March 24, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction

Every Vote is a Vow

The right to vote, as I know it, was born in an empty classroom. In Italy, the voting process takes place in elementary schools all around the country. If you are a lucky enough kid, yours will be chosen as a polling station, giving you a long weekend to spend with friends—in my case, perhaps playing in some muddy Chianti ditches. You are completely unaware of the vote and all it represents when you are a child immersed in the Tuscan countryside, but you love it somehow: as a kid, voting sets you free.

When you turn eighteen and that country mud is now congealed in your memory, voting means returning to a school similar to the one where you were educated. You enter the building and, while dutifully following the lines to the voting booth, you peek at the desks as if they were the ones where you carved your love messages to precociously attractive girlfriends. You look at the blackboards, remembering the ones where you repeatedly banged your head in front of a math equation. Then you check if some prehistoric weird janitor—who has with time become sort of an urban legend—will suddenly appear again behind the windows, garrisoning their fort of brooms and ammonia.

This reverie into your school memories instills value to those years, as if those empty classrooms with no sound, now used as polling stations, were a monument to the worth of public education.

Il voto, i voti. The word voto in Italian has already to do with education, as you could also translate it as grade. Not “grades” as in the level of achievement in American education, nor “notes” of a teacher’s assessment like in France or Germany, but in Italy we have votes, at the same time electoral polls and—following another translation of the word voto—monastic vows, that commit you to the righteous path, by vocation. Being a good citizen, if one follows this Italian language vertigo, means to give the votes, like a teacher, and take the vows, like a monk or nun. Think about it: voting booths and confessionals are eerily similar.

Today, fewer and fewer people do that in Italy—I mean voting, even though monastic enrollment or confessing one’s sins is very little in vogue. . . . People often don’t vote, either for lack of political conscience, or probably for a ludicrous lack of time, or in recent months, for the risk of getting infected. In parallel, the value of school and the evaluation of teachers, mistreated by years of political embezzlement and union lobbying, have been waning among the people.

We rarely hear Italians talk about the value of the school system, or the privilege of having instructors, who are frequently attacked and vilified by parents. We do not need to vote for you, candidates, as we do not need your votes, teachers, you would hear from a populist dad and (non) voter. Believing in the right to vote has become almost exclusive for World War II survivors.

To vote in my country after WWII for many years has been, in fact, a strong act of identity and anti-fascism. According to my father, an anti-fascist kid not muddied by the Chianti ditches but dusted by the crumbled walls and bridges of a bombed Florence, during the American liberation in 1944, not going to vote meant, in practice, not being Italian. It meant spitting on the values ​​of the Resistance and the Constitution, tearing up one’s paper ID: a return to being fascist, after all.

In my father’s generation, those paper IDs crumbled in their wallets, although few of them had passports. I belong to a different generation, a generation of passports born in the 1980s, sometimes called the “Erasmus Generation,” who were lucky to travel and reside in foreign countries with different political habits, from where perhaps some of us voted by mail. This is why our idea of voting is connected to a broader and diverse community than my father’s post-WWII times, when the two great poles, the Italian Communist Party on one side, and the Christian Democrats on the other, wrestled the local and national power up to the 1990s. If I think of the right to vote in Europe, I must think of the importance of voting as an education, let’s say a school, for diversity: political and cultural diversity, that in Italy has also taken recently to the extremes of a nefarious and relativistic political culture. Accepting diversity can also be a test of our values. It requires a voti, a vow, not of silence but of patience.

In talking about the right to vote, a “minor” novel of the Italian twentieth-century literature herald, Italo Calvino, comes to the mind, regarding the compelling sense and value of voting that I share. It’s The Watcher.

Calvino is an internationally acclaimed author of books such as If on a winter’s night a traveler—a metafictional novel on the act of reading––and Invisible Cities—a metafictional novel about how to imagine a city—but on closer inspection is less of the cynical postmodern virtuoso that many would still like to describe. He was a writer with a bitter voice addressing reality, who often changed his style due to a sense of constant and fruitful intellectual discomfort. The Watcher is a clear example of his unease towards his times.

The novel, published in English for the first time in 1975, reconnects us to the joys and sorrows of voting, but also to the idea of accepting diversity in the voting experience. It recounts a day of an Italian scrutineer enrolled in the Communist Party at the Cottolengo Institute for the Physically and Mentally Handicapped, the so-called “Ospedale degli Incurabili,” the Hospital for the Incurables, that was turned into a polling station like many other institutes. This place was controlled by the clergy and nuns, who were influencing the votes of their disabled patients in favor of the Christian Democrats.

The protagonist of the novel has the evocative name of Amerigo Ormea—Amerigo like Amerigo Vespucci, the Tuscan explorer from my hometown who baptized America with his name and influence, and Ormea as an anagram for the word amore, love. It is not incidental that The Watcher was written after an impactful trip to America by Calvino in 1959, while he was a Ford Foundation fellow writer. The American society—considered as a kind of complex and contradictory Futureland—clearly influenced his further fiction and essays in terms of topics and main questions.

Ormea already ​​knows that certain Institutes like Cottolengo, have led through fraud dozens of votes. While trying to obtain more information from the nuns and priests, he is also peculiarly attracted to the monstrous diversity represented by the weird community of the Institute, a mutilated humanity in both spirit and body but still human. The scrutineer considers—as a kind of conclusion of his unsettling experience—that humanity reaches as far as love reaches; it has no frontiers except those we give it.

In a novel about the nightmare of voting amidst diversities, in a context that can be similar to a panopticon, Calvino’s lesson is clear. Voting demands loving diversity, extending humanity even where it seems absent, lost in the eyes of a monster. It’s the act of granting a sacred humanity to your candidate, to their opponent, and perhaps to yourself. As we stand in those empty classrooms, fascinated by the ways they contain our own histories, we encounter this lesson: “every vote is a vow,” ogni voto è un voto, an act of passionate faith, to give votes and to take vows in the democratic system.