Two clowns: positive thoughts beyond the current gridlock

The term “clown” is currently à la mode when describing the two true victors of the recent Italian election, Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo: Peer Steinbrück, the SPD’s designated candidate for the German chancellorship, was at it first, and the Economist followed suit on its cover, no less.

I’ve got my positive hat on, however, so will refrain from name-calling. Instead, I’ll look way beyond the current impasse (for possible scenarios in the respect, see Alberto’s post on the matter), utterly ignore current economic woes, and suggest why I’m quietly optimistic about Italy in the year 2020.

For years, many have been decrying Berlusconi’s transformation of Italy. Supposedly, his brand of politics has been the root cause of the economic, social and cultural stagnation we’ve witnessed over the last 20 years, and his legacy would be that for a generation, lewd, corrupt, anti-democratic strongmen could abuse the system much like he’d done.

I’m over that now. Yes granted, nearly 1 in 3 Italians may have voted for him (see why in my last post) but once he goes, so will his brand of politics. For the Berlusconi phenomenon represents a perfect storm that surely cannot be repeated. Simultaneously, we had:

  • A total political vacuum within the centre-right following Mani Pulite in a country which predominately veers centre-right
  • Similarly, a distaste for politicians that was even greater than at present, which formed the ideal platform for an anti-system candidate
  • A left-wing diluted along a giant stretch veering from extreme left to centre left, and still tainted by the “communist” label, which in light of the collapse of the Societ Union seemed ever more anachronistic
  • A single person with the following characteristics
    • Undoubted political genius (far from a clown, SB is a political mastermind: his ability to play the system and maintain absolute control of the centre-right following the circumstances that allowed him to first hit centre stage is striking)
    • Unprecedented media control
    • Huge personal wealth

My optimism also stems from the Grillo factor. His rise has stoked fears: some of his statements on the economy are highly suspect (e.g. a referendum on the euro) while nothing is known of his merry band of utterly untested candidates. 160 people have just been elected to office who have no experience and whom we practically know nothing about: a potential recipe for disaster?

However, in terms of the medium to long term and what his movement’s popularity says about Italy, I think it’s rather positive. On the one hand, clearly, a protest by such an enormous number of people on both sides of the political divide against the perceived corruption and cronyism of the system implies that there are a few honest folk left. But beyond mere protest, as Jon writes in a recent post, “the M5S culture is genuinely participative in the way no traditional party in Europe has yet become.”

Many have claimed that Berlusconi is merely a demonstration of Italians’ clientelistic notion of politics: one where politics today is a system reminiscent of Italian city-states in a bygone age where strong men rule and supporting them may bring rewards, rather than one where an engaged an vocal electorate demands that its needs be met. Sure, the M5S is noisy, but it’s also an entirely democratic talking shop in which all men (and women) are equal, and open and honest debate trumps the will of the leader (in theory at least!)

My last reason for quiet optimism is that the real losers in this election were the PD. The term “handed to them on a plate” is an understatement, yet they failed to reap the rewards. Might this finally lead to the long overdue modernisation of the Italian centre-left? The indisputable rejection of the progressive Matteo Renzi in the primaries last year showed that the rank and file was not ready to break from the past. Might it be now? Fingers crossed.


The question non-Italians ask Italians: who votes for Berlusconi?

Fair question: the scandals, the conflicts of interest, and most of all, ineptitude in office; how can anyone, let alone nearly 1 in 3 Italians, still think he’s their man? I’ve been asked a few times since the election: here’s what I said.

On the one hand, you have rational support i.e. people who weighed up the options and opted for the centre-right. One (or more) of the following probably won them over:

Promise to pay back property tax

  • Although it was hard to see how he’d actually do it (although he said he’d pay for it himself if needed) he promised Italians that he’d pay back the IMU, a much hated property tax imposed by Monti. “Bribing the electorate,” they cried. Probably, but you can’t get any more rational than that: times are tough and the fellow said he’s send you a cheque.

