Dignity and the Sicilian Mafia

Ciao amici! In September, my husband and I visited Sicily, Italy for the first time.  I was dazzled.  It’s got everything. Food, romance, beauty, nature, and on the more sinister side, it is the birthplace of the Mafia!

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My generation grew up watching The Godfather movies; our kids watched The Sopranos. The Sicilian Mafia is now a part of mainstream culture yet it’s been around a surprisingly long time. The Mafia emerged way back in the 1860’s, the time of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy.  The word Mafia, which initially meant ‘bragging’, described the organized crime pervasive in Sicily’s remote communities.  Post-World War II, the Mafia built strong ties with dishonest Italian politicians and raked in billions through crime. They grew in power and influence with their shadowy dealings; drug trafficking, taking a slice of public building contracts, money-laundering and extortion.

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Corleone, Sicily

As those of you who have started following this blog know, whenever I travel, I find a juicy book about the place. Not just the guidebooks but stories about the place and its people. An obvious choice for Sicily is novelist Mario Puzo’s 1969 book,  The Godfather.  This novel’s toughest figures came from Corleone, a mountain town south of Palermo.  Local lore has it that when Francis Ford Coppola wanted to film the original Godfather in Corleone in 1972, the town’s mayor wanted too much money! So Coppola decided to film the movie in Savoca, near Taormina.  This compelling story about the Sicilian Mafia became a box office super star.

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Scene from original Godfather filmed in Savoca, Sicily

Based on the stories we’ve heard, it was conceivable that you could be a member of both organized crime and organized religion. Think Marlon Brandon, the Godfather, in the opening scene at his daughter’s Catholic wedding. Al Pacino, standing godfather to a newborn in a Catholic Church while simultaneously arranging for a series of murders to happen. Rome’s newest Pope, Pope Francis, is bringing this to an end, he’s forcing some choices.  As recently as June, the Vatican issued a statement targeting those guilty of corruption and mafia association. All part of the roll-out of Pope Francis’ anti-corruption crusade, in his words, “a phenomenon that leads to the trampling of the dignity of people”. And the Pope has a mighty big stick – excommunication.  Mobsters can still attend mass but they won’t receive the sacraments and can’t be buried as Catholics. This is a worrisome threat in this part of the world.

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The Virgin Mary is everywhere in Sicily. Nurturing, adoring, serene.

It’s not just the Vatican challenging the Mafia in Sicily. The Law is starting to take back its rightful space in these remote Italian communities. In the 1980s, two brave prosecutors, Falcone and Borsellino, persuaded senior Mob members to break their oath of silence. In the trials of 1986-87, they successfully exposed collusion between the Mafia and government officials. Not surprisingly, the Mob struck back. In 1992, Falcone was killed in an armoured limo along the Palermo airport highway. Borsellino was killed in Palermo alongside his five bodyguards. These assassinations, 25 years ago, galvanized the anti-Mafia movement in Italy.

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Poster at the luggage carousel at Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport

In 1993, Salvatore Riina ‘The Beast’, the Mafia’s boss of all bosses, was captured and sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms. This June, with tumours on both kidneys, Riina applied to Italian courts to “die with dignity” and end his days at his home in the town of Corleone. There was no sympathy – Riina’s application was denied. Riina’s successor, Bernardo Provenzano, ‘The Tractor’, was tracked down and arrested near Corleone in 2007 after being a fugitive for 43 years.

Citizens in Sicily are weary of the corruption, particularly business owners forced to pay the pizzo—protection money. What does this extortion look like? A guy from the neighbourhood Mafiosi visits a business and shakes down owners for several thousand dollars a year “to keep things quiet.” Enlisting citizens as informants, police are making inroads. There’s a quiet revolution taking hold in Sicilian society. People are no longer afraid to speak up against the Mafia.

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In a shop window in Palermo, Sicily

In Palermo, one of the citizen groups calls itself Addio Pizzo (Goodbye Pizzo). Their motto: “A society that pays to be protected is a society without dignity.”  To fight extortion, the group emphasizes ‘critical consumption’– the purchase of goods from merchants who clearly state they do not pay protection money to the Mafia. It’s an interesting spin on ‘fair trade’. In 1996, the Italian Parliament passed a law allowing the assets of convicted Mafia members to be confiscated for social good. One of the beneficiaries of these formally-Mafia-owned villas and fields is Libera Terra, an organization led by Italian priest, Father Luigi Ciotti. Libera Terra controls hundreds of acres of confiscated farmland, primarily around Corleone, employing locals and producing its own brands of wine, olive oil and pasta. Their goal is to spread a culture of legality (and incredible food!).

