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October 23, 2007


Note: This is the latest in a series of Letters from Rome byJudy_harris  DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, JUDY HARRIS (right). A veteran expat journalist who wrote from Italy for years for TIME and the Wall Street Journal, Judy now writes for ARTnews, and in June published a new book, "Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery" Apologies for the typographical anomalies BELOW -- they appear to have been caused by incompatibilities between Judy's new computer and mine, a problem which also delayed publication of this Letter from Rome by a week.

.V-Days #1 and #2: Different protagonists, but will it be same old same old? by JUDY HARRIS

And so Italy has now survived two heroic V-days, with a connection. The first on Sept. 8 was cooked up by the ferociously Beppe_grillo satirical Beppe Grillo (LEFT), a standup comedian cumWalter_veltroni  blogger with a razor-sharp political edge. The second, which took place Sunday, October 14, was a triumph for Rome mayor Walter Veltroni (RIGHT), just voted in a plebiscite to head a brand new political party intended to unify the notably disunited Italian left.

The target of Grillo’s “Vaffa Day,” shorthand for Go-shove-it Day, in turn shortened to V-day, was, indiscriminately, the entire stagnant and partially tainted professional political class, which has by turns run Italy more or less right into the ground for the past fifteen years. The right turn was under yesterday's premier, the loquacious zillionaire media man from Milan, Silvio Berlusconi; theRomano_prodi_scowling  left, under today's premier Romano Prodi (RIGHT), the professorial Catholic economist from Bologna. Berlusconi headed a difficult coalition that included arch-rightists, but which he was able to manage; Prodi heads an even more truculent coalition that includes arch-leftists, and which he has been almost unable to manage.

Grillo’s Vaffa Day came out of nowhere as an explosion of rage against both. In his basically kooky campaign all Italy was laughing at his dubbing Berlusconi the “Psycho-dwarf,” and the drab Prodi “Valium.” What was serious about all this is that on a sunny Sunday some 300,000 turned out into the piazzas all over Italy to sign a petition demanding, among other reasonable measures, that members of Parliament who have been convicted of crimes be disallowed from running for office, and that no MP can serve more than two five-year terms in the legislature. The following day a record national TV audience watched the Michele_santoro broadcast by the controversial and genial Michele Santoro (LEFT) on the state network otherwise accused of having censored or at least downplayed the V-Day #1 turnout. Admittedly this reporter did not travel beyond Rome, but here I encountered few, right or left, who did not agree wholeheartedly with Grillo’s campaign against the present political crop and in favor of decent government, even when they did not particularly sympathize with Grillo or his personal political ambitions.

And that is the point: Grillo synthesized the profound dissatisfaction that all commentators here admit exists, after these fifteen years of stalemated, and stale, governing.

Similarly, V-Day #2 caught even the canniest political commentators by surprise. At this writing, it appears that some 3.5 million from all over Italy turned out to vote in a primary campaign run entirely by volunteers to elect the leader of the new Partito Democratico. Not even  the most optimistic had expected Francesco_rutelli_good such a turnout, which legitimized the fusion under Veltroni of two parties: Prodi’s Ulivo (olive tree) and the Margherita (daisy), headed by Francesco Rutelli (LEFT), who is all over the place as Prodi’s deputy premier as well as minister for Culture. Veltroni copped three-quarters of that vote, a triumph for this congenial admirer of American progressive culture and of John Kennedy (it was Veltroni who personally arranged for a photo exhibition on the JFK years in a city-owned ancient Roman basilica).

Veronica_berlusconi_and_silvio Veltroni's chief opponent was Rosy Bindi but otherwise women appeared in the campaign in mostly vieux jeu Italian style. Veltroni’s supporters included Berlusconi’s alienated wife, Veronica (LEFT, WITH HER HUSBAND SILVIO), while Prodi’s wife, Flavia, openly backed Veltroni’sRosi_bindi  chief opponent, the staunchly Catholic minister for the family Rosy Bindi (13% Sunday). Bindi (RIGHT) was a backer of the DICO law that would allow non-marital partnerships, but otherwise she is on record for a number of bizarre comments: her vow of chastity, her permitting a quack cancer cure to be paid by the public while she was health minister, and her saying that to wear a burqa is the “free choice of Muslim women.”

Speaking of that, Grillo, who snubbed V-day #2, has just proposed to halt the rising tide of rapes of Italian women by having ladies wear the burqa, I kid you not.

Lastly on the female question, Prodi’s comment Monday was that, “I was the midwife of the new party.” The language, like Prodi himself, is dated, but illustrates the problem. Two essential facts:after Sunday’s vote, Prodi the Elder and Veltroni the JFK nostalgic are inevitably locked into a power struggle which just may  end with elections in springtime, as Berlusconi has been hoping; secondly, Veltroni has been elected to head the Democratic party, but that party does not yet exist, which is, to put it mildly, a problem.

By way of a warning, throughout the Lazio Region, which includes Rome, fewer than 300,000 turned out to vote in the Democratic primary Sunday, but only the day before 500,000 turned out for a rally in Rome where the speaker was the leader of the conservative Alleanza Nazionale party, Gianfranco Fini, one of  main props in Berlusconi’s coalition, the House of Liberty (Casa della Libertà). Fini—congenial, mild tempered, eloquent—is Berlusconi’s nemesis, and perhaps Veltroni’s as well. He is tipped to take Veltroni’s place as mayor of Rome, launching pad first for the ambitions of Rutelli, then for Veltroni himself.

