Silvio Berlusconi: Is It Over?


A few hours ago former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to four years in jail by Italy's highest court as part of a trial that involved tax fraud. As I write these thoughts Silvio Berlusconi just finished an emotional appeal broadcasted by his sprawling television empire in which he talks about "an irresponsible judicial system" and, he goes back to his favorite anachronistic delusion, "I won against the communists."

Hours before today's sentence he declared: "Even if I were to be found guilty I will win the war of the last twenty years, in the end I will be the martyr of a bad Italian justice."

Aside from the unsettling use of a divisive language with its war metaphors, a fundamental question emerges: are these just delusional words or do they have an actual impact and credibility in the Italian society? The answer to this question is crucial in trying to understand to what extent Italy's scars are deep and ever lasting. While on his sinking ship, Berlusconi is launching himself in a last attempt to create a narrative of selfless devotion to the country. By openly, and grossly, appealing to an idea of martyrdom he gives us a devastating metaphor of the Italian long lasting aphasia.

Manipulative self-narratives are not new to history but the Berlusconi case seems to be peculiar especially in the context of contemporary democracies. Berlusconi hinges on a fictional self narrative as tool of persuasion, curiously enough the Italian inclination to skepticism, a natural antidote to this, never played a role when it came to Berlusconi's omnivorous desire of being ever present. He occupied a space of self-reference so vast and deep that it is now almost impossible to differentiate between sheer manipulation and a pointless megalomania. He made sure to create a zone of demagogic familiarity where the Italians would feel at ease, from the openly messianic song that opens his political rallies -- that literally goes "thank goodness Silvio is here" -- to his pseudo availability with people.

The impact of the Berlusconi era on the general impoverishment in which the country finds itself is beyond the darkest predictions. We witnessed so lacking an intellectual scene as to have an even coherent voice of indignation. Both the press and the opposition have fallen into a vortex, the trap of responding to Berlusconi's dangerous political and cultural influence with sensational and raunchy accounts of his sexual escapades and public gaffes, in the process ultimately adopting and legitimizing the highly manipulative and populist language used by his TV empire.

Within his constant presence Italy entered a phase of incapacity to invent new metaphors and real linguistic movements, both of which are crucial elements to raising awareness about the country's own paralyzed status. Italy became a country of cheap, ready-made answers, losing the necessity of questioning.

In Italy, attempts at critical thinking invariably slide into an impoverished language that has been deliberately imposed. Italian used to be a language of multiplications, of Pindaric flights and creative metaphors. Its dialects gave birth to deep wisdom, and artists have thrived in its dynamic landscape. To the contrary, Berlusconi created a safety net by leaning on Italian stereotypes, bringing at the center of his dialectic obsolete Italian commonalities and giving them a new life; worse, he gave them credibility.

James Tsartor points out "Language occupies a strategic place in the clothing of human thoughts, ideas, emotion, and knowledge: dominant or dominated. It is the fiber, the fulcrum; indeed, the cockpit where individuals society exist."

So now the question goes beyond today's high court sentence: What kind of linguistic and cultural landscape will emerge once the space Berlusconi occupied will be left open? What role will the dramatic void of the Berlusconi years play in shaping Italy's future?