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Il New York Times s’interroga: perché gli italiani permettono tutto ciò?

Perché mai gli italiani tollerano tutto quel che ruota intorno a Silvio Berlusconi? Se lo chiede il New York Times che al tema dedica un ampia discussione nelle pagine “Room for Debate” dell’edizione online. Titolo: “Decadence and Democracy in Italy “. Sette gli intervent: Federico Varese (ordinario di Criminologia alla Oxford University e autore di “Mafia on the Move: How Organized Crime Conquers New Territories), Chiara Volpato (docente di  Psicologia sociale a Milano Bicocca, il suo contributo si intitola “Women’s Decorative Role”), Clare Watters (università di Birmingham), Maurizio Molinari, Alexander Stille, Antonio Monda, Eloisa Morra (giornalisti).

Il compito assegnato dal Nyt:

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi‘s career and personal life have caused outrage for as long as he’s been in the public eye. In the latest scandal, wiretapped phone conversations suggest that Mr. Berlusconi has been involved with Karima el-Mahroug, a nightclub dancer, since she was a minor. An investigation has been opened into allegations that Mr. Berlusconi paid Ms. Mahroug and other women for sex.

However, less than 50 percent of Italians are asking for his resignation according to a recent poll. His political future seems, at least for the time being, secure.

Why have Italians — especially the women — tolerated Mr. Berlusconi’s antics for so long? Is there a tipping point for Italians?

Lo svolgimento:

A Sin That May Not Be Forgiven

Updated January 27, 2011, 12:44 PM

Alexander Stille is the San Paolo professor of international journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books, including, “The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi.”

Silvio Berlusconi has been linked with more than a dozen scandals over the past 17 years. From the current accusations of frequenting prostitutes and interfering with police investigations, to extremely serious cases of corruption that have led to convictions among some of his closest associates for crimes that include bribing judges, fixing cases, suborning perjury and collusion with the mafia, why is it that Italians put up with him, given the overwhelming evidence of moral turpitude?

This bizarre situation has come to seem normal to Italians, just as one’s eyesight adjusts to the darkness.

In almost any other democracy, that would have been enough to end a politician’s career. But Italians are deeply cynical about their political leaders. Believing that “everyone does it,” it is possible to convince yourself that the exposure of Berlusconi’s crimes and misdemeanors is actually a sign that he is being singled out for persecution.

This is a view that is reinforced by the substantial portion of the Italian media, which is controlled by Berlusconi. Even the media outlets he does not own outright are either intimidated or under his influence. Much of the evidence in the current scandal (as with those in the past) has not been aired on the principal newscast of the Italian state TV, which, together with Berlusconi’s networks, enjoy a nearly 90 percent market share in a country where 70 to 80 percent of the public gets its news from television.

The lack of a strong and credible opposition is also an indispensable prerequisite for understanding Berlusconi’s staying power. The center-left government of Romano Prodi, elected in 2006, was composed of nine different parties that wrangled constantly during the government’s brief life, paving the way for Berlusconi’s return in 2008.

Before Berlusconi, there was no tradition of restrictions on ethical problems such as conflict of interest or insider trading. When Berlusconi was first elected to office in 1994, it became accepted that the richest man in the country, its largest media owner and the subject of numerous criminal investigations could, without selling any of his private holdings, run the government, oversee the large state broadcasting system and rewrite the criminal laws. It seems almost a natural consequence that he should use the resources of government for his own ends, including purging the state TV of those who would dare to criticize him.

With the passage of time, this profoundly anomalous situation has come to seem normal to Italians, just as one’s eyesight adjusts to the darkness.

Italians have never appreciated that a politician’s “private” conduct can have serious public implications.

Italians have never appreciated that a politician’s “private” conduct can have serious public implications. Italian politicians rumored to have bevies of mistresses generally saw their public prestige rise rather than drop. Italy is, in many ways, a deeply sexist society. Italian media (thanks partly to Berlusconi) is awash in images of female nudity that are frequently degrading and highly exploitative, and tolerated by Italian women and men alike.

Italy trails the rest of Europe in female employment and gender equality. And so when it emerged that Berlusconi had slept with prostitutes supplied by a government contractor or may have engaged an underage prostitute, many Italians — women as well as men — shrugged it off as purely private behavior that has been wrongly exposed to public scrutiny.

That said, the seemingly endless chain of scandals that has unfolded during Berlusconi’s latest government, which took power in 2008, has taken its toll and created serious Berlusconi fatigue even among those who have supported him in the past. It is not based so much on moral repulsion at Berlusconi’s actions as much as on the realization that Berlusconi’s personal problems have dominated the public debate and made it impossible for him and his government to focus on the real problems of the country, which are many and significant.

Berlusconi’s obsessive focus on defanging the Italian judiciary system and crafting immunity laws to protect himself from prosecution have paralyzed parliament and created the well-founded impression that his own personal business is above any other consideration. This is a sin that the Italian public may not forgive him for.

