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
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.