While mostly I wanted to point to Vognar's piece as an excuse to use Michael Hogan's awesome graphic (at left), the article raised several cultural examples of informant use, the consequences of betrayal, and how strongly people feel about informants that I think are worth examining. DeNiro's angry denunciation of iconic film director Elia Kazan's lifetime achievement award at the Oscars (many stars refused to stand or applaud when it was awarded) was based on anger for Kazan informing on alleged Communists in the movie industry nearly 50 years before. That's a long time to hold a grudge. I'm still too young to know if I'm even capable of maintaining one that long!
Vognar cited a litany of other cultural references to snitching that shape, or perhaps reflect, the conflicted values reflected in how society views informants. Wrote Vognar:
The sin of the snitch isn't confined to hip-hop. In the Mafia, hence, on The Sopranos, they call it "omerta" – the code of silence. If you're caught breaking it by cooperating with the feds, like Adriana or Sal Bompensiero, you get sent into the witness relocation program, which is a polite cover-up term for getting whacked. Wear a wire at your own risk.Not long ago Anderson Cooper reported a story on 60 Minutes that did more to perpetuate stereotypes than illuminate the issue. He tried to pretend this was a problem with rap, but as Vognar points out and as I've argued many times on Grits, the taboo against snitching is deeply ingrained in American culture, all the way up to the FBI - it's not inherently a product of antisocial thinking. Good stuff (and excellent art) from the News' entertainment staff.
But The Sopranos is one of countless fictional worlds that make us feel for the snitch, or at least forces us to view informing with a sense of moral ambiguity. Were any viewers happy when Adriana was killed? She was knee-deep in crime through her marriage to Christufuh, but her decision to sing like a canary was inspired by both expedience and conscience. She may have been out of options, but she also came face to face with her role as an accomplice, and she broke that code of silence. Joe Valachi did the same back in 1963, when he testified about the Mafia to the United States Congress. The Mafia was none too pleased, but it never got to Mr. Valachi, despite a $100,000 bounty on his head by Vito Genovese. After trying to hang himself in 1966, Valachi the snitch died of a heart attack in 1971 in his prison cell at La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution, deep in the heart of Texas.
It's a two-way street for the rat with a conscience, who can snitch at least partially out of a sense of guilt but also reel from the guilt brought on by the decision to inform. That's what happens to Gypo Nolan, the blustering antihero of John Ford's 1935 classic The Informer (released on DVD earlier this month).
Gypo, an Irish rebel, rats out his friend to the British police for a paltry 20 pounds (a far cry from the $25 million rewarded for the head of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi). Even the cops are disgusted with Gypo; an officer pushes the reward toward the snitch across the table, rather than hand it to him in person. But Gypo's real enemy is his conscience. Slamming back Irish whiskey throughout a long, anguished night of wandering, he's driven mad by his betrayal. By the time the rebels hold him accountable, he's a quivering mess. But he's found a degree of redemption by seeing the error of his ways.
The movies' noble snitch of record is Terry Malloy, the hero of On the Waterfront. He works on the docks, where everyone takes pride in being "D and D" – deaf and dumb. Terry lays it down thusly: "I don't know nothing, I ain't seen nothing, I ain't saying nothing."
But Terry, played by Marlon Brando in one of the big screen's finest performances, is also cursed with a conscience. He was suckered into setting up another snitch, and the murder gnaws at him. He's in love with the snitch's sister, played by Eva Marie Saint. He falls under the sway of Karl Malden's waterfront priest, who preaches a different kind of street justice: "How can we call ourselves Christians and protect murderers with our silence?" Terry is ostracized when he flips. "A pigeon for a pigeon," cries a devastated child who has killed one of Terry's prized birds. But he regains his stature when he stands with his fellow workers against Lee J. Cobb's crime boss. He may be a snitch, but he's a snitch of the people.
On the Waterfront writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan both went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named names of suspected Communists in the film industry, an act of snitching reviled in many quarters, praised in others. Much controversy accompanied the decision to award Mr. Kazan an honorary Oscar in 1999. When he accepted, many audience members refused to applaud. During the show, Chris Rock, who knows his hip-hop code, summed up the scene in tacky fashion: "I saw De Niro backstage, and you better get De Niro away from Kazan because, you know, he hates rats."
The Kazan scenario raises some intriguing snitching issues. He snitched on friends, but he felt he had the moral imperative of the fight against communism on his side. He snitched for what he saw as a good cause, much like a whistleblower.
But whistleblowers have an extra piece of moral authority: They generally haven't partaken in the crimes they report. No one called Sherron Watkins a rat when she blew the whistle on Enron, because she wasn't a criminal, and she wasn't trying to save her skin. She saw massive economic crimes unfolding at her workplace, and she decided not to bite her tongue. She didn't violate the no-snitch code.
What about Jason Grimsley? The journeyman relief pitcher told the feds that he used human growth hormone, a banned substance in Major League baseball, and named names of other players he provided with HGH. It's easy to argue that steroids are bad, but does anyone think Mr. Grimsley's motives for singing were altruistic? He found himself in a tough spot with the feds, who raided his home this month, and he cooperated with the authorities. Earlier this week, sports pontificator Charles Barkley took him to task on ESPN Radio for "ratting out his friends."
In the culture of professional sports, which has its own omerta, Mr. Grimsley gets the scarlet "S." It's a tag you don't want. Breaking the conspiracy of silence can be a noble deed, but it's also a crime punishable not by the law, but by your peers. And they're usually not very forgiving.
UPDATE: Speaking of snitching, those interested in the Katherine Johnston case from Atlanta and the recent Congressional hearing about informants should read Radley Balko's column at FoxNews.com, plus this eyepopping revelation from his blog, The Agitator on the subject. See also prior Grits coverage of the hearing Balko discusses.