Monday, December 25, 2017

It's Not Even Past #4 - The Godfather - Complete

So when I was a wee college lad, my Bubbie came to dinner with my family after a relatively decent performance by my University choir of Carmina Burana at Angelico's, the gloriously shitty Mediterranean food place near campus. When we were at dinner, she met my closest friend in college, his roommate who is now probably my closest friend in Baltimore, his roommate's girlfriend who is now his roommate's wife and one of my closest friends in Baltimore, and his ex-girlfriend who is my former flatmate and still one of the roommate and his wife's closest friends.

Bubbie was 84 at the time, she's now 97 and looks younger than any of us. And to stay so young for so long, she must have a mission, and her mission is her curiosity. She wants to know what makes people tick, she wants to understand what it's like to be people completely unlike her, and she can sit fascinated for hours with people she's never met as they speak about their experiences. And it therefore came as no surprise to me when she said, with absolute confidence and fascination:


So picture Bubbie in 1972, Bubbie is turning fifty-two, she's just moved into the vaguely upper-middle-class house she still owns two years before, which she bought from Maryland's Governor, Marvin Mandel, who had to put his personal holdings into a blind trust while in public office. Mandel was the same age as Bubbie, and only died two years ago. In 1977, Mandel would be convicted for racketeering, and after a few appeals he would spend 19 months in prison before President Reagan commutes the sentence.

Zaydie has just retired from thirty years as an engineer the Defense Department, most of them as a missile specialist at the Pentagon. His great moment of glory was at the very beginning of his career when he made a discovery that led to the invention of the radio controlled Smart Bomb. My father say always introduced him as 'This is my father-in-law Morris Witow, he killed millions!'

The Witows were one of the final Jewish holdouts of Forrest Park, the thoroughly middle Jewish neighborhood of West Baltimore documented in four different Barry Levinson movies. During the '68 Baltimore riots, the National Guard would ride my grandparents home from their jobs in a tank. I will not describe the long and terrifying campaign of harassment perpetrated against them as Jews to leave this newly African-American area forever, but it is more than enough to explain the hard turn toward conservatism of my mother's family, who used to be full of Communists. To this very day, in true Baby Boomer fashion, the Tucker marriage of 1505 Woodholme Avenue is still re-litigating the Vietnam War 43 years into a marriage that began just before the Fall of Saigon.

Richard Nixon is still President, and as my father would tell me with just a hint of apocrypha, there was a picture of Nixon in every room of the Witow household, while in the Tucker house there were pictures of Richard Nixon on the toilet paper. The Vietnam War is raging, and more importantly for this too intellectually abstract family, the debate about the Vietnam War is raging. My father is just wrapping up his PhD at the University of Chicago with its options for a front row seat at the 1968 riots and the lectures of relatively legendary thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Milton Friedman, Leo Strauss, Saul Bellow, Alan Bloom, Hans Morgenthau, Bruno Bettelheim, Edward Shils, and William McNeill. In addition to the Yiddish, English, and Hebrew of his youth, he learns fluent Romanian, French, German, and Italian. In 1969, he'd gone to research Romanian history in Bucharest while Caucescu is still consolidating his power in the wake of the Prague Spring - his research considered germane enough by the US military that he easily obtained a Vietnam draft deferment and even if the Romanian government followed his every movement as they did every Westerner, they would not dare keep him out.

And yet, being in the very eye of the intellectual hurricane of his time, he looked around, shrugged, decided that most of these charismatic teachers and students were bullshit artists, feinshmekerstrombenikspezzonovantes. While my Zaydie lived for another thirty years, he appeared close to death at the time, so my Dad returned home to marry my mother and help run his father's business in Pikesville.

