ITALY: THE METAMORPHOSE OF A NATION.
By Uli Schmetzer
VENICE, July 29, 2009 â€“ The debate is no longer whether Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a populist
politician, a shrewd manipulator or an aged Casanova. For more important is the way his media empire has
converted a civil society into a nation run by uncouth loudmouths who shout down opposition with invectives and
drummed up statistics, a nation where rudeness is equated to power and prepotency, where art must be sacrificed
to business interests and the specter of fascism has grown flesh and bone.
Berlusconi-zed Italy has become a kind of microcosm of a capitalist world in which the finer aspects of
life, like culture, courtesy and basic human rights, are sacrificed at the altar of Mammon, a system which
refuses to curtail the chase for unlimited riches, a chase at the expense of an already sick planet and
the millions of earthlings who are losing jobs and livelihoods.
In Italy today, like in the rest of the western world, the old capitalist system is reinventing and reinforcing itself by
reviving the same rules that caused our current economic debacle. Nothing has changed.
For those still nostalgic, the Italy of the silky language is dead, just like the cultured and rapier-like dissertations of
Senators and â€˜Onorevoliâ€™. The flair to live and let live is replaced, like elsewhere, by greed, corruption and
the crude exploitation and vilification of immigrants, an amazing phenomenon in a country where nearly every family
had at least one member working abroad as migrant labor - not so long ago. Migrants are the new slaves of the
21st century, not shackled to irons but inhuman laws or the exploitation of their illegality.
For centuries Italy has been a pathfinder for our western societies, starting with culture and art, politics, the
reunification of nations in the 19th century and fascism in the 20th century. Yet fascism, now rearing its ugly head
again, was not invented by Mussolini or â€˜refinedâ€™ by Hitler but as the French philosopher Foucault argued it is
part of human nature, the dark part, the enjoyment of power over others, of assaulting those considered â
€˜differentâ€™, mistreating those considered â€˜inferiorâ€™ and exploiting those who need help.
In this Italy of 2009 the traditional plethora of opinions and ideologies has been evaporated by political apathy or,
worse, were channeled into the lucrative mainstream politics of the Prime Ministerâ€™s Peoples Freedom Party
which rules in a coalition with the neo-fascist National Alliance and the parliamentary support of the racist and
xenophobic Northern League. Italy now has an interior minister from the Northern League and a neo-fascist in
charge of defense.
In â€˜la Bella Italia â€˜of 2009 the â€˜rondaâ€™ has been resurrected. These are the fascist neighborhood
committees that patrol local territory, deputized as public officials. Opposing or insulting these recruited sheriffs
(who always seem to look like official thugs) is punishable by years in jail, a law revived from Musssoliniâ€™s days.
But racism here is no longer limited to non-Europeans but has embraced Italians, those from the South (the
Other Italy). The Northern League intends to give people from such southern provinces like Sicily, Calabria and
Puglia a knowledge test on the history and habits of Italyâ€™s North before allowing them to work or settle in that
apparently superior part of the nation.
In the Italy of today the business associates of those in power boost their bank accounts in taxpayer-funded
mega-schemes like the proposed bridge over the Strait of Messina and the ridiculous 10 billion Euro ($12 billion)
MOSE, the steel barriers that were to save Venice from flooding. But the Save Venice project so far has only dug
large holes into the lagoon and moved about more mud â€“ with the barriers still on the drawing board and a huge
question mark over their effectiveness â€“ should they ever be designed.
The new â€˜pragmaticâ€™ bosses of Italy publicly spur culture in cities like Venice and intend to win
the hearts and minds of the new breed of merchants by calling for art galleries and old palaces to be
turned into boutiques while funds spent on cinema and art festivals are better spent promoting
(If you love the old Italy hurry before its new bosses convert the Uffici in Florence into a permanent exhibition of
North Italian cheese products)
The old Italy, the one with all the quirks we loved, has been buried by two decades of crude re-education by
Berlusconiâ€™s media empire whose spin doctors reared their audiences on undisguised chauvinism, on cheap
soap operas and an abundance of bared female flesh. At the same time this media converted its 72-year-old
billionaire boss into a venerated icon more reminiscent of imperial Rome then the 21st century.
Like the emperors of ancient Rome Berlusconi is forgiven all his foibles - chasing and ravishing
young nymphs and slave girls (now known as escort ladies); passing laws to promote his business
interests or to exonerate his alleged crimes in scores of court cases; telling lies and making gaffes;
labeling anyone who opposes or criticizes him as â€˜a communist.â€™
Silvio Berlusconiâ€™s Italy has metamorphosed in tune with his media empire in which scantily clad â€˜velineâ
€™ (showgirls) abound, together with oafish and chauvinistic show masters, a country where the majority of people
have remained ignorant of their leaderâ€™s latest follies (unlike international audiences) thanks to the self-imposed
silence of the broadcast and print media the man controls.
