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Fear and (Self-) Loathing in Italian America

Joey Skee (February 4, 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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answer this topic

Don't you understand that this is correct time to receive the loans, which would realize your dreams.

Who is self loathing?

Two major pet peeves of mine. (1) My beautiful heritage being hijacked, exploited and misrepresented, and (2) having my time wasted.

MTV has covered point 1 and you, Mr. Joey S, have covered point 2.

Shallow and sad.

Dear Linda, I totally agree

Dear Linda,

I totally agree with you. Also, Joey, please refrain from writing for I-Italy! Your hatred for your heritage is profound. Stop trying to undermine those of us who are fighting to end defamation, discrimination, and stereotyping of our Italian heritage.

Pray explain what is "Gavon"

Pray explain what is "Gavon" and just as a correction to your sophistry, please note that it is "ad nauseam", not "at nauseum".

You are a relevant example of what education can produce when given to a person with limited intellectual confines: at best, convoluted articulation, but irremediably shallow thinking.


Gavon=Caffone...indicative of someone of low class and bad mannors, rude and disgusting often used to classify "those who come from the mountains."

i think Gavon is an americized or anglicized verson of the word, i've heard it in my house a lot. i think the spelling here actually might have to do with the sicilian and other dialectic variations on the c which is often changed to a g and f into a v...culo becomes "gulo" cazzo becomes "gazzo"

i didn't yet read this person's article but your commentary is harsh...

Look at the MTV mediocracy puppet!

A quick Google search will have you notice that this Martoni fall guy was only recently hired to front this hate speech propaganda show and they bleeped out all the other offensive epithets excepe the G-word. Folks, we are living in a grave sick new world. If this is real entertainment, then viewers are as clueless as the folks who greenlight this GenX psycho dreck.

Selling out pride and blood for a job is so Orwellian

These so called spokespersons who defend hate speech media defecation are being politically correct to protect a paycheck. It's their job speaking, not their brain or heart. Good luck to the sell outs if our end days come. No one's job will help them then. Who runs this site, NWO NeoCon men? LOL!

You're a sell out to institutionalized bigotry

It is an indisputable incontrovertible fact that constant and endless negative imagery in media leads to discrimination, exclusion and suffering in society. Data and statistics prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Relentless negative media without moral balance creates an Italian America full of Guidos. Hate speech passed off as reality is a crime against humanity. To defend it is to defend anti-semitic propaganda Hitler used against the Jews. Malcolm X once said to be black was to be invisible in America. That was then, this is now. We may not invisible. But we are still the eternal lowlife, black hat---or GUIDO. If you think that doesn't affect our place in this country or the world, then you are not only deaf, dumb and blind, you are a party to your own cultural destruction.

Dear Rico Thank you very,

Dear Rico

Thank you very, very much and bless you for your articulate and wise defense of our heritage. Joey has a deep self-hatred for his heritage!

We should all write to the editorial board of I-Italy and have him removed as a blogger. Time after time he continues to undermine efforts to stop the defamation of our culture. He is doing the work of those who despise us.

Get a life, you losers

Joey Skee -- Joseph Sciorra -- has done more to promote genuine Italian and Italian American culture than any of you anonymous cowards and cretini. Hatred for our culture? The lectures, film screenings, conferences, and panel discussions he has organized at Calandra Institute have made that institution the center for Italian American intellectual activity in New York. The attacks on Calandra, Joe, and Anthony Tamburri are coming from a bunch of right-wing losers who, when they dominated Calandra, didn't do a damn thing to elevate its profile or make it the vibrant institution it now is. They claim to be pro-Italian American but they just want to dictate a narrow, parochial, conservative notion of italianita' and have hissy fits when some of us don't agree. This hysteria over the crappy "reality" show "Jersey Shore" just indicates the immaturity, intellectual shallowness and unjustified self-pity of the so-called anti-defamation crowd. Get a life you losers -- find something else to have your pathetic little tantrums over -- real issues, e.g., health care reform, climate change, the economy, the fact that the US gov't is wasting billions on war.