The Seduction Of The Gang (And The Mafia)

I have wondered whether there is a thrill to doing evil. Judging from Jack Katz’s book Seductions of Crime – Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil there is.

Here he talks about gangs:

One way to indicate that you are not just tough but essentially outside contemporary civilization is to manifest an animal incapacity for moral responsiveness. Hell’s Angels embraced this folk anthropology with their studied affinity for dirt…Hell’s Angels would train new denim jackets through multiple baths in dirt and grease before wearing them on the road…(they would display)…their animal natures, as when one 250-pound Hell’s Angel would greet another in a bar by taking a running jump into his arms and planting a wet kiss on his lips. To be animal is to suggest chaotic possibilities–that through you, at any moment, forces of nature may explode the immediate social situation.

(On the other hand, some of the ghetto gangs wear immaculate clothing which looks like it has just been ironed.)

Latin Gang Members With Latin Grafitti

For alien adolescent subcultures…(it is cool to use) silence to affect the style of the professional killer or the Mafia chief. When asked by a sociologist, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” it is cool to answer, “an assassin.”
To make clear that “he means it,” the badass celebrates a commitment to violence beyond any reason comprehensible to others. For example, at a dance hall in Glasgow, Tim, a dominant personality in the Young Team, turned to Dave and pointed to a bystander, “‘Ah don’t fancy the look o’ his puss. Go over an’ stab him fur me.’ (Dave carried out the request)

Gangs may cultivate a sadistic and terrifying reputation. In the 1950’s the most feared gang, the Puerto Rican Flyers, were said to drink blood. The weapons the gangs design for themselves can be very sadistic. When they fight, they are amoral:

From the white ethnic gang scene of 1950s Brooklyn, Ellison recited the primer for gang kids. . . . When he’s down, kick for the head and groin. . . . gang warfare is typified by a callous disregard for Marquis of Queensbury rules, or for that matter, rules of simple decency. When they fight, they are amoral … totally without mercy … almost inhuman. A cat that’s down is a cat who can’t bother you, man! Stomp him! Stomp him good! Put that lit cigarette in the bastard’s eye! Wear Army barracks boots—kick him in the throat, in the face, kick him where he lives. Smash him from behind with a brick, cave in his effin’ skull! Flat edge of the hand in the Adam’s Apple! Use a lead pipe across the bridge of his nose—smash the nose and send bone splinters into the brain!

For one gang to fight another, the offending gang might “challenge the seriousness of another’s elitist pretensions….Once received…an insult must be treated as an offense to honor or else the target group will have acknowleged that it cannot sustain an aura of dread…even though the insults may be collectively understood to be artificial. That the insulting party may not know the sister said to be a whore or that the braggart is obviously inventing his liaisons with the insulted party’s mother makes no difference.”

Here is another type of insult that turned out to be a big mistake:

One night we was coming from the Golden Dome. The papers said there were thirteen, but they only busted thirteen. They questioned everybody that was there, but they let me go. What happened, we asked this man for a nickel or a dime or something—and he got smart. This fool [“The Fool”], Wine, asked the man for a nickel. And he answered, “I ain’t got no nickel.”
Wine said, “You’re going to have to give me a nickel!”
The stud said, “I’m not your daddy!”
The fool [“The Fool”], Wine, said, “I know you’re not my father!”
And Bull, he hit the man and knocked him down. The man tried to get back up. He was a judo expert. When he got back up again, I guess he was trying to get into position, and somebody hit him again. Boom! He went down. The poor soul, that’s the last time he ever stood up. they stomped him to death. I forgot if he was dead on arrival or not.

If you subtract the dread that these gangs inspire – then in my opinion they are just a bunch of boring adolescents with no redeeming qualities except maybe courage. They inspire fear, but fear is not respect.

Jack Katz has another observation that most of us haven’t thought of. This is what he says:

Consider whether the following features of street elites point to conditions of poverty, adolescence, minority group status, urban location, and so forth, or to historically recurrent forms of authority for lording power over the rural masses of an agrarian society and over the working class in a fascist social order.

Right-Wing Militarism. Street elites often sport swastikas and German crosses. Some black and Puerto Rican adolescents in New York City enjoy calling themselves the Gestapo, and others adopt the imagery of the Chinese warlord and the Japanese samurai. Yet long, scraggly beards that are reminiscent of Marx and Castro never seem to come into fashion, despite their value for indicating masculine maturity. Members are not comrades; their militaristic parading does not celebrate the washed-out sartorial banality of peasant armies. The hammer and sickle are not worn on motorcycle jackets, despite the wonderful outrage and fear that would be produced. When inducted into a Polish-Hungarian-German-Italian gang in 1950s Brooklyn, Ellison recalled being asked, “Are you a Jew or a nigger or a communist?”, but not whether he was a fascist.

