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American Homer: Kurt Sutter & Catholic Identity in Mid-Century America

Kurt Sutter is the creator of the popular television series Sons of Anarchy, about an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California, somewhere between Oakland and Stockton. Sutter also plays the character Otto, a member of the Sons. Otto is an older member, who went into Stockton State Prison to do a six-year sentence, committed crimes inside for the Club that added another 30, and ended up on death row. Via various gang warfare attacks within the prison walls he ends up blind. Homer, the blind poet, is said to be the teacher of all the Greeks for composing both The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which should be read, as G. K. Chesterton says, because “All life is a battle, and all life is a journey.”

The blindness of the poet indicates that he can reveal deeper truths about human life because he is not fooled by appearances. Otto not only becomes blind, (he even bites off his own tongue in an interrogation room so as not to “rat”), the man playing Otto is also the poet who created Sons of Anarchy. This means that Sutter is rooted in the tradition going back to Homer.

I suspected that Mr. Sutter is a Catholic who had gone to a Catholic high school, where he would have been exposed to the wisdom tradition embodied in a classical liberal arts education. In fact, Sutter’s mother worked for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey and he attended Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey.

While I found the Homer reference a compelling reason to explore this series further, there were other reasons, in addition to the references to Hamlet. Catholic author E. Michael Jones, raised in nearby Philadelphia, has written about biker culture and Catholic Identity in Travels with Harley in Search of America: Motorcycles, War, Deracination, Consumer Identity. Many of the themes in Sons of Anarchy seemed resonant with what Jones has written. In Sons of Anarchy, the main protagonist, Jax Teller, is the son of the late John Teller, the founder of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original). Jax’s mother Gemma has remarried the new leader of the club, Clay Morrow, who has raised Jax as his step-son. They are Gertrude and Claudius to Jax’s Hamlet. There is some mystery around the death of John Teller, and a major plot line involves Gemma murdering Jax’s wife, Tara.

Born in 1960 Kurt Sutter is an ethnic Catholic whose father worked at the GM plant in Rahway, New Jersey. My grandfather, who worked for Ford, once took his children to see the Ford plant in nearby Mahwah, once the largest auto plant in the world. When these plants shut down, Catholic Baby-boomer Bruce Springsteen had something to sing about. Sutter is at the tail end of the Baby-boom, a largely Catholic demographic explosion that came after WWII. He may identify as an early Generation Xer (which I suspect) or as a Boomer, either way, his position in time allowed him to witness the drug-fueled sexual revolution that ruined his predecessor Boomers.

After WWII, a forge that brought together men of all backgrounds to fight for each other and for America, ethnic Catholics began intermarrying for the first time and their baby boomer children went to Catholic parochial schools in order to maintain a Catholic identity while giving up their ethnic identity. This led to the highest enrollments in parochial schools in U.S. history. This was the start of the formation of the American Catholic ethnicity, no longer Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American etc.

The Baby-boomers would have been the first generation of American-Catholics since the early Maryland Catholics of the 1600s. However, this identity formation was disrupted by the social-engineering of suburbia, as well as the tumult of the Sexual Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam. The social engineering was both an intended and unintended part of the war efforts.

E. Michael Jones writes in Travels with Harley: As Nisbet points out, “War is by nature revolutionary in its impact upon a people. How could it be otherwise? Its values… are antithetical in the extreme to the values of kinship-based society with its consecration of tradition, conventionality, and age or seniority.” It was Lenin who claimed that “national wars are virtually made to be turned into revolutions.” Nisbet notes that is was von Clausewitz who “laid down the vital principle that modern war demands a large scale reconstruction of the society that participates in it. [my emphasis]

How many realized that the “suburbs” were this “large scale reconstruction of society”? That moving away from extended kinfolk, either from rural towns or from urban ethnic neighborhoods, was a bug in identity formation, not a feature? An American can drive from their sheet-rocked domicile, to an office park, to Target, soccer practice, and The Olive Garden, and there will not be any architectural hint that she is in Denver or Hartford or Raleigh. Suburbia disrupts identity formation. There is no there there, or anywhere.

This disruption in the formation of an American Catholic identity that happened to the Catholic Baby-boomers led them to seek other identities besides being “white”, which they were told they were in Suburbia in the 1960s.

Until this time being “White” was a Southern Protestant concept, where descendants of colonists from the United Kingdom classified themselves as “White” as opposed to “Black”, who were descendants of the slaves from Africa.

Northern, immigrant-descended Catholic Boomers did not recognize that binary designation as it swept the consciousness of the 1960s. South Boston Irish didn’t want blacks moving in, but they didn’t want Italians or Germans moving in either. Ethnic identity based upon country of origin still dominated, not skin color.

