December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

A spotless mind

By |2018-03-21T18:20:55+01:00March 1st, 2006|Essays|
Berlusconi: The plutocrat.

his is Italy in 2006: Two reality show stars — middle-aged men — face off on a Sunday afternoon television variety show. One is dressed in an elaborately brocaded jacket and seated. The other stands on a witness-like podium. They are arguing about status and advancement. The man in the brocaded jacket rises, his voice rasping: “Say what you want about me, but don’t ever, and I mean ever, talk about my mother …” He is now ranting. “Ever,” he repeats, his face contorted. The man on the podium gesticulates and shouts back, “Get this man off the set…” Meanwhile, the talk show host, a veteran, intervenes to keep the men from brawling. “Enough now,” she says, “enough.” But her voice is drowned out by the insults.

No one moves. All are transfixed. The next day, the state network apologizes. It will investigate.

As it makes amends, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns three influential private networks and is running for reelection in April, gives a television interview in which he says he can’t stand television. “I hate it. I don’t like the environment. I don’t like being on it,” he laments. He does not mention the run of interviews that have made him ubiquitous over the course of a month, thereby enraging opposition politicians who accuse him of hogging the limelight. What Berlusconi says in so many words is a variation on what he’s said since he took over five years ago: It’s tough being me.

At times, Italy unabashedly personifies what its most masochistic doubters insists it already is: a second-rate South American plutocracy masquerading imperfectly as a modern European state. It was dictatorial Paraguay of the 1980s which outlawed “public ridiculousness,” warning those who openly brought the nation into disrepute that they did so at their own risk.

Though Italy is not Alfredo Stroessner’s surreal fiefdom, it seems at times to want for such laws.

But the underlying problem is another.

Italy doesn’t want to be ridiculous. It wants to be loved.

Faced with rationalizing the more dubious aspects of its inner workings, Italian advocates carve out a mitigating framework. Italian products are adored worldwide, they say. Italian style is the envy of Europe. The Italian way of life is imitated and exalted in that Nirvana of media-friendly democracies, the United States. Italy also has Olympic Games, fights terrorism, birthed Armani, produces Ferraris, exports fine wine, grooms young, multilingual executives, and prizes its place in Europe. Its population is generous, genial, and endlessly resourceful.

Such predilections should qualify Italy as an ideal place to host a great society. In January, the Rome-based think tank Eurispes published the results of a national sample survey indicating that two-thirds of Italians considered themselves lucky to live here (though most of the applauders came from the hinterlands). “While today’s Italy can be undervalued and criticized,” said Eurispes director Gian Maria Fara, “there can be no doubt that we’re still talking about a powerful nation, among the top-10 economies in the world.”

But Fara added a tenebrous warning: Despite unparalleled natural and cultural treasures, mercurial Italy squanders talent and resources because it has yet to learn how not to sabotage itself. It is like a house with limitless potential that no one seeks to redecorate because everyone assumes it’s someone else’s job.

Examples are innumerable. Consider the subject of the “debate” that nearly led to the nationally televised fistfight: raccomandazioni, or connections. Connections, a hold-over from an era of rigid social status, have always counted ahead of higher education in the hunt for employment. A culture based on debt nourishes owing. But the Italy of 2006 is infinitely more educated and spirited than that of 1950, with millions of additional qualified and employable candidates. The diminished value of merit in advancing young careers demoralizes a generation that must juxtapose an official view of fairness — the one the European Union demands that modern Italy symbolize — against the reality of currying favor.

No wonder Eurispes found that those most likely to emigrate were between ages 20 and 30 – a lost generation raised to expect social change that never happened.

In the early 1990s, a nationwide legal probe known as Mani Pulite, or “Clean Hands,” sundered the Catholic and Socialist political order by establishing irrefutable proof of bribery and pandering among major politicians, and between politicians and underworld figures. Led by a group of crusading (some say Left-inclined) magistrates, Italy seemed to have finally dismantled its indigenous Tammany Hall, with its rogue secret service agents and roving Masons. The scandal as a whole was called tangentopoli, based on the word tangenti, or bribes.

But 15 years after the uproar, opportunism remains the norm. Public distrust of politicians, elevated before “Clean Hands,” remains high in its wake, in part because hypercritical Italians imagine their leaders as shrewder, more amoral versions of themselves. Italian political (and business) practices are not invested with moral idealism, engendering a singular amalgam of deception and expediency.

In addition, there is a near-mystical belief in political conspiracy, the spirit of which the canny Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia dumped under the rubric of dietrologia — the study of finding “that which lies behind,” as if a few dozen Keyser Soze figures buried in the recesses of government shaped the future by manufacturing cataracts. Italy’s ravenous narcissism – built into the rhetoric of indignant chatter — flourishes when government officials cheat. Gossip is fueled; so is the idea that working for the collective good is a charade.

