The FBI is making headlines this morning with a massive roundup of mobsters from top crime families in New York City. Working with state and local police officers, they’ve hauled in over a hundred suspected wise guys, on charges NBC News says will range from “gambling to racketeering to murder.”
FBI officials told NBC that “organized crime is still active in New York’s construction industry,” while “labor union corruption, loan sharking, and gambling are among the other schemes run by the mob.” When will these mooks get it through their thick skulls that only the government is allowed to do those things?
It seems a bit surreal to read a big headline about mobsters going down. Those guys are still out there? Yes indeed they are. Well, all but a hundred of them, after this morning.
America has a strange cultural relationship with organized crime. Obviously we romanticize it, all the way back to the turn of the century. There’s something about its opulence, and the strange combination of glamour, lawlessness, and normalcy that makes up the modern mafia fable. Tony Soprano was a regular guy with a nice house, and a therapist. Every morning, he punched into a job that involved punching a lot of other people out, but part of The Sopranos appeal was how humorously familiar many aspects of his mafia lifestyle seemed.
The ugly reality of organized crime always seems a bit jarring to people who hum the “Godfather” theme when they see the word “mafia.” Which is most of us. I’ve had that song stuck in my head since I was six years old. The disconnect between romantic fiction and unpleasant truth is almost as great as with piracy, which is basically organized crime with swords and parrots to the contemporary imagination. Both current and historical pirates are a far cry from the lovable rogues in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which ended with the expectation that the audience would applaud the defeat of the dreary British navy by colorful pirates. You’ll find no Captain Jack Sparrow tottering around the coasts of Somalia. (Those guys are still out there too, by the way. In fact, the International Maritime Bureau says 2010 was a record year for piracy, with 53 vessels seized around the world.)
The enduring cultural popularity of the mafia is, deep down, a fantasy about the American dream liberated from tedious bureaucratic reality, and the grubby demands of society. The narrator of Goodfellas spends the early minutes of the film explaining the powerful allure of high-rolling mobsters doing whatever they wanted. Fantasy mobsters work hard and get ahead… way ahead. We validate our indulgence in the fantasy by ending the story in a hail of bullets or indictments, which long ago gained an aura of epic tragedy, rather than the “crime never pays” moralism of an earlier age.
The consumers of American pop fiction also have a soft spot for constructing elaborate hidden societies which transcend the drab and frustrating world of cubicles and 1040 forms. Besides getting arrested by the FBI, those New York mobsters can complain about their place in the popular imagination being taken by wizards and vampires.
More information is expected about the wave of mob arrests when Attorney General Eric Holder gives a press conference this afternoon from Brooklyn.