Feature Articles

March 2011
The Mafia Is A Gentlemen's Club

      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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     Because the state claims a monopoly on power and will share that power with no other entity, that which threatens that monopoly threatens the very existence of the state. A threat may appear in the form of a civil war, an insurrection, an outside force, a reform movement, or by a potent underworld.

     The Sicilian mafia ethos is seen as being specific and unrepeatable, and not only for its militant capacity-to create alliances, to control and govern territory and sectors of the economy-but also for its history and for its multigenerational endurance. The mafia is embedded in the society and not transferable to another. To treat it as such ignores the identity, the culture, and the social psychological fabric of the environment in which it arose and prospered.

     The solidarity of a criminal band is consistent with secrecy and distrust of outsiders. The band members are bound together by a sentiment of honor and exclusiveness. The solidarity contains a value of manhood and norms of conduct that are unvoiced but understood; a product called galantomismo (gentlemanly behavior). Disputes over improper behavior are adjudicated through the mechanism of the parlatura (dictionary definition: one who speaks with facility and fecundity). Cases are argued out to a (probable) solution or compromise.

     Most would entertain the idea that the language used by mafiosi would differ substantially from everyday speech. Yet, Italian linguists have found that the language characteristics of mafiosi, the mafioso argot, essentially parallels the common language.

     Not that no differences exist. However, whatever is implicit-metaphor or illusion, that which is not voiced-is also present in the everyday discourse of those Sicilians who live in proximity with mafiosi. Culturally and historically, the criminal and civilian worlds overlap. The best words are those not said; also in the veiled manner in which they may be expressed. There is a tendency to use expressions that are semantically oblique, yet communicate well a thought without full transparency. This tactic is hardly singular to the underworld; it is found in general discourse, and especially in conditions where transparency is not considered a virtue.

     An older rendering of the word mafia is spelled maffia. Maffia has had an ancient usage. From the old French, it meant "to gulp down, to stuff oneself, to have an abundance of food." The emphasis is clearly on the stomach. The etymology of the word is obscure. It became part of the Italian Piedmont dialect (the Piedmont region in northwest Italy borders the south of France). And it migrated to Florence with variations in meaning.

     Three terms-maffia, mafia, camorra-were used interchangeably in the latter part of the 1800s in reference to Sicilian organized crime, causing much semantic confusion, along with the assumption that the Sicilian mafia was similar to or an offshoot of the Neapolitan camorra. But that could not be the case. There were fundamental differences between the two, including questions of origins, history, and reasons for being. One might also add differences of culture and personality (for example, the Sicilian personality is inward, the Neapolitan outward) as well as their reasons for being: the mafia, unlike the camorra, has traditionally been at odds with the state.

     Initially, looking back to the formation of the Italian state in the 1860s, the mafia phenomenon did not have a name. Was it something new, a product of nationalization? Or something old that because of nationalization could not be countenanced by the state, a threat to its institutions? Or was it simply ignorance on the part of the new ruling class, coupled with a long held prejudice against Sicilians, which cared little or nothing of the island or the products of its history?

     No definition seemed to suffice because no definition could fully capture this illusive Sicilian "thing." Like all complex phenomena mafia connoted something more than simply criminality. This thing could only be described, not defined. The fundamentals were difficult to grasp, as is the case of any secret society with multiple dimensions. In any event, the understanding of mafia as such a potent force that it could project its will beyond the island could be said to have been exaggerated.

     Looking back, it is with the founding of the Italian nation in the 1860s that mafia clans emerged (some say from preceding nascent roots) in reaction to the new Italian state. This connection is not easily dismissed. The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was so alarmed by the apparent extent of mafia influence in the everyday activities of many Sicilian towns that he decided to take action. A totalitarian state does not suffer opposition. In the late 1920s, he declared war on Sicily, swearing to destroy "with fire and steel" this internal irritation. Fascist ideology was clear: "Everything inside the state, nothing outside."


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