Last fall, Antonio Fazio, the jowly Italian central bank governor, Italy’s Alan Greenspan figure, refused to step down despite convincing allegations of abuse of office and influence peddling. Accused of favoring an Italian bank’s takeover bid over that of a Dutch competitor (a typical old-school contrivance), Fazio glided around egregious wrongdoing. He would not be judged by petulant politicians, he said.

The Italian national interest has pliant demarcation lines. It can vanish altogether when a mercurial figure chooses to occupy it, which is what Fazio did. The operatic drama was its own worst embarrassment in the European arena, again seeming to make Italy embody a kind of public ridiculousness its prime minister denies exists or disparages as mean-spirited cliché. Fazio ultimately resigned, but his self-righteousness did Italy no favors.

Berlusconi, meanwhile, an ermine chest-thumper who considers himself beyond any reproach that does not emanate from his tailored vision of the Italian people, seems both to have reasserted Italy’s inherent pomposity and taken its identity. Like Fazio, he is the national interest, or transubstantiates himself to fit his view of it. He has accused “Clean Hands” prosecutors — few of the original group remain — of belonging to a “Red” plot determined to disgrace him. “I am public enemy No. 1,” he said recently. For this uncommon self-absorption he is adored or detested, envied also, because he turns genuine questions about vested interest and conflict of interest into a plebiscite regarding the earnestness of his character and the personal cost of his daily travails on behalf of the nation.

He is also the clownishly berated or hen-pecked father, cosmetically enhanced for a media generation. His perils are epic. “How hard it is to be left alone to work! How hard it is to work without a parade! Why am I so often misunderstood?” The propaganda is affected to suit simple minds.

But it is also ridiculous.

Outside Italy, Berlusconi is often rendered as a nullity, an amusement, and an insufferable little man with a Napoleon complex whose gluttonous immodesty offends because Italy as a nation is in no position to objectively sustain the grandeur of his pretenses.

Yet Berlusconi’s immediate predecessors, the academic center-left technocrat Romano Prodi (1996-98) and the “apologetic” Communist Massimo D’Alema (1999-2001), were conspicuously colorless — anti-Italians foraging for a contemporary image. When they failed to establish one, Berlusconi, gifted in asserting enthusiasm to his advantage, restored Italy’s protagonist order. The political pendulum may soon swing the other way — the nation votes April 9, with Prodi’s center-left Olive Branch coalition narrowly favored — but the central yin-yang of Italian leadership will remain an enduring squabble between the conscientious and the dramatic.

Business, meanwhile, finds itself eternally trapped in the middle.

Alitalia is an instructive example. The state-subsidized carrier has skirted financial collapse for years, but unlike Swissair has been barred from “natural” collapse through a series of well-meaning but ill-fated rescue plans opposed by union leaders because they require restructuring and layoffs. The resulting chaos has ensured that the airline retains the cliché of comic inefficiency imbedded into its structure years ago merely on the basis of its Italian-ness (the acronym Alitalia, the saying went, meant “Always late in take-off; always late in arrival.”)

Concern over Alitalia follows the spectacular Enron-style collapse of Parmalat two years ago. The family-owned company concealed a €14 billion hole from the government and, far worse, shareholders. That the fraud was perpetrated by a multinational company held in high esteem increased wariness among European corporate investors otherwise enticed by Italy’s intrinsic promise.

In more sweeping terms, delays and hoaxes afflict Italians so habitually that resignation takes on a droll aspect. “It’s Italy,” Italy still says of itself. Infamously, areas damaged by two major quakes, in Belice, Sicily in 1968 and near Naples in 1980, have not been fully mended for lack of funds. Such shortfalls are widespread. This plays into the hands of pragmatic Italians who blame the South for incubating and spreading a pathological disingenuousness inherited from Africa.

But when does public ridiculousness become a parody of itself? When does national infinite jest stop being funny?

To some extent, Italian life — which lacks a civic coagulant — is conditioned by multinational conformity. In closing ranks with the United States in the post-1989 world order, Italy abandoned the political personality traits that once kept it from caricature.

In the 1970s, the Communist Party altered the country’s political balance by using an eclectic constituency of workers, students, intellectuals, and middle class dissidents to surge in the polls and raise unprecedented (and perplexing) questions about Italy’s identity. Was the country a risk to NATO? Would it kowtow to Moscow? Was so-called “Euro-communism” a smokescreen for incipient totalitarianism or a middle class response to endemic corruption? The more arcane aspects of the Italian process were made unexpectedly intelligible to satisfy the needs of urgency.

Though Communist challenge was ephemeral, Italy continued defying cliché. Col. Muamar Gadafi, an American adversary in the 1980s, held shares in Fiat, while Italy courted the militant Arab world. Then, in 1985, Italian police and U.S. Marines faced off at a NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily, over the capture of a Palestinian terrorist. Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi refused American demands to turn over Mohammed Abu Abbas and six other men responsible for the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro and the death of a U.S. citizen. Their Egyptian plane had been intercepted and forced to land at Sigonella by U.S. fighters. Finally, Craxi jailed the terrorists directly responsible for the liner attack but allowed Abu Abbas to continue on to Yugoslavia.

