Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Tony Soprano and the American Dream

 

Tony Soprano and the American Dream

Peter Schultz

 

            There is an episode in the TV series, “The Sopranos,” the last one of the season, where as Tony is leaving Dr. Melfi’s office, his therapist, she says to him something like: “Well, when all is said and done, Tony, you are a just conventional man.” She means that Tony, like all Americans, wants the good life and the good life he wants is a life of family, friends, loved ones, prosperity and even wealth, and to live comfortably in a nice neighborhood like the one he is currently living in, South Caldwell, New Jersey.

 

            And this is quite true about Tony. But what Tony doesn’t get is that the way he lives makes the good life impossible. That is, given how Tony lives, no matter how hard he tries or how successful he becomes, he will never achieve the good life he desires. And it isn’t just that Tony is engaged in, along with some legitimate business enterprises [Bada Bing], criminal enterprises. Rather, it is that Tony’s world is a world that requires ruthlessness to succeed and acquire wealth. It is a world where success and longevity turn on the use of fraud and force, even at times deadly force.

 

            Tony’s world replicates then America’s world, a world that requires ruthlessness to succeed and prosper, as is evident from America’s political and commercial arenas. I can say with confidence that the academic world, where I spent my entire working life, is governed by ruthlessness as much as Tony’s world is. It is not as deadly as Tony’s world, to be sure, but one of its most common mantras is “Publish or perish.” And later in my career, as things changed, the mantra became “Publish and perish.” That is, perish academically or professionally. The latter change reflected the fact that tenure was being phased out at colleges and universities and so the struggle for professional success and longevity became even more intense, more ruthless. I am sure what is called “the business world” is no different.

 

            Some modern political philosophers thought that they could help construct a system based on fraud and force, a ruthless world, motivated by greed and fueled by vanity, governed by institutions meant to direct and control these vices and, thereby, achieve the good life, a life much like that desired by Tony Soprano and other Americans. They thought that “the ends justify the means” without considering enough that some means make some ends impossible to reach, regardless of time, effort, or progress.

 

            The Sopranos illustrate this phenomenon because time and again, just as Tony seems to have secured his family and their good life, the ruthlessness of his world intrudes and forces Tony to forego the good life he so strongly desires. And it isn’t just that there is criminality involved because life in “the mob” is ruthless independently of its criminal activity, stemming from the vanity, pride, and greed of “made men” and others. This is illustrated by some of the characters of the respectable world that Tony wants to share, e.g., Dr. Melfi’s own therapist who gets off on Tony and his “lifestyle” and the parish priest who uses Carmella to feed his appetites, both for food and, as Carmella puts when she calls him out at the end of season 1, “the whiff of sex!” That Tony’s children have been instructed to say that their father is in “waste management,” is most appropriate especially if the “wastes” referred to are those people that a ruthless American society has marginalized or repressed, thereby forcing them to turn to Tony and others like him who are willing to provide the kind of “services” they use to find some comfort  in the ruthless world that has helped debase them.

 

            Further, the ruthless world makes reaching the good life impossible because it abuses and debases those living in it. Tony, Junior, Janice, Carmella, AJ, Paulie, Christopher, Andreana, Vito, Bobby, have all been misshapen by the ruthless society they live in. Carmella is forced to put up with Tony’s repeated infidelities, while accepting gifts like fur coats, cars, and jewelry to offset and disguise the ugliness of her life. AJ eventually becomes extremely angry, thinking he “cares about the environment” in the conventional sense when, of course, he is angry about the life he has with his father and mother. That’s “the environment” he wants to change, just as that’s the environment Meadow wants to change by going to an Ivy League university, working in legal aid society to help the marginalized get justice, and becoming with a doctor or lawyer. And while she controls it better than AJ, she too is angry about the ruthless life she is forced to live, especially when it destroys two love affairs and one engagement.

 

            There is an interesting interlude, as it were, when Vito, who is discovered to be gay, flees New Jersey and ends up, accidentally, in a small town in New Hampshire living in a bed and breakfast and pretending to be writing a book. In this town, it is made clear, being gay is of no ill consequence, people are genuinely friendly, they don’t pry, and Vito falls in love with the man who runs a diner and works as a volunteer fireman. Vito even moves in with this man, but then one night flees back to Jersey without saying goodbye or leaving a note. When they finally speak by phone, Vito claims he couldn’t live without his children, but his lover says that’s a lie. “You missed the life, the excitement and the money.” Vito says: “Yeah, you’re right.” Then his lover says, “You’re sick. I never want to speak with you again” and hangs up. He’s right and he obviously wasn’t talking about Vito being gay. Vito’s sickness is the result of the ruthless lifestyle he’s been engaged in.

