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The Week

Titanic and Berlusconi: Two cruise ship relics roar back from the bottom Add to ...

This week brought the relaunch of two historical curiosities: one, a leather-upholstered, disaster-prone relic from another time, and the other the Titanic. It is a particularly human trait to ignore the lessons of the past, and so we found ourselves welcoming back a ship that sank on its maiden voyage, and Silvio Berlusconi, a man who has sunk more than his share of maidens.

First to New York, where an Australian mining tycoon – a little-known law requires that rich miners always be called tycoons – announced that his heart’s desire, Titanic II, would be built in a Chinese shipyard to the exact specifications of its doomed namesake. Except with a sturdier hull and more lifeboats.

Otherwise, said our starry-eyed tycoon, Clive Palmer, all will be as it was when the Titanic sailed from Southampton a century ago, never to return. The new ship will be outfitted exactly like the original, down to the quaint exercise equipment, the three classes and the menus, although you havet to wonder whether the 2,435 passengers may be too nervous to choke down more than a bite of roast squab and cress or salmon mousseline. Mr. Palmer said his company had already received 40,000 “expressions of interest” for Titanic II’s maiden voyage, planned for late 2016.

Presumably, these are not people who worry that this is an exercise in tempting fate, sticking out a tongue at the gods or putting the “fool” in foolhardy. For Mr. Palmer, who will encourage passengers to wear period dress, the new ship represents a nostalgic dream: “Titanic comes from a time when the world was different. When there was a different culture, different ways of living, when people worked with each other more.”

And women couldn’t vote, and there was no penicillin … wait, sorry, where were we? Memories of a lost and better world, that’s right. Let’s turn the nostalgia goggles on Italy, where, against all rational notions of human progress and laws of mathematics, three-time premier and frequent occupier of the defendant’s stand Silvio Berlusconi has returned to a central place in Italian politics. While his party did not actually win a majority in either the lower or upper houses of Parliament in this week’s election, his right-wing faction came within a hair’s breadth of success, winning about 30 per cent of the vote in the two houses.

That Berlusconi? I hear you saying. The one whose car was literally chased out of his official residence by angry Italians when he finally was shamed into resigning 15 months ago? The one who praised Mussolini this year on World Holocaust Day? The one who publicly taunted a woman about her sex life just days before the recent vote? The one who’s in the midst of a sex and corruption trial and appealing his other conviction on tax fraud? The one who frequently changes the country’s laws to protect himself from prosecution?

Yes, that Berlusconi. If he were a boyfriend, your mother would take you aside and whisper “stalker” in your ear and the police would put posters of him around the neighbourhood and you’d buy new locks for your door – and possibly some garlic. He is Italy’s stalker, unwilling to let it go and be its own country, free and independent of his wizened clutches. But, like an abused partner, unsure of its own worth, the country keeps returning to the hoary promises he’s made again and again: I’ll cut taxes. I’ll fill your pockets. I’ll keep nasty Europe off your back.

We’re not even allowed to call him “clown” anymore, because professional clowns object to the comparison. And clowns tend to squeeze friends called Bozo into their minicars, not drive a nation’s economy off a cliff. Dire figures came out of Italy on Friday: Unemployment is at 11.7 per cent, the highest rate in 21 years. Youth unemployment is nearly 40 per cent. That’s hard to laugh at.

“Berlusconi miracle,” read the headline the day after the elections in Il Giornale – which was probably written by Berlusconi’s brother, who owns the newspaper. The family owns the main TV networks, too. For some voters, that headline must reflect reality: He’s a known quantity. He represents nostalgia for a simpler time, before the world’s economy hit an iceberg. When it was the captain’s prerogative to cop a feel here or there, and no one screamed, “Basta!” Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to let the old goat have the wheel again?

Surely there are better alternatives afloat. Mr. Berlusconi started as a cruise-ship singer, didn’t he? And Mr. Palmer must need entertainers on Titanic II whose repertoire extends beyond Nearer My God to Thee. Just picture it: One historical relic aboard another, sailing into the sunset, never to be seen again.

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