The issues were serious, the stakes high, and Italy was a stubborn, contentious player. It was the postwar zenith of Italy’s time in the fast lane.

But it didn’t last.

Secure and self-satisfied, Craxi clumsily lifted patterns of cronyism from the opposition Christian Democrats, who owed their legacy of backdoor commerce to the passive-aggressive machinations of the Roman Catholic Church. The Christian Democrats — the most prominent “Clean Hands” targets — soon ceased to exist. So did Craxi’s toxic Socialists (who helped birth Berlusconi’s ambitions). Craxi himself fled into Tunisian exile, where he died in 2000.

Cometh the fully formed Berlusconi, by then an “Up With People” cheerleader with a knack for tendentious slogans. His post-corruption remedy popped nationalism and soccer into a convenience store blender and emerged with cutely palatable names: Forza Italia and Casa della Libertà. Unapologetic about the range of his wealth and influence (which caused his first and spectacular fall from grace, in 1994) he unleashed the full force of the medium that returned Italy to its silly ways: Commercial television.

Meanwhile, the Italian political Left — a morality play disguised as a movement, or a raft of movements — struggled for relevance. The Left felt counter-modern, and the erratic leadership of Prodi and D’Alema merely confirmed the sensation.

Pseudo-secessionists from the north, led by a caustic demagogue named Umberto Bossi, waded into the political fray, inventing a cartoon nation called Padania and establishing fictitious borders along the Po River. He spoke in superhero bubbles. Rome, Bossi roared, was a thief. Ladrona! He promptly joined the first (and second) Berlusconi government, allowing his ministers to partake of government privilege. He was not a buffoon, he said, berating his detractors. He was a patriot.

When political orthodoxy breaks apart, self-esteem gets lost. Italy struggles with both. Its two major cities, Rome and Milan, are further apart than ever, with Naples and Palermo teetering on the edge of medievalism. Only television, a shared bromide, connects the cultural tissue. For Berlusconi, TV is both garlic and cross in a howling battle against Leftist forces for souls of voters.

“Silence is like a blank screen that must be filled,” the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño wrote in 1996, describing political rhetoric. “If you fill it, nothing bad can happen to you.” Berlusconi naturally fathomed the act of filling. His networks (with state giant Rai) diligently mimicked foreign media trends, manically shoveling in all manner of dubbed place-holders. The American soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” known in Italy only as “Beautiful,” developed a cult following in the 1990s. American terms and acronyms, most only slackly accurate — “anti-trust,” “PACs,” “venture capital,” “devolution,” “testato” — slipped haphazardly into Italian socio-political speech, opening further silly valves.

Increasingly, non-Italians established Italian priorities: Tuscany was “rediscovered” by an American author and milked for massive profit; Italian wines and foods were evaluated elsewhere; the tantalizing cultural assets cited by Eurispes’s Mara were prized mostly by fans of Italy, not by Italians themselves.

A country that doesn’t think for itself resembles a pathological teenager. For a gregarious society, Italy is unusually anti-spontaneous. It grows bored easily and turns to political and social fads, wanting to personify one, inevitably the latest one; it browses excitedly among the styles of others. Insecure and economically bruised, it also sublets commercial objectives from less fractured societies, intuitively absorbing technological know-how and terminology without necessarily understanding method, motive or hardware. Italians embraced the idea of marketing and public relations but failed to fathom its encumbering obligations. Removed from ownership and morosely ill-at-ease with the obligations of the service industry, the country couldn’t progress beyond merely looking good.

Estrangement from ownership did matter, however, if products came from China. Italy remains explicitly uncomfortable with its expanding multiracial character and deplores competitors whose profit-making ambitions it cannot control. It is curiously protectionist yet at the same time eager for commercial validation (arms are a leading export), a hard if menacing paradox in a time of fierce competition.

In his November evaluation of Italy, The Economist’s John Peet compared all Italy and its “creaking infrastructure” to 18th century Venice, which, he wrote, coasted “for too long on the back of past successes.” Italy, like Venice, was in the crosshairs of a “crunch,” added Peet. No more low-cost labor. No more dolce vita. If Venice was carelessly swept away by Napoleon, why couldn’t Italy itself be similarly swept into irrelevance?

The answer is anticlimactic. Italy has been marginally relevant for some time.

A more appropriate question, however, might be whether relevance matters.

Not necessarily, because more than any other postwar European people Italians have grown accustomed to burying and exhuming their own skulls, each time dusting off and relocating some aspect of a previous illustriousness, usually in half the time it takes to deliver a eulogy of this kind. That’s true at least in part because public ridiculousness keeps a nation above any reproach but its own. If you’re unashamed you’re also shameless. No wonder Italians demean and rehabilitate their image daily, with insults informing and enriching the debate.

It’s all fair.

So long as you don’t involve anyone’s mother.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.