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Feature Articles


November 2015
Changing Times:
Maifa, Cosa Nostra, Camorra ....Whatever.
Is There A Difference?

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

Mafia is myth. Mafia is reality. Mafia is whatever officialdom says it is. Words are signifiers. Change the word, change the mental image.

“The role of myth represents a distillation of humankind’s desires and fantasies.”

Harry Header: “Southern Italy was exacerbated by the organized crime of the mafia. In Sicily, the mafia was the only native authority, which in a perverse way could therefore be trusted. The sovereign governments of Sicily had always been remote and alien. The mafia with its murders, brutality, and primeval customs, was at least familiar.” Leonardo Sciascia: “When it comes to the mafia one must understand that it is an association of criminals that enrich themselves at the expense of both the people and the state. They are parasitic intermediaries, with violent intent, who infiltrate between property and work, between production and consumption, as well as between the citizenry and the institutions of the state.”

To the extent that one accepts the above definitions, the concept of mafia can only be employed in reference to Sicily, because the conditions that gave rise to its existence could only occur within the context of Sicilian history and culture. Thus to refer to an American mafia or any other species of mafia is a corruption of the term leading to confusion and misunderstandings.

With the passage of time, and social change, concepts can take on different meanings as well as become obsolete and out of use. They become relics of a bygone era. And such is the word mafia. That word is the Italian of the original Sicilian. We do not know how far back it goes. Most probably it was the argot of everyday speech that was confined to a particular class of persons—the speech of the masses; the speech of the street--not a part of educated Sicilian. Thus tracing it back to its origins is an improbable task. Giving the term a criminal meaning was not its original use. In Italy, in the early 1860s, at the formation of the Italy as a nation, the first use of “mafia” as criminality occurred in the Italian Parliament. It was not long before the word was incorporated into Italian language. Within thirty years, mafia” appeared in Italian dictionaries, to refer to a species of criminality similar to the Neapolitan camorra. In fact, at times during the late 1800s the two at times were used interchangeably. The rational is understandable since camorra and mafia meant essentially the same type of criminality, namely extortion. The concept in short order traveled abroad (as in the wake of Italian outmigration) and, as we have seen its use, was incorporated in non-criminal phenomena as in the field of politics or to describe tight groups of persons without necessarily criminal ends. The sinister and foreign sound of “mafia” made it popular. “Mafia” has traveled far given that the original meanings of mafiusu were non-criminal, especially in reference to characteristics of persons and objects.

So now we have in Italy the official replacement of “mafia” by the new term “Cosa Nostra,” literally meaning “Our Thing,” a borrowing of the politically correct American use “La Cosa Nostra.” Our Thing; Our Cause; This Little Private Thing of Ours. Take your pick. The word mafia has been booted out of the judicial vocabulary in the United States because it is prejudicial to Italoamericans, and would negatively influence juries in trials that involve alleged mobsters of Italian ancestry.

All of this “What’s in a Word” game brings to mind President Harry Truman’s stance in reference to the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953). He assured the nation that it was not a war, but simply a “Police Action.” Not to worry, it’s just “My Thing.”


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