by Robert E. Wright
Tony Soprano, the eponymous fictional antihero of HBO’s iconic series about organized crime syndicates in northern New Jersey, tends to evoke images of cigars, strip clubs, and guys getting their teeth bashed in, or even “whacked,” because they disrespected the wife or daughter of a “made guy” or handed in an envelope deemed “light” (on cash). But most episodes offer something deeper than a violent Italian-American soap opera.
One episode in particular that really resonates today is Season 4, Episode 3, “Christopher.” That episode barely portrays the character Christopher Moltisanti although the actor who plays him, Michael Imperioli, co-wrote the story and authored the teleplay. Rather, the storyline revolves around an American Indian protest of the Columbus Day parade in Newark, New Jersey. Critics panned it as one of the worst episodes of the series but likely because it was ahead of its time (late September 2002) politically and culturally.
The episode opens with Tony’s crew discussing the impending protests outside of Satriale’s Pork Store, one of their main hangouts. Many of these wise guys are upset because they identify as Italian and consider Christopher Columbus an Italian hero. The only character in the conversation actually born in Italy, Furio Giunta, complicates matters by pointing out that Columbus was from northern Italy, the people of which disdain southern Italians and Sicilianos like him.
Tony’s consigliere (number two) Silvio Dante, and some of the crew mix it up with some Indian protestors and get routed when the police do not intervene on their side as expected. Tony chastises Sil for disturbing their “business” and losing face but agrees, at Sil’s request to show some leadership in the matter, to broker a deal behind the scenes.
As part of that effort, Tony ends up in a horse barn where two of his criminal associates, a Jewish character named Hesh Rabkin and a character named Reuben “the Cuban” almost come to blows despite having been friends for decades and sharing an abiding hatred of Columbus. Reuben, you see, made the mistake of equating Columbus with a certain short, brown-haired and shirted, Austrian-born fella, the one with a little mustache and a booming voice who tried to annihilate all of Hesh’s “people.”
Hesh nevertheless sets up Tony with the chief of the fictional “Mohonk” tribe and CEO of its large casino. The chief promises to squelch the protest because, like Tony, he sees it as bad for business. Many of his customers hailing from east Boston and Providence identify as Italian. When Sil informs the chief that he doesn’t look like an Indian, the chief responds that he had a “racial awakening” when he learned that his “grandmother on my father’s side, her mother, was a quarter Mohonk.” (In other words, he is about as much Indian as Elizabeth Warren.)
It turns out, though, that the chief doesn’t control the protestors and that Sil’s backup plan, to “expose” Iron Eyes Cody as not-a-real-Indian won’t work because nobody cares, just like nobody cares that actor James Caan, who portrays Sonny in The Godfather, was not Italian. The unspoken irony in all this is that the family of Cody, who was born in Louisiana as Espera Oscar de Corti, came from Sicily and southern Italy!
Ostensibly to make amends, the chief invites Tony, Sil, and Christopher to his casino for free eats, drinks, and gambling. But the whole thing was a ruse to buttonhole Tony into urging Frankie Valli to sing at the chief’s casino for a week.
All of this sets up the climax of the episode, the drive back from the casino. Sil and Christopher become upset when they realize that while playing blackjack they missed the Columbus Day parade, which the Indians successfully disrupted. When Christopher suggests that they just “whack” the Indian protest leader, Tony goes off on a brilliant expletive-laden rant.
You can read it for yourself here, but the gist of it is that we are all Americans and that being an American means being, like Gary Cooper, a “strong, silent type” who “did what he had to do” instead of whining that he came from some “poor Texas-Irish illiterate background or whatever.”
Tony then explains that the bad things that happened in the past are all sunk costs, water under the bridge. It doesn’t matter that Sil’s grandparents “got spit on” because they hailed from southern Italy. Sil has a good life, a hot wife, a thriving business (the Bada Bing), and “a smart kid at Lackawanna College” not because he is Italian but because “you’re you, ‘cause you’re smart, ‘cause you’re whatever.” The good stuff in life “doesn’t come from Columbus, or The Godfather, or Chef … Boyardee.”
In general, Tony Soprano is no role model for classic liberals because he made a living by extracting economics rents by fraud and force. But in this scene he reminds Americans that they are individual human beings first, Americans second, and who really cares about the rest? As I showed in The Poverty of Slavery, everyone on earth is descended from at least one slave, and at least one slaveholder. What our ancestors did to each other is clearly no fault of ours. All that matters is how we treat each other today, and that could use a lot of improvement.