About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Caiman

Since I’m Italian, and I just got back from Il Bel Paese (the beautiful country) where I was during the recent controversial election of a left-progressive coalition, I feel I need to comment on that situation, and on possible parallels with the US.

For the past five years, Italy has been governed by a right-conservative coalition of parties headed by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, recently nicknamed “Il Caimano" (the caiman) by film director Nanni Moretti (known in the US for his beautiful “The Son’s Room”). The Caiman has rather shady origins in the financial backwaters of Italy’s business capital, Milan, and has been indicted several times on corruption charges by the Italian authorities. He has escaped conviction through a fascinating combination of tactical delays in court and the rewriting of Italian laws specifically to avoid his own incrimination.

The Caiman also owns all three major Italian TV networks, controls more than half of the country’s newspapers, and indirectly (through his government) keeps in check the three Italian public TV channels. No other politician working within a Western democracy has managed to amass that much influence over national media. Berlusconi has vehemently resisted any law addressing this conflict of interest, so much so that the joke in Italy now is that there is no conflict of interest, just interests, since the Caiman owns everything anyway.

For years Berlusconi’s political opponents have accused him of the same sort of thing that some liberals and progressives accuse George II of: being a crypto-fascist whose real agenda is to first limit and then possibly overcome democratic institutions in the service of a personal (Berlusconi) or ideological (Bush) agenda. Indeed, Nanni Moretti’s movie – which I watched on the day of the Italian elections – ends with the disturbing image of a Berlusconi (ironically interpreted by Moretti himself) leaving a courtroom, were he has just been convicted of corruption, and giving a public speech that essentially starts a civil war.

In reality the Caiman has not been convicted of anything (yet), but he has in fact given declarations to the press and the public in the last few days that are eerily reminiscent of Moretti’s prediction, and that even most of his political allies are beginning to see with preoccupation. See, the election was close, very close. It was as close as the American one of 2000, which Bush infamously “won” only after a conservative Supreme Court (with members appointed by his father) declared that he took the crucial state of Florida (where his brother oversaw widespread electoral fraud and systematic disenfranchisement of minorities).

Berlusconi, finding that – unlike Bush – he has no friends among Italian judges (which he has viciously attacked for years on the ground that their prosecution of the Caiman was politically motivated), has resorted to the accusation of “widespread fraud,” threatening to “issue a decree” that would demand a broad recount. If successful, this strategy would keep the entire country in political limbo for months, have international repercussions in Europe and abroad, and possibly plunge Italy into a state of chaos that could, and I’m using the hypothetical conditional here, in fact lead to civic unrest.

The morale of the story, I think, is that Western democracies are under attack on two fronts: fundamentalist Islamism from the outside, with its ideological intolerance and propensity for violent action; and political demagogues from the inside, who can sway ignorant masses for their own more or less sinister purposes. The two threats are related, in the sense that the demagogues are effective because of the fear naturally inspired by the outside threat. But make no mistake about it: Western societies can easily weather the burning of their flags in the streets, and even attacks such as 9/11. They will not survive the likes of Bush and the Caiman.


  1. For years Berlusconi’s political opponents have accused him of the same sort of thing that some liberals and progressives accuse George II of: being a crypto-fascist whose real agenda is to first limit and then possibly overcome democratic institutions in the service of a personal (Berlusconi) or ideological (Bush) agenda.

    The huge difference here is that using government for personal agenda is wrong. Using goverment for ideological agenda is the purpose of running for office. What politician does not have an ideological agenda. The problem is that you don't happen to agree with Bush's Ideological agenda and approve more of the left's ideological agenda. That does not make what bush is doing morally wrong. As we would agree what Berlusconi is doing is immoral, since it is only for personal gain.
    Sorry, but you comparing these two situations is apples to oranges. When Bush ran for election, he put it on the table. Fact is, most of the country agreed with it (or at least more than they agreed with Kerry).
    The complaining about the 2000 election has got to stop, if for nothing more than the fact the country re-elected him since then, without controversy.
    How is bush limiting democratic institutions. The man was elected for a second term. He does not control any media. Most of the media bashes him repeatedly. What bothers me most is I find the left tries to villify Bush (as you have done here by comparing him to a situation with no relevence whatsoever) more than they try to debate his actual decisions. Aside from the Iraq war bashers, which the whole county was behind at one time (even though no-one admits it).

  2. Bush did not lay his ideological agenda on the table. He never will either, because if he did his resignation would soon follow, since the public would then be fully aware that they elected Bush on false pretenses.

