With a set of fresh elections on the horizon in Italy, the following New Yorker article by investigative reporter Tom Mueller gets at the heart of what’s eating Italy these days. At the center of the article is Beppe Grillo, a “distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert: an activist and vulgarian with a deft ear for political satire.” To learn more about Beppe Grillo and V-Day beyond this article, check out Grillo’s blog at www.beppegrillo.it, one of the most visited – and most incendiary – sites on the web.
As I did with Slippery Business, another New Yorker-Tom Mueller article, I’m posting the full text of the article after the jump. And, again, I urge all of you to get New Yorker subscriptions. They’re worth it!
Letter from Italy
Beppe’s Inferno: A comedian’s war on crooked politics
On September 8th, two million people in two hundred and twenty cities across Italy celebrated V-Day, an unofficial new national holiday, the “V” signifying victory, vendetta, and, especially, “Vaffanculo” (“Fuck off”). The event had been organized by Beppe Grillo, Italy’s most popular comedian, to protest endemic corruption in the national government. Grillo, a bearlike, trumpet-voiced man of fifty-nine with a pile of graying curls, is a distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert: an activist and vulgarian with a deft ear for political satire. Grillo led the demonstration in Bologna, appearing in the Piazza Maggiore, the city’s largest public space, before a crowd of about a hundred thousand—more than had congregated there when Italy’s soccer team won the World Cup the year before. He wore jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved black polo shirt, and stood on a stage flanked by tall black panels decorated with blood-red “V”s. Behind him, against a cloudless sky, rose the crenellated Renaissance city hall with its squat clock tower. A large screen had been erected there, projecting the names of twenty-four convicted criminals currently serving as senators and representatives in the Italian parliament, or as Italian representatives in the European Parliament. Grillo read the names aloud, in alphabetical order, together with their crimes, which ranged from corruption, perjury, and tax evasion to more inventive infractions, such as fabricating explosive ordnance and aiding and abetting a murder. The crowd booed and jeered, raising their index and middle fingers in a V, for victory, or, whenever Grillo cried “Vaffanculo,” their middle fingers alone.
“Paolo Cirino Pomicino!” Grillo shouted, citing a representative from Naples. “Corruption and illegal campaign financing—for which he was promoted to the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission! One day, Cirino Pomicino wrote me a letter, and I called him. He said, ‘Mr. Grillo, you are making a fundamental mistake. You are confusing justice with politics.’ ” (Cirino Pomicino denied that this conversation took place.) Grillo paused. His face took on a look of wide-eyed surprise that gradually sagged into a mask of shock and sadness, then darkened into a scowl of disgust. “And I said to him, ‘Va-fan-culo!’ ”
Grillo looked out over the piazza, where the long shadow of the clock tower had fallen over the crowd. “We are part of a new Woodstock,” he said. “Only this time the drug addicts and sons of bitches are on the other side!” For several hours, Grillo and a succession of celebrities goaded and entertained the audience. Between the speeches, images of V-Day celebrations elsewhere in Italy and abroad streamed across the screen behind the stage, and Leo Pari, a Roman guitarist, performed the V-Day anthem, a rap song that he had composed for the occasion:
By now there’s no remedy,
We need a peaceful siege.
This is an invitation, all of you raise your
middle finger. . . .
By the time the last guest had finished speaking, it was dark. Grillo, looking weary, appeared onstage once more. “What I want to tell you, from the heart, is that we haven’t arrived at our destination yet—this is just the beginning,” he said. “We’ve managed to do something that will make history.” The crowd whooped, and chanted Grillo’s name. He looked down, visibly moved, and ran his fingers through his hair.
After the crowd dispersed, I walked with Grillo from the Piazza Maggiore to a nearby restaurant. From across the street, a group of teen-age girls called out, “Beppe, St. Beppe, save us all!”
Grillo wagged a languid V at them.
“Beppe, you’re a great man!” someone else shouted.
“No, I’m just big,” Grillo replied, patting his belly.
