New Book on Prohibition Gangsters Lurid and Lively

Marc Mappen
Rutgers, 2018, 258 pages.

There’s something about outlaws that many people find attractive—even when those outlaws are bloodthirsty murderers. Maybe it’s because they appeal to the darker impulses of law abiders who dream of setting their own ids free to roam. Or maybe it’s the lingering suspicion that laws and economic systems are not really designed for the prosperity and well-being of the proverbial Average Joe, so we admire those who machine gun their way fortune and infamy. Still, public curiosity is odd given the fact that most gangsters and outlaws were not Robin Hood types that shared their ill-gotten wealth. For every Pretty Boy Floyd, there were dozens of Mafiosi more likely to run protection rackets on Joe than to look out for his interests.

By nature gangsters thrive on vice, which is why historians usually see the Prohibition era (1920-33) as the golden age of American crime. The great Western experiment with outlawing booze quickly shed its utopian skin and revealed the inner sinners. In the United States, urban officials and journalists such as H. L. Mencken warned as early as 1925 that the 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture, transportation, or sale of alcohol was a failure; had Al Smith won the 1928 presidential election, it might have been repealed five years earlier. As it was, many cities only half-hardheartedly tried to enforce Prohibition. Who could blame police and politicians—even those not on the take—for treading warily? Much as in the case of battling today’s gangs and drug kingpins, law enforcement was out-gunned. Consider the cast of characters that come to mind when we think of Prohibition era gangsters: Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Bugs Moran, Frank Nitti, and Bugsy Siegel are enough to strike fear into any heart. Moreover, as writer/editor Marc Mappen argues in a chapter titled “Smaller Cities,” the famed crime waves we associate with Chicago, New York, and Atlantic City were merely the tip of the iceberg.

As Mappen notes, many gangsters lived short and brutish lives; their partners in crime often meted out what passed for justice. However, he also draws our attention to the fact that just one Prohibition era crime racketeer, Louis Lepke Buchalter, was executed for his crimes. A few, most famously Al Capone, were brought down by methods that did not involve mano e mano battles between cops and gangsters; Capone went to jail for tax evasion and several others fell prey to new racketeering laws. For the most part, though, those who survived inter- and intra-gang violence died in their beds. As Mappen puts it in his concluding chapter, “For them, crime did pay” (213).

Mappen gives context for Prohibition era crime, but the deep background is not the main focus of his book. He is clearly one of those who are fascinated by gangsters. That’s not to say he admires them; as his subtitle suggests, he sees them as part of a “bad generation” driven by greed and violence. But he’s also a chronicler of the minutiae that surrounds his central figures. If, like me, the details of who attended what syndicate conference and who pulled the trigger on whom does not satisfy some innate curiosity, you may find yourself skimming sections of the book. As a social historian, I was more drawn to themes that are largely glossed in Prohibition Gangsters, such as the fact that Jewish and Italian mobsters often assumed Irish surnames in twisted assimilation attempts. I also wanted much more discussion of race and gender, two topics that were (if you will) little more than drive-bys in Mappen’s study. In like fashion, I found his suggested connections between pre- and post-World War Two organized crime to be more dotted lines than solid ones. I was left unconvinced that the links are as straightforward as he suggests, but maybe he has more in mind than he showed in discussions of postwar mobster figures such as Frank Costello and Vito Genovese.

These, however, are critiques of Mappen’s fascinations as refracted through my own. If you share his desire to peel the inner lives and details of infamous prewar thugs, Mappen is a go-to source. His text is concise and lively, and his research is sound. He doesn’t glamorize his subjects, but he does make them interesting. That alone is a delicate balancing act upon the running board of a speeding car.

Rob Weir   


Do You Want to Win, or Do You Want to Whine?

Bill Clinton drove me from the Democratic Party. I sometimes call him the most-effective Republican president of the post-World-War II era. NAFTA and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, drove me away; the first was a middle finger to labor unions, and the second kicked poor people into a litter-strewn pile of nostrums. These were just two of the goodies Bill Clinton handed to Republicans—things they weren't able to secure during Reagan's presidency.

