Slippery Silvio’s Roman Ruin

Remember the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? The meaning of life is 42. The answer to all your questions is 42. Why am I here? 42. Why did I choose my degree? 42. How tall is Tom Cruise? 42. I have often wondered whether 42 could answer what to me remains The Greatest Question Ever. Why the hell did Berlusconi remain in power for 17 years?

When Mussolini was caught crossing the border dressed up as a Nazi guard he was shot, hung upside down and exposed to public ignominy. When Berlusconi left his Roman palace to resign before President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano two weeks ago he was thrown coins, shouted at and insulted by a crowd of hundreds who had gathered outside Napolitano’s palace waving flags and chanting, “Hallelujah!”

Now I do not mean to sound too controversial with the Mussolini analogy – it serves only up to a point. The question is, what happened during his 17 years of power? What went wrong? How did we go from his declaration of love for the nation in 1994 to the bunga bunga parties, the sex scandals, the night he was clubbed with a souvenir during a rally in Milan, up until his recent declaration that “this is a shit country”?

Being Italian myself, I am inclined to believe I do not come from a nation of 60 million lunatics. So I hope there is an answer. For Berlusconi, the answer was not 42. It was the 308 votes he obtained two weeks ago in the lower house which effectively marked the end of his majority and the passing of his government two years earlier than expected.

He was kind enough, as he later remarked, to resign before President Napolitano, who then set off to promote a new technocratic government which should, fingers crossed, save Italy, save the Euro, save the EU and the world economy. Boom.

There is no clear date to mark the event, but day by day Berlusconi became less of a public figure and more of a social paradigm. The basic idea was: if the Prime Minister can do it, so can I. So the sex scandals, the racist jokes, the homophobia, the machoism, the headbands, the loose shirts, the orgies, the villas, the hookers, the money – all became social norms. Berlusconi embodied all the above and he did so with magnetic grandeur.

Is the country rotting from the inside? No worries, it’s a left-wing invention anyway. Because “President Napolitano is a communist.” “Our Constitution is communist.” “The Court of Justice is communist.” “The Economist is communist.” “The foreign press copy and paste from our left-wing papers.” Which are communist. Afraid of poverty? – take it easy, “I’ll reduce taxes.” Wonder where we’ll go? Fear not, “I was blessed by Jesus Christ.”

In 17 years of power he revolutionised diplomacy. “My friend George.” “My friend Vladimir.” “My friend Muammar.” “Gaddafi is fighting for freedom.” “Sarkozy learned everything from me.” “Chinese communists boil their kids to get fertilisers.” “Ruby Heartbreaker [the 17-year-old stripper who allegedly had sex with him] was Mubarak’s granddaughter.” He gave a new meaning to the word coherence and brought clowning to the world stage. But he forgot that he was ruling over 60 million people who happen to have something called dignity.

There is a sense, to the foreigner, that being Italian carries with it a sense of coolness. You come from the land of the Godfather, you can go on for a week without frying your food, you dress up smartly all the time and there’s a 90 per cent chance that some of your relatives are in the Mafia.

Berlusconi took each and every single stereotype and blew it out of proportion. The common imaginary became the legitimised truth, at home as well as abroad. Which means, Italy fell into 17 years of Berluschoma.

No wonder the chants, the coins, the flags then. A whole nation woke up last week to the sight of the man who should save us all, PM Mario Monti. On him hangs the task of proving our credibility to the world, and of filling the social vacuum which 17 years of Berlusconi left behind. His future government has a difficult path ahead. Gaining credibility before the international community is one thing, regaining our trust in politics will be another.

If you’re not Italian then you probably won’t understand what it’s like to live through this moment. It’s almost as though the injustice, the filth, the scum, the dirt, the ignorance which have kept a country locked into over a decade of decadence have – for a few days at least – left the ground open for a new era.

Being Italian has never felt this good.


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