Austerity hurt 

  • The markets loved Monti, the people less so. However populist in nature, Berlusconi declared that things had got worse, the Germans were to blame, and the centre-left would jump into bed with Monti aka the Merkel appeaser and things would get even worse. How Berlusconi would make things better was never broached but to some people it clearly didn’t need to be.

People in the North who vote Lega Nord

  • The Lega has taken a real hit over the last few years following corruption scandals that have delegitimsed its message of honesty (as opposed to the corrupt caste in Rome, supposedly). However, there remain a number of people in the North who support it as they assume it will support their interests more so than other parties: I may not agree, but it remains a “rational” choice.

Tax evaders

  • Sadly, tax evasion has been a national sport in Italy forever and there’s an unwritten rule that the centre-right will turn a blind eye to it. Berlusconi decriminalised false accounting back in the day and just recently said bribery was just standard business practice, so as unpalatable as it may be, again, it’s a rational choice.

On the other hand, we have what I’d coin “irrational” support for Berlusconi, broken down as follows:

Irrational hatred of the left

  • There are scores of people in Italy who think anything left of centre represents a Commie scourge out to turn Italy into a Stalinist superstate. As the Commie basher per excellence, Berlusconi will always be their man.

“Forza Silvio”

  • As bizarre as it may seem to some, there are people whose feelings for the man are more akin to the way most of us feel about a family member, or a football team even i.e. you don’t care what they do or say, you’ll always love them.

If he does it, so can I

  • And lastly, the snooty champagne socialist charge: lots of people adore the Berlusconi persona. They like that he doesn’t follow the rule book, that he goes whoring, that he swears and is misogynistic. For it means he’s a little more like them than the others, and makes it OK to do things others might deem to be in bad taste (or simply illegal).

Two types of Italian (and 4 subtypes)

There are two overriding types of Italian: the conformist and the non-conformist. Happily, many of the brightest, most charismatic and creative people you’d ever want to meet are Italians who belong in the non-conformist camp. Yet despite frequently being celebrated as free spirited mavericks, the conformist camp represents the majority of Italians. This helps to explain the faintly odd behaviour of many Italians, such as voting for Berlusconi over the years, or claiming to be unabashed Communists, for their actions are dictated by their conformist type, not necessarily any personal predilection.

Italian conformists aren’t all the same, by any stretch, but fall into 4 main brackets:

Holier than thou

The holier than thou conformist is very pleasant, and usually patient and exceedingly forgiving. He or (usually) she tends to be a happy sort, traditional and very family oriented, as well as highly appreciative of the simple pleasures in life, frequently citing “simplicity” as the highest accolade: “he is a simple person” or “it was a simple meal” represent high praise indeed. Last but not least, the holier than though conformist tends to be religious, and although forgiving of non-religious types, struggles to disguise the fact that they feel faintly sorry for people with no faith, which may appear ever so slightly condescending.

Mischievous joker

This conformist represents one of the prevailing Italian stereotypes: he (almost always) or she is perpetually loud and flash, and often fun and engaging with it, the sort of person where you roll your eyes and think “oh, that [name]!!!” The mischievous joker loves objects, and will often have flash (although not always stylish) threads and wheels, although their home is often modest and sparsely furnished. The mischievous joker likes to think he is “furbo” (cunning, a smart Alec) and will no doubt recite many stories about getting away with something or other, and wouldn’t ever dream of wearing a seat-belt. The mischievous joker will be very sociable, and will usually have a gang of friends in tow. The male proponent of this conformist type will no doubt think all the ladies in the room swoon whenever he’s near, even if he’s 5 foot, tubby and buck-toothed.

Superior leftist

The superior leftist is well-read and frequently interesting to boot. He or she turns their nose up at popular culture and may claim to not have watched television for years, or to never have heard of some author of popular novels, but will proudly quote famous authors or philosophers through the ages (bonus points for Marxists). Many superior leftists do not comprehend the thick volumes they profess to be mad about, but will work their way through them and carry them about as trophies, ideally dog-eared to showcase multiple readings. The superior leftist is – theoretically at least – an avowed leftist, and may even claim to be a Communist (less these days though). In truth, he or she is not really that ideological. The Berlusconi phenomenon will not be discussed politically – that’s so 2006 – but sociologically: aren’t the masses quaint, falling for his propaganda! The superior leftist is immediately recognisable: well-dressed but scruffy, with a few quirky accessories that appear picked out at random but probably weren’t, and an unmistakable penchant for velvet and suede. Unlike the angry rightist (see below) the superior leftist does not usually get that heated about politics: their country may (usually) be run by the right, but who cares, the superior leftist and their brethren are far cleverer.

