Milan, Italy — Antiwar rainbow flags, inscribed with “Pace,” dot the apartment buildings of Milan. “Pace” is the nicest word on the antiwar symbols. At one prominent Milan metro station, in plain view of the police wandering nearby, blatant anti-American graffiti appears. “F—king yankees stay at home. Stop the bombs. Not in our name,” it said.
I did see one American flag hanging in a Milan apartment window. That’s one more than I saw in Paris. I have yet to meet a Frenchman who supported the war. George Bush’s deft military success, as far as I can tell, hasn’t impressed Europeans one whit. Dynastic Europe still views the “Bush dynasty” with suspicion.
Some French seem to have a weakness for conspiratorial theories, most of them too convoluted to describe. But they all seem to involve oil and America’s support for Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran.
You can still walk into French bookstores and pick up a copy of Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, which the French publisher of it tellingly translates as “Bush the Warmonger” (Bush s’en va-t-en guerre).
Bush clearly can’t win with the French. They tend to judge intelligence according to facial structure and they decided long ago that his face suggested stupidity. “Look at his face,” says one Frenchman. “He looks dumb.”
The ratio of oddball impressions to information is high. One reason the French all say the same thing about Bush and the war is that they all watch the same monolithic media. Here and there you will find dissent from French liberalism. But not much. The differences between conservative and liberal seem slight compared to the ones in America.
Some French conservatives and intellectuals are blasting Jacques Chirac for digging France into a diplomatic hole. But others with whom I have spoken have come up with some pretty wacky reasons for opposing the war. “Saddam’s wife was Christian,” said one conservative by way of defense of the French view. Which wife in the harem? I asked. I didn’t know Christians could join harems.
Occasionally candor will bubble to the surface. Some French see the humor in their position. One told me that Chirac’s voluble opposition to the war is typical of France. “One of our symbols is the rooster. The rooster thinks the sun rises because of him,” he said. This Frenchman also saw humor in the fact that France’s defense minister is a woman. Chirac placed her in that department, he said with a laugh, because France doesn’t use it.
Here in Milan pacifism is also a luxury. Like the French, Italians can count on America supplying a defense for them, even after badmouthing them. The grunge Milanese youth, American skateboards in hands, go for a whopper at Burger King before scrawling “Yankees Go Home” on metro stations.
Europeans mock America’s serious moral culture but worship its mockable popular culture. I just walked by a Milanese store dedicated to “Animal House.” Britney Spears memorabilia is sold just feet from the city’s late-Gothic cathedral. Milan may soon have more McDonald’s restaurants than churches. You can enjoy a Big Mac near where St. Ambrose once preached.
St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, a leading exponent of Catholic just war teaching. St. Augustine defined peace as the “tranquillity of order.” The modern Milanese define peace as the toleration of disorder. Their antiwar activism comes not from Christianity but from a secular humanism indifferent to evil.
Cesare Beccaria, the anti-death penalty Enlightenment thinker, lived in Milan and a statue of him can be found there today. In a city full of impressive monuments to Roman warriors and Christian martyrs, that statue is one of the few which speaks more to the present than to the past.
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