Editor’s Note: Today’s column is in two parts. Feel free to stop halfway through, or, if you’re a fuming paleolibertarian, scan down to the announcement at the end of part two.
While I’m usually permitted the illusion of authority when it comes to the remote control, this false consciousness is often shattered whenever my insatiable desire for certain TV fare meets the immovable will of my betrothed. So, I haven’t been able to watch as much Baywatch, Xena, Sheena, G-String divas, women’s-prison movies, kung fu flicks, or CNBC (Oh, Maria Bartiromo…) as I might if I were still living a real-life buddy picture with my couch and walking around the apartment with a spaghetti strainer as a cod piece and re-enacting B-gladiator movies.
That’s all fine and no great loss now that I’ve got the Fair Jessica (and the couch still gets plenty of quality and quantity time). But one show I wish I didn’t have to sneak around to watch is The Sopranos
Some critics have gone overboard, saying it’s the greatest product of American popular culture in the last quarter century. I think that’s overstating things a bit (it’s not so easy for me to discount that episode of What’s Happening when Rerun and Dwayne are caught bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert).
Still, The Sopranos is a great show, with superb dialogue, wonderful acting, and admirable nudity. But none of that has anything to do with the Fair Jessica’s objections. Nor, does the idea that The Sopranos defames Italian-Americans (she’s of Slovak-Irish descent, if that matters).
Rather, she believes that the glorification of the mob is one of the least attractive trends in American popular culture. She even says bad things from time to time about The Godfather, which from a lesser woman might be a deal breaker. Anyway, she says criminality is criminality and that there’s nothing glamorous about a bunch of murderers and thieves. Period.
In one sense she’s right, and not merely in a “Yes, dear” way. For example, isn’t there something a little racist about white folks deploring black gangster culture but oohing and ahhing over Italian mobsters? Baggy prison pants — that ass-crack chic came about because convicts aren’t allowed belts — and rap-music lyrics about busting caps in peoples’ Dershowitz’s is a sign of the inexorable decline of American culture. But “sleeps with the fishes” is brilliant writing. George Will loves The Sopranos but I sincerely doubt he had much if anything nice to say about New Jack City.
But, as Will pointed out yesterday in his interview with David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, there’s a counter-argument. We find something in mob movies that we are sorely lacking in our culture and our art: a strict moral code. Or in Tony Soprano’s case, a strict immoral code, but a code nonetheless.
“Could it be,” asked Will, “that part of the appeal of this show is that Tony Soprano, terrible husband, loutish father, bad citizen…in some sense insists on the distinction between right and wrong?”
Of course, the distinction of “right and wrong” adhered to in The Sopranos is not our distinction, but at least it’s a distinction, something sorely missing almost everywhere else in elite culture. Rats and snitches get theirs. In the world of The Sopranos there’s a difference between having a reason and having an excuse. Tony always says “there have to be consequences” when people deviate from the code. In the relativistic swamp of American life, that distinction is at best mightily blurred.
This surely explains part of The Sopranos popularity. Americans have always liked movies and books about men who play by their own rules. Westerns, cop movies, and virtually every mob movie can trace much of their appeal to our fascination with the inflexibility of codes of honor, even when we disagree with the first principles of that code. Sure, there’s something a bit disturbing about the fact that Americans — particularly chattering-class liberals who live by the New York Times’s “Arts and Leisure” section — need to satisfy their craving for moral discipline by watching a television series about murderers.
But whadya gonna do? It’s damn good TV.
The Godfather and America
The American fascination with Tony Soprano or Don Corleone is often explained by saying something like, “America loves a rogue.” But that’s simplistic in the extreme. There’s a lot more going on here than the Bada Bing at the Bada Bing club.
About five years ago, Paul Rahe, the author of the acclaimed Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution, penned an essay, “Don Vito Corleone, Friendship, and the American Regime.” With the possible exception of Paul Cantor’s essay on The Simpsons, it’s the best essay on the significance of a movie or TV show I’ve ever read.
In it, he dissects the opening scene of The Godfather where the undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, asks the Godfather for justice (I am borrowing heavily from Rahe’s synopsis).
“I raised my daughter in the American fashion,” Bonsera says in the Mario Puzo book that inspired the movie. “I believe in America. America has made my fortune. I gave my daughter her freedom and yet taught her never to dishonor her family.”
Alas, the daughter found an American boyfriend who tried to rape her. “She resisted. She kept her honor.” The boyfriend and another boy beat her viciously in retaliation.
“I went to the police like a good American,” he says. But, despite being arrested and convicted, the boys receive a suspended sentence from a lenient judge. “They went free that very day. I stood in the courtroom like a fool and those bastards smiled at me. And then I said to my wife: ‘We must go to Don Corleone for justice.”
Then, Corleone breaks the silence to ask, “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me at the beginning of this affair?”
Bonasera dodges the question and asks, “What do you want of me? Tell me what you wish. But do what I beg you to do.” He whispers in the Don’s ear that he wants the boys killed.
The Don says, “You are being carried away.” Then the undertaker says, flatly, “I will pay you anything you ask.”
This infuriates Don Corleone. In a voice Puzo describes as “cold death,” the Don answers:
“We have known each other many years, you and I, but until this day you never came to me for counsel or help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for coffee though my wife is godmother to your only child. Let us be frank. You spurned my friendship. You feared to be in my debt.”