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Pope Francis at the Vatican on his Pope-mobile

In his missives against the Mafia, Pope Francis talks of the need to respect the dignity of people. He’s endorsing a dignity culture, not a culture of honour. What’s the difference? To help explain, I’m going to share some insights of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt has been studying the moral evolution of Western culture, including our transition from a culture of honour to a culture of dignity. Here’s what he says:

  • A culture of honour attaches status to physical bravery, an unwillingness to be dominated by another. Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, these people will shun reliance on law or other authority.
  • Status is everything in an honour culture. Your status as a member of the Mafia (or other organized crime syndicate, or gang) depends on how others evaluate you.
  • Members of honour cultures are expected to demonstrate their bravery by violently retaliating against those who offend them. It’s one’s reputation that makes one honourable or not. So, one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honour. Not to fight back is a kind of moral failing. People are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so.

The transition from an honour culture to a dignity culture reflects deep social change and shifts in power. The prevailing culture in the West is a culture of dignity, although pockets of honour culture still persist. The moral code of the dignity culture is nearly the exact opposite of an honour culture. Public reputation is less important in a dignity culture, one where people have inherent worth that can’t be alienated by others. The community is not a clan, and in general, people are more likely to avoid insulting others. An ethic of self-restraint prevails. Martin Luther King’s language during the bus boycott in Montgomery reflects classic dignity culture:  “So in a quiet dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the sagging walls of injustice had been crushed by the battering rams of surging justice.”

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Ragusa, Sicily

Is this transition to a dignity culture happening in Sicily? The Mafia still exists, and while reports vary on its influence, there are still many Sicilians who fear the Mob. Even while we were visiting Sicily, there was a Mob-related sting operation near Milan. The mayor of Seregno was arrested for trading votes in exchange for the rights to build a supermarket, and 27 others were charged for cocaine trafficking.

There are also strong signals that the honour culture—needed to allow the Mafia to continue to have influence– is on decline. What are the indicators?

  • The Vatican is stepping up its pressure on the Mafia and corruption.
  • There is growing respect for police and law and institutions. The justice system has a prosecution and witness-protection program that works.
  • There are viable alternatives to the Mafia. Addio Pizzo’s message tells the story: “Being on the side of legality does not mean to be a loser and, actually, can also be profitable.”  Libera Terra is providing education and jobs.
  • People are no longer living in fear of Mafia retaliation. It happens still but citizens’ resistance movements are gaining influence.
  • The image of the Mafia is changing. The kingpins don’t wear big mustaches and carry shotguns. They aren’t cold blooded killers like The Beast and The Tractor. Mob members are more likely to be well-educated financial and professional types, well camouflaged crooks trying to penetrate ‘good society’.
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Girgentana goat in Agrigento, Sicily

It’s going to take more nudging to move Sicily beyond its attachment to an honour culture. The Mafia still knows how to push the fear buttons. Yet people driving cultural change also know what buttons to push. Addio Pizzo was launched in 2004 by six friends who wanted to open a pub—and sensing the Mafia’s weakness– put up posters across Palermo accusing Sicilians of surrendering their dignity to the criminal organization. For a Sicilian, this accusation was a huge insult….triggering a response.

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The Sicilian Mafia is, arguably, a precursor to the modern-day gang. Sadly, there is little sign that the code of honour that binds gang members, and enables the recruitment of people in need of belonging, identity and esteem, is on the wane. Worse, the modern-day honour code is badly tarnished. A friend who works with at risk youth laments how gangs prey on under-18-year-old youth to do “favours” because you will be charged differently. And it gets worse: “We are seeing more and more people going after 11-year-olds, which is the next step down in the justice system as they can’t be charged at all.” It’s the same corrupted code of honour that allows families in some cultural groups to kill their own, usually a daughter or a sister, for dating the wrong person, having sex outside marriage or simply dressing in a miniskirt.  

Corrupted honour seems to find a vacuum even in places like Canada where we assume laws and culture and relationships should hold the space.  Perhaps Italy’s shifts will inform us on how to respond to violent gangs and honour killings. What community, anywhere, isn’t challenged to keep marching toward a compassion, a dignity and an equality able to counter the damaging consequences of such corrupted honour?

Our trip to Sicily, as these pictures clearly show, was as rich, colourful and satisfying as the stories about the place. Shifts in culture were happening in plain sight.  And, seeing dignity on the rise, as you all know by now, is pretty great to me.

IMG_5426Arrivederci amici!

Donna Kennedy-Glans, October 26 2017


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