Berlusconi Lessons Two Months Into The Trump Era

What Silvio Berlusconi's 20-year hold on Italy tells those looking to bring down (as fast as possible) the marketing man occupying the White House.

Silvio Berlusconi in court in Milan in 2003
Silvio Berlusconi in court in Milan in 2003
Andrej Mrevlje

WASHINGTON — On February 1992 Italian prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro arrested Mario Chiesa, a member of the Italian Socialist Party, for accepting a bribe from a Milan cleaning firm. Chiesa had been hoping to run for mayor of Milan, but was caught receiving an envelope filled with 7 million liras ($7,000), an installment of the agreed payment between the cleaning company and the Socialist party run by then-leader Bettino Craxi. Before he was arrested, Chiesa had tried to flush the cash down the toilet. But there were too many banknotes — and he couldn't flush them all down in time.

It was the beginning of Tangentopoli, (Bribesville) the biggest corruption scandal in post-War Italy. It ended with half of parliament being investigated and the collapse of their two major political parties, the Christian Democrats and the PSI of Chiesa and Craxi. As judges were replacing politicians and calling the shots, a political vacuum was created, soon to be filled by Silvio Berlusconi. The real estate and media tycoon, who was closely linked to Craxi, needed to protect his livelihood. Practically overnight, Berlusconi used his advertising company to create a personalized political party Forza Italia. He needed to get into the prime minister's office to cover up his dubious businesses — and Italians let him do it. Berlusconi seized power with the populism and demagoguery similar to what we are witnessing today with Donald Trump.

More than 25 years later, Italy still suffers the consequences of Berlusconismo. High unemployment, widespread tax evasion, enormous public debt, and young people fleeing the country at their first opportunity. These are the terrible consequences of Berlusconi's rule over Italy. The Milan prosecutors were able to uncover the deeply rooted corruption because it was the first time in Italian judiciary system's history that investigators were able to link all collected evidence linked to corruption into one computerized system that traced the crimes, people, and places with connections to money in foreign banks.

Tangentopoli was a very tumultuous time for Italy. The magistrates were perceived as revolutionary heroes, but politicians were needed to pursue the reforms the country needed so badly. It never happened. Berlusconi prevented it, and for the next 20 or so years, Italy had to follow his personal scandals, protagonism, and even his bedtime stories.

My friends always told me that America is not Italy. America is a very different country. Perhaps America used to be different, but the worries, questions, and rage I see here does not look very different from what we saw in Italy a quarter of a century ago. There may, however, be one crucial difference. In the early 1990s computers were still a luxury item, and without the widespread use of the Internet, and so events can unfold differently today. News stories about Trump are breaking at the speed of the light. During Watergate, the political process needed an exhausting 900 days to force Nixon to resign. Twenty years later, progress was made, and the political world in Italy managed to resist justice for only a few months. Things are happening even faster right now, and the way I see it, President Trump could be fried and ready to leave after only 45 days in office. Really? Keep reading.

There seem to be enough leads to go ahead with a further investigation. There is also hope that even here in America there are agencies and investigative bodies that could start exchanging data that will enable them to connect the dots, follow the money, allow the justices or legislators to make their move, and find the person who will try to flush the money. It would be for the sake of national interest.

My hint is only metaphorical, of course. I have no real evidence about the wrongdoings of the current president. What I do know is that Trump's eventual problems with the law were his personal matters before he became president. From the moment he stepped into the White House his behavior, values, and actions became an issue for the whole nation. And since America is not Italy, it is an issue concerning the entire world. On the other hand, if the intelligence agencies would cooperate and coordinate their investigations, and if Congress would act in the interest of this nation, then this country's real-life horror movie might come to an abrupt and welcome end.

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Why Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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