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Articles by: Jerry Krase

  • Facts & Stories

    Gramsci Comes to The Bronx: Too Little and Too Late

    Whereas Jesus Christ stopped at Eboli on his way elsewhere and has yet to make a confirmed appearance anywhere in the bailiwick of Cardinal Timothy Dolan (FYI: The Bronx is part of the Archdiocese of New York and Dolan is in deep stuff (profondo stoff), I am happy to report that the much more Christ-like radical Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, has finally arrived, but only by way of Switzerland.

    In a recent New York Times article, Randy Kennedy cryptically remarked “Last year a tall man in a dark suit with thick black-frame glasses — something like a combination of Morrissey and Samuel Beckett — began showing up at housing projects all over New York City. He attended residents’ meetings and spoke rapturously in a heavy Germanic accent about an improbable dream (un sogno improbabile): finding people to help him build a monument to the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who died in Rome in 1937. “ No one knew who the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, or Gramsci for that matter was.

                 Hirschhorn's Gramscianesque focus is on “oppression, poverty, abuse of power, the atrocities of  war, and a culture of easy pleasure that makes it easy to ignore all those things.”
     

    His plywood, plexiglass and beige packing tape monument to Gramsci “doesn’t look much like an artwork, either. It looks more, in fact, like an adult treehouse or a makeshift beach cabana or a chunk of set hijacked from the Kevin Costner film Waterworld” according to Kennedy. This summer (Quest'estate) it will serve as a site for lectures, concerts, recitals and art programs at the one time crack-infected Forest Houses. It is the final installation in a series that spans the Atlantic to Holland, France and Germany. In Gamscian style, they were collaboratively created in poor and working class housing projects to show the power of art “…to make people think about issues they otherwise wouldn’t have thought about.”

    A long-time resident activist Kennedy interviewed, Mr. Farmer, 43, who was one of the few to ask for Gramsci’s writings, remarked “There’s nothing cultural here at all. It’s like we’re in a box here, in this neighborhood.” An apt description of most insular enclaves. During a work break, a young man was being chased by people shouting that he had just robbed someone (appena derubato qualcuno). when they caught him they beat him severely. “I’m sorry you had to see that, but it’s self-policing, and that’s how that should work,” Farmer said; “That guy doesn’t live here. He’s not going to come back here and try to rob anybody anymore.” Note how well this would’ve sounded in Italian or in the good old days of Bensonhurst.

    It is important to note that the monument is not situated on Arthur Avenue in Belmont’s not really “The Real Little Italy,” which instead has a monument to Crazy Joe Gallo in the form of a facsimile of Umberto’s Clam House where on April 7, 1972 he was shot and killed two months after its opening in Manhattan’s authentic Little Italy ethnic theme park. So far the Belmont Business Improvement District hasn’t found the nerve to mount a statue of Bronx-born John Gotti. Of course real Italians have made many great contributions via the Bronx; especially in the arts such as my old and new friends Ralph Fasanella, Joseph Tusiani, and Annie Lanzilotto. Then there is Ron Galella, Don Delillo, and a whole slew of actors acting like Italian-Americans from The Bronx: Al Pacino, Chazz Palmentieiri, and Danny Aiello. Spanning the music spectrum (attraversando lo spettro musicale) are Dion (and the Belmonts) Dimucci and Arturo Toscanini, not to mention Jake Lamotta whose bell was rung too often. But as to recent progressive politics and activism there is much left to be desired Italian-wise in the Bronx.

    In preparation for this commentary, I asked a few unacademic Italian American friends if they knew who Antonio Gramsci was and was not shocked by the lack of name recognition (nome riconoscimento). Despite their common origins (at least the Sardinians among them), Bronx-Italians especially might be unfamiliar with Gramsci, so in searching for a short précis on the revolutionary activist-scholar I found this Monthly Review review of Antonio A. Santucci’s recent biography that I will translate into plain American shortly:

    “Gramscian terms such as “civil society” and “hegemony” (Società civile" e di "egemonia") are much used in everyday political discourse. Santucci warns us, however, that these words have been appropriated by both radicals and conservatives for contemporary and often self-serving ends that often have nothing to do with Gramsci’s purposes in developing them. Rather what we must do, and what Santucci illustrates time and again in his dissection of Gramsci’s writings, is absorb Gramsci’s methods. These can be summed up as the suspicion of grand explanatory schemes, the unity of theory and practice, and a focus on the details of everyday life. With respect to the last of these, Joseph Buttigieg says in his foreword: Gramsci did not set out to explain historical reality armed with some full-fledged concept, such as hegemony; rather, he examined the minutiae of concrete social, economic, cultural, and political relations as they are lived by individuals in their specific historical circumstances and, gradually, he acquired an increasingly complex understanding of how hegemony operates in many diverse ways and under many aspects within the capillaries of society.”

    Translation: Gramsci, as another of my intellectual heroes Paolo Freire, taught that actions speak more loudly than words (le azioni parlano più forte delle parole) and that knowledge is not merely intellectual decoration. One demonstrates knowledge by proving it works in successful actions. My first encounter with his work was via an old friend John Cammett’s (1927-2008) Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism. Some readers might not know that John was a founding member of the American Italian Historical Association (Now the Italian American Studies Association). Incidentally, my good newer friend, Pasquale Verdicchio, translated Gramsci’s The Southern Question and is well worth a read.

    There is great irony in the fact the Gramsci monument is placed in a predominantly Black and Latino low-income housing project in that Italian American politicians have long conspired with their Irish and Jewish partners to suppress Bronx minority voters in order to profit from local, state, and national political connections. Today, Black and Latino government officials have mostly escaped from their European-American masters and are demonstrating that political corruption is an equal opportunity employer. John Gambling once quipped about the prevalence of Bronx political bad guys that there must be something in its water supply. He then asked former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer for his take on the most recent (2013) Bronx scandals. Ferrer joked that “We had a gorgeous mosaic of corruption in the ’80s,”referring to the array of Black, Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican politicians who used to make up the culture of corruption in the Bronx. 

    In the eqally corrupt but less "colorful" 1970s, with the support of Paul O’Dwyer, I attempted to form a progressive Bronx Puerto Rican-Italian-Black political coalition. With some progressive Blacks and Italian Americans on board, I tried to arrange a meeting (Ho cercato di organizzare un incontro) with a progressive Puerto Rican legislator in the Bronx. The response I got was that “they” would be happy to meet with the Italians but not with Blacks. Gramsci would recognize this as a clash between Civil Society and Hegemony (I think). The reputation of Italian American activism in the Bronx has always been confusing. As I drove through the South Bronx on the Sheridan Expressway recently, I saw the faded signs of the Father Louis Gigante South East Bronx Community Organization pasted on a large scale housing development. SEBCO was the allegedly “progressive” creation of Louis Gigante, a retired Catholic priest, and former Bronx NYC Council Member. However his Genovese crime family brothers; family boss Vincent “The Chin,” and occasional acting boss Mario eventually made their impact felt in his once highly touted work.

                   The Bronx in general and more and less recent Italian American politicians in particular do not have a spectacularly good reputation. Probably the most well-known political Italo-icon was Democratic Party U.S. Congressman Mario Biaggi, but given that Italian Americans are political switch hitters we must also recognize the contributions of Republican New York State Senator Guy Velella. And as Gramsci makes his local appearance and Italian political clout continues to wane, we note the most recent troubles of Bronx Republican Leader Joseph Savino. More irony in the anti-Gramscian shenanigans of Italian Americans is sadly reflected in the role of SCOTUS members Antonin Scalia and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. who voted to remove critical protections for minorities once embedded in the 1965 Federal voting Rights Act. FYI: Like the states of the Deep South, in part due to the voter suppression and gerrymandering of Italian American political leaders, The Bronx was also covered by its requirements for judicial review of changes that would affect minority voters. One would have to wonder whether a trip by the real Antonio Gramsci to the Bronx would have made a difference… but then again Italy seems to be no better off for all his efforts. The best we can hope for is that Hirschhorn's monument will raise the political consciousness of those who continue to suffer from the abuses of corrupt politicians of every stripe. When will there be a Bronx Spring? (Quando ci sarà una Bronx Primavera?)

