Overweening Generalist

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Gangster-Chic, Mafiazation and The State: Fugitive Notes

1.) Thrill-killer Charles Starkweather was finally captured on January 29, 1958. The poet Ed Sanders writes about it this way:

Starkweather caught: "It was Front Page time for another murd-punk
in the multi-century American fascination 
of come-and-get-me-copper!-ism
Jesse James, the Younger Brothers
Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone
the Cagney movies
and th' panem et circenses of Juvenal
now broadened to 
bread, circuses, and thrill-kill"

                                      Charles Starkweather, an American product.
                                      See Martin Sheen play his story in (a heavily-fictionalized)
                                      1973 film by Terence Malick, Badlands

[Ed Sanders is also one of the main scholars of the career of another notorious "murd-punk" named Charles: Manson. Manson was a protege of Ma Barker gang member Alvin "Creepy" Karpis. Learned his trade in prison. How does all this relate? I'm not sure. Let's see.]

2.) Poet and English professor and critic of United States foreign policy, Peter Dale Scott:

Virgil's rebuke of frenzy
of war and passion for gain
or Augustine what are states
when they lack justice
if not organized crime?
there was John Adams a nation
at height of power
never fails to lose
her Wisdom & Moderation...
-PDS cites The Aeneid 8.327; City of God 4.4; Adams: Diary and Autobiography

                        Frank Sinatra and friends Tommy "Fatso" Marson, Carlo Gambino,
                            and Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno. Businessmen, all.

3.) There's a famous short essay by Robert Warshow from 1948 called The Gangster As Tragic Hero. I found it in a collection of his essays, The Immediate Experience. Warshow was a New York Intellectual who died young, but I find some of his stuff fascinating. In the gangster essay, which I found a link to HERE, sorry about some professor or grad student's underlining, argues that the function of mass culture is to maintain public morale, which flies in the face of our immediate experience. "At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot." 

Warshow says we revel in the figure of the gangster (remember: this guy's writing 50 years before The Sopranos, and 25 years before Martin Scorsese hits the scene with Mean Streets) because the gangster rejects "Americanism." He gets his own way with street smarts, muscle, violence, and he lives it up big-time, before falling. He's required to fall, of course. The Metropolis we live in creates rather dull criminals; the City of our imaginations creates the Gangster-Hero, tragic figure. As TS Eliot noticed in Shakespeare, often the tragic heroes have this trick of looking at themselves dramatically, as if their identity is something outside themselves. Think of Edward G. Robinson at the end of Little Caesar: "Mother of mercy...is this the end of Rico?" (see clip at the end of this post)

For ourselves and our involvement with the celluloid image of the gangster, Warshow writes that "He is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become." What? He explains that the gangster is "doomed because he's under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful." And we are obligated to "succeed" also, but on some Freudian - or socially repressed - level, all means to succeed are unlawful, because they involve aggression. The crime film, in which the gangster plays the anti-hero or even the protagonist, allows us to allay our anxieties. For a couple of hours?

"Envy of the criminal, which borders on a secret American nostalgia, lies - very logically - in the fact that crime is one area where individuality is taken for granted." - not sure if this quote if by the avant garde composer Harry Partch, or the author of the article, but found on p.85 of Surrealism and Its Popular Accomplices

Or: Why are we so enamored of gangsters?

                                          Smedley Butler, US Marines for 33 years and very many 
                                          campaigns. Two-time Medal of Honor winner. At the end of 
                                          his life he confessed, after a life of military service to the State,
                                          that he was a "high class muscle man for Big Business, for 
                                          Wall Street, and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer,
                                          a gangster for capitalism." For some odd reason a major 
                                          motion picture has not been made about his story.

4.) Speaking of the criminals of our world and the gangsters of our...entertainments? I'm reminded of some lyrics from Woody Guthrie:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain-pen.
-"Pretty Boy Floyd"

5.) The Mafia is an organization of Sicilian intermarried families with neither a formal hierarchy nor written constitution, but a 250 year old (at least?) code of operations. Maybe their main code is omerta, or "keep your mouth shut!" They first immigrated to Unistat in the 1880s and formed the "Little Italy"s in our large cities on the East Coast. Using the Black Hand of terror, they made very little progress until Prohibition. I agree with those sociologists who assert racism and a failure of the larger society to assimilate the new Italians as the main reason the Mafia got out of hand in Unistat...on the other hand, the gangsters themselves were living by a code their fathers had lived by, and probably truly thought they were providing "what the people want": alcohol, drugs, sex, good times. 

