On Gangs of New York

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Martin
Scorsese's new film Gangs
of New York
makes clear that all our glorious oratory about
freedom and independence only hides the fact that we have always
been — and remain still — a land of violence in which the most vicious
rule and that might indeed makes right. And yet I haven't seen a
single review of this film that points this out.

As
the film begins, we learn that the "natives," men like
Bill the Butcher, born and raised in America and whose fathers fought
for control, or "independence," must continue to fight
for control. In the film's first sequence, set in 1846, Bill and
his men defeat the more recent newcomers, led by Priest Vallon,
in a vicious street battle that leaves Vallon dead and the snowy
streets of Five Points, New York pink with blood.

We
must assume that Bill's gang holds a monopoly on violence for the
next fifteen years because the film then moves ahead to 1862, in
the midst of the War Between the States — itself a contest between
two gangs fighting for control and a monopoly on violence. Bill,
who is as full of glorious oratory as America itself, is now in
league with Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (who, despite his title and
his political position, is a gangster as well). Meanwhile, Amsterdam,
Priest Vallon's son, is released from Hell's Gate after sixteen
years. While he becomes close to the Butcher, at the same time he's
planning to kill him in revenge for what happened to his father.
We see now and again in the background of Bill's headquarters a
drawing of Priest, which Bill has given a prominent place of honor.
At one point, Bill mentions that, of all the men he'd killed, Priest
was "the only one worth remembering." Throughout the development
of their relationship, we see glimpses of what the war is causing,
in particular the coming of the draft (intriguing, isn't it, that
this war, supposedly fought to end slavery, should subject these
formerly free New Yorkers to the deadliest slavery of them all?).

Both
of these storylines — Bill vs. Amsterdam and the people vs. Lincoln,
Tweed & Co. — come to a head in a fascinating sequence that
is in some ways comparable to the baptism sequence in The
Godfather
. Amsterdam and the Butcher have agreed in a formal,
mutually respectful meeting to settle their differences though a
fight, most likely to the death (Amsterdam insists on no guns —
this fight must be up close and personal). At the same time, the
Union Army is moving to quell the anti-draft riots that have broken
out, more because they threaten the rich than because they threaten
the blacks.

Scorsese's
cutting between these two confrontations highlights some striking
differences. First, you see that, just as he had almost fifteen
years earlier, Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Vallon, both individuals,
show respect each other. In the 1846 sequence, Bill and Priest talk
first and each expresses his point of view and why he's fighting.
They do not attack one another until the signal to begin is given.
The same thing happens in 1863 (another similarity: Bill had let
Amsterdam live after a failed attempt on his life, just as Priest
had let Bill live in the same situation). Also, you see that the
two sides, again as was true in 1846, are roughly equal in strength
and weaponry. Although there will be a brutal, no doubt vicious,
fight, and people will undoubtedly die, perhaps horribly, at least
it will be a fair and an honest fight.

The
confrontation between those opposed to the draft and the Union Army
is quite different. The film has made clear what kind of people
run this gang: the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt — those who
can afford the $300 to buy their way out of the draft. In one scene,
immigrants coming off one boat sign up first as citizens, then as
soldiers, and are put onto another boat to fight — and, in many
cases, die — for this corruption while, at the same time, coffin
after coffin is being unloaded.

Soldiers
armed with rifles and bayonets aim them at the mostly unarmed crowd.
One soldier orders them to disperse, but they are given little time
to do so. Before anyone in the crowd can even say a word, the soldiers
begin to fire point blank into the crowd.

The
fight between Amsterdam and the Butcher, meanwhile, is itself attacked
by the federal government when ships in the harbor begin bombarding
Manhattan. The Butcher dies and is buried across the river next
to Priest Vallon. In the hauntingly magnificent final scene, we
see modern Manhattan rise up from the smoking ruins of the Union
bombardment as the cemetery in the foreground disappears and the
voiceover mentions that someday, no one will even remember they
were here.