I am a democratic socialist. But do I want the Democrats to overthrow Republicans in the midterm elections? You bet your soul I do. I'm very skeptical that they will. Democrats have become tone-deaf. This isn't the party of FDR or LBJ.

I have criticized them for that. If I have commented less often on the Republicans, it's because there's no point; they have descended to such levels of greed, meanness, and malice as to be irredeemable. A "good" Republican politician is like sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker. (Though Charlie Baker might be one.)

"What's your plan?" I hear. That's ironic, because my beef with Democrats is that they have no plan. Okay, so here's one, though I can tell you that insider Dems won't like it.

Some of it isn't stuff I actually want, but it's stuff the Democrats need to do so they're not renting their garments again in November.

1. "Stop Trump" is not a plan; it's an objective.

Stop focusing on him. He's a monster, but when Democrats fire salvos, they simply fire up his base. Anger is not a blueprint. Democrats need to develop policies that counter the GOP. Trash the anti-Trump rants and focus on a vision for America.

2. Treat the Clintons as toxic.

They are. There is political hay to be harvested in criticizing both on the campaign trail. Is this is "unfair?" Puh-leeze—this is politics! The Clintons have high negatives and unless Democratic candidates repudiate them, Clintonian errors—real and perceived—will make office-seekers vulnerable. The Clintons should not be allowed anywhere near key races.

3. Give measured praise to Trump.

Even fools are right on occasion. Knee-jerk rants send the message that anyone who voted for Trump is the enemy. Basic math, folks: Just 30 percent of voters are registered Democrats; 42–45 percent are independents. You want a goodly portion of the latter to rally to Democrats, not circle the wagons. Here are some places where Trump might be right—even if it's for the wrong reasons.

            a. North Korea: Was Trump suckered by Kim Jong Un? Maybe, but in the short-term, tensions have been defused, and that's a good thing on the volatile Korean peninsula. Let's be realistic—any president takes a risk when dealing with authoritarians. Reagan got duped by numerous Latin American dictators, Bush I and Dubya got tricked into two useless Gulf wars, Clinton badly misread Islamic fundamentalism, Obama got played by Hamas, Trump looks like a child up against Netanyahu and Putin, and the Saudis hoodwinked everyone. But Trump might have North Korea right, and rapprochement should be encouraged.

            b. Free trade really is a farce.

Trump plays the anti-free trade card so he can grandstand without doing much, but he's not wrong that free trade is unfair. Here's why: Labor isn't free. We have a global system in which goods and services can move across borders, but people can't. Those who fear job loss have reason to worry. If labor can't move across borders but capital can, jobs will always flow to the bottom of the wage tank. Trump doesn't give a damn about workers, but there's plenty room to his left to articulate linkages between trade, wages, environmental concerns, etc. .Call it "fairness" on the stump and don't be afraid to peel back bad treaties. It will take more finesse than Trump has, but a slow pullback from China is definitely in order. Anyone who thinks China engages in free trade is delusional.  

            c. "American jobs" is electoral gold.

Democrats used to own the working class—until they forgot who they are. Let's hear more about building jobs here. Obama's Reinvestment Act was a good idea; he simply lacked the stomach to battle for it. Draw new plans, which will be criticized as "too expensive," but then do as the GOP does—stay on message. Just keep saying "American jobs" and bash back. Accuse the Republicans of not caring about "American jobs." Keep saying that phrase. Promise to bring Harley-Davidson back to Illinois!

4. Simplify.

The "American jobs" mantra brings up another crucial thing. Fox News is the most viewed of all TV news shows. Instead of whining about that, learn why. Fox is brilliant at reducing things to the lowest common denominator. So, yes, I suggest Democrats "dumb down" their campaigns. It's elemental: Most Americans don't read a single book in a year, and they are not going to read an online policy white paper. It. Won't. Happen. Dust off your best slogans and make 'em short and snappy: "The rights of all Americans," "Respect for women," "Privacy," "Don't let the government tell you what to do," "Invest in America," "Get tough on all criminals," and "Everyone should do their fair share."

