One book to start it all. In early August, Italian General Roberto Vannacci self-published his new book, Il mondo al contrario (“The upside-down world”), which soared at the top of Amazon’s bestsellers chart while sparking furious backlash and drawing heavy criticism for its contents. Promising to unmask the “politically correct” climate brought about by a “minorities’ dictatorship,” the book was widely perceived to be imbued with homophobic, sexist and racist rhetoric.
- The Italian Armed Forces quickly distanced themselves from General Vannacci’s thoughts as expressed in the book. Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, who rejected its contents on the basis that they “discredit the Army, the Defence and the Constitution,” moved to remove the official from his top post at the Military Geographic Institute.
Some key extracts. In Il mondo al contrario, the author’s stated intention is to “provocatively represent the state of mind of all those who perceive in everyday happenings a dissonant and disturbing general tendency that deviates widely from what we perceive as common feeling, logic and rationality.” The book touches upon several topics, ranging from climate change to the homeless’ occupation of unoccupied housing, the parenting desires of homosexual people, feminism and the traits of the Italian “race.” Here are two of the most-criticised passages.
- “Normalcy is heterosexuality […] dear homosexuals, you are not normal, get over it!” wrote General Vannacci at one point, positing that the normalisation of such ideas is “the fault of the plots of the international gay lobby, which has banned terms that were in our dictionaries until a few years ago” and coming out strongly against same-sex parenthood.
- He later added that he had used the term “normalcy” in the statistical sense and that he supports diversity, as “[all] people are equal in their dignity”.
- In another passage, he talks about Paola Egonu, a famed volleyball player of Nigerian descent, noting that despite her being “Italian by citizenship, it is clear that her somatic features do not represent Italian-ness.”
- “Whether we like it or not, we are not born equal on this earth, and therefore, those who arrive in Italy should give immense thanks for [Italians’] compassion and generosity,” he wrote.
A maelstrom of reactions. Far from remaining a contained phenomenon, Il mondo al contrario and the sacking of General Vannacci kicked off an intense debate among Italian politicians, civil society and the media. Minister Crosetto himself, who drew criticism from some on the right for not defending the general, clarified in several interviews that he did not make decisions based on what he thought of the book but on what he owed out of respect for the institution he serves, in accord with the Army’s highest authorities.
In defence… Several members of the right-wing government, most notably two key members of the Brothers of Italy ruling party (to which both Minister Crosetto and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni belong), came out in defence of General Vannacci. The Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, also argued that the official had to be judged for his service and vowed to read the entire book, arguing that the “sentencings of burning at the stake” weren’t reasonable for personal opinions, unrelated to the general’s work in the Armed Forces.
- “Every position and every freedom guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be censored,” added Culture Undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi, adding that “progressive thought cannot authoritatively mortify and extinguish conservative thought. After the treatment suffered by General Vannacci, will he still be able to write and speak or will he have to be humiliated by the dictatorship of the minority through the authority of the State? That would be [a] regime.”
… and otherwise. While also reiterating that everyone has a right to express their ideas, Antonio Tajani, leader of Forza Italia, remarked that “one must be cautious when occupying positions of great responsibility because legitimate and personal opinions risk becoming opinions of the institution one represents.” Several among the coalition’s most moderate wing signalled their agreement, defending the Defence Minister’s actions.
- Across the aisle, essentially the entire opposition condemned the book and stood by Minister Crosetto’s decision, with the Democratic Party’s Elly Schlen stating that the Constitution “does not put all opinions on an equal footing, it does not guarantee freedom of expression to those ideas that deny certain groups of people the right to exist.”
What about the prime minister? Most notably, PM Meloni has so far avoided the matter, which has ended up highlighting the differing sensitivities within her broad right-wing coalition and even within her own party, which has embraced a degree of moderation since coming into power. As veteran journalist and former politician Andrea Cangini argued on our sister website, the issue is delicate “because there is a widespread impression that General Vannacci’s theses […] are widely prevalent among voters as well as among the elected members of Brothers of Italy.”
- After a decade in opposition, “riding every demagogic wave” and “fuelling every identitarian flame” of the post-fascist right, PM Meloni “is (fortunately) doing the exact opposite of what one might reasonably have expected. She is pro-American and pro-European, and is sensitive to individual rights issues,” continues Mr Cangini.
- However, “under the ashes of government realism, the [post-fascist] flame continues to burn. And on that flame blow those who […] are working on the birth of a hard and pure right-wing party while waiting for a sudden crisis or a physiological decline in popularity to create the conditions for a split in BoI.”