Of
the competing gangs of New York, the most vicious — the one that
ultimately won control of the city — was the federal government,
which by war's end has established its own monopoly over violence.
While vicious individuals like Bill the Butcher showed his enemies
respect, the even more vicious federal government had none. Its
major representative in the film, Boss Tweed, tells him, "you're
the past."

And
yet, despite the obviousness of this (at least to me), the national
reviewers either don't see it or refuse to admit that they do. Not
one that I've read sees the point of this film. Stanley Kauffmann
of the New Republic, for instance, wrote that "The flaw…is
its lack of a crystallized theme. At the end there are some utterances
claiming that these street struggles led the way to democracy, but
these closing comments are hollow. They suggest that Scorsese and
his writers belatedly realized that they had to supply a reason
for their picture’s existence."

Apparently,
not many seem to recognize Lincoln, Boss Tweed, the police, the
federal government or the Union Army as a gang. Glenn Kenny of Premiere
Magazine, for instance, wrote that, "when the gang warfare
is interrupted by the 1863 Draft Riots and the U.S. military’s horrific
squelching of them, it’s kind of like if the Army rolled into Little
Italy to interrupt the squabbling of the mooks in 1973′s Mean
Streets
." This implies that Kenny does not see the
Union Army as itself a gang. It's amazing how a badge, a uniform,
or a title can change someone's view of objective reality.

A.O.
Scott of the New York Times came a little closer. Although,
like many of the reviewers, he gets sidetracked at times by his
liberal orthodoxies (he mentions, for instance, that "I almost
wish Mr. Scorsese and his screenwriters had been delayed long enough
to take account of Paradise
Alley
, Kevin Baker’s new novel about the draft riots of
1863, in which some of the events touched on in this movie are perceived
through women’s eyes"), he does notice that the film "is
not the usual triumphalist story of moral progress and enlightenment,
but rather a blood-soaked revenger’s tale, in which the modern world
arrives in the form of a line of soldiers firing into a crowd. What
we are witnessing is the eclipse of warlordism and the catastrophic
birth of a modern society." That's close, but he doesn't quite
come out and say it. Is it truly the "end of warlordism"
or simply a different form of it? And why doesn't he see it?

Why?
Because apparently he can't (or, perhaps, won't). Few Americans
can (or will). We're indoctrinated from the earliest possible age
to see people in authority — people sporting titles or badges or
official uniforms — as noble, kind, caring, and trustworthy. No
wonder the government controls the schools and makes sure everyone
attends! Put those flags in the corners, have them recite the Pledge
of Allegiance every morning (whether they understand it or not),
and teach them that the President is the most important man in the
nation — indeed, teach them what a nation is, and what our responsibilities
are towards it!

In
fact, the day after I saw the film, one of the local stations showed
news footage of a fifth grade class writing letters of support to
troops either already in or headed to the Persian Gulf. One of the
featured students had festooned herself in red, white, and blue.
The story was repeated in this morning's newspaper. Get them started
as early as possible to see agents of government as your protectors,
not as the enemy — not as part of a gang. As Murray Rothbard wrote
in concluding his Education:
Free and Compulsory
, "Unquestionably, the effect of
all this is to foster dependence of the individual on the group
and on the State" (p. 55).

Now
I can't say I've read every review of the film, but it's apparent
from just these few reviews that our national indoctrination is
extremely powerful. These deeply held, almost subconscious attitudes
and beliefs that children receive so early represent the greatest
obstacle to freedom.

To
see the bloody, brutal victory of the federal government over the
very people it supposedly protected, and the resultant rise of modern
America as depicted in the extraordinary closing scene, was astonishing.
But to see the inability of so many reviewers to recognize that,
and to realize the depth and power of our pro-government indoctrination,
is even more astounding.

January
21, 2003

Craig
Russell [send him mail]
is a writer and musician in upstate New York.


     

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