Whitey Bulger, Tony Soprano, and How We View Gangsters

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Slate contributor Seth Stevenson discusses his coverage of the ongoing trial of crime boss Whitey Bulger, and describes growing up in Boston during Bulger's criminal career. Plus: With the death of Soprano's star James Galdolfini, we discuss pop cultural portrayals of gangster life, and how closely they reflect the lives of real gangsters like Bulger.


Seth Stevenson

Comments [26]

Rosario from Brooklyn

Very disappointed by Brian's comments about race, suggesting that a depiction of an Italian American mafia is somehow more palatable to an American public than one of an African American gang or crime organization. I'm an Italian American (reassured in my daily interactions that Italians are still "other" and not wholly white in America) and while I am not as readily upset my mafia depictions of Italian Americans (although when you step back and look at American TV, film, etc. over the past century, one finds IA in very limited roles, and more often than not, the role of the gangster), I do have a very different take on all of this. In general, it would seem that the American public likes violence on its screens, but if we are to wade in Brian's race waters, then why, for example, haven't Irish, Jewish, Russian, etc. (if one is to accept that they are the same race as Italians) been as widely viewed and enjoyed by Americans, white or black? Frankly, I think there is a wider romantic notion that accompanies the Italian: the large close-knit family, the insularity, the otherness, etc. along with the dimension of the ethnic outsider at odds with an Anglo mainstream. These ethnic images appeal to Americans, owing nothing to race, in my opinion. You also ignore the obvious: the Godfather, the Sopranos were popular because they were well-written. If someone came along and wrote something equally engaging about another group and included the required tight-knit families, etc. Americans would eat it up. There is also an entire historic narrative here that Brian ignores, again, dealing with the inherent criminality of Italian Americans, etc. that unfortunately gets whitewashed when one falls into racial traps. Educate yourself, Brian.

Jun. 20 2013 11:51 AM
Maria from Manhattan

As an Italian American who lived in Italy for many years, I suggest Luigi Barzini's "The Italians" as a classic account of the social mentality of Italians. I do not revere the American mafia or the Cammora from which they largely sprang, (I have an ancestor who was murdered by the Black Hand in Hoboken in 1910) but I do understand the tight knit social network of family and taking care of one's own. While it may have been necessary in the historical past it remains within the daily interactions of neighborhoods and doing reciprocal favors for another. Somebody always has a cousin who knows a guy who owes him/her a favor who can get you a job--only a problem if its illegal--but the cultural methodology is the same in both cases. That's not specific to just Italians, but we do make an interesting case study!

Jun. 20 2013 11:03 AM
art525 from Park Slope

joe from new york- it was the news at the lead in to Brian's show. Sorry if it put a ripple in your hot tub. I hguess it is hard to deal with having to process more than one thing. Where else should I have expressed my annoyance. Please joe help me. I don't want to ruin your day.

Jun. 20 2013 10:49 AM
Lauren from Bed-Stuy

Re: race. Please do not forget that the race dimension is inextricable from class and religion. Italians, like Irish, were racialized as "black" -- and common targets of the N-word -- until well into the twentieth century (i.e., until the "liberation" of African Americans created an underclass berth to launch these communitites/identities into the middle class).

Jun. 20 2013 10:33 AM
Ed from BK

In reference to there being a movie about Whitey Bulger, there has been one already that is loosely based on him and his FBI contact. The Departed, starring Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and Leonardo Di Caprio. Nicholson's character, Frank Costello, was loosely based on Bulger. A great film.

Jun. 20 2013 10:32 AM
John A

Black gangsters revered? Check the empire of hip-hop. Done.

Jun. 20 2013 10:28 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Drug dealers in the black community are NOT black nationalists. Never.

Jun. 20 2013 10:25 AM
BK from Hoboken

While I loved the show, it does make the Mob sympathetic. I grew up in Florham Park NJ with a couple of Luccesi family capos in town- the Tacetta brothers. They gave money for local parks, etc and the stupid locals thought they were so nice or doing so. A family friend worked for the FBI in the early 80s and told my parents all of the people the Tacetta brothers killed to earn those nice donations. Needless to say I was told to stay away from ther kids, with whom I went to school. It's such a shame that the victims' families don't get airtime.

Jun. 20 2013 10:24 AM
Nick from UWS

This is complete nonsense. The Dick Van Dyke Show was the best TV series ever made.

Jun. 20 2013 10:24 AM
The Truth from Becky

What am I hearing caller?? Black Gangsters are revered in the Black Community? I hate stereotypes AND you're wrong.

