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Decadence and Democracy in Italy

What does the tolerance of Silvio Berlusconi's hedonism say about Italians?

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.

Topics: Italy, Politics, Silvio Berlusconi, World

New York
January 27th, 2011 6:11 am
This really isn't rocket science... to understand how such abuse of power becomes the norm, one needs to look no further than the Vatican. The tactics and scandals of Italy's political system are a mirror-image of the Vatican's.
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January 27th, 2011 10:43 am
Unfortunately Berlusconi supporters are firmly convinced that he has done a lot for the country. they also believe that the parliament is paralyzed because Berlusconi is the victim of a persecution by "red judges".
The Italian public will forgive him for everything as soon as he give them something in exchange...hope for a job or tv announcement of tax cuts.
Italy is passing through a moment of its history where the public has lost his strength. For many years Italy has been in need of deep changes. Nowadays we are more in need of a miracle.
To actually change Italy we would need a "tabula rasa" and start re-educating the public about the meaning of legality, respect of the law, honor, decency . all things that in Italy seem to be long forgotten
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Lorenzo Sportiello
January 27th, 2011 11:06 am
The 'thing' is easier than everyone outside Italy thinks.

1- Berlusconi sells a strong and neat dream to italians.

No matter how despicable, sexist, plutocratic is. It's a DREAM. The dream of the richness, the high life, the self made man. No one in Italy does something remotely similar nor alternative to this.
It's a shame, but we don't have any other leader. Italians aren't stupid, and our history reveals how fast can we change opinions. Berlusconi is just the strongest choice for a lot of people.

2- Italy is not a bigot country.

No one really cares about sex scandals. Italy is much more open minded than USA about sex. I'm a scriptwriter and there are a lot of stereotypes in your movies about how catholic and retrograded we are.

3- "everyone does it".

Corruption is something inside italians. Berlusconi is just a mirror of what Italians are. Unlucky. We need a strong moral education. We can change fast, but our leaders need to do it before.
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Mario R. Zampella
Fiumicino (Rome)
January 27th, 2011 4:45 am
Since the time in which Berlusconi made the Italians Deal, 1994, he lied. He promised two millions of employement places, it never happened. He promised to cut taxes, it never happened and so on. Time by time his behavior became alwayas more dirty and ambiguous until the last days in which he has been charged for prostitution protection. Mr. Jesus Christ too said "Let come the prostitutes to me", but it was deeply different. It's clear that he needs to be the Jesus of the century, and in Italy he real is. Why ? I think ha has a unlimited power, so great that noone is able to stop him. If I should make a USA parallel, I think that, in this time you would have stopped him, like Nixon or the Clinton trial. In Italy doesn't exist the impeachement use, each Parliament member swears to be faithful to the country and more over, the roles turned up and down, in the sense that, as it would be correct, people learn from institutions how to live and confront itself with the State. Unfortunally it's happening the opposite, they are the institutions that take example from people. I'm waiting for a guns war inside the Parliament.
Fiumicino, 27 of january 2011 h. 4.44 am. Mario Rosario Zampella
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January 27th, 2011 9:48 am
"Sexist" is such a dead word. It feels utterly dead; a fossilized piece of 20th century cant. I think Italians attitude toward sex is *sexy.*

That's a much, much livelier and truer sounding word. My feeling is that puritans and scolds on the left are just going to have to *suck it up* as we say in the increasingly unsexy USA.
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Byron Jones
January 27th, 2011 11:48 am
Why are we surprised? Why, compared to the Borgias and latter Medicis, this guy is a puny piker.
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Eastern Shore of Maryland
January 27th, 2011 2:18 pm
It amazes me that more conservative voices haven't come out in opposition to Berlusconi. There has always been such a strong Catholic family movement in Italy, how do they stomach this? Or his onetime ally Fini, what does he have to say? On top of all this so many people are unemployed and professional options for young people are severely restricted. They can't all be deceived by the myth of glitz and bimbos can they?
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January 27th, 2011 2:24 pm
it is the logical consequence of immorality so prevalent in western nations. why should Italians bother about what a man or woman does in his private life? Burlosconi is no exception. Though he never hides it from the public. How many of Italians are doing or like to do it?
The real point should be on the failure of his governance in various walks of Italian life. on this account he should be criticized as fiercely as possible. But the media obsession with his sex life is simply counterproductive and is in favour of Burloscone. Anyway, a good room for debate.
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Westchester County, NY
January 27th, 2011 3:17 pm
"In almost any other democracy, that would have been enough to end a politician's career..."

