In America, we celebrate our thugs. They’re entrenched in the popular culture as familiar threads in the social fabric —collectively speaking, an integral part of who we are. After all, who didn’t like Tony Soprano?
Because they exist in the shared imagination as mythical figures, it really doesn’t matter that much whether the thugs are real or fictional. Al Capone and Don Corleone are equally well remembered.
Many cultures venerate some sort of Robin Hood character — the roguish rascal with a heart of gold whose lawless behavior is justified by a higher moral purpose. We, on the other hand, generally impose no corresponding ethical burden on our thugs. It’s perfectly acceptable if they’re motivated by greed or ruthless ambition so long as they confine their violent hijinks to their own kind. That simple restraint is easily accommodated in fiction and virtually impossible in fact.
The word “thug” is derived from the gangs of murderous bandits that first emerged in 14th-century India known as the “Thugee.” These outlaws established themselves in remote regions of the country where they preyed on hapless travelers with near impunity. The term became westernized when the British colonized the subcontinent and sought to eradicate them.
Victimization is thus intrinsic to thuggery, which complicates the fickled tolerance Americans grant its practitioners. Gangsters may be colorful but their charm vanishes quickly when innocent bystanders are harmed. Two recent news stories illustrate the point.
In Omaha, the police union recently ignited a firestorm of controversy by posting the video of a diaper-clad toddler on its website. The child, a 2-year-old male, is seen struggling with an overturned kitchen chair while mouthing profanities and freely dropping the N-bomb in dialogue with off-camera adults. Said “adults” respond in kind, encouraging his outrageous diatribe. The film concludes with the youngster “flipping off” the cameraman. It’s not child pornography but it’s clearly obscene.
The president of the police union, Sgt. John Wells, contends the offensive content was posted to alert ordinary citizens to the caliber of individuals the police routinely deal with. Critics contend it promotes unfavorable racial stereotypes.
Meanwhile in New Jersey, the ship of Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations took a torpedo below the waterline when it was revealed his administration had used the transportation department to punish political rivals.
It seems that after the mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid, the governor’s deputy chief of staff arranged to shut down three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, thereby ensnarling the hapless citizens of the township in a four-day-long traffic jam.
At first blush, employing the apparatus of the state to frustrate and oppress its citizenry sounds like something that might happen in North Korea but given the reputation of politics in the Garden State, it’s probably better understood as an episode of the Sopranos. That series, incidentally, took place in New Jersey.
The two seemingly disparate incidents are both examples of thugs who fell from favor by harming innocents. Each case represents a different genre of thug, but that’s really more a difference of style rather than substance.
The Omaha video affords candid insight into the reality of parts of hip-hop culture. I’m always amazed when people who would normally be offended by any expression of racist sexism calmly defend the purveyors of this garbage as tortured artists giving poetic vent to their angst. Have you ever listened to the lyrics in a wide selection of rap music productions?
What we see here is the reality of a young child being taught the twisted rules of this perverse lifestyle. Turns out the footage was shot by a friend of the kid’s uncle. The uncle then posted it on his Facebook page, presumably because he thought it was funny or, worse yet, cute.
We now know that Mom just turned 17; Dad was killed last year in a gang-related shooting; Grandma’s a convicted felon and the tyke has already been shot, having been hit by bullet fragments during a recent drive-by shooting. So much for the glitter of gangsta life.
The “Bridge-gate” scandal in New Jersey would have never become a national story had the Christie administration confined its vengeance to fellow pols. It’s no particular shock to learn that machine politicians play hardball. But when the masses are punished for the transgressions of the few, people tend to take notice.
In fairness, Christie has vehemently denied any prior knowledge of the stunt and has fired a couple of high-ranking assistants over it. He has also apologized publicly and profusely for the incident. But it’s fairly obvious that key members of his staff — people who were quite close to the man — believed the boss would have approved of the tactic if he had known. What does that say about the backstage dynamics of his administration?
In the last analysis, the thugs we love to glamorize all have one thing in common: They’re the ones we don’t know very well.