The Godfather — For President?

Among the myriad of reasons for why books are almost unfailingly better than their cinematic counterparts, the most important is that they are capable of the kind of depth and detail and backstory that screenwriters do not even dare to dream of. In order to achieve the same depth, a movie would have to be so long that even the most devoted moviegoer would flag in their enthusiasm. In the classic movie The Godfather, which I had seen twice prior to reading the book, I remember being both enthralled and repulsed by this glimpse into New York’s underground crime rings of the 1940s. Regardless of the fact that the story itself is fiction, I was floored by the nonchalance of murder and the impunity via political connections enjoyed by the Families. But I was also disdainful that these people should believe that they had the right to be the makers and enforcers of their own laws and moral codes within the larger framework of the United States government. To me it seemed irresponsible, unsympathetic to the consequences sure to ensue. From the movie, I understood that it was greed and a thirst for power that fueled these organizations. But then I read the book and I came to understand not only why these pseudo-governments came into existence but even (although I am not so naive as to think that greed and power did not play their part) why they were justified in doing so. As my eyes raced over the words on pages that dealt with whole layers of backstory that the movie didn’t even touch on, I came to see on a deeper level what it was truly about and what, arguably, the movie missed completely: the reality of immigrant life in America.

Ever since the English and smattering of French and Dutch settlers who first came to North America conveniently “forgot” the fact of their own immigration, American-born citizens have looked down on and otherwise made life hard for immigrants. Whereas today it is the Central and South Americans that suffer this fate, in the early part of the last century, it was the Italian immigrants escaping crushing economic conditions in their home country (especially southern Italy and Sicily) who faced poverty, manipulation, and unfair treatment as their Welcome Wagon to America. It was because of this reality that the underground rule of crime “Families” flourished like dark things do in the damp and untended corners of society. The following is Michael Corleone’s attempt to explain who his father, the Godfather, is:

He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society (365).

It is still the same story. Why do we continue to be surprised that people whom we as a nation try to take advantage of eventually organize in order to protect themselves and their interests? These are the same conditions that birth violent gangs formed mostly by underprivileged minorities in urban areas today. Granted, these power structures lack the finesse and coordination of the Godfather and the Corleone Family, but it’s the same principle. How can anyone expect a group of people systematically neglected and pushed to the fringes of society to simply allow this to happen until time or some sense of human compassion causes those in power to see them as equally needful of the same benefits and protection afforded to the native-born, usually white citizenry?

It is this unwillingness to allow xenophobic injustice and prejudice to dictate their lives that makes the Godfather and the other heads of family men to be emulated, in character if not action. I am not condoning murder or coercion as a political or personal weapon, but I can not deny the strength of will and the desire to protect their families and friends that spurred these men from humble beginnings to positions of power.

All of these men were good listeners, patient men. They had one other thing in common. They were those rarities, men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men. There was no force, no mortal man who could bend them to their will unless they wished it. They were men who guarded their free will with wiles and murder. Their wills could be subverted only by death. Or the utmost reasonableness (287).

It is that last line that caught my attention like a fishhook to the mouth. These are not madmen deaf to reason and sentiment. They are ruthless and condemn men to death with the wave of their hand but their violence is not arbitrary, their cruelty not lacking in focus. Our own “legitimate” government openly tortures, murders, and otherwise uses the force of their political weight to achieve its own ends, often in the name of freedom and liberty. The American government, in spite of benevolent and inspiring semantics, has never been especially worried about the lower classes. In action, it has always been the interests of the rich at the expense of those of the poor. Don Corleone is a wealthy man, interested in retaining and growing his wealth, but he is simultaneously a friend to the laborer, the artisan, the helpless and dependent. It is vital, however, to point out that African-Americans and other minorities did not fall under the protection and benevolence of the Families. Today, corporations get to vote as if they were people, money can keep criminals out of jail and put psychopaths and idiots in political power… but does our government listen to the utmost reasonableness? When I think of our current bipartisan government, reasonableness is not a word that comes to mind.

Understand that I am not advocating capital “M” Mob rule. For one, as I pointed out, the Italian families cared little for the fates of other minorities, especially blacks whom they considered little more than animals. Also, despite the Families’ insistence that civilians were not harmed in their wars, that women and children were completely off-limits as targets for blood feuds and vendettas, it would be of the utmost naiveté to believe that there were never innocents caught in the cross-fire. We see this in the book when Michael is in exile in Sicily where the ravages of years of wars between Families has devastated the region. Even Michael’s new young wife, Apollonia, is murdered accidentally in a failed assassination attempt. I am of the belief that violence begets only violence and can never be a long-term solution. I also believe that everyone should be treated as equals, regardless of faith, income, skin color, gender, sex, etcetera ad infinitum, but still I can admit that there are aspects of the Godfather’s rule that seem preferable to how my government runs things. It seems beneficial to have the ruling members of a society remember what it was like to be one of the outcasts, what it felt like to be the “other”. In such cases, it would seem more difficult to forget them later, as legislation seems to do when it tries to penalize abortion with one hand while stripping people of their welfare benefits with the other, or withholding citizenship from those who need it to survive, or sending military instead of university recruiters to high school classes of low-income or minority students.

In all honesty, I would not cast my vote for Don Corleone for president. But the whole idea does provide some food for thought, does it not?


