The values debate, Italian-style

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Last week I attended a dinner for Marcello Pera, president of the Italian Senate, who spoke earlier at Georgetown University and met with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Pera was a philosophy professor at the University of Pisa; his biography here is in Google English, though you may be able to follow it more easily in the original Italian. For many years Pera was a backer of the center-left but switched in the 1990s. He was elected to the Italian Senate in 1996 as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and, when Berlusconi's party won the May 2001 elections, Pera became president of the Senate.

I first met Pera at a conference he sponsored in December 2003 in his home city of Lucca. This walled city is the only part of Tuscany that backs the center-right; it has a commercial history that goes back to medieval times and was an independent-city state until Napoleon declared it a republic in 1801 and made it a principality ruled by his sister Elsa and his brother-in-law Felice Baciocchi in 1805.

Lucca's commercial history and independence may have contributed to its center-right politics, which is so different from that of the rest of Tuscany. Unlike Florence and Siena, it does not receive many tourists. The old streets inside the city walls were thronged with shoppers in the early evening hours, including many with small children—an unusual sight in Italy, with its low birth rates. I suspect Catholicism is stronger here than it is in much of northern Italy. Last year Pera invited then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to speak at the Senate—something the center-left, with its anticlerical and Communist roots, would never do.

Ratzinger's thesis in that speech was summarized by Father Joseph Schall.

Ratzinger's basic thesis, as I understand it, is that the material success and accomplishments of Europe, now spread throughout the world through science and economics, and carefully imitated, have in fact left the Europeans themselves with little sense of their own meaning, something arising from within the European mind and not imposed on it from outside. . . . Finally, Ratzinger comes to what he considers the West's almost pathological hatred of itself. At a very time when everyone tries to be accommodating to any other values in other cultures, no matter how outlandish, Europe finds its own values "despicable." Europe, to survive, has need of new thought, certainly critical and humble, that can accept itself if it wishes to survive.

Pera spoke, briefly, in a similar vein. "If we lose faith in our values, we will lose the war on terrorism." He said that in both the United States and Europe we need to show an appreciation of our cultural values. I found it encouraging that an Italian political leader is thinking along the same lines as I was in this column. In the United States as in Europe we have seen elites champion "multiculturalism," which they say recognizes all cultures as equally valid—but in practice it often amounts to saying that all cultures are equally valid, except ours, which is worse. Then you get, in Ratzinger's words, "the West's almost pathological hatred of itself."

But what George W. Bush has called "the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance," received their recognition not equally and simultaneously in every society but first in the West—and especially in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. And those values need defending. Earlier, after speaking at Georgetown, Pera told reporters that "the use of force as a reaction against violence is justifiable but only as a last resort. First comes dialogue, which is based on culture, diplomacy, and negotiations. But if that's not enough to stop violence, then force may be used." Sometimes it seems that all the voices we hear from continental Europe are hostile to America and infused with the kind of multiculturalism that rejects western values. It was good to listen to Marcello Pera and be reminded that there are many Europeans who know better.