 

            The good life can only be reached in certain circumstances and those circumstances, present in that small town in New Hampshire, are not available in New Jersey, and not only unavailable to Tony and other made men. The modern project, as some like to call it, gave up the pursuit of the good life, thinking that human beings could be satisfied even if some of their most deeply felt desires would not be fulfilled, would in fact be marginalized and repressed. This is what is meant by those who argue that some modern political philosophers deliberately lowered the goal of political life in order to guarantee its realization. The good life was replaced and security and a bit of feeling free became the goals. The Sopranos is just one example of art that helps us to wonder if this sacrifice was worth it.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Alpha: The Good Guys v. The Bad Guys

 

Alpha: The Good Guys v. The Bad Guys

Peter Schultz

 

            David Phillips’ excellent book, Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALS, covers the story of Eddie Gallagher, a highly decorated Navy SEAL, who was accused and tried for murdering an ISIS prisoner during the battle of Mosul in Iraq. And Phillips makes a strong case that Gallagher prevailed because of a concerted effort by some “bad guys” – Gallagher and other “pirates” in the SEALS, Fox News, and Trump – that overwhelmed the Navy’s attempts to do justice. [Except in a legal sense, Gallagher’s guilt is indisputable.] There is much truth in Phillips’ argument but there is also much truth in the argument that Gallagher and the his SEAL buddies, the “pirates,” prevailed because they drew strength from powerful American values. In fact, American values gave them more support than they gave to “the good guys.” Throughout these events, as Phillips’ account makes clear, it wasn’t “the bad guys” who were on the defensive; it was “the good guys.”

 

            The links between the bad guys and American values are easy to see. Take the following description of Eddie Gallagher’s wife, Andrea: “Andrea had conventional Fox News good looks, a conservative Christian heartland worldview, a fierce sense of loyalty to her husband, and a killer instinct.” [265] Why Phillips wrote Andrea had “conventional Fox News good looks” is puzzling insofar as Andrea’s good looks could be found on any TV newscast, including NSNBC. But note that she had good American values, “heartland” values, “Christian” values, and was loyal to her husband. Sounds almost like a model woman in large parts of the U.S. Andrea was and is a lockdown American, as it were.

 

            Eddie also was a lockdown American. Here’s the description of him arriving for the first day of his trial: He arrived “in a sleek white Mustang convertible with the top down [and] walked up the front steps in inscrutable RayBans [and] was buff and fit, impressively tan. Andrea was on his arm, meticulously done up with a new hairdo, a fitted striped dresss, and strappy high-heel sandals.” [294] And of course Eddie wore his dress whites with gold anchors on the shoulders and his Trident hanging on his chest. “The bad guys” were “all Americans!” And, of course, “the good guys” couldn’t compete.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Grooming Bin Laden

 

Grooming Bin Laden

Peter Schultz

 

            The title of the book is Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror. It’s an interesting book especially if you like grinding axes and hacking away at Bill Clinton. Richard Miniter, the author, certainly likes doing that.

 

            Here’s a title that would make a better book: Grooming Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton Turned Bin Laden Into A Mastermind Terrorist.

 

            What often goes unnoticed about US foreign policy is that it is conducted in ways that create and are intended to create enemies, enemies that can be used to justify large scale foreign policy adventures during which US power can be projected throughout the world.

Regarding bin Laden, for example, when Clinton became president, he, bin Laden, was not widely known. He quickly became know when his organization bombed two modern hotels in Aden, Yemen. Miniter argues that if Clinton had acted boldly then against bin Laden, the global war on terror would never have occurred.

 

            Of course, this assumes that Clinton – and others – didn’t want the global war on terror to happen. However, if Clinton and other US imperialists wanted a global war on terror that would allow them to fortify and extend the US’s national security state, as it is called, then it would make more to sense not to take out bin Laden. It would make more sense to groom him; that is, to remake him into a mastermind terrorist capable of taking tall buildings down with a couple of airplanes, almost like Superman who could leap tall buildings in a single bound. To justify imperialism, enemies are essential and to justify worldwide imperialism enemies with almost mythical powers are needed. Hence, the need to groom bin Laden, who once was nothing more than an accountant.

 

            For a little perspective, the US went out of its way to create enemies in Vietnam, enemies that had sought the US’s help in undoing the French imperialism there. Then, after refusing to sign the Geneva agreement that was intended to reunite Vietnam after elections, and encouraging the southerners not to hold those elections, the US moved millions of northern, largely Catholic Vietnamese south into the Mekong Delta where the residents were already struggling economically. Needless to say, this led to conflict which the US labeled communist inspired so it could create the conditions it needed to “force” the US to protect what it called “South Vietnam.”

