Berlusconi Exits, and an Era of Sexist Buffoonery Is Over

Entertainer-politician-buffoon Berlusconi exits stage left. But was he really that bad?

11.17.11 9:15 PM ET

At long last, and perhaps mercifully, Silvio Berlusconi—Viagra-driven charlatan, opera buffa showman—has departed the Italian scene, ushered off by the bankers and fellow leaders who always despised his proletarian panache. The celebrations have been unanimous, just as they have been unanimously self-congratulatory. I am one to cast a stone because I feel the same way: Berlusconi’s departure must surely be for the good of Italy. However, the avalanches of pious condemnation that have been visited upon his fascinatingly artificial-looking pate must also bear some scrutiny. Our shared distaste for the prime minister says a great deal about us. For Italy, The Washington Post remarked, “reality has set in."

But has it? We forget that Berlusconi has always been hated, and I suspect he always relished that fact. He was first loathed in the early '90s by the left, and by virtually all bien-pensants, because he promised to reform Italy’s sclerotic labor market and its rigid, bureaucratic way of running an economy. He is now roundly condemned by a Greek chorus of informed opinion for failing to reform Italy’s sclerotic labor market and its bureaucratic way of running an economy. Not just condemned, but actually deposed.

Never mind that he is an elected national leader. Since when did bankers, Brussels bureaucrats, and the leaders of other polities acquire the right to dispose of elected leaders, or even to influence such outcomes? Berlusconi’s media monopolies, his burlesque and vulgar promiscuity and his financial dealings are open to question, to put it mildly. But his behavior is not why he was removed.

Image #: 342462    (dpa) - Italian Prime Minister and European Council president Silvio Berlusconi touches his forehead during the EU summit in Brussels, 16 October 2003. European Union leaders on 16 October kick-started two days of talks on a new constitution preparing the bloc for a historic 2004 expansion. The summit, attended by heads of state and government of the 15 EU states as well as 10 future members, will also focus on measures to boost the flagging European economy and curb illegal immigration. /Landov

Oliver Berg / Landov

Berlusconi is a little like media baron Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand (so often unwittily dubbed “the Berlusconi of Asia”), who was and is similarly loathed by the enlightened middle classes—but adored by the working classes who voted him into office. Thaksin was also removed by a bloodless coup; but it didn’t end so bloodlessly when his supporters descended on Bangkok with fury.

We should be more careful. In Thailand, as in Italy, an aesthetic class contempt and moral indignation have been conflated with a nation’s structural problems, which the world rather cavalierly chose to believe were incarnated in one leader’s objectionable character. But the two things are oceans apart.

Thaksin’s removal did not solve Thailand’s class war, it intensified it. Similarly, Italy’s structural problems—its huge debt, and the fact that it has grown less than virtually any economy in the world over the last decade (excluding Zimbabwe)—have, I suspect, less to do with Berlusconi than we think, despite the arguments that have been offered for some years now by The Economist and countless other commentators. The Italian state has been a corrupt bureaucratic behemoth since its inception, and if any other leader of the last century has been able to reform it better than Berlusconi, I would like to know who that illustrious superman was. Mussolini?

So, the big question remains: Is Berlusconi quantitatively more corrupt than his predecessors? I refer readers to the glorious film Il Divo, which depicts with savage ire and wit the political life of Giulio Andreotti in the 1970s. Very well, you may say, but that doesn’t excuse Berlusconi’s buffooneries or prevent Italians from doing better in the future. No indeed. But it should make one cautious about anthropomorphizing a nation’s dysfunctions.

This is particularly obvious when we look at the obsessing over Berlusconi’s misdeeds in the domain of what is now known in his honor as “bunga-bunga” (the curious etymology of this term can be investigated on Google).

Many commentators have taken the occasion of The Great Seducer’s downfall to remind us that he is, after all, the incarnation of a macho culture that treats its women as second-class citizens. He received, therefore, a proper comeuppance. Furthermore, his outrageous antics with 17-year-old hookers and such—the very embodiment, so we are told, of Italy’s sexist backwardness—are often held to illustrate everything that has gone wrong with the country economically, however dubious this connection actually is.

My colleague in these pages, Barbie Latza Nadeau, made precisely this argument in an otherwise excellent and subtle article a few days ago, titled “Not Just Any Old Charlatan.”

In it, Nadeau pointed out that the World Economic Forum, in its 2010 global gender-gap study of the opportunities offered to women, ranked Italy a lowly 74th. This placed it below Cuba and Venezuela, and explained Italy’s lack of economic efficiency and competitiveness. Thus, Nadeau argued, it all makes sense: Berlusconi had to go because his brazen sexism, channelled directly into Italian living rooms through his near-95-percent power over the media—was holding the country up economically.

