Two countries

TheAmerican | In Italia

Published March 30, 2015

In Harold Pinter's 2006 theater sketch "Apart from That" two friends engage in a banal and absurdist conversation in which both say they feel "terribly and wonderfully well," though each knows the other harbors some unspoken personal problem. The audience never learns just what "That" is, but whatever it is, it looms large.
Italy: the social contract, above all else.

Italy: the social contract, above all else.

The United States and Italy are both countries we hold dear to heart. We love them for those values — social, cultural, political, and yes, culinary — they fought for and now ensure as democracies. Just what they stand for in the minds of each of us may not be describable in words. We can say we love and admire them in that "terribly and wonderfully well" sort of way.

At the same time, we know both have egregious defects, some glaring, others more subtle, but all profoundly complex. A few of the defects are so culturally and governmentally ingrained as to seem permanent, despite rhetoric and noise about "change."

Since I began writing "Closing Argument" in 2011 — this is my 50th column — my aim has been to shed light on U.S. and Italian law through the lens of current events. I've tried to give perspective into legal and cultural systems that occupy different worlds.

Along the way, I've touched on immigration, health care, contraception, gay rights, online privacy, voting rights, abortion, all too many episodes of gun violence and police brutality, and the recently concluded Amanda Knox murder trial. I've also touched on unmanned drones, war crimes in the Middle East, and the nerve-wracking pressure of U.S. and Italian tax authorities.

Comparing the two countries' laws in the context of these events has often offering striking differences in approach.

Italy's laws, as I've written, affirm a belief in social justice as reflected in the country's postwar constitution, written soon after the end of two decades of repressive fascist control. Citizen rights came first. Italy's comprehensive national health care system, strict gun control, employee-oriented labor law, and the absence of barriers to a woman's right to an abortion — all constitutional bulwarks — demonstrate the contours of a fundamental social contract.

The U.S.: State or individual? The argument rages on.

The U.S.: State or individual? The argument rages on.

The American approach to these subjects, some formulated centuries ago, yields a distinctly different viewpoint. Ongoing struggles over the Affordable Care Act, abortion rights (the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling remains controversial), and the failure of most states to pass comprehensive gun control legislation have their roots in a deep historical conflict. On one side of that conflict are those who favor the creation and instituting of broad social remedies; on the other are those who favor the absolute right of the individual.

This difference in views may be what most separates the two countries.

Yet while Italy's commitment to a social contract is in many respects a great strength, it has also proved a domestic ball and chain, slowing economic growth and maturity. It has also been partly responsible for a lost generation of unemployed youth and helped to produce an often-demoralized population.

The larger American economy is far stronger, but it also tends to favor the well off. The U.S. underclass is often unassisted and in many cases isolated. Violence is more common as a result.

The two court systems also operate differently, with the lengthy Knox murder case — whose trials and various appeals eventually lasted eight years — giving both U.S. and British media ample fodder to take a laborious legal process to task.

Still, Knox was ultimately acquitted in a courageous ruling that surprised even the most jaded critic of Italy's legal system. As for the court of public opinion, the Knox jury is still out in both countries (and in England) and may never reach a verdict. But however slowly Italian jurisprudence may have operated, the system itself worked.

Then there's politics. In Italy, a young prime minister has chosen to confront established labor unions in an effort to change hiring practices and transform electoral laws. Just far he'll get or how long he'll stay in power remains unknown.

In the U.S., parties and candidates are jockeying ahead of a presidential election that's likely to ramp up the country's rhetorical side.

So, how are Italy and the U.S.? They're both "terribly and wonderfully well," thank you, since whatever their blemishes, both are thriving democracies. And thriving democracies come with complications. As for the rest — Pinter's never-quite-known "That" — it's what part of this column tries to get at, and always will.