Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Award of Merit?

In the New York Times review of Giovanni Floris' book, Mal di Merito, the comment was made that, "merit isn't recognized as a value in Italy." In other words, in a culture of favoritism, merit doesn't count anymore -- what matters is who you know and what strings they can pull for you and that some people demonstrate their power by forcing others to hire people who are stupid or unqualified. I thought about this for awhile, knowing that, at least in part, it's true. Then I began to consider our little dirt road in Umbria and the family that has lived on it for at least four generations. We live in the house built along a ridge by the great grandfather (or perhaps even the great great grandfather) of the young scion of the family.

It strikes me that in rural Umbria, merit as a value is
a given.

How else would farmhouses grow the way they do, topsy turvy, adding room for ensuing generations? How else would olive oil be produced decade after decade by people who rise at dawn and keep working until well after dusk? And, how else would a young man, the progeny of parents with at best a high school education, graduate from university as a pharmacist and balance that full time pursuit with the brutal physical labor it takes to prune 800 olive trees, fertilize them, baby them through the hot, dry summer, and then harvest them to produce the oil that contributes to the family coffers?

Some say that the Greeks developed the first democracy, failing to mention that, although it allowed for public participation, it was a society built on slavery. The Roman Republic was certainly not a democracy, but an oligarchy with elections
with limited participation.

Perhaps it is more correct to say that democracy began in the Italian countryside, when the people of the comuni (communities) determined to be responsible for themselves, rather than to the nobility or any owner. Almost a thousand years ago, as feudalism began its decline, they proved their point and defeated Barbarossa, and today rural Italians are arguably more self-reliant than city dwellers. Sex and age don't matter -- the whole family works.

Here in Umbria, merit is not only a value, it is a by-product of daily life.
copyright Sharri Whiting Umbria Bella 2008

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