“Every epoch, under names more or less specious, has deified its peculiar errors.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry
Having asserted a claim to literacy, I will now tell you what I’ve been reading, and why. I read for pleasure, and find as much pleasing in browsing as I find drudgery in study. But I am preparing a film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy — and so, I have returned to books I originally cherished just because.
Here is Jack Ruby’s Girls, a 1970 fiction supposedly written by two of his strippers as a factual account. But, under their imprimatur, his girls are not B-girls and whores, but funny, quirky dancers; and Jack is not a thug, but a warm-hearted, civic-minded old bear. All criminal memoirs are selective at best; this one’s a mere cartoon, interesting for what it suppresses. What might that be?
Another recurrence on my bedside table is The Great Zapruder Film Hoax (2003), a compilation of essays by photographers, photo-analysts, and ballisticians, each establishing the falsity of the sole remaining film of JFK’s assassination. What’s wrong with the film? To begin, several frames are missing. No one has ever suggested a logical reason for their excision other than suppression of evidence. The blood-spatter explosion of the President’s head is, goes the claim, clearly painted on. It exists only for one frame, 0.04 of a second. In frame 312 it is absent, in the following frame it’s there, and in the next frame it’s gone — not dispersed or dispersing, but gone.
The alteration of the film in two instances proves its worthlessness as a document of anything other than deceit. For the film did not alter itself, and the various cameras confiscated in Dealey Plaza did not dispose of themselves. What did happen? Well, JFK was sharing a girlfriend with Sam Giancana of the Chicago Mob; Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald knew each other well; Oswald’s mother had been the girlfriend of Carlos Marcello, head of the New Orleans Mafia, and so on. But the Warren Commission into the assassinating concluded that Caesar was not Ambitious, and Brutus is an Honourable Man.
We may handily overlay the popular notion of mafia organisational structure onto that of the British nobility. The monarch appointed Dukes, Earls, Barons and Counts, each awarded both a domain and a responsibility. The nobles constituted themselves, as a whole, against the commoners and peons. They banded together to pass laws criminal, civil and religious, to ensure their hegemony and the integrity of the realm which preserved their position. Periodically, nobles warred with each other for supremacy under the ruler. See the Wars of the Roses, Cromwell, the Five Families of New York.
Over time, however, successful associations, born in brigandage, go straight. Today’s British monarchy is a ceremonial outfit, and the various American crime families, either disappeared with the times (see Boss Tweed’s control of New York through Irish immigrants), were changed by the times, or were subsumed by a larger and more powerful group (such as the Democratic Party). Repeal forced urban bootlegging mobs to branch out into drugs; two world wars impoverished Britain and its nobility; and Britain’s entrance into the European Union, after 900 years of power, was, in effect, that act of “going legit” — which, to any liberal looks like advanced reason, but which his enemies interpret correctly as inviting attack.
It seems the sole political entities that didn’t start as crime families have been the democracies. These emerge not from powerful scheming to create that order which will support them at the cost of their opponents, but from a consensus of the Wise or Concerned, legislating peace through understanding of human weakness, and the attendant need for justice and order. Democracies, then, like monarchies, must eventually fall when prosperity weakens resolve: when the fat cats rule only because their progenitors were strong.
But those Capos di Tutti Capi who have inherited their place must be inferior, in strength, reason and viciousness to their forebears for they did not win, but inherited their position.1 Anyone might inherit good looks or physical strength, but not perspicacity and resolve, and never to a degree equal to that matured through existential struggle.
Ancient Israel was the nexus of the Asian silk road and African and Mediterranean commerce. Merchandise, culture and fashion spread from the East over land and over the sea to Greece, to Sicily, and then to Italy.
The Sicilians inherited, adopted or had forced upon them many cultures, and, like any border people, sought safety in the Clan. For it was not that any current rulers and customs of the state might be supplanted, but that they would. What could be trusted but blood ties? Nothing.
The Sicilians (and the ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra tribes), always subject to conquest, could operate only as a state-within-a-state. They, and the Irish border folks, took their insights into the New World (see Ethnic America by Thomas Sowell, 1981). These became the political machines: organised crime was its harness-mate, and the crossbreeding (actual and ideological) gave birth to various American political dynasties.
These dynasties, like monarchy, attempted control of the mass through myth. The myth of the royals is the divine right of kings, and their wisdom, benignity and devotion to public service. This last — a low-cost, though fragile tool — is theoretically susceptible to public scrutiny through a free press. Absent this scrutiny, the myth of hereditary public service reveals its essential nature as the happy face of violence to the dissenting. We see this operation in religious wars, supposedly about doctrine, but, in essence, about hegemony.