Angry rightist

The angry rightist may be defined almost purely in their utter loathing of the superior leftist (champagne socialist!) They will foam at the mouth at the mere mention of a superior leftist, probably the mere thought of one. They do not really have clear defining characteristics, but will often ape the mischievous joker (although angry rightists tend to be less flashy). The angry rightist will sometimes claim to have strong political leanings to mask the true basis for their anger, but will then frequently contradict themselves: “I’m a neoliberal!” before citing the need to leave the EU and build state-run conglomerates; “I’m a social conservative!” before chortling at the latest tale of their friend’s whore-mongering antics. The angry rightist has a giant chip on their shoulder: they’ll often come from humble beginnings and/or have some sort of shortcoming (physical or intellectual) and at some point, they will have felt slighted by a superior leftist due to it, resulting in lifelong loathing of the superior leftist and everything they stand for.

Clearly, the types above are not set in stone and there is significant overlap (a considerable mischievous streak may run through an angry rightist or superior leftist, for instance). Nonetheless, the point I’m making, in short, is: Italian conformists will not stray from their conformist type and their actions are dictated by it. Perhaps this may explain why they sometimes do odd things and seem utterly unflinching when doing so.

Italy’s odd left vs. right fixation

Italy conjures up romantic images of fabulous, raucous feasts amidst breathtaking scenery, amplified by the presence of the court-jesters themselves – the locals – and their infectious joie de vivre. Outsiders keep flocking to the country, often pining to be a part of the all-embracing theatre that is Italian life.

If only it were so. By so many measures, Italy is sinking into long-term hopelessness: growth has been static for a decade, the economy is desperately uncompetitive, poverty is on the rise, and the brain-drain continues unabated as talented Italians flock to airport departures gates, vowing to never return.

The reasons for this state of affairs are pretty palpable. Public debt is at 120% meaning it’s really challenging to improve the economy from above: investing in better education (Italy has no universities amongst the top 150 in the world) or research to drive innovation in the economy? Tricky. Improving infrastructure? Nope. Significant short-term incentives to drive entrepreneurship or attract foreign investment? Possibly.

And the private sector is hardly going to inject any steam. Italy has fewer companies in the Fortune 500 than any other big developed country (and most small developed countries: Sweden and the Netherlands, for instance, dwarf it.) Ah, but Italy is driven by SMEs, they say. Yes, in the 80s when manufacturing could still drive a developed economy. Try telling the Chinese to back off: in top-tier sectors which can drive high-cost economies, like tech and high-end engineering, Italy is lagging pathetically.

Yet what do Italians talk about as they sip their morning cappuccinos?

Half the country is foaming at the mouth at the culprit-in-chief, Berlusconi. Get rid of him, and all will be fine. And the other half of the country shamefully keeps justifying his government’s behaviour: “the stories have been fabricated by left-wing press and judges” or “the left is just as shady” (like comparing a child stealing Kinder eggs to an axe murderer) or “the economy is doing just fine, thank you” (a barefaced lie continually purported by the government.)

In short, the narrative never centres on root causes or solutions and is almost always based on traditional political affiliation. I’ve always been of the left equates to Berlusconi-bashing. I’ve always been of the right means unequivocally supporting Berlusconi and his goons, despite overwhelming evidence of their inexcusable behaviour in office.

Net result? An awesome get-out-of-jail card for politicians to not do anything of substance: their support base is assured, so all carries on as is.

How the Italian left can win

Despite being up against the most patently inappropriate incumbent in any democracy in the world, the centre-left wouldn’t stand a chance if Italians were to go to the polls today. Absurd as it may seem, it’s also a vicious indictment of their ineptitude. Here’s what I’d do if I were them.