But as this “ethic-identity” of Northern Catholics changed from country of origin to religion, it was disrupted and left unformed.

The Boomers decided, since their identity as American Catholics had been disrupted, to seek other identities: To Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out. These other identities were negations of the “white” suburbs they had grown up in, and the biker culture was one of them.

Jones writes:

The cowboy is the soldier who never made it back after the Civil War. The biker is the soldier who never made it back after WWII and Vietnam, the boys who never made it back to the world those wars destroyed. The biker is the modern-day cowboy. Hell’s Angels began as WWII veterans; The Wild One is The Sun Also Rises, but for unliterary proles, the mechanics of the land who had no future in corporate America.

Jones then quotes Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote:

The whole thing was born, they say, in the late 1940s, when most GIs wanted to get back to an orderly pattern: college, marriage, a job, children -all the peaceful extras that come with a sense of security. But not everyone felt that way. Like the drifters who rode west after Appomatox, there were thousands of veterans in 1945 who flatly rejected the idea of going back to a prewar pattern. They didn’t want to go back to a prewar pattern. They didn’t want order, but privacy and time to figure things out. It was a nervous, downhill feeling, a mean kind of angst that always comes out of wars…”

But could this alternative identity grow roots and become a community?

Like most tragedies, the murder of Tara involved passion blinding Gemma to reality, mistaking friends for enemies and enemies for friends. This murder also reveals the reality that SAMCRO is no longer functioning as a community. Families nurture children and communities nurture families. SAMCRO embodies the Hoffer quote that, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” For John Teller and SAMCRO, the great cause had been to build a community for alienated veterans. The business became gun-running. The racket became SAMCRO itself.

This parallels the trajectory of the biker culture in America as well. What began as a deviant community after WWII, adopting the Wehrmacht helmet and the Nazi symbolism of the enemy they had just destroyed in war -everything that John Wayne movies told audiences they were supposed to hate, had been turned into a safe, marketed “Harley-world” by the 1990s.

Jones:

The most important thing that Harley did was to get into the identity business, when it embraced the biker image which it had previously shunned by creating HOG (Harley Owner’s Group)… HOG was to biker culture what political correctness and speech codes were to college campuses… What started off as a protest ended up as a theme park

Whatever alternative, “hippie/biker” community John Teller had hoped to build for living outside of the socially engineered suburban norms in post-Vietnam America, those dreams had transformed into the nightmare of a violent gun-running business. The dreams finally died when his wife killed his son’s wife.

Hell’s Angels is a deviant community, based on the inchoate rejection of social engineering, the planned community or suburb, and the corporate ladder, unavailable anyway because of the blue collar status of most bikers.

Both John Teller and his son Jax wanted to take SAMCRO out of gun-running and into “legitimate businesses”. But neither could bridge the tension between being an organic community outside of social norms and having illegal income streams -being deviant.

Hell’s Angels wear Nazi memorabilia because they symbolize deviance and togetherness simultaneously.

Sons of Anarchy has been called The Sopranos on Harleys. And like The Sopranos, which also captured the difficult transformation of an ethnic-Catholic community into “American Catholics”, in the Sons of Anarchy, the “Code of Honor” among thieves is repeatedly violated and a cycle of suspicion and retribution ensues -there is constant deviance from togetherness. There is no order, only death. It is like the pagan world before Zeus and Athena, before Justice and Wisdom.

War, which destroys family and tradition and the social order, both enabled and disabled the protest against social engineering that lay at the root of biker culture. War accelerated the destruction of kinship and religion that gave people roots.The series opens with the Sons of Anarchy fighting against a White Nationalist meth operation. We are meant to understand that the Sons of Anarchy are good, modern, progressive, “non-racist” criminals; a reflection of good, modern, progressive, non-racist suburbia.

When the Sons gather for a formal meeting it is called “Church”, and throughout the series, they integrate Hispanics and, finally, African-Americans, into their ranks. Here Sutter presents SAMCRO as a photographic negative of the American Catholic Church, the greatest vehicle of assimilation ever, a community that offers identity, an extended family, integration, and assimilation. But instead of doing this through peace, love, the sacraments, and charity; SAMCRO does this through violence, crime, and force.