If you ask me or Tony Soprano, the best scene in The Godfather is the hospital sequence. Michael goes to visit a Christmas-light bedecked hospital, he passes through an ominous looking old-school hospital hallway to find that nobody is at the Nurse's station, he hears a Bing Crosby record skipping right on the words 'Too Laaaate,' 'Too Laaaate', 'Too Laaaate' - and The Godfather has all sorts of ingenious subliminal cues exactly like that; the record is coming from the room of the security guard, who has a ham and cheese sandwich with only a bite taken out. He runs to his father's room, and you hear the haunting Nino Rota leitmotif of The Godfather at a whisper, which is later blasted at full cry when Michael murders Solozzo and McCluskey. The chairs around Don Vito's room are empty, and he goes into his father's room. Vito Corleone, this giant, this rough fictional equivalent to Don Carlo Gambino, is utterly helpless. Whatever Michael thought of his father until this moment, his father is now just a helpless old man, lying close to death in a hospital; not a murderer, but a father he loves in danger of being murdered.

If you watch it on a TV, you cannot tell whether Vito is asleep or awake. But see the movie in the theater, and when Michael says 'I'm with you' and kisses his father's ring, there are tears streaming down Marlon Brando's eyes. The reason is that at this moment, Michael Corleone is no longer a Dartmouth grad, no longer a war hero, no longer a rebellious son who avoids his family - he is a son who knows that the meaning of his father's life, all that his father has built towards, hinges on his father surviving this night. More important to his father than his own life is his legacy, and if Vito Corleone dies tonight, the Corleones will have lost everything. And at this moment, no matter how American an individualist Michael thought himself, he becomes the old world in this moment, a plant in the family garden forced to become the gardener. Family in The Godfather is not family in the American or modern sense, it's not something that helps you to grow the wings to fly, but roots that station you to history like bark on a giant tree. And in this moment when Michael loses his sense of independent self, he gains a sense of self so gigantic that it must eliminate everything which crosses him.

The lure of the Corleone family is because of the extreme foreignness to everything which America believed it stood for. 1972, in the land of individualism, in the land of Captain Ahab and Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane, came a family of modern Borgias, every one of whose extreme personalities were subordinated to an abstract collective glory that every American is taught to believe from birth does not exist in our country. More charismatic than any character in The Godfather is the idea of the Corleone family itself, whose glory its members are literally willing to kill each other in the name of its increase.

This was almost 1973. The promise of American individualism began to flourish on a scale as never before, and on such a scale that many Americans began to wonder for the first time if individual rights were really worth the trouble. Before '68, the average American generally believed in individual rights, and if it seemed like they didn't, it was because they rather believed that some people had the right to be more individual than others. Authoritarian, bigoted thinking will always be with us and take different forms, but for the first two-hundred years, the American democracy had to be balanced against the authoritarian ethos of the rest of the world. Now that democracy was solidly situated in a large part of the world, many Americans began to think that the world needed not more individual rights; less.

Nine months after the Godfather's release came the infamous coup d'etat in Chile that killed that killed their Marxist President, Salvador Allende, and installed Augusto Pinochet for seventeen years as the dictator of Chile. Pinochet was horrific as only a dictator can be, but as far as horrific dictators go, he was not as horrific as many others, with a toll of casualties that is far lower than even Fidel Castro, and if he is made to be worse than he was, it's because he was never forgiven for stopping a Marxist experiment in its infancy.

In some ways, the coup was particularly a shame because it could have been that much more evidence that Marxism and democracy don't mix at all. Whatever catastrophes that Junta provoked, it cannot be denied that the Allende presidency was a disaster. Allende nationalized the copper and banking industries immediately, which meant that foreign investors would never see most of their money again, and scared off foreign investors in every other business, worrying them that every industry and resource in Chile was about to be privatized. Since no money was coming in, Allende would spend deficit spending on social programs, which gave Chile had 800% inflation per year. The basic necessities of life were absolutely unaffordable without government welfare, which involves extreme bureaucratic red tape to obtain in the easiest of circumstances. By 1973, Chile's own parliament called for Allende's forcible removal by a two-thirds majority. In such circumstances, authoritarianism is practically inevitable, but is seventeen years of dictatorship, or even six months, ever a price worth paying to stop hyperinflation?

