Entry from April 9, 2009

Outside Italy (where he owns most of them), the European media have agreed that Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy has a tin ear, is “gaffe”-prone and regularly offends people. In fact, he is a something of a buffoon, someone who can always be relied on to say something to embarrass himself and others. True, he keeps the media’s gaffe patrol on the hop and so helps to sell papers and advertising in very tough times for them, there as here, but officially, anyway, the media have to act shocked rather than gratified when he says something so stupid as that the people living in tents after the earthquake in the Abruzzo “have everything they need: they have medical care, hot food. Of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary. But they should see it like a weekend of camping.” 

The Times of London reported that “Mr Berlusconi insisted his remarks had been misunderstood and that he was simply trying to encourage optimism,” but the paper had no patience with this explanation. A sidebar directed readers to its “Comment Central” blog and a piece headed: “Berlusconi’s blunders: The list goes on.” The Times’s editorial on the subject, “Touched by Crassness,” begins by stating it as an established fact that “Silvio Berlusconi’s political career is a chronicle of insensitive remarks.” Of course, if that’s where you start from, it’s highly likely that the insensitive remarks are going to start multiplying. Tell people that they may expect to be offended by someone, and watch how quickly people are offended.

Interestingly, however, among the Times’s “chronicle” of “Berlusconi’s blunders,” we do not find his recent remark that the worldwide recession began in the U.S.A. Perhaps this is because the American president, Barack Obama, instead of being outraged or offended with such an undiplomatic remark, was swift to agree with it. According to Der Spiegel, the President replied, “It is true, as my Italian friend has said, that the crisis began in the US. I take responsibility, even if I wasn’t even president at the time.” Can we think of any reason why President Obama might be so quick to take “responsibility” for the crisis even if he wasn’t even president at the time?

Well, I can think of two. One is that he thus reminded everyone of who was president at the time and so, in fact, instead of taking responsibility as he had claimed, shifted it on to the hated George W. Bush without actually saying that that was what he was doing. The second reason is that the pretense of accepting responsibility fit very nicely into his stated aim on his European tour of adopting a more “humble” foreign policy. It was, in effect, yet another confession of American “arrogance” — but one which left his own humble withers very much unwrung. On the contrary, it pointed up yet another point of contrast with his famously arrogant predecessor. In fact, as Alan Reynolds shows in today’s New York Post, the “responsibility” for the economic downturn is neither his nor President Bush’s nor America’s.

The recession began in late 2007 or early 2008 in many countries, with the United States one of the least affected. Countries with the deepest recessions have no believable connection to US housing or banking problems. The truth is much simpler: There is no way the oil-importing economies could have kept humming along with oil prices of $100 a barrel, much less $145. Like nearly every other recession of the postwar period, this one was triggered by a literally unbearable increase in the price of oil.

Yet, curiously, no one was calling President Obama’s eagerness unjustly to accept on behalf of his country the blame for the crisis a gaffe. The reason is that, unlike Mr Berlusconi, he has not established himself with the media as gaffe-prone. On the contrary, the media both here and abroad regard him and his utterances with the sort of reverence usually reserved for celebrities, the Dalai Lama or, in the olden days, the Pope. Ironic, then, that all Mr Berlusconi was saying to the poor earthquake victims was that, as Hamlet said, nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. In treating this as an embarrassment, the media were inadvertently illustrating its larger truth, at least in the media’s rhetorical world which, like Hamlet’s, has but an uncertain tether to reality — and yet where, under the Obama administration, the only reality that matters has come chiefly to reside.


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