Challenging Berlusconi

January 26, 2011

Clare Watters is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Birmingham.

So, once again we find ourselves asking: Why do Italians put up with a leader whose succession of scandals would have instantly shamed any other leader in a democracy?

Polls may not lie, but neither do they give us the full picture. Outsiders may find it easy to group all Italians as Berlusconi sympathizers or as passively resigned to their predicament. But there are many Italians who are fighting against him and the effect he has had on Italy.

There are many Italians who are fighting against Berlusconi and the effect he has had on Italy.

For example, Sabina Guzzanti, a satirist and filmmaker, has toured Italy with one-woman political satire shows. She has been performing a caustic impersonation of Mr. Berlusconi since his first political campaign in 1994, but her protests have recently become more serious and urgent, as expressed in the documentary, “Draquila: Italy Trembles.”

Guzzanti is not just a one-woman barrage of anti-Berlusconi sentiment. She is part of a large section of the Italian community who refuse to sit back and watch the show. This week, for example, thousands of women across 12 Italian cities organized protests, sit-ins and debates with a clear message for Berlusconi: Italian women are not just bodies which can be bought by the powerful.

Yesterday’s reaction by Italian women is just one in a wave of protests against Berlusconi’s alleged abuses of power. Protesters flood Italian piazzas regularly in events like No B(erlusconi) Day and V-Day to demonstrate their indignation at the current situation. However, these events are often overlooked by the Italian and international press, giving the impression of indifference on the part of Italians.

Given the lack of effective official opposition and the strong center-right contingent which continues to support the coalition government, it is unsurprising that the world is starting to fear for the sanity of Italians. Instead, we should look to give coverage and support to those who, in their own way, are trying to challenge the political situation in Italy.

A Distorted Reality

Updated January 27, 2011, 05:33 PM

Eloisa Morra is a contributing writer for the Women’s International Perspective.

Silvio Berlusconi’s continuing popularity can be attributed to the powerful media apparatus in his hands and the polarized attitudes of Italians — especially women — towards him.

Television is the basic medium of news for most Italians. Berlusconi owns three private television channels and indirectly controls the state channels. Many important newspapers, publishing houses and magazines are in his hands.

Women who defend him want to maintain their political relevance and economic advantage.

Through domination of the media, he can cause Italians to absorb his vision of the world day by day. The younger generation is especially influenced by a vision of life based more on showing off rather than on moral values. For these people, a major event is going on a game show. Meanwhile, Italian intellectuals and politicians have overlooked — intentionally or not — the danger of Berlusconi’s power.

He is a great communicator and is able to utilize many politicians, lawyers, journalists and pollsters in Italian broadcasting to defend him and modify the facts of reality, as is now happening with the latest scandal.

Women’s responses to Berlusconi are poles apart. The women of his political party defend him vociferously in order to maintain their political relevance and economic position. At the same time, many women react against his vile and coarse behavior with books, documentaries, blogs and petitions.

Perhaps Italians have finally had it. In a recent television debate, Berlusconi offended Rosy Bindi, a member of the Italian Parliament, by saying, “You are more beautiful than intelligent,” with a contemptuous allusion to her looks. Without hesitation, she answered, “Mr. Prime Minister, I am not a woman at your disposal.” A few days later, thousands of Italian women were proudly wearing T-shirts printed with this sentence.

The Elite Decides

Updated January 27, 2011, 05:33 PM

Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at Oxford University, is the author of the forthcoming “Mafias on the Move: How Organized Crime Conquers New Territories.”

With Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s latest escapades, Italy’s standing in the world has never been so low as it is now. Indeed, as an Italian citizen, I’m often asked: “Why have Italians tolerated this man for so long?”

Ordinary Italians might have reached the tipping point, but not the economic, social and political elite.

A vast section of the Italian public is outraged at Mr. Berlusconi’s behavior. Nearly 50 percent of Italians recently polled called for him to step down. It is likely that several million will sign a petition demanding his resignation. And contrary to Mr. Berlusconi’s claims, 70 percent of Italians do not support his People of Freedom Party.

Generalized attitudes, critical as they might be, have to be channeled into viable political solutions. In a “mature” democracy, the leaders of the People of Freedom would suggest Mr. Berlusconi step down for the good of the party. But in Italy, he owns his party. The opposition party should be a credible alternative; but it isn’t.

You would think the news media would be running damaging in-depth investigations on the latest scandal. But Mr. Berlusconi owns private channels and controls several state-run ones as well; those who oppose him are usually vilified in the press.

Other crucial players in Italian politics are reluctant to ditch him. For the most part, Italian business leaders still prefer Mr. Berlusconi’s government over the one led by the Left. And the Vatican, which has benefited from measures implemented by his government like support for Catholic schools and tax breaks for Church-run hotels, has been extremely timid in its criticism. Most crucially, Mr. Berlusconi remains the favored partner of the anti-immigrant Northern League, which advocates for a federal system for Italy.

