Berlusconi on Capitol Hill

Three Italian prime ministers have addressed the American Congress, a rare privilege and a moment of enormous visiblility on the world political stage. The previous two were prominant architects of modern Italian government, notable for their longevity in office: Craxi and Andriotti. The third, the longest to hold office in the post-war era, Silvio Berlusconi, is perhaps the least fit for such an honor.

There have always been clouds over the governments of the Christian Democrats which, in the 80’s, spawned the end of the party’s control of the country and the wholesale prosecution of many of the ruling party members during the Clean Hands era. No standing politician in the country has been indicted more times, and found guilty or at least “not innocent,” than the head of Forza Italia.

The president of the United States has even become involved, not merely with this invitation to speak to a joint session of what is arguably the most important legislative body in the world, but choosing to do this–and provide an implicit and nearly explicit endorsement of a politician currently running for re-election in an allied country–at a moment of singular importance in modern European, not merely Italian, history.

You should know that this “captain of industy”–an honorific given to notable business tycoons and always applied to Berlusconi by the media–is perhaps the most successful supressor of democratic free expression in the last half century. No head of any major party in this country since the last world war has even come within shouting distance of the groups Berlusconi has actively courted. The fascists are still here, and this isn’t a mere pejorative. These are the descendents of the “squadristi,” the gangsters who beat innocents in the streets like the Blackshirts of Nazi Germany, for whom they served as a model. These are the groups that actively espouse expatriation of immigrants, a racial theory of Italian and European history, a religious orthodoxy inspired by Christian supremacy over all other ethnic and religious groups, and strong regionalism that threatens the core of the national state.

Add to this crowd, who have long been banned from politics in a country where the image of Mussolini was officially prohibited in the political arena, the neo-Nazis and the European haters, and you can see what is happening in this unholy alliance of greed, self-interest, and xenophobia. Already allied are an array of regional secessionist groups such as the Lega Nord (the Northern League, a crackpot group who have managed to gain a governmental foothold to the extent that one of their number was the Minister of the Reform, an internal portfolio covering the consitutional and administrative changes now shifting the country away from a centralized political economy and social service network. It was also this minister, Calderoli, who was recently dismissed–reluctantly, according to Berlusconi–when he clownishly (the only possible description) exposed an anti-Muslim T-shirt on Italian television and provoked the deaths of about a dozen people in anti-Italian riots in Libya. A short while before, in an appearance on a program in the Mediaset stable, he made racial slurs against one of the broadcasters for a rival network (La7 network), the Italo-Palestinian media figure Rula Jebreal.

But that was nothing compared to the public ridicule of the prime minister when he compared himself first to Napoleon (saying nobody had done more for Italy), Christ (since he sacrifices himself for everyone), and finally Moses. One of the cartoonists for l’Unita, a famously left wing representative of the Union alliance of Prodi, added that the country should really worry when he compares himself with the Prophet. Against this, in the interview and article this week in Newsweek, Berlusconi could seem almost the victim he pretends to be when he says the attacks have been from the left. But then he lied, as he has continued to do throughout the last few years, saying that all of the Italian news media and all of the polls are completely controlled by the left. This is complete hogwash and the whole world should know this by now. He simply, bald-facedly denied ever having said any of the quoted phrases, despite the number of independent observers in the media at the various events.

No single person has controlled the information, entertainment, and debate presented to the Italian people, and therefore to the outside world, since Mussolini in the 1920s co-opted, closed, or destroyed the independent voices of the anti-fascists by censorship, intimidation, and actual violence against journalists and editors as well as their newspaper offices. Like his notorious predecessor, he claims to do his all for the people. (Il Duce used to leave the light on in his office throughout the night, while he slept well and very long, to give the impression of a tireless workaholic defending the state and planning for the people’s needs; the title “leader”–the English word–for the heads of the major political parties/consortia now used in the media has an distressing echo.)

That’s not to say Berlusconi is a singular creature. He is a new breed of European politician, unlike any to appear in a democracy. He is one of the richest men in the world, an individual who owns almost all radio and television stations in the country and the most popular soccer team. (Milan, from which the name of his party is derived as an echo to the fans–“Forza” is a soccer shout to encourage the team.) He bought this party, and all analyses–even those by foreign scholars whose work is rarely seen here–have commented on the completeness of his control and unimpeded greed. His government has passed dozens of new laws specifically crafted for his benefit in evading prosecution for financial or ethical misconduct or conflict of interest and abuse of power, or avoiding tax penalties. His government has passed hundreds of laws, often by-passing the opposition by simply ruling their changes irrelevant and suppressing parliamentary debate, ignoring public protests by literally millions, changing health care, the judiciary, and the tax laws and immigration, among many many other delicately balanced aspects of life here.

His Mediaset conglomerate, previously under the direction of the now minister of Education, Universities and Research, who has been responsible for the start at deconstructing the Italian educational system and privatizing public instruction and research, controls even the distribution of films to theaters and television, and he owns newspapers and radio stations as well as TV throughout the country. In the last weeks, through his de facto control of the state-run media, he has almost continually appeared on TV, far more than any opposition, using the public airways for his benefit. Two of his family-owned newspapers a few weeks ago concocted fictitious poll results, purportedly by an American polling firm, uniquely showing him ahead in voter esteem. Both stories were immediately denounced by the polling firm cited, saying they were fabrications, but the stories were repeated–with the editorial excision of the name of the polling firm to avoid further complications. There is no independent access point any longer; in the most blatent case I have ever seen of the fox guarding the henhouse, he and his party have complete control of even the public media. Yet Berlusconi has been able to pull the wool over American eyes because, like his infamous predecessor, he is the point of contact for the world with internal politics here.

I don’t expect readers will consider it a great concern that this is happening in a European country with a quarter the population of the US and a fraction of its GNP, but it is a paradigmatic case for undertanding the political dynamics of the modern state. The Big Lie, a brilliant invention of the 20th century totalitarian practitioners of propaganda, is ever with us all. Read the Newsweek interview, think about how the American press is reacting to this self-proclaimed icon of Italy (yes, he has said he “is” Italy–have you heard something like that before) and think–is this happening here?

STEVE SHORE is an American physicist at a research institute in Italy.

This piece originally ran on American Democracy Project, a website at Indiana University at South Bend.