  1. Dump the baggage. The exasperating Italian veneration of seniority means old time dribbling Commies still have a say. Pit them against the progressives in the party and there’s no coherence and thus no substance.
  2. Drop the crusade against Berlusconi. No matter how many times you say he’s a bad egg, it doesn’t work. It might shift 5% of fence voters; others don’t care or don’t believe it (and what a crying shame that is.)
  3. Personalise. You don’t lose because your policies are less popular. Berlusconi is a populist: he has no policies. So make yourselves more “simpatici” i.e. more personable. The charming, attractive, funny people in the party? Show them off.
  4. On that note, don’t turn your nose up at populism. The snooty party leadership shuns populism and I agree in principle, but they should probably be featuring and engaging a few more hard-done people screwed over by the current administration, say the people in L’Aquila whose homes are still not built or Italians abroad who have had to leave their mums behind because Italy offers them nothing.
  5. Target women. They’re half the electorate and plenty of them think Berlusconi makes a mockery of them. Why not get the women in the party to make more of a fuss? Play more of the comparison game to show that Italian women trail those in other countries on all equality fronts (note: apart from income, strangely.)
  6. One policy umbrella: competitiveness. I know I implied that policy doesn’t really matter. It does a bit if it can be seen to link to people’s day-to-day needs and is an issue which is not seen as traditionally leftist (and would thus attract centrists.) The one thing that sums up a hell of a lot of Italian woes is the country’s utter lack of economic competitiveness. Poverty. Lack of jobs. Low wages. The brain-drain. And the causes are obvious and personified by the current administration (corruption, clientelism, cronyism and an outdated economic model the centre-right has done nothing to fix.) So talk about competitiveness – again and again – highlighting how improving it will make people’s lives better and how it’s utterly shameful that the centre-right has twiddled its thumbs for so long.
  7. Get active online. No I don’t mean tweet every 2 seconds, but engage and mobilise the people who do support you (it’s still an awful lot of people) by giving them the means to campaign on your behalf (offline especially.)

p.s. haven’t figured this out after all this time? You need help. Hire some market research people and political analysts. Maybe the guys who got Clinton and Blair elected back in the 90s by transforming their parties and message (more centrist, sensible and – in short – modern.)

A faintly suspicious shift on tax evasion

In Italy, the left vs. right divide has also traditionally run in parallel with an employee vs. self-employed chasm. The Christian Democrats and then Berlusconi’s governments have over the last 50 odd years turned a blind eye to tax evasion committed by many of the self-employed, much to the chagrin of employees taxed heavily at source. In part this has been a modern-day reflection of the rampant clientelism of a bygone age: you scratch my back and I scratch yours i.e. you don’t pay up but you better well keep supporting me (or in some cases, you don’t pay up but you support me and pay me a little on the side, and I reward you with a tasty construction project.)

Through this neat set-up, tax evasion has reached epic proportions in Italy. When tax records for 2005 inadvertently ended up on the web (since completely removed, wonder how they managed?) they brought to light the fact that only a few thousand people in Italy declare six figure incomes. No surprise, but the extent of evasion still blew the mind. Incidentally: curious to know who paid most tax in Italy in 2005? Giorgio Armani, with a €60 million plus bill.

When the centre-left came to power in 2006, inheriting an utterly stagnant economy from a centre-right government that had been too busy making laws that would keep their boss out of jail and let him hold on to his assets, they cracked down on tax evasion. Lo and behold, Italy’s economy actually grew. A paltry 1% but still the most growth Italy had experienced since the beginning of the decade, incidentally, just before Berlusconi came to power.

The self-employed were outraged. “How dare they,” they cried, and they duly voted them out of office in 2008. With the centre-right back in power, they could rest assured: things were back to normal. Or so they thought! This week, the centre-right has declared that it will crack down on tax evasion. Hypocritical you say? Yes, but that never stopped an Italian politician. Why should it? It would never occur to their bleary eyed supporters to hold them accountable and ask, “umm, wait a minute, didn’t you just say…” (and if they ever do, politicians on the right will just deny everything and blame it on the lying Commie scourge that runs the media, case closed.)

