Sunday, May 2, 2010

Emperor Berlusconi

(A Czech Republic protest in solidarity with the anti-Berlusconi last December 5th, dubbed by opponents of Berlusconi "No Berlusconi Day.")
The Italians tend to think of heirs to the glory of the Roman empire. This is just another nationalistic myth of lineage from an ancient civilization, and there are few similarities between the present day Italian state and the Roman empire. However, in terms of government, I think they may have a point. The style of Emperor driven politics of the most dissolute Caesars has made a return to Italy, and shows no sign of leaving. I am referring of course to the reign of Silvio Berlusconi, the richest and perhaps most corrupt man in Italy. The politics of Berlusconi are a revolting cocktail of corruption, misogynism, money politics and media control. Italy is unique among developed democracies is how much of official and unofficial power can be wielded by one man, and how this the influence of this one man has perverted and coarsened the already non-too-robust Italian democracy. These developments should give us pause. Though much of Berlusconi-ism is unique to Italy, the power of corporations and media tycoons certainly is not. The power that an oligarch like Berlusconi can accumulate in Italian politics by dint of media empire and monetary power should give us reason to look hard at the role money plays in our own politics as well.
For some idea why I dislike Berlusconi so much, I recommend this article in the New York Review of Books. Some of the details about Berlosconi's politics are salacious and titillating, and I suppose ought to be reasonably ignored, but when Berlusconi starts packing Italian and European parliament with his show-girls, a line has been crossed.
Berlusconi did indeed bring several former showgirls into parliament in the 2008 elections. Two of them were made government ministers, one of equal opportunity, the other of tourism. Both had appeared, as starlets, on Berlusconi entertainment shows. A series of wiretapped conversations made during a criminal investigation was said to reveal that Berlusconi had a sexual relationship with some of these women but prosecutors destroyed numerous taped conversations of a “purely personal” nature because they had no bearing on the investigation. Wiretaps that have been made public show Berlusconi using the state television system as a kind of casting couch, getting auditions for le mie fanciulle (my girls) in order to “lift the morale of the boss.”
The incident that initially infuriated Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, occurred in 2009 when he handpicked a couple of dozen showgirls, many of them young women in their early to mid-twenties, to be groomed as candidates for the European Parliament. Few of them had any political experience. One of them had been the weather girl on a Berlusconi network. Several had attended some of his private parties. He set up a school to give them a crash course in European politics so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves during the campaign. Lario denounced the women as

trash without shame…who offer themselves like virgins to the dragon in order to chase after success, fame, and money.

This says more about Italian politics than just that Berlusconi is sexually voracious (and, unsurprisingly, sexist.) This is one more story of the use of power for personal ends, that is, corruption, by the Italian president. If he gets in trouble, the president can simply have the laws rewritten to accommodate his corruption.
Berlusconi set back to work on a new law that would immediately eliminate the two criminal cases pending against him—the Mills case and another charging that his TV company, Mediaset, used offshore accounts to inflate the prices it paid for movie rights in order to cheat the Italian treasury of millions of dollars it would otherwise have owed. To avoid the suspicion that the law grants special status to Berlusconi, it is written so that it will absolve many other white-collar criminals and could eliminate as many as 80,000 to 100,000 criminal cases. By some counts, Berlusconi has passed eighteen laws that appear to have been written specifically to meet his own personal needs, but this time, neither Berlusconi nor his allies make much of a pretense that there is some larger public principle involved. It is government for and by one person.

The whole article is worth reading for the picture it paints the sin and corruption of this one-man political system.