When Paolo di Canio was named Sunderland manager last week, the Durham Miners’ Association was one of the loudest voices to condemn the appointment, referring to a betrayal of the town’s roots. The same association was also quick to dance on the grave of Margaret Thatcher this week, with the organisation’s General Secretary David Hooper referring to the ‘great day’ when an 87-year-old woman died from a stroke. This is no time for rational thought, for the power of reason. There is more publicity, and bigger headlines, in baying for blood. The Di Canio controversy is yet another occasion where the masses desperately want to be offended and appalled.
Paolo di Canio played football in the UK for eight years, and became a fans’ favourite at each club he represented. He was fondly remembered by most English football fans, for the push on the referee, for that volley, for catching the ball to stop the game when the opposition’s goalkeeper was injured. Whilst in the UK, Di Canio released an autobiography where his views were made clear. But still he was a much-loved player across the country. In 2011, he took over as manager of Swindon and held the job until early 2013. Again, little was made of comments made by the Italian several years ago.
Now, following his appointment at Sunderland, race campaigners have asked Di Canio to make a statement against racism. Former teammate Shaka Hislop has called on him to clarify his views. Yet the entire controversy is being manufactured out of a comment where Di Canio was quite clear. He described himself as a ‘Fascist, not a racist’. He is, indeed, one of the very few football managers who will be on record as stating he is not a racist. Why must he say more?
Much has been made of Sunderland’s working-class ethos and mining history, as though any of this matters. There has also been reference to a monument in the city to those in the city who died fighting ‘fascism’. There is only one problem with this: no resident of Sunderland died fighting against the ideology of Fascism, an ideology that had long since been cast aside by the time Italy passed its race laws in 1938 and joined forces with Nazism in the war.
Because Fascism is not Nazism. It is not racism, and it is not the way Italy turned out in the 1940s. It was an ideology specific to a nation barely 50 years old where citizens felt greater allegiance to their region than to the nation (and, largely, still do). It was an ideology which sought to rejuvenate Italy and to reclaim the past glories of Ancient Rome, to improve the minds and bodies of all Italians for the common good. The fascio, after all, refers to a bundle of rods symbolising strength through unity. Mussolini started out as a Socialist.
The Manifesto della razza was only passed in Italy in 1938. Whilst anti-Semitism and racism did become ever rifer in Italy after this date, this says more about the choice Mussolini made to side with Hitler than it does about Fascism, which had existed in Italy for over 15 years without any laws about race.
It is perhaps understandable that many have conflated the ideology with the practice of the late 1930s and 1940s, and there are clearly other issues with Fascism as a doctrine (more than can be discussed here). But the masses queuing up to condemn Di Canio, to tell the world they hate racism, to protest against Fascism, know next to nothing about it. They know little of what Di Canio actually said, and less of what he meant. The particularities of a country where genuine political ideology has lasted much longer than in the UK – and where, for example, the Communist Party was still winning a third of the vote in the 1970s – were not taken into account. Did anybody bother to ask? Of course they didn’t. It is much more fun to be offended by something, whether or not you understand it.