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In Italy, Questions Are From Enemies, and That’s That
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ROME — I got a call last week from an Italian friend, an investigative reporter. He had just spoken to an Italian magistrate who wanted to sound out a theory.

The magistrate wondered — in all seriousness — if my recent article in The New York Times about Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s personal life could be evidence that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, envious of Mr. Berlusconi’s media empire, was using me to take down the prime minister.

My friend quickly and rightly dismissed the theory for what it was: insane. But the fact that it had been advanced by a respectable magistrate tells you almost everything you need to know about how power operates in Italy. It also goes a long way toward explaining the unstoppable success of Mr. Berlusconi, a phenomenon as alien to Americans as conflict-of-interest laws are to Italians.

Americans are forever asking how Italy can keep voting for Mr. Berlusconi, whose legal problems — not to mention his wife’s recent threats of divorce and accusations about her husband’s dalliances with very young women — would have toppled governments elsewhere.

But Italians don’t always see things this way. In Italy, abuse of office is something of a foreign concept, even though an Italian court is now investigating whether Mr. Berlusconi committed it when he used government planes to shuttle guests, including a Neapolitan singer and a flamenco dancer, to gala parties at his villa in Sardinia.

Mr. Berlusconi has brushed this off, as he has all other claims of impropriety, as a campaign against him by left-wing magistrates and journalists. He says they want to discredit his center-right coalition ahead of this weekend’s elections for the European Parliament, which he is still expected to win.

While wildly off target in my case, the magistrate’s Bloomberg theory is not entirely crazy. Mr. Berlusconi last week suggested in an interview that The Times of London had published critical editorials about him because it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky is the largest player in the Italian cable television market after Mr. Berlusconi.

In Italy, this is seen as business as usual. The general understanding is that everyone uses the means at his disposal to fight his rivals.

The real issue here is that Italy is not a meritocracy. It is a highly evolved feudal society in which everyone is seen as — and inevitably is — the product of a system, or a patron.

During the postwar years, the American-backed Christian Democrats, Moscow-backed Communists and business-minded Socialists had their own networks of politicians, bankers, lawyers — and their own press organs. That corrupt patronage system collapsed with the end of the cold war and a huge bribery scandal.

Today, there is no ideology and no network; there is only Mr. Berlusconi, and you are either with him or against him. Compared to the old order, Mr. Berlusconi’s political class is seen as a modernizing force. Mr. Berlusconi’s rivals accuse him of being on the wrong side of the law, and he in turn accuses them of being on the wrong side of history. Those two things shouldn’t cancel each other out, but often do.

The members of the Italian left have been infighting since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and are so weak and ineffective today that some in this land of byzantine conspiracy theories believe that Mr. Berlusconi must be paying them off.

Italy is deeply confusing for Americans, who are steeped in notions of speaking truth to power and following the money, raised in the country of “Yes we can,” not “Sorry, Signora, that’s impossible.”

In the topsy-turvy logic of Italy, Mr. Berlusconi’s unrivalled grip on the public and private sectors and media outlets doesn’t make him seem compromised. Instead, his supporters see him as rich enough to be independent. As one working-class Roman told me not long ago, full of admiration, “he’s so rich, he didn’t even need to go into politics.”

In Italy, when journalists ask completely legitimate questions about the legal status and personal life of the leader of a Group of Eight country — or even when they ask why Italy doesn’t seem to care about the answers — they are inevitably accused of insulting the prime minister or of being the pawns of larger interests.

In Italy, the general assumption is that someone is guilty until proven innocent. Trials — in the press and in the courts — are more often about defending personal honor than establishing facts, which are easily manipulated.

Sometimes I wonder what Pope Benedict XVI, who has railed against the “dictatorship of relativism,” in which equating all beliefs leads to nihilism, would make of Italy. Here, information is used less to clarify than to obfuscate.

How else to interpret the barrage of wildly contradictory material that has emerged in the press in recent weeks about how Mr. Berlusconi met Noemi Letizia, whose 18th birthday party he attended in April — an act that so angered his long-estranged wife that in threatening divorce she became de facto opposition leader?

In the absence of a clear, coherent story, the only standard of evidence becomes personal loyalty.

Ms. Letizia said in an interview last week that she was upset that her new boyfriend had auditioned for the reality television show “Big Brother” without asking her permission.

In the reality show that is today’s Italy, Mr. Berlusconi is the clear winner. His rivals are doing little more than throwing tomatoes on stage. The actor is showing signs of fatigue, but the audience is glued to its seats. Après lui, le déluge.

Source >  NYT

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