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Fear and (Self-)Loathing in Italian America

Fear and (Self-)Loathing in Italian America

Joseph Sciorra (February 3, 2010)

The Specter of the Gavon Haunts the Prominenti.


Italian Americans are Under Attack!

That was the subject line of the email blast that appeared in my inbox this past month, originally sent by the National Italian American Foundation as part of its membership drive. The connection between anti-defamation efforts and membership recruitment piqued my interest in the recent outbreak of alarm gripping the larger consortium of prominenti. This media-induced panic attack is reminiscent of the conflated hysteria around cinematic aliens and communists that characterized the Cold War era.

American studies scholar Laura Cook Kenna reminds us in her 2007 dissertation, Dangerous Men, Dangerous Media: Constructing Ethnicity, Race, and Media’s Impact Through the Gangster Image, 1959-2007, that anti-defamation efforts after World War II increasingly linked Italian-American identity with American patriotism and political conservatism as part of the Cold War mentality. The playbook that was drafted during the 1950s continues to fuel the anti-defamation response; the boogeyman du jour that is “Jersey Shore” is a generational crisis. (Of course, there are middle aged and elderly Italian Americans who are not troubled by such media depictions, and even enjoy them, and there are twenty-somethings who suffer agita at such programming.)
The graying prominenti, who become apoplectic with each perceived media slight, were climbing the corporate ladder in an age when a vowel at the end of a name did influence job promotion or the offer of a law firm partnership. (The overt gendered aspect of this history should not go unmentioned.) In 2010, Italian Americans are not being routinely denied jobs, housing, or made the subject of police harassment because of their ethnicity. Yet past hurts resurface with the mere flicker of the screen. Historian Robert Harney’s discerning essay, “Cabato and Other Parentela,” notes that bigotry in North America fostered “an ethnic inferiority complex,” a state of self-loathing among the elite that led to an aversion to proletarian histories and vernacular expressivity. The specter of the gavon lingers like the pungent odor of grilling sausages and peppers in the weave of a three-piece suit.

One great fear that is repeatedly revealed is that “they,” i.e., the “Americans,” who live in exotic lands like Nebraska and Kansas, will think ill of Italian Americans. The recurring (sub)urban legend involves a telephone call made to a corporate representative who, upon hearing the caller’s Italian surname (often linked to an east coast city like New York or Philadelphia) proclaims, “‘Oh, you’re Italian! You must be in the mafia’.” 
So what?
It doesn’t matter.
Such a statement is like the insignificant buzzing of a gnat that has no lasting impact on our lives. Unless, of course, one’s social persona is fragile, then such a comment is elevated into an INSULT, not only for the individual but also for all those hard-working, immigrant ancestors–cue the violins–who came to these shores . . . . Well, you know the script.   
The script consists of specific verbal cues and symbolic language. One such cue involves the un-defined notion of “community.” Anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo points out that “community” is “an ideological construct” meant to convey a unity of belief and interests about a network of individuals. There are voting blocks and there are consumers, but there is no one single “community.” The fiction that is the “Italian-American community” is a means for individuals to jockey for political power and social prestige.  
The script also relies on hyperbolic language. The Italian-American plight is the “demonization of a people [that] is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.” Those who disagree with the anti-defamation agenda are branded as having “whacky destructive views” and are simply “traitors.” 

Ultimately, those with different opinions are compared to Holocaust deniers. One can trace this language through a series of protests from “Jersey Shore,” to the “The Sopranos,” to “The Godfather,” ad nauseum. (But strangely not those unremitting Super Mario Brothers!)  
This hysterical language, coupled with humorless sanctimony, is evident in another email that popped up in my inbox in response to an online video, in which the sender was unable to discern the obvious truth that this was a parody.

"YOU DON'T THINK WE HAVE A PROBLEM WAKE UP ...... look to this officially sanctioned MTV video on YouTube directed at Italian Americans offended by Jersey Shore .... it isn't enough for Viacom and MTV to humiliate us with the show .... with this YouTube video they are directly spitting in our face laughing at us  ... the show is bad enough but now even more THERE IS NO OTHER ETHNIC GROUP ON EARTH ... none MTV would ever sanction a video like this being produced and distributed .. it is beyond offense and proves just how WEAK they believe we are that they can get away with this crap .."
(quoted verbatim)
This is not mere “irony deficiency” but a case of acute anemia.
The buzz around New York is that the thin-skinned prominenti are searching for an “Italian-American Al Sharpton,” a person who will speak with one voice against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes plaguing the Italian-American community. In times like this, when the hurt, the fear, and the anger overwhelm the psyche of Italian America, we should turn to our resident headshrinker, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, for insight.


