Tuesday, February 24, 2004

This week the blog is by Nora Galli de’ Paratesi who has just published “La lingua di Berlusconi” in MicroMega (1-2004) p.85, and who will be speaking at The American University of Rome on Wednesday 25 February (see details at the end of the article).
Silvio’s verbal incontinence; or does he really mean it?

Nora Galli de’ Paratesi

This last week has confirmed Silvio Berlusconi’s reputation as a politician who speaks his mind on all subjects whatever the consequences.

He has accused politicians of being good-for-nothing thieves who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives. Then he said when taxes are more than a third of income, tax evasion is “morally authorised” and then, on Sunday afternoon when most of the country was glued to the television watching the football matches, he monopolised the airwaves with detailed advice to his football team’s coach. Even his friend Vladimir would not dare to hog the limelight so much.

But the attack on politicians, especially opposition ones is an old tune which he has free associated on before, especially when he began as a politician himself. The professional politician is the negative model with which he compares himself. He is “new” and therefore clean and good. It was a club to break the opposition.

The language that Berlusconi uses about politics and politicians is charged with contempt. Not having achieved anything else in life apart from having been a professional politician for him amounts to failure. One’s success, one’s being a winner must be measured against something else. What it takes to work in politics is merely to transfer not very uncommon non political (and therefore real) experiences and get on wih it. The panoply of metaphors that he uses are revealing: politics is like a family, a home which any good pater familias can run; it is like an enterprise, an ordinary one not a giant one, that one can manage with common sense; it is like a condominium, where the property is with all of us and the running with an administrative “light” state at our service, with the magistrates as mere “staff” (do they clean the stairs?). Inequality of resources and opportunities can be dealt with by solidarity, the pious, Catholic unilateral remedy that can be dispensed by the privileged if and when they feel like it, but it is not a right that can be exercised or a problem that presents complex functionl relationships between social benefits and expenses, workers’ rights and public moral duties. The dimensions suggested by these metaphors are diminutive, domestic, derogative and unworthy of “big” and unpleasant words like ethics, social strife, incompatibility. They evoke reassuring and anesthesised domains, like home, shop or nursery or some kind of fairyland in which cakes can be eaten and had on a shelf with lots of toys by greedy children.

If denigrating professional politicians is original from one who has spent 10 years in Parliament, a prime minister who encourages tax evasion is decidedly curious: “if you ask a citizen to pay a third in taxes, he’ll pay; if it’s half his income, he feels he’s morally authorised to evade.

This is an old friend; it appeared in his early speeches; in 1988 he was even stronger when he said 50% was “theft”. The justification? “Our minds and our hearts”.
Then on Sunday, 22 February, he used the public broadcaster to give tactical instructions to the football team he owns, Milan.

Berlusconi’s relationship with football is a key point in his private and political persona. The football game metaphor, that existed before him in journalistic language, has flourished and prospered in his language as a huge totem, a magic fable. The reasons are more than one: sport has always been a political metaphor because it is a sublimation af war and war is an image close to the heart of politicians (it will be interesting to see what happens when more women join the game); it is also in his case a domain in which he is a winner (not a loser like left-wing politicians) and therefore it smacks of machismo as well as power, his own power; football is the national sport. But above all it is a game and, as such, an anasthetised world in which only enjoyment is at stake. When one reads his speeches, the image that is evoked of his voters, his accolytes and himself is the one of spotty, podgy preadolescents with knobbly, cold, red knees running around screeching in the school playground. An encouragement to regression, amusement and superficiality, and therefore a special communicative channel between him and “my voters”. That, he thinks, allows a prime minister to use public television time and resources to be close to “his people” in the domain of Neverland, rather than use his image and energy for the domain of politics as a dignified, serious realm of ideas to which his actual role should confine him.