Several elderly people passed us, greeting Grillo with a courtly nod. On the sidewalk in front of us, two girls held hands and hopscotched down the paving stones, marking time in flutelike voices with the forbidden phrase that they had been allowed, this one night, to say: “Vaaa . . . fannn . . . cuuuuuulooooooh!”
In the past eighteen months, the Italian political class has reached a low ebb of popularity. Last year’s nonfiction best-seller, which has sold more than a million copies since its publication, in May, is “La Casta” (“The Caste”), by the journalists Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. The book’s title has entered into daily speech, crystallizing the widespread perception that Italian politicians have become, as the authors write, an oligarchy of insatiable Brahmins, “born not of Brahma . . . but of a regime dominated by political parties and afflicted with elephantiasis.” The annual budget of the Italian Presidency is nearly four times that of Buckingham Palace, and federal legislators earn more than twice as much as the French, and nearly four times more than the Spanish. They have voted into law a number of perks, including chauffeured limousines, free air travel, private tennis lessons, haircuts, and generous pensions, for which they are eligible after thirty months in office. Stella and Rizzo catalogue the spouses, sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren of legislators who have acquired, through nepotism, seats in parliament, “left to them in inheritance like houses or bedside tables,” as well as the decades-long tenures of prominent senators and representatives. Clemente Mastella, who resigned as the Minister of Justice on January 16th, after it was revealed that he was under investigation for several crimes, including extortion, has been in parliament for thirty-one years, as a member of four different political parties. Mastella has denied any wrongdoing. Last week, he withdrew his party, the Udeur, from the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, a move that, on January 24th, after a no-confidence vote in the Senate, led to the fall of the government. “I was watching on television, and I saw legislators spitting at each other and someone screaming ‘Faggot!,’ ” Grillo told me. “Then I turned to ‘The Simpsons,’ and it seemed like a real parliament. It’s surreal. We’ve gone beyond all decency.”
As Paul Ginsborg, a historian at the University of Florence and an expert on postwar Italian history, explained, “The public administration, both local and national, never developed a culture of its own, an esprit de corps, as in the great French ministries or in Whitehall. You have parties invading the state, occupying banks, ministries, all the way down to who’s running opera houses, who’s the head of the local firemen, who’s running the public water authority. Party loyalty, not honesty or ability, becomes the first criterion, and the foremost goal of all parties is occupation at all costs, with loyal and servile members of the party.” In addition to the twenty-four convicted legislators on Grillo’s list, another fifty-seven are appealing guilty verdicts, have been pardoned, have escaped conviction owing to a statute of limitations, or are currently under investigation. These include some of the most powerful figures in Italian politics, among them Giulio Andreotti, who was Prime Minister seven times between 1972 and 1992, and Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister, who is probably the most investigated head of state in postwar European history. “Italy is a tough country to be a comedian in—I can’t invent stuff like this,” Grillo said on V-Day. “Nearly eighty crooks in parliament—that’s about one crook in twelve. It’s worse than Scampia, the most dangerous Naples slum, which is infested by the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. There the criminals are only one in fifteen!”
Grillo has galvanized Italians by talking about corruption with irreverence and humor—indeed, by talking about it at all. The country’s mainstream press is controlled, or owned outright, by political parties and corporations, whose malfeasance tends to be glossed over or ignored on television and in newspapers. (Grillo is organizing another V-Day, to be held on April 25th, to protest the subservience of the press.) Journalists who write about corruption face the constant threat of libel suits. Grillo has won a dozen such suits and is facing at least four more, including one for about fifteen million dollars in damages, brought against him by Biagio Agnes, the former director of Stet, then the national telecommunications company. (Grillo criticized Agnes, during a comedy show in 1993, for dishonest business practices.) Since 2005, however, he has addressed the public primarily through his blog, at beppegrillo.it, which, according to Technorati, the leading search engine for blogs, is the eighth most read in the world. Here Grillo not only denounces political wrongdoing but runs something of a parallel government, complete with a cabinet of volunteer policy advisers, including the architect Renzo Piano, the actor and playwright Dario Fo, and the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the preface to a book Grillo recently published online about Italian labor law. (Grillo, who has made tens of millions of dollars from comedy performances, books, and DVDs, finances his Web site and his political activism with his earnings.)