It didn't end Bill Clinton's career.
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Benedetto ALTIERI
Milano Italy, a politically sick country
January 27th, 2011 3:48 pm
Dear Alexander,
I would like to share with you my idea of the two most important origins of the big Italian problem. Understanding a problem helps to solve it.
1. Italians outside of Italy are very successful. The reason is that we are simply the best. The Italian political parties of the opposition are full of Italians; so they are all the best. Every politician of the opposition believes that he is the best and he fights against the leader, no matter how good he is.
2. In 1943 our American friends landed in Sicily with the slogan: “It is better to be Mafioso than Communist!” The majority of the Italians still believe that. I believe that to solve our big political problem our American friends should land again in Italy, but in Florence, not in Sicily, with the slogan: “It is better to be an Italian Communist, like the Mayor of Firenze, than a Mafioso like the prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.” Moreover, mutatis mutandis, in Italy we had something similar to Iraq. In fact Americans tolerated terrorism both in Italy and Iraq in order to fight communism. And may be in a few critical cases they even helped them!
We need help from outside Italy. President Obama should inform us that communism is dead forever.
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January 27th, 2011 3:50 pm
Before we judge Italians for not seeing this "dream" as one commenter aptly put it, and taking action, we should also see ourselves with as much clarity.

We have a minority here that dominates our politics, based on a false dream of independence, patriotism, religion, and military might. The very people who are most adversely affected by their actual policies, are the ones who fall under the spell of the dream the most. The media here is more and more under the influence of these false dream makers, and the democratic balance is disappearing under the effects of the Citizens United case.

In short, the billionaires pull the strings here too, fool the people for their own gain here too, and few are doing anything about it, and the few who try are targets of the crazies who listen to Fox and the far right radio pundits. In both countries, we are losing our democracy - the people are becoming more and more subordinate.

The scandals are atrocious, and the more I read about them, the more I see that they go far beyond "personal life" issues, but the real problem is the concentration of power. Italy is a good mirror for us right now.