The Department of International Relations
The American University of Rome
Via P. Roselli 4, 00158 Rome
25 Feb 18.30 – 20.00 B204 Seminar “Berlusconispeak – Italy’s new political language”

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Monday, February 16, 2004

“United we stand…” at least for the moment

The Roman poet Trilussa did not have many illusions about politics; a latterday Aesop, his animals illustrated very human foibles. In that fateful year of 1922, he described a feline get-together. It was the Socialist Congress of Intransigent Cats where one delegate exhorted his fellow moggies thus:

No, compagni! E’ necessario/ch’ogni membro der partito, favorevole o contrario,/ nun se squaji e resti unito./ P’evità l’inconveniente/c’è un rimedio solamente:/ se legamo tutti assieme/pe’ la coda, e famo in modo/che se un gatto vô annà avanti/è obbrigato de sta’ ar chiodo, ’ché, se tira, strigne er nodo/e stracina tutti quanti. [No, comrades! It is necessary/ that every party member whether he’s for or against/ doesn’t split and stays united/ To get over this/ there is only one answer:/ we must tie ourselves together/ by the tail and we’ll do it in such a way/ that if one cat wants to go forward/ he’s obliged to stand still because if he pulls, he tightens the knot/ and pulls everyone after him.]

Instead of tying tails together so that all will move united, a triumphal “convention” in Rome this weekend decided that the two big parties of the centre-left and two of the smaller ones would fight June’s European Parliament elections from a single list of candidates.

The high point was when Romano Prodi, a non-candidate, gave a rousing speech against an unnamed opponent; he is going to stay as President of the European Commission until the end of October and he was not going to even mention Berlusconi. The other leaders all reiterated their commitment to work together towards the immediate goal of winning the EP and Italian regional elections in four months time and the long-term goal of winning the Italian elections probably in 2006.

In practical terms this means that the Democratici di Sinistra, the Margherita, the Social Democrats (SDI) and the European Republicans will present a single list of candidates under the symbol “United for the Olive Tree”. The first two make up just over 30% of the Italian Parliament and are the backbone of the opposition led by Piero Fassino and Francesco Rutelli. The other two are the rumps of two parties from the “first republic”; the SDI is led by Enrico Boselli and went left (Craxi’s supporters went rightwards either to tiny parties or into Forza Italia) while the already minute Republican Party also split with Giorgio La Malfa going right and Luciana Sbarbarti going to the Olive. The “convention” was also a way of bringing in the grass roots and fringe groups, the so-called girotondi and movimenti. They have grown up spontaneously over the last couple of years, a sign of the frustration felt by centre-left sympathisers towards the official parties. To really bring them on board would be a huge fillip for the centre-left.

The elections are still fought with preference votes which means that voters will be able to choose which candidates they prefer and there will no doubt be big fights within the list over personalities as well as policies but it is a first step towards a united front in 2006 where most seats are won on a first past the post system.

Left out of the arrangements on the right is Clemente Mastella’s UDEUR and on the left, the Greens and Communists and not surprisingly, Bertinotti’s “neo-coms” of Rifondazione, on the other side is Di Pietro and a small breakaway group from the DS.

The declaration of intent (l'Unità online-La dichiarazione di intenti...) is just that, a vague and hopeful document but very much a small beginning. It is based on Romano Prodi’s January statement and promises a detailed manifesto for the election to be drawn up by former prime minister, Giuliano Amato.

But to win elections, you need a leader, a programme and organisation.

The leader is there, albeit waiting in the wings. Prodi was stabbed in the back last time in 1998 and he is a more cautious man today but in his apparently bumbling way, he has already shown that he can beat Berlusconi and could certainly do so again. In 1996 he also showed that he could draw up a manifesto; he won with it as did Berlusconi with his “Contract with the Italians” in 2001. The organisation is the difficult part. It is not only Trilussa’s cats who are intransigent; the bane of Italian politics has always been glorification of division: “better to stick to my principles (and tho’ I do not admit it, my position) than compromise”. The ultimate success of the weekend’s meeting can only be judged by the number who do accept compromise.

All in all, “United for the Olive Tree” is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a centre-left victory and there will have to be a lot more work if they are not to end up like the Intransigent Socialist Cats, scattered by a large and fierce black (shirted) dog.

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Sunday, February 08, 2004

Religious freedoms in Italy – the Concordats 75 and 20 years on

Seventy five years ago on Wednesday, on 11 February 1929, Italy and the Vatican were “reconciled”. Three treaties were signed in which Pope Pius XI recognised the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Italy, which had removed most of his predecessor Pius IX’s temporal powers. It was the solution to “the Roman Question” which had blighted the first 60 years of united Italy and which had been at the basis of a troubled relationship between Church and State.

On one side, the Vatican and successive Popes were loath to forego their temporal powers; on the other, the young Italy had doubts about her real sovereignty and independence with such a large cuckoo in the nest. As a result, for most of Italy’s history, “religious issues” have invariably consisted of tension between a nominally secular Italy and Roman Catholicism represented by the Vatican and the Church in Italy (not always the same thing).