 

            There are other examples of such activity on the part of the United States, for example, in Korea. So it is not beyond belief that Bill Clinton, et. al., were grooming bin Laden to serve as the poster boy for terrorism that would be labeled “an existential threat” to the US. And given the ambiguities surrounding the attacks of 9/11, one has to wonder whether those attacks, even if not facilitated by the US, weren’t seen as a gift to US imperialists, who could proclaim, over and over, that now “everything is different.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Machiavelli, Modern Realism, and Extremism

 

Machiavelli, Modern Realism, and Extremism

Peter Schultz

 

            In his book, Natural Right and History, Strauss asserts that “Machiavelli takes his bearings not so much from how men live as by the extreme case.” To illustrate for students what Machiavelli meant when he argued that it is so far from how men live to how they ought to live, I would use the Oedipus complex, viz., that what looks like love is actually a desire to kill one’s father and sleep with one’s mother. That is, what looks like love is actually incest, even murderous incest.

 

            It would appear that my explanatory example was unknowingly consistent with what Strauss says here. Obviously, Oedipus’s case was an extreme case. And, yet, Freud and others took this extreme case and made it seem normal, that is, descriptive of all human beings. But is it normal? Or is it not just extreme – that is, aberrational – behavior? Why do we think it describes all human beings? Because we too are modern realists.

 

            We are then, as modern realists, guided not so much by how human beings actually live but by extreme cases, which we take to be normal. In our politics, we take extreme cases as normal, thereby taking our bearings from those extreme cases, e.g., 9/11, 1/6, Pearl Harbor, Hitler and the Holocaust, and acting accordingly. Is it any wonder then that our politics is characterized by extremes, slavery, genocide, constant wars, humongous bureaucracies, including what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, imperialistic adventures, etc., etc., etc. No, it isn’t wonderful that we often, as Billy Joel sang, “go to extremes.”

Burke, Modernity, and Conservative Extremism

 

Burke, Modernity, and Conservative Extremism

Peter Schultz

 

            In his book, Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss argues that “Burke was satisfied that the French Revolution was thoroughly evil. He condemned it as strongly and as unqualifiedly as we today condemn the Communist revolution.” [p. 317] Could it be that “we” and Burke make the same mistake? Perhaps.

 

            Burke embraced the basis of modern political philosophy, viz., that human beings are radically malleable, that what we call “human nature” is the result of centuries of “development,” or of accidents that occurred in the course of human history. Hence, it is possible, Burke thought, that the French Revolution could radically change humans and the human condition because humans are radically malleable. As we would say today, the French Revolution represented “an existential threat.”

 

            But what if humans aren’t radically malleable? What if we humans have a nature, that that nature is in part political, and that that nature leads humans to resist tyranny or attempts to radically remake them? If looked at through this lens, what would the French Revolution look like? Would it look like an existential threat or just another in a long line of attempts to tyrannize over human beings, an attempt that is, inevitably, bound to fail? Of course, it would still look horrible under the latter lens but that its horror was bound to end as it came into increasing opposition to human nature.

 

            So, because “we,” like Burke, embrace the arguments of modern political philosophers like Rousseau, “we” see the Communist revolution as an existential threat to our way of life. It must be opposed by any means necessary so that it doesn’t overwhelm the way we are now. And this threat is not only real but “a clear and present danger” because the way we are now is, in reality, accidental. That is, the way we are now is the result of our history and the accidents we met as that history unfolded. The way we are now is not a reflection of any nature we might think we possess. Conversely, as Strauss puts it, Burke “regarded it as possible that the French Revolution, which conducted ‘a war against all sects and all religions,’ might be victorious and thus that the revolutionary state might exist ‘as a nuisance on earth for several hundred years,’” [317-18] which is what I was taught about the Communist revolution in college.

 

            Burke’s conservativism, like ours, is bottomed on, is as much a part of “modernity” as those endorsing the French Revolution. And, in fact, it is as extreme as the forces behind the French Revolution. It feeds the forces of imperialism insofar as the world appears as being malleable, as being controllable, as being susceptible to radical change if enough power is applied. After all, referring to the situation today, in the modern dispensation, Islam is just as much the result of accidents as Burke’s vaunted British constitution or its monarchy.  Islam is not the result of the “flourishing of human nature,” as it were, drawing its strength from its attempts to satisfy natural human desires. So, it too may be, should be changed, even undermined, by the appropriate applications of power and persuasion. The battle for their hearts and minds can and should be won.