|Berlusconi losing grip on his bunga bunga image
What if, in the middle of an election, a Canadian head of government were accused of sex with a minor? Would it be a safe bet to say that, one way or another, he would not remain in power if the allegations seemed even halfway credible?
In fact, such a leader would doubtless leave under a cloud, likely dumped by his own party for political safety's sake until the wheels of justice had finished grinding.
Yet, during the first few months of 2011, something contrary to this "common-sense" approach to politics took place in one of our Western, G8 allies.
A European prime minister accused of sex with a minor had the courage to tell jokes about his promiscuous life to an event with journalists, businessmen, city mayors -with most of them laughing and applauding. And the man remains loved by a third if not more of the population, men and women alike.
How could this happen? What are the mechanisms behind his popularity? These accusations of sexual misconduct -and not just the minor, but a bevy of young escorts apparently profiting from nights with him -somehow are not taken seriously. In our Era of the Image, such spectacles strangely seem to actually reinforce the actors.
It seems that in the last two decades or so, political analysis and participation in the Western world has undergone a transformation. What even 20 years ago was engagement for the common citizen has turned into what can be called a post-political distancing effect.
"Image," "spectacle," "post-political" -all are terms that refer to a paradoxical situation: on the one hand we are emotively and momentarily drawn to whatever is being diffused by the media, but on the other, the very visceral nature of modern media denies any critical analysis, or time of reflection. We have fleeting emotions, but no lasting words. Any sense of participation in society, what was once called responsibility, has been filtered out.
For Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, this has meant that previous accusations -corruption, conflicts of interest, bribing judges, recycling dirty money, colluding with organized crime -all disappear from the public eye as his personal life triumphs in the media.
Seen through this lens, what has been happening in Italy these days can be understood as an experiment in social control.
And yet, it seems that this strategy which has been successful for Berlusconi for almost two decades is starting to fail him.
Berlusconi used local elections last month as a popularity test. His spectacular personal defeat has meant opening a major crisis within his own People of Freedom party, and with his Northern League coalition partner. The extent and power of the defeat was underlined by the loss -to the centre-left opposition -of Milan, the country's major economic centre as well as the prime minister's hometown.
It seems as if what lay behind the Berlusconi facade -the particular economic interests tied to Milan hosting the Expo in 2015 -mostly switched to a different horse. Does this mean the politics of spectacle via television is breaking down?
I'd argue Berlusconi is losing his grip on the image he has so long dominated, leaving more exposed his problems with allegations such as corruption and collusion with organized crime that have periodically surfaced since he entered Italian politics in 1994.
These elections have also been a test of another power, the power of the media to shape and reshape reality according to particular economic needs. Statistics show that more than 70 per cent of communication about everyday life in Italy is derived from television. At present, Berlusconi as prime minister and as a private tycoon controls more than 90 per cent of Italian television communication -a situation that has no precedent or equivalent in the Western world.
Yes, it has all been said before: Television is extremely influential; television puts the critical part of the brain to sleep; television falsifies reality. But this criticism that has dogged the medium since the 1960s is still valid. We have grown so accustomed in the past to people worrying about television that we don't think about it anymore. Just like the frog that stays in a gradually heated pot of water, we still watch although we can switch channels -or press the "off" button, or surf the Internet, or post a note on somebody's Facebook wall, or send by Twitter an instant life report.
Possibilities abound in the present age of total communication. But, as Italian critic Mario Perniola has shown, communication is not information. Rather, it is the ability to say publicly one thing in the morning, and its opposite by the evening news. What really matters is not to be consistent, but simply to appear -the "shock and awe" of always being in the viewer's face.
Anyone who points to the fact that Berlusconi is a buffoon actually endorses his manipulative powers. For the Italian premier can be playing coo-coo with German Premier Angela Merkel in the morning, and by noon declare that Italy needs to embrace nuclear energy. (A form of industrial energy that Italians refused with a national referendum decades ago.) And by evening there will be a joke about how randy he is, and an attack against the "communist magistrates" that want to destroy his wealth.
Critics who say this contemporary Italy is an anomaly that began in medieval times fail, too. For Italy is a testing ground, a laboratory of sorts. In this laboratory, certain combinations are used to see what mechanisms of social control work best. Television has worked well; you don't need to replicate Mussolini to maintain power.
Except that someone has now turned channels on Berlusconi.
Perhaps, viewers have tired of seeing the same situation repeated since the early 1990s. But do not expect an easy transition back to some kind of democratic normalcy. The show must march on.
William Anselmi teaches at the University of Alberta. Next winter he will be offering a course on Silvio Berlusconi.
FONTE: The Edmonton Journal