Although I mostly love the time I have in Rome, I often find myself reminiscing about my motherland. Anyone who knows me well, knows that regardless of where I am, I have a bit of a restless streak that not even a fulfilling life seems to cure for very long. When these restless periods arise, I find myself thinking of the things that I don't like about wherever it is that I am. And then mentally juggling them with the things that I do. Invariably, the dichotomy doesn't really resolve anything. If anything, it becomes a bit of a way to pass the time.
Like many people here, one of my major issues is that Italy has major problems with transparency. In Australia recently, political coverage shed light on the faceless men behind the political parties and how they inevitably steered much of the direction the parties were taking. In Italy, I think it is fair to say that the society is mostly steered by the faceless. There is a sense of helplessness here when compared to other Western and Northern European countries where freedoms and transparencies are almost a given.
In comparison to other nations, the freedom of the press here is limited and highly stratified, steps are being taken slowly to weed out nepotism which is endemic and nero, which is basically like the black market has created a sub economy with its own set of unwritten rules and etiquette. Professional guilds control sectors and pricing and are incredibly influential and powerful, as are the splinters of labour unions who seemed to be involved in a revolving run of strikes and public campaigns in protest against the country's substandard wages, austerity measures and the imbalance between political and individual power.
Italy modernised in the 1950s after being decimated in the second world war, and has experienced varying degrees of acculturation and economic prowess in the decades that have followed, but since the 1990s has been in a slump in comparison to most of its neighbours.
I recently spent a few days in Shanghai, a place I had not visited for about five or six years. Revisiting, I noticed there were a few more skyscrapers than I remembered, that the place seemed less like the dusty western frontier I remembered it being back in 2005.
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We all know about China's fortunes and struggles. We marvel at the ability to get things done and are equally, and justifiably horrified at the government's tendency to infringe on its people's rights (most especially its ethnic minorities). In the six or so years between my visits, I dryly noted that the Shanghai metro system had more than tripled to 11 or 12 lines. Perspective moment; I live in an area in Rome which is slated for a metro station, but the project is hopelessly over budget, and the single additional Line C that has now been under construction since 1990, is not likely to open in its entirety until possibly 2020.
For those who don't know much about Rome's transport system, basically, it is a bus reliant city, despite the crushing traffic, as there are only two metro lines which intersect only at Rome's main station, Termini. That makes life difficult in a city of up to six million depending on your sources, and one of Europe's most polluted cities, where air quality is often so poor that cars are often banned from the inner metropolitan area for days based on an alternating registration system.
Of course the lure of archaeological remains adds a more complicated layer to the project, but, let's face it, in a country that doesn't have sufficient money to maintain its current sites, and the availability of technology, the last thing the city of Rome should be worrying about at the moment is exploratory works of these potential sites. Leave them underground for the next generation and concentrate instead on improving the air quality for your current citizens, and reducing the reliance on private transportation.
Anyway, I digress. Because I wanted to point to the fact that when I have my moments where the Eternal City seems to be crumbling before my eyes, I think about my motherland (its Japan...don't ask me to explain), and as such, I get to thinking about how life would be different if Europe was a little more Asian in its approach to things.
But then, when I spend too long thinking about that kind of thing, I come across something like this, which makes me remember what things look like when they go wrong.
The one thing I never noted previously in Shanghai that I did this time around, was the ubiquitous social control that exists there. It's a component of the mentality that prevails in Asia where the collective is usually more important than the individual, and on one level, it keeps the city moving and people in relative harmony, something critical in cities of that size. Perhaps its an idea that has been impressed upon me since I have been living in Rome, a place where people take pride in their right to express themselves at a personal level, even if the institutions, bodies and governments never will.
But, there is a difference between control, which perhaps suggests some semblance of order, and oppression, in which a faceless minority (ie. a party perhaps?) can so thoroughly control entire groups of thought, feeling and movement.
As the New York Times article illustrates, China is a master at adopting new technology to its benefit, and its urban centres are proof of this, as is the sinister level of interference that is present in national and presumably international communication networks. But while its participation in international commerce and to an extent the international community is still in its fledgling years, so too are its people at the mercy of the new dichotomy. If you haven't yet watched it, seek out the Last Train Home which in many ways is the perfect example of the clash between old and new values in a country which is struggling to keep apace with the changes it is undergoing. I live in a country which is struggling with its stalemating, with the seeming lack of change that seems to define its situation and standing, and so its easy to note the problems in another country and another context, especially when there is another set of values in play.
There has to be some kind of balance between the individual and the collective, and I'm curious to know if any country in the world has ever really achieved it. At this stage I will say that neither China nor Italy, (or even Australia or Japan) have managed it.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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