    Take for example, Bush on the environment. His approach has been to repeal as many environmental laws as he can, and to let corporate polluters spoil the environment while shifting the burden of dealing with the aftermath onto the tax payer. If he openly advocated these policies the public would not stand for it, so instead he says he's a conservationist and calls his repeal of existing air regulations the Clear Skies Act. Despicable.

  3. The existing regulations from the Clean Air Act of 1990 did not regulate actual numbers from power plants emission, but rather used air quality measurements. The Clean Skies Act of 2005 does require an actual drop of measuraed plant emissions by 70%. Also individual states still have the authority to set stricter emissions if so desired as did the origional clean air act. Although the new act does prevent downwind states from mandating upwind states. There are many many more points that could be debated between the two acts. The fact is the Clean Skies Act is still mandating drops in pollution, what will amount to 70% in the next 7 years. Some debate this is not as agressive as the potential 90% that the Clean air act could have brought, but that 90% is not actually mandated, it is just a number that some predicted. The left would have us believe that the Clean Skies Act is going to increase pollution. That is just simply not true. It will reduce pollution, and bring cleaner air.
    We are currently in an energy crisis. Last month I paid $311 for 1602 kwh's of electricity. In my opinion the clean skies act is more fiscally responsable way to still help the enviorment. But of course the high price of energy is also Bush's fault, right! because we are at war in Iraq which doesn't even produce as much oil as it uses.
    You say Bush has repealed as many enviormental laws as he can, What others are you talking about?
    I will credit you with at least trying to bring up individual points you dislike about Bush (I have my own), Rather than just generelizing his character.

  4. Jim, ideological agendas are always out of place, even in politics. What politicians are supposed to do is to represent the people who elected them as well as work for the good of society. Of course they have a point of view, but it ought to be fairly debated and out into the open. Bush has been working at the borderlines (and sometimes beyond) of legality in pushing agendas that ar much more personal than reflecting those of his electorate, let alone the nation as a whole.

  5. In Jim's defense, I think any legit. environmentalist would care just as much (and more because so much oil has already been processed in the east) about the Middle Eastern environment as he did his own. But those sorts considerations are never mentioned. It appears to merely be another issue to use against a leader that a certain segment of the population happens not to agree with. Period.

    I've come to the point in my life that I realize that much of politics is so dirty that I'm NOT EVEN listening anymore UNLESS the person representing the cause or party has an incredibly different mindset. One, for instance, that does not have to marginalize the opposition to get by. One that ideally loves the people and loves what he does.

    And yeah, I really do expect that.

    ps. Massimo,
    It's hard to read and understand (for the average person) what really happened with Berlusconi’s campaign, as the rhetoric in the Italian press was constantly carrying about how he was being "reprimanded" for something or another. In a country where payoffs are the accepted form of getting something accomplished, I'd suggest that the Italians are collectively, and pretty much entirely responsible both for the obscurest press, and for a leader who can, if he wished to, pay everyone off and own everything.

    And then the citizens complain about a system they have fostered and sheltered for years anyway! OR maybe it’s just the press generating most of it. ??? who knows.

    where is the "love", btw?


  6. "The left would have us believe that the Clean Skies Act is going to increase pollution."

    This has nothing to do with "the left" It's objective fact. The Clear Skies Act allows for more pollution than the Clean Air Act and delays the timeframe that industry has to clean up its pollution. The cap and trade aspect of the plan would allow certain facilties to increase their pollution if other factories decrease it.

    Individual states have actually sued the federal gov't because of these lax environmental standards.

    You ask what other laws Bush has repealed. I'm telling you, almost all of them. Pick up Bush versus the Environment by Robert Devine to see how total Bush's assault on our environment is.

    Heard of the superfund sites? Under Bush they have gone underfunded. Heard of the coal slurry spill in Inez, Kentucky? Its the largest environmental disaster on the east coast in American history. Under Bush the company responsible got a slap on the wrist (50,000 dollar fine.)

    Two weeks ago the Interior Dept. announed the first increase in wetlands since 1954. There was actually a decrease of about 500,000 acres, but the dept. counted man-man made ponds (like golf course water hazards) as wetlands so that they could lie and say that there was an icrease. That's how Bush gets his policies approved - through deceit and deception.

    "But of course the high price of energy is also Bush's fault, right!"

    The energy crisis in California was the fault of companies driving up prices on purpose. Cheney's energy council invited those same companies to set out national energy policy in secret.