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Dear Joey, Please refrain

Dear Joey,

Please refrain from writing to or for I-Italy in the future. You simply have very deep hatred for your Italian heritage and are helping to give aid and comfort to those who continue to discriminate against and defame Italian Americans. You have absolutely no respect for our history and all the suffering that our ancestors experienced including being lynched for their heritage. And you have no respect for us who have experienced discrimination. Yes discrimination is REAL.

There is simply no room in our culture for discrimination and defamation! It's not about art, entertainment, parody, free speech or any euphemistic label that you might want to put on it.

Read our history and respect it! And, please, please stop trying to undermine our efforts to end the continuing onslaught of negative and very harmful stereotyping against us.


A very concerned reader of I-Italy.

Occhio contro occhio | i-ITALY

I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I'll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back in the future. Many thanks


Nel primo luogo, amic', Joe Skee came correct with his sounding off on these cosidetti prominenti...alla fine fratame, What you can't dig is the fact that this community has always had another side, and if you want to think about discrimination, instead of bitching about a' figuraccia that ultimately is Jersey Shore, ask yourself why this is so, instead of viewing the media as some omnipotent power that is attacking us with reality tv shows and The Sopranos and A Shark's Tale that does smack of bygone eras such as the Cold War and ancora peggio the Red Scare, when many Italians living in the US were deported and detained without any rights or due process because many were Anarchists and Communists, Think Paterson, Think Michele Schirru' and Ultimately Carlo Tresca, (and for legitimate purposes remember Vito Marcantoio going to the mats for the People) and His immediate opposite and counterpart Generoso Pope who was a shrewd newspaper owner that had mad connections in Tammany Hall and within the Democratic Party( quindi figuriamoci....he only jumped ship with the Fasci after the racial laws were declared and Mussolini solidified his position with The Nazis and Hitler which was a figuraccia for him with many of his Jewish American colleghi.)...and FDR was the man he ultimately answerd to because that's the way it was...but remember Mussolini was all good with the americani until he started to pull that shit with Nazi Germany.

Now far be it from me to go and pin it all on one figure, who in the long run has left an impact on the Italian American Community, but what I lament more is that the community has forgotten much of our leftist past, they've forgotten where we came from, and have adopted White Anglo Saxon Protestant values and cultural tendencies that they try to make more exotic and ethnic by going to fancy gala events that promote to gather money so that they can put out stuff that ultimately fits thier agendas....what I dislike is our tendency to worry about la bella figura rather than knowing our true history maintaining and distinct italian identity where the Italian Language is used nella vita quotidiana, and American tendencies can coform to the true Italian Prespective.

What I'm saying shouldnt be construed as Fascism, in fact I would assert an ethinc identity in customs habits and Language and do not perfer the assimilated go USA come hell or high water ideaolgy many of the prominenti today and yesterday still utilize and propogate. Ultimately we must not view our past with a step up the ladder stepped on mentality, we need to link the past with the struggles of todays immigrants and minorities with in and thruout or community.Quanto a me, amic, I'm a Poet and feel that we are the makers of our own identity and the only path to true identity is to show and take a look at the things we don't like about ourselves....our ruination as a people was the death of la cultura popolare; the demonization of the old world aspects that to this day I still maintain: like making my own wine, sausage, sauce and keeping a ancestors nonni e genitori compresi were always contadini....and I'll take them over the Rinascimento Filippo Mazzei, Cristoforo Colombo, Garibaldi, Meucci and Mussolini and if one day my children should ask what was Italian America, I'd say i cafoni, Vito Marcantonio Carlo Tresca and i veri Sacco and Vanzetti, and not the Icon Italian american groups make them seem at times. I would even tell them about Crocco and Ninco Nanco....about what was and what happened, what brought us to this place.

so please smettila con questi commenti da stracazzo amic'....because in the end academia is not at fault here....its reactionary provincial, narrow minded Guidos like you that give intelligent Guidos a bad name....quindi VATENNE E VIR TU!!!!! A DOPO!!!

Oh, Yeah!