Decline of the Honor Culture

By Bowman, James | Policy Review, August-September 2009 | Go to article overview

Decline of the Honor Culture


Bowman, James, Policy Review


IN THE FINAL season of the hit HBO series The Sopranos, there was a revealing scene between the show's dubious hero, mob boss Tony Soprano, and his son, A.J.--a young man who, after a pretty spectacularly misspent youth, was at the end of the series finally beginning to get the idea that he might like to join the family business. Most recently, he had attempted to kill his senile Uncle Junior for once having tried to kill his father, only for Tony to regard this as yet another of his juvenile screwups. A.J. rounded on him: "Well, you're a ... hypocrite, all right? 'Cause every time we watch Godfather, when Michael Corleone shoots those guys at the restaurant ... you sit there with your ... bowl of ice cream and you say it's your favorite scene of all time!"

Tony replies: "Jesus Christ, A.J. I mean, you make me wanna cry. It's a movie. Ya gotta grow up. You're not a kid anymore. You hear me, you ... you ... you gotta grow up." Later, perhaps thinking that it might please his parents if he were to channel his aggressive impulses into what he briefly imagines must be a more socially acceptable form, A.J. announces that he intends to join the army. He says he thinks he might like to learn to be a helicopter pilot and later go to work in that capacity for Donald Trump. His parents are horrified. "Okay, as your parents," says his mother, Carmela, "we don't feel joining the army is in your best interest." They offer him a new BMW and a job on a film set as part of their effort to persuade him not to enlist. He happily accepts the bribe.

A.J., always a little slow, finally gets what was, again and again, the central point being made by the comedy of The Sopranos, namely that the old honor culture--both the unofficial one of the mafia and the official one of the armed forces--has become declasse. The Soprano family has the same desire to "make it" that the Corleones once had, but times have changed. Though they still make their money from the rackets, their aspiration, their idea of success, is not just pecuniary but to become culturally indistinguishable from their upper-middleclass neighbors in suburban New Jersey by adopting their liberal values along with their "lifestyle." Accordingly, the series begins with Tony's decision to go into therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and their sessions become a running gag throughout its 86 episodes--because they embody the central contradiction between those liberal values and Tony's very illiberal, not to mention violent and illegal, workaday world.

The Soprano family's repeated viewings of The Godfather suggest a kind of romantic nostalgia for the old days of the "men of honor," as the mafiosi once styled themselves, but the rebuke to A.J. shows that Tony doesn't confuse this with social reality. However much he is still obliged to live according to the rules the gangsters of old once established, Tony is never in any doubt that he has cast his cultural lot with his more respectable neighbors. The mafia is his guilty secret, which he thinks it impolite and even wounding for them to ask him about. Once, on a golf outing with his doctor neighbor and two other men, one of the others asks him about what the mafia is "really" like. Tony takes it to his shrink and says that the other men made him feel like a performing bear.

The irony is of course that the others feel the same nostalgia as he does, as perhaps all men do, for the heroic world he actually still inhabits but feels ashamed of, a world free from the constraints of bourgeois society, in which success is owed to strength and cunning rather than familiarity with the knowledge-based economy that most of us inhabit. The same impulse has produced the "lifestyle" magazine Mob Candy, published in Brooklyn, which is pitched at gangsters and their admirers. The success of The Sopranos itself depended on this same nostalgia--but also on the audience's realization along with Tony and the rest that the world isn't "really" like that anymore. …

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