  • Op-Eds

    Political Suicide in New York City and Italy: Part II - NYC


    There is a lot about current New York City politics that has a distinctly Italian favor, but there are some stylistic differences; in Italy, when things get really bad people demonstrate in the streets while in New York City we have street fairs and the greatest public outrage here seems to be about bicycles.
     
    In general, the governments of La Belle Italia and la Grande Mela followed the same right-wing economic programs -- reducing revenue while increasing spending in order to create deficits in order to demand, in turn, cutting programs for the many and reducing the power of the government, over the few. At both the national and local levels, slashing basic public services and earned benefits (rephrased as “entitlements”) has been made more urgent by the fraudulent excesses of large corporations, especially financial institutions, that, with the help of the public officials they own, make Mafia bosses look like benevolent dictators in comparison. In real democracies the government is “of, by, and for the people.” The “People” used to be human beings but thanks to the John G. Roberts’ Supreme Court, mega-business corporations are free to outbid the rest of us. In both Italy and New York City, there are also no real political parties. Political parties are supposed to have manifestos -- ideas about what is best for the citizenry and how to accomplish their goals. Right now, our political parties, citizens groups (many of which are fronts for business groups), and unions, all of which are incorporated in the State of New York, offer no comprehensive platforms or grand visions for our city. Most of the candidates themselves are surrounded not by policy experts and community leaders but by consultants telling them what to wear. The goal is winning whatever the cost, and the costs keep going up.  
     
    The current New York City mayoral two-ring circus has two candidates with Italian roots. Even better, or perhaps worse, was the 1950 race with three Italian-born candidates: Vincent R. Impellitteri won on the Experience Party line; Ferdinand Pecora came in 2nd on the Democratic/Liberal lines; and 3rd place loser was Republican Edward Corsi. The first of today’s sons of Italy is my old friend, Calabria-born, several term City Councilman Sal Albanese. Sal came in third in the 1997 Democratic Mayoral primary to Ruth Messenger, and Al Sharpton. Ruth then opened the door for another Italian-American -- Rudy Giuliani, who still haunts City Hall. The second paesano is Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, whose 52nd birthday party fundraiser at Cielo in the now chiche meatpacking district, I went to yesterday evening with some Brooklyn friends. As to more disclosure, although I had voted for him once, I never got invited to any of Bloomberg’s as HE didn’t need my money.  Another, more nefarious, Italian connection in the race is Rudy’s protégé Joe Lhota, whose lack of personality demonstrates what happens when you spend too much time with The Rude One, and the MTA.  Joe, running for the Republican nomination, told Chris Smith in a New York Magazine article “I am not a tool of Rudy Giuliani.” However, Smith continued, “…escaping the shadow of America’s mayor may be tougher than he thinks.” Smith’s Machiavellian analysis would translate well for any of Italy’s major newspaper.
     
    “More intriguing is the way the business class has nudged ­Lhota into the fray. Restless members of the city’s finance and real-­estate Establishment have been searching for a more conservative challenger to the field of left-of-center, career-politician Democrats. The most appealing option, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, resisted the pleading. But the search kept going, fueled as much by the desire to play kingmaker as by dismay at the prospect of a Mayor Quinn, De Blasio, Thompson, or Liu. Among the recruiters have been Ken Langone, the Home Depot co-founder; Dick Grasso, the former New York Stock Exchange president; Mort Zuckerman, the Daily News publisher; and real-estate titans Stephen Ross and Steve Roth.”
     
    It looks to me like when the plutocrats are not running themselves there is a scramble to enter, and then ride, their own horse in the race.  With all the arrests, indictments, and investigations of local politicians it’s more difficult then ever.  A personal note in regard to Kelly lurking in the wings is also in order here. Before I had read Smith’s article, an Irish American Democratic Party activist/friend who shall remain nameless, had suggested to me that Kelly might become a candidate. To which I responded “Two Irish candidates for mayor?” To which he replied  “Who’s the other one?”  This lack of ethnic solidarity does not bode well for Christine Quinn.
     
    Only in truly democratic electoral political systems like la Bella Italia and La Grande Mela would a major newspaper like The New York Times complain about “too many” people running for office and making life difficult for the front-runners. In Italy it was the Five Star Movement (Cinque Stelle) and comedian/politician Beppe Grillo that shamelessly crashed the party. Here at home it’s people like my old progressive friend Sal Albanese and, at the other end of the political spectrum, my old non-friend, but fellow Brooklyn Technical High School graduate, John Catsimatidis. I guess, The Times like The Daily News, The New York Post/Wall Street Journal prefer leaving the reins of government in the hands of “regular” yet-to-be-convicted politicians and imperial billionaires like Berlusconi, and Bloomberg who seem not to be content with their current stable of rent-a-pols.
     
    In “Outsiders in Race for Mayor Are Irritating Their Better-Known Rivals” Michael Grynbaum wrote “two of the lesser-known aspirants in the contest” are to be reckoned with. “John A. Catsimatidis, the billionaire businessman and Gristedes owner, picked up the endorsement of the obscure but potentially influential Liberal Party, making it more likely that he will win a spot on the general Election ballot that could pose problems for his chief Republican rival, Joseph J. Lhota, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration.”
     
    Here, Grynbaum, missed the irony of this partisan oxymoron, or better “oxycretan,” of ideologically conservative Catsamidis getting the endorsement of the not really “Liberal” Party. Given past history, I wonder how much it cost him. I also wonder what the Independence Party charged (Adolfo Carrion, Jr.), this time around; not to mention the increasingly irrelevant Working Families Party. Where is The Rent is Too Damn High Party when you need it?
     
    “On the Democratic side,” Grynbaum continued “Sal F. Albanese, a former Brooklyn city councilman who is virtually unknown to voters, revealed he had been scrutinizing the payrolls of two of his better-known opponents, and accused two of them of hiring political operatives at taxpayer expense in advance of the mayoral campaign. Both candidates succeeded in getting under the skin of their more established rivals. A spokesman for Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, one of the candidates singled out by Mr. Albanese, called the findings 'plain wrong.' Mr. Lhota suggested that the endorsement of Mr. Catsimatidis was meaningless, issuing a withering statement: 'I have no interest in seeing the resurrection of the deceased Liberal Party in New York.'"
     

    In sum, as in Italy’s last national elections, I predict that September’s mayoral primary elections for both parties, and the certain “less than 40%” runoff in the Democratic Party race, as well as the general election in November will collectively draw the lowest proportion of registered voters in umpteen years. For Italy it was since 1948. For New York City, even less than the last bought and paid for non-election. 

  • Op-Eds

    Political Suicide in New York City and Italy: Part I - Italy



    New York City and Italy have a great deal in common, starting and ending with self-destructive electorates; voters who are intent on putting into office people who, in one way or another, hold them in contempt. In both nominal democracies, We The People are generally too ignorant and equally self-absorbed to notice that the political pain we feel is self-inflicted. How do situations like this consistently happen in electoral democracies? The Italian case in point is the Phoenix-like rising of Silvio Berlusconi who most of us had thought had already descended into one or another well-deserved Dantian circle of Hell. For il Cavaliere the most suitable ones probably are 2,3, 8 and 9. One postmodern reason for this state of affairs is a perversion of the Schadenfreude principle practiced in Italy as “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend” syndrome. In a Vaticanesque world where enemies are more reliable than friends, who themselves often can’t be trusted, even technical, unelected governments can’t make the trains run on time. On the other hand, Italians of the leftist kind are especially adverse to their friends being more successful than they are, so lasting and effective left-wing coalitions are oxymorons.

    Then there is the reflexive “Don’t tell me what to do!” syndrome by which the more Italians (and Italy itself) are criticized by foreigners, the greater is the likelihood that they will be exalted by Italians. In recent days, The New York Times and Kanzlerin Angela Merkel have done more to raise the esteem for Silvio in the eyes of the Italian public than his teenage pajama party girlfriends. Someone should have told Mutti that telling Italians who NOT to vote for has the opposite effect.The Times, like the old dog who can't learn new tricks, is hopeless and I believe Italian politicians seek its editorial dissapproval.


