Friday, November 07, 2008

Silvio and Barack

Not surprisingly, the euphoria emanating from the US on November 5th drifted across the Atlantic to Europe, permeating the atmosphere with an equivalent spirit of hope and promise. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, one of the first - and arguably the most enthusiastic - of the European leaders to come out with a positive message of congratulations was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said: "At a time when we must face huge challenges together, your election has raised enormous hope in France, in Europe and beyond." Others followed - Gordon Brown referred to Obama as "inspirational," "energising," and "progressive," hailing his "vision for the future." Others such as Angela Merkel and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin were more circumspect, but they were generally positive, and they were all quick to comment.

All except Italy, that is. I kept waiting and searching for an official Italian reaction to the result. Nothing. Perhaps not surprising given the cronyism Berlusconi and Bush practiced. But really - for an event that captured the world's attention, when virtually everything else stood still, surely the Italian leadership could offer more than an awkward and deafening silence? Niente.

Until today. Berlusconi was in Russia this week, and in a press conference, he made his first public reference to the US elections. (At least it was the first that I've read.) And boy was it a clanger - he referred to Obama as "young, handsome, and tanned." Now I must confess that we can't for one moment say we're not used to Silvio's proclivity for back-handers, crudity, and chauvinism, but honestly, doesn't the man have just one classy cell in his decrepit body?

Needless to say, his opponents were quick to jump out in criticism, just as his supporters - at least the few mildly sensitive ones - were no doubt scuttling for the shadows. And what did our noble prime minister do? Called his critics "imbeciles", of course, claiming instead that it was "a great compliment." I haven't been able to canvass any of my neighbours on their reaction to his PR finery, but I can imagine that most will react much as they do, for example, to a foreigner's incomprehensible rantings about the Italian postal service - a shrug of the shoulders, interpretable thus: "That's Berlusconi, what else did you expect?"

Indeed. He's truly a law unto himself, and the product of a unique culture, full as it is of peculiarities and contradictions. Recently the man enacted a law that places members of certain offices (including his own, of course) above the law. In other words, all the corruption charges against him that lie wallowing in the glacial Italian courts are now irrelevant (or at least more irrelevant than they were, if that's possible). And by the time he's ousted from power, the statute of limitations will render those charges as valid as they are now.

I have to believe, though, that the "Obama effect" will have some effect on the youth of this country, and mobilize them into some degree of political awareness. But who knows, Berlusconi's term runs for another four-plus years, and that's a long time for political memory and consciousness to endure.

However, at a minimum everything points to Berlusconi losing his moniker as the US President's biggest pal. Hopefully that'll end up marginalizing him in the power corridors of Europe, and he'll finally be revealed as the fraud and crook that he is. I suspect, though, that this is all just wishful thinking - with Italy's anemic contribution to the Eurozone's faltering GDP, it's just not that important to the Germanies and the Britains and the Frances of this world: whoever the Italians want as their leader, let them have him, they've only got themselves to blame.

So here we, tingling in the afterglow of a historic global event, living in a country whose leader at best makes light of it, and at worst spews out barely-disguised racial insults. Meanwhile, the average Italian gets on with his or her life, struggling to make ends meet, ignoring him as they would an embarassing family member.

As for me, my lot doesn't really change much, I suppose, given my choice of challenge and discovery living in this country. But out here in the rolling hills of Le Marche, I'm thrilled to see the spirit of a nation rise up and bellow its undeniable wish for change. Each day now I feel I can get up with just a little more hope ... and the recognition that, along with millions of others, my vote did actually make a difference.