Football, fascism and freedom of expression

 
 

In light of the controversy over Paolo Di Canio’s fascist sympathies, Robert Ranson wonders why anyone cares

Paolo Di Canio’s time at Swindon Town was described by former chief executive Nick Watkins as “management by hand grenade.” He could just as easily have been describing the recent actions of Sunderland owner Ellis Short. Without a win in eight games, Sunderland were steadily sliding towards the relegation berths.

There was a clear and identifiable trajectory and the importance of trends is not lost on Short. As co-founder of Lone Star Funds, an American private equity firm, he had made his fortune analysing and reacting to them, so when Sunderland succumbed to another meek defeat against Manchester United, he was decisive and replaced Martin O’Neill with Paolo Di Canio. He lit the fuse, stood back and waited.

The reaction was explosive. Within hours, non-executive vice-chairman and out-going Labour MP Davd Miliband had resigned, citing Di Canio’s previously expressed admiration for fascism.  Cynics have chalked his decision down to political expediency, but it remained a significant statement. Given Miliband’s Jewish heritage and political ideology, it is perhaps understandable that he would wish to distance himself from any association with fascism, although the hysteria from other quarters is harder to justify.

Suppose Short had appointed a self-proclaimed communist as manager, would this incumbent have received the same level of vitriol as Di Canio? Presumably the usual suspects at The Daily Mail et al would have immediately denounced such an appointment with wonderfully helpful and wholly irrelevant references to Stalin and Mao. However, the liberal left would be just as quick to affirm that true communism radically differs from the abhorrent form of state “communism” implemented by authoritarian dictators.

Despite the fact that even Di Canio’s initial endorsement of fascism contained pointed criticisms of Mussolini’s regime, there has been a conspicuous absence of voices suggesting that perhaps Di Canio’s beliefs might be more nuanced. At the very least, they appear more benign. The unspoken truth is that a number of Italians possess a more sympathetic view of Mussolini and Fascism than the rest of Europe.

In a country where modern politics has been defined by instability and corruption, there is a temptation to engage in mental gymnastics and to romanticise the past. Right-wing rhetoric predicated on national pride and traditional values can have a certain allure for impressionable young ears.

As a boy at Lazio, Di Canio was initiated as an “Ultra” and later returned to the club where he was photographed performing fascist salutes, in transparently populist attempts to pander to their far-right fan base. In response to questioning about the salute, Di Canio revealed that he considers himself a fascist but not a racist.

His autobiography expresses his belief that Benito Mussolini was “deeply misunderstood” and “basically a very principled individual” and these quotes were widely published in the past week. His assertion that Mussolini’s “actions were often vile” is less widely reported. The picture that emerges is of a confused man with a less than coherent ideology.

His comments suggest a belief that the principles underpinning fascism are fundamentally sound, but that Mussolini just went off the rails a bit, presumably around the time he met that Hitler fella. He may be guilty of ideological inconsistency, historical revisionism and cognitive dissonance but as he says himself “I am not a political person, we are in a football club and not in the House of Parliament.”

This fact seems to be forgotten by many. Di Canio is employed to coach footballers, not to oversee the NHS, or to teach GCSE history. Many say that we cannot allow a self-proclaimed fascist to hold such a prominent and public position, but why not? He is not using it as a political platform. He is not goose-stepping along the side line.

In fact, he has attempted, in vain, to reject all opportunities to discuss politics at all. This seems to be a test of whether we truly belief in freedom of expression. Noam Chomsky articulated the principle most eloquently with the maxim that if you do not support free speech for those you despise, you do not support it at all.

One could argue that the issue is even more fundamental than freedom of expression. It is about freedom of belief. There are a limited number of sensible restrictions to pure freedom of expression, as even the most ardent of liberals tend to accept laws governing hate speech and incitement.

However, it is imperative that there remains no scope for restrictions on a person’s right to their personal beliefs and convictions. There may be sound footballing reasons to object to Di Canio’s appointment at Sunderland, but his personal politics is irrelevant.

The mere implication that the unpopularity of a person’s private political beliefs might endanger their job is dangerous. When you are so affronted by a differing political view that you argue for their dismissal you begin to sound almost, well, fascist. Alas, the irony is lost on most.

Of course, Di Canio has since professed that he does not support “the ideology of fascism”. Whether it was a lesson in politics or public relations which prompted this apparent repudiation of belief is open to speculation. Perhaps he has simply mellowed with age.

The adage is that men grow more conservative with age, although one must be loath to assume Di Canio conforms to any convention. Perhaps he’s taking the pragmatic view that the only philosophy he has a chance of implementing is a football one. Fascism gives way to Realpolitik. A week is a long time in football.

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