Jones writes:

Just as Mass is the solemn re-enactment of the drama of Calvary, Sturgis is a not-so-solemn liturgical re-enactment of the Hollister Riot. Historically the Catholic parish has been one of the great tools for assimilation in America. The Triple Melting Pot Theory states that after three generations one’s ethnic identity is no longer country of origin, but religion. Catholic parishes and schools took illiterate peasants from many different European countries and made them Americans. You can see this process happening today at a Spanish-language Mass where the parents are dressed as “country of origin” and speak Spanish, while their kids speak perfect teen slang, text on their iPhones, and talk about their high school gossip. They are named Ashley Ramirez, or Jason Alvarez, just like Seamus became James and Giuseppe became Joe.

As mentioned above, the highest enrollment in Catholic parochial schools happened when the Irish Catholics and the Italian Catholics of Boston and New York began inter-marrying after WWII (as well as, of course, the Poles, Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Germans, etc. in the Great Lakes basin). Unsure of which ethnic heritage to emphasize, their children started becoming American Catholics -the Universal Church applied to a new “ethnicity”.

But the 1960s disrupted this process of “ethnogenesis”. The results of enticed suburbanization, the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, and the Vietnam War meant that instead of American Catholics, they became “whites”, which has no meaning except, “not-black”, and now means “not a person of color.”

The SAMCRO motor cycle club is the inverse of the Church and a negation of suburbia. John Teller and Clay Morrow came back from Vietnam and started SAMCRO. John married Gemma and had a son, and we begin to understand from flashbacks that he wanted SAMCRO to be something more than a criminal gang. That Gemma and John are lapsed Catholics is hinted at throughout the series. After the turmoil of the 1960s, and three wars in 20 years, the as-yet-unformed American Catholic sought other identities.

Jones references Tom Wolfe when he writes: “Becoming a biker constitutes a search for Identity.” The outlaw motorcycle gang is “a class-specific response to the general problem of self-actualization.” Modern industrial culture, driven by the twin demons of cheap labor and labor mobility, promotes deracination as the simplest way to create a pool of docile workers. This deracination, however, creates as intolerable cultural and psychic vacuum. In a world in which neither work nor community can provide either psychic rewards or identity, the worker is forced to look elsewhere.
The poet Sutter then introduces another option in the form of the character Nero Padilla. Nero is a former gang-banger, an Original Gangster, played by Jimmy Smits. He has left his gang and has “gone legit”. “Legit” meaning, he is now a pimp, running a high-end brothel. He has a son who is disabled due to the drugs that his ex-wife took while she was pregnant. His only dream now is to save up money to buy a farm for his uncle where they can live and he can care for his boy.

Nero begins to date Gemma and starts a business relationship with Jax, who wants to use pornography and brothels as a way out of gun-running. We see Nero go to Catholic confession while Gemma waits outside. It is at an old, neo-Byzantine American Catholic church, the style that was built all around the U.S. with the donations of the illiterate peasants whose grandchildren would end up on the Supreme Court, and at the highest levels of business and politics -but as “whites”, not as Catholics.

Nero exists as another life path, another option: the Catholic yeoman/farmer. While SAMCRO is an inverse of the Church, it is also a negation of suburbia: a community that does not have roots deep enough to sustain itself, that is dependent on cash-flow and power, but not love. The togetherness that suburbia lacks and the deviance that suburbia hides. Throughout the series, the hometown of the Sons of Anarchy, Charming, CA, flirts with becoming a wealthy suburban commuter town. Charming and its townsfolk are themselves important characters. Charming is a reference to the towns founded by the American Protestants of the Midwest as they enacted their “Manifest Destiny”. It is also a reminder that Silicon Valley wasn’t started by Californians, but by Midwestern farmboys who liked tinkering with machinery, from their home tractors to, eventually, computers and microchips.

Just as the Sons of Anarchy are seeking Identity through deviance and community, Charming seeks to keep its identity as a Midwestern town in California. Though it seems to be just a background to the plot, there are Charming citizens who both defy and ally with the Sons to preserve Charming -either by destroying White Nationalist meth operations or Oakland Real Estate development plans. It is another struggle for identity and community in America, reflected in SAMCRO’s own search for identity. It is also a precursor to the Midwestern Protestant and Blue Collar Catholic “alliance” that just elected Donald Trump as President.

English Catholic writer and proponent of localism and Distributism G.K. Chesterton wrote: “There cannot be a nation of millionaires, and there never has been a nation of Utopian comrades; but there have been any number of nations of tolerably contented peasants.”

Nero Padilla offers that last option. His past is full of evil deeds, but he continues to seek redemption through the sacraments. His intellect continues to explore other options than the criminal or capitalist ruts in which everyone else finds themselves. Nero is a Euro-Hispanic Catholic in California, he is not “La Raza” because the Catholic Church does not recognize race as a category, though it does recognize ethnicity and nationality. Nero is an American Catholic, and if Jax follows him, they will be the yeomen of 21st Century America.

