Roving thoughts and provocations

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Berlusconi: A Reversal of Direction

Silvio Berlusconi at the Palazzo Chigi, Rome, October 7, 2009 (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

I grew up in Boston in the 1950s, so I immediately grasped the basic idea of Roman street signs: they are there not to inform you ahead of time where you might want to turn but rather to confirm where you have already turned, once the fateful decision has been made. And at least Romans reliably tell you the name of the street or highway to which you have now committed yourself.

Boston famously had very few signs at all. If you needed such guidance, the place implied, you should not be in town or at least not driving unaccompanied by a native. (Matters were worse, if anything, on the subway which—as those who remember the song “Charlie on the MTA” will know—neglected to post a general plan.) It was possible to get caught in long traverses from which there was no exit for miles, except through networks of unmarked one-way streets that led you ever further from your intended destination.

Rome is far more forgiving. True, if you are trying to negotiate the fantastically complex system of roads leading into and out of the city, the highways rarely signal that a crucial turn must be made, except at the very moment when you have already passed it. But the traffic engineers generously include huge signs with arrows crossing the lanes of traffic, labeled Inversione de Marcia: “reversal of direction.” I don’t recall a single comparable sign from my youth: it was as if Boston’s Puritan ancestry insisted on grace rather than works. You were either predestined to get to the place you were hoping to go or not—no intermediary could help you along. In Catholic Rome you can recognize your mistakes, confess your errors, and turn around.

Italy is the great country for reversing direction. That is perhaps why there have been sixty-two different governments since the Second World War—at least until the current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, figured out that if he and his family owned most of the media, along with sports teams and other key segments of the public sphere, he could bring Inversioni de Marcia to a halt.

For the past few months Berlusconi’s enemies have been making one of their more serious efforts to force a national reversal of direction, and perhaps this time, against all odds, it will work. But for an American, or at least for an American still outraged by the Monica Lewinsky garbage, the Italian political spectacle is, not to put a fine point on it, disgusting. Months of tabloid-style exposes of Berlusconi’s florid sexual life, launched by one of the few Italian newspapers not in the pocket of the government, finally triggered tensions with the Catholic hierarchy that, supporting the policies of the center-right prime minister, had long pretended it did not notice the gaudy nights in the Sardinian villa with the starlets and call girls and nubile young friends.

The bishops evidently felt that they had to distance themselves somewhat from the shenanigans of the man known here as the Cavaliere. But when Dino Boffo, editor of the Catholic newspaper Avvenire, penned an attack on Berlusconi, the Berlusconi-owned Giornale countered by charging that Boffo was a homosexual who had harassed the wife of his lover. Boffo promptly resigned.

And, in a move clearly meant to muzzle the press, Berlusconi instituted legal proceedings against newspapers that he claimed had libeled him. The attack on the newspapers—particularly upon the left-leaning La Repubblica—is a serious one, arousing concern across Europe among defenders of civil liberties and triggering vehement protests here in Rome. On Saturday, more than 100,000 banner-waving people gathered around the obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo to voice their opposition to Berlusconi’s tactics.

The huge, raucous popular demonstration in support of freedom of the press should signal a healthy, vigorous democracy, but to my eyes at least the spectacle has not been an edifying one. Opposition politics in the past months have been conducted in the style of the gossip-mongering Suetonius who circulated stories of the louche proclivities of the emperors.

In his island villa, Suetonius wrote, Tiberius’

bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this “the old goat’s garden,” punning on the island’s name.

Both then and now the real issue—the structurally disastrous concentration of power in the hands of the ruler and his family—has largely been avoided. In its stead, there has been an amazingly cynical dance of sexual charge and countercharge, coupled with an air of menace and intimidation. Berlusconi’s enemies, I suppose, have calculated that this strategy is the best way to provoke a change. But with memories of the shameful attempt to impeach Bill Clinton still fresh, an American wonders: What price an Inversione di Marcia?

Only in the last few days have there been signs of an alternative route to a reversal of direction. After a highly charged debate, Italy’s highest court yesterday overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office. The ruling by the Constitutional Court will not bring down the government, but it will compel the prime minister to defend himself against corruption charges he has thus far successfully evaded. And in the process it may compel an opposition that seems fathomlessly cynical to change the terms of public debate.

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