Sunday, January 06, 2008

An Italian Lesson On Fascism

[Originally posted at on March 3, 2006]

In a speech given earlier this week to a joint session of Congress, a rare privilege for a foreign head of state, Mr. Berlusconi, the current prime minister of Italy, remembered how Italy overcame fascism thanks to the help of American troops who helped liberate Italy from its fascist domination. Growing up in Italy, I remember hearing stories of how strenuously the Italian partigiani (the Italian word for members of the homegrown anti-fascist resistance) finally defeated the fascist army with the help of the American allies. After the war the Italian Republic was born, on June 2, 1946. The Italian Constitution specifically prohibits the rebirth of the Fascist party. People were eager to put that dark, shameful chapter of our nation’s history behind them. This revulsion for fascism has its linguistic equivalents in Italian. For example, one of the most negative words in the Italian language is delatore. Delatore is the contemptuous term reserved for a "friend" of the fascist government who would voluntarily report to fascist authorities other individuals, often partigiani, accused of being undercover anti-fascist activists. Delatori received monetary and/or other rewards for their despicable acts. The word "snitch" is as a close as English gets to this Italian concept, but it lacks the intrinsic connotation of fratricide and the tie to fascism of the Italian concept. There is just no equivalent in American English to convey the contempt that Italians feel when they utter the word delatore.

I had not thought of this Italian word in a long time until a couple of days ago, when the story of Sean Allen made news. Sean Allen is the tenth-grade student of an Aurora, Colorado school who taped his geography teacher, Jay Bennish, who was guilty of comparing the tone of George Bush’s speeches to Adolf Hitler’s and of highlighting what he considers the oppressive policies of the American government around the world. Immediately, countless right-wing voices (orchestrated, perhaps, by the liberal media?) have risen in unison to extol the virtues of the student who exposed this example of the left-wing conspiracy that is threatening the innocence of children in American schools. In other words, the right-wing is celebrating Sean Allen as a courageous whistleblower.

Anticipating hours of cruel and unusual entertainment, I decided to tune in to the conservative ether in order to listen to dozens of incensed callers who flooded the airwaves with their own testimonies of rampant activism by teachers (who are quickly replacing activist judges at the top of conservative phobias.) Some of the callers expressed the view that it was inappropriate for a geography teacher to address a political topic in his class. Perhaps that argument will resonate with those who believe that geography should be limited to the study of the morphology and the topography of our planet, instead of dealing with--more broadly-- the study of the earth and the social and political systems that define different areas of the planet.
In any case, whether a geography class is an appropriate venue to discuss political matters is not the issue. If that had been the real problem for Sean Allen, he could have simply approached his teacher and asked him why he thought it was appropriate for him to be discussing politics in a geography class, instead of resorting to clandestine taping. But clandestine taping is precisely what a tenth-grader who is growing up in an increasingly intolerant atmosphere will do.

The fact that seemed to anger callers the most was how inappropriate it was for tenth-graders to be exposed to political views (callers were quick to add that this would be inappropriate regardless of the teacher's allegiance, lest they should be accused of partisanship.) This point deserves some scrutiny: It is inappropriate for tenth-graders, who can drive, be sentenced to death, and soon vote, to be exposed to subjects of a political nature, but it is not inappropriate for military recruiters to buzz around high schools in search of dwindling cannon fodder? How is it that a sixteen year-old can legitimately be bombarded with ads enticing him to "be all that he can be," or to join "the few, the proud", but it is out of bounds for a teacher to open a class debate on American foreign policy, which has an impact not only on other parts of the world's geography, but also on the lives of all the kids who are currently being targeted by the D.O.D's recruiting efforts in schools across the country? If schools are discouraged from offering all sides of an argument, what have they become? Recruiting ground? When, exactly, is the right time to start talking about foreign policy with a student?

This latest controversy is rather symptomatic of a general attitude which is taking hold in this nation. The independence of schools, of all levels, is under attack. Science teachers are being asked to give exposure to Intelligent Design, an avowedly unscientific theory, in science classrooms. Colleges are coming under increasing pressure to limit a professor's ability to openly tackle certain subjects by establishing artificial borders built around patriotism. Courts are dealing more and more frequently with first-amendment cases centered around education. The right wing noise-machine is taking unrelenting aim at the education system for its traditional importance in raising dissent. By stifling our educators' ability to raise uncomfortable topics, conservatives are seeking to silence dissent by depriving it of all forums. Take for example David Horowitz's book, The Professors, which examines 101 controversial college professors to engender the impression that colleges are teeming with anti-American attitudes.

Sean Allen may have been sincere in thinking that his teacher stepped over an unwritten boundary in the world of education. The issue is not the point of view that his teacher presented but a) how Sean chose to deal with it, b) the reaction that he sparked on the right-side of the political spectrum and c) what that says about our society. This incident is proof that we are teaching our children that different points of view should not be debated, but that they should be squashed and punished. And the fact that he is being hailed as a whistleblower by a segment of the population points to a dangerous trend.

It is rather bitter irony that all of this was taking place while Mr. Berlusconi was giving his speech to Congress, and thanking America for helping Italy overcome fascism, because what is happening to teachers in classrooms all over the nation is what happens in totalitarian regimes. And that is also why Sean Allen's no snitch. The appropriate word to describe him exists, for now, only in Italian.

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