Today, the Left’s protestation of benevolence is everywhere unsaid by its real threat of immediate ruin: the manner in which the various territorial claims of the Left’s clans — MeToo, Marxism, Feminism, Occupy, Anarchism and so on — spawn new collusion (intersectionality) and then aggression (gay rights vs. transgender rights) as one group tries to break to the rail. Life may be “the war of all against all”, but each prosecutes it with as much aid as he can muster; and that aid was, originally, the family.
The Scottish term for clan is Sept; the Hebrew word is Svat. Both mean seven; that is, the number of families making up a clan. The clan, then, is a military-company-sized group of individuals tied by blood, whose allegiance may be theoretically relied upon.
Yet the modern Left works, consciously or not, to destroy the family as the basic unit of loyalty, working to replace it with allegiance to the state, which can only mean those proclaiming themselves the champions of the state (political chieftains), the states’ incarnation (dictators), or their like in the states’ demise (effectively warlords). The decay of Western democracy has split the electorate into those accepting the new monolithic, unerring state and those preferring a constitutional accountability; that is, preferring democracy to subservience.
What of the family? For the past 50 years, it has been denounced as “the nuclear family” — and let’s note that, since 1946, the adjective has always meant “horrific”. The nuclear family has been destroyed: by technology, contraception, penicillin, travel and so on. Its destruction has been ascribed to the champions of its demise: humanism, globalism and atheism-as-reason. But these are only the beneficiaries of decay. In its place, membership to our various right-thinking groups is an unconscious attempt to reconstitute the family — that group which will offer protection. Just like life in the urban gangs.
The Hebrew Bible is the record of the growth of the state from the family. The family is the Jewish, religious polity. Chapter by chapter, mankind’s development is shown in the Bible through the family dynamic. Cain slays Abel out of jealousy; Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac; Jacob steals Esau’s birthright; his sons kidnap and abandon Joseph.
The last purely familial exchange is that between Moses and his step grandfather, Pharaoh. This will be familiar to anyone who has grown up in a broken family. Pharaoh has raised Moses, effectively, to be his successor; but Moses displeases Pharaoh — not because he slew the Taskmaster (after all, he was the Prince of Egypt), but because he did so to protect a Jewish slave. Moses publicly demonstrated allegiance to that despised group from which he had been graciously rescued. He insulted the benevolence of his step-grandfather, who asked nothing of him but expected simple loyalty.
Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, and in the desert the Biblical struggles of the family are supplanted by the horrors of creating and maintaining a unified state. In the Exodus, clans, tribes and individuals plot mutiny, challenge, disobey and infuriate Moses, and the story changes from interfamilial dynamics to the birth of democracy — with individual freedom and equality constrained by obedience to law and threatened not by the disaffected individual but by faction.
Moses’s power is depleted by age and he is spared the horror of his people’s behaviour in the Promised Land. The eternal struggle for power, absent operative myth and its defence, devolves into decay and the reversion of the state into the family or clan.
The Godfather, our American Myth, is the contemporary rendition of Greek Drama. They portrayed the family members as gods and demigods, each embodying a recognisable human ambition and its inevitable attendant flaw. Greek wisdom and drama cross-decked to Sicily, and, thence, to Hollywood, and the Corleone Family is the house of Atreus.
Every family will have a no-good brother-in-law, a crazed aunt or grandfather, a drunk, a homosexual, an unutterable secret; the envied, the despised, the tolerated, the shunned. It is a compendium of humans — as flawed as we each know ourselves to be — endeavouring or constrained to live together under a set of customs, both based upon and engendering myth. For myth is the expression of an otherwise ungraspable perception; it grows from necessity, and persists as it is useful operationally. When it is supplanted as unreasonable, blasphemous or absurd, it creates the chaos allowing for new hegemony, and, thus, new myth.
This, however, though asserting a new, rational content, can only be based upon that human consciousness which requires the comfort or control of myth — and, though it may change its content, it is psychologically bound to its form. The Twelve Tribes become the Twelve Caesars, just as the House of Atreus becomes the Kennedys.
Neither I nor you know much about that family, and much that we know may be false, exaggerated or hagiographic; but the Myth of the Kennedys is that of a family beloved by both the more benevolent of the Fates, and their less easily amused sisters.
Are they more depraved, luckless, criminal, perverted, violent and so on than the rest of us? Possibly, as their remove or immunity from scrutiny may, logically, induce excess. The protected antics of the great have an analogue in the 19th-century display of Spiritualism. Here, the medium demonstrated his supernatural powers, loosening himself from manacles, or producing displays of “ectoplasm”, requiring only that they be done in the dark. The Kennedys are certainly more prominent. And we are all addicted to gossip, which is not only more exciting but less taxing than reason, and under whose sway we are enthused with licensed salaciousness — and a momentary sense of superiority to those we envy and fear.
© David Mamet 2023