So why have they done it? Presumably because they’re up the proverbial shit-creek without a paddle and need some cash from somewhere. The economy is still stagnant, despite having held up reasonably well in the crisis, due largely to the fact that Italians are voracious savers and the national debt is largely within Italian borders (not sure why that matters, but I’ll trust the economists…)

There’s no outlook for serious growth though. Major improvements in the efficiency of government spending are needed while innovation and investment (FDI especially) need to be fostered through major structural reform that will make it easier and safer to do business. The government clearly doesn’t have the will to carry out either task. Populists never do: to them, everything lies in instant gratification, not making the case for serious change which may require some hard work and sacrifice, say like Prodi did in the late 90s when he convinced Italians to buckle up to meet the criteria for joining the euro.

So they did the only thing left for them to do: crack down on tax evasion (and welfare scams) to earn a few bob. Back to the question raised in the title: scorn or embrace their hypocrisy? As a point of principle, praise it I guess. At least the fact that they’re saying it might make it a little less of a wholly accepted practice. As to motives, as mentioned above, I think they’ve only made the pledge as a desperate last resort. Plus the cynic in me reckons they’ll crack down on some bad apples to raise a few billion in the short term but that it’ll all fizzle out. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong.

UPDATE: the government has since proposed spending cuts that amount to 1.6% of GDP. Let’s see how that pans out. The big change stuff? No word yet.

The impact of the web depends on the audience: Italian vs. US incidents

Vittorio Mangano was a member of the Sicilian Mafia, hired by Silvio Berlusconi in the 1970s, purportedly as a stableman, but more likely to protect members of the future prime minister’s family from being kidnapped. Mangano was later convicted of being a member of the Mafia, extortion, drug trafficking and murder. In the clip below (in Italian,) Berlusconi is seen with his arm around Marcello Dell’Utri, co-founder of Forza Italia and later convicted of Mafia collusion (pending appeal,) stating to a large crowd that Mangano was a good man who was ever only charged for bounced checks; after which journalist Marco Travaglio spills the beans on Mangano’s true colours. The clip has been seen by 115,000 people and a comment states that another clip of the same incident, since removed, had amassed over a million views.

In the run-up to the 2006 elections in the US, George Allen was the frontrunner in Virginia for re-election to the US Senate until he was filmed speaking at a meet-up in which he referred to a black person as a makaka (clip below.) Someone did their homework and found out that makaka is a derogatory term for black people in North Africa (Allen’s mother was French-Tunisian.) The clip was viewed by millions of people (since removed, hence the relatively paltry number in the one below.)

So the Italian Prime Minister lied and misled people about a convicted Mafioso and murderer and a US Senator made a racist remark. Both incidents are bad: enough to end the career of a politician you’d think.

True in Allen’s case: his career was in tatters. Yet Berlusconi’s goes from strength to strength. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, how can that be?

  • Allen’s gaffe would have been pretty big had it been for YouTube alone. It may have been enough to cause his downfall; but the networks picked it up and the story ran for ages and gained traction offline as well. It was at that point that people started calling for his head. This could not really happen in Italy because most new outlets would never run the story given that they are controlled or owned by Berlusconi. Even if one news outlet showed it (which it did: the clip above is from TV,) it couldn’t get the sort of repeated coverage it takes to make a big story. Same goes for any number of Berlusconi’s gaffes and other obscene remarks, come to think of it.
  • Still, plenty of news outlets did report the story. Others could have made more of it but didn’t. The true fact of the matter is probably that most Italians aren’t that fussed and have probably forgotten about it by now. The nature of Italy today is such that most people don’t mind all that much when their politicians behave the way they do. Or perhaps they just expect nothing less. Pity.

Berlusconi’s Italy: heartbreaker

Plenty of things are vying for the heartbreaker top spot: the country has been at an economic standstill for years and people keep leaving; its government seems hell-bent on reforming the judiciary to keep its members out of trouble rather than instituting meaningful reform; the virtual institutionalisation of racism and misogyny; the constant chipping away at the legitimacy of the press and the institutions; or even the promulgation of a culture of small-time criminality through the “if they do it, surely I can too” mindset.

