Protecting Culture At All Costs
By A.D. Freudenheim  

31 May 2004

It may be as close as one can get to Nero fiddling while Rome burns – without resurrecting Nero, burning Rome, or both. In a brave decision to ignore the important in favor of the largely-irrelevant, the Italian Agriculture Ministry has passed a law specifying what pizza must look like to qualify as “Neapolitan,” and how it should be made in order to achieve those results. The law does not specify the quality of the ingredients to be used – perhaps that is covered by a different regulation? – and one wonders about the impact on the rest of the EU, since Neapolitan pizza is as available in Berlin as in Rome or Naples. Nor are details available about the enforcement plan, though one hopes that will be the fattest and most jolly food inspectors around.[1]

Enough sniping about the idiotic (im)practicalities of this law. More stunning is the government’s determination to protect Neapolitan pizza in the middle of other national, European, and global crises: ongoing court cases against the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi; collapsing or endangered Italian businesses, from Parmalat to Fiat; immigration issues (pesky Albanians – if only the Adriatic was bigger!); troops in Iraq. You name it ... surely there are at least a few problems more pressing than rogue trattorias selling “fraudulent” pizza.

Or maybe, as an American, I’m just jealous. The American desire to protect “cultural property” extends not to art and artifacts, or even to concepts like how to build the perfect pizza; we are happy to export almost everything, for a price and when properly, legally defended. Alas, our protections focus on that which will likely wind up valueless 12-18 months later. Contrast, for example, the long history of Neapolitan pizza – which seems to go back, officially, to 1889[2] – with the minuscule shelf-life of the latest Britney Spears album or the most recent Disney film? The American government seems more worried about profits than ideas – and so we better get those profits while we can, before Britney starts selling as poorly as Milli-Vanilli. Neapolitan pizza may not count as high culture, but it outranks the Big Mac if only because of its longevity. Criticizing the Italians is unfair not only because we in the U.S. have our share of absurd regulations, but because at least the Italians are doing something to define what is important to them for reasons other than pure financial gain.

Or out of some sense of priggishness or prudery, which is usually the other American problem. The U.S. government spends precious little time or money supporting or defending culture of any sort – and when it does get involved, it is usually reflecting not the interests of the marketplace, but rather going wholly against it in defense of some “value” driven position: one that seeks to curb rather than expand our activities. In selecting the newest, hottest incoming pop star over the outgoing version, Americans may seem to have all the choice we can handle, and our choices are usually supported by the government as well as the companies that profit. It is illusory, however; that same marketplace has not always been allowed to pursue, unbidden, the works of Robert Mapplethorpe or the words of Howard Stern – and say what you will about their work, and whether or not one likes it, the government’s interventionist attitudes interfere with the marketplace rather than protect it. Instead of encouraging citizens to turn off their radios or exercise their right not to visit certain galleries, the American government tries to pass laws like the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, renewing our interventionist approach to protecting the sacred ears of a bunch of folks who don’t know how to change the channel on their idiot-boxes.

This is about the point where everyone goes off the rails. Regulating Neapolitan pizza may sound like a great way to protect a piece of Italian history, but it presupposes that the government’s notion of “Neapolitan” is more important than the inspiration of the chefs or the tastes of the consumers. Defining Neapolitan is problematic enough; regulating it is altogether more complicated. Similarly, defining “decency” or acceptability in American culture creates its own challenges, but we do it, implicitly and explicitly, whether by the selection of venue or the addition of a content “advisory” label. Whether it’s for pizza or a movie, or even a box of cigarettes, there’s not too much wrong with a label – as long as the consumer retains the choice to heed or ignore it.

Which means: go eat that pizza with pineapple and ham. Maybe you did not know it wasn’t authentically Neapolitan, and maybe you didn’t care. Now you know; consider yourself warned – and then enjoy it.

[1] “A crackdown on fraudulent pizza,” by Alessandra Rizzo, Associated Press, 27 May 2004
[2] See entry in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, at:
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