The jester, expat communities and the Internet revolution

The jester, expat communities and the Internet revolution

8th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Italian expat Michele Carloni speaks out about what Italians abroad are currently discussing; the limited freedom of speech of the Italian Press in contrast with the possibilities of free speech on the internet.

In old times court jesters were appointed to crack jokes and amuse kings and courtiers. Sometimes wearing special colourful clothes to mark him as a “fool” and carrying a mock sceptre, the court joker enjoyed freedom of speech and, if he didn’t exaggerate, could even frankly express his opinion on controversial issues and against the government official policy. Although not immune from punishment, the traditional jesters were permitted to joke because they were “fools” by definition and “charlatans” by profession, therefore not to be taken literally.

Introducing Beppe Grillo
Beppe GrilloAnyone following the mainstream Italian newspapers recently will have noticed a general negative coverage of popular comic Beppe Grillo (photo on right); his initiatives and public performances. That is not surprising, considering that the Italian comedian has been the protagonist of the most direct and daring attack in the history of the Italian Republic to the press political ‘bonds’ and the financial monopolies behind them. What is more surprising is the variety of strategies adopted by many journalists to cast a shadow on the artist. One of these defines Beppe Grillo as a mediocre buffoon, a prankster who uses political satire for his own advantage.

Grillo's aim is not fame
Even without mentioning the word directly, the suggestion is clear: Grillo is a “jester” whose coarse words and political wit are not to be taken seriously. In fact if they succeed in presenting Grillo as a sort of modern “court fool”, they will manage to influence the perception the general public have of his political provocations. Like a joker in a medieval court he would be tolerated, because innocuous.
In reality the Italian comedian has been followed with growing passion by many Italian and other expatriate communities worldwide over the past months.

Italy's awakening
Considered by many to be the only voice left to awaken Italian people from disinformation and political indifference, the Grillo internet blog, among the most visited in the world, gains subscribers daily. For many Italian expatriates, in fact, the choice to live in a foreign country has been the direct consequence of the many problems Italy is currently suffering. And they have not failed in supporting Beppe Grillo attempts to get rid of a political class who which has been unable and unwilling to solve those very problems over the years.

The online “meetup groups”, which found inspiration in Grillo initiatives are gaining support and momentum and the Amsterdam section has already started a lively exchange of opinions, information and discussions.

"I would like to see a newspaper paid for by the reader and not by public funding” says Grillo, and, at least on the internet “anyone can be a journalist, anyone can write and read”. The network, by its nature, cannot be controlled, but those who misuse it can easily be exposed by the other internet users.

Is Grillo profiting from a cause?
This is why the Italian comedian is not worried by the frequent hints which appear in the Italian official newspapers about his possible economic gains. If at the beginning the strategy of the politicians and their press was to ignore the Genoes comedian, his outstanding success made this attempt a failure. Now they are trying to emphasise his theatrical success, justifying the massive presence of people at his meetings as the consequence of Grillo fame, if not ability as entertainer, and not of the political meaning of his words.

People go to see Grillo in the squares because it is a gratis show, says Repubblica in his electronic version, the day after Vday2. The Grillo blog has only commercial purposes, writes Il Giornale, the day after. Both newspapers belong to different political lines, but they are united in their attack.

The truth is that the comic was banished from Italian TV 20 years ago due to his “not politically correct” attitude. Even Petrolini, the comic artist during the fascist era, was permitted his “Nerone”, a clear mockery of dictatorial government, and could continue staging under a Mussolini regime. It is emblematic that while international television channels like CNN and Euronews dedicate their news to Grillo, he cannot find any appropriate space on the Italian TV.

If personal advantage had been the comedian’s primary concern we wonder why he didn’t compromise, as many other political satirists have done, and found a way to preserve the astronomical remuneration TV (especially Italian TV) gives artists.  

Grillo's commitment
Grillo chose another way which was more honest and coherent with his growing social commitment: to speak in live-performances to the real people in theatres, stadiums and squares without fake recordings or ‘canned laughter’ and applause. Nobody at that time could have foreseen how beneficial this TV banishment would have been for the artist.  It helped him to maintain a clean image, establishing a more genuine relationship with the spectators, without loosing popularity, while other TV-artists have tired their Italian public with their (well-paid) omnipresence.
Over the years Grillo has exposed himself exposing Italian political and financial misdeeds.  He has made powerful enemies, faced uncountable trials, slowly building up a strong reputation.

A comic voice
“It is sad”, says the artist, “that in Italy one has to be a comic to undercover Parmalat or Telecom wrongdoings. This should be the task of real journalists or politicians. Could you imagine in England a Mr. Bean who suggests new reforms or talks to Prime Minister Gordon Brown?”

Beppe Grillo in Turin

Now Grillo’s efforts have started to pay back: his popular referendums for a clean parliament and against a controlled media industry have got the people’s backing. Hundred of thousands have taken to the streets to give their signatures in the hope that a symbolic gesture may help in changing the Italian social, political and economical bankruptcy. Whatever the official Italian press may say, Piazza San Carlo in Turin (see photo above) was packed on Vday2 (the day of the proposed referendum), like many other Italian squares, and anyone can verify it watching video and photos uploaded on Internet.

Italy has many newspapers, and most of them even issue a special local edition to allow small municipalities have a say.  This sounds like a pluralistic source of information where different points of view have the freedom to air themselves. In reality the system behind the Italian publishing world, where banks, big financial enterprises and political parties have direct control, asphyxiates any attempt of independent opinion.

Internet revolution and Italy's freedom of speech
Crowds support Grillo in Bologna

Photo above: Crowds supporting Grillo in Bologna

We do not know if the internet, as Grillo wishes, will be the revolution which can change the status quo. New systems like Skype, which included Grillo amongst its first supporters in Italy, seem to confirm that direction. Anyway it is still unpredictable if the network will be the alternative and the right answer to the limit of the official publishing mechanism. What is certain is that the efforts and commitment of people striving for that alternative, like the Italian comic, are worthy of praise and respect. 

May 2008

Michele Carloni is a freelance illustrator living in Amsterdam.

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