Should the Prodi government sink like a stone in April, as is likely, Tommaso_padoaschioppa one cabinet officer will be missed: Prodi’s Minister for the Economy and Finance Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa (LEFT), former banker with a master’s degree from MIT. A founding father of the Euro, born in Belluno in the north, Padoa-Schioppa is Prodi’s perhaps least showcased but best calling card, for his handling of  the thankless task of reforming Italy’s budget in order to meet European Union standards.

For the future, whichever, Veltroni or Fini, wins in a showdown, he will have to deal with the basic problems that continue to plague Italy. One of long duration is being called the “bamboccione” crisis, referring to overgrown kids—the huge percentage of those in their thirties who are unemployed, unmarried or underpaid, and hence still live at home. Although accused of being stay-at-homes because la Mamma cooks and launders and Papa pays the bills, it is clear that the devil is in the details of dated laws that disallow the firing of employees and promotions on merit, and of overly protection unions which deter young people from entering the labor market.

The result, as the financial daily Il Sole-24 pointed out, is that by the time Italian youth enter the labor market, they have no experience of work, no cash reserves and no enthusiasm, grit or imagination. This is aggravated by state universities whose automatic public financing arrives with months and even years of delay, as universities lecturers confirm to me. The universities themselves are non-competitive: the last shall be first.

Public administration further holds back the societal and economic growth that Veltroni is urging. A recent proposal is to offer fat paychecks to fifty-something bureaucrats so that they will just go home, since incapable of learning how to use a computer, for replacement by the young.  Skeptical? In the main Roman police station, while I made a declaration after my parked car was smashed by a reckless driver, the police officer taking the information pecked away at the computer keyboard as a second officer hovered behind him to tell him which keys to punch. A five-minute task for one person turned into a job of an hour for two.

Small wonder then that the larger social problems of legal partnerships, untrammeled immigration (and the growing angry reaction against immigrants), and a rise in organized crime remain on a back burner, along with a wave of micro-criminality: graffiti on the palazzi including paeans to Mussolini, Molotov cocktails tossed into Roma (gypsy) camps and bullying in schools, including of boys considered to be gay. Recent incidents include school torturers attacking allegedly gay boys and, in a bizarre case, the murder of a man by a Sicilian male, the victim of taunts that he was gay.

Italy is hardly alone in its troubles: the Vatican, which pretends that the pedophiles in its midst are the occasional rotten apple, is struggling to deal with homosexuality, in a crisis precipitated by a ranking figure in the Congregation for the Clergy, the section Monsignor_tommaso_stenico charged with overseeing priestly behavior. Monsignor Tommaso Stenico (LEFT), a popular public figure on TV, either spontaneously came out of a Vatican closet or was come out in a set-up in an investigative report on gay priests made by a nationwide Italian TV channel, La7. Stenico seems to have responded to an on-line approach and on Oct. 12 confirmed giving, in his office inside Vatican City, the TV interview in which he admits he was gay.

After the interview aired, Stenico wrote a letter, published in Petrus,  an online Italian Catholic journal, saying, “I only said I was homosexual so as to unmask those who really are.” The Vatican was not buying this limp excuse, and official papal spokesman Father Fredrico Lombardi declared that the monsignor had clearly acted in a way incompatible with his status within the Church. Monday’s Italian newspapers reported that the Vatican is about to launch a crackdown on its gay priests.

My personal scandal of choice took place on the Italian side of the Tiber, however. Justice minister Clemente Mastella (RIGHT),Clemente_mastella  whose TV appearances provoke hilarity for his Carlo_verdone resemblance to comic actor Carlo Verdone (LEFT), used a government airplane to tootle off to watch a race in France, at public expense. That mini-scandal was  folklore, however. When a magistrate named Luigi De Magistris, 40, probed too deeply into the links of the Calabrian mob, today considered the most dangerous, wealthy and impenetrable organized crime association in Italy, Mastella relieved him of his duties. Italian speakers can see the beleaguered, oft-threatened De Magistris’s interview by Sandro Ruotolo for Santoro’s program on YouTube at YouTube – Santoro (Annozero) at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsWRwglUaJE.

Among the questions: how do your investigations differ from Tangentopoli? “What is most disturbing are signs of links to the authorities—including magistrates…and public finance.” In a speech De Magistris gave August 22, 2007, to an anti-Mafia youth organization in Calabria he made some unpleasant comparisons: “The Berlusconi government in certain ways was better able [to combat the mobs] because it was solidly against a disagreeable aggression, and so the magistrates became compact, and so did public opinion, the politicians, the progressive judges. Today we have a situation of creeping [criminality]. I’d have expected more support for the magistrates in combating organized crime, be it traditional or in new forms. At a certain point I thought it was just neutrality, now I see that there is an obstacle. We must overturn this situation, encourage the civil society, encourage the institutions, encourage those who combat such a situation.”

Indeed. Alas, it has not happened just yet.

Read Judy's earlier letters from Rome, including:


"Rome's Anti-Gay Family Day," May 12, 2007

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