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Tony Soprano Redux
A good friend of mine, who is usually more clear-headed, sent me a slimy little video asserting that character doesn’t matter, since both FDR and Winston Churchill smoked and drank while Adolf Hitler was a teetotaler and a vegetarian. His point was that Donald Trump’s crude, impulsive, petty, and narcissistic behavior has no bearing on his fitness for office.
While it is true that people are complicated, and that no one is completely virtuous or completely lacking in virtue, the indulgence in moral relativism is particularly galling when it comes from the right, after so many years of denouncing it as the Kool-Aid of choice among the left.
But the blurring of lines has been going on for a long time. It particularly hit its stride about ten years ago with the success of the Sopranos, which prompted an op-ed that I revisit here.
Psychoanalyst Glen Gabbard, author of The Psychology of The Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire and Betrayal in America’s Favorite Gangster Family, has an interesting take on the phenomenon of Tony Soprano.
The success of The Sopranos, it seems, depends not on Tony Soprano the mobster, but on Tony Soprano the psychoanalysis patient. Whereas in daily life, Tony is a crook, a thug, and a murderer, on the couch Tony is a regular guy, with the same hopes, dreams, problems, and anxieties as the rest of us.
Dr. Gabbard explains that people love to root for Tony the regular guy to prevail over Tony the violent criminal; they want more than anything to be able to find a noble everyman at the heart of the worst of the worst and the lowest of the low.
Simply stated, viewers don’t want to believe that anyone is really evil.
This is a remarkable turnabout from the early 80s when everyone’s favorite television creep was J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Back when “Who shot J.R.?” was on everybody’s lips, it wasn’t because we wanted to see the would-be assassin brought up on charges — we wanted to see him handed the key to the city. We didn’t want to understand J.R. — we wanted to hate him. We loved to hate him.
J.R. never killed anybody, never even beat anyone up, yet we cheered from our couches when he got what was coming to him and hoped desperately that his every nasty scheme would fail. If so, why do viewers in record numbers forgive everything for Tony Soprano, the Godfather who terrorizes and murders for fun and profit, just because he worries about his marriage and his children? C’mon, even J.R. loved his daddy.
Perhaps there’s no better barometer for the moral pressure of society than our relationship with television’s most popular characters. When we cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys, isn’t it because of our desire to see that justice is done?
But when we sympathize with a violent criminal, when we identify with him because he cares about his kids just as we do, isn’t it a sign of abandoning the commitment to differentiate between right and wrong?
The job of making moral decisions, of balancing right and wrong in complex circumstances, is no simple business. But instead of challenging us to recognize that Tony is a villain in spite of his human side, The Sopranos (and, more generally, the entertainment industry) manipulates us into identifying with Tony’s humanity so that we overlook his wickedness.
Based on Dr. Gabbard’s assessment, it seems that we yearn to deny that genuine evil walks this earth. Indeed, it may be admirable to look for the good in all people and give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, but not to the exclusion of recognizing that sometimes there is no doubt, that what little good remains in some people has been hopelessly buried under a mountain of evil. The Hitlers, Stalins, and Ahmadinejads of the world may love their children and may have had troubled youths, but evil remains evil whether we choose to look it in the face or to bury our heads in the sand.
Too often, it seems, we avoid looking evil in the face at any cost. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a growing element in our society blames the United States for Pearl Harbor, blames Israel for Palestinian suicide bombers, blames all of Western Civilization for September 11. But making excuses for evil does not make evil go away.
It just keeps coming back, each time bolder and more brazen than before.
The Talmud warns us to distance ourselves from a bad neighbor and not to associate with a wicked friend. Even if he loves his kids. Even if his name is Tony Soprano. Perhaps, especially if his name is Tony Soprano.
Originally published in 2007 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jewish World Review, and Aish.com.