With Tony Soprano as a 'hero', no wonder George Bush got re-elected

For all those baffled as to how a warmonger can be re-elected as president on a "family values" ticket, help is at hand. And for all those baffled that human beings can be responsible for damaging the fragile world order so profoundly, and still be seen as the good guys, an explanation awaits.

The Sopranos, the cult US television series, has for some years been dissecting the phenomenon whereby absolute belief in the family corrupts absolutely. No one says what needs to be said more perfectly than the creators of this series.

The family values in The Sopranos, of course, are Mafia family values. But the show's brilliance in part lies in the way that it can be read as exploring not just one man's psyche, or one family's psyche, but also the psyche of a nation, and the psyche of the Reaganite/ Thatcherite market system.

We first met Tony Soprano, the patriarch and New Jersey capo, when he was facing up to the fact that he suffered from embarrassingly unmacho panic attacks. The attack that sent him running to a psychoanalyst was brought on by the migration of ducks from his swimming pool.

Tony, whose daily life is soaked in the blood of his victims, was sickeningly sentimental about the ducks, selecting a passive target on to which to project his own need to feel that he's a nice guy really. In all other aspects of his life, he follows the same pattern, except that unlike the ducks, the people he selects as victims of his deadly brand of patronisation tend to end up with a bullet in their brains.

Tony's wife Carmela takes care to shield herself completely from all unpleasant aspects of her husband's life, except one. She loves the money that Tony's crimes bring in, and she can always be bought. Supposedly a devout Catholic (like all of them), Carmela was told by her priest that to accept Tony's money was to be complicit in his crimes. She carries on regardless.

Tony and Carmela don't, of course, want their own two children to join the family business. So instead Tony demands total loyalty and total psychosis from his nephews, who will take over from him one day. Christopher, his right-hand man, recently had been falling out of favour. Happily, he has been able to offer up his fiancée Adriana as a blood sacrifice to prove his loyalty. Under threat of arrest from the FBI, she tries to persuade Christopher to join her on the witness protection programme. She too gets a bullet in her head. As Christopher said: "I thought she loved me. But she wouldn't even do five years for me."

Yet guess what? Despite everything, the viewer watching this unedifying family juggling hypocrisy, cruelty and absence of guilt is sucked into seeing it as the hero of the tale. Even Tony's panic attacks are signs that he's crippled by guilt, rather than stressed by his lifestyle.

The Sopranos is an exemplary study in how even the most appalling people can be viewed by themselves and others as moral. Even in this time of despair, it's of some tiny comfort to remember that the US remains uniquely adept at delivering such compelling and subtle narratives to the rest of the world.

The last in the current series of 'The Sopranos' is on Channel 4 on Monday

Just out of prison? It's the streets for you

* If Cheryl Gillan, the shadow minister for home, constitutional and legal affairs, is to be believed, the Conservative Party is about to perform a remarkable U-turn on its penal policy. Ms Gillan, it seems, has become rather enamoured of the idea that it would be handy to attempt to rehabilitate prisoners, then give them some help on their release with resettlement.

This would be music to the ears of penal reformers, if it wasn't for one little snag.

There is no doubt that the typical ex-con is a vulnerable person who needs help. But the punitive culture in this society has become so extreme that vulnerability itself has now become more or less criminal, and you don't have to have committed any crime at all to find yourself a pariah, supported and helped by no one.

How can any government promise, for example, to combat the problem of homelessness among those newly released from prison? Social housing is in such sort supply that a single, able-bodied low-paid worker has a cat's chance in hell of being conferred with the great privilege of renting a modest social home.

Meanwhile, demand for social housing from all sorts of vulnerable groups is at such a frenzied level that many councils employ layer upon layer of housing officers, support officers, outreach workers, case managers and so on simply to ensure that there's always someone on the end of the phone to explain to some needy individual or other that they are not sufficiently broken, humiliated and pathetic yet to be entitled to a crumbling council bedsit with black mould on all the walls.

When Ms Gillan and her party explain how they are going to tackle this problem, then I'll believe her bluster.

*Love that new education initiative which seeks to ban siblings from priority entry to "good" state schools. Charles Clarke feels that abuse of the rule occurs when rich families move into a catchment area, get one child into the school, then move out safe in the knowledge that all their other children will get in too. How many parents actually do this? If the goal is fairness, wouldn't it be more sensible simply to concentrate on lowering class sizes - the single thing that makes state teaching such a Herculean task - so that all state schools become "good"?

*All those who were not quite convinced that John Lydon's appearance on I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here chimed perfectly with his history as a punk and an anarchist, can now congratulate themselves. The middle-aged weasel has cashed in on his appearance in the jungle by signing up to the Discovery channel to present a programme called Megabugs. No doubt the former Sex Pistol will explain to anyone interested that he simply wants to educate people about the fascinating creatures that he loves. But we all know now that the television appearance was a profile-raising job application for him, just as it was for all the other attention crazy, cash crazy narcissists on the show.

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