    As Melissa Eddy wrote in The New York Times, when Merkel was asked last September if she feared a Berlusconi comeback, she had difficulty not smirking while sputtering “I am, as you know, a democratic politician and respect the outcome of elections in every country.” Now with Silvio’s Verdial triumphant return to the center-right stage the smirk (feixen) has been wiped off her face as she and the German government began, “…in not-so-subtle ways, to signal to Italians not to vote for him.” For example, her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was quoted as advising Italians “… not to make the same mistake again by voting for him.” Germans and Germany have not been especially good for Italians and Italy ever since the reign of their namesake Germanicus. The most recent havoc wreaked by the Vandals are the scandals presided over by the super cleric German import, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger). Given the bad blood that flowed between Angela and Silvio, after he was caught in a wiretap making a characteristically vulgar comment about her somatotype, it is not unexpected that he would use Merkel as a foil in his current campaign. It is she and Germany, rather than his own arrogance and ineptitude, as well as ungovernable Italians, that is responsible for Italy’s well-deserved fiscal crisis.

    Italy is always in deep stuff (sempre nei guai), and Italian voters consistently evidence well beyond the normal lack of confidence that voting and/or changing the government will do any good. This is most often reflected in staying home during elections and complaining about the returns. But, in the eyes of Rachel Donadio and many other foreign correspondents at least (“The Rise of a Protest Movement Shows the Depth of Italy’s Disillusionment”), a blurry bright spot has been the “Internet-savvy comedian turned populist rabble-rouser,” who heads what might be the third most vote getting party headed by firebrand "comedian" Beppe Grillo. His tsunami "Five Star Movement” has swelled in anticipation of the national elections building on an “antisystem” (what "system" I don’t know) message that draws discouraged voters away from both right and left-leaning parties. Beppe's grass-roots campaign, among other populist things, calls for a referendum on the Euro. Some experts believe Grillo has made it all but impossible that Berlusconi & company will take back the reigns of government. Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left Democratic Party, is expected to place first, but without enough seats to govern alone and Mario Monti et al are where they should be in line. 


    Investors fear that if there is no clear victor, the political uncertainty might cause renewed market turmoil. They seem not to have noticed that the turmoil is the new normal (nuova normalita). More of a problem to some, is that Grillo’s success could make Parliament, like the United States Congress I suppose, ungovernable (also the new normal). To add more insult to the injuries, Beppe can't serve in Parliament because he was convicted for manslaughter. According to Donadio, a political scientist and a pollster, called Grillo a “uniquely Italian invention.” “We invented fascism, the Christian Democrats, Berlusconi, and now we’ve even invented Grillo.” It remains to be seen however what Italy and Italians will invent, or re-invent, as they go to the polls on February 24-25. La Repubblica reported as I write this that they (Silvio, Pierluigi, and Mario come pure i tedeschi) have now ganged up on Beppe who, because he is being attacked by both friends and enemies, attracted almost a million supporters to a rally in Rome. Stay tuned.


    The result might be an important lesson for Bill De Blasio, Sal Albanese, Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson, John Liu and every other Democrat seeking to defeat Big Money and Big Media in New York City.

  • Op-Eds

    Vedi Napoli e poi Muori 2012


    "See Naples and Die" is a cryptically ominous, aphorism attributed to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe he is said to have uttered about the magnificent opulence of Naples in the late 18th century. I can only guess that had Goethe lived long enough to visit Naples, Florida for the Republican National Convention he would have made a similarly cryptic comment about the political fortunes of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. If he had watched the first decidely unPresidential debate with Jim Lehrer at the helm in Denver, Colorado he might have thought Jim had taken his cryptic advice literally. In any case, this piece is merely a nonpartisan (a)musing over my recent week-long trip to Naples.


    I went there with my wife Suzanne in order to participate in the Commission on Urban Anthropology’s International Conference on “Entrepreneurial Culture, Corporate Responsibility and Urban Development,” that took place at the Mostra d’Oltremare in Fuorigrotta.

     In my talk, I spoke about, and showed, how international migrants are transforming urban landscapes by creating “Mixed Cities” and, in turn, how their activities contribute to a broader sense of city and society-wide community.

     

    Of course I used the professional travel opportunity to observe and photographically survey as much of the Naples’ urban labyrinth as I could during the eight days we were there.  As I moved around the city with my camera at the ready sweating on the overcrowded La Metropolitana, being scorched atop the “Hop On /Hop Off” bus, jammed on bump-along municipal buses, and wobbling on foot across ancient cobblestones, I looked for, and found, beautiful shabbiness and surprisingly – quiet diversity all around me; contradicting the common view of exclusively bad blood between new and old Napolitani.



    Unfortunately, I also learned the difference between tempo Italiano and Tempo Napolitano …. One hour later (un’ora piu tardi). I loved Naples, as even the most sinister-looking places were colorfully filled with friendly people. For example, within two days of walking to the Monetesanto train station from my hotel through Quartieri Spagnoli I became a regular and began to ignore the fact that the city is neither clean nor efficient.  In one instance, at my regular stop at the Campi Flegrei station I, and the rest of the regular passengers, scampered back forth as three consecutive track change announcements (cambio di binario) for the same departing train were made within five minutes.

     

    Despite the city’s reputation, I seldom felt unsafe, even as someone tried to pick my pocket on the bus. I simply grabbed his hand, shoved him away and failed miserably in an attempt to curse in Italian. For some reason I didn’t think “a fanabla” would work. Obviously he was an incompetent out-of-towner. Cab drivers on the contrary (anzi) were much more successful in ripping me off, as I never got the same price for the same trip. Even though I am only half Sicilian, the locals had no problem understanding my Italian as they suspected by my appearance that I was not from here and didn't expect much. In one toy store I searched for figurines of ancient Roman soldiers (Cerco statuette di antichi soldati Romani) and, although I seldom understood their response, we still managed to get along with a smile. My wife, having roots on both sides of her family to Campania was often mistaken for a local and asked for directions in Neapolitan, Italian and at least on one occasion in Spanish. Miraculously, while walking along the Via Duomo near the Duomo di San Gennaro we think we found the palazzo where her cousin's family once lived. Another miracle during the trip took place in Ana Capri wehre I found an expensive digital camera under a tree in a small piazza and gave it to a traffic cop along with my business card, just in case… When I came home and told my fellow cynical New Yorkers, they all said the cop would keep it for himself. A week later I received an e-mail from a grateful French visitor. 


    I saw Naples and survived (Vidi Napoli e sopravvisse).

     


  • Op-Eds

    “Women and the RC Church Misogyny, or Gynophobia? Take your Pick"


    In “Conservative bishops court the disdain of Catholic women” from his Top of the Ticket: Political Commentary perch at the LA Times, David Horsey wrote:

    “America’s conservative Catholic bishops are so worried that some woman in their employ will get access to birth control that they have filed 12 lawsuits against the federal government. What they are failing to see is a much bigger challenge that should have them truly worried: the independence of Catholic women.” The case in point was the support by religious and non-unreligious Catholic women for President Obama’s insistence that church-run institutions receiving federal funds provide coverage for contraceptives, and other useful things, in employee healthcare packages. The Church condemns birth control and equates some contraceptive methods with abortion.

    Unlike Galileo, and equally enlightened nuns, my own encounters with the RC hierarchy have been limited but instructive. The RC churchmen I know are decent, sometimes even humble, folks who unfortunately tend to forget why they became priests as they float toward the top. My first encounter of this kind was with Silvano Tomasi who headed the Scalabrini Fathers who minister to migrants globally.  Before being elevated to Archbishop, Nuncio, and the Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Silvano did a great imitation of Father Guido Sarducci who understood Vatican operations: “To be made a saint in-a the catholic church, you have to have-a four miracles. That's-a the rules, you know. It's-a always been that-a. Four miracles, and-a to prove it. Well, this-a Mother Seton-now they could only prove-a three miracles. But the Pope-he just waved the fourth one. He just waved it! And do you know why? It's-a because she was American. It's all-a politics. We got-a some Italian-a people, they got-a forty, fifty, sixty miracles to their name. They can't-a get in just cause they say there's already too many Italian saints, and this woman comes along with-a three lousy miracles. I understand that-a two of them was-a card tricks.“

     

    Recently the Guardian reported on a less funny routine: “The Vatican has lashed out at criticism over its handling of its paedophilia crisis by saying the Catholic church was 'busy cleaning its own house' and that the problems with clerical sex abuse in other churches were as big, if not bigger. In a defiant and provocative statement, issued following a meeting of the UN human rights council in Geneva, the Holy See said the majority of Catholic clergy who committed such acts were not paedophiles but homosexuals attracted to sex with adolescent males. The statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's permanent observer to the UN, defended its record by claiming that 'available research' showed that only 1.5%-5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sex abuse.” 

