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Feature Articles


May 2014
The Popular Mafia

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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Mafia! Its mere utterance strikes fear in the heart of the average law-abiding citizen. A Sicilian dialect word (mafiusu) that originally meant positive attributes of persons or things, the term was Italianized after Italian unification in the early 1860s to indicate a Sicilian anti-state phenomenon. Since then, the word has migrated from Sicily to the world and given many nuances of meaning and function. Mafia has come to refer to an ideal type of criminality; one might say a sophisticated racketeering system that responds quickly to changing conditions and various emerging opportunities; a coalition of underworld and overworld elements, where corruption is ubiquitous. Think Prohibition of the 1920s and the resulting wide-scale racketeering and generalized disrespect for the law, an outlaw culture of some complexity in which bribes and extortions flourished.

     Organized crime is a surprisingly complicated topic, made more so by the many myths surrounding the topic. Placing history in a narrative form with seamless transitions can be misleading. History is actually episodic, divided into separate, loosely connected, tenuously related parts or sections.

“We never step into the same river twice.” (Heraclitus, C. 540-C. 480 B.C.)

“Gangster movies are models of what Americans fear (or long) to be, as close to or as far from actuality as we choose to imagine them. It’s all about materialistic excess.” (Michael Woods, film critic)

“When the image becomes the legend, print the legend.” (John Ford, film director)

“One of the fundamental techniques in constructing the mafia myth was the creation of mafia stereotypes. Public officials and especially the media played up the image of the Italian wiseguy; transforming the opinions of ‘experts’ into incontrovertible facts was another common technique in the myth construction as was the use of undocumented sources of authority. The McClellan Committee was especially guilty of masking its own preconceived opinions through the uses of supposedly independent police resources. Yet a review of the hearing transcripts clearly demonstrates the Committee witnesses and investigators were called to conform to an already favored viewpoint. That organized crime, Italian American or otherwise, was as structurally formal to be as ‘any large organization’ soon came to be seen as patently absurd.” (Donald R. Liddick, Jr., Canada Dry Wiseguys at Apalachin: Politics and the Social Construction of a Crime Problem. Published online: 17 October 2007)

     College courses studying corporations have used mafia as an example of a corporate entity, a complex business model with a criminal agenda, thereby seriously exaggerating its corporate features, if any, its effectiveness in delivering a “product” or its stability and durability. It is a curious buying into the mafia mythology.

“In contemporary America the most influential mafia family is not the Colombos or the Gambinos, it is the Sopranos. The mafia is no longer a public threat. It has become a cultural artifact.” (John Kroger, Conviction, 2008)

     Organized crime provides an alternative society in which one’s daring, courage, toughness and entrepreneurship are valued. That life provides more than a livelihood for otherwise poorly educated young men who are psychologically unfit for the routine and completely unsatisfying employment in the legitimate economic sector. There is the question among these men of a lack of self-esteem and alienation from mainstream society. Sensitivity to insult and humiliation can be high and result in serious vendetta; as well as feelings of weakness and shame of being seen as inadequate or contemptible. Getting one over on someone, exploiting others for profit, perfecting the fine art of the scam and shakedown, fleecing the “civilian,” taking down a victim, produce feelings of power, reinforcing the mobster’s smarter and tougher self-image. That is his rationalization for anti-social behavior.

     La mafia has been commercialized and exaggerated to fit the expectations of the popular imagination. Legend and fantasy take front seats, blurring any objective analysis of the place and function of crime in society. Even mobsters, once retired , have gotten into the act, presenting themselves as experts, yet structuring their war stories for the market place; one more scam. Take Chicago’s Al Capone, who despite his enduring notoriety as a major mob power broker, was not a player in the big picture, nor was his tenure a long one. Like all criminal operatives he was deeply rooted in his own locality and powerless outside of it.

“I defy anyone to investigate organized crime apart from political corruption. The actors play on the same stage.” (Neil J. Welch, Inside Hoover’s FBI, 1984)

“Then underneath the cold official word: This is not really half of what occurred.” (Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936)

     We live by our legends and we accept deliberate distortions when it comes to an accounting of organized crime. They crowd out facts and are not easily given up. Legends are often a better fit with the predispositions of an era.

     It would be difficult to identify as many as half a dozen books that report on major finds on the subject matter. Most merely repeat what others have published. Researchers initiating a project soon find themselves immersed in tainted data of questionable validity or reliability. The many mafia websites online tailored for wannabes are simplistic to the level of the old British cheap pulp magazines, the so-called “penny dreadfuls.” Consider, for example, a review of the content and reasons for production of Hollywood films on gangsters from the 1920s to the present day. They are shaped to the expectations and realities of each era.

     There is the argument that objectivity is self-deluding; that one needs a wide matrix of evidence available to base conclusions. Legend and life are two polarities, two separate scenarios. To counter, it has been said that history and legend should not be kept separate, because legend becomes indispensably supported by history. That which is legendary is tied to the facts of the past.

     One historian noted that “history is argument without end,” meaning that when you study the history of anything you never know whether you got it right. There are always loose ends to consider, always a new angle to probe. That is why historical events are constantly revisited. The challenge is whether an understanding of the past is possible by the traces left behind, and where the viewer stands in relation to the subject. Objectively is not easily resolved in the area of criminality, whether the perspective is from the legal/political system, reportage or the perpetrators themselves. Organized crime is a social problem where opinions matter. The intrusion of personal bias and preference is to be expected


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