In any event, the evidence of American involvement in the Chilean junta is not quite as clear-cut as many people would have it. There is much more evidence of American involvement in a failed Chilean coup of three years earlier, and once the Junta occurred, there is amble evidence that Nixon's America helped Pinochet to solidify his position. But to this day, the most evidence that America was involved in the Pinochet coup was a phonecall between Nixon and Kissinger the next day voicing their approval of the coup. Granted, with the duplicity of these two, there's always a good chance that the phone call was meant to cover their tracks.

(up to 1:28)

In the wake of Operation Condor, with the CIA's involvement in the suppression of leftists and democracy in so many parts of Latin America, this exchange could not be more prescient. It is extraordinary how this movie made so many of Richard Nixon's arguments for him. Nixon would have probably crossed the street to avoid any Italian immigrant who wasn't a Watergate burglar, but there was never any greater mouthpiece for his worldview than Don Vito Corleone. Has any other great movie held such reverence for tradition and order, and has any great movie ever so forcefully advocated against drugs, and has any great movie been so sure of itself about the necessity of using  corruption and murder to fight still worse corruption and murder?

And 45 years down the road, what liberal in thinking about it would not long for the intelligent, practical, efficient, prudent evil of Richard Nixon to be our enemy rather than the stupid, sloppy, potentially apocalyptic evil of Trump? When you compare Nixon's practicality to the slovenly explosion of idealism on the Sixties' Left, who can wonder why America has voted for Republicans for the vast majority of offices in the last half-century?

I think it was Camus who said that no one holds political opinions with more respect for law and order than criminals. No great movie ever took such pains to venerate the establishment as The Godfather does. No great movie in history exalts law and order with the same fervor, and no great movie extols patriarchal structure so reverently. 

And this is the moment when we have to understand the difficult truth about both The Godfather, and The Godfather's subconscious appeal to audiences. When we speak of patriarchy when we speak of The Godfather, we don't mean patriarchy as it's bandied about today with its whiff of white feminist entitlement - which is not to say that they're not more than half correct - who can deny that men control the vast majority of the world? But upper and middle class white women have been complicit in so much of what their husbands perpetrated. The great-great-grandfathers of Kay Adams were the Michael Corleones of 1800, and the Michael Corleones of 2100 may well be her great-great-granddaughters. No, when we talk of patriarchy in The Godfather, we mean it in the ancient biblical sense of an authoritarian hierarchical structure that provides order and morality when everything around it is chaos.

In the first Godfather movie, there is no question at all - the social order provided by The Godfather works. Carlo, the domestic abuser, is dispatched. Sonny, the hotheaded philanderer, violates his father's code every day, and however much he's loved, he merely seems to get what everybody knew was coming to him. In the first movie, Don Corleone's ethics almost inevitably reward those who demonstrate loyalty and character int he long run, but by the second movie, the ethics have curdled and corrupted into something squalid, because Vito Corleone was always an emissary from a dying world that no longer exists. 

So much care do the Corleones, or at least Coppola, take in presenting themselves as respectable that there is no real sex in the movie - the movie's only erotic release is in its violence. Nearly the only sex in the whole movie is rendered as an absolutely pure act. Less than fifteen minutes later, this beautifully pure Southern Italian woman has the top half of her body disappear in a car bomb with only her lower half remaining in place. The ethos of the Godfather is of a world before the advent of birth control and anti-biotics. With sex, the discomfort is extreme, but it is half in love with easeful death.

The movie's only woman with more than five lines who is not mangled past recognition is Kay, and she seems completely sexless. She is neither male nor female, she's a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. She is a surrogate for the American establishment, and for all of us Americans, both female and male, who believe in the individual liberty with which this country is traditionally conceived, but who are allowed a limited glimpse at a forbiddingly strange world of gangsters who all subordinate themselves to a family glory like medieval lords and vassals, and therefore operate by a pre-modern honor code that cares more about respectability than most legitimate professionals ever do. 