     

    Another old friend, Anthony Bevilacqua, who worked for the benefit of underprivileged Brooklynites, rose even further in the old boy’s network to become a Cardinal. The American Italian Coalition of Organizations Board celebrated his elevation to Bishop with a dinner. While sitting next to me he turned and asked if I had ever seen the “tongue of Saint Anthony,” and then stuck it out at me.  Less miraculously, David Zucchino reported in the Los Angeles Times: “In a blistering 2005 grand jury report, Philadelphia prosecutors said Bevilacqua and other church officials covered up evidence of rampant child sexual abuse by clergy for decades.  Bevilacqua died Jan. 31 at age 88, but his videotaped deposition could be played at the trial.”

    In the 1970s I heard many complaints by Italian American clergy of discrimination against them in the German-Irish dominated American Catholic hierarchy.  Somewhat “liberal” Brooklyn Bishop Francis J. Mugavero’s name was Irishly pronounced as “McGovero” and even my civil rights activist friend Monsignor Gino Baroni recounted that he was always “Geno” to the big boys. To get ahead you had to learn how to play the game and ethnic self-deprecation was a small part of the process. Nowadays ethnic and racial discrimination in the hierarchy has lessened but nothing seems to have changed regarding women (as well as unauthorized sexual orientations).

     

    Looking at the good done by the Church over the centuries, it seems that women, and especially nuns, have done much of it. So where does this holy bias come from? I think the answer lies somewhere in the strange logic of the “No women priests” rule that mimics the old “no women in the men's locker room” excuse for trying to block female sports commentators.

    It is based on the strangest of logics. Roman Catholics believe that a woman, Mary, was the mother of God (aka Jesus) whom she bore without the help of a real man. Yet women, it is argued, are not suitable (either not good enough or too good) to be priests. So if there is a choice between misogyny (hatred of women) or gynophobis (fear of women) to describe the attitude I would lean toward the phobic. No need for a glass ceiling when there are no women in the building.


    The latest, and allegedly final, version of the ban hinges on a letter written by a Polish cardinal Karol Josef Woytyla who in 1978 became the 1st non-Italian pope in 400 years. John Paul II, nearing sainthood, was an advocate for human rights and opposed captial punishment. Although he supported the progressive reforms of Vatican II and improved relations with other religions, when it came to issues of sex and gender he was distinctly traditional.


    After writing patronizingly about how really great women were in his  APOSTOLIC LETTER ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS OF JOHN PAUL II TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON RESERVING PRIESTLY ORDINATION TO MEN ALONE, he concluded:

    4. Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

    Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.

    Invoking an abundance of divine assistance upon you, venerable brothers, and upon all the faithful, I impart my apostolic blessing. From the Vatican, on May 22, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 1994, the sixteenth of my Pontificate.

    It boils down to the alleged fact that Jesus did not "authorize" it.


    We now have another non-Italian, German, pope who, as Joseph Ratzinger, also lived through the horrors of World War II and witnessed the RC Concordats in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. I can’t imagine that Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote "Christianity is the Religion of the Logos," could reason that the structure of the Church is more important than its mission. How much of what the Church does today is also not authorized by Christ, and if something is not authorized by him does it mean it can’t be done? It seems to me that the “no females” ideology is a variant of Robert Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy” in that the inevitability of hierarchy transforms the organization into one that sees the male-only status quo as sacred and immutable.

     

    The current “the Butler did it” scandal in Rome is a prefect example of what happens when a small group of men are hermetically sealed inside the walls of an opulent palace. It seems that someone on the inside leaked documents about dissent over such things as the all-male priest sex abuse cover-ups and (probably also all-male) Vatican Bank shenanigans that occasionally leave people hanging from bridges. Jesus would have some job cleansing St. Peter's today.

    We can thank God that at least the nuns are fighting back against sanctimonious male chauvinism. As reported by Laurie Goodstein:  “In a spirited retort to the Vatican, a group of Roman Catholic nuns is planning a bus trip across nine states this month, stopping at homeless shelters, food pantries, schools and health care facilities run by nuns to highlight their work with the nation’s poor and disenfranchised. The bus tour is a response to a blistering critique of American nuns released in April by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which included the accusation that the nuns are outspoken on issues of social justice, but silent on other issues the church considers crucial: abortion and gay marriage." The Bishops' critique focused on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The bus tour is also protesting federal program cuts for the poor and working families passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. They were proposed by Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul D. Ryan, who said his Catholic faith justified the cuts. Evidently adhering to a different version of Catholicism, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, said “We’re doing this because these are life issues,” “And by lifting up the work of Catholic sisters, we will demonstrate the very programs and services that will be decimated by the House budget.”

     

    FYI: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. The conference has more than 1500 members, who represent more than 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. Founded in 1956, the conference assists its members to collaboratively carry out their service of leadership to further the mission of the Gospel in today’s world.

    PS: As is obvious, at best I am a "Cafeteria Catholic" picking and choosing those things that make sense to me, and I assume Jesus as well. A lot of people who might read this are not Christian or Catholic, and many others are atheists and/or agnostics, but if there was a God, and if God had a son by the name of Jesus, my sense is, that if Jesus were around today, he probably would authorize this blog post and maybe even tweet it and like it.

  • Art & Culture

    The Status of Interpretation in Italian American Studies: Shameless Promotion of My Books, Part II



    The First Annual Forum in Italian American Criticism held in Manhattan in 2008 at which internationally renowned scholars were invited to comment on “The Status of Interpretation in Italian American Studies” was by all our own accounts a resounding success. Peter Carravetta, D’Amato Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Stony Brook University did the heavy lifting in organizing the event, and I was honored with the intellectually challenging task of organizing and lightly editing its proceedings. Most difficult for me was crafting this introduction to what is a most eclectic collection of essays by many of my old, and a few new, friends, and colleagues. The Status of Interpretation in Italian American StudiesWhat brought these all too thinly disguised subjects together that cleverly masquerade as merely about Italian America and Italian Americans but which are actually boundless? After careful reading, it appeared to me that their strongest commonality was the love of the subject, and in many cases, each other’s work. As was the face-to-face interactions during the Forum in Italian American Criticism Forum in Italian American Criticism Forum in Italian American Criticism FIAC conference itself, the collection is, taken together but not as whole, a noisy celebration of melodious cacophony. While reading each of them, I felt as though I was sitting around the table, in the basement kitchen of course, where such scholarly friends are allowed to eat and drink but who would never qualify as “company.”

    When Carravetta put the project in my hands I remembered that he had spoken mischievously at the opening of the forum about the contributions, as well as the contributors themselves, as being from inside and outside the “fold.” I took this to mean at least a threefold distinction between: those whose major professional identity is with Italian American Studies; those who find themselves within either the Humanities or the Social Sciences; and those who either identify themselves, or are identified by others, as Italian or non-Italian Americans. These are the three dichotomies, if not extremes of continua, that contribute to the unsettled status of the under-, perhaps un-, appreciated field of Italian American Studies today. I have yet to figure out whether I am inside or outside of any of the “folds.”

