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Mafia Blues

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"You don't listen to the president? We're gonna mop the floor with the whole f***in' world. The whole world's gonna be under our control. So what are you worked up about?"

—Christopher Moltisanti of "The Sopranos"




Everything comes to an end."

These words, delivered by an irate Edie Falco, are used in the promo death knell for one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved television series of all time, HBO's "The Sopranos." The fictional story of a likeable, northern New Jersey crime family ends this spring with the final nine episodes of season six beginning April 8.

What will happen to mob boss Tony Soprano and his family? How about his colorful henchmen, despicable for their brutal violence and racism one moment, and lovable for their humor, resourcefulness and camaraderie the next? Surely, bets are already being placed on who will end up in prison and who will have to go (in the Mafia sense). One thing is almost certain: More than a few HBO subscribers will be going. The program has been a major draw since it first aired in 1999. How do you top one of the greatest pop-culture success stories of the last 25 years?

Show creator David Chase (born David DeCesare) is no stranger to thought-provoking, classic television, having produced episodes for "The Rockford Files" and "Northern Exposure." But as ruthless and violent as it has been, "The Sopranos" is his masterpiece. People may argue over the best of the six seasons, but the fact remains that this hard-hitting show has always been better written, better acted and better conceived than anything else on television. There is simply nothing like it.

What began as a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into our long-running fascination with Italian-American Mafia culture — from Coppola's "Godfather" series through Scorsese's real best picture winner, "Good Fellas" — has continued to evolve by delving deeper into the psychological lives of its characters, usually by way of Freudian themes, Byzantine political plots and philosophical nuggets from the Far East. It's a postmodern soap opera, colored by Italian-American cultural traditions and populated with anti-heroes, intelligent professionals and plenty of existential despair. As an organized crime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer once wrote, "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing for 'The Sopranos'"

Sometimes, though, I still wonder why I love Mafia tales. These characters are serial murderers for the most part, scary people most of us wouldn't want to meet in daylight, much less a darkened strip club. Normally I'm not a huge fan of television either, especially the stuff with commercials (which HBO programs thankfully do not have).

I was about to write my fascination off to morbid curiosity, or the Wild West appeal of modern-day lawless cowboys, when I ran across a recent interview with activist/intellectual Noam Chomsky that made me wonder again why so many of us accept mobsters as sympathetic characters.

As Chomsky points out, the U.S. government operates exactly like the mob in its international relations and has for a long time — though with far more money made, and far more lives lost. Specifically, he was discussing our foreign policy strategies concerning Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran (which could be in store for some Gulf of Tonkin incident any day now). Speaking of Cuba, Chomsky notes:

"A very large majority of the U.S. population is in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and has been for a long time, with some fluctuations. And even part of the business world is in favor of it too. But the government won't allow it. It's attributed to the Florida vote but I don't think that's much of an explanation. I

think it has to do with a feature of world affairs that is insufficiently appreciated. International affairs is very much run like the Mafia. The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesn't pay his protection money. You have to have obedience, otherwise the idea can spread that you don't have to listen to the orders and it can spread to important places."

I realize "The Sopranos" has poked fun at this analogy between organized crime in high and low places. And the show's political awareness, like much of the country, has mushroomed since 9/11. Those following this final season are likely expecting some explosive plot thread involving the suspiciously quiet Middle Easterners who've been hanging at the Bada Bing and buying up guns. Yet the similarities between La Cosa Nostra and our foreign policy dons are uncanny indeed.

For instance: Back in the '70s, after the United States overthrew the parliamentary government of Iran and installed a brutal dictator (the shah), we proceeded to help them develop the same nuclear energy we now worry about. When the shah was overthrown, we punished Iran for its disobedience by supporting Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran. More recently, we had to punish Saddam because he wasn't following orders (yes, the strategic control of oil is the chief reason for our current predicament, for those of you still deluded enough to think it was for the Iraqi people's sake or keeping terrorists out of America's shopping malls or whatever excuse Bush is peddling this week).

But what's really scary to ponder is how the U.S. role as world mob boss will play out with China — or the Johnny "Sack" New York mob boss character, if you're a "Sopranos" fan. More from Chomsky:

"You can imagine a kind of a loose Shi'ite alliance in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, controlling most of the world's oil and independent of the United States. And much worse, although Europe can be intimidated by the United States, China can't. It's one of the main reasons why China is considered a threat. We're back to the Mafia principle. … If the Middle East oil resources around the Gulf, which are the main ones in the world, if they link up to the Asian grid, the United States is really a second-rate power."

Ever in denial, Tony Soprano admits that everything he does — all of his horrible crimes — he does to provide for his family. Likewise, it is an operating assumption too seldom challenged in the U.S. media that our leaders act only from noble reasons. "Ugatz!" as Paulie "Walnuts" might say.

I've greatly enjoyed watching "The Sopranos" these last eight years. What I probably won't enjoy is the world stage drama from our bought-and-paid-for Mafia captains in the White House over the next 20 years.

Like Carmela tells Tony: "Everything comes to an end."

That applies to U.S. global hegemony, too. S

Brent Baldwin is the CD editor at Style and a local teacher and freelance writer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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