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“He is the great enabler,” Nadeau wrote, “who, for nearly two decades, has allowed Italians to feel they can cheat on anything from their taxes to their spouses because he does it himself. Berlusconi knows the Italian psyche well in part because he’s created it through his media influence.” But this is surely naïve. When have Italians not behaved thus? A hundred years ago, English-speaking visitors were constantly wringing their hands over intractable and charming Italian immorality. Not paying their taxes or honoring their marriage vows was the least of it. Nadeau then quotes journalist Beppe Severgnini: “His passion is boundless and seems to have several strands: the idealization of youth, the commercial value of beauty, the appreciation of women, and male pride. It fuels daydreams and provides justification for inexcusable yearnings.” But this sounds like all the world of culture to me. And what, exactly, would an excusable yearning be as opposed to an “inexcusable” one?

Turning back to our U.N. study, however, one could simply argue that, politicians’ shenanigans aside, a country that was ranked only 74th on the gender-gap index could hardly be a global powerhouse. But, actually, it could. China is ranked 61st on the U.N. list, and is by far the most dynamic economy on earth. The world’s second-fastest-growing economy is that of India, which occupies an even more miserably low rung on the same ladder: 113th. And the third-fastest-growing economy is Turkey, which is placed even further down—that is, only a few rungs from bottom at a wretched 122nd. Poor old Turkey, how will it survive with a mere 8 percent growth a year? If only it could climb up to Greece’s gender-gap level. Japan, too, is 98th. So what does this tell us about Berlusconi’s ailing Italy?

As it happens, nothing. Iceland earns the number one spot for gender equality. That’s right: the country that was officially declared bankrupt last year offers the most economic opportunity for women. The Philippines is in 8th place, Lesotho 9th, and Burundi 24th. Mozambique comes in at number 26. Kazakhstan also scores significantly better than Berlusconi’s Italy, as does Tanzania. Sure, it’s a fine life for the women of Bujumbura and Almaty and Maputo, and they wouldn’t exchange it for macho Rome or Venice in a thousand years. (Or would they?) But then again, all of us who grew up in Italy know it’s a matriarchy from top to bottom. Unlike Kazakhstan and Lesotho, Italy is a country secretly run by women.

Among those matriarchs are countless Italian women who have told me that they find our own sexual politics “repellent” and “sad.” (Who can blame them?) Considerately, however, they refrain from explaining America’s financial woes via our statistics for violent rape, stratospheric by Italian standards, or by reference to the naughtiness of Eliot Spitzer or to the Other Great Seducer who got a blowjob in the Oval Office. This is merciful, as well as polite. They do not talk about America’s “worst instincts”; they don’t talk about our sexuality at all. Perhaps we don’t have any. But think of the fun they could have with it if they wanted.

Maybe, though, this is ultimately missing the point. What is resented most about Berlusconi is his pleb brashness, his insolent lack of repentance. He infuriates because he is brazen. In America, when politicians are caught out in sexual escapades, we relish those pitiful press conferences where mostly male penitents grovel and humiliate themselves before a disapproving congregation. Berlusconi instead gives the congregation the middle finger and labels them hypocrites. It’s not simpatico, and it calls collective our virtue into disrepute.

Now, however, all that is water under the bridge. This goatish incarnation of unacceptable machismo departs in order to save the crumbling euro’s brand name, and for no other reason than that his insalubrious image is incompatible with it. But it’s all a card trick. The euro’s fall has nothing to do with Berlusconi’s dalliances with 17-year-old hookers, or his being the leader of a nation which is 74th on the U.N.’s gender-gap list. It has to do with debt that is 120 percent of GDP and an economy that is largely uncompetitive. Berlusconi, it is true, did not cut this Gordian knot, but neither did he tie it in the first place. His erotic foibles are beside the point.

Berlusconi was axed because of the crisis of the euro. But his departure solves nothing related to the forces that created that crisis in the first place. The imbalance between deficits and productivity, the vast welfare machinery, the bureaucratizing of everyday economic life: these things are not even unique to Italy. They are common to the crisis of the West. Nevertheless, Italy will now be helmed by Mario Monti, a life-long technocrat and “professional economist,” the kind of man that we the middle classes find reassuring. We certainly cannot imagine him popping a blue pill and jumping into a Jacuzzi with a porn star.

Personally, I am glad. Mario Monti seems like a good and capable manager and he has, as newspapers like to say, credentials. Berlusconi is indeed unfit for office. It has escaped our attention, however, that it was functionaries and professional economists such as Monti who helped get us into this fiscal mess in the first place. Sexless and reassuring they may be, incapable of sin they may be, but they have screwed us royally all the same. Italy’s problems will remain as they always have, with the difference now that Berlusconi can play the role of scapegoat and sacrificial victim—and from now on, at least, he will not be entirely in the wrong when he paints himself as a martyr on the altar of a ruined sovereignty. In the end, it was not the Italians who removed him. It was the court of elite opinion.