Italy’s buffoon

Beppe Grillo

To the outside observers, Italy is a country of majestic artworks, stunning landscapes, beautiful cities and delicious food. But to the insiders, all these appear trivial amenities compared to the ever-present decay of the country’s public and private sectors. Corruption is still rampant, despite the bout of inquiries and arrests that characterized the 1990s. Politicians and businessmen are often embroiled in obscure dealings surrounding company takeovers, sales or mergers. No one is ever found guilty, and even if someone is, the likes of him (for it is always a man) ending up in prison are pretty slim.

Given this picture, you would expect most media-savvy journalists to be up in arms, ready to seize the opportunity given by a political or commercial scandal to uncover some dirt, clean up the nation, and become rich and famous along the way. Instead, the tightly controlled Italian media (either in the hands of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, or under the watchful eye of the major political parties in power) appear generally more interested in the sexual habits of the country’s many showgirls, or in the latest fashion trends. Scandals gain complexity over time, like in the case of Parmalat’s collapse, and slowly become incomprehensible to the layman. People end up loosing interest in the matter. Eventually the spotlight turns to another scandal and a dark fog of silence descends on the entire affair. This way, the show can go on.

Not many people dare speak the truth, but one such man is Beppe Grillo. A comedian by profession, Grillo has long ago embarked on a crusade to do what other journalists don’t do: point an angry finger at those who are responsible for the ruinous state of the country. Banned for obvious reasons from performing on television, he has turned to the internet – and in particular to his blog, which Technorati ranks among the world’s 20 most visited blogs – to reach an even wider and more politically-motivated audience. Bloomberg’s Flavia Krause-Jackson and Chiara Remondini have written an excellent piece about his efforts to uncover bad management practices in Italy’s major companies.

“There are signs the public backlash against the excesses of public officials has started to effect change in Italy. Prime Minister Prodi, who met with Grillo shortly after winning the 2006 election, cut his own annual pay by 30 percent to 86,102 euros ($115,575), and extended the reductions to 102 ministers, deputies and undersecretaries. Italy’s ruling classes will need more than lower salaries to restore their reputations. That may explain why many of the 81 shows Grillo has scheduled for concert halls and small-town football stadiums this year have sold out.”

While in today’s colloquial language a buffoon denotes a ridiculous yet amusing person, in the Middle Ages the court jester performed an important political role, that of using irony and humorous metaphors to reprimand the king on his errors and advise him on policy matters. It was accepted norm that the buffoon should not be punished for his statements, for no one else was in a position to speak so bluntly to the ruler, lest he be charged with treason. Grillo is in every sense a modern buffoon, whose jests and mocking accusations should be heard more often by the Italian ruling and ruled classes alike.

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