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A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Essay: Weary Italians aren't in the mood to laugh anymore at Berlusconi's latest transgressions.

For a country synonymous with style and culture, where inelegance is treated as a public crime, it’s a wonder that a man who revels in playing the fool can be elected Italian prime minister — not once, but three times.

Chalking it up to a macho society — one writer calls Italy “the country feminism forgot” — is simplistic. It doesn’t explain the multiple corruption scandals Berlusconi has survived and the non-sexist gaffes he gets away with — from comparing himself to Jesus Christ to describing U.S. President Barack Obama as “handsome and tanned.”

In the club of developed democracies, the 72-year-old prime minister is a phenomenon. Conflict of interest laws alone would prevent his coming to power in most democracies. But in Italy, he flourishes.

Italy’s deeply corrupt post-war political culture made him one of the country’s wealthiest citizens. A media mogul with a near monopoly on television, he has long been accused of fashioning the country in his image by influencing political coverage and feeding Italians an endless extravaganza of kitsch and flesh.

The relationship, however, is symbiotic. The late Italian singer and actor, Giorgio Gaber, perhaps said it best: “It’s not the Berlusconi in him that I fear, it’s the Berlusconi in me.”

Says Franco Ferrarotti, a dean of Italian sociology: “This man somehow represents the secret dreams of most people.” By no means does Berlusconi get a free ride. Italy has been sharply divided between left- and right-wing political parties since the end of World War II. Many Italians would love to see Berlusconi in jail.

His only majority government victory in 2008 was propelled by farcical infighting of the left-wing coalition he unseated. For Italians in search of stability — they have had 62 governments since 1945 — Berlusconi was the only alternative.

His right-wing People of Freedom coalition quickly abolished property taxes on primary residences. With an estimated 80 percent of Italians owning their own home, the move was wildly popular.

But his appeal runs deeper. He seems the walking embodiment of an Italian proverb that speaks volumes about the national character: Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno. It describes laws — and the ways to avoid them — coming to life at exactly the same time. Income tax evasion alone amounts to $300 billion, according to one estimate.

“The national sport is to violate the law. If you obey the law diligently, you have to be careful not to be seen as a fool,” Ferrarotti says.