And still a beautiful country.
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Milan, Italy
January 27th, 2011 4:13 pm
Dear Readers of NYT, they asked you "What does the tolerance of Silvio Berlusconi's hedonism say about Italians?". The answer is very easy: Italians still support Berlusconi because they know Justice system in Italy. The more they try to destroy him without passing by the elections the more the Italians will support him. It is not a matter of some exchange for job or tax cuts. It is something deeper: Italian people understand thet they want to stay free. Thinking about "start re-educating Italian people" reminds me teh killing fields in Cambodia.
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Jim Johnson
Santa Rosa, CA
January 27th, 2011 5:00 pm
Thank you for the education on Italian politics. All I really knew is that there have been an enormous number of governmental changes since WW II. It's sad to read the state of Italian affairs, but then the state of world politics is pretty sad, period. Name the place, it has enormous problems. And even in the best of states "no one gets out alive,".despite how much sex they have or with whom. Sexuality rules modern cultures, even in the repressive Islamic states. Ironically this blog had an ad with two beautiful young obviously sexually charged twenty-somethings pictured for connection to the NY Times magazine. As we Buddhists say, "these are all the deficiencies of samsara." Best wishes to all in whatever country you find yourself.
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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
January 27th, 2011 5:43 pm
Sounds awfully familiar to the situation that happened in the U.S. when Chenney was Vice-President and Haliburton with which he was linked was awarded billions of dollars worth of contracts from the Department of Defence.
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American ex-pat
January 27th, 2011 5:46 pm
I moved to Rome in 1998, just as the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking. I realized that I would never really understand Italy or Italians when one of my colleagues -- a well-educated, sophisticated Italian gentleman of a certain age -- took me aside and asked me, in all sincerity, what the fuss was about because, he said, "Italians would be proud to have a president who could 'have' such a beautiful young woman." Many Italians are now disgusted by this latest of Mr Berlusconi's exploits and deeply concerned about the way he has eroded the country's core democratic institutions during his years in power, but I still do not really understand Italy.
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San Jose, Calif.
January 27th, 2011 5:49 pm
#1 apparently never heard of Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Chairites, and dozens of other Catholic faith-based groups worldwide who are traditionally relied upon for disaster relief, social services, inner-city school programs, homeless support, and other efforts too numerous to list here.
Their "headquarters" is the..... Vatican. Educate yourself, before posting nonsense.
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January 27th, 2011 5:50 pm
The real question is, why do Americans care so much about whom their politicians sleep with? I see the Italian situation as the normal one, and all the American presidents, governors, congressmen, and senators who have to resign or are impeached over personal affairs as the ridiculous one.
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Rome, Italy
January 27th, 2011 6:47 pm
There is nothing normal about Berlusconi, nor it is even remotely true that he embodies the average Italian. Did Mr. George W. Bush 'embody' the average American? Does Sarkozy embody the French or Kim Jon Il the North Koreans? These are sloppy generalizations. Someone in the past, namely Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler's willing executioners) desperately tried to prove that the whole German people was an accessory to Hitler. Yet no explanation is given as to how the same people created the Weimar republic or founded the European Union after the war. G. W. Bush has thrown the US in an illegal war on the basis of fabricated evidence: is this the American people's fault?
People simply do not "embody" their leaders, nor do such leaders represent some sort of sociological compendium of the people. As an italian I simply feel outraged to be even remotely compared to Mr. Berlusconi. The point is that Mr. Berlusconi seized power through a shameless use of populism, the worst ever to be seen in western Europe since the war. A huge disinformation campaign has taken hold of the less educated 30% of the population who would vote for right wing parties anyway and who get their news only from Berlusconi's lying, ultrabiased tv channels. Should we expect these people to stop being conservative voters and start voting for the left wing parties? More likely they will stick to their belief and look the other way, as they do.
The sad bottom line is that Berlusconi was forbidden by law to run for office (a 1957 law that prevents public licencees like him to run). Once that hurdle was overcome through legal loopholes the whole game was rigged, and this could have happened anywhere. After all, as Alexis De Toqueville said "Democracy is the power of an informed people".
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January 27th, 2011 6:49 pm
Why do we tolerate all sorts of aberrations in character in the US? Because the real difference between the perception we have of our leaders in politics, business, sports, banking and ourselves is much less than the PR campaigns would like us to believe.
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January 27th, 2011 6:53 pm
Bill Clinton was just a big a womanizer. The ones we know about were Jenifer Flowers, then Paula Jones of course who initiated the lawsuit. And lastly there was that young intern Monica Lewinsky who was taken advantage of by the then President and his cigar. This disgusting behavior is dismissed in many societies as long as the economy is humming along. Whoever is in charge while things are good seem to get the credit even if they have their pants down the whole time.
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The Analysis of the New York Times


Female Factor

Sex Scandals in Italy Fuel Discontent of Women

Maurizio Degl'Innocenti/European Pressphoto Agency

On Saturday, protesters in Florence, Italy, marched in a demonstration against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. One sign read, “Italy Is Not a Bordello.”

ROME — Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy has said he is laughing off his latest sex scandal, in which prosecutors are investigating whether he compensated a number of attractive young women, including a 17-year-old nicknamed “Ruby Heart-Stealer,” for sex.

The Female Factor

In a series of articles, columns and multimedia reports, The International Herald Tribune examines where women stand in the early 21st century.

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Decadence and Democracy in Italy

What does the tolerance of Silvio Berlusconi's hedonism say about Italians?

Tony Gentile/Reuters

Silvio Berlusconi, the embattled Italian prime minister, during a news conference in Rome last week.

But as this seemingly intractable scandal unfolds, filling media with images of scores of young women in his orbit, Mr. Berlusconi finds for the first time in his long career that a growing number of Italians are not laughing along: women.

Female discontent is increasingly pushing up against Italy’s traditionally byzantine, male-dominated politics.

About 73,500 people signed a petition on the Web site of the left-wing newspaper L’Unità asking Italian women to say “enough already” to Mr. Berlusconi. A demonstration in Milan on Saturday drew thousands of protesters, and a nationwide protest promoted by women is scheduled for Feb. 13.

“Another Italy exists,” proclaimed Emma Marcegaglia — the first woman to lead Confindustria, an association of major industries, and one of only a handful of Italian women with any significant political clout — in a widely noticed television interview last month.

Today, long-simmering anger is rising among those who say they simply do not see themselves in the dominant images of women in Italy: the so-called veline, hot-bodied showgirls who since the 1980s have been the hallmark of Mr. Berlusconi’s television networks.