One of the 1929 treaties was a concordat, an agreement between the Vatican and another state regulating the status of the Roman Catholic Church in that country. This one gave priests special protection under the law, special tax concessions for Church income and property, religious education in schools was put under the control of the episcopate, Church marriages were recognised and Catholicism became the state religion. Secular Italians fought for a 19th Century separation but with little success, especially in the Christian Democrat period from 1945 to 1992. In most Italian villages until at least the ‘60s, the parish church carried more political weight than the DC section.

In 1984, 20 years ago next week, the Concordat was revised; Catholicism maintained some of its privileges but there was - at least in theory - more pluralism possible in religious education at school (though the Church maintains its prerogative in choosing teachers) and taxpayers were able to choose to give part of their taxes to the Church.

Over the whole period and until very recently, other religions were hardly present and in practice not perceived. When a group of Jewish refugees arrived in an Alpine village during World War II, the kind and welcoming parish priest exhorted his flock to look after them because even if they spoke a foreign language, were city folk and different in so many ways, they were after all “cristiani come noi”, Christians like us.

There was no irony to the remark as “cristiano” meant and for many still means just a human being. Now, though, Italians are having to come to terms with religious differences. There are perhaps 400,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other smaller non-Catholic Christians, mostly dismissed by the hierarchy as “sects,” but who have growing followings. The biggest single non-Catholic group are the Muslims, maybe a million, coming from a wide variety of national origins.

There have been requests by some Muslim communities for separate gym facilities for boys and girls in state schools, for prayer areas and for halal meat. The first request has been turned down so far but without a firm declaration of principle; the other two requests have usually been fulfilled, at least when possible practically.

Far more controversial was the case last year when a very vocal Italian Muslim, Adel Smith demanded that the crucifix in his daughter’s school be taken down. He won his case but the uproar was such that the school appealed and, for a moment at least, Italy discovered that it was still a Christian country. Previously, the only calls for the removal of crosses from public spaces came from secularists and were usually unsuccessful.

The defence of the crucifix was so heated that if I believed in conspiracy theories I might have thought the whole affair was a fiendishly clever Vatican conspiracy to kill secularism in the country and insert references to Europe’s “Christian roots” in the EU’s Constitution then being discussed. But I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, though I am sure that the French and now German debate on laicité will spill over into Italy. Mr. Smith has promised to continue his battle, providing much heat but little light, while the wider debate might just provide another opportunity for Italy to develop into a pluralist and multi-cultural society.

If so, it will be the previous dominance of the Church that ironically prevents French extremes. Precisely because religion in Italy has been a matter of politics and power more than spirituality, open to compromise rather than dogma there are good chances of compromises as new religions grow.

For most Italians, the crucifix has little overt religious significance; it adorns churches of course but few Italians consider them very spiritual. And among the “faithful,” it hangs stylishly over bronzed and muscular torsos or between decoratively supported cleavages. To turn the headscarf or hejab into a fashion statement would be a very Italian way of dealing with the question.

Already the media remind us of Eid, the Chinese New Year, Yom Kippur, unheard of even a decade ago. Despite the long battles between the Church and the secularists, Italy does not have France’s militant revolutionary secular tradition and will never be a completely secular country, but it won’t be fundamentalist either.

The Department of International Relations at The American University of Rome will be marking the Concordats’ anniversaries with a seminar:

11 Feb. 18.30 - 20.00 B204 Seminar "Religious freedoms in Italy 75 years after the Lateran Pacts"

The relationship between Church and State in Italy has never been straightforward and seldom been easy. Before unification, the Pope was one of the many sovereigns reigning in Italy, a political actor as well as a spiritual one. The Lateran Pacts answered “the Roman Question” but created new questions. Seventy five years on and 20 years after the revision of the Concordat, the role of religion in Italy is being questioned once again as the country becomes multi-religious for the first time since the Roman empire. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter will look at "Church/State Relations in an Increasingly Pluralistic Italy". Anna Foa Professor of Modern History at the University of Rome, Sapienza, “The Church and the religious freedom in Italy (1848-1929)”, Giulio Ercolessi, Fondazione Critica liberale “Secularism in Italy”

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It’s not the BBC – the RAI, broadcasting and media law in Italy; the verifica.