    In the most curious and fascinating cases, some contributors to this volume serve as the subjects for other contributors. For good reason, Robert Viscusi (“The Ice Margin”), Fred Gardaphe (“Commedia della Morte: Theories of Life and Death in Italian American Culture.”), and Anthony Tamburri (After-hour Musings and Other Night-thoughts on Italian Americans and ‘Otherness’”) are the major recipients of this wanted attention by William Boelhower (“Renewing the Conceptual Dimensions of Italian-American Writing and Scholarship”), Djela Kadir (“Via the Margin of the Poetic”) and, only peripherally, by Martino Marrazzi (“Questioning the Traditionalism of Italian American Literature”). Another shared focus, by Stefano Luconi (“Whiteness and Ethnicity in Italian-American Historiography”) and Francesca Sautman (“Creolizing the Lack: Interpreting Race and Racism in Italian America”), is on “whiteness” and race that has led to significant insights recently in the field of Italian American Studies that would otherwise be left (for some perhaps “better”) unseen.

    Historically class and culture have been the preferred vehicles for the usually less than penetrating analysis of things ethnic. The placement of my own paper (“Interpreting the Italian Look, Visual Semiotics of Ethnic Authenticity”), near the center of the collection, I felt might serve as a link between these icons and iconoclasts as well as the more discipline-bound but substantial offerings of Gerald Meyer (“Theorizing Italian American History: The Search for an Historiographical Paradigm”), Donna Chirico (“The Dog Catches his Tail:  A Critical Reflection on the Value of an Italian American Identity in Personal Development”) and Ottorino Cappelli ("Does Italian-American ethnic politics exist at all?").

    The Status of Interpretation in Italian American Studies was published in the spring of 2012 as the 30th volume in a highly respected book series in Italian and Italian American Studies published under the auspices of Forum Italicum. Mario B. Mignone is the Series Editor as well as the Director of the Center for Italian Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. This particular collection of essays is well worth a read by anyone who recognizes the value of the Italian experience in America and wishes to know who are the major players in the game.

    For more information, and to order copies, go to The Italian Studies website.

    I should add that Judith N. DeSena and I edited earlier a very popular Forum Italicum volume (7) Italian Americans in a Multicultural Society (1994). This ground-breaking volume included selected essays from the American Italian Historical Association annual meeting that was held at St. John’s University in 1993.


  • Op-Eds

    Seeing Cities Change: Shameless Promotion of My Books Part I


    One of the reasons I have been reasonably quiet on i-Italy during the past six months was having to meet deadlines on several writing projects. The first of two works is Seeing Cities Change: Local Culture and Class from Ashgate, that I recommend for any serious library on urban life and culture. The “accessible” written text is also richly illustrated with 60 black and white photographs such as those more colorful images included in this shameless promotion.
     
    Although Italy and Italian America as subjects are woven into almost every part of the global urban panorama illustrated in the book, three chapters should be of special interest to i-Italy readers: “Seeing Little Italy Change”; “Polish and Italian Landscapes”; and “Seeing Ethnic Succession in Big Italy.” In my “Traces” Blog here at i-Italy I have written about the dynamics of racial, ethnic, and religious changes at the local as well as national levels in America and Italy. Most recently I addressed the slaughter of innocents in Oslo, Norway by a racist lunatic concerned about how immigrants were changing his country. Resistance to change is a universal human trait when people feel comfortable and perhaps even "protected" in their own social and territorial communities. This is not to say that change is wrong but to say that planners and other authorities should recognize the sources of resistance and work to reduce potential conflict especially through civic education and civil dialogue. As a successful Citizen Journalism Project, Letizia Airos and Ottorino Capelli and the others at I-Italy have done a superb job in creating a platform for timely, well-written, informative, serious, and sometimes entertaining, discussion of such important global issues.


    Cities have always been dynamic social environments for visual and otherwise symbolic competition between the groups who live and work within them. Today, diversity of all kinds is increasing and concentrating in them. In recent years the most powerful factors have been ethnic and racial transformations produced by migration and the gentrification of poor and working class areas of the city. I chose to use the recent photo above "Somethings don't Change" to start this essay as a counterpoint to "change."

     
     

    Little India in Rome 1998

     
    At the turn of the 21st Century, my wife Suzanne's grandparents, the Giordanos, lived in this Italian American village on Carroll Street, Brooklyn near the Gowanus Canal.  Below is a photo of them. "Papa" Jordan stands in the first row, on the left, behind his parents. Immigrant Italians settled there while it was being polluted, created a viable community in a stigmatized place, and many remain even as it has been "Superfunded" and threatened by gentrification. Ironically, the pollution "protected" the enclave. As should be clear, Italy and Italian America are central focuses of my work because they provide a baseline for looking at cities, not merely because I am half-Sicilian.

     

    Salvatore and Josephine Giordano and their Children in South Brooklyn, circa 1920.

     

    Seeing Cities Change demonstrates the utility of a visual approach and the study of ordinary streetscapes to document and analyse how the built environment reflects the changing cultural and class identities of neighborhood residents. Discussing the manner in which these changes relate to issues of local and national identities and multiculturalism, it scans six continents to show how global forces and the competition between urban residents in "contested terrains" continues to change the streetscapes of cities around the globe.

     
    Blending together a variety of sources from scholarly and mass media, this engaging volume focuses on the importance of 'seeing' and, in its consideration of questions of migration, ethnicity, diversity, community, identity, class and culture, will appeal to sociologists, anthropologists and geographers with interests in visual methods and urban spaces.
    In addition to a theoretical introduction and overview, other chapters in the book are “Seeing Diversity in New York City,” “Chinatown: A Visual Approach to Ethnic Spectacles,” “Visualizing American Cities,” “Gentrification in Poland and Polonia,” and “Seeing Community in a Multicultural Society.”

     


    Brussells 2011

     
    FYI: Wearing my academic hat: I am known as Jerome Krase, Murray Koppelman Professor and Professor Emeritus at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York.
     

  • Op-Eds

    Sodom versus Gomorra

    "We Italians have the best law, the best anti-mafia law in the world and we have taught the world anti-mafia methods. As of today, the majority of the world's most important consultations in anti-mafia matters go through Italy. The investigations we have reported have a lot to do with the Italian approach, with Giovanni Falcone's method, for example.

    This is how Italians get rid of the unbearable prejudice they are victims of. By talking about it not by hiding it. Not by getting mad at Tony Soprano or Scorsese, but by communicating and showing what Italian history has been, how many victims there have been in order to tell all this."

    Roberto Saviano at NYU, Dec. 8, 2011
    (see the related videos to the left)

    I was pleased to be asked, as an American of partial Sicilian descent, to comment upon some of Roberto Saviano’s remarks made at an international conference on the Mafia held at NYU on December 8. To begin I’d like to parse a sentence attributed to him: “We Italians have the best law, the best anti-mafia law in the world and we have taught the world anti-mafia methods.” That boastful phrasing perhaps resonates better in Italian to Italians than in English to everyone else. In this sentence, ignoring the meaning of “best”—what is meant by the term “we?” Having a reasonably good understanding of both Italians and Italian it seems to me that there is/was hardly a national ”we” in Italy.

    As a consequence of this absence of collective identity and will, it is only natural that Italy would have the “best” anti-Mafia law in that the Mafia (and variants thereof) abounds in nations in which legal excellence is met by popular indifference to it. The fact that “most consultations in anti-Mafia matters go through Italy” is also hardly something to crow about; somewhat like patients riddled with cancer who attract legions of oncologists.

    The problem of the mafia has always been seen as il problema mezzogiorno/la questione meridonale and when it raises its ugly head north of Rome it is viewed, as are darker skinned cousins, as some kind of “foreign” scourge. Given the increasing influence of non-Italian criminal organizations in Italy, it won’t be long before we hear of nostalgia for the indigenous mobs. In The Big Apple, the remnants of the Italian mobs occasionally get attention in the press but newcomers like the Eastern European and Latin American versions have more than made up for the loss.

    I have nothing but sad admiration for Giovanni Falcone (and Paolo Borsellino) as well as the other judges, prosecutors, and activists who have valiantly struggled against their own people and their own governments. It is the people and their governments who have made mafia possible and therefore so difficult to eradicate. The mafia has never corrupted Italian society and government. Corrupt Italian society and government makes mafia possible (as is also true in the rest of the world).