A poll released in December by Renato Mannheimer, an Italian pollster, found that Grillo was the second most popular political figure in Italy, after Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome and the newly elected leader of the left-center Partito Democratico. But Grillo’s campaign has divided intellectuals; many object that his attacks on politicians are crude and indiscriminate, and that he offers few practical solutions to the abuses he criticizes. On September 19th, in a front-page editorial in Il Corriere della Sera, the political scientist Giovanni Sartori compared Grillo’s assault on Italy’s “lords of power” to the taking of the Bastille. A week earlier, however, in a front-page editorial in La Repubblica, under the headline “THE BARBARIAN INVASION OF GRILLO,” Eugenio Scalfari, the paper’s founder, argued that V-Day was a mass movement led by a demagogue, and could be the prelude to a right-wing dictatorship. Two days later, Umberto Eco, also writing in La Repubblica, declared that Grillo’s campaign signalled “an (incipient) illness of the body politic.”
Grillo grew up in San Fruttuoso, a lower-middle-class neighborhood near the port of Genoa. “Everyone at the port was on the take,” he told me. “There were smugglers who dressed in carabinieri uniforms to steal the loads of their competitors—cigarettes, coffee, bananas. The Guardia di Finanza”—the police force of the finance ministry—“took five per cent, and another five per cent went to the longshoremen, who stole from the sacks. Sealed containers hadn’t been invented yet, and merchandise was sent in sacks, so you could still take just five per cent. You’d go there and see everything imaginable—drug dealers, contraband, whores, transvestites, everything.”
Grillo’s mother, Piera, was a gifted artist and pianist, who was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease when Beppe was twenty-three. (He helped care for her until her death, fifteen years later.) His father, Enrico, owned a small company that made acetylene torches. He was fifty when Grillo was born, and had lived through two world wars. “He was a strange man, who had the ability to communicate without speaking,” Grillo told me. “I’d come home after a late night and find a series of neat little notes near the door. The first would say, ‘It’s midnight and you aren’t here yet. It’s a bit late.’ The next would be ‘It’s two o’clock and you’re still not home. I’m concerned, and tomorrow you have school.’ Then, ‘It’s three-fifteen. Don’t tell your mother or she’d be beside herself.’ And then, ‘It’s four o’clock and you’re still not here. I’m desperately worried.’ He didn’t sleep, he just left me notes. I’d come home, see the notes, go to my room, and climb into bed. And as soon as I was there the door would open, he’d look in briefly, then the door would close again. The next morning, he wouldn’t say anything about what had happened.”
As a child, Grillo performed musical and comedy routines for his family. “Beppe would sing and play his guitar, and let out howls like James Brown,” his brother Andrea, who recently retired as the manager of the family business, recalled. “And our father would say, ‘He sounds like a beast!’ Sometimes he’d come to the dinner table singing like Ray Charles, wearing big dark glasses, or he’d come in pretending to smoke an enormous joint. Mother would be in stitches, but Father would say to her, ‘Your son is an idiot. Look at the dumb tricks he does while he’s supposed to be studying.’ ” Years later, Grillo learned that his father had memorized his better jokes and repeated them as his own to friends at the bar where he went after work.
In his teens, Grillo began to perform in local night clubs. At first, he sang and played the guitar, but gradually his between-song patter expanded until he was doing standup comedy. “They’d make me wait in the kitchen, and I’d be standing there hugging my guitar until midnight, when they’d turn off the music, turn up the lights, and send me out on the disco floor, where all the people were asking what the hell was going on, why the music had stopped. I had two minutes to jump in, get things rolling, get the crowd on my side, or they’d kick me out the door.” Grillo’s act consisted of rapid-fire jokes strung together with a line that later became his trademark: “It’s crazy! It’s the craziest thing!” He parodied the moves of the people on the dance floor and mocked the club’s staff. “I joked about the coat room, about the waiter, about the handsome gigolo, leaning against the bar with a whiskey in his hand, who never danced,” Grillo said. “Everything that happened became part of the show.”
