The Pursuit of Bada-Bing?

April 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Why is the Mafia so popular?

“The Sopranos” ratings were off a bit for the season premiere, only about 6.7 million viewers. That’s still amazingly high for a show on a cable network that you have to pay extra for. In past seasons, it was getting 10-12 million viewers, way ahead of anything else on cable and much network TV as well. (“Entourage,” another HBO show, is considered a success with 3.8 million viewers.)

At the movies, “The Godfather” is one of the biggest box office films in history, and other Mafia films like “Godfather II” and “Goodfellas” have also done well. And it’s not just the general public who admire these gangsters. “The Sopranos” gets raves from the critics; gangster movies frequently turn up at the Oscars. Academics, too, are not immune to the seductions of Mafia media. Some universities offer entire courses on these films and TV shows.

Not everybody is cheering. There are always a few malcontents who don’t love the Mafia. Over at the Huffington Post, Philip Slater in this week’s column asks, “Why is it that so many of my countrymen seem endlessly fascinated with the activities of a bunch of dumb thugs?”

Slater, a former sociology professor, has an answer, one that’s not particularly flattering. “Americans love the mafia because it represents a totally authoritarian system in which mistrust, cynicism, slavish obedience, and rash, violent decisions prevail. That seems to be the kind of world most Americans are looking for today.”

Well, not exactly. I suspect that what Americans find attractive in the Mafia (at least in these media portrayals) is its moral clarity. Here is a system that rewards its virtues —loyalty, respect, honor — and punishes transgressions surely and swiftly. If your real world is full of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, if virtue is not always rewarded and wickedness not always punished, you might take comfort at the end of the day in the unclouded vision of the media’s mafias.

Movies and TV are like dreams — stories we tell ourselves in the dark — and their relation to real life is as complicated as the relation between dreams and waking life. Sometimes these stories reflect the reality we live, sometimes they reflect an ideal we are striving for. But sometimes they provide a taste of the social and psychological nutrients that we don’t get enough of in everyday life. Slater himself wrote a book forty years ago about America’s unfulfilled need for community —The Pursuit of Loneliness, a fine book, still in print and still selling. Does the success of a show like “Friends” tell us that Americans now have community and spend a lot of time hanging out together in groups, lovingly involved in one another’s lives? Or does it tell us the opposite — that the American culture Slater saw in Pursuit is still with us, that we are mostly bowling alone, and that our lack of community is what brings us back week after week to be vicarious members of NBC’s happy, friendly bowling team?

If “Friends” is a response to the felt need for community, Mafia movies may be a response to the desire for order and control. Our fascination with Mafia authoritarianism in the media may reflect the frustrations of freedom and democracy. As Donald Rumsfeld put it, “democracy is messy.” For some segment of the population, the neatness of a truly authoritarian government would be a tempting reality. But at some level, we also recognize that it’s a package deal, and that along with the clarity, honor, and other virtues, come the perils that Slater points out — the mistrust, rigidity, and lack of freedom.

Slater is obviously and justifiably disappointed with his fellow Americans these days. He sees a link between ratings for “The Sopranos” and the vote for George Bush. “Americans were so willing to elect and re-elect the most secretive, despotic, and anti-democratic administration in the history of our nation.”

Even if that’s what Bush voters had in mind (and most of them probably didn’t), Bush will still have been in office for only eight years, and in the last two of those years his power will be greatly checked. Undoubtedly, he will have been able to do considerable long-term damage to foreign policy and perhaps to the economy and the environment. But as for government, in the long run Bush may have done for the Republican party what Goldwater did for it in 1964, and he may have done for secretive manipulation what Nixon did for it in 1974. You can see reversal, the swing towards the democratic (and the Democratic) in the election of 2006.

Authoritarianism has always had some allure to some Americans, especially in times of crisis. In the Depression, people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin played to this sentiment with some success. But in the end they failed, and most people today have never heard of them. To some extent, it’s because of the eventual good sense of the American people, who can distinguish between entertainment and reality. They may like to watch NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean that they want to go out on the highway and smash up their cars. But more likely, our success in avoiding a Godfather government stems from the enduring institutions of our society and government.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

I have little time at all for George W. Bush, and never have, but I do love "The Sopranos" .. The season premiere was an odd choice, but still very good .. I didn't think the Hollywood stuff was very funny last season, and the gay Vito storyline was just stupid, but I'm hoping the show can redeem itself and go out on a very high note