The national disgrace of its libidinous, theatrical, and, many would say, deeply corrupt and all too powerful but Teflon-like Premier, Silvio Berlusconi, is certainly a factor. But then modern Italian politics have often hovered between tragedy and comic opera, and this perhaps is due to a political heritage that was only very recently democratic. Mussolini and Fascism were not so long ago, and there remains a sizeable block of black shirt Fascists in the Italian parliament, though now more subtly attired.
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If the Italian Republic is young, the skullduggery of Italian political culture is far more ancient, and the living link of a Roman and Renaissance legacy is told in blood, betrayal, and dirty money. It is after all Italy that gives us Nicolo Machiavelli and “Machiavellian” as a synonym for the ends justifying the means in an amoral or, perhaps better expressed, supra-moral political context. That contemporary Italian politics produced a notoriously corrupt Bettino Craxi or as cold blooded and authoritarian a figure as Giulio Andreotti, seems only logical if we consider Borgias, Caligulas, and Neros and therefore from this legacy why not also the spectacle of Berlusconi? He is a mad emperor too, not backed by Roman legions, but by untold billions in his personal fortune and monopolistic media empire, that self regulates so much of the dissent against him.
And there are those Italians of course who rush to defend their Prime Minister, because in uncertain times, somehow, Italy still functions. So if national politics – be they leftist or rightist – and criminal enterprise are so closely linked that it’s difficult to discern where Mafia influence ends and government begins, what of it? Everybody eats in Italy, things move forward by some miracle and the art of “arrangiarsi” making due, improvising, coming to an agreement, making things happen through compromise, bribery, back door dealing and the personalized cronyism, and nepotism that has long typified how things work in Italy.
It’s not a meritocracy. It’s not transparent. It’s about whom you know, who is in the know, who can let you in, and who might be close to Caesar. And after 61 changes of government since 1945, Berlusconi hangs on and maintains a semblance of continuity and stability providing a source of comfort for his loyalists who argue, Italy has always hovered on the brink of anarchy anyway, and that is why it always needed a Capo, whether in a toga, jackboots, or a fine Milanese suit. So what if this one keeps a harem to match a sultan of old? Do the trains run? Do the pizzas get made?
But it is perplexing how a country as deeply dysfunctional as Italy, as close to a Banana Republic in some Marx Brothers Ruritarian fiction as any European country gets, not forgetting Belarus strongman Timshenko’s decidedly unfunny Stalinist police state, teeters so close to the edge and still somehow functions and indeed thrives? How can Italy rank as it does in the G-8 and still manage to tolerate the vast mountains of stinking, oozing, uncollected garbage Naples generates? And thinking of the same city under Vesuvius’s gaze, is there any other metropolis in the EU that is not under constant terror attack but still must deploy Paratroopers fresh from Afghanistan to its own streets because violent crime is so rampant the police are overwhelmed to straining point? How does this paradox come about? There may well be no rational explanation except that it IS Italy, it’s in the national DNA, this knack for survival and success under ridiculous circumstances.
And Italy at least is interesting and seldom dull. Moreover, the Italian political quagmire never outstrips Italy’s vibrant culture, unmistakably at the very heart of the patrimony of Western civilization itself. And that isn’t a grandiose, false boast. It’s much more than nimble footed footballers, Gucci shoes, Armani suits, Ferraris, and a culinary magnificence that sets the world salivating… Italy is the home of (yes, dare we say it?) Dante, Caravaggio, Pirandello, Raphael, Vivaldi, Puccini, Verdi, Caruso, Fellini, Zeffirelli, Galileo, Marconi, Stradivari, Mastroianni, Sordi, Benigni and too many more geniuses to mention in every field of human endeavor. And they are responsible for the world, as we know it – a beautiful, soulful, creative, breathtaking world at that.
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Certainly, Italy is in dire need of reform – profound, earth shattering, enduring reform. It cries out for it. And in the darkest, blackest soul of Italy, where La Cosa Nostra lurks in its bloodsucking rapaciousness and cruelty, destroying and poisoning all that it touches, including the promise of anything remotely resembling the rule of law…in all of its toxic regional forms, from the Sicilian Mafia to the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian N’drangheta and Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s wise guys urgently need extirpating from the body of the state, like a malignant tumor from a cancer victim. But then, some would argue, Italy would truly collapse, because the system is now thus, in deep symbiosis with organized crime. Ah, Quo Vadis Italia?
Orson Welles understood and was grateful that Italy was never Switzerland, and never would be:
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The Cuckoo clock.”