“The secret world of the Mafia is a concave mirror that reflects and magnifies our world. If looked at properly, it can illuminate aspects of society that are normally out of focus and taken for granted. When we peel away the veneer of law and moral convention, we enter a world where social relations are in their raw state, the use of violence is pervasive, information uncertain and betrayal a common currency, and where the natural bonds of family love are defiled. By looking at the Mafia microcosm, we can understand better who we are.”
This paragraph, from the Times Literary Supplement of September 18, 2009, opened a review by Federico Varese of The First Family, by Mike Dash, a book about the Mafia. I found it such an exemplary mishmash of half-baked statements and half-thought-out notions that I kept it around until I could take it on, mixed metaphor by mixed metaphor, cliché by cliché. I think it was worth doing, because the basic fallacy it expresses is repeated so tirelessly and accepted so widely as the tough-minded, ugly truth. I’m calling it after its favorite metaphor: The Myth of the Veneer.
So, to begin with: What aspects of society are normally out of focus? What aspects of society are normally in focus? When, to whom? Whose eyes are supposed to be looking, focused or unfocused?
How does peeling away a veneer allow us to enter a world?
If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.
What is this substance?
Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?
Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?
Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.
There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.
In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.
This confusion about what “natural” means is exposed in the surprising statement that the natural bonds of family are defiled in the world revealed by the Mafia-mirror — a world previously posited as the “raw,” natural one that was concealed by “unnatural” social hypocrisy.
Why would we understand better who we are by looking in the Mafia-mirror? Its selective reflection and magnification appear to “illuminate” only degradation of the substantial and defilement of the natural. We certainly will come to understand better who the Mafiosi are by studying their world. But wouldn’t we better understand who we are by looking at the place of such an institution as the Mafia within the rich, complex world of (more or less) functional human relationships, law, and moral convention in which most of us who read books and blogs are fortunate enough to live?
But Mr Varese, dismissing all that as mere veneer, privileges criminality as reality.
Rip off the disguise and we are all revealed — traitorous, savage, ruthless brutes. It’s a fantasy cherished by many. Particularly, perhaps, by quite honest, decent, literary men.