So what happens between the first and second movies, indeed, what happened in America and the world, that between 1901 when Godfather II opens, and 1960 when it ends, this patriarchal structure of authority as it was conceived for thousands of years, seemingly considered everywhere the best possible antidote most any civilization or community found against the chaos of nature human, biological, physical, and divine by men and women alike, was proven to be an historical nightmare from which the modern world can never wake?

The all-too-simple answer, of course, is modernity. A world of so much scientific advancement has neither the need nor the room for codes that are pre-modern. But what does that even mean in the context of The Godfather? It means that in the character of Vito Corleone, we are watching a kind of requiem for pre-modernity, in which codes which once were honorable and necessary become not only obsolete, but both genuinely evil and useless in the face of modern realities. 

The existence of modern organized crime can only occur in a world with modern weapons and modern organization. Genco Olive Oil could probably have existed in the Roman Empire, prostitution and gambling obviously existed much earlier than that. But unions, perhaps the backbone of mid 20th-century mafia, could only exist after the eighteenth century with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Still more importantly, the modern automatic firearm was only invented in 1892. 

And now we come to the other side of science, not the material and physical but the human and bio-chemical. It's difficult to believe that there is much of a coincidence that America banned heroin in the 1920's - a drug then of 200,000 addicts, the same decade when Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, the first anti-biotic. The same technologies that create and cure will also destroy. Organized crime, whose dirty business is destruction, cannot afford to keep themselves out of a business whose lucrativeness makes them the dark side of pharmaceutical companies. But just as pharmaceutical companies have their own dark side, so did organized crime have its light side - granting and bestowing favors on people whom the United States government never would, and there was no lighter side to organized crime than the Democratic Party of the Northern United States. 

At the turn of the last century, the Republican party was the party of value-free governance. Process mattered more than result, policy more than politics, and ‘good government’ was an end in itself. The Republican party of Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, and the Anglo-Saxon establishment, stood above all for the ideal world’s honest governance, the best possible policies, and a transparent process. If the policies didn’t work, then there was no end of other options to consider with all due deliberation. But while progressives deliberated, 28% of Americans became infected with Spanish Flu and more than half-a-million died. 18% of American workers were under the age of 16 and worked long hours in factories, with no unions to speak up for their receiving a fair wage and no possibility of an education that will let them advance should they survive to adulthood. Opposed to them was a very different Democratic Party from today’s, the party of Boss Tweed, James Pendergast, and poor immigrants. If the Republicans of that era believed in process, the Democrats believed in results. The process to obtaining such results did not matter; whatever corruption and whatever authoritarian coercion was necessary to enable the best possible lives for their constituents as quickly as possible, they would do so without hesitation, because the ends inevitably justified the means.

But gradually, everything America knew about the two-party system changed to something unrecognizable. Franklin Roosevelt, still the most eminent Democrat of them all, was so entrenched in the Republicans’ WASP establishment that he brought ‘good government’ principles to the Democratic side as a means to care for those impoverished immigrants which Republicans didn’t care enough about to compromise their ideal government before these immigrants died of Spanish Flu by the millions. But for a few decades after FDR, at least a few Republicans were even more enthusiastic about using Government leverage to solve civic problems than Democrats, and the result was the a Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren which desegregated schools, temporarily ended racist gerrymandering of state legislatures, required due process for criminal defendants, outlawed public school prayer, and established the constitutional right to privacy. But as the Warren Court grew ever more active in legislating law rather than interpreting it, and as Lyndon Johnson achieved ever more tactical victories for his sweeping social programs, the Republican party became ever more opposed to government in itself, and it ironically used the mechanisms of ‘bad government’ to enact its agenda of limiting government.

In a sense, the roles of the two parties have now reversed completely from where they were 100 years ago. Today’s Democratic Party is not only the party of “Good Government” but of ‘Government’ in itself, because today’s Democrats take it for granted that Government is good and should be used for the common good. The Republican Party is the party of “No Government”, believing that government is so evil that they must use any means necessary to limit its interference.