Grillo’s father hoped that he would enter the family business, and persuaded him to earn a degree in accounting at a local technical college. Grillo joined the firm in 1968, when he was twenty, but felt out of place among his father’s clients. “I’d start to say, ‘I’ve come to ask about that little outstanding debt you have . . .’ and they’d yell, ‘Vaffanculo, Grillo, we know who you are!’ And I’d say to myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here, playing the accountant?’ ” In 1971, he left the company and, unable to support himself on the income from his comedy gigs alone, got a part-time job as a salesman for Panfin, then Italy’s leading jeans manufacturer.
In 1975, during a company retreat in Tuscany, Grillo’s co-workers found him a guitar and asked him to perform. Afterward, Panfin’s owner praised him lavishly and invited him to sit at his table. Several days later, a letter from Panfin arrived, and Grillo gathered his parents and brother around the dinner table before he opened it. “I’d told them what a hit I’d been, how the boss had loved me, how he was sure to give me a line of jeans to sell, how I’d be making millions. I opened the envelope slowly, and eased out the letter. It said: ‘You’re fired.’ The boss had seen how I was spending my nights and believed I’d never be at my best as a salesman at eight o’clock the next morning. So I took the big box with my jeans samples and threw it out the window. It fell eleven floors and hit the street with a sound like a bomb going off.”
The next day, Grillo boarded a train for Milan. For two years, he performed in small clubs, until he managed to obtain an audition with a director of RAI, the Italian national television-and-radio network. Three months later, Grillo was on television. His first role was as a comedian on “Secondo Voi” (“According to You”), a variety show. Like most shows on Italian television at the time, “Secondo Voi” was scripted. “We’d appear with four little suitcases and do these song-and-dance numbers, and I’d think to myself, You guys are idiots!” Grillo recalled. Soon, however, he began to improvise comic monologues. He lampooned politicians, sports stars, and the Pope, seizing on incongruities between their public statements and their behavior. By the late seventies, Grillo was a national celebrity.
In 1981, while driving with friends in the Alps near the French border, Grillo hit a patch of ice and lost control of his Chevrolet Blazer, which slid off the road and plunged into a ravine. He was able to get out of the car before it crashed, but three of his passengers, a married couple and their young son, were killed. (A fourth passenger was seriously injured.) An inquest cleared Grillo of wrongdoing, but lawyers for the couple’s relatives, including their orphaned daughter, who had been at home at the time of the accident, appealed the decision. Grillo was eventually convicted of negligent homicide, on the argument that the road where the incident occurred, though used by locals, was technically closed to automobile traffic. Determined to help the girl, and under pressure from her lawyers, he sold most of his assets—including his house—and gave her and her guardians the proceedings, about six hundred thousand dollars.
“The accident changed Beppe,” Andrea Grillo said. “Ever since then, he’s been a little less happy, a slightly darker person.” He continued to perform in live shows and on television, and at an appearance in 1984 he met Marco Morosini, an environmentalist who was teaching at the University of Ulm, in Germany. “This guy showed up, wearing clogs and a backpack, and he told me about the toothbrush cycle,” Grillo said. “How when you throw away your PVC toothbrush it gets incinerated, and its chlorine becomes dioxin and goes into the air. The air brings it out over the sea; it rains, and the dioxin goes into the plankton. The fish eat the plankton, and you go to a restaurant and order up a nice sea bass for fifty euros, and you’ve just eaten your toothbrush. It was beautiful, this image of everything you throw away coming back to you! It was a global vision of economics and society, which had escaped me until then.”
