up hope.

That he may fulfill those hopes that spread about the world as well as in the States in these crucial days ahead.

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