Think Like Vintage Mafia: Lessons On Justice from “The Godfather”

 “I believe in America. America has made me rich.”

So states a customer of Vito Corleone, the Godfather. Someone raped his daughter and was promptly acquitted by means of a small bribe. This is a preponderant theme throughout the movie: the ideal system of American justice pays forfeit to the American dream of wealth. When this man asks that the Corleones avenge his daughter, Vito bristles in reply: “If you had come to me first, it would have been a matter of justice. Now, it is business.” The man’s loyalties are where the money is—America. And only when he finds out that American justice also lies where money is will he turn to family ties and personal connections for help. He’s offended Vito by making family secondary. Vito returns the favor, insisting on the same relational distance: “it’s not personal, it’s business.”

Hence, the driving question of the story: is justice business or is it personal?

Even a cursory read of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States would demonstrate that the American justice system was designed for balance and reasonable objectivity. Look up images of Jefferson’s muse, Lady Justice—she’s blindfolded as a guard against any material incentive that would taint her judgment. One would hope that her objectivity eliminates personal bias. But in Corleone’s New York, people make money hand over fist by operating the justice system like it’s their business. The Corleones are the most powerful syndicate precisely because they pay off the most powerful New York politicians. Blindfolding the eyes of justice is a risk; who’s to say it isn’t being tweaked here and there? Instead of being unbiased, justice is merely redirected towards different (and quite personal) biases. Seemingly objective decisions get personal—fast.

Moments later, we are introduced to Michael Corleone at his sister’s wedding. He is in American military uniform, secluded in a corner with his American girlfriend. Clearly, his loyalties are splintering off from his family and its un-American ways. His life reverses after the assassination attempt on his father. The night he visits a comatose Vito, finding him without guards and possibly at risk of another assassination attempt, Michael spins his loyalty from ‘truth, justice and the American way’ toward the ways of the Corleones. We’re later told that ‘Corleone’ originally wasn’t the last name of the family—it was the name of the Godfather’s birthplace. Corleone, in wider scope of the film, is not just a family—it is the heritage, culture and, sometimes, the very dust of Italy. Within Michael an identity firmly rooted in American idealism was beginning to grow. But it turns out that independence, reason, and ideals just couldn’t outweigh the passion and tradition of an identity passed down through generation. Injustice, it turns out, is always personal. You can make a business out of justice but check the other side of that coin and you’ll find you’ve set off a chain of personal offenses.

And, in practice, do we really object? If you are five, won’t you find playground bullying personal? If you are twenty, won’t you find workplace discrimination personal? If you are sixty, won’t you find medical malpractice personal?

Maybe you find it objectionable to identity with Michael. After all, he essentially accepts lordship over all New York mafia members—he is inheriting the kingdom of crime. The Corleone family is a monarchy through and through. Democracies run forward on rhetoric but monarchies continue from honor. In democracies, laws are incentivized with rhetorically powerful presentations. In monarchies, the monarch alone makes decisions—loyalty to these decisions is rewarded with honor and disloyalty punished with death or exile. This is precisely how Michael steps out. He restores the Corleone family to order and supremacy by killing their enemies and executing all betrayers, even his own brother-in-law. Loyalty is the family’s non-negotiable rule. Loyalty is for everyone’s protection; your own welfare is implicitly bound up within it. It’s not a matter of following objective justice. It’s molding justice within the pre-determined lines of loyalty.

We certainly would like to think that we would never conform justice to our loyalties. We would like to think that our system of court and law is the best in the world—that it empowers everyone to receive and administer justice in right proportion. But after World War II, as America realized she was fully in an age of modern warfare, the culture felt raw after seeing masse death through increasing masse media. When news and images were distributed nationally, there was a paradigm shift in power distribution. Power to communicate was less localized. Though it started with planes and bombing runs, when the obliteration of Hiroshima occurred without a single casualty to the aggressors a similar paradigm shift in power distribution occurred. Power to kill was no longer constrained to hand-to-hand combat. It centralized down to a button on switchboard and evolved into current drone strikes. And so, writers and artists post-WWII began to express how undeniably powerless they felt (cf. T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland). Soon, there rose entire worlds of crime in New York and Chicago where families tried to reclaim power on a more individual scale.

Justice experiments. That’s what the original federalists thought of their work with the colonies and, eventually, the Constitution. They were experimenting with a progressive design for a system of justice. Distinct from governments which are half-determined by revolutions and half-designed by theorists, this government was founded on “self-evident truths”—incontestably visible and objective truths—about justice and human rights. If that’s so, America moving forward is justice moving forward.

Or is it so? If we are sensitive to having historical continuity and consistency in our identity as Americans, we will be pricked to the question, “what is and what has been the outcome of this justice experiment?” The Godfather canonizes a section of American history which should agitate rather than affirm our certainty in the self-evident nature of justice and human rights. We daily ask for our Father’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Why else would we, unless we are unsettled about the justice as currently administered? Discussing the questions brought up by The Godfather goes beyond mere artsy jabber—it lines up directly with questions which are obediently, implicitly and rhythmically ingrained into the Christian life.