But the world is the world, and America is America - other countries try to slow down the speed of the world, America tries to speed it up. I write this on December 21st 2017, when it looks like Republicans may shut the government down in spite of controlling the entire government and just passing a tax bill they've worked toward for twenty years. It’s one of the great ironies of this government shutdown that after twenty years of painstaking Republican gerrymandering, vetting candidates for ideological correctness, focus tests for media propaganda, cultivation of ironclad relationships with big business donors and credulous constituents, it all breaks down, yet again, in a fit of chaos. Politics is chaos theory, and as President Ian Malcolm once declared in the Jurassic Park Proclamation, Mother Nature always finds a way. We should have known, even in the heyday of Tom DeLay and Dick Cheney, that there is no such thing as a monolithic coalition. Too many members have too many agendas to hold it together for more than a small amount of time.

But Modern Politics will be talks for many other weeks, not this one. The point is that there are too many agendas to hold any coalition together for more than a small amount of time, and few politicians were gifted enough to hold volatile coalitions together for as long as Vito Corleone ever did. But eventually, the chaos of the world catches up with us all. All that lives must die, and as Solozzo put it, Vito had pensa antica, 'ancient thoughts.'

And he is exactly right. When Solozzo says that he's un uomo dell'honore, a man of honor, I believe him. When Michael asks for a guarantee for the safety of his father's life, Solozzo refuses to give it.

Michael is meeting Solozzo in order to kill him, he's the one who's being insincere. Solozzo is both sincere and realistic about the business of organized crime. He knows that any guarantee he makes would be false, and with good manners, he refuses to play games about it. He knows that with drugs come an element of chaos into organized crime that will never again be brought to order. There is a direct line of descent from the Virgil Solozzos of the world to Omar Little in The Wire.

The great insight of modern liberalism is that in the chaos of the 20th century, no good government is possible without synthesizing the early progressive ideals of transparency and expert-guided policy with the machine politics of patronage. In a country beset by half-a-million active heroin users and 300 million privately held handguns, no Vito Corleone can ever have enough power anymore to protect your family. Modern life is just too complicated for any one patron to have much control over your safety or welfare. When the forces of a system are so much more powerful than any human, the only organization which can provide anything like a guarantee of safety and prosperity for people is an extra-human bureaucracy large enough that it can tip the scales of wealth and power for millions and millions of people at a time, even if the tip is ever so slight.

But generations of conservatives viewed patronage as one of the darkest forces in American history - which bought elections, foreclosed farms and bankrupted small towns while keeping cities impoverished, and made the American population too large through immigration to ever be governed. The fact that patronage, which they still associate with the machine politics of the Early 20th century, the victory of Kennedy against Nixon in 1960 when entire cemeteries in Chicago voted Democratic (or for that matter the '48 victory of Truman against Dewey which some Republicans still wonder about), and strangest of all - with segregation and the Klan and even the Confederacy, can take on the mantle of such official respectability, then they will so hate it that they will do everything they can to make it stop, including the very worst tactics of machines like the big city bosses, the Klan, and the Confederacy. Incorrect as they are, they think our tactics little different than the worst racists in American history, and therefore, they see less and less wrong with adapting the worst tactics of the worst people in American history to fight us. The gyrations and contortions of the human mind are endless, and racists can convince themselves that they are in fact the anti-racists. They can convince themselves that anti-racists like liberals and socialists - and they see us as one and the same and include a lot of moderates with us too - are the real racists because we see poor minorities as children - monolithic products of social conditioning incapable of acting on individual choice, while they are the real champions of poor minorities because they're the only people respect the capabilities of the impoverished for good and evil, and therefore, if these people never leave impoverished areas, they have by definition chosen to be evil. And then, in perhaps the most astounding mental backflip of all, many people from White Southern families who hated segregation, Blue Dog Democrats and Eisenhower Republicans, become convinced by this logic - apparently this is what happened to Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird - and in effect, millions of white Southerners whom in the 20th century hated racists have become the worst racists in the country who tacitly acquiesce to a mafia that often seems like a combination of the Corleones and the Confederacy, and tries through a vast network of bribery and blackmail to dismantle the progress of the New Deal and the Great Society.

