“What should be clear is a person who is seventy-four, who is one year older than me, can’t do what he is suspected of doing.”Yet Berlusconi's behavior seems emblematic of a larger problem: Italian society devalues women.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, Italy ranks seventy-fourth in women’s rights, between the Dominican Republic and Gambia. Women constitute a smaller percentage of the workforce in Italy than in any other country in the European Union, apart from Malta, and those who work make barely half as much as their male counterparts. Emma Bonino, a Radical Party leader, told me, “When I was Minister of European Affairs, in 2007, I had to prepare a report on the status of women in Italy. The data came in, and I remember that I rejected it twice, saying to my staff, ‘That’s impossible: it cannot be so bad.’ ”In other words, what Berlusconi is suspected of doing seems all too plausible in light of what seems to be pervasive male chauvinism in Italian culture.
Like some politicians and commentators in the U.S., Berlusconi has charmed (if that's the word) those who crave what looks like refreshing honesty in their public officials. Rather than being embarrassed by behavior that outrages the public sensibility, they relish the publicity. They tap into a sense that many, if not all, who proclaim fealty to standard pieties are just mouthing the words. The renegades like Berlusconi trade on the perception that many in public life are hypocrites. Berlusconi and his ilk proclaim, proudly and loudly, "I'm doing what comes naturally."
I'll admit, it is kind of refreshing to hear somebody say that -- up to a point. How long, though, do we sit back and let our admiration for sheer gall override our need to examine the underlying behavior itself?
However much we admire Berlusconi's shamelessness (and that's what it comes down to: we admire it), we need to remember that what he and his fellow boasters are boasting of is behavior that damages all of us. We don't need and can't afford to be completely uninhibited, as Berlusconi and his ilk are: we need boundaries that let us live together. Otherwise, our social compact falls apart.
The politics of shaming are dicey: they all too readily lead to grotesque abuses like the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. But it seems to me the balance has swung way too far in favor of unregenerate boils on the body politic like Berlusconi and Rush Limbaugh.