You know why? Because these things will lose votes if you frame them in ways other than above: transsexual rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, government job programs, cracking down of white-collar crime, raising taxes on the rich…. There's a world of difference between shouting "gay rights" and saying that sex is a "privacy issue." Democrats should be for everything on the list, but if they can't frame them, they can't sell them.

A lesson from 2000: Al Gore's lackluster presidential campaign had two big upward spikes: When he planted a wet kiss on then-wife Tipper, and when he attacked "Big Pharma." He should have kept on those tracks. Do you think the electorate's capacity for detail has grown since then? I wish!

5. Get younger, darker, and more ideological.

By 2040, but probably much sooner, the USA will be a minority majority country. The party that prepares for that will be in the driver's seat. Of all the dead-end streets Democrats like to visit, the "move to the middle" is the deadest of them all. Americans don't fear big ideas; Senator Sanders has polling data going back decades on support for infrastructure improvement, single-payer healthcare, workplace rights, affordable college, a millionaires' tax, etc. It's all about how you package it. The rush to the "middle" is a road to … just a word without substance that inspires few.

Democrats need to be seen as people of vision, not as elites, and certainly not as whiny and stale.

6. Immigration reform.

 This will anger those who think our borders should be wide open. Sorry—it doesn't work that way anywhere in the world. Look, I could cite chapter and verse on how the once-open US borders got closed, but that would get us nowhere. Trump is absolutely right—again, for all the wrong reasons—when he says US immigration policy is broken. Democrats should lead on reform—but in ways that will make Trump tear out his orange hair. A few ideas:

            a. Set a reset date. Admit that we can't fix the past. Announce a new policy that, when put in place, will be absolute from that date forth.

            b. Issue non-forgeable ID cards to all who request them and can prove current residency in the United States.

            c. Put in place severe sanctions against any employer hiring non-documented workers after the reset date. Let's talk six figures plus jail time. This takes care of a current loophole. Illegal immigrants can always find employers who won't ask questions. In a new plan, if a card isn't in the database and you hire, you pay the consequences.

            d. Raise the annual quota. What a load of hooey we hear from Trump. If unemployment is as low as his administration claims, how exactly are immigrants "stealing" US jobs? Sell higher quotas as "Building the economy."

Does this plan sound mean? I think not. If more immigrants were legal and the border flow slowed, the US could take in more emergency refugees and political asylum seekers. (A long-term project is for the US to work with the UN on refugees. There could nearly a billion climate change refugees alone by 2050.)  

Above all, "immigration" needs to be rethought because it has become a negative word among a vast swatch of the electorate—44% in recent polls. Again, that's true even if it makes you comfortable. Democrats do not have the luxury of standing pat on the issue. If they do, it will doom them—just like it did in 2016.

So what's it going to be? Whine or win? 


Be Wary of Political Labels

Not my kind of socialist!
 Perhaps you've read about Spenser Rapone, the dude booted from the U.S. Army for stunts such as wearing a Che Guevara shirt under his dress uniform jacket, and writing "Communism Will Win" on his hat during his West Point graduation. He is a self-proclaimed "revolutionary socialist," and the Army wearied of his antics and dismissed him.

Maybe you've read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old that unseated the sclerotic five-term Democratic congressman Joe Crowley. She also calls herself a socialist.

I wanted to vomit when I read about Rapone—but not for the reasons knee-jerk patriots would assume. Rapone is either na├»ve or an idiot; take your choice. He makes me sick because I am a socialist, and I have very little in common with him. Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, gives me hope that American politics might actually have a pulse.

