October 14, 2014

Golden Oldie: The looking glass looks back

It seems inconceivable that a blog dedicated in large part to culture can let the end of The Sopranos go by without comment. Indeed, though I’ve never seen an episode of the series, I’m certainly well aware of it, particularly the fireworks surrounding last Sunday’s final episode. (Obligatory warning on spoilers, etc.)

With this, I want to call your attention to this fine article by Joshua Treviño at NRO, because I think Treviño illustrates the kind of in-depth analysis of the content of pop culture in a way that I find very appealing.

Treviño follows the course of events in the final episode and traces the connection between The Sopranos, the classic Western, and the iconic meaning of America itself:

Chase titled the final episode “Made in America,” and the easy inference is that the milieu of The Sopranos is just that. This is untrue, of course: Organized crime as such exists in nearly all cultures. On a deeper level, the idea of a society run by kinship ties and otherwise anarchic violence is deeply pre-democratic, and hence fundamentally anti-American. Some, including John Marini, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nevada-Reno, have said that the Western film genre is essentially a retelling of the story of America itself: the bringing of order into the wilderness, and the concurrent decline of the rough code of vengeance and force as law and true justice emerge. From this comes democracy, and America. If the Western genre is the making of America, then the mob genre is its unmaking: the subversion of law and justice, and the replacement of order with the family and tribe. Indeed, in an unconscious bit of irony, the tribe — the mob, this thing of ours — is itself called family.

And what does famly mean? With the following passage, Treviño gets to the heart of the philosophical difference that shows itself so many times in the creations of our pop culture.

What, then, is “Made in America” in Chase’s telling? Tony Soprano’s children give the answer. The classic Jeffersonian concern, beyond the rule of the people, is for the new generation, lest it be chained by the dead to things past. It is a concept born of Rousseau and his “state of nature,” an Enlightenment trope that holds that the young are inherently uncorrupted. This is not, surely, a belief shared by any orthodox Christian who believes in Original Sin; nor is it shared by the conservative who thinks man needs institutions to guide his course. When children are corrupted, the Jeffersonian/Rousseauian view holds that family has done it, and the Christian/conservative view holds that it was intrinsic from the start. Neither is the more American, we being a Whitmanesque container of multitudes, but David Chase’s fictional world comes down on the Jeffersonian side. What is made in America is the unmaking of America: not merely the regression from democracy, but the children of the generation who rule, who themselves are unfit to sustain the existing order.

The young are inherently uncorrupted…when children are corrupted, the Jeffersonian/Rousseauian view holds that the family has done it.” Now, that’s a very provocative argument, because of what it may tell us about ourselves. The desire of parents to provide for their children, to see to it that the children don’t have to suffer as the parents did – this is very much seen in the post-World War II era. Do we then view the “Greatest Generation” as primarily a product of the Enlightenment? And would that in some way not be quintessentially American, the Founders having been men of the Enlightenment as well?

And the constant pampering and protecting of children nowadays, to the point that many exist in a quasi-permanent state of adolescence – is this an outgrowth of the idea that the family causes the corruption of the child? That parents so fear being thought of as the cause of a child’s failure as to render them incapable of denying that child anything?

(Provide for them in all ways, lest something possibly be lacking that could come back to haunt you. It’s almost a paranoid, fear of the unknown that, in many ways, is the anthesis of what America stands for – or used to stand for, at any rate.)

It then could be said that pop culture affects our way of thinking in deep ways – molding some ideas, affirming others, shaping our self image and the ways in which we view such things as family, friends, loyalty, duty. Whereas television might in the past have mirrored who we are, could it be that we now mirror what television says we are?

Trevino doesn’t make this argument, or at least not directly. But he says about all that needs to be said concerning his topic, which means that I have to have something original to offer. But the conclusions are similar, and stark:

Moral ruin comes to the Soprano children, and continued infamy to the Soprano line, because of their father’s chosen course and his other “family”; but the terror beneath it lies in the recognition that countless American youths suffer the same ruin under the tutelage of perfectly ordinary parents with respectable jobs, and without fictionalized mob ties. Here the genius of David Chase shines through, not in cinematic tricks or narrative twists, but in the stark exposition of cause and effect. At first glance, the downfall of Meadow and A.J. is the result of an upbringing tinged with extraordinary violence and theft. But when we turn off the television and look around us, we see that we have their like among us without the mobster parentage. Instead, they grow up in utterly ordinary homes in utterly ordinary neighborhoods. If daughter and son on television can emerge as recognizable inheritors of their father’s worst traits, then what does it say of us when we produce the same without that father? The inescapable conclusion is that the fall is intrinsic to us. If David Chase’s fictional world is Jeffersonian or Rousseauian, then his real world is Christian or conservative. Watching Tony Soprano cut to black is a sobering and tremendous reminder not only of why this show was great — but also of why it is a warning.

I wonder – does Treviño suggest here that television has, in effect, become the father, passing down the values to the children, who – infused by the values of their foster father – become the sons and daughters of television and what it portrays?

At any rate, we ask: does the warning inherent in The Sopranos come too late for us? We’ll have to see. But we’ll return to this idea of the effect of television and its popular culture on us – how we mirror it, how it mirrors us.

[Note: and so we did - in fact, I created this entire blog to do just that.]

Originally published at In Other Words on June 12, 2007

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!