Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Da Monti Code

As EU-friendly technocrats take over the Italian government, wild conspiracy theories are running rampant.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Conspiracy theories are alive and well in post-Berlusconi Italy.

A Nov. 30 editorial by Marco Travaglio in the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, headlined "Giù il cappuccio" ("Off with the hood"), makes the point that the new junior ministers in Prime Minister Mario Monti's government have political pedigrees (and sometimes not very clean ones) behind their much-touted "technical" qualifications. This is all fair enough.  But it is a little strange when he goes on to infer that many of them are masons wearing hoods. Freemasons have always been the Church's bogeymen, but even in secular Italy they carry a whiff of sulphur and there have long been murky reports of maverick lodges that live outside the law.

Conspiracy theories are alive and well in post-Berlusconi Italy.

A Nov. 30 editorial by Marco Travaglio in the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, headlined "Giù il cappuccio" ("Off with the hood"), makes the point that the new junior ministers in Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government have political pedigrees (and sometimes not very clean ones) behind their much-touted "technical" qualifications. This is all fair enough.  But it is a little strange when he goes on to infer that many of them are masons wearing hoods. Freemasons have always been the Church’s bogeymen, but even in secular Italy they carry a whiff of sulphur and there have long been murky reports of maverick lodges that live outside the law.

Travaglio is an investigative journalist who for a decade or more has been the country’s conscience on corruption and malpractice, mostly focusing on former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. So why is he now trafficking in conspiracy theories — and about Monti, who many people see as a competent technocratic savior (not to mention the anti-Berlusconi) for Italy?

From the moment Monti was given the job of forming a government in mid-November, there have been a swirl of insinuations first around him, then around his cabinet, and now, around his junior ministers, too.

Monti’s background and demeanor make him an ideal target for conspiracy theories. He is apparently a man of power but always understated, quiet and confident with a subtle sense of humour. This in a country where power is usually advertised loudly. This was certainly true in Berlusconi’s case; but long before that, ministers and cardinals in Rome generally had costumes and cars that ostentatiously showed their status. Monti in contrast, chose an older car from the prime minister’s fleet and is, personally, very low key. In the past, the only downplayed power in Italy was the mafia, the ultimate conspiracy.

Monti’s power too, is hidden, so the conspiracy logic goes. He comes from Italy’s most elite university, the Bocconi in Milan, where he has been a student, teacher, rector, and president. He also went to Yale. A good proportion of his cabinet are also Bocconiani, enhancing the idea of an old boy network. Monti is also a real Catholic as are a significant number of his cabinet. (Almost all Italians are nominally Catholic but few practice beyond rites of passage — hatching, matching, and dispatching.)

Then there is the banking connection. Monti worked as an international advisor to Goldman Sachs and — even more sinister for the conspiracy theorists — he has been an active member of the Bilderberg group and the Trilateral Commission. Both are very discreet groups for people of influence, where international politics and economics are discussed off the record. They are also favorite targets for conspiracy theorists throughout the world, who brand them as cabals of devious white men planning world dominance.

His time in Brussels is well known and well documented, as is the mutual respect between him and the EU establishment. But for some, that too is evidence of underhanded activity.

A few days after Monti’s appointment, a very loquacious and publicity-seeking Freemason, Giole Magaldi, declared that Monti was a mason on the controversial radio chat show La Zanzara. He went on to claim that an unspecified number of his cabinet were also masons.

The theories have been coming from the populist right and some of the more radical left. Not surprisingly, the Berlusconi-owned media have run with the idea, but so has the staunchly anti-Berlusconi Il Fatto Quotidiano. And just before Monti announced his cabinet, the flagship current affairs program, Matrix, on Berlusconi’s Canale 5, which is hosted by former CNN correspondent Alessandro Vinci, discussed the possibility that the whole crisis was a bankers’ plot to buy up public companies and properties. The segment was introduced with clips from the James Bond movie Thunderball and other similarly reliable sources on world dominance. Vinci’s introduction allowed the possibility that the "plot" might have been just anti-Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s main print daily, Il Giornale, has been anti-Monti from the beginning and now is now suggesting that the whole financial crisis is part of a bankers’ evil scheme to create a more united Europe. As evidence, the papers points to a university lecture Monti gave in February analyzing the likely increase in European unity as a response to the crisis, explaining that it would mean a reduction in national sovereignty. For the conspiracy theorists, the analysis became a plan. Il Giornale keeps adding fuel to the fire, while Roberto Castelli, former minister of justice and leader of the far-right Northern League has endorsed the theory on his Facebook page.

It is difficult to judge how many Italians take the "plot" seriously, but the beauty of any self-respecting conspiracy is that it’s impossible to disprove a negative.

The original "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" were a plagiarized fraud, uncovered 18 years after they were first published in 1903. That did not stop Adolf Hitler using the text as if it were true. Even today, copies are on sale in many countries purporting to be serious evidence of the "Jewish plot." It is a story that is flexible (and vague) enough to be applied to real historical events over the last century, which is why it has been longlasting and devastating as an antisemitic tract.

The Monti protocols are far more banal — but, like any good conspiracy theory, there’s is just enough truth behind the rumors to sustain them. Banks have indeed been supported by governments from the United States to Greece. Closer eurozone ties and central planning will be needed to steer through this crisis. And there are indeed professional and personal networks running through Monti’s cabinet. Hardly Dan Brown stuff, though.

But so far the talk from Monti’s new government has been of anything but radical policies. The most likely programs are what Monti has promised, liberal economics tempered by social justice. There are perhaps some flaws in the CVs of some of the new ministers. Some are definitely not the non-neutral, non-political technicians they’ve been billed as and some apparently have some shadows in their past and potential conflicts of interest in their present. But when Travaglio and other serious journalists start speculating about hoods, aprons, and plots, it makes it harder to have an honest discussion about these real flaws.

As Monti was putting his government together, a friend wrote to me to ask if he was Jewish…. If he was (he’s not), then Dio mio!: the last piece of the plot would have fallen into place. But who knows, maybe going to mass and appointing lots of Catholics to his cabinet is all just a coverup and Brussels really is run by Jewish bankers and masons who are preparing to take over Italy.

It’s hard to imagine they could make things much worse.

James Walston is professor of international relations at the American University of Rome and blogs on Italian politics.

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