Ordinary Italians might have reached the tipping point, but not the economic, social and political elite. Let’s hope they catch up soon.

Embracing Neo-Paganism

Updated January 27, 2011, 05:32 PM

Antonio Monda is a culture writer for “La Repubblica” and a columnist for “Vanity Fair” Italy. He teaches in the film and television department at New York University and is the artistic director of the literary festival, Le Conversazioni.

I believe that Berlusconi’s talent is to have understood more than any other politician the underbelly of the Italian character, and to have modeled it in his own image through his media empire over the years.

Berlusconi understands that Italians distrust the judiciary as much as they endorse his hedonism.

If the accusations of under-age prostitution in the “Rubygate” scandal are proved true — that a group of powerful men in their 70’s were having festini (orgies) with young teenagers — it reeks of decadence and debauchery. But it is even more chilling to hear parents who consider this not as a form of corruption and degradation but as a career opportunity for their daughters.

The fact that the electoral polls show that this new scandal seems to have negligible effect on Berlusconi’s standing indicates how he really understands that the majority of Italians seem to appreciate, endorse or are indifferent to this form of neo-paganism where self-interest trumps sensible values, and hedonism comes out of a moral vacuum.

However, there is another element that cannot be overlooked. A solid part of the Italian electorate distrusts the judges who are investigating the prime minister, believing they are not led by the search for justice, but solely by a desire to destroy him. This surprising reaction is not just a product of Berlusconi’s propaganda.

It is illuminating that even Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian conference of bishops, vehemently advocated that politicians should follow moral strictures, with a clear reference to Berlusconi. But at the same time, he spoke of improper and dubious investigative procedures, denouncing a war between the executive and judiciary powers that jeopardizes the stability of a country, which is living in an ethical, social and economic crisis.

Lack of Political Options

Updated January 27, 2011, 05:32 PM

Maurizio Molinari is the U.S. correspondent for La Stampa. He is a regular guest commentator on Italian TV and has published several nonfiction books on foreign affairs.

In trying to understand why Silvio Berlusconi is able to survive as Italian prime minister despite so many sexual scandals, we have to consider three different factors.

Berlusconi’s opposition is incapable of challenging him on hot issues like unemployment, immigration and energy.

First, there is no other political leader stronger than him because the opposition is fragmented and weak, divided by rivalries among too many leaders and the fact that the major progressive party is still debating the need of alliances with the extreme left.

Second, after the dissolution of the Christian Democrats in the 1990s, it was Berlusconi with his party that took over the representation of the moderates, who have always been the large majority of the Italians voters. The other parties were never really able to appeal to the moderates who are pro-West and pro-business and who care a lot about traditional values like family and faith.

Third, Berlusconi as a communicator is skillful in going on the offensive when caught in a scandal. When cornered, he is aggressive and effective in attacking those on the other front, changing the subject of the public debate in his favor.

The combination of these factors creates a situation where the opposition is incapable of challenging him on hot issues like unemployment, immigration and energy. This leaves it to Berlusconi to set the public agenda, even if the issue is a huge sex scandal that he created.

Are the Italians upset with Berlusconi? Sure they are, because the scenario of a 74-year-old prime minister paying for sex with an underage prostitute cannot be a source of pride in a country where conquering a partner – for both men and women – is still a statement of personal success. But the current lack of real alternatives to lead the government prevents public unease from becoming a political tsunami.

Women’s ‘Decorative’ Role

Updated January 27, 2011, 05:32 PM

Chiara Volpato is a professor of social psychology at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

Since the beginning of his political career, Silvio Berlusconi has exhibited sexist attitudes and habits. The situation has gotten worse over the years. Now it has turned into a parody of Fellini’s “Satyricon.”

In a society where women play a subordinate role, some try to improve their lives by forming relationships with powerful men.

Of course, not everyone in Italy accepts Berlusconi’s behavior. Although some Italians have fully soaked in Berlusconi’s ideology either because of self-interest or a lack of education, many others feel indignation, shame and anger at the prime minister.

But for the dissenters, it is hard to gain visibility given the power that Berlusconi exerts on the mass media, especially over the TV networks. It is a very effective control since 7 out of 10 Italians get their news mainly from TV and radio. No explanation of Berlusconi’s popularity can ignore these facts.

In Berlusconi’s media, women and minors are denigrated to a “decorative” role. This representation cements women’s subordinate position in Italian society.

The result is that Italy ranks 74th in the 2010 gender gap report released by the World Economic Forum. Based on factors like economic and educational opportunities and political participation, Italy trails many other advanced countries. Fewer than 50 percent of Italian women work outside their houses, whereas the average for European women is over 57 percent.

Under this condition, some women try to improve their quality of life by forming personal relationships with men of high status and power.

In my opinion, Italy is witnessing a huge social experiment. It is a political laboratory for a regime based on mass media control. This use of media power could even become a model for other democratic countries. What is happening in Italy today could take place elsewhere tomorrow.


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