EUROPEAN PAPERS ON THE NEW WELFARE

Chapter 1: From Trieste to Texas

2. Cultural Trauma in the United States
“What is the nature of human nature? You must try to answer this question, otherwise my course is pointless.”
It was thus that Bob Montgomery, finance lecturer at the University of Texas in Austin, began his course. He continued for a whole hour philosophizing on this subject, offering examples of the most diverse behaviours. He and Professor Airey who taught sociology in the same department had been pupils of Thorstein Veblen who, many years earlier, had written The Theory of the Leisure Class. It was a period when the University of Chicago, which would later include Milton Friedman among its teachers, was home to an American style school of social-democratic progressivist tendency. “What do human beings want, what is their nature?” – “They want power” was the short answer of the pessimistic Airey. “They want prestige,” asserted Montgomery, the optimist. In his youth he had been a member of a group of flyers who one day flew under a bridge. “You see,” said Montgomery, “we all want to be admired, to gain prestige, at any price”.
Two days later the second lecture took place in the same tone. This time Bob Montgomery asked the students what kind of work they would want to find after their university studies. A good half of them would have been content to find a secure job in a public institution. The professor then commented that at the time of his youth no one would have even considered such a possibility.
I was furious. In the United States, the homeland of modern capitalism, I had chosen a certain number of courses that were taught by top professors like Professor Montgomery in order to penetrate deep into the secrets of finance. The title of his class was “Corporate Finance”. Coming from Europe I hadn’t thought that in Texas, instead of beginning with a talk on money, they would have engaged me in conversation about human nature. What? Was not Europe the source and origin of every doctrine on every form of analysis of the human character, from humanism to psychoanalysis? We already knew everything about this kind of problem, right? There was no need to look elsewhere. In Europe these subjects were in the air that we breathed, to the point that we had had almost enough of them. In the United States, therefore, I was seeking fresh air, not too contaminated by the centuries-old European history. I wanted to hear immediately of soundness, of practicality. As a European I did not need them to talk to me about human nature. After those two lessons I felt like a fish that wanted to approach the shore but instead went increasingly deeper into the ocean. I was angry and upset, that’s how I was.
Finally, during the third lesson the professor began to deal with what, according to me, should have been the only topic of his class, the nature and use of money. But it was still not the technical course that I had desired. One day, at the time of McCarthy, a pretty extreme right-wing man entered the lecture room smiling: “Today I had a visit from the FBI who asked me if I knew any Communists”. Laughing, he went on: “I told them I did” – ‘Who, then?’ the two investigators asked. ‘You’ was the answer.
I remembered that when I was passing through customs a month earlier, they had asked me if I had any Communist friends. I answered that I did not, and in fact I did not. But I did not tell them that in the University of Trieste the professor of constitutional law was a Communist (he was to abandon the Party later at the time of the Hungarian Revolution). Moreover, my Economics professor had worked in the Fascist Republic at the end of the war. Strangely enough they were both excellent teachers from whom I learnt a great deal. Clearly in Europe there was a slightly different kind of liberty.
For four whole months I continued to follow Bob Montgomery and his course, looking for possible cracks. For me it was a brainwashing experience. An Italian from Trieste, I ended up adding another root to my cultural being, becoming a Texan American. The trauma had been transformed first into astonishment and then into an opening of my mind. Once that semester course was over I began to wonder what Europe really was, apart from a certain number of stereotypes that I had had and which now seemed completely insufficient for an understanding of where I came from. For this reason and unlike many students who like me had received a Fulbright grant and remained in the United States, I was determined to return to Europe, not out of homesickness but simply to begin to get to know it again.
Bob Montgomery was not only a teacher. As a young man he had been a farmer like his family members but had quarrelled with his father. It was not difficult to imagine him catching the last coach from his village to go to teach somewhere for thirty dollars a month. Subsequently, he had become an aide to President Roosevelt for whom he had written several speeches. As Head of the United States Military Strategy Committee during the Second World War, he had contributed to the study of the weak points of the principal transportation routes in Europe, and this had helped in directing bombardments. I doubt if he dealt with the small coal factory in Trieste.
The whole economics department was at an excellent level and very stimulating. The Department head was an interesting character, a major specialist in the industrial conflicts of the United States. He had obtained his post without having a PhD but only a Master’s. He was a unique case. It was said that he had written an economics thesis on Ricardo and then had refused its ratification maintaining that the ratification committee was not competent to issue the final certification. What an example!
One day, needing a certificate of my university results, and after the fateful four months came to an end, I went to ask Bob Montgomery for it. He wrote that I had been among the top three percent of all the students he had ever had in his career. Astonished, I looked him straight in the eye and said: “I don’t believe it’s true”. He answered me, “Maybe not, but now you’ll make the effort to deserve it.” Thank you, Professor Montgomery, I’ve tried.


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