Before Gemma kills Tara, Jax’s wife, the female District Attorney Tyne Patterson approaches Jax and presents him with some options: Family over Club. In other words Family over Community.
“Are you willing to let your family pay the price for your mistakes? Is that what a good man would do? You’re a husband and a father and a man before all of this. Own your place.”

As a white-collar suburban American, Patterson’s frame of reference is the family alone on the cul-de-sac, achieving high SATs and doing extracurriculars, getting into good colleges and repeating the cycle. Community is secondary to family achievement, if community exists at all, except maybe as a vehicle to show off achievement. Like many protagonists in an untenable position, Jax attempts a cunning move to save both his family and his community by agreeing to go to jail for a particular crime. Because of this cunning move, Gemma assumes that he has sold SAMCRO out to escape with his wife and son. She thinks that Tara, who is a doctor and has one foot in the world of middle class respectability, convinced him to snitch on the club; that they have become “Whites” and chose nuclear family over community.

In a blind, drunken rage Gemma kills Tara. For Gemma, the matriarch of the Club, it must be Club over Family. In her blindness she makes the opposite mistake of the District Attorney -Community over Family. She cannot distinguish between the hierarchy of Family and Community, that both are necessary and interconnected. Again: Families nurture children and communities nurture families.

Covering up, or attempting to cover up, this murder of her “daughter”, becomes the ruinous driving force of the plot moving forward. Jax, not knowing the truth, is ruined and becomes darkly violent. He seeks only revenge, but against the wrong people. All his plans and his father’s plans are ruined. What do you do when you have ruined your life? The traditional American answer to the question is move. In particular, move West.

But what if you are already in the West? SAMCRO and the Tellers are at the end of America, geographically and spiritually. They cannot go further West; the deviant culture that they have built up has no roots and is being torn apart by internal contradictions and external forces. And deviancy is mainstream. Changing from gun-running to pornography production and prostitution is not really “going legit” though it does reflect the degeneration of the California Dream which went from the Summer of Love to “a miasma of drug overdose, venereal disease, and, worst of all, hippie commercialization.”

Twenty years later, the baby boomers were still around, but the world had changed. The elites had redefined deviance; suddenly the yearly bacchanals at Sturgis, Daytona, and Piercy seemed as American as, well, Woodstock…. By creating HOG (Harley Owner’s Group), Harley Davidson put corporate America’s seal of approval on the deviant community. HOG was a consumer group that gave all the benefits of ethnic identification -clothing, patriotism, belonging, etc.- along with the right to engage in sexual excess. In short, HOG embodied the ideals of American culture as redefined by the social engineers in the period following WWII. The Sons of Anarchy were crushed or appropriated. There was no togetherness in deviance because America itself had become deviant.

In the end, Jax hands over the reins of SAMCRO to a new leader. He leaves paperwork for Nero to sell his house and the garage (once the SAMCRO headquarters). Nero cries as he watches Jax say his final goodbye to his sons because he knows that Jax has chosen annihilation, not growth.

Jax rides out on his father’s old bike to die on the highway where his father died, extending his arms in the form of a cross as he heads into a semi. There are bread and blood on the highway, a reference to the Body and Blood of Christ. Nero is last seen driving with his and Jax’s family to the farm. The opening of St. John’s Gospel is: [transliterated from the Greek] En Arche ein ho Logos “In the Beginning was the Word”. But both the Greek words Arche-beginning and Logos-word have many meanings. Arche means source, root, foundation, etc. while Logos means order, reason, discourse etc. Their definitions in the Liddell Scott Jones Greek lexicon go on for a long time. They are important words. Maybe: “at the Foundation was Order” or “at the Root was Reason”.

The Logos is Christ, the Order of the Universe, and Logos is in the Arche, the Beginning, the foundation, the root of all of the Order that God created. You cannot find order, community, family and be an anarchist, be without-arche, without roots. But this is where most American Catholics find themselves on their cul-de-sacs in Suburbatopia -without roots, ritual, community, or identity. The only solution is Nero’s solution: go to the Logos of Christ, and the cultivation and procreation with God’s creation, the Arche or Foundation of all community.

In the end, you are left with two options: death or growth, life without the Faith or with It. Sons of Anarchy is a search for community and meaning for the Baby-boomers after a rejection of their own social engineering and the ruin of their lives and culture.

The options that the poet Sutter reveals to American ethnic groups are -either for the Mid-Western Protestants of Charming, CA or for the ethnic Catholics of SAMCRO- repetition and death, or cultivation and growth.

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