Yet my heartbreaker isn’t any of these realities. It’s not even the unsavoury politicians at the top of the food-chain, none worse than the Prime Minister himself. Rather, it’s the fact that half the country wholeheartedly accepts them: the thoroughly decent, law-abiding, even upstanding citizens who don’t care; the sort of people whom elsewhere would view the rule of law and equality before it, accountability, respectability, democracy and total press freedom as utterly sacrosanct. They should be the first in line to discredit politicians who consort with criminals, meddle with media freedoms, bribe lawyers and propose laws that unashamedly work in their personal interest – but they don’t.

It’s so utterly far-fetched in a European democracy that it begs the question: why the h*** not?! I’ve written about this (many times) before. Last time around I posted about the “odd brand of Italian solidarity” which in short implies that Italy’s bloody and divided past has meant that the natural order is for people to show an inordinate level of solidarity towards people within their personal networks, and to utterly mistrust (and sometimes abuse) those who fall outside, assuming that they’d act the same way towards them. So when politicians screw over the public to ensure their own well-being and that of those within their networks, it’s just seen as the inevitable natural order, and thus not condemned as much as it might be elsewhere. But this isn’t quite enough to explain the preponderance of indifference. I’d add another two closely interlinked factors to the mix – factionalism and clientelism – which stem from the underdeveloped nature of Italy’s democracy.

Factionalism in Italy, by which I mean the automatic, absolute backing of a political faction, whatever its position, is virtually absolute. I accept that it’s a factor elsewhere: try getting a stalwart Republican to vote Democrat – it won’t happen. But in Italy, I’d argue that factionalism is far stronger because it’s only spuriously based on values, whereas parties elsewhere – from Tories in the UK to Social Democrats in Sweden – have to stay true to at least the majority of their constituents’ values or face upheaval. If some basic right-wing values are, say, nationalism and espousal of law and order, small government and neo-liberalism, you could easily argue that the current Italian government doesn’t actually represent any of them: Northern separatists are a major coalition member, the Prime Minister is hardly a poster-boy for law and order, government interference in judiciary and press matters hardly smack of limited government, while you would be hard-pressed to find a single example of a liberal red-tape cutting initiative by a right-wing government in the last 15 years. Instead, family history and geography are far more likely indicators of whether you’re right or left wing. In short, you’re right or left wing no matter what your party says or does, even if your party is grossly undermining what it supposedly stands for.

Why is that? In part – like elsewhere – tradition and bitter (sometimes bloody) political rivalries can still prevail even if personal values are being compromised. More pertinently, I’d argue that it’s because democracy hasn’t developed in Italy to the extent that people equate politics with personal or societal well-being i.e. democracy isn’t seen as a mechanism for people to elect the politicians they see as most likely to pay heed to their needs or face not being re-elected. Rather, it’s seen as a mechanism for people to assemble power and/or wealth, which is accepted as the natural order because of the continued prevalence of clientelism. Politics in Italy is still rooted in an era where supporting your faction through thick and thin meant you were more likely to benefit from it, as strong man faction leaders rewarded supporters. In the past, that might have meant some form of protection or a lower tax burden. Nowadays…? Pretty much the same thing: mainly, it’s the fact that the tax man is less likely to kick up a fuss if they get a few figures wrong in their tax return. Sometimes, keen supporters may even skip to the front of the queue when they need a permit or some new regulation is being drawn up. As a result, all factors beyond the likelihood of personal gain become obsolete. In short, politicians have replaced the Princes and Popes of yesteryear; they look to amass power and wealth, while the little man should hedge his bets and support the strong man. In this way, he may get something in return. In his mind, his own and his family’s well-being will not benefit from a flourishing democracy which allows a society to prosper collectively, but might do so if he picks the right winner.