Grillo’s comedy was already becoming more pointedly political, and RAI attempted, with little success, to rein him in. “Censorship back then wasn’t brutal and threatening, the way it is today,” Grillo says. “If you were absolutely forbidden to say something, you found a way to say it so that people caught on too late.” In 1981, Italian magistrates had discovered the existence of a Masonic lodge called P2—the “P” was for “propaganda”—whose members included prominent politicians, judges, industrialists, and secret-service officers. Several were later implicated in financial frauds, Mafia-related murders, or right-wing terrorist bombings. The discovery of P2 was one of the greatest scandals of postwar Italy, and RAI executives warned Grillo not to speak about it on television. So he wrote about it instead. In 1983, he brought a blackboard and a piece of chalk onto the set and composed an elaborate “P2 theorem,” which demonstrated the existence of the lodge and the membership in it of Pietro Longo, a leading politician. In 1986, Bettino Craxi, Italy’s Socialist Prime Minister, made a state visit to China, and on TV Grillo imagined an aide asking the Prime Minister, “If everyone’s a Socialist down here, who do they steal from?” Craxi protested to RAI, and Grillo was effectively banned from television until Craxi resigned as the leader of the Socialist Party, in 1993. (Craxi was indicted on corruption charges and accused of taking billions of lire in bribes. He escaped prosecution by fleeing to Tunisia, where he died in exile in 2000.)
After Grillo lost his television job, he created a comedy show and took it on the road, performing in small towns where famous entertainers had rarely appeared before. Instead of standing on a stage, he walked among his audience, trailed by a video camera that projected his image on a screen at the front of the theatre—a technique that he still uses today. “I touch them, I make them smell me—I want to get into their minds physically,” Grillo told me.
In 1989, during a rare television appearance after leaving RAI, Grillo discovered that he could communicate with his audience without resorting to comedy. At the Festival of San Remo, the most important music festival in Italy, he performed a brief monologue and was seen on television by twenty-two million people. Arguing that television journalism had lost its integrity, Grillo invoked an incident, then in the news, involving a kidnapped child who, after being released, had been interviewed on television by Sandro Mayer, a prominent journalist. Mayer had asked the child which he had missed more, his mother or his favorite toy. “I said that a journalist simply couldn’t ask a child a question like that,” Grillo recalled. “That instead they should have had that journalist kidnapped and, when he was freed, asked him, ‘Listen, dickhead, what did you miss more, your mother or your newspaper?’ For the first time, I hadn’t made a joke but had expressed a serious judgment on something. And I thought to myself, Shit, I just said something important there—would you look at that? And I saw the audience nodding their heads. So I said to them, ‘Go ahead, you give a sign, too! I’ve been sent away from television, I’ve had my problems, I’m always alone, so if you want to show your solidarity stand up for a minute.’ And everyone stood up. And I said to myself, ‘So I can survive after all, even if I don’t tell a closing joke!’ ”
In January, 1994, two officers of the Guardia di Finanza rang the doorbell of Grillo’s home in Genoa and asked him to accompany them to Naples, for questioning by Agostino Cordova, a notoriously stern public prosecutor. “I thought I was a suspect,” Grillo told me. “Those two guys drove me all the way down without telling me anything, closed me in a room with a computer, asked my first name, last name. I couldn’t even remember my own date of birth—you can’t think straight when you’re in there. Then that terrible Cordova walked by, with his single eyebrow, his tartar-covered teeth, and his soggy cigar, and I said, ‘Look, I’m coöperating completely. I’ll tell you anything. Just tell me what I did, and I’ll confess.’ ”
Cordova had summoned Grillo to Naples not as a suspect but as an expert witness. In a television appearance in 1993, Grillo had revealed that SIP, the national telephone company at the time, was using erotic and astrological chat lines to generate illegal tax-free income abroad. Soon afterward, Cordova opened an investigation, and arrested twenty-two people who had licensed phone numbers from SIP. Now Cordova wanted to know how Grillo had discovered the scheme, and whether he had any more information about it. “I said to Cordova, ‘Well, I found out because the companies involved are publicly traded, and their documents are in the public domain. It’s not like you have to do something outrageous to get them.’ ” Grillo had been alerted to the scam by fans who sent him their telephone bills, which included charges for calls to chat lines that they said they hadn’t made. With the help of Vincenzo Dona, a leader of a consumer-protection association, Grillo pieced together the complex network of holding companies involved in the fraud, and uncovered the mechanism by which the telephone calls were made to appear to the dialer to be international while being routed to a location in Italy.
