Friday, January 23, 2004

I’ve used this Will Hutton article a few time over the last week or so (thanks to Do You Dream in Colour? for the original link) with some of my advanced students. If you can’t be bothered to read the link, you can catch the drift from the title - “The new sick man of Europe” - and the tagline: “Corruption in politics and the media is turning the once core EU state of Italy into an international disgrace”. It is not, it’s fair to say, too kind about Prime Minister Berlusconi or even about Italy.

Student reactions have been of the “Yes,... yes,... yes,... it’s all true, but the author is being unfair. He does not understand Italy” variety. So; what’s to understand? As a Brit, it’s hard not to take the same attitudes as Hutton (namely: damning) in response to the facts: Berlusconi owns almost all bar one of the national TV stations and a fair chunk of the printed press, he has passed laws making himself (and other senior Government officials) immune from prosecution whilst in office and one of the largest companies in the country (Parmalat) has just gone into receivership after £7 billion had been found to be falsely accounted for. And then, of course, there are those awful PR gaffs that seem to follow the Prime Minister around; jokes about German foreign ministers being Nazis and public defense of Russian activity in Checnya being just two of the more prominent examples. As Hutton puts it: “What kind of banana republic [am I] living in?”.

At home, I’m sure, any one of these activities would create pressure for a Prime Ministerial resignation. I have no idea what would happen if an equivalent sequence of events developed in the UK, simply because Britain wouldn't allow it to happen. I explain this to my students and they nod. “But...”, they say, “..this Will Hutton doesn’t try to understand why Berlusconi was elected in the first place”. I think they may be politely suggesting that, by extension, most foreigners don’t attempt to understand Italy properly.

Here we delve into modern Italian political history, beginning with the anti-corruption “Clean Hands” movement that swept many politicians from the scene in the early 1990s. Berlesconi chose to fill the resulting gap by entering the political arena because, so the accepted wisdom seems to be, he had no friends left in Government, so he had to drive Government assistance for his business interests himself. To a Brit – of any political hue – that is shocking. To an Italian, it is just 'not perfect', and a blind eyed is turned; after all, all politicians are corrupt, and Berlusconi isn’t stealing from the State, just seeking to benefit himself. They react with a smirk when I say that Tony Blair is widely-assumed not to be corrupt. Dishonest, maybe, but not corrupt. The look they give me allows me to teach some new vocabulary: “naive” and “fool”.

Similarly shocking to a Brit is the accepted wisdom that Berlusconi is a businessman first and a politician second. Leadership ambitions not backed by firm political beliefs and motivation (or at least, the appearance of such principles) will go nowhere in Britain. In contrast, Italian recognition of the family as entrepreneurial building block allows them to relate to Berlusconi’s political ambitions: he comes from similar stock and with the same aspirations as they: a successful family-run business. This, (and, for many Italians, the absense of credible alternatives) is why Berlusconi has twice won elections here.

I don't know if foreigners don't try hard enough to understand Italy. But I am beginning to wonder if, however much we try, we'll never really get it.

(There’s a lot more on Berlusconi in this Observer Magazine article, if you’re interested.)

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