I’m a cynical kind of person, and I tend to enjoy when I’m proven right, even if it’s only in a fictional format. (Extra points for when said fictional format is commentary about the real world.) That’s how this quote, from Gangs of New York, a movie I thoroughly disliked from start to finish, got into the book.
The appearance of the law must be upheld.
Especially while it’s being broken.
The line is said by Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), while negotiating with Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), trying to convince the gang leader to provide the muscle required to consolidate his own political power. It’s a moment of pure honesty in which an awful person owns his awfulness, and I still remember my laughter coming from a very dark place as I grabbed the quote book to add Boss Tweed’s line to its pages.
What I didn’t remember, as the years went on, was the quote’s actual context. It wasn’t until I found a clip of the scene on YouTube while writing this article that I was reminded of its meaning within the film itself.
This has led to reflection on things like memory and perception. See, over time, my interpretation of this quote has shifted to be about law enforcement – especially in recent years, as we see more and more examples of police brutality, which are then, somehow, nearly always excused. The ‘appearance of the law being upheld’ part of the equation is losing importance, all while the ‘being broken’ part runs rampant.
Being the daughter of a cop, I don’t think my modified focus is much of a surprise. Did my old man break the law while enforcing it? Eh. I lean towards ‘not blatantly’ as an answer to that question. He was rigid about following the rules, especially considering they were stacked in his favour, if only to protect himself should the shit hit the fan.
Did he skirt the edges of the law and then push as hard as he could, though? Oh, absolutely. While I may not have known the details of what went on in his professional life, living with him on a day-to-day basis made it abundantly clear just how ethically and morally dubious he was.
To me, that’s what this quote is really about – ethically and morally dubious people, and the way they game the systems that have been put in place to contain them. And be they politicians or police, celebrities or billionaires, it’s disheartening how often they win.
To see previous posts in my Quotes series, click here.