    Both Falcone and Borellino were martyred near the place from which my grandparents escaped more than a hundred years ago. When I asked my mother what the word mafia meant, “strong” is what she told me. In Brooklyn, my godfather Gus the barber, was threatened by what they then called the Black Hand that if he didn’t pay, his daughter would be kidnapped. I asked my mother why they didn’t go to the police. She said because the police were worse. Neither were called “mafia” by her.

    Two years ago I visited Palermo and my grandparents village of Marineo. In Palermo I carried my camera in plain view as I walked thorough Falcone and Borsellino’s boyhood Kalsa, and other nearby neighborhoods. I am sure they, like me, had no trouble spotting the people who didn’t want their pictures taken. I spent my teenage years in a similar neighborhood in Brooklyn playing in stickball games on which bets were made by spectators and players alike on a street down the block from the 80th NYPD Precinct where and when the infamous Knapp Commission reported that only two of the 180 patrolmen assigned there were not taking graft. For some of my friends the “bad” cops were “good” role models. As Commission Chiarman Whitman Knapp said there weren’t rotten apples in the barrel … the barrel itself was rotten. Looking today at international finance it seems that some of my friends might have gone to Wall Street. In fact, international bankers are far more dangerous to 99% of Italians and Americans than any mafia has ever been; as the “Occupy” folks already know. It seems to me that “global investigative journalists” have consistently ignored the biggest mafia.  In a related way, the fact that the leaders of the various mafia in Italy have been hiding in plain sight for so long parallels their blindness to far worse financial criminals, who by extension own the mass of the mass media.

    In Italy and the USA investigative crime spectacles tend to repeat. These extravaganzas usually feature heroes like Saviano whose exceptionalism pretends to be the rule. The “We” is proud of Saviano as they are of Galileo and others whose courage and genius they lack. Simulated dragon-slayers are also an ethnic genre. The Staten Island chapter of the National Organization of Italian American Women asked me to comment at an event celebrating Elizabeth Bettina’s excessively titled It Happened in Italy, Untold Stories of How People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust. It took place at the Staten Island Jewish Community Center where more than 400 people (half of whom were Jewish and the other half Italian, or perhaps 400 half-Italian Jews) were enraptured by stories of exceptional courage and tolerance that, the Italians at least, would love to believe were characteristics of both the nation and its fascist wartime leaders. I need not report on my words other than to say they were less celebratory.

    Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with Saviano, that in order to escape from “unbearable” anti-Italian prejudice of which they are victims, those people who label themselves or are labeled by others as “Italian Americans” should ignore the lucrative excesses of the likes of David Chase, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese but instead learn and share the reality rather than the reality shows of Italian and Italian American history. Unfortunately this is a historical simulacrum that “We” continue to create. I am pleased that Saviano has done so well but he suffers from a common ailment of “media meteorites” like Geraldo Rivera in that the sudden attention gives them delusions of grandeur. Ironically, Saviano’s popularity in the USA, as elsewhere, is fueled as much by his talent and courage as the lucrative trafficking in Mafiasmo and Italian political buffoons who make good copy. If it isn’t already in the pipeline, I can see the premiere of The Roberto Saviano Show in which he will investigate everything from UFO’s to Silvio Berlusconi’s cosmetic surgeons. (http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/geraldo/index.html).

    Saviano seems not to know the “American” version of the Italian scene. As do others, he expresses an Italocentric view of both Italians and Italian Americans. Unfortunately, Italians are as little interested in the real Italian American experience as Italian Americans are in the real Italy. I am also certain that most American Italians are hardly offended by the on-air ethnic stereotypical trash. If I remember correctly, their American Italian heroes like Rudy Giuliani, Alphonse D’Amato and Mario Cuomo have all publicly voiced their appreciation of The Godfather and Sopranos. On the other hand, he may be mistaking the many American Italian ethnic interest groups have mounted campaigns against “defamation,” the millions of Americans of Italian descent. He need not fear their wrath because even the best of them have difficulty finding dues paying members. 

    Jerome Krase is Emeritus and Murray Koppelman Professor at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York.

  • Facts & Stories

    (Re)Making Meaning of 9/11: A Decade Later



          Recently, I spoke at a conference -- MAKING MEANING OF 9/11: LOCAL IMPACTS, GLOBAL IMPLICATIONS -- at St. John’s University's Manhattan Campus. The title of my talk was "Park Slope, Brooklyn in the Aftermath of 9/11.” I explained that every year since 2001 I have retraced my steps shortly after the official commemoration to re-photograph how my neighbors displayed their feelings about the tragedy. As time has passed it is clearer to me what can and can’t be seen in the gentrified landscapes. Gratefully the pain has, visibly at least, faded away. The camera obscura was a marvelous invention but my annual reverential practice of rescanning the same locations in search of what is less and less in evidence has convinced me that the pin-hole lens that etches our visual memory remains a far more miraculous invention.

                 

                                       2001                                                                        2011

          
    The “Making of Meaning,” is an interesting phrase for any subject, and for the past, present, and future sights that surround 9/11 it is especially challenging. When we ask "Who makes meaning?", we are also asking from where does that “meaning" come. To me, the meaning of what we see comes from our own store of knowledge that has been informed by our experiences. As a visual semiotician I am fascinated by the signs and symbols that are thought to convey meaning to viewers. In my work I argue that ordinary people change the meaning of places merely by changing what they look like. In this way, sidewalks and walls become canvasses for children and graffiti artists alike.

          For more than half a century I have paid close attention to the most mundane neighborhood landscapes. In that process I have recorded how the most powerless of people transform inhabitable areas of global cities such as the informal townships in Capetown and abandoned neighborhoods of Beijing into homes and communities. These sights have convinced me that 9/11 offers another example of how ordinary people changed the meanings of places and in the process healed a wound with small but immensely effective visual statements that divert our eyes from more painful memories.


                                                  

          Not very long after 9/11 immigrant street vendors surrounded the horror created by Osama bin Laden with a colorfully irreverent outdoor market. In this morbid suk, hordes of tourists further diminished al Qaeda’s stature by buying “We love NYC more than ever” and left-over "NYC Blackout" t-shirts. Many had their photos taken, smiling and standing near the edge of the guarded precipice as they do at the Grand Canyon -- wrought not by terrorists but by the hand of Whomever. It’s as if 9/11 happened so that they would have another place to visit. 
    Few of those tourists know the words of Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the World Trade Center.
    “I feel this way about it.  World trade means world peace and consequently the World Trade Center buildings in New York ... had a bigger purpose than just to provide room for tenants.  The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace ... beyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.”

           A few more might make sense of Yakov Smirnoff’s mural painting “hanging” high above the site -- "America's Heart" -- including a special message that reflected his belief in the human condition.

    "The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart."
    The fewest would see the semiotic analogy between the splintered wooden cross of Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and the twisted steel girder crucifix that stands for the equal sacrifices made by blue, pink, and white-collar workers alike who died for simply being on the "Job."

                                                 


          Meaning is always personal, as are our own little connections to the times and spaces that we sometimes call history. In the fall of 2001 my daughter Kathryn went by subway to the Children’s Aid Society on Williams Street everyday at 9:00 A.M. That morning she delayed her trip in order to help my daughter Kristin who had some post-delivery problems with her second child. My nieces and nephews, John, Peter, and Suzanne worked in finance in Manhattan and experienced history via frantic phone calls from people in the building and horrible views from office windows. My friend Michael's law office was close by and he saw "debris" falling from the towers before realizing that what was falling were people. Another niece, Carolyn, was living at the time in Battery Park City across the street from the WTC.

          I had scheduled an ethnographic field trip to Battery Park City during that fall semester to observe an example of a “modern urban community.”  Our meeting point was at the subway entrance to the U.S. Customs Building near the north bridge entrance to the World Financial Center.
    My only above ground experience at Ground Zero, before it was called that, was standing in the solar oven created by the New York State Office Buildings on one of those class excursions. The only time I was inside the Towers above the first floor was when I was treated to dinner at Windows on the World at which my host mistakenly thought I would prefer sitting closer to the window. Later, in 2002, the high school students in my ACE Mentor team (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) planned to rebuild the site and create a memorial. They actualized Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high skyscraper with a few accoutrements such as anti-aircraft missiles. Their memorial was a polished absolute black granite cube that would reflect the images of is unknowing victims. They also visited the Queens Museum to view the model of New York City in which the Towers were gently wrapped in a red, white and blue bow.