If you lack an argument in 2017 for the greatness of the American Experiment, ask yourself this? How is it that in the fifty years since this War on the Great Society was launched, it has not been more successful than it was? Even in this new Gilded Age when the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch and the like have declared war on any social program that can create a level playing field - with battlefronts that are legislative that are commanded by Mitch McConnell and before him Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich, with messaging battlefronts that were commanded by Roger Ailes and Frank Luntz and Grover Norquist, with the billions and billions of dollars that change hands between these billionaires and roughly 80% of all legislators, why are almost all the planks of the New Deal and the Great Society still present? The answer is that it takes more than money and evil to undue great legislation. It takes outright war, and in fifty years, nobody has that will-to-power. Yet.

By stripping government ever more of its ability to function properly, we Americans have created a power vacuum. And no one has the experience or the will to power to fill a power vacuum to anything like the same extent of organized crime. Government by organized crime is a reality for an the majority of the world - not just the bribes of special interests changing hands and legislative gridlock, but government through violent coercion by special interests.

From the beginning of his career, Donald Trump was a caricature of a New York businessman with mob ties. He would never have built the Trump Tower without the help of 'Fat Tony' Salerno - yes, The Simpsons mafioso was named for him; and Paul Castellano, then boss of the Gambino Crime Family and, of all things, uncle to Richard Castellano, better known to you dear listener as Clemenza! When Trump got his casino lisence in Atlantic City, he failed to disclose that he was under investigation for racketeering by a grand jury for exactly how he bought the Penn Central Railroad Yards, now known as the location of Trump Place, the extended property along the Hudson River between 59th Street and 72nd.

It is difficult to understand just what a perfect incarnation Donald Trump is of all the noxious elements in American life. Trump's great political mentor was Roy Cohn, right hand man to no less than Senator Joseph McCarthy - a New York lawyer who spent his career peddling influence for every lawbreaker in America with enough money to cut through the red tape. Through Cohn, Trump not only have mob connections but would connect to Texas oilmen, the Religious Right, the Catholic Church, and the John Birch Society. If the Corleones truly wanted a President who could extend their reach past that of US Steel, Donald Trump would be the President for whom they yearn.

And if that isn't enough mafia connection for you, we now have an infestation from the real mafia of the world. The FSB - the Russian Federal Security Service. The CIA was organized crime on a scale which the Corleones could only dream, but the FSB and the KGB before them make the CIA look like Eliot Ness. Vladimir Putin is secretly worth as much as $200 billion. A series of high-ranking American intelligence officers have now confirmed that Donald Trump is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian operative. Organized crime has officially perpetrated the American Presidency, from RUSSIA! The thought that the ultra-right-wing of the Republican party, traditionally America's; the world's, most fervent anticommunists, would be welcoming a Russian operative into the White House, it should be absolutely inconceivable.

But when you follow any thought to its logical extreme, you end up embracing its opposite. If you believe in the love of Christ enough, then no amount of hatred and violence is too much to bring people to Christ's love. If you believe in the victory of the workers over their exploiters, no amount of workers are enough to sacrifice to bring the world that victory. If you once hated Russia with every fiber of your being, you've already allowed Russia to occupy your headspace for decades at a time, and the mental path from hatred to love is much shorter than the road from either to indifference. And if you believe in liberty and individual rights with enough fervor, then there's no amount of compromises to individuality - discrimination, propaganda, violence, against those whom you believe oppose your individuality which you won't welcome, and such weapons are indiscriminate enough that eventually, they always target you and the people you love.

The Putin mentality, the Corleone mentality, the traditional Italian mentality of patronage that goes back to the Italian Renaissance city-states, and maybe even to the Roman Empire itself, has a writer who maps the resilience of this mentality with the pinpoint precision of an archer who seems to aim too high so that he can meet such a distant goal. His name was Nicolo Machiavelli, and next week, Machiavelli will tell us why Putin flourishes while America flounders.

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