May 05, 2006

Francesco spells trouble

I was intrigued by reports of the remarkable process used last week in the Italian parliament for choosing a new speaker of the Italian Senate. The NYT reported on the attempt to elect Franco Marini to the position as follows:

Mr. Marini failed to win the necessary absolute majority in the first secret vote on Friday morning by five ballots.

In the second vote, a preliminary count showed he had won by one ballot, but the outcome was contested by the center-right, which complained that Mr. Marini's first name was given as Francesco on two of the hand-written ballots, making them void.

After lengthy deliberations, the acting speaker, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, annulled the vote and demanded it be taken again. But Mr. Marini once more fell just short, this time by one vote.

Misspellings appeared in all three votes, but in the country that gave the world Machiavelli, few people thought the errors were genuine. Rather they were seen as veiled warnings that support from some senators could not be taken for granted.

I'm not quite sure how Gricean theory would explain the implicature from misspelt ballots to weakness of political support. Presumably the Maxim of Manner comes into it. But the fact that the manner of expression departs from the norm does not in itself tell us what that departure signals, only that something is being signaled. The logic of the implicature seems to be: if I can't be trusted to spell the name of your favorite candidate correctly, I can't be relied on for anything. And this is given an extra level of piquancy by the anonymity of the ballot: everyone now knows that someone cannot be trusted by the new Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, who was pushing the Marini nomination. But we don't know who can't be trusted. And what of the senators who spelt the name correctly? Surely it is generous of someone who cannot be trusted to let you in on the fact? So the true backstabbers presumably reproduce the name of the enemy's candidate perfectly. But what if you were a genuine supporter of the new prime minister, yet knew of others who were treacherous? Might you then spoil your ballot to make it plain to all that at least some senators could not be trusted? Might Franco have written his own name FRANCESCO in order to spell TROUBLE?

Such is government in the land of Machiavelli, whose advice Prodi has no doubt heeded:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Posted by David Beaver at May 5, 2006 04:36 PM