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1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca, Santa Fe, NM 87505

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“War and Beefs: Gang Violence in The Illiad

Jill Leovy, University of Southern California

Friday, December 2, 7:00 p.m., Great Hall


The Iliad supplies a detailed and recognizable description of what the Italian mafia scholar Maurizio Catino has dubbed "horizontal" governance -- that is, lateral rule by peers rather than top-down rule by a centralized authority. The same style of order is found the world over -- in feud societies, bandit cultures, and the various small-scale and "stateless" societies studied by anthropologists. It's also the surprisingly uniform ordering principle of street gangs, criminal groups and paramilitaries in contemporary urban societies. What can we learn about horizontal orders by reading Homer? To what extent can his descriptions shed light on this seminal form of social organization, also known as the protection racket? By the same token, how can an understanding of urban street violence illuminate The Iliad? These questions take us from ancient Greece to drug markets of Philadelphia, feuding villages of highland Albania and remote, indigenous zones of Venezuelan rain forests where, in the 1960s, the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon documented vengeance-based moral systems that shocked his readers back home. Viewed in this light, Homeric concepts of "honor," "fate," "ransom" and "law" take on new meanings, and seemingly exotic practices such as oaths and sacrifices can be understood as technical mechanisms for personal dispute resolution. Moreover, the story of The Iliad is revealed to be -- like so many gang shootings I covered in the 77th Street precinct of South Los Angeles -- about an in-house beef. Nothing could be more compelling.


Jill Leovy is a nonfiction author. Her current work-in-progress, to be published by One World Books of Penguin/Random House, is an inquiry into “petty” disputes and their outsized influence in shaping the world we live in. It draws on anthropology, classics, literature and history to tell the story of rancor, envy, revenge and personal violence in the human past, and suggests that we should better appreciate this complex backstory. 

Her first book, “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” (Random House 2015), was a New York Times bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, winner of the California Book Award for Nonfiction and of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for research non-fiction. “Ghettoside,” a blend of street reporting and scholarship, introduced the idea that high-crime communities are simultaneously under-policed and over-policed and argued that the causes of urban violence reside in problems of law, not in family structure, psychological differences, poverty, or other familiar scapegoats. Much of Leovy's work explores the decade she spent as a crime reporter in South Los Angeles. Leovy has worked for several daily newspapers, including the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the American Scholar. She is senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Leadership and Policy and was Harvard Sociology fellow from 2020 to 2022. 


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