Rapone used the word "socialism" in ways that fuel the miseducation of history-resistant Americans. He used it as a synonym for "communism" and that's exactly what most Americans believe it to be. * Millions of Americans associate socialism with the former Soviet Union, or perhaps with North Korea or Cuba, though ardor has cooled on Cuba now that right-wingers don't have Fidel Castro to kick around. The same crowd, by the way, downplays the fact that China is a communist country, because they make billions in business deals with those reds.

My kind!
 Ocasio-Cortez is my kind of socialist. So too is Bernie Sanders. And Billy Connolly. And Kaniela Ing. So we must ask, why do the far right and the extreme left get to own the word socialist?

Most of the political labels we toss around are categories, not specific ideologies. They reference a spectrum of thinking, not a single viewpoint. I often liken them to ice cream. When someone utters that that word, don't you immediately think, "What kind?" In our post-Ben and Jerry's/ Herrell's/ Hagen Daz world, choices and combinations are endless—not like the old days when choice was basically strips of a Neapolitan: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Yet we still think of politics as if it is a Neapolitan: democracy, communism, and fascism. Sometimes it gets even worse—like when Americans think capitalism is a synonym for democracy. Sorry, but capitalism is an economic term, not a set of political values. Have you ever asked yourself how the democratic United States can even do business with communist China? The answer is that that China isn't really a communist nation; it's an authoritarian nation whose guiding economic principle is state-command capitalism. The latter is cool with the United States, which isn't a pure democracy any more than China is a utopian communist state. At best, the United States is an indirect representative democracy that practices a de facto form of oligarchic (control by a few) capitalism. Moral: democracy, socialism, and fascism come in various "flavors." **

Back to my confession. I am a socialist, something I remind people when they tell me I "must" vote for Democrats. My economic principles are quite different from those of two-party capitalists. I think, for example, that medical care should be free for all, that public colleges should also be free (or very cheap), that all employers should have to pay a living wage, that Social Security should be fully funded by removing the income cap on paying into it, that no company should be allowed to raid or default on pension plans, that military spending should be slashed dramatically and funds diverted into infrastructure spending, that we should fully fund anti-poverty programs, and that government should invest heavily in green energy and biomedical research. I also believe in strict business regulation to ensure healthy environmental conditions. Regulators should also remove tax incentives for moving profitable businesses to lower-wage nations, or for setting up dummy offices abroad to avoid taxes. And, yes, I'd like to see a true graduated income tax that makes those who have more pay more. A personal mantra is: "Free trade is and always has been a fraud!" Yet I wouldn't go the barricades for any of this, because I oppose militarism and compulsion—touchstone values for democratic socialists the likes of which we find alive and well. (See chart.)

To (over) simplify, two-party capitalists believe that most forms of wealth should accrue to individuals; socialists hold that many forms of wealth should first serve a collective public good. Sure—the far end of the socialist spectrum results in nightmares such as the military-based bureaucratic socialism of the Soviet Union, or the smoke-and-mirrors fake socialism of Venezuela. It's also true that oligarchic capitalism meshes comfortably with fascist states such as Nazi Germany, religious monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, and military dictatorships such as that of Honduras. (Don't be fooled by sham elections; look at where power really lies.)   

Rapone is a revolutionary communist; I am a democratic socialist. No group in history has more fiercely opposed communists than democratic socialists. They saw early on that those claiming the communist label were authoritarian monsters drawn to personal power, militarism, and bureaucracy, not in empowering the people, assuring the public welfare, or building democracy. In a way, self-proclaimed communists remind me of today's Republican Party; many of my friends like to compare Trump to Mussolini, but I think he's more like Stalin.

But for now, let's chew on this irony: Rapone was thrown out of the Army for being a socialist, yet the U.S. military is the largest socialist enterprise in the United States—100% taxpayer-supported! But it sure as hell isn't the kind of socialism this democratic socialist wants.

* Comic Jimmy Tingle quipped that Americans are taught to despise socialism in public school, "a socialist institution!"  

**Here's a short list of flavors. The most benign forms are in bold. Keep in mind that many nations have "mixed" forms of government that borrow from various political models.

