The other day an Italian asked me, flatteringly, what the world makes of Silvio Berlusconi. He clearly wanted to hear that foreigners see his country’s prime minister as a buffoon.
Instead I replied that despite Berlusconi’s notorious gaffes, like his comparison of a German politician to a concentration camp guard, or his claim that “Mussolini did not murder anyone,” the Italian leader is obviously a formidable politician. The man has risen to the head of his country’s government not once but twice, the second time with a larger majority than anyone else in the history of the republic. One may distrust him or oppose him on ideological grounds, but no one can reasonably deny his skill. (To say nothing of his business success. No one makes himself the richest man in Europe by being a fool.)
As I spoke, the expectant smirk faded from my Italian friend’s face, and when I was done he had no reply. We quickly moved on to more congenial topics.
This exchange prompted me to think, of all things, about Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which I watched recently on DVD. In that movie, set in mid-19th-century Manhattan, Daniel Day-Lewis plays (to the hilt) the leader of a Yankee gang at war against the Irish Catholic immigrants “invading” his native land. Though his hatred of the Irish is virtually uncompromising, he respects no one more than the leader of the enemy, played by Liam Neeson, whom he slaughters in the movie’s brutal opening scene. Thereafter Day-Lewis keeps a picture of the dead foe on his mantelpiece, pays tribute to him on the anniversary of his death, and refers to him as the “last honorable man.”
Scorsese clearly intended his story as a national epic (“America was born on the streets,” proclaimed the ads), and this combination of enmity and admiration has been a fundamental of epic since Achilles slew Hector. It’s only logical: the glory of victory depends on the excellence of the vanquished.
America and Europe are a long way from those values today. We don’t merely abhor our political enemies, we mock and belittle them. This isn’t new — recall the caricatures of Lincoln as “Honest Ape” — and it’s probably inherent in mass democracy, where the aristocratic warrior code is as obsolete as hand-to-hand combat is on the battlefield. Candidates and their consultants will naturally do all they can to win, and if ridicule works, they’re bound to use it.
But ridicule is a weapon that can backfire, if you believe your own propaganda. Think how much mileage Ronald Reagan got from his enemies’ conviction that he was, in Clark Clifford’s words, an “amiable dunce.” A dozen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, millions of self-styled intellectuals around the world still cling desperately to this delusion, like crack addicts to their pipes. George W. Bush is of course similarly blessed with the opposition’s determination to underestimate him.
Left-wingers are especially prone to deriding the other side as stupid, because so many of them hold jobs like teaching and punditry, where thinking that you’re smarter than others is an occupational hazard. But the Right is not immune to the temptations of smugness. Though it’s hard to remember now, an awful lot of Bill Clinton’s enemies continued to portray the 42nd president as no more than a hick and callow bumbler long after the record suggested otherwise.
So here’s a suggestion for partisans of all persuasions: hate your enemies, if you must, but remember to give them their due. It’s more dignified, and a lot more prudent.