Bloody Good Show

Since time immemorial, or at least since about 1776, the tortuous, invariably rocky and often malodorous path that is the American way of wealth – a path that nowadays, increasingly, all the world seems to follow – was meant to run along the majestic, biblical mountain ridge joining aesthetics and ethics. To patriarchal shepherds like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, money was always king. Incongruously, it was when money became God that the trouble started.

One could do worse than to regard the present phase of Western economic and social development using the mountains of Sicily as a backdrop. Palermo, where I write, is still abuzz with the news of the arrest, after almost a half-century in hiding, of Bernardo Provenzano, the last king of nearby Corleone and by extension of the global network of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

It is significant that, emerging from the police car on which the world’s attention had fastened as though it were a time capsule lovingly sealed by Moses himself, Provenzano held in his hands a Bible. It was the Old Testament, I have been told by a police captain here, which was the better-thumbed part of the volume.

In the primordial soup of ideas once set aboil in the Mediterranean cauldron, healthfulness was perhaps the original ingredient, with purity, fertility and beauty thrown in immediately afterwards. The first law of man, round these parts, was probably the salutary distinction between the edible and the inedible, the chestnut and the old chestnut, the fruit of the vine and that of the knowledge of good and evil. Flowering beauty, with its intimations of fruition, was merely a euphemism for robust good health. Thus when Stendhal defined beauty as ‘the promise of happiness,’ the French writer added little to the ancient codex.

The Hebrews, with their fixation on the kosher, like the Muslims with their equally precious halal, are the immediate predecessors in interest of the Italian cult of the bello, which to this day touches on every facet of daily existence and still governs the relationships between men and things, including money. The notion, for instance, that ‘money doesn’t smell’ rather belongs to the modern, histrionic, Christian intellectual universe that would as soon equate gold with the devil as make a crucifix of it. The Old Testament writers against idolatry, who denounced the Golden Calf, knew that money does smell. And how.

The Italian mafia in its traditional form, which became all but extinct in the newfangled gangsterism of the 1970s, and of which Provenzano was perhaps the last great survivor and exponent, understood this as well. So did the American tycoons of the 19th century, who had a vivid sense of the Mediterranean, elemental, biblical distinction between kosher and treife, halal and haram, bello and brutto. Manipulation, whether of individuals, of governments or of entire nations, might well be within the rules, but certain things were simply not done.

Non si fa, as an old Roman doctor, when told that an American manufacturing magnate of my acquaintance had disinherited his only son, once said to me with a grimace, as though recalling mustard gas at Ypres. Non si fa, and although Provenzano was driven to his arraignment in regulation handcuffs, not one of his captors had thought it appropriate to lay a hand on so much as a sleeve of his windbreaker.

Whether going against nature or athwart morality, whether contrary to ordinary good manners or simply violating an innate sense of style, there is no doubt that the loss through atrophy of the instinct that once helped man to tell beautiful from ugly has had grave consequences for the dynastic progress of life. Famously, Thomas Jefferson ridiculed the first design for the White House, at the profligate cost of $400,000, as big enough ‘for two emperors, one Pope, and the Grand Lama,’ meaning it was vulgar, hence unattractive, and hence not a thing to be done. And it was in a bucolic cheese-maker’s cottage of exquisite modesty that Provenzano presided over the Cosa Nostra empire spanning the globe.

As late as 1913, the banker Jacob Schiff stopped speaking to his son-in-law, Felix Warburg, when the young man had built for himself an opulent Fifth Avenue mansion. By that juncture there were abundant signs, however, that the centre could not hold. In the same year, Charles Beard, a professor at Columbia University, following in the footsteps of Thorstein Veblen’s controversial Theory of the Leisure Class of 1899, published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, for the first time connecting the notion of a failing aristocracy of wealth to that of the dysfunctional American polity.

And in the same year, in the wake of the United Mine Workers strike in Colorado, John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil retained a man called Ivy Ledbetter Lee as the world’s first modern public relations guru, who had his client travel to Colorado and hand out newly minted dimes wherever he went.

Whether by Thomas Jefferson’s, or Jacob Schiff’s, or an old-style Sicilian mafioso’s way of reckoning, Rockefeller’s deportment was brutto rather than bello; even less attractive, perhaps, than Edward H. Harriman’s use of goons with machine guns to control striking railroad workers in the same epoch; and it is doubtful that the subsequent establishment, again on Lee’s advice, of the mighty Rockefeller Foundation would have changed these good people’s opinion of the philanthropist in question.

It is not so much the old principle of noblesse oblige, with the obvious corollary that since the nobility is one of money, the responsibility must likewise be of money. Scattering shiny small coins among destitute miners, like the $1 million donation made a few years ago by the chairman of Bear Stearns, Ian Greenberg, for the distribution of Viagra among the poor, was an ugly and stupid thing to have done.