                      

          
    Today we can see that something new will eventually replace what was there before. A few commentators on the NYC scene see Culture Wars (Jihads and Crusades) to define (and perhaps redefine) the landscape of the powerful. Others offer their severe opinions on the pressing need for a new aesthetic of security. A new tower is seen as a powerful expression of our commitment to never surrender to terror, and I agree it is. But, to me the most powerful expressions will always be those of ordinary people, my friends, family, and neighbors who did small things on the days following 9/11.   I would argue that, as texts to be read, the efforts of my neighbors were far more transformative.

          




             

    On 9/11 I received the following message from my niece:

    Subj: Is Everyone Safe????

    Date: 9/11/01 5:37:29 PM Eastern Daylight Time

    From: (Liz)

    To: (Uncle Johnny), (Uncle Jerry), (Kristen Krase), (Katherine Krase), (Aunt Maryann), (Aunt Suzanne)

    I don’t know where everyone works. Can someone please check in with me and let me know our family is all safe and accounted for. Thank you. Love Liz

    I immediately sent Liz a note and the next day I sent out my own message to everyone in my address book and to all the professional association list services to which I subscribed. Here it is:

    We live in Brooklyn but the smoke from the fires and dust from the debris coated the neighborhood and we had to close all the windows and people were wearing dust masks on the street. My family is fine but there is so much horror. I spent the day with my three daughters and two grandsons. My wife worked at one of the hospitals receiving some of the bodies and triaged patients. I and my daughters went to the local hospital to give blood but there were so many people who came to contribute their blood that we were told to come back the next day. I have asked everyone to give blood and say prayers. I will go into the college today and see if I can do something meaningful. I am worried about intergroup problems in the city and especially at the university where students had been at each other’s throats over Middle Eastern issues.
    I decided to play squash today as I usually do on Wednesday mornings and forgot that when I take the subway there is a point en route which has(d) such a wonderful view of the NYC skyline and the twin towers. As we approached the Smith and Ninth Street Station which reputedly is the world's highest subway station I moved to the window and almost simultaneously, and in total silence, people got out of their seats and moved to one side of the car. It was the most quiet time I have ever heard on a NYC subway car. I will not take a picture of any of this as I've already seen too much.

                                                    

                                                               F-Train Window 2002

    Note: I had publicly vowed not to photograph scenes of the tragedy (admittedly a rather odd response of a visually oriented sociologist). I was true to my promise and some time later in 2002 I photographed (above) out the same dirty windows of the Manhattan bound F- train and captured what was then the new view of lower Manhattan. Eerily, the smears on the glass emulated what once was an ugly plume of smoke that had wafted across the water over Brooklyn Heights and then made its way up the slope of Brooklyn to menacingly hover for days over my neighborhood and occasionally depositing into the streets, sidewalks, and especially the backyards of my neighbors, an assortment of paper and other light weight debris, including one check from Cantor-Fitzgerald.   

          In response to my message I received hundreds of responses expressing various degrees of sympathy and support. I was shocked however at the number of people who added a “but” to their notes. As the time from 9/11 and distance from the World Trade Center increased I noticed that how much the view of America, especially by Europeans, had radically changed since we were an Ugly but well-intentioned superpower. I naturally assumed that there would be immediate and unequivocal sympathy, if not support, for the U.S. from among my colleagues. There was for my family, and me but there was too often a qualifier to expressions of compassion. Academics have an annoying tendency to give some kind of informed, objective, emotionless opinion of an historical event and this one was no exception.

          In a few e-mail responses, I had also been saddened by the implication that the actions of my country abroad such as the support for oppressive regimes when it suited what someone had decided was in the national interest somehow lessened the horror. The messages reminded me that people around the world are keenly aware of, and sensitive to, American foreign policy (and military) exploits. When I went to Ireland to deliver the Keynote Address at the Annual Meeting of the Sociology Association of Ireland, in Tralee, not long after 9/11. Many were surprised that I would make the trip so soon after the tragedy, not understanding that for an academic having one’s expenses paid for a trip is a powerful inducement. There besides many warm welcomes I also received the observation by one host that in a way the USA had it coming and thought my wife was about to flatten her. Increasingly in discussions among colleagues, even here in the USA, there were expressions that American foreign policy at least indirectly caused those planes to crash into the Twin Towers as almost a divine intervention.
          Six months later I was on a "9/11" Panel at a meeting of the Multicultural Education Society of Europe and the Americas in Padua, Italy. As an introduction to a photo essay “Park Slope in the Aftermath of the World Trade Center Tragedy” I read aloud, for the first time, the words of my 9/12 e-mail message. Tears came to my eyes as I relived that day. I remembered, now from a distance, going upstairs to help my elderly in-laws to close all the windows and thinking that perhaps I would not return as I walked over to my daughter Kristin's house where her two sisters, Karen and Kathryn had instinctively gathered. We stayed there with her and my three-year-old (Spencer) and one-month-old (Leander) grandsons and waited, without admitting that the End might be coming. In the panic of the time there were rumors circulating of futher attacks and that the smoke we were breathing was laced with poisonous gases.

          Of course, in Padua, my personal pain moved many, but too many others took what I described as a terrible tragedy as an opportunity to “explain” why it happened. Why 3,000 people died in a few minutes of my life. Perhaps this is a stretch but 9/11 was discussed in much the same way that some Americans talk about the "Collateral Damage" in Belgrade, Baghdad, Gaza, Lebanon, Tel Aviv, Dresden, or even Nagasaki and Hiroshima. "Terrible, but after all didn’t they have it coming?"
    Perception of victimization is also an interesting. For example, when I went upstairs to tell my mother in-law to close the windows on the morning of 9/11 her response was “why do these things always happen to me.” Over the course of her 80 some odd years, she had drawn a very small circle of empathy around herself. It seems that for too many, Americans are outside of that circle. Because of what was done in our name, they erroneously believe that we are not entitled to sympathy. I continue to grieve for the 3,000 who died in the USA on 9/11 but I also must grieve for the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of victims of America's misguided military adventures abroad that used our first 3,000 victims as an excuse for the pursuit of meaningless vengeance.

                            

                                             
    2001                                                              2011

  • Op-Eds

    From Bensonhurst to Oslo and Beyond



          It seems that bad news travels much more slowly than we think. In the summer of 1989, I received a call from Frank Lombardi at the New York Daily News. He was a relative of a Brooklyn College student who had taken my Italian American Studies class when I was Director of the Italian American Studies Center. It seems that a “black kid” by the name of Yusuf Hawkins had been murdered by a mixed, but predominately Italian American, mob of miscreants. Lombardi asked why, or better how, this could happen. My simple judgment was that Yusuf unknowingly had crossed the invisible border between the sacred Whitopia of Bensonhurst and the rest of the world as we knew it then. Having worked with many groups there, I described the community as “insular,” so I and the easy-to-use label carried the story further; first to John Kifner at The New York Times, then to PBS’ McNeil-Lehrer Report, and beyond. It was Italian American insularity that killed Yusuf, and all, except me, agreed. Vainly, I also tried to explain that such “they don’t belong here” attitudes towards “outsiders” is universal; the only differences being the whats, whens,  wheres, and hows of bias, not the reality of it. I also stressed that the most violent responses to difference are usually connected to "anti" climates created and maintained by political and other prattlers who say they are protecting "us" from "them." Most racist mobs claim to be protecting "our" turf. But as we knew even before Rupert Murdoch, Big Media thrives on simplicity, therefore the story line was how the “Italian” version of America killed Yusuf.

          To smugly progressive Europeans on the other hand, the story line was simply America as usual. Yusuf was just the latest lynching. They thought the ocean between them and their cousins insulated them from “American” racism. Since then, evidently, Europe has become more and more like America, as the recent massacre in Norway shockingly reminded us. Despite the fact that neither Timothy McVeigh nor Anders Behring Breivik is Italian American,  Bensonhurst had moved to Oslo in a big way. There, on July 22, 2011, Breivik with a bomb and bullets slaughtered 77 people causing people to ask why, or better how, this could happen where each year the Nobel Peace prize is awarded. 