Grillo undertook other investigations, acting on tips from fans and on his own hunches, and relying on the advice of an expanding group of advisers. In January of 2004, a colonel in the Guardia di Finanza interrogated Grillo about the collapse of Parmalat, the dairy conglomerate, which had declared bankruptcy the previous month. The company’s downfall surprised journalists, politicians, and Standard & Poors, yet Grillo had been mocking its fragile finances in his comedy routines for two years. Again, Grillo said, the evidence had been in the public domain all along. “I told the colonel that all you had to do was look at the financial statements. While I was at it, I brought him some documentation on Fiat, Telecom, and Fininvest”—three of the largest publicly traded companies in Italy—“so he could get ahead on his work.”
Italians, impressed by Grillo’s financial knowledge and his willingness to denounce foul play, even in the face of libel suits and ostracism by the media, seem increasingly eager to solicit his help. In October, I visited him at his home, a spacious salmon-pink villa high on a hill on the eastern outskirts of Genoa, where he lives with his wife, Parvin Tadjk, their two young sons, and Tadjk’s two children from an earlier marriage. (Grillo also has two children from a previous relationship.) As we sat in the living room, overlooking the Mediterranean, the telephone rang repeatedly. A woman organizing an anti-rape march in Rome called to invite Grillo to take part, and he agreed. (“Nobody pays any attention to these people,” he told me after he hung up. “Where the fuck have all the feminists gone?”) Mauro Gallegati, a professor at the University of Ancona, who advises Grillo on economic issues, phoned to arrange a meeting between Grillo and Joseph Stiglitz. Gianroberto Casaleggio, Grillo’s Internet strategist, called to discuss the plight of several thousand Sardinian farmers who were about to be dispossessed of their land because their mortgage rates had been drastically increased and they had defaulted on payments. Grillo decided to visit the farmers.
In December, the Dalai Lama came to Italy, and after the Pope and the Prime Minister declined to meet with him he met with Grillo instead. “When China was only Communist, everyone received the Dalai Lama, but now that China is hyper-capitalist he gets blacked out,” Grillo wrote on his blog. The blog receives as many as two hundred and fifty thousand hits and two thousand comments in one day. His posts appear in Italian and English; since November, he has also published some in Japanese. (In one, he observed that in Japan politicians accused of corruption have been known to commit suicide, and asked the Japanese people to accept a number of Italian politicians on an exchange program, in the hope of persuading them to do the same.) In 2006, Grillo launched what he called a “takeover alla genovese,” against Telecom Italia—now Italy’s largest telephone company—accusing it of poor management and industrial espionage. On his blog, he urged shareholders to send him their proxy for the next general shareholders’ meeting. Grillo received seventeen hundred and fifty proxies, for 4.8 million shares, making him the company’s largest voting shareholder, although Consob, the regulatory commission of the Italian stock market, ruled that the proxies had not been properly transferred and were invalid. Nevertheless, Grillo spoke at the meeting, last April, and demanded the resignation of the board of directors, who, he said, had “stripped the company of billions of euros of income” and “tens of thousands of jobs.” (Telecom’s directors were unmoved by Grillo’s analysis.)
