Feature Articles

February 2011
The Gangster Fixation

      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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     Organized crime is an inward, specialized world composed of individuals who reject conventionality and finding themselves selecting behavior that more suits their predispositions. These predispositions, analysts assert, include a moral blindness, an apparent incapacity to feel moral sentiments such as guilt and empathy.

     They reject the plodding existence, the daily humdrum, that of routine and monotony, of small ambitions and few, fleeting pleasures. They are impatient, not willing to suffer a cultural straitjacket, to wait one�s turn for future rewards, to be monitored and restricted by community values, to follow careful preparation, to play fair, to be respectful of others.

     Their desire to get on with it rejects a classroom education over one of the street, being told what to think or tolerating the suffocating nine-to-five grind of the typical job. Their socialization nurtures a totalitarian personality, a rigid personality syndrome that contrasts dramatically with an open view of the world. There are no weak-kneed liberals among mobsters.

     Their temperaments drive them to immediate rewards; the present always trumps the future. A strain of hedonism runs through their makeup where pleasure represents the highest good, a devotion to the carnal senses as paramount.

     Such a need is expected and flaunted when achieved. Their ostentation is intended to attract notice of wealth as a symbol of superior standing. They make a point of rising above the herd and pushing aside those who impede. Perceived disrespect of their persons rises to the level of extreme sensitivity often with negative consequences. Moral restraint is absent. �Only suckers work,� an old bromide, says much of the criminal mentality. It is not a question of work, mobster work is substantial with its own unique pressures; it is the nature of the work and the fulfillment received living a life at the margins. Gangster work can be difficult and stressful, contrary to popular conception.

     The impulse for immediate gratification is primary. To defer a goal to the future for a possible greater reward is scorned. The scam is the thing, and getting one over the other fellow is a gratifying accomplishment, proof of one's superior self-conception. Poor impulse control and an addictive personality loom large.

     Being acknowledged as a rule breaker, the mobster achieves a deviant identity. The public is fascinated with crime because of the act itself, and its bloodthirsty dimension. It is a nose thumbing at societal conventionality. The criminal act appears as authentic, atavistic in its origins; spontaneous, compared to the rather rigid normative patterns adhered to by most. The more audacious the behavior, the more it tickles our fancy. A certain degree of (not admitted) admiration is forthcoming. If truth be told, who would not forsake the pedestrian for such a freewheeling existence?

     The gangster profile is rejected by polite society, yet envy exists because of the seemingly exciting life style, the rejection of the mundane, the thirst for revenge against those who have allegedly wronged them; their swagger, their wads of cash, easily spent. As a result, the gangster profile reaches deep into the realm of myth, and for wannabes strong identification. Mythmaking needs the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality. We respond powerfully to fictions as we do to realities and in many cases we help to create the very fictions to which we respond.

     The gangster story seduces a large following. Since the days of the prohibition era organized crime has been pushed to front stage in the national pantheon, not so much as objective history but rather dramatic art, cartoonish in its extreme portrayals. �If it bleeds it leads� is a media imperative. To this extent, the media have constructed for the public a gangster culture, quite distinct and easily recognizable through repetition, which have all the clich� ingredients of gangster jargon, life style, insatiable greed, a certain pathology, and constant tension that comes from the sense of inevitable violence; a stereotyping that over the generations states that one gangster is like all the others.

     There is no hesitation to declare that the mobster theme in popular culture is ubiquitous, stereotyped, outlandish. Too often reducing life to fantasia, it is deeply embedded in the fabric of the societal culture: in print media, film, television, the Internet, computer games, in everyday discourse. Gangster jargon is incorporated into everyday language. The gangster �tough-guy� pose is readily recognizable, the source of tragedy and comedy. The Godfather celebrity status twists reality even more and, as well, the exaggeration of the reach of mob power, capable of moving front stage as the shaper of events.

     In the prevalent scenario the mobster is both demonized and mythicized. How is one to understand this ambiguity, this persistent fascination, this fatal attraction�this gangster fix, this cultural construct, that both repels and attracts us?

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