Al Capone - "Scarface" - made multimillions on illegal alcohol sales due to Prohibition. Lots of blood was shed; many cops were corrupted, bought off. The latest arsenal from the last big war made its way into the heart of the big cities: machine guns. Child's play compared to what they have out there now, but a hail of bullets is what it is... When the 21st Amendment made it into the Constitution, acknowledging that Prohibition was a miserable failure, the Mafia in Unistat began to shrink. Then they took up the dope trade. We never learn? HERE's a link to a June 19, 2011 New York Times Op-Ed piece written by that drug fiend, former President of Unistat Jimmy Carter. The part that caught my eye - and is germane to this blogspew - is his use of the word "mafiazation" regarding the so-called "War on Drugs."

6.) Get a load of this:

"The Mafia, one of the most picturesquely villainous secret societies the world has ever known, exists no more. After holding absolute sway over Sicily for centuries, murdering, blackmailing, terrorizing...it has met its fate at the hands of the Fascist Government."

from the New York Times, March 4, 1928. Article titled, "The Mafia Dead, a New Sicily Born," by Arnaldo Cortesi, found on p.71 of The Experts Speak

I think Cortesi was right. The State as criminal gang can't stand the competition and wipes them out, or forces them underground. But they do come back.

Noam Chomsky's political writings are chock-full of arguments and copious citations that cover this topic: the State - in this case, mostly Unistat - as the Ultimate Gangsters. See the Peter Dale Scott section #2 above. States that lack justice: organized crime. That's Saint Augustine he's quoting. And John Adams...

A large number of books flesh out the following, but I'm going to start to wrap this one up with an extended quote from an interview Chomsky gave in 1988:

Other aspects of it were the CIA in one of its earliest efforts, controlling food supplies, controlling the police in Italy so as to buy the 1948 election and prevent the Left from winning it, probably the major CIA operation since 1948 for preventing democracy in Italy in terms of actual money. In France, it meant rebuilding the drug racket, which had been knocked off by the fascists. The fascists run a very tight ship; they don't like any competition. The fascist states, Germany and Japan, had pretty well destroyed the mob. The mafia had been wiped out, since they didn't like competitors. As the United States liberated Italy from the South, it reconstructed the mafia. It was after all necessary to break up the unions, because the unions were a threat. You can't allow people to be independent and free. In order to break up the unions, it was necessary to hire goons, guys who will go and break up strikes, beat people up and so on, and the natural place to look was the mob. So one of the first CIA operations was to reconstruct the Corsican Mafia in early 1946-47 and use them as strikebreakers and goon squads. But of course they didn't do it for nothing. They don't do it just because they like to break peoples' bones. You've got to offer them something. They offered them the drug racket. That's where the famous French connection comes from. Up until the early 1970s Marseille was the center of the international heroin racket. The reason was that it was reconstructed by the U.S. and the CIA as part of the effort to destroy the democratic forces in the post-war world and to reconstruct the old order.
-Language and Politics, pp.615-616

A 30 second clip from the 1930 gangster film Little Caesar. Eddie G is "Rico," the top mobster for awhile, then he gets knocked off. Note how he refers to himself, just before dying, as if his identity existed somehow apart from himself, much like many of Shakespeare's dramatic characters:


Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff as usual. One can see "Some Like It Hot" as a deconstruction of the 30's gangster films, especially with the presence of George Raft.

michael said...

Yep. Wilder knew what he was doing.

Raft had some unsavory friends, but then I guess when you get to be a STAR - like Ol' Blue Eyes - you're shielded from all the unpleasantness of your friends; hey: they're a bunch of fun-lovers with dough from the Old Country! Sweet Lawrence Tierney? There's another story.