V-Day grew out of another of Grillo’s campaigns, Clean Parliament, which he launched in 2005, when he posted on his blog the names of the convicted criminals serving in parliament. Grillo argued that it is “profoundly immoral that convicted criminals should be allowed to sit in parliament,” and concluded, “If the law allows it, the law should be changed.” None of the Italian newspapers that he contacted were willing to publish either the names or his denunciation, so Grillo took up a collection on his blog, raised sixty thousand euros, and bought a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune. In it, he invited any country with a comparable number of convicts in parliament to form a sister-nation relationship with Italy. “I got a letter from the Gandhi Peace Foundation, in India, thanking me for my initiative and saying that they had had eleven criminals in their parliament, all of whom were promptly kicked out on their asses,” Grillo told me. He added, joking, “The Uzbek parliament wrote to say they were sorry, but they could only come up with eighteen convicted criminals, and weren’t really in our league.”
Grillo decided to propose a “people’s law,” a rarely used means for Italian citizens to bring new legislation before parliament. In July, he deposited at the Italian Supreme Court, in Rome, a draft law that would prohibit convicted criminals from serving in parliament, limit the time in office for legislators to ten years, and change the voting system to insure the direct popular election of all members of parliament. (Under current law, most legislators are chosen by party secretaries.) “When I handed it in, something beautiful happened,” Grillo told me, recalling his visit to the court. “An elegantly dressed gentleman sidled up to me, very cautious and circumspect, and I thought to myself, This must be a crack dealer. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Mr. Grillo, I agree completely with everything that you are doing.’ Then he zipped away. I asked the people there, ‘Who was that gentleman? Is he unwell?’ And they told me, ‘No, he’s the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.’ ” (The Chief Justice, Vincenzo Carbone, said that he recalls Grillo’s visit but does not remember making such a remark.)
Italian legislators, realizing that a docile press is insufficient to protect them from Grillo’s Web-based activism, have begun to retaliate. In October, Prodi’s cabinet proposed a law to subject Internet sites and blogs to the same libel rules as newspapers, and to compel them to hire both a publisher and a licensed journalist. “If this law passes, it will be the end of the Web in Italy,” Grillo wrote on his blog a few days later. “My blog won’t close. If necessary, I’ll move lock, stock, and server to a democratic nation.” (The law is pending passage in parliament.) In November, the Minister of Justice, Clemente Mastella, announced that he was suing Grillo for libel over a speech he had made that month to the European Parliament. (Grillo, referring to a corruption investigation that Mastella had blocked—and in which Mastella himself was a suspect—had said that whereas dynamite was once necessary to stop magistrates from investigating powerful people, nowadays the Minister of Justice simply stopped them himself.) When Grillo learned that he was being sued, he invited readers of his blog to sign a statement saying that they agreed with his remarks, after which he would award them the honorary title of “Mastellated.” To date, nearly seventy thousand people have been Mastellated.
In November, Grillo flew to Sardinia, to join a demonstration of farmers in the town of Decimoputzu, near the southern coast of the island, not far from Cagliari. The farmers’ lands were about to be foreclosed on by the Banco di Sardegna, and several hundred had occupied the town hall and were holding a hunger strike. Grillo, who wore Ray-Bans with green reflective lenses, said that he wanted to draw attention to the farmers’ plight in order to block the foreclosures. “Plus, there’s a hunger strike going on, and God knows I need that.”
At the airport in Rome, strangers patted him and tousled his hair. Several threw an arm around his neck and took photographs of him with their cell phones. At the gate for his flight, Grillo held a jamboree, spinning gags for the other passengers about genetically modified foods—square tomatoes that stack like bricks, tobacco with glowworm genes so that you can find your cigarettes in the dark. To a woman who was waiting for the flight, he spoke loudly, in a mock-Sardinian dialect—“Zaganauu uzzauu tu porceddu!”—until the woman doubled over with laughter. As the passengers began to board, a man approached Grillo carrying a sheaf of papers. He explained that he was a local agriculture official and that the document was a petition calling for a ban on the importation of genetically modified food. He pressed the petition into Grillo’s hands, urging him to publicize it, and continued to talk heatedly, one hand on Grillo’s arm, until the last passengers had boarded. As Grillo extracted himself from the man’s grip, he said testily, “People can’t load me down with every last one of these causes! I can’t take them all on my shoulders! You people have to do some things by yourselves!”
