A Ladder to the Stars

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker. Like most of what he does, it’s more flash than substance and sacrifices most verifiable/technical details in favor of a good narrative. But, also like most of the stuff he does, the narrative is an interesting one and makes a certain amount of sense. As long as we leave the science to someone else.

The subject is social mobility and organized crime. It’s a review of the new book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman. Gladwell uses a 40-year-old non-fiction book “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime” to provide context and counter-narrative. “A Family Business” is the real-life story of The Godfather, with a different ending. Both chronicle a family of Italian immigrants in New York City and their rise to power. Starting small, they start successful businesses and use their large families to pool their strength. Their empires grow through cleverness, trust, and fear, the latter abetted with crime and intimidation. One is true and the other is not. It is at the end however, that the stories diverge. In The Godfather the characters are never able to cast aside their criminal roots. They are never able to join the ranks of legitimate society. The old guards always hold them at arm’s length and the past can never be put in the past. That is the fiction. The truth, told to us in “A Family Business,” is that, once achieving a certain status, successful mobsters were able to direct their descendants down the legitimate corridors of our republic. Academia, business, politics – all were fair game and all were accessible to them. Many of these descendants make up our current prestigious and high-standing families. The new old money if you will.

In contrast, Goffman’s work tells a similar story, albeit one with different subjects and different outcomes. It is the story of black urbanites. Like the big-city immigrants before them, they to sought the trappings of legitimacy. The typical doors were closed to them so they resolved to create new ones. Also like immigrant families they used crime, in their world it was drugs. But, like the best of the immigrants, crime was not an end, but a means. It was a path to legitimacy (Stringer Bell from The Wire). A crooked ladder to the American dream. They held true an idea best articulated by the Japanese saying (that comes to us now from a scene in Mad Men) “A man is whatever room he is in.” The game was to get into the room. And in a rigged game they had to break the rules. However, in the last third of the 20th century our society declared war on its criminals. Many things that were once viewed with a blind or corrupt eye became targets. The so-called crooked ladder of upward mobility was pulled out from under them.

Fascinating narrative no? It’s one of those that sounds so good it’s hard to believe it’s not true. Of course it happened, but a lot of other things happened too.


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