"The world is a jungle. You want my advice? Don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down. In the end, you die in your own arms." --Livia Soprano, to Anthony, Jr., on HBO’s The Sopranos.
Perhaps the most striking thing about HBO’s superb drama series The Sopranos -- and what sets it apart from most any show on television -- is its unabashed embrace of classically liberal principles. Perhaps only Comedy Central’s South Park better hammers home the themes of rugged individualism, minimalist government and the inherent corruption of power.
In fact, The Sopranos is driven by the theme of personal responsibility. From episode one, mob boss Tony Soprano sits in psychotherapy and swallows Paxil and Prozac by the fistful because he’s unable to reconcile his yearning for security and stability with the fact that he makes his living as a mob boss.
When work and family collide -- when he attempts to discipline his delinquent son A.J., or to instill some grounding in the flighty ambitions his college-bound daughter Meadow -- he’s rendered helpless. He lacks any moral authority to execute the duties of a father, and so subjects himself to panic attacks, depression, and general anxiety about what to do about it all.
The theme applies to most of the show’s other major characters, too. Tony’s wife, Carmela, keeps the Don’s-wife-guilt at bay with charity work and counseling sessions with the local priest. Even Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, struggles, and was once scolded by her own therapist for accepting blood money from her Mafioso client.
In the current season, Sopranos’ producers struck yet another blow for personal responsibility when they skewered the ethnic advocacy groups that have objected to the show’s portrayal of Italian-Americans. In one particularly telling episode, a group of Native Americans organize to protest a planned Columbus Day parade in Newark, N.J. The Sopranos’ Italian-American crime family of course isn’t happy -- Columbus is an Italian hero. The episode eventually degenerates into an orgy of ethnic whining, with its Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican and Native American characters all clamoring for the status of "biggest victim."
Just weeks after the Columbus Day episode aired, organizers of the real New York City Columbus Day parade refused to let Sopranos cast members march, again citing the negative stereotypes the show allegedly encourages of Italian-Americans.
Fittingly, at the end of the Columbus Day episode Tony lectures his lieutenant, Silvio Dante, on the merits of personal responsibility.
"You have a great wife, a smart kid, and you own the best strip club in New Jersey," Tony says. "Did you get all that because you’re Italian? No. You got it because you’re you."
Tony’s words are offered in praise of Sil. But they could be applied to the objections of the show’s Italian-American detractors as well. What we are -- for good or bad -- is what we make of ourselves. We shouldn’t be limited or bolstered by ethnicity.
But The Sopranos’ libertarian themes go beyond individualism.
In the second season, we see a state’s witness at home, reading the late Robert Nozick’s eloquent critique of the welfare state, Anarchy, State and Utopia. In that book, the noted Harvard philosopher makes the case that the only government that can be morally justified is one the performs basic functions of securing our natural rights -- protecting us from criminal elements and defending us from outside threats.
As it turns out, federal authorities misled the man we’re shown reading the book. They neglected to tell him that the murder he’d seen was a mob hit carried out by Tony Soprano himself. The witness learns the truth from a television report, and fearing for his life, he recants his testimony. We see that government in its current form can’t even perform the minimal tasks Nozick’s laid out for it: protecting us from violent crime.
Finally, continuing on the limited government theme in the current season, we see Tony Soprano defrauding a low-income housing program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A corrupt state assemblyman and a wayward civil justice activist play accomplice to his scheme. In one telling scene, after they’ve pulled the deal off, the councilman and the activist reflect on their more idealistic youth.
"What happened to us?" the assembly man asks his old friend. "We were going to set the world on fire. We were going to do some good."
The activist responds that the system is just too big and too corrupt to change from the outside. If they hadn’t exploited an anti-poverty program to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, he says, someone else surely would have. In the end, the assemblyman, the activist, the Don and his capo all drink a champagne toast, cynically, "to the federal government."
Part of the lure of The Sopranos is the way its producers seduce us into sympathizing with unsympathetic characters, then force us to confront those sympathies when, for example, Tony Soprano takes a baseball bat to the car of a friend-turned-traitor’s widow. Even the show’s viewers are called into account for making poor decisions about where we lay our sympathies.
The Sopranos has taken a lot of heat, from both the advocacy groups mentioned above, and from family-values groups unhappy with the shows liberal use of sex, violence and drug abuse in its plotlines. But in truth, there isn’t a drama on television that better articulates the benefits of rugged individualism and limited government. I’ll take The Sopranos and it’s Jeffersonian themes over the preachy collectivism of The West Wing in a heartbeat.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.