This article was sparked by the jacket that Melania Trump wore as she travelled to a detention camp for migrant children, but my intent isn’t to argue that she or her staff chose that jacket in order to send a coded message to the president’s far-right followers. It is, rather, to highlight some of the historical echoes of that phrase – ‘I don’t care’.
The echoes of which someone ought to have been aware, especially in an administration that includes – to put it mildly – several far-right sympathisers. And also to show that the attitude, the theatrical ‘not caring’, was an explicit character trait of Fascism.
Which, at the very least, seems a troubling coincidence.
Fascism lay its roots in the campaign for Italy’s late entry in the First World War, of which Mussolini was one of the leaders. It was at this time that the phrase ‘me ne frego’ – which at the time was still considered quite vulgar, along the lines of the English ‘I don’t give a fuck’ – was sung by members of the special force known as arditi (literally: ‘the daring ones’) who volunteered for the front, to signify that they didn’t care if they should lose their lives.
The arditi were disbanded after the war, but many of them volunteered in 1919 for an expedition led by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio to capture the city of Fiume (Rijeka, in present-day Croatia) and claim it for Italy during the vacuum created by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the time of this occupation, former arditi also formed the backbone of the original Black Squads during the terror campaigns that began in 1919 and culminated with the ‘March on Rome’ of 1922, which completed Fascism’s swift rise to power.
This lapel pin worn by an original member of the Black Shirts was recently sold on a website devoted to military memorabilia. It is emblazoned with the words ‘Me ne frego’ underneath the original symbol of the arditi and the acronym FERT (which stands for the motto of the Royal Family). The seller calls it ‘bellissimo’.
‘Me ne frego’ was the title of one of the most famous songs of the Fascist era. Its original version, dating around 1920, hails D’Annunzio and Mussolini as the fathers of the fascist movement, recycling the old war song of the arditi as the third stanza.
Me ne frego I don’t care
me ne frego I don’t care
me ne frego è il nostro motto, I don’t care is our motto
me ne frego di morire I don’t care if I should die
per la santa libertà! … For our sacred freedom! …
Later versions removed mentions of D’Annunzio, who faded fairly quickly into the background. In the meantime, Mussolini made the slogan his own, and explicitly elevated it to the philosophy of the regime.
The meaning of ‘Me ne frego’
The proud Black-Shirt motto ‘I don’t care’ written on the bandages that cover a wound isn’t just an act of stoic philosophy or the summary of a political doctrine. It’s an education to fighting, and the acceptance of the risks it implies. It’s a new Italian lifestyle. This is how the Fascist welcomes and loves life, while rejecting and regarding suicide as an act of cowardice; this is how the Fascist understands life as duty, exaltation, conquest. A life that must be lived highly and fully, both for oneself but especially for others, near and far, present and future.
The connotations of altruism at the end of the quote are in direct contrast with the meaning taken on by the word menefreghismo (literally, ‘Idontcareism’), which ever since the regime has meant in common parlance a kind of detached self-reliance, or moral autocracy. Just as Italy broke with its former allies and charted a stubborn path towards the ruin and devastation of the Second World War, so too the Fascist citizen was encouraged to reject the judgement of others and look straight ahead. It should be remembered in this regard that the regime treated ignorance and proclivity to violence as desirable qualities to be rewarded with positions of influence and power. This required a swift redrawing of the old social norms, and of the language used to signify the moral worth of individuals. ‘Me ne frego’ was the perfect slogan for the people in charge of overseeing such a program.
Four years ago, speaking at a First World War commemoration in the small town of Redipuglia, Pope Francis linked ‘me ne frego’ not only with the carnage of that conflict, but also with the horrors of Fascism, recognising its ideological and propaganda value for Mussolini’s project. This is the form in which the slogan has survived until the present day, as a linguistic signifier not of generic indifference, but of ideological nostalgia. And because the attempts in Italy and beyond to stem the spread of such signifiers have been comprehensively abandoned, we readily find those words appearing not just on seemingly ubiquitous Fascist-era memorabilia but also on posters,
or this line of stickers that can be purchased for $.193 from Redbubble (motto ‘awesome products designed by independent artists’), where it was uploaded by user ‘fashdivision’.
The international neofascist movement is of course well aware of this lineage. By way of example, if you search for it online you’ll find a long-running English-language podcast called Me ne frego which recycles this imagery in support of arguments against immigration and multiculturalism, or to opine on the subject of ‘the Jewish question’. I don’t doubt that people close both to the Trump administration and this world are similarly cognisant of the uses to which those three words have been put. But even for those who aren’t, claims to indifference have a history which we mustn’t allow ourselves to forget.
Image: jacket Melania Trump wore to US detention camps.