RIP Mr. Gandolfini

Jun. 20 2013 10:23 AM
Me from Joisey

1. I went to law school with the grandson of an infamous, bath-robe loving "gangster". At the time he was working one of the family businesses, and living in the Village in one of their apartments. Sweetest, kindest, humblest young man you'll ever meet.

2. Ever hear of Mob Wives? I feel horrible about enjoying it; it's like watching a train wreck. I know it's fake, but still. (How can you not love Big Ange?) We ignore so much just for a cheap thrill.

Jun. 20 2013 10:23 AM
Sam Henson

Since the reports of the death of James Gandolfini, I've seen more people than I can count memorializing him on social media. The death of the actor is very sad. The character he portrayed was a mass-murderer. Anybody even vaguely familiar with the story of Whitey Bulger (and not a supporter of the Irish mafia or the IRA — like Rep. Peter King) knows just how awful these organized crime murderers are.

Jun. 20 2013 10:21 AM
Restore Sanity from Westchester

"You see Missy, the Pirates' Code isn't really a code, it's more like guidelines." As even Hollywood recognizes, and Whitey Bulger proves, there is no honor among thieves; their code is really "Where's mine?"

Jun. 20 2013 10:20 AM
Linda from Jersey Shore

I grew up in Rochester NY in the 60, 70's and the mob was HUGE with lots of killings, reorganizing and new bosses. My family is Sicilian. No one would ever EVER say anything to anyone about what was going on. I have one friend who's father did go into witness protection though. Also, no one in my immediate family was in the mob

Jun. 20 2013 10:20 AM
John A

Moral relativism played large. Many watching the show, most?, will be fooled - this is a moral universe. But when they come away, will they see the dislocation of their morals? And will they be able to reset? What I see on kids blogs says - don't be so sure. The show was number one. That describes a large influence on our society.

Jun. 20 2013 10:18 AM
Joe from New York

I tend to agree with jgarbuz: It's hard for me to understand the appeal of movies, TV shows and literature that glorify thugs and criminals. I've never seen an episode of The Sopranos. Although part of me wants to give it a chance because it is such a respected show and therefore, I assume, cannot be entirely without merit, part of me finds the prospect distasteful.

Jun. 20 2013 10:17 AM

What a waste of airtime. What's next, an examination of sympathies for the Tsarnaevs? No amount of celebration of murderers and psycopaths, killers on whatever scale, is too little. Please move on.

Jun. 20 2013 10:16 AM
RJ from prospect hts

Perhaps Bulger is crafting is image so his future fellow inmates, from similar mob backgrounds, won't hurt him because they will believe he's lived up to their same code.

Jun. 20 2013 10:15 AM
JC Jenny from jersey city

Hey Brian, it's suh-PRAN-oh, NOT suh-prah-noh. The guy's from Jersey, after all!

Jun. 20 2013 10:15 AM
Joe from New York

"Wow I just heard that clip of Paul Steely White on the news leading into Brian's show. What an arrogant..."

And this has *what* to do with "Whitey Bulger, Tony Soprano, and How We View Gangsters"?...

Jun. 20 2013 10:13 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

They are just "organized" psychopaths and nothing more. There is no "code," no honor among thieves, just an interest in self-protection.

Jun. 20 2013 10:12 AM
art525 from park Slope

Wow I just heard that clip of Paul Steely White on the news leading into Brian's show. What an arrogant schmuck with his snarky remark about the cnadidates. He demonstrates the same arrogance and self importance that he did in his editorial in the Daily News and that bikers in New York display every day when they can't be bothered stopping for red lights and yielding to pedestrians. It's really all about them.

Jun. 20 2013 10:09 AM
antonio from baySide

It has been reported that Mr. Gandolfini died of a massive heart attack. Can we talk about, despite being obviously wealthy etc. and should have had access to better care or at least knowledge then the average person, how could this have happened?

Jun. 20 2013 10:06 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

It's ALL nonsense, and lionizing these murderers is no different than those who lionize terrorists and suicide bombers. The true "mafiosa" have no honor nor any of that "Godfather" baloney. The only difference between the organized criminal murderers and regular terrorist groups, is that the former are only in it for the money.

Jun. 20 2013 10:06 AM
lcruz from brooklyn

perhaps his death will make some folks start to want to loose weight, after all it is well known that obesity can increase the likelihood one could get a heart attack.

Jun. 20 2013 10:05 AM
john from office

The Sopranos and films like Goodfellas show what it is like to really be a mobster/Gangster. It comes down to being an "earner" and paying up to the boss who then pays his boss.

The Godfather and the Godfather II, were grand and operatic, truly works of art. But not realistic. Godfather 3 was garbage.

Jun. 20 2013 09:08 AM

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