It is a common stereotype that Italians are “a self-interested, family-centric society which sacrifice[s] the public good for the sake of nepotism and the immediate family.” A culture that cares only for its own ‘members’ and who acts only for the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family. Researchers like Banfield are not alone in contributing to this devastating image. In what is considered the definitive work about the so-called national character, The Italians: A Full-length Portrait (1964), Luigi Barzini did not mince words about the dichotomous nature of Italians. Sure, there are the Italians who produced the wonders of the arts and sciences—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo–Barzini says, but he also asks a tough question: why is it that Italy, “a land notoriously teeming with vigorous, wide-awake and intelligent people, always behave[d] so feebly?”
In 2015, author John Hooper updated Barzini’s observations in The Italians, and astutely noted that the long-standing internecine conflict between the North and South has taken a new turn; it “is now trumped by a shared aversion to ethnic and racial ‘outsiders’.” In a stunning ironic twist, Italians have finally found unity—at least on one point—by finding a common enemy, the migrant.
People have been pondering the relationship between self-interest and humanitarianism from time immemorial. How do we reconcile protecting ‘our own’ and following laws that may damage our interests? In the Euthyphro, one of Plato’s Dialogues, we see the ultimate form of this dilemma, as Euthyphro, a renowned lawyer, needs to decide whether to prosecute his own father for murder, in order to fulfill the dictates of the law and morality. Plato teaches us that more than 2,400 years ago, Socrates made it his life’s mission to explore the clash between what is moral and what is immoral and how to balance self-interest against the public good. Philosophical debate about ethics has continued unabated since then. Every philosophical school has produced its own theories, none has provided the definitive answer. The crux of the dilemma is this: Is something inherently ethical or unethical, or is something ethical or unethical only because a person or society says it is so? Which consideration should guide our actions?
Though short on answers, no society can avoid reflecting on what is good and what is evil; what is moral and what is immoral. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that legality is no guide to morality. In philosophical discussions about the Holocaust, for example, many people are shocked to learn that the Nazi genocide of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was ‘legal’. Atrocities can be made legal with the flourish of a pen, simply by writing a law that legalizes any action that those in power wish to take. As Martin Luther King writes in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and…It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
But it’s not so easy to transform the immoral into the moral by a similar magic. Power may determine legality, but only conscience can tell you what’s moral. Martin Luther King, when imagining being asked to justify how he could “advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” replied that it “lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Today this moral dilemma is unfolding in the Mediterranean on a daily basis. Most recently we have been following the dramatic case of the migrant rescue ship operated by the Germany-based charity, Sea-Watch, and captained by Carola Rackete. After having waited fruitlessly for authorization to dock in Lampedusa, Sicily, for over two weeks, Rackete announced that she would be docking without authorization. Italy’s populist interior minister, Matteo Salvini—an immigration hardliner who flings harsh rhetoric around in the mold of Donald Trump–refused to allow the 41 African migrants onto Italian territory until other EU countries had pledged to take them in. The fact that these unfortunate people were stranded on a ship in the midst of a European-wide heat wave was slightly mitigated only by the fact that the medically vulnerable had been allowed to disembark.
When faced with Rackete’s disobedience of Italian laws, Salvini went as far as characterizing her actions as a “a criminal act of war” because in the process of docking, Rackete had ‘rammed’ or ‘bumped’—take your choice of words—a smaller boat positioned to stop her progress into port. When Rackete was arrested, Salvini tweeted, “Mission accomplished. Pirate ship seized, maximum fine for foreign NGO.”
Salvini and his followers have commanded the attention of the world by pitting Italians against migrants, by implicitly perpetuating an amplified version of the ‘amoral family’ stereotype of ‘us against them’, and ethics be damned.
Henry David Thoreau had much to say on this subject. He argued that individuals have a duty to override the dictates and laws of governments when the laws are in conflict with the exercise of their own conscience. In his case, he was at loggerheads with the American government on the subjects of slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Of course, it goes without saying that individuals such as Thoreau, King, or Rackete, for that matter, should also cause no harm to their fellow human beings and society at large. Civil disobedience does not mean violence, mayhem and revolution; yet it is not easy to avoid going down that slippery slope. Above all, these individuals who stand up for justice must have the courage to face the consequences. Socrates preferred drinking the hemlock to violating his principles and his conscience. Mohandas Gandhi declared Thoreau to be one of the greatest and most moral men in America (“For Passive Resisters, 1907). Martin Luther King, from his incarceration in Birmingham Jail, spoke of the Biblical concept of the ‘one just man’.
But what about the Italian people in this dilemma? Despite stereotypes and hyperbole, Italy, like any other country, is made up of people of all kinds: good and bad, compassionate or selfish menefreghisti. Those watching from the dock at Lampedusa had a predictably mixed reaction to Rackete. “Some of them warmly greeted Carola as she left the vessel, conducting herself with dignity while being escorted by the police officers. Many others, instead, shouted at her, insulted her, and even expressed the hope that she would get raped by ‘illegal migrants’.”
Carola Rackete has followed in the footsteps of some of the greatest philosophers and humanitarians. King declared that, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Rackete fits this description in every way. To reflect her times, Rackete has become the symbol of justice and self-sacrifice, the “one just woman” of her time.