Friday, January 21, 2011

Grand Theft Culture

I read with a smile in my heart that the FBI had arrested some 127 individuals as part of the largest crackdown on the Mafia in the history of law enforcement.  Some of the arrests were for killings and crimes committed decades ago, by now-old men. Will it have a lasting impact on organized crime?  Maybe not. But still--to that, I say:  "Bravo, FBI". 

And, while I'm at it:  "Vaffanculo, Mafia."

(Full disclosure: I know of one person who was involved in some way in organized crime in the past of my distant family. Logic and probability suggest there may have been more, but it was never a topic of conversation, nor immediately apparent.)

The glorification of La Cosa Nostra is something that has always sat uneasily with me.  The Godfather movies--the first two, at least (thanks in part to Sofia Coppola's multi-award-winning turn in Godfather 3) were a beautiful, lush exploration of self-determination, cultural identity, honor, familial obligation, and the promise of America.  The Corleone family, in a way, represents the closest we could come in America to actual royalty.  They lived a life of dynastic power, courtly rituals, a distinct code of honor, and unimaginable wealth; and all the while, operating above--or beyond the reach of--the law. As a story tied intricately into the shadow side of the American psyche, it is a powerful narrative of cultural identity, tribal honor, and the American immigrant mythos. 
Then, as with any mythic vision, what follows from that initial spark becomes, over time, a crass counterfeit, with all the trappings, but none of the Truth, of the original. Scarface. Goodfellas. The Sopranos. Goombahs all over the airwaves and internets.  I remember reading how mafiosi used to watch The Sopranos as a comedy...they laughed at how on-target it was, and took it as a great flattery.  I say again: vaffanculo. You give my ancestors and my people a bad name.  

You know, art can be used to shine Light onto the Shadow, so we can better understand ourselves as a people, and as individual humans.  There is a place for the anti-hero in art, culture, and society. The anti-hero is a tragic figure--a cautionary tale, and a safety valve for the darker impulses of humanity. But, in the end of the anti-hero's story, the world is set "right" again.  (Faustus pays his debt, for example). The problem is, the anti-hero has become the hero in our world now. We glorify criminals in pop-culture--actual criminals, who commit actual, harmful crimes. The Mafia is just one particularly glaring example.  But, you know...fuhggedabahdit. Wuhddayahgunndu, right?

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