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  • Umberto Eco: Don't blame Silvio Berlusconi - it's the fault of all Italians

On Friday, Umberto Eco – the Italian author, philosopher, critic  – died. In 2009 he wrote a short essay about the role of the individual in safeguarding democracy and free media. The essay is not least relevant in the former Soviet Union, and we have therefore translated it for you – Michael Andersen, Director MYMEDIA.

I feel some hesitation and scepticism about intervening in defence of press freedom. If such a step is necessary, it means that society, and therefore much of the press, is already diseased.

In "robust" democracies there should be no need to defend press freedom, because nobody would ever think to challenge it

This brings me to a related point: Italy's problem is not Silvio Berlusconi.

History is rich with adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power - bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favours to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community.

But these men haven't always achieved the power they aspired to, because society did not always permit them. If society has permitted him, why should we blame the man rather than the society which has allowed him to have his way?

So it's useless being angry with Berlusconi who is, in a manner of speaking, just getting on with his job. The vast majority of Italians have accepted the conflicts of interest, the encouragement of vigilante groups and the law granting him immunity from prosecution.

They would also have accepted the gagging of the press, had Italy's president not raised an eyebrow.

The same nation would accept without hesitation, indeed with a kind of mischievous complicity, Berlusconi's cavorting with showgirls - had the church not intervened and pricked the public conscience. (Though they'll get over that as we all know that Italians, like all good Christians, visit the ladies of the night even when the priest tells them they shouldn't.)

So why write about this when most Italians know very little - because the media, so tightly controlled by Berlusconi, tell them very little?

The answer is simple. In 1931 Mussolini's fascist regime made all 1,200 university professors swear fidelity. Only 12 refused, and lost their jobs

Many others, who went on to become great personalities of post-war anti-fascism, were advised to swear allegiance in order to continue teaching.

Maybe those 1,188 were right, but those 12 saved the honour of their universities - and of our country. That's why you have to say no, even when it may do no good. So that, one day, you can say that you said it. This is an edited version of an article first published in L'Espresso magazine in September 2009.

 

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On Friday, Umberto Eco – the Italian author, philosopher, critic  – died. In 2009 he wrote a short essay about the role of the individual in safeguarding democracy and free media. The essay is not least relevant in the former Soviet Union, and we have therefore translated it for you – Michael Andersen, Director MYMEDIA.

I feel some hesitation and scepticism about intervening in defence of press freedom. If such a step is necessary, it means that society, and therefore much of the press, is already diseased.

In "robust" democracies there should be no need to defend press freedom, because nobody would ever think to challenge it

This brings me to a related point: Italy's problem is not Silvio Berlusconi.

History is rich with adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power - bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favours to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community.

But these men haven't always achieved the power they aspired to, because society did not always permit them. If society has permitted him, why should we blame the man rather than the society which has allowed him to have his way?

So it's useless being angry with Berlusconi who is, in a manner of speaking, just getting on with his job. The vast majority of Italians have accepted the conflicts of interest, the encouragement of vigilante groups and the law granting him immunity from prosecution.

They would also have accepted the gagging of the press, had Italy's president not raised an eyebrow.

The same nation would accept without hesitation, indeed with a kind of mischievous complicity, Berlusconi's cavorting with showgirls - had the church not intervened and pricked the public conscience. (Though they'll get over that as we all know that Italians, like all good Christians, visit the ladies of the night even when the priest tells them they shouldn't.)

So why write about this when most Italians know very little - because the media, so tightly controlled by Berlusconi, tell them very little?

The answer is simple. In 1931 Mussolini's fascist regime made all 1,200 university professors swear fidelity. Only 12 refused, and lost their jobs

Many others, who went on to become great personalities of post-war anti-fascism, were advised to swear allegiance in order to continue teaching.

Maybe those 1,188 were right, but those 12 saved the honour of their universities - and of our country. That's why you have to say no, even when it may do no good. So that, one day, you can say that you said it. This is an edited version of an article first published in L'Espresso magazine in September 2009.

 

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