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Dec. 16 2009 - 8:01 am | 17 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

A Brief Global Survey of How People Attack Their Leaders


Italy's Berlusconi, right, got his teeth knocked out this week, though shockingly not by the woman on the left.

This week’s news that a guy knocked out Italian supremo Silvio Berlusconi’s teeth with a souvenir statue of Milan’s Duomo has us wondering how hurling things at politicians differs globally. Certainly bashing a guy’s face in is hard to consider free speech. But it’s also far short of attempted assassination. Here’s a brief roundup of how we hit politicians with stuff.

Italy: known for tourism, food, art and corruption, it is perhaps predictable that Berlusconi would get punched in the mouth with a metal souvenir, a model now said to be selling well in Milan.


An American holds a pie while not smiling.

USA: has to be the pie. A culturally predictable statement, a good pie-ing distinguishes itself from actual violence, which is a good idea in a country with a lot of guns. It also suggests the importance of media in American politician-hitting: what’s important isn’t that a pie hits a person, it’s that someone takes a photo a second later of the person covered in whipped topping. A particularly 20th-century sort of pasting.

A secondary case may be made for tomatoes, such as the two hurled recently at author and occasional functionary Sarah Palin. It’s interesting to wonder why a pie wasn’t employed in this case, and one guess is that Palin’s constant efforts to project an “all American” image would have actually benefited from photos of her covered in apple pie. A ripe tomato, while also a thing she likes to pose as, is less flattering.

Spain: Eggs. A classic — but also a bit dangerous, splitting the difference between the Italian’s apparent preference for straight-up assault, and the American preference for metaphor and shame. Eggs hurt when they hit — a lot — but they also leave a mucosy stain and a difficult clean-up job. Unlike pie, you can’t humorously lick off an egg — “Actually, this isn’t so bad, ha ha.” It’s just gross and feels a lot like getting hit with a small rock.

Iraq: Shoes. Revelations that the man who hurled his shoes at then-US President George W. Bush was shoe-hurled himself recently, seals the fact that a well-aimed loafer is the Mesopotamian strike of choice.

The cultural distinction is perhaps clearest in the Iraq example. Certainly an Italian would never throw away his or her shoes, which probably cost a lot and speak volumes about the wearer. Iraqis would be more down to Earth, perhaps, viewing a shoe in this case as just the thing that touches you during a kick in the head.

The UK: As expected, the British are hard to pin down and decode, but two examples stand out. The first is an attack on Lord Peter Mendalson, a Minister with Labor (Labour, if you must), who received a splash of “Green Slime.”

The “slime” was later reported to be a dyed custard, which would suggest a pie relationship, though stopping at the topping. This again makes sense as it is, like many things British, apparently similar to an American thing, but actually quite different. Underscoring this, in 2004 a group of angry farmers managed to peg then PM Tony Blair in the face with “purple flour.”

The obvious theme in the UK attacks is of course color (colour, if you must). Certainly in a country known for bad weather and understatement, the key to any assault is to impose not injury, or embarrassment, but garishness.

In other countries this sort of thing is rarer. In Russia, for example, nothing like this happens. They just hurt you really bad with truncheons or whatnot and it’s not even remotely funny.


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  1. collapse expand

    Nice post. I think these kinds of attacks are a healthy indicator for a country. They show that politicians are concerned about their public appearance while also showing that the population understands that humiliation is a powerful yet safe alternative to violence. I doubt you’ll see much of this in Russia, China, etc. — places with few traditions of democracy or satire.

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    I am a reporter who has concentrated on foreign affairs, living for awhile throughout Latin America; in Jakarta, Indonesia; and now in Barcelona. My articles have appeared in The Denver Quarterly, Harper's, GQ, Men's Journal, The Believer and GlobalPost.com. I am the author of a book, Searching for El Dorado, which is about South American gold miners. One of the things I am very interested in is how journalism and other writing first published in languages other than English gets ignored in much of the world, even when it concerns important events. You'll be seeing a lot of work here based on non-English and non-mainstream sources, by journalists I've had the good fortune to work with abroad, and by others I'm just meeting through this project. Thanks for reading and participating. Welcome.

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