Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, addressing a group of business leaders on Tuesday, got together all of his formidable marketing skills to find a slogan to gather voters to his cause: “I’ve too much respect for the intelligence of the Italians to believe that there could be many coglioni about who would vote against their own interests”.
For the benefit of the non-Italian speakers, let’s investigage this curious term ‘coglioni‘.
“Coglione (sing)- fool, naive, dingbat, dickhead. Literally testicle (from the latin coleo -onis). To be compared to a bollock is not a beautiful thing; if we start from sperm and develop through the life cycle, to call someone a coglione is to tell them that in terms of development (in this case of the brain) they remain someway behind.”[Ditelo con gli insulti – Marco Zanni]
Needless to say, each and every party leader from Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition were prudishly incensed by Berluska’s vulgarity. On television screens and newspaper pages they shrieked (for all the world like prim and priggish schoolteachers) about lack of respect for voters and democracy. In reality, they were no doubt relieved by Berlusconi’s latest gaffe. A gaffe that quickly stole the thunder from his monday night bombshell, announced as the closing statement during the debate with Prodi (allowing for no reply), that if elected he would cancel a much contested tax on house property, ICI.
In truth, vulgarity from the top levels of government aren’t that unusual. There are the classic examples: John Major’s “do we want three more of the bastards out there”; George W. Bush’s “he’s a major league asshole”; or indeed Ireland’s leading politician Charles Haughey, several times Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who was quoted in an interview, between stints as Taoiseach, as saying “I can instance a load of ****ers whose throats I’d cut and push off a cliff”.
While perhaps inspired by Bush, admiring the common touch and electoral success, the difference with Berlusconi’s comments were that rather than occuring in an unguarded moment with a journalist, or speaking in private, Berlusconi made these comments in public and thus as an electoral statement. Vote for me, or you’re a coglione. Nice slogan.
With lightning reflexes a site sonouncoglione [I’m a coglione] was up and running and coglioni parties were organised in major cities throughout Italy. Now t-shirts and badges, with the slogan ‘I’m a coglione‘, are selling like hot cakes. Voters are urged to go to the polls proudly and openly as coglioni.
The centre-right party leaders have all stood up for Berlusconi, but there’s no sign that they’re keen to take up the battle-cry. The balls-up made by Berluska in this instance illustrates two things:
First, that, contrary to the constant barrage of analysts wheeled out in the media who inform us that Berlusconi is a master media manipulator and marketing genius, he is far from innovative. The emperor is clothed but in a dull suit with old, old ideas*. Insulting your opponents isn’t big or clever. Taking the insult and turning it into a badge of honour (and one that can be sold), is.
Second, it reconfirms Berlusconi’s view of government and gives further ammunition, if any were needed, for those suggesting that his conflict of interests are too grave to allow his active participation in politics. Government, in the Berlusconi worldview, is about protecting personal interests. Handy for a man who has so many interests.
His common touch intervention has given those who view the current government’s record as one of incompetence motivated by self-interest, a brilliant smile-raising slogan to rally around.
The injection of vulgarity has also given license for millions of jokes to circulate, at his expense, traded widely, and independently of where you fall on the left-right divide**.
Those hoping for a left-wing victory when the country goes to the polls on Sunday and Monday, will be urging Berlusconi to use his marketing genius as often as possible.
* One of Berlusconi’s consistent selling points is that he’s a rich and successful businessman. The argument goes that if he had the acumen to build a media and business empire for himself, obviously he can do it for Italy. What’s so often left out of the equation though is the consistent use of political connections, legislation and anti-competitive practices to build this empire. A very old-fashioned business success, rather than the innovative one we’re led to believe. Further reading David Lane’s Berlusconi’s Shadow.
**Personal favourite – L’unica consolazione