Democracy: direct, indirect, pure, representative, parliamentary, one/two-party, proportional, winner-take-all, authoritarian, restricted electorate, capitalist democracy, social democracy, moderate libertarianism, religious, secular

Socialism: democratic, market, liberal, eco-socialism, utopian communism (as in the commune movement), religious (like early Christians), cooperative, Marxist, Maoist, labor parties, anarchist, syndicalist, state bureaucratic

Fascism: Nazism, military juntas, nationalist movements, religious theocracies/dictatorships, most authoritarian regimes, hate groups, extreme libertarianism, capitalist oligarchy, police states, power elites



Woman in the Window a Good Read, but a Pasteup Job

By A. J. Finn
HarperCollins, 448 pages.

The Woman in the Window is a thrilling read, yet by all rights it shouldn’t be. Let me address the gorilla in the room. I liked this book, but it’s a work of intellectual piracy. Take the unreliable observer/narrator of The Girl on a Train, the troubled teens from any Tana French novel, the disappearing act from Gone Girl, the creepy voyeurs from the films Three Colors: Red and Rear Window, plus skeptical law enforcement from the latter, and you’ve got The Woman in the Window.

Anna Fox is a former high-profile child psychologist laid low by agoraphobia, separation from her husband and daughter, and over-fondness for Merlot—which she seemingly drinks by the vat. She still does some counseling, but online and from the anonymous confines of her home office. Few of her clients realize that she too is in therapy, or that her only in-person human contacts are visits from her therapist, her trainer, delivery people, and the renter in her basement. Her neighbors certainly don’t know that Anna spends much of her day spying on them through a high-powered zoom lens on a tripod-mounted camera in her bedroom.

Anna’s life gets more complicated when a new family moves next door—the Russells: Alistair, Jane, and their teenage son Ethan. Anna perceptively intuits that Ethan is troubled and soon, he too visits Anna. But a much stranger visit comes Ethan’s mother, who bonds with Anna over girl talk and free-flowing Merlot. Imagine Anna’s shock when shortly thereafter, she zooms in on what she perceives to be Jane’s fatal stabbing, which she duly reports. Big problem: mom isn’t dead, she’s never met Anna, and the Russells tell her in no uncertain terms they should leave her alone and have nothing to do with Ethan. The cops, of course, write off the incident as the drunken hallucination of a lonely, depressed woman.

Of course, there is more than meets the eye, or there wouldn’t be much to the book, let alone enough to propel it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. This is where things get messy for me as reviewer. I continued to read even though I was pretty certain I had sorted out all the red herrings before I was a third of the way through. By the time I was half done, I was sure I had identified the key figure in the mystery. A few pages later, I was confident I also knew the identity of the eventual villain. Turns out I was correct on all accounts. Still, I persisted to what was ultimately a fairly obvious conclusion.

My excuse is that some books are plotted well and written badly, and some–like The Woman in the Window–are plotted badly but are skillfully written. Maybe I would have felt differently had I known about a now-exposed mystery external to the book itself. I never read about authors until I finish a book, as I don’t want to be trapped in the Hype Machine, so I was unaware of this novel’s authorial controversy. In short, there is no A. J. Finn; it’s a pen name for Daniel Mallory. A nom de plume is, of course, common in literature, but Mallory’s case is different. He’s also the executive editor of William Morrow and Company, which bought the book’s rights. It also owns rights to Gone Girl and the parent company, HarperCollins, released and flogged the novel. Can you say, “conflict of interest?”

I’ll overlook this because Finn/Mallory is a very good writer who kept me reading even though I knew his plot to be a cut-and-paste project. Still, the subterfuge, the lack of originality, and weak plot development prevents me from joining the chorus of praise for The Woman in the Window. I must call it what it really is: a good beach read. Literature? Nah! For that you need to show something new. It’s fitting that one of Anna’s shut-in activities is repeatedly watching old films. I’ve seen Finn’s story before. And before. And before. And before…

Rob Weir