What we talk about when we talk about "mafia" …
Fairly or not, the foreign press has been having a field day with Berlusconi (I’d say fairly, since the Italian press savagely lampooned both Clinton and Bush, and were right to do it), but this cartoon from the New York Timesof 8 October 2009 hits on something that most people fail to understand about the impact of fifteen years of Berlusconi on Italy: that he has installed a mafia (if not, perhaps, “the” mafia) at the highest levels of government.
How many people are aware, for example, that he appointed his own lawyers to serve in Parliament? Indeed, only Berlusconi is directly elected (and this is the great mandate that he speaks of ad infinitum); after that, he and his party, the Popolo della Libertà (variously translated as the People of Freedom Party and the People’s Freedom Party) decide who receives Parliament seats and Parliament salaries. The assignments are largely made, of course, on the basis of favors done or favors promised.
But that is precisely what the mafia is, at its basic organizational level: the ability to position “your” people in such a way that they (a) get rich and/or powerful; (b) remain beholden to you for that fact; and (c) protect your interests, support your initiatives, and keep their mouths shut.
Berlusconi with Godfather-esque hit men behind him is a crass image, but it gets the point across: Berlusconi’s enforcers are, by now, everywhere. They take the form of television programs censored; of books rejected by the publishing houses Berlusconi owns; of a Left that lives in abject terror of being called Leftist; of squads of lawyers like fire ants ready to overwhelm and sting to death anyone (even rival newspaper companies) who criticizes Berlusconi; of media and journalistic careers ruined; of network news programs that somehow always manage to find time to bring you sound bytes from the Popolo della Libertà spokesclones, but almost never from the opposition (such that you’d quickly start believing there was no opposition).
For many Italians–perhaps most, if you believe the polls produced by his own media outlets–Berlusconi is an offer they couldn’t refuse.