  7. Humes Ghost,
    The cap and trade part of the Clean Skies Act that allows plants to defer pollution to other plants can only be done if a plant can beat its mandated decrease in pollution. So if a said year decrease must be 13% and a plant lowers their pollution by 20% they can defer the extra 7% to a different (usually older) plant. This does not mean the older plant gets to increase their pollution. It means rather than lower it by 13% they only have to lower it by 6%. The net result in overall reduction is the same (unless the older plant produces more power than the new one) which would rarely be the case. I have found that this point seems to be what many harp on when it comes to the Clean Skies Act. It is just a creative way to help the power industry to defer costs without changing the end result.
    You say the Clean Skies act allows for more pollution than the Clean Air act. I guess that in the sense that the 70% decrease it will have may or may not be as agressive as the 90% some predict for the Clean Air Act, you may be right. The elderly already can't afford their electric bills (nor can I for that matter). There has to be a balance.

  8. Clear Skies, not Clean Skies.

    The thing about deregulation or rollbacks that people fail to consider is the hidden costs. At some point, someone will have to pay the health costs of increased levels of pollution, as well as the clean up costs. What these policies do is shift that burden onto the taxpayer.

    I'm sorry I'm being short, but I really am not feeling that well at the moment. If you feel so inclined to check it out, the Devine book I mentioned does an excellent job of bringing this point to light.

  9. I think a healthy democracy should have way more than 2 real parties... Unfortunately, my own country (Brazil) seems to be heading, in the view of many analists, to something similar to the US two-party system (why don't we ever imitate the gingos in their good stuff for a change, I wonder). Maybe it's an exageration, but seems like it does not make much of a difference anyway, at least for us under-developed - politicians are pretty all the same $@%&*&$*! in the end. Take pennies to the rich and give to the poor, or take pennies from the poor and give to the rich... Whatever.

    Silly me, thinking that taking office was supposed to be an honour, a sacrifice, to serve and advance society regardless of who you are and/or who you help. Oh, wait. That's what they say, not what they do... :O)

    On the environmental side of the discussion, I guess Americans should be close to the last ones complaining. We gotta change our attitude before complaining about price. Everything is electric. Any two block trip is by Hummer. A three person family has to have a 9 seat van. I've seem, more than once, people mowing their tiny lawns (something like 60 x 60 feet, maybe, less than 100 for sure) with those little tractors you ride on. And they didn't live in penthouses either. Not to mention the ubiquitous, anoying leaf blower.

    Come on, they could get a rake and one of those mowers you push (yeah, human-powered, who'd imagine such a thing), have the job done in 30 min, save a gallon of gas and lose quite a few calories (which they usually have in excess anyway). Win-win, unless you really have an orthopedic defect, back pain...

    You can't just wait for others to change the world. You got to start in your own backyard (literally).


  10. I agree with Massimo in this instance. Governing by ideology is a terribly flawed precept in a diverse nation where a "one size fits all" ideology does not really exist, except in a very general sense. The role of a true representative of the people is to face the issues in as objective a manner as possible, so that they can be seen for what they actually are and dealt with on that basis. By contrast, governing by ideology means viewing and dealing with the issues in the context of a particular notion of the way they "ought to" be seen, even if this requires distorting them or discounting facts about them. "Abstinence only" programs are a glaring example of this.

    By the way, Jim, if you believe that Bush was re-elected in 2004 without controversy, you haven't looked at the issues involving Ohio, Florida or voting machines. Ignoring other types of malfeasance, the absolute bottom line is that we cannot know whether he was re-elected or re-installed by other means since there is no way whatsoever to check whether the voting machines were legitimate.

    I'm not saying he was, or was not, re-elected. I'm saying there is no way to know. It saddens me deeply that so little attention is paid to this issue. Do we care about the principles on which our government is founded, or don't we? If we only care when the "other side" gains an advantage, then that equates to "No, we do not".

    Massimo, your blog is stellar. Of course, it is outnumbered 100:1 (if not more) by winger sites spewing propaganda, which shows the level of ignorant, petty self-interest that prevails in human nature...but at least there are a few voices like yours that cogently defend rational centrism. Please don't stop.

  11. excerpts from: Italy's return to political paralysis
    Apr. 19, 2006

    "Given Italy's almost perfect bicameralism, this means that the new government will find it very difficult to function even under ideal circumstances." ...

    indicating that

    "Under the new electoral system, all of these parties will be competing with each other for the same votes, and each one will seek to protect its own constituency or claim credit for whatever is accomplished. Given l'Unione's razor-thin majority in the upper house, the most likely outcome is paralysis."...




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