Feature Articles

February 2014
Mafia As Metaphor

      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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What mafia? Which mafia? Whither mafia?

"The success of organized crime depends on the excellence of its services and the faithfulness of the millions of satisfied customers." (Nicholas Pileggi)

"Fiction has become too fictional: it has become a genuine fiction-an imitation of fiction, not of life-and therefore too little resembles life while too much resembling life as we imagine it to be or have been told that it is." (Sheila Heti)

"No historical account can entirely mirror reality because history is narrative and an event is not. To write history, a historian must prioritize clarity over chronology, emphasize causal connections, and suppress irrelevancies. Even an unbiased historian will compose a story that, though it may be inspired by a particular event, isn't a true account of it." (Stephen Blair)

     History is not to be judged by today's standards. Much easier it is to exaggerate than to understand. The critical approach does not illuminate or move the discussion forward. To what end are mafia stories told? They are presented in the clear, unambiguous, taut style of legends and fairy tales, like any tabloid stories. They deal in the mythic and archetype. Basic plots are expressed; nothing new is given. Entertainment is the goal-to engage in melodrama, to pursue profit, to titillate a given audience, not to verify. They are cultural artifacts.

     The idea of "mafia" permeates American society so deeply and fully that it provides seemingly unlimited material and opportunity for mob stories, many of which on the basis of reality are easily subject to ridicule. Typically, in such presentations, corruption is rife, personalities are degenerate psychopaths, violence cartoonish, with buckets of blood smeared on the silver screen. Little is plausible. We witness pop culture at its most complete, to such a degree that an impact on moral values can be of concern. Make believe mobsters are pathetic caricatures of the real thing. The impact of such portrayals comforts the gun lobby and has a corroding influence on the body politic.

     A growing body of research over the decades has demonstrated that the development of attitudes of aggression can occur after excessive exposure to media violence. Minors can be especially susceptible. Such predispositions can rise to the level of a negative response as persons become conditioned to respond accordingly rather than seeking redress through a more peaceful resolution.

     The damage extends to the fostering of negative ethnic stereotypes. Dwight Smith, in his book, The Mafia Mystique, makes a measured argument that the narrow focus of the mass media has overplayed the historic role of ethnic racketeering in America and (perhaps with deliberation) minimizing native factors.

     The American mafia, Smith asserts, is a "figment of overactive and xenophobic imaginations." We have been "brainwashed" by false stereotypes, focusing exclusively on ethnic origin to the extent of attributing inborn criminal instincts, as argued by Cesare Lombroso in his book, The Delinquent Man. Such an approach is one of seeking a simple explanation to a complex phenomenon and purposely ignoring that deviant behavior comes in all hues. Formulistic explanations become easily fixed in the body politic as received truth.

     Prosecutors have been overzealous in the hunt for the ethnic dimension in organized crime, making cases for its great power and national scope, leading to limitations on civil rights, unwarranted accusations, and the mental pictures that become rooted in our thinking and acting, including mob terminology and customs.

     The media fabrications play a singular role in what the public believes are the bad guys, men with anti-social attitudes who are very good at what they do and thereby become a threat to the American way. From a propaganda perspective, a constant barrage of similar images can result in the formation of hardened opinions and beliefs. The most effective propaganda is one-dimensional and frequently repeated. Once an attitude is internalized, it is difficult to modify. A more subtle and level-minded analysis would for many over-complicate the picture.

     Looking at the history of organized crime, Smith sees ethnicity as "the yardstick by which experts have measured the phenomenon." Using current terminology, the ethnic criminal is the "other," an outsider, who has produced a sophisticated culture of professional crime. Or, perhaps, it is simply that the colorful "other" makes better copy, when compared to the home-grown rather pallid variety.

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