Breaking the code of silence
Stille addresses the Italian Mafia in politics
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 16:10
An excited group of students and faculty, including students from other universities in the area, eagerly packed into the Mandel Center for the Humanities room G03, which was quickly filled to capacity—on a Friday afternoon no less.
Much-anticipated speaker Alexander Stille gave a talk titled “Voicing the Outrage of Silence: A Talk on the Mafia and Italian Politics,” an event in the Martin Weiner Lecture Series cosponsored by the Humanities Council, the Romance Studies Department and the Italian Studies program.
Stille is an accomplished author and journalist and a Columbia University professor of international journalism. He has received numerous literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Award for best work of history and the Alicia Patterson Foundation award for journalism. He has also contributed to numerous major publications including The New York Times, Rome’s La Repubblica and The Atlantic.
Stille has authored several books dealing primarily with Italian politics and culture, though the lecture was focused on his second novel, Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, a gripping account of the political struggle against the Sicilian Mafia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The central theme of silence in Mafian politics was introduced in the form of three experiences in Stille’s time as an investigative journalist and published author. All three anecdotes seemed to end with “embarrassed phone calls,” as Stille spoke of them, in which he was asked or told that his work needed to be censored in some way.
In one particularly shocking instance, Stille was not permitted to write a story about the trial of the Mafia boss Marcello Dell’Utri because of a newly appointed editor’s connection to the Mafia.
Getting to the heart of the challenge presented in the lecture, Stille said, “I mention these [anecdotes] only for their ordinariness. This is not a case of a courageous shopkeeper who refuses to pay protection money and announces the Mafia in Sicily, but its very ordinariness says something important. If this subject cannot be discussed in a public forum, then we have a problem.”
Much of the lecture focused on the Mafia assassinations of court Justices Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The 20th anniversary of their deaths was this summer.
Their contributions to the Italian judiciary battle against the Mafia were described by Stille as “revolutionary.”
One of the ideas Stille repeatedly stressed was that the Mafia’s power was mainly an illusion supported by its interactions with the rest of the world. “[The Mafia] was seen as an anthropological phenomenon that seemed to be running through the veins of Sicilian culture, something that therefore trying to combat it would be as useless as trying change the heat in Sicily in July or August,” Stille said.
This myth was deconstructed, in large part, by the efforts of Borsellino and Falcone.
“The most extraordinary contribution of the two judges was to show that [the Mafia’s] power derives very directly from its ties to the legitimate world and when the state decides to do something about it, they are much stronger than the Mafia.”
Stille was living in Italy during the first serious attempts to combat organized crime in Sicily, including at the height of Falcone’s convictions and the attempted destruction of his reputation. He reflected on the mood of those times, saying “I had this sensation that I was watching an earlier middle act of a Greek tragedy. You could see this was going to end very badly with the death of Falcone.”
Stille went on to debunk many of the major stereotypes regarding the Sicilian Mafia, using a combination of hard facts and quotes to emphasize his position.
“The idea that Sicilians are naturally violent is factually wrong. There are periods where violence really takes a vacation in Sicily. It is difficult to find even a jealous husband; there’s [almost] no homicide during periods where Mafia lays low.”
Also discussed were the anomalies of the Italian legal system in a broader manner, which, according to Breanna Small ’16, was one of the most compelling portions of the lecture. “In Italy, the statute of limitations clock never stops ticking, leading to more corruption in a way that is not even possible in the U.S.,” she said.
The lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session, during which Stille addressed a question regarding the possible dangers of investigating such a characteristically sinister organization. Surprisingly, Stille did not feel in any immediate danger while writing Excellent Cadavers, which was written after the assassination of the judges. “The Mafia had so many problems by then,” said Stille. “They make pretty rational calculations. ... It just wasn’t in their best interests to bump off a foreign journalist.”
Michael Pizziferri ’15 noted the valuable addition this lecture made to the hodgepodge of academic events at Brandeis. “I’ve found there’s a lack of events focused on European history on campus. This lecture brought visibility to issues of Italian heritage.”
Brandeis undergraduates taking classes in Italian language and culture, particularly those in the first-year seminar “JustBooks: Voicing the Outrage of Silence, Social Justice and the Mafia,” represented a large portion of the attendees.
Stille tied his faith in the legal system to effectively combat these types of thugs to the actions of ordinary citizens. “It starts with the very basic idea that you try as a voter to reward people who play by the rules and punish those who don’t,” he said.