This week was supposed to have seen the consolidation of the government coalition, the so-called verifica. There should have been discussions between the coalition leaders, decisions taken on issues to give priority to and - perhaps - a cabinet reshuffle. Instead, Mr. Berlusconi found that his allies were not as loyal as they ought to be and that they do not always follow the party line. So far, the process has dragged on for two weeks and little has been verified apart from the muddle.

The Gasparri media reform bill is a controversial piece of legislation that would protect one of the Prime Minister’s television channels and allow broadcasters to move into the print media and, arguably, allow a single operator to take a larger share of the total market. It has been strongly criticised as being blatantly in the interest of Mr. Berlusconi’s own media conglomerate Mediaset. For some of these reasons, President Ciampi refused to sign it last year and asked Parliament to reconsider the draft. This draft came very close to defeat on some crucial amendments, so instead of steaming through Parliament propelled by a huge majority, it was been ignominiously withdrawn to Committee to languish there probably till after the European Parliament elections in June.

There were exchanges between the otherwise usually amicable Umberto Bossi and Berlusconi. The first said the other was “cooked” and the Prime Minister replied that the opponents in the coalition would end up cooked by the Euro-elections. Not the most edifying or even witty exchange of political invective.

Whatever happens in this coming week, a process that should have given new impetus and energy to the government has ended up weakening it. The differences remain unresolved and there have been no clear winners or losers in terms of either jobs or programmes. Pressing issues like pensions, devolution and the new financial regulator will no doubt be given many words, but none of them definitive.

At the same time, the media, the issue most closely linked to Silvio Berlusconi, keeps on bubbling away.

It is revealing to compare Italy with the British experience of the last fortnight. The Hutton report gave the BBC a bloody nose but since then, there has been a very audible honing of weapons in the Corporation ready for the return match which will be the Butler report on intelligence gathering leading up to the war in Iraq. It is just possible that investigative reporting and criticism of government will be muted. On the other hand it seems more likely that by tightening their procedures, the BBC will enhance and strengthen its powers of criticism.

Here in Italy, in a 3 January report “Reporters sans frontières” reckoned that media pluralism was at risk in Italy as a result of Berlusconi’s control. Many others are worried; Guglielmo Epifani, the secretary general of the left-wing union CGIL, told an opposition conference on the media that the sector was “a patient with a 39 degree (102F) fever”.

There has been criticism of RAI’s techniques, especially the Channel 1 news; one of its senior editors resigned accusing the director of doctoring the news in the Government’s favour, omitting embarrassing material like Berlusconi’s famous “Kapò” speech at the European Parliament last July or “sandwiching” critical material between wads of pro-government padding, called a “sandwiche” or panino in RAI newsroomspeak. Paolo Serventi Longhi, the Secretary General of the Journalists’ Union, used the example that print media and most of the other televisions recently criticised economics minister Tremonti one evening, but nothing appeared on RAI 1.

And the opposition-leaning RAI President Lucia Annunziata accused Berlusconi of “calling the board members to murmur names and influence programme choice”. The government supporters on the Board hotly denied these accusations but the reputation of the RAI sank even lower. In contrast to Britain, the battle between Government and public service broadcasting in Italy is a bloody street fight, hand to hand, desk by desk, news item by news item.

Even the humorists have had a tough time; a cartoonist declared that it was impossible to make fun of what was already ridiculous, while a court accepted imitator Sabrina Guzzanti’s appeal against the suppression of her programme “RAIot, Armi di Distrazione di Massa”. The judge affirmed the right to satire, but then declared that all the offending sketches were not satire at all, they were true. Guzzanti impersonates Berlusconi (as well as Massimo D’Alema, Annunziata and a number of other public figures) better than they do themselves. She fills theatres, but was removed from the RAI in November. No wonder that despite judgement in her favour, we still do not have a broadcast date.

The other battlefront is in Parliament. Last week about 40 deputies voted against the Gasparri Bill. Almost unheard of elsewhere, in Italy Parliamentarians may vote secretly on occasions, so we do not know the names of the rebels. Some of these votes were National Alliance and others were from the centrist UDC; last year they had voted compactly in favour but with a secret division, many of them used it to fire a shot across the Prime Minister’s bows. The rebellion was a warning to Mr. Berlusconi that he will not have everything his own way for the rest of the legislature.

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