The undertaker mutters, “I didn’t want to get into trouble.” Don Corleone interrupts him with a wave of his hand.
“No, don’t speak. You found America a paradise. You had a good trade, you made a good living, you thought the world a harmless place where you could take your pleasures as you willed. You never armed yourself with true friends. After all, the police guarded you, there were courts of law, you and yours could come to no harm. You did not need Don Corleone. Very well. My feelings were wounded but I am not the sort of person who thrusts his friendship on those who do not value it — on those who think me of little account.”
The Don smiles derisively, “Now you come to me and ask, ‘Don Corleone give me justice.’ And you do not ask with respect. You do not offer me friendship. You come into my home on the bridal day of my daughter and you ask me to do murder and you say” — here the Don’s voice becomes scornful mimicry — “‘I will pay you anything.’ No, No, I am not offended, but what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”
The undertaker responds, “America has been good to me. I wanted to be a good citizen. I wanted my child to be American.”
The Don applauds sardonically and says: “Well spoken. Very fine. Then you have nothing to complain about. The judge has ruled. America has ruled. Bring your daughter flowers and a box of candy when you go visit her in the hospital. That will comfort her. Be content. After all, this is not a serious affair, the boys were young, high-spirited, and one of them is the son of a powerful politician…so give me your word that you will put aside this madness. It is not American. Forgive. Forget. Life is full of misfortunes.”
The two argue about the nature of justice versus vengeance. And once again the undertaker asks, “How much shall I pay you?”
The Don, furious, turns his back on Bonasera and asks, “Why do you fear to give your first allegiance to me?” He lectures the undertaker about the delays and corruption of the American system.
“You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgement from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets …[But] if you had come to me for justice those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If by some misfortune an honest man like yourself made enemies, they would become my enemies…and then, believe me, they would fear you.”
The undertaker finally understands and pleads: “Be my friend. I accept.”
This is the very first scene in the movie (though the dialogue is truncated for the big screen) for a reason. Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo understood the need to show the alternate moral universe of the mafia. Rahe points out that it’s no coincidence that the undertaker’s name is Amerigo Bonasera, which translates into “Goodnight America.”
Paul Rahe brilliantly explores the question of whether someone can be “armed” with “true friends” and still be a “good American.” It’s a fascinating discussion which I don’t have room to recount here (you can find the essay in a book called Reinventing the American People published by the Ethics and Public Policy Institute).
But the essence of the question goes straight to the heart of the popularity of The Sopranos and the mob genre generally. Don Corleone demands from Bonasera what the Romans called a dedito in fidem, i.e., a surrender to Corleone’s faith, loyalty, and trust. The conflict Bonasera faces, Rahe argues, is “contract versus friendship,” between the modern order and the ancient order.
The mafia is a self-conscious holdover from the Roman Empire (recall Tom Hagens’ talk with Frankie Pentangeli in the prison yard in Godfather II). It is an explicit rejection of the post-Enlightenment rule of law. It is a rule of the tribe, of the clan, of power. Among other things, that rule delivers a more satisfying, but less forgiving, application of justice. It rewards friendship as much as work, and success above merit. But most of all, it emphasizes the internal, organic loyalties of the family and the tribe as opposed to the rules of abstract laws and supposedly mercantile obligations.
Democracy and the rule of law are fictions in the world of the mafia. That’s why the FBI is always talked about like it’s some rival gang. The mafia sees the government as just another competitor, equally corrupt.
Recall this exchange from The Godfather (endlessly parodied in The Simpsons):
Michael Corleone: “My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.”
Kay Adams: “Do you know how naïve you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed!”
Michael Corleone: “Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?”
Amerigo Bonasera embraces democracy so long as democracy works for him. But when the American regime defies — or in his case fails — his organic sense of justice, he no longer recognizes the regime’s legitimacy. He discovers that as far as he’s concerned, when it matters the government can be as capricious as any king. At first he tries to buy the Godfather’s friendship, but that is the coin of the realm in America, not in the moral universe of the Corleone family. Finally, he realizes you can only swear fealty to one ruler. And, he says, in effect: “Goodnight America.”
Of course, people aren’t rejecting America when they watch The Sopranos or The Godfather. But who can argue that a certain degree of the mob’s appeal, particularly in the 1990s, stems from a certain alienation not just with the relativism of American popular culture, but with the very definition of justice in America today?
My last two columns have generated a modest amount of e-mail, but a large supply of anger. First, there was my assault on Joe Conason. This elicited some remarkably juvenile screams from lefties who love Conason. When I say juvenile I mean a lot of potty-mouth and mother insults and no substance.
The second column was my criticism of some libertarians, particularly the gang over at LewRockwell.com. The e-mail from these guys is a lot smarter, but equally angry — and almost as much potty mouth.
So here’s what we’re gonna do. Tomorrow, we’re running responses from two of the LewRockwellers I criticized. I will respond to all of that and to the other e-mails, enraged postings on LewRockwell.com and FreeRepublic.com, as well as the numerous questions about Frank Meyer’s conversion to Catholicism and the rest, soon thereafter. As for the Conason crowd, since not a single critic made a single substantive point, I’ve got nothing to say except perhaps I went too easy on him.