The latest scandal has underscored frustration about the seemingly narrow range of roles touted as available to women today. “In Italy, women are suffering because they see themselves caught between two images, that of the happy housewife or the ‘velina,’ ” said Danda Santini, the editor in chief of the Italian edition of Elle. “Little else is represented on television.”

Italy significantly trails European Union counterparts on equality indicators like employment of women or women in leadership positions, and indignant women say the latest scandal highlights a troubling message: the way for a woman to get ahead in Italy is to sell her soul, if not her body, to powerful men.

“I don’t feel it’s a model that mirrors me in any way,” said Martina Priori, 25, a saleswoman in a shoe store in downtown Rome. “The real world is different.”

Getting ahead at work, however, is difficult. Although more Italian women than men have university degrees, only 46 percent of Italian women are employed, compared with an average of 59 percent in the 27-member European Union.

At the same time, Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the European Union, at 1.4 per woman, and spends only 1.1 percent of its gross domestic product on child care and other family incentives, according to Eurostat, the union’s statistics agency.

France, in contrast, spends 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product on family incentives, and its birthrate is 2.1 per woman.

According to the 2010 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, Italy ranks 74th out of 134 countries — trailed in the European Union only by Hungary, Malta and Cyprus.

By some lights, Italian women have come far in a country whose most entrenched power structures — the Roman Catholic Church and organized crime — remain male and secretive.

For the first time, women now lead the industrialists’ association and Italy’s largest labor union. (“It took them nearly 100 years to appoint a woman, and they chose the worst economic moment,” Ms. Marcegaglia recently said about herself.)

But on the whole, in a country known for lacking meritocracy, Italian women face an uphill battle.

Decades after a feminist movement helped bring significant changes, including legal abortion and divorce, some argue that Italian women are worse off today than in the past. “It’s as if we’ve gone backwards since the ’70s,” said Antonella Giacobbe, 55, as she attended a recent meeting in Rome of Filomena, a women’s advocacy group.

The handful of women who have risen to top corporate posts in Italy often come from powerful families. Ms. Marcegaglia is the heiress of a steel fortune. Marina Berlusconi, chairwoman of the Fininvest holding company and the Mondadori publishing group, is Mr. Berlusconi’s daughter.

In familycentric Italy, women are expected to be caregivers and housekeepers, and they are often discriminated against in the workplace, experts say, because employers believe that they will place family above job.

“In Italy, you either work or have children, because so far legislation hasn’t placed women in a condition where they can work,” said Alisa Del Re, who teaches on gender policies at the University of Padua.

In a country where grandparents often become child care, fewer than 10 percent of toddlers have access to preschool nurseries — and 27 percent of women quit work after having a child, according to a study by Alessandra Casarico and Paola Profeta, professors at Bocconi University in Milan.

“It seems that everything works against women: family, society, how work is organized,” and often the women give up, said Caterina Soffici, author of a book on the gender gap in Italy.

Yet the Bank of Italy estimates that if female employment rose to 60 percent, gross domestic product would rise 7 percent. “In a country where growth is at 1 percent, that’s something to keep in mind,” said Anna Maria Tarantola, the bank’s deputy director general.

A central question being debated today is how much Mr. Berlusconi has been responsible for molding the image of women during his 30 years as head of the country’s largest private broadcasting empire.

Girls once dreamed of being on television; now they “think that being an escort is the fastest way to becoming someone, by having access to important men and successful politicians,” said Candida Morvillo, the editor in chief of the glossy gossip weekly Novella 2000 and author of the 2003 book “La Repubblica Delle Veline,” or “Republic of Showgirls.”

Over the years, Mr. Berlusconi has blurred the line between show business and politics, choosing women from his television shows as candidates for the Italian and European Parliaments. One former showgirl, Mara Carfagna, is now equal opportunities minister — and has won plaudits even from critics for promoting gay rights. She is one of 5 women in the 23-member Berlusconi cabinet; 3 are without portfolio and few are seen as setting the agenda.

Many believe that change will come from the media rather than Parliament. Loredana Lipperini, a journalist and author, said she hoped that younger Italian women would be shaped by the Internet rather than the showgirl culture on television. “I’m comforted by this, because most young people are getting or will get their main information on the Internet,” she said.

For her part, Susanna Camusso, the first woman to be secretary general of C.G.I.L., Italy’s largest trade union, predicted that the Berlusconi era would eventually be seen “as an accident of history — not a mirror of the country.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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