Tony Soprano and the American Dream
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.