And who among Italian males is to point the finger at the sexual peccadilloes of the premier when their own
fingers are so sticky? The Italian male, the one who does not give credit to any female except his mother, has taking
full advantage of the young African and East European street walkers to be found on major urban roads, supplied
by the mafias in their own countries and exploited by the Italian Mafias.
Only gutsy dailies like La Repubblica or the weekly Lâ€™Expresso are left to expose the frolicking of the
libidinous premier with call girls and aspiring models who call him â€˜Papiâ€™ in private and seem to enter the
official residence at will. Photos, quickly banned in Italy, have shown a naked foreign statesmen being chased
through Berlusconiâ€™s residence by young girls in what appeared to be a Roman orgy.
Over the last weeks Bari escort girl, Patrizia dâ€™Addario, has exposed, day by day, the private conversations
she taped when the premier called her by phone or asked her â€œwait for me in Putinâ€™s bedâ€� (where the
Russian premier apparently slept during a state visit) while he took a shower during one of their sex sessions at the
official residence. The lady, who made some very disparaging remarks about the premierâ€™s facelifts, hair
transplants and built-up platform shoes, alleges that Berlusconi reneged on a promise to obtain a building permit for
her seaside residence.
Other girls have told their own stories of parties with â€˜Papi.â€™ Some were ferried to his 300 acre estate on
Sardinia by official planes. Similar misuse of public transport has forced ministers in other European countries to
resign. Not so in Italy where one minister told the public that unless the premier has his dose of sex adventures â
€œhe will govern badly.â€�
Berlusconi supporters have simply brushed aside the complaint of his wife of 18 years, Veronica
Lario, who wrote a letter to the media begging her husbandâ€™s advisers to â€˜help him because he is
sick.â€™ She then asked for a divorce citing his dallying with young girls, particularly an 18-year old
Not too many saucy details of these libertine affairs have reached the general public. After all,
during three terms as premier Berlusconiâ€™s media-empire has spread like a rash. He now controls 94
per cent of the audience of the private and public Italian media (almost as good as in fascist days)
either directly or in the case of public television (RAI) through appointees. In front of cameras he is
allowed to waffle on endlessly like a carpet-seller without interviewers daring to interrupt him.
He boasts of being a global strategist consulted constantly by world leaders; he is portrayed as a paragon of
general knowledge and even advises call-girls (according to taped conversations) how to improve their sexual
renditions. In short, he is promoted as a genius, virtually as infallible in civilian matters as the Pope is on religious
The daily Il Manifesto recently asked why Italians today break into loud laughter when shown old news-reels of
Mussoliniâ€™s boasts and posturing of virility. But they do not laugh at the same kind of boasts and posturing by
Just as Italians once gaped in awe at the blustering fascist dictator and his flamboyant promises of world power,
modern Italians seem mesmerized by the power of a tycoon whose commercial tentacles have not only enveloped
the mass media but spread into advertising, publishing, insurance, food and construction. Selling products and
himself comes naturally to Berlusconi who began his sales career peddling university essays and vacuum cleaners
before he peddled himself as crooner and entertainer on cruise ships, in nightclubs and finally as entrepreneur.
â€œThere is hardly anything on the table or in industry in Italy in which Silvio Berlusconiâ€™s companies do not
have an interest, a percentage or total control,â€� says a senior banker.
The great mass of Italians (he enjoys a 65 per cent approval rating) apparently believe their
premierâ€™s economic acumen will rub off on the rest of the populace, disregarding or ridiculing
European Unionâ€™s warning that Italyâ€™s economy is among the worst in the Union, with a near zero
growth rate, while its public debt is catastrophic. The few remaining domestic critics of Italyâ€™s new
emperor complain the country is getting poorer by the day but its premier is becoming richer by the
There is another side to the Italian love affair with their premier. Since ancient days Italians have always lived
on the edge of legality, prepared to subvert political systems most Italians believe are and always were corrupt. The
premierâ€™s government has been liberally offering â€˜condoniâ€™ (pardons) to those who have sneaked
around the law by building where they were not allowed, by adding extra floors to structures without permits, by
practicing un-kosher accounting and tax acrobatics.
And if all this fails,â€™ Il Cavaliereâ€™ can always trump critics by pointing out that unlike previous Italian
coalition governments which habitually collapsed prematurely, his rightwing administrations tend to last their
legitimate term (since the participants are aware splitting with the Grande Capo means goodbye to their power).
In the end Berlusconi was and remains a showman. His trademark clowning and outrageous gaffes have always
won the publicâ€™s hearts and relegated his misdemeanors to backstage. When criticized he simply stands before
the nation (assured of full media coverage) and tells his public with that mischievous grin of his: â€œI am not a Saint.
Neither are the great majority of Italians.
(Uli Schmetzer is the author of â€˜Times of Terrorâ€™ and â€˜Gazaâ€™ (Amazon.com). He has lived on and off in
Italy for the last thirty years as foreign correspondent and commentator.)