Sounding Brass and Crashing Cymbal

Scavenging in the mudflats of the Internet a few days ago, I stumbled across the promise of a PBS documentary on a once infamous USA gangster named Al Capone. It was a little late in the day for an old guy but, being a fan of PBS – and its Canadian twin the Knowledge Network for their commercial-free programming – I poked the appropriate buttons and, presto, there full-screen was the pale, slightly-smirking face of a long-dead gangster and the program title “Al Capone – iconic.”

“Iconic” sounded a little out of sync, although I’ve used it many times over the years without much thought. Better check the Oxford Dictionary: “Being a famous person or thing that people admire and see as a symbol of a particular idea, way of life, etc.”

Had to think about that for a minute before sadly concluding that the Oxford definition of “iconic” was, in this instance, the description of a man without morals, a cunning manipulator of easily led malcontents and the mastermind behind the mass execution of rival gangsters – Al “Scarface” Capone.

Capone was conveniently in Florida on St. Valentine’s Day, Feb.14, 1929, when seven members of a rival gang lead by George “Bugs” Moran were executed by Capone shooters in Chicago. Moran had been Capone’s chief rival for control of the lucrative criminal activities in the Windy City.

It was estimated that at the time of his eventual arrest and trial for tax evasion, Capone’s income from crime was more than $60 million a year. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail but was released on November 6, 1939, after serving seven years, six months and 15 days. At the time of his release, he was suffering from incurable venereal syphilis. Severe brain damage from the disease had reduced him to a childlike state.

He died in seclusion in Florida on January 25, 1947.

So, these past few days, while adding fractionally to my less than iconic sum of knowledge, I’ve been wondering if I know anyone who rated iconic pied-piper leadership credit – someone “famous” and admired by easily-lead, thoughtless followers who like to break things and make others fear their bullying wrath.

I don’t think Donald Trump is as frightening as Capone, who “owned” police and powerful politicians and bent them to his will. But, there’s little doubt he would like to be; that he believes he is rightly billed iconic when he is, in fact only sounding brass and clashing cymbal signifying nothing.


  1. Capone apparently was admired by many, as is Trump. So were Stalin and Hitler. And everyone has seen young people wearing Che Guevara or Chairman Mao T-shirts. These are examples perhaps of mass cognitive dissonance or devil worship.

    A fascinating subject!

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