Aristocratic Status. Like members of high society, in a tradition now going back at least thirty years, Southern European, black, and Hispanic male street elites have recognized their female counterparts as “debs” or “debutantes.” In Chicago, Mexican-American society around 32nd Street celebrates the Catholic confirmation of girls at age 15 with elaborate parties called cotillions, which members of fighting gangs attend in the dress and demeanor of galanes from traditional Mexican society. Some leaders of the Blackstone Rangers favored wide-brimmed southern planter’s hats and riding crops. The nicknames that are almost universal in street elites reflect the same celebration of status as do the informal names by which members of High Society recognize each other: a delight in signifying that one’s essential identity is not really known or controlled by birth certificates or the other bureaucratic instruments of the modern, rational-legal social order.

Physiocracy. Violence is concentrated in public spaces, such as parks, and tensions recurrently focus on the control of “turf.” Instead of simply robbing victims, street elites manifest their collective elite status by exacting tribute. Like urban physiocrats, street elites act as if all social respect ultimately comes from the control of landmarks, homelands, and residential territory. Like idle lords and barons who manifest the privileges of their status by not rationally organizing their holdings, members of street elites make taken-for-granted references to “running” a school, “owning” a movie theater, or “controlling” a neighborhood, although they do not exact tribute systematically, collect the revenues from a theater, or attempt to control much of anything that goes on behind the private doors of their neighborhood.

Collected across their various ethnic and historical versions, street elites make for extraordinarily bizarre populations. Considering the foreground themes of street elites, the search for causally essential background conditions does not stop with poverty, ethnic-minority status, adolescence, or even urban location, but reaches to the press of peasantlike populations to enter the modern world. From there, it extends to an ironically incompatible set of analytic bedfellows: postadolescent members of white working-class motorcycle clubs; Ku Klux Klanners, outfitted like ghosts and ritually stratified, bent on terrifying poor blacks into a symbolic acknowledgement of white territorial rule; demagogic juntas that rule by martialing terror in the streets of Latin America;..

Of course, modern English and American urban adolescent street elites have no practical function in forcefully oppressing the peasant masses. They must deign themselves Lords and Emperors because, even though they act like samurai or knights, no land baron keeps them on a retainer. In effect, “gangs” are primarily an urban, minority-group, adolescent phenomena in North American and British cities because the ways of street elites have not found broader economic or political markets for their services. When street elites have found such markets, such as the Calabrian and Sicilian mafiosi in Southern Italy, an analogous aggressive/elite culture has not been primarily an urban phenomenon. In Japan, the yakuza organize orrupt labor relations for bosses, most famously in the entertainment industry, and make secretive alliances with extreme right-wing political movements. Like the American street elites, the yakuza tend to come from ethnically disadvantaged populations—sangakujin (or “third country” Korean and Chinese) and eta, a feudal class of untouchables whose family lines have not been forgotten in modern Japan—and they are mostly burakumin (or ghetto dwellers). Unlike American “gangs,” however, they organize a collective social world that governs not just adolescence but the whole lifespan.
I am suggesting that the longstanding association in the United States of street elites with urban, ethnic-minority, adolescent poverty groups is causally spurious. None of these social conditions, alone or in combination, is necessary for the social construction of the phenomenon. What is essential is the existence, in the generational background, of a culture humbled at the prospect of entering modern, rationalized society. In the United States, this culture has been constituted recurrently by masses of recently arrived, previously rural, and initially deferential poor people and continuously by the caste-segregation of blacks. In the experience of the would-be terrifying elite, this humbled background, by way of juxtaposition, elicits and makes sense of the postures of arrogant domination.

After reading Jack Katz’s book, you do appreciate the fact that the ‘thin blue line’ of the police is all that is between you and some of these characters.

Seductions of Crime – Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil by Jack Katz


One thought on “The Seduction Of The Gang (And The Mafia)

  1. It seems to me that most of these gangs (I don’t feel “elites” is a very appropriate term) exemplify the principle of “birds of a feather.” Like does attract like, and violent, sadistic types require a gang or more formal organisation to belong to. I would like to see an analysis of why this kind of thing happens more in Anglo-Saxon and South American cultures, and is quite rare in other European countries. I suspect that cultures in which the family is paramount are less likely to produce the kind of alienated youths from unstable backgrounds that we see in the US and UK.

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