The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: From 1789 to 2013

I have never been an exceptionally “current” person. I often see movies way after they’ve come out on DVD, wear last season’s trends, and eat at restaurants that were posh in the nineties, but this is especially true with literature. With a few notable exceptions, I have trouble keeping pace with contemporary literature. I am constantly reading blogs talking about incredible new novels where I enthusiastically write down the names of ones that sound intriguing on my ever-growing “to read” list, but there they sit, and for many of them, there they stay. I don’t think that classic literature is necessarily better than modern. In fact, they are so different that comparison is futile. But I do know that my favorite stories, the ones that I return to over and over again, tend to have been written in or before the first half of the twentieth century. But to say that I enjoy all the designated “classics” would be presumptive and silly and there are some authors in whom I have relatively no interest, sometimes without reason. So to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to the subject of this entry, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I haven’t read any other Dickens books since The Cricket on the Hearth in about 6th grade, so in my head were random words that I attributed to him: “musty, verbose, Wilkie Collins, bah humbug.” These were, for the most part, assumptions and associations that had little to do with his actual writing. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I was hooked from the beginning, as doesn’t often happen with novels from this period, that I became caught up in the action and romance of the story, and that I was almost (which for me is really something) brought to tears. But the thing that gets me, really deep down grab-me-by-the-heartstrings gets me, is the fact that, in essence, it is not a book about another time and place. It is about here and now. This is what makes classics classics, why the majority of people (in the Western world at least) know who Charles Dickens is even if they’ve never read a word: the conflicts in this novel, the characters he created, they haven’t died out or evolved. In both a sad and sometimes beautiful way, you realize how very little some things have changed. Let me explain.

The overarching conflict in A Tale of Two Cities is the French Revolution and the unrestrained monstrosities that resulted from it. Exacerbated by the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor, where the wealthy are painted as “exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding… known by its fruits of indifference to every natural subject of human interest” (131), and the poor as broken, ignorant, and miserable, the latter’s boiling point is finally reached. This eruption is seen in the storming of the Bastille, a symbol of the corrupt elite power structure. Led to a degree by the fearsome Madame Defarge, a woman with a personal vendetta against the aristocracy, the people take over the city, throw every aristocrat they can get their hands on in jail without recourse to a fair trial, and then roll out that sinister symbol of the revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”: La Guillotine. What happens then is chaos. Starting, as so many revolutions do, as a downtrodden people revolting against the boundless waste and apathy of the rich, it quickly devolves into a bloodbath in which blind revenge parades as justice, mob rule disguises itself as order, and all compassion and human empathy is washed away like blood in the gutter. In this environment, the good and honorable, like Charles Darnay née Evrémonde, who comes back to France to save a friend from being executed in his name (an aristocratic one which he gave up willingly), are presumed guilty simply because of their name and despite their actions, while the most savage and bloodthirsty of the “revolutionaries” are elevated.

What makes this novel interesting is that it is a warning, but not in the way you would think. It is not propaganda to promote or demoralize one side or the other. It warns against the upper classes (that incorrigible one percent!) sinking into wanton decadence and luxury while ignoring or displacing responsibility for the burdens on the middle and poor classes  (you guessed it, the ninety-nine) that grow heavier and heavier. But the “bad guys” in A Tale of Two Cities are not the rich, not exclusively. The story also warns against the mob mentality that can easily become reality once the idealistic fervor of revolution wanes a bit. To put it into a modern setting, it begins when a class of people can no longer look the other way while their rights are stolen from them. Consider this context: a nation of people is guaranteed Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and yet finds the tools needed to ensure these things taken away, such as the right to choose what happens to one’s body, the right to be paid the same as everyone else regardless of class, color, or gender, the right to be paid a living wage and provide for one’s family, among others. When diplomacy fails, when the democratic system fails, what path is left to the common populace but revolution?

Charles Dickens wrote about a dark time in European history, when the poor rose up and swallowed the rich, and yet the system they implanted was at least as corrupt, bloody, and inhumane as the monarchy that kept them in poverty. I think it possible that History will label this, the first decades of the twenty-first century, a dark time in American history.  In the world I live in, where American cities go bankrupt and its people suffer while the rest of the country turns a blind eye instead of extending their hand, where the reticence to infringe on the right to bear arms overrides a school room of children’s right to life, where a young man is put on trial for his own murder because of the color of his skin, I sense a revolution coming. Like Jacques Defarge, I don’t know if I will see it in my own lifetime, but I know that the seeds have been planted and the fertilizer of mistreatment and unequal representation has been laid. The way this world is turning, I don’t think it is a remote possibility anymore, nor do I hope that it does not happen. I like the comparison Madame Defarge makes of revolutions to natural disasters:

“‘It does not take a long time,’ said madame, ‘for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?…. But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard…. I tell thee… that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats and never stops. I tell thee it is always advancing. Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know, consider the faces of all the world that we know, consider the rage and discontent to which the Jacquerie addresses itself with more and more of certainty every hour. Can such things last? Bah! I mock you” (221-2).

Things need to change. We need to start taking responsibility, not just for our own well-being, but for the overall well-being of our country, and our world. All I can hope for is that we learn from our mistakes, that we remember the blood in the streets of the French and American and Mexican and countless other revolutions. Rights are not won, not truly and not for long, with violence and hatred and vengeance. The Madame Defarges of the world cannot be the paragons of our revolutionary ideals, but neither can the laconic and apathetic Monseigneurs. It must be the people, but the people must maintain in their hearts the knowledge of their equal humanity and their capability for compassion and empathy. That is the only way that there can be hope for a better future.