          In the New York Times, Steven Erlanger and Michael Schwirtz wrote in the aftermath that

    In Norway, Consensus Cuts 2 Ways and suggested that the nation have moved away from its monoethnic, egalitarian culture. Like in Bensonhurst, mono-ethnicity has few virtues. From a Brooklyn perspective, where close to half of its scant three-million residents came from elsewhere,  the fact that “…more than 11 percent of the population of some 4.9 million were born someplace else — Pakistan, Sweden, Poland, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq.” is hardly enough diversity to cause Norway’s “cultural shock.” But post-9/11, in both Brooklyn and Norway,  anti-Muslim sentiments have increased, especially in the form of objections against the building of mosques. At the national level, one can easily correlate bias incidents with the rise of anti-immigrant political parties, such as Norway’s second largest -- the Progress Party and with our own Tea Party.


          Erlanger and Schwirtz’s report provides other, symbolic, perhaps even Freudian slippish, clues to the problem of seeing community in multicultural societes. They note for example that “The young people Mr. Breivik shot at a summer camp on the island of Utoya were all Norwegians, but some were the children of immigrants (italics added), who have now been memorialized in the country’s greatest modern disaster.” They then quote a sociologist, Grete Brochmann, who  seems to explain, almost excuse, the slaughter, by saying “When you are confronted with multicultural immigration, something happens.”… “That’s the core of the matter right now, and it’s a great challenge to the Norwegian model.” This reminded me that when I asked local people about Yusuf’s murder in Bensonhurst most were appalled but added that, being Black, he must have been “up to something.”

          The right-leaning Norwegian Progress Party, is trying to create distance between its words and Breivik’s actions. But, Erlanger and Schwirtz quote Magnus Marsdale’s assertion that “There is one political party in this country that has worked with the line of reasoning that the terrorist used to legitimize his atrocities, Of course the Progress Party is not accountable for this guy’s actions, but the sentiments that are spread through political propaganda are not innocent.” The Times also reports exploitation of fears about Norway’s religious and cultural uniformity by arranged marriages, genital mutilation, and homophobia. It seems that “Islamophobia and resentment of immigrant criminals and “welfare scroungers” of every religion and color has arrived in Norway from elsewhere  (perhaps Bensonhurst?). A more enlightened view however, is provided by cultural anthropoloigist Thomas Hylland Eriksen who recognizes that Norway’s “quiet” ethnic nationalism has some unexamined ugly features”… “a feeling of specialness, an element of racism,” In support of my own concerns about visibility, Eriksen added “Non-ethnic Norwegians are visible and still seen as out of place.” (italics added).

          In 2009 I had already expressed my opinion on Italy's futile attempt to stem the tide of immigration under the title "Turning Back the Tide: It's Already Too Late Silvio." At the time, Italy had returned 227 migrants to Lybia and suggested that the rest of Europe should adopt this as a model for dealing with illegal migrations. After more than a thousand immigrants had to be evacuated from southern Italy following attacks on African farm workers, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found “Widespread Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Italy.” In their 2007 global survey,  “Italians overwhelmingly said that immigration was a big problem in their country and that immigrants -- both from the Middle East and North Africa and from Eastern European countries -- were having a bad impact on Italy. In the fall of 2009, more than eight-in-ten Italians said they would like to see tighter restrictions on immigration.” Italians were more likely than any others in the 47-nation survey to see immigration as a big problem. Ninety-four percent said immigration was a "big” problem, including sixty-four percent who said it was a “very big.” South Africans were a distant third with fifty-three percent saying it was “very big.” Results from Norway were not reported but her sister nation, Sweden, was near the bottom of anti-immigrant sentiments with only eleven percent saying it was a “big problem.” This obvious underestimation shows that the survey did not reach very far into that part of the brain where biases can be carefully hidden from view. 

          Most coverage of negative reactions to migration pays greatest attention to numbers, but in my experience it is the degree and especially the visibility of difference, that is the root of the problem. When migrants remain invisible it means they are keeping their (inferior) place. For example, undocumented workers have been around for decades but only when they congregate in public spaces, are they seen as polluting it. In a related way, when Moslems pray out of sight and don’t try to build imposing mosques they are more likely to be tolerated. Of course, the reverse of this is true for Christians and Jews in Islamic countries.

     

          As to the visibility of “Europe's Homegrown Terrorists” Gary Younge wrote in The Nation about the knee-jerk reaction in the mass media that the terror in Oslo was caused by Islam as opposed to Islamophobia. They introduced their analysis with a reflection on an earlier case of mistaken ethnic identity.


    “Two weeks after the fatal terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005, in London, and one day after another failed attack, a student, Jean Charles de Menezes, was in the London Underground when plainclothes police officers gave chase and shot him seven times in the head. Initial eyewitness reports said he was wearing a suspiciously large puffa jacket on a hot day and had vaulted the barriers and run when asked to stop. Anthony Larkin, who was on the train, said he saw ‘this guy who appeared to have a bomb belt and wires coming out.’ Mark Whitby, who was also at the station, thought he saw a Pakistani terrorist being chased and gunned down by plainclothes policemen. Less than a month later, Whitby said, ‘I now believe that I could have been looking at the surveillance officer’ being thrown out of the way as Menezes was being killed. The Pakistani turned out to be a Brazilian. Security cameras showed he was wearing a light denim jacket and clearly in no rush as he picked up a free paper and swiped his metrocard. “

    Just like Yusuf Hawkins, Menezes looked “suspiciously out of place.”



          Americans also suffer from ethno-myopia, Timothy Williams wrote about “The Hated and the Hater, Both Touched by Crime” ”Mark Anthony Stroman, 41, a stonecutter from Dallas, shot people he believed were Arabs, saying he was enraged by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He killed at least two: Vasudev Patel, an Indian immigrant who was Hindu, and Waqar Hasan, a Muslim born in Pakistan. (italics added) A third shooting victim, Rais Bhuiyan, 37, a former Air Force pilot from Bangladesh, survived after Mr. Stroman shot him in the face at close range. Mr. Stroman admitted to the shootings. He is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.”

          Christopher Caldwell provides America with another unflattering allusion in “Europe’s Arizona Problem

    "Alongside Greek debt and the Libyan intervention, European Union countries are bickering over another issue, one that could well determine the future of their would-be megastate: immigration and internal borders. A growing number, including Italy, France and Denmark, want to carve out exceptions to the agreements under which member states open their borders to one another. The issue has been simmering for years, but unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and fears of a new wave of migrants have brought it to a boil. Of course, closing off Europe to newcomers violates the cosmopolitan vision on which the European Union was built, and doing so could kill the project altogether. But as the continent’s leaders are now learning, it’s also possible to kill Europe by opening its doors wider than its citizens will tolerate."


          I have been trying to break down imaginary walls between otherwise fellow human beings for decades. In the 1970s I began lecturing on the symbolic and visual basis of inter-group bias in Europe and suggesting that they could learn by our terrible mistakes. I was politely informed that such problems were as American as apple pie but had little relevance for more enlightened European social democracies. Some thought that their last genocidal war had cured it of xenophobia. "American Exceptionalism" also meant we were  exceptionally racist. Sadly, they were very wrong, and obviously unprepared for the current reality. Intolerance enhanced by the spectacle of difference is happening all over  the world. Even in China Moslem Uighers and other local minorities are responding with violence to the invasion of their home turfs by majority Han Chinese.  Bensonhurst seems to be alive and well in Olso and elsewhere around the globe. What all these incidents have in common is visibly different groups making claims on local, native, territory. Finding a way to include difference in community will keep us occupied for at least another generation.


    Note: I have a forthcoming book, Seeing Cities Change, which deals with these and other related issues. In it I write that cities have always been dynamic social environments for visual and otherwise symbolic competition between the groups who live and work within them. In contemporary urban areas, all sorts of diversity are simultaneously increased and concentrated, chief amongst them in recent years being the ethnic and racial transformation produced by migration (italics added) and the gentrification of once socially marginal areas of the city.

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