Sometimes you need that critical distance, the view from afar, to understand the perplexing phenomena of the day.
Some of the most astute, clear-eyed critics of Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, are outside, for instance. The Economist magazine once ran an impeccably researched, revealing cover story on “Il Berlusca,” as Italy’s richest man, who not only controls government but nearly all the country’s media, is known irreverently.
Likewise, American or French commentators often get Berlusconi right, while a solid half of Italy’s political pundits slaver and suck up to their fearless leader, who happens to own or control three-quarters of the print and television media in this country. On the other end of the spectrum, Italians naturally get caught up in emotional debates that sometimes detract from the critical effect.
Debates rage around the maddenning, multi-faceted, authoritarian, skirt-chasing national embarrassment, a septuagenarian seemingly afflicted by satryism, a loose cannon who has trouble keeping his pants hitched in the presence of comely teenage girls. Not since the porno-star parlamentarian Cicciolina has Italy been at once so proud and so mortified by a politician.
The fact that Berlusconi reportedly delights in dragging to court anyone who dares to criticize him in print or otherwise is yet another excellent reason why so many dissenting voices in Italy struggle to make themselves heard: the essential, critical distance between them and a court house is lacking. If you’re a hack, you can’t hope to take on a litigious, prickly billionaire.
Now it’s time for a parallel.
We Americans are talented at seeing the faults in the political or social systems of other nations. Without hesitation we call Russians “oligarchs” or Italians and others “mafiosi.” We instruct other nations on how to run their elections, without seeming to realize that what we Americans desperately need is electoral reform. How else to roll back our oligarchic “democracy,” which is becoming less democratic by the day?
No, we’re not always great at looking at ourselves with candor or clear-eyed skepticism.
(photos of Cicciolina: BBC World Service and current.com)
Take Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Isn’t she the Cicciolina of America? Any thinking person sees her as the national embarrassment of the century. Embarrassing? Most Americans don’t seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of them. Happily, Palin doesn’t have the money or the power of a Putin or Berlusconi—not her own money and power. But she might one day. Silvio Berlusconi, like Palin, had powerful backers.
Now for the connection.
As we enjoy our lighthearted Christmas holiday on the Italian Riviera, we’re reading an unputdownable novel, Journey by Moonlight, written by the Hungarian Antal Szerb and published in distant 1937. (My Hungarian is rusty, so we’re reading the excellent translation by Len Rix). The novel is set primarily in Italy, with some scenes in Paris—so we feel at home in its pages. The book has a surreal, magical-realist quality, ante litteram: think Milan Kundera meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Last night as Alison read aloud the following few lines, she paused and caught her breath. We stared at each other, and we both realized at the same instant that the prescient Szerb had unwittingly elucidated the mysterious, enduring popularity of the world’s many Palins:
“In the deepest stupidity there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum.”