The plane landed in Cagliari, where Grillo was met by a dozen supporters. The group drove him to Decimoputzu, a scruffy village surrounded by fields dark with artichokes. The car stopped near the city hall, where the road was blocked by a crowd of farmers: short, thin men and women, with thick-fingered hands that seemed too large for their bodies. Their children were there as well, dressed in clean, worn clothes, shirts buttoned to their chins, their hair stiff from careful combing. “When we talk about important things, we do so as a family,” Giulio Simbula, a farmer, told me. He said that he had left his job with a flower business in Holland to return to his native Sardinia after he learned of an offer of low-interest mortgages; he was now about to lose his land and his life savings. “But we don’t need talk now,” he said. “We need action.”
As Grillo climbed out of the car, he was surrounded by reporters and television cameramen. “I understand that farming concerns are being sold off cheap in these parts, and I’ve come to buy up a few,” Grillo started in. The journalists laughed, but the farmers just stared. We entered the city hall, a narrow room whose walls were covered with photographs from the nineteen-thirties and forties of local notables in black hats and long coats. The farmers had occupied the hall for thirty-nine days, although they had ended their hunger strike after a week, when Simbula’s wife, Maria Bonaria, who suffers from a kidney condition, went into shock and was hospitalized. “We can’t die here,” Simbula said. The crowd pressed into the room, until the air was dense with the smell of perspiration and damp wool. More people crowded at the windows. Grillo sat at the head of the room, at a conference table lined with microphones, along with the mayor of Decimoputzu, several farm-union leaders, and three farmers—two men and a woman.
“Something’s happening in this little town,” Grillo told the crowd. “The people didn’t know what was going on, then they started to catch on, and they mobilized. The mayors and local politicians mobilized, too, and ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ disappeared, because this is a sacred battle, and everyone is on the same side.” He outlined his plan to threaten the Banco di Sardegna with a boycott. He said that he had persuaded a rival bank to offer a higher rate of interest to all customers who transferred their accounts to it, if the Banco di Sardegna refused to stop the foreclosures. The mayor clapped loudly into his microphone.
“But let the farmers speak,” Grillo said. “This is their event.” Maria Pau, a portly farmer in her sixties, recounted how her husband had slowly grown deranged as their debts mounted. Rather than tell her how dire their situation was, he had demanded a divorce, and had even reported her to the police for attempting to poison him. During her speech, she turned twice to her husband, who had had a stroke and sat in the audience in a wheelchair. “Don’t cry, Salvatore!” she told him. Salvatore, his face wet with tears, nodded and tried to smile.
By now, the people at the windows were complaining that they couldn’t hear, and asked Grillo and the others to move the meeting to the soccer field, where there would be room for everyone. Grillo led the crowd down the street to the field, a rectangle of bare earth lit by the greenish glare of a few stadium lights. A stiff wind sent dust devils spinning across the ground, and roared in the microphones of a local band—two guitarists and a drummer—that was playing on a small stage in the middle of the field, in Grillo’s honor.
Grillo and several farmers lifted Salvatore, in his wheelchair, onto the stage, and gave him the microphone. “I didn’t sleep nights, I worked all day, and the bills were never paid,” Salvatore said in a soft voice. “Now I’m here in this chair. But I want to live.” Grillo hummed a blues tune to the band, and as the musicians played he spoke to the crowd in time with the music: “You are not alone anymore. We are giving a voice to those who have no voice.” Then he picked up a guitar and sang, in a sultry Ray Charles baritone, a song he called “The Sardinia Blues,” a long, loud stream of pseudo-Sardinian scat: “Ta-dizzy-dezzi-dazzu, pu-ruru-duru-dooo.” The farmers looked at one another in surprise, shook their heads, and cackled with laughter. “And what a voice!” one shouted.