The Myth of the Veneer

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischTHE MYTH OF THE VENEER

by Ursula K. Le Guin

“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.

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The Myth of the Veneer — 13 Comments

  1. As someone who has grown very tired of the idea that “truth” is dark and ugly, I welcome this excellent description of what’s wrong with that point of view. Current research in biology and anthropology (in particular) show that cooperation — which incorporates a level of trust — is a key part of human development. I am finding it harder and harder to read stories or watch movies that assume the only truth is a violent one.

  2. And this says everything that is wrong with comic books today. They are lost in the jungles of grim ‘n’ gritty and no longer fun to read. Ceasing to buy them does not seem to get the message across, so I have accepted that I will never be a fan again.

  3. Thank you for so clearly presenting the fallacy in this worldview! I, too, am really tired of the “gritty reality” of all these uber-violent, depressing fictional worlds in books and films.

  4. That “grim reality” sells media copy. We need to find an audience that prefers the “natural truth,” but kindness isn’t news.

  5. Hello, thank you for paying so careful attention to the beginning of a book review of mine written some time ago. This is flattering in itself. Of course I wrote what I wrote, but allow me to expand. What is important to understand of criminal markets and the underworld more generally is that they face dilemmas and choices similar to the ones we face, but people who operate in those markets cannot turn to open and legitimate institutions to solve those problems. E.g. the problem of whom to trust. IF we want to transact with somebody we do not know, beyond small scale transactions, in the legal world we can check past behaviour of potential partners, for instance the reputation of a website I just used to buy a book. If things go wrong anyway, we can always turn to courts, a bank will refund me, etc. What fascinates me about the underworld is that they cannot check official reputations, cannot turn to courts or get refunded if they are cheated, and yet they still manage to transact with people they do not know. So the point I was trying to make is that what we take for granted–banks, courts, easily verifiable reputations, reasonably secure property rights, lack of violence–is crucial to make our societies function. When you take those elements away, you enter a different world. The world of mobsters needs to find solutions to these problems, and organized criminals are quite clever at finding solutions. Eg drug-traffickers from Columbia demand that a relative of a Calabria-based boss is sent as an hostage until the Calabresi pay up for the drugs that were shipped to them. This strategy is similar to what Kings did to secure compliance of each other in the pre modern and modern world (see marriages).
    I did not mean to say that human nature is evil by nature. I just do not know. My hunch is that some people are evil and some are good. Is my neighbour capable of wonderful acts of generosity or despicable evil? Most likely I will never find out. However, when social order breaks down, things look a lot worse, and this is a point you might not fully appreciate if you live in the security of Middle (Class) America. But do take a look at the Ukraine today, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, …
    Final point: I agree that small scale cooperation existed in pre-modern societies, but it was small scale, AND many other and nasty things also existed in those societies. Let’s not forget it.
    In any case, thank you for the attention and the opportunity to expand on the introduction to that book review. Your “perhaps, quite honest, decent, literary man”, as ever

  6. On Federico’s points about Ukraine, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia …
    In and around each of these countries there were and are specific political formations … Ukraine has Russian imperialism that’s trying to effectively recolonise it versus EU imperialism; Rwanda had two political formations that provoked a civil war, and Yugoslavia had the Serbian nationalists pitted against Bosnian, Croat and other nationalist forces. This analysis is nowhere near sufficient for the complexities of these countries, but the point I am making is that there specific conditions which lead to conflict. Other ones could lead to peace and stability. I live in an apparently even more peaceful and secure society than America; middle-class UK, in a nice suburban area of Brighton. But here class conflict lurks just beneath the surface. We have our areas of extreme poverty; the current (and previous) government has been mercilessly hacking away at the supports of the living standards of ordinary people (and I am very lucky to be able to avoid this). This contributes to a fundamental underlying conflict that exists even here. In two days time, millions of public sector workers will go on strike to defend their living standards and protest against privatisation, loss of pension rights etc. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Society could provide enough for all with enough planning and the realisation that the good of the earth should be a social common.

    I should reveal my hand a bit more. I am a life-long socialist, although I have a comfortable middle-class life (you can call me a Prosecco socialist if you like).

    I don’t know enough about your (Ursula) views to fully comment on what you has to say. But you seem to think that a more just and equal society is at least possible. I have the feeling that your books have an underlying optimism about the human spirit, which is one of the reasons why I love them so much. If I can find the time and energy I will try and read some more of your blog and perhaps comment as well.

  7. Pingback: An Overdue Return to Tabclosing | Eugene Fischer

  8. Thank you, Federico, for your good-humored, thoughtful reply to what must have come as an unwarranted assault on a paragraph you wrote six years ago.

    I’m not an optimist about the human spirit, or a pessimist either — like you, perhaps, I can come to no conclusion at all about “human nature.” But I recognize and value generosity of mind and spirit when I meet it.

  9. “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”

    James Branch Cabell, The Silver Stallion (1926), according to Wikiquote.