Having said all that, perhaps it’s not all bad news. The factors above are deep-rooted but I’d nonetheless argue that the current political establishment is on its last legs. Factors like Berlusconi’s undoubted personal appeal to some (rich, self-made, the women, the laughs) and control of many media outlets will vanish once he does; while the drop in voter turnout at the last regional elections in Italy (denoting discontent with the current administration as well as lack of faith in the alternatives) would indicate that some people, even on the right, fall outside the solidarity – factionalism – clientelism triangle. Worst case scenario? That the new generation adopts old habits. Best case scenario? They don’t and Italy will finally have political leaders who will help the country match its unparalleled potential rather than look to amass personal power and wealth.

Silliest pro-Berlusconi c**p heard yet

I’ve written about why Italians don’t think Berlusconi is utterly inappropriate herehere and here. I recently heard another mindboggling justification for his behaviour. Possibly the most mind-boggling ever. Here goes. Seeing as Italy is fairly new and not a very close-knit country – North-South divide, regional and cultural differences et al – people aren’t very patriotic. For this reason, the press criticises its politicians far more than could possibly happen in other countries, where equally appalling behaviour is swept under the carpet in the interest of fierce national pride and unity.

Someone well-travelled with half a brain and a university education to match actually said this. They – and presumably others like them – think that Brown, Obama and Merkel are all belligerent, corrupt, Mafia-colluding whore-mongers, but nobody knows because British, American and German journalists are too patriotic to write about any of their indiscretions.

Just to state the bleeding obvious, this is disconcerting on two fronts:

  1. First, that the sacred tenet of press freedom can be dismissed so lightly. That the press actually shouldn’t be free at all so as to preserve the moral rectitude of the country, as if there isn’t less moral rectitude in not having a free press.
  2. Second, how sad it is that pleasant, bright, law-abiding people wholeheartedly accept and take for granted that politicians everywhere are belligerent, corrupt, Mafia-colluding whore-mongers.

Italy: an odd brand of solidarity

There’s the patently inappropriate, gaffe-prone megalomaniac who has spent nigh on 15 years trying to to keep himself and his cronies out of prison. But the buck really doesn’t stop at Berlusconi although he grabs the headlines. There’s scores of others on both sides of the political divide who are unfit for political office (although the Big B really does take the biscuit on most fronts.)

Why don’t Italians seem to mind? The first thing to point out is that plenty do. Ask a sample set of Italians what they think of their politicians and rest assured that the accolades will be few and far between. But why are there so many others who don’t mind that their political class – and their Prime Minister in particular – are so morally ambiguous?

OK, in no way have I conducted a profound sociological study, but I’m sure the reason to some extent lies in how the Italian moral compass is skewed towards the local, the familiar and the family. Italians tend to (emphasis: TEND to) display an inordinately high level of solidarity towards people who come from the same neighbourhood or village, or have the same profession; and even people they have a spurious connection to e.g. a friend of a friend, or outsiders who have accidentally fallen within their “sphere of influence” e.g. a tourist lost in their midst.

Anecdotal evidence is rampant on this front from Italians and foreigners alike (many Italians have rolled their eyes at the umpteenth foreign Italophile’s mildly patronising tale of – say – a toothless, smiling peasant who handed them an orange as they struggled in the scorching midday sun.) Likewise, Italy has a higher level of small-time volunteerism (local and school level) than any other country, according to the seasoned Italian columnist Beppe Severgnini (sorry, can’t find the quote.)

So the discrepancy with what’s expected of politicians may be explained by the fact that most Italians believe that solidarity is best saved for those closest to them or who fall within their personal networks. Everyone beyond is to be treated with mistrust and even scorn; that’s the natural order, and presumably a by-product of a long history of bloodshed and foreign domination which left people extremely mistrustful of anything too far beyond their backyard – and which they made up for with an inordinately high level of solidarity towards those within that same backyard.

This might help to explain why politicians can behave without any seeming sense of solidarity towards their constituents although these same constituents would put up their long-lost cousin’s neighbour’s brother at the drop of a hat. Politicians are simply following the natural order: they are looking out for their lot – themselves and those closest to them – even though they are abusing others to do so.