It is quite clear that the people who have lost their sense of taste and their ability to discriminate, who, as Thomas Fleming has written, ‘eat Big Macs and think it’s food, drink fruit-flavoured Miller Lite and think it’s beer, watch Spielberg movies and think they’re entertaining,’ are suited to govern neither themselves nor their families, to say nothing of the polity which, in the teeth of abundant evidence to the contrary, ‘they think is a democracy.’ In fact, Provenzano’s generation of the Cosa Nostra, like the epoch of Puritan, Bible-thumbing Judophiles that made America great, has much to teach the putative rulers of the modern world.

Self-restraint, taste, modesty, decorum, family values, respect, fidelity, good fellowship, compassion and charity, to say nothing of courage under fire or grace under pressure, are qualities more evident in a few frames of The Godfather than in all of Spielberg’s films put together. More evident, too, in Andrew Carnegie’s commandment of ‘unostentatious living’ than in the precepts of present-day robber barons the world over.

The Sicilian mafia was born out of the need for equilibrium, an impulse as aesthetic as it is ethical. The very word ‘mafia’ is thought to have been conceived in a protest against injustice, and specifically against the violation of family ties, when a mother’s cry of Ma fille! set off the Easter Monday rising against the Norman conqueror in 1282.

Inspiring Verdi to compose I Vespri Siciliani, and in every way as historically significant as the Boston Tea Party, that political moment bound together the themes of morality, liberty and family in a way that still has relevance for most Italians, whether or not the new culture of ‘The Anti-Mafia Professionals,’ so brilliantly lampooned by Leonardo Sciascia in articles for the Corriere della Sera, permits them to admit it. Here in Sicily, at any rate, that bind’s still strong, as strong as the fresh mint in our dishes and the respect yet accorded in our market squares to the name Provenzano.

Elsewhere, beyond the confines of the Mediterranean basin, two millennia of Christianity have liberated the individual human cell to a degree that would have been unimaginable to the ancients, be they Greek philosophers, Roman legionaries or Jordanian shepherds. In so doing, Christendom has left a void where the family, la famiglia, once was, which in turn has made civilisation vulnerable by undermining dynastic progress and replacing it with individual achievement. If Provenzano may be described as a tribal patriarch, then a Morgan or a Rockefeller may be said to take after Napoleon.

If dynastic progress is to continue and the wealth of civilisation is to be perpetuated, that void must be filled, and here and there in contemporary Western society one detects intellectual and legal initiatives that, although they may not ultimately succeed where Mosaic Law seems to have failed, suggest just how widely perceived the problem has become.

Thus Caroline Garnham, a partner at Lawrence Graham LLP (and Spear’s WMS columnist), has become the world expert in the field of family governance. Beginning with the premise that ‘many founders of substantial fortunes are benevolent dictators,’ Garnham aims to create ‘wealth ownership structures to avoid damage to the family wealth as a result of a family conflict’, delving into the politics of European inheritance laws and the issues of testamentary freedom, will validity and trust protection. Reminiscent as her essays are of efforts to prevent war through the League of Nations, her burgeoning practice is evidence that some forms of pacifism may have greater ethical validity than outright internecine strife.

A pivotal decision cited by Garnham, in Nestlé v National Westminster Bank, focuses on ‘the very process of attempting to achieve a balance, or, if that be old fashioned, fairness’ among the claimants to wealth, as ‘each can complain of being less well served than he or she ought to have been’. That process, of course, was once upon a time the work of God, for what is the Old Testament but a manual on family, clan and tribal values?

The ‘family constitutions’ and ‘family governance papers’ that Garnham prepares for her clients are merely individual applications of the human law of fairness, which has been interpreted before her in a myriad different ways by legal hands as diverse as Moses and Jefferson, Adam Smith and Marx, Robin Hood and Provenzano.

In the end, however, it all comes down to beauty. In prophesying that only beauty could save the world, Dostoevsky had in mind that moral equilibrium, that sense of proportion, and that discrimination of taste, which are born of the ancient union of aesthetics and ethics. Alas, only the countries of the Mediterranean basin, Italy notable among them, still retain today some of the instinctive and natural kinship with such values, which may explain why none of them has managed to start a major war or fight in one with much enthusiasm.

Mafiosi like Provenzano kill people, to be sure, but it would never occur to one of them to distribute Viagra to the indigent, or shiny dimes to the destitute. It would never occur to one of them to disown an only son because he aspired to become a writer, not an assassin. It would never occur to one of them, even if he were blind drunk on power and the blood-thick Nero d’Avola of central Sicily, to build for himself the kind of mansion for which Newport, Bar Harbour and Palm Beach are famous.

There is nothing, in the final analysis, apart from good taste to regulate the equilibrium that is the law, and to adjust the scales of justice on which all our lives, our families and our worldly goods are weighed. And, since good taste is vanishing as inexorably as the old Cosa Nostra, the law is powerless to keep up with the ever-novel twists and the ever-sharper turns of human baseness.

Hence it is doubtful that the ingenuity of Caroline Garnham, or for that matter the capture of Bernardo Provenzano, will make the world a safer place for making money and passing it on to one’s children. Better, perhaps, to listen to one’s friends talk of the old days, while gazing, a glass of wine in hand, upon a mountainous landscape.