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.
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!)