It’s fairly humiliating to open the NY Times at least once a week and read stories of the Prime Minister of my native country being portrayed as the 74-year-old Humbert Humbert that he is. Parties with underage girls, 17-year-old Egyptian beauty released from police custody on his request (after being arrested for theft), free accommodation to a coterie of women who performed dubious services and the assorted shady characters who went about the business of providing such women to His Excellency and his friends.
His detractors have been asking for Mr. Berlusconi’s resignations and his defenders argue that all of this (nobody denies “all of this”) took place in his own private time and with his own money and claim a giant plot on the part of left-wing magistrates. The stories are so tawdry to make one pine for George Bush’ idiocy and even good old Ms. Lewinsky.
Since Roman times, Italy has had its shares of Neros with Berlusconi being the last in a long line of incompetent buffoons. To outsiders, it is always a miracle to visit a country that, despite everything, appears to be fully functioning, at certain times in history even thriving, with a population generally willing to shrug their shoulders and go on about their merry business.
A profound cultural shift has taken place in Italy in the last decade or so, not for the better, and most of it shaped by Mr. Berlusconi’s media empire built on vacuous tv shows, instant millionaires and women whose aspiration is to wear skimpy clothes in front of a camera and hopefully go on to marry a celebrity. Even so, I believe Italians’ tolerance for scandals and mismanagement stems from a lack of sense of community the way we intend it here in America. For the longest time, community to the average Italian has meant extended family and friends – a civic sense of community at large is not really present. You are who you know who can help you along – the mentality of “I’ll grease your wheels if you grease mine” is still very prevalent. And you can’t really fault a system that has worked well for centuries. Both the Church and the Mafia played into this system by extending the helping hand that was often lacking at a governmental level, ingratiating themselves at the small community level.
Italians have been willing to look the other way provided their little patch was taken care of and they could still afford the small pleasures in life. Unfortunately for the powers that be, like everywhere else in the world, jobs are harder to come by now and the euro buys you less groceries than it used to.
I was really happy to see that over 75,000 Italian women recently signed an on-line petition proclaiming that there is another Italy, unseen and away from the scandals, made of capable women who are neither housewives nor tv bimbos and the majority of the population is far from the mirror image of their elites. As we have recently seen, at times change doesn’t come slowly but, in a country so mired in its past and so settled in its ways, it might take more than petitions and strikes to get rid of the naked emperor. It has become obvious, though, that the art of condoning is no longer an option.