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Articles by: Robert Viscusi

  • Op-Eds

    Christmas. When I Was Nine

    When I was nine, my mother let me buy the Christmas tree. I bargained fiercely and managed to get it for seventy-five cents. It was a little skimpy. We had two sets of colored lights on that tree. At night, we’d stand outside and admire the lights, which we could see inside the living room window. We thickened the sad little tree with tinsel. There was enough tinsel so that, seen through the curtains, it looked like icicles.

    Visiting the family

    Christmas morning in our house was a competitive celebration of American booty. We’d open presents in the early morning, making as big a mess as we could with all the wrapping paper. Then we’d begin the round of visits to my father’s brother’s house, my little sister’s godmother’s house, my big sister’s boyfriend’s house, my mother’s sister’s house, and during the course of the morning all these people would also visit us in our house. During these visits, the hosts would provide cookies, coffee, whiskey, brandy, cake, pizzelle, and they would also display their gifts: baseball mitt, winter coat, board game, fur-lined mittens, sled, bike, camera with strap, plastic purse with strap, sweater, waffle iron, toaster, flashlight, remote-control car or motorboat or airplane, machine gun. The showing of these items was a serious ritual, as each gift had been restored to the box it came in from Namm’s or Loeser’s or Macy’s or Gimbel’s and needed to be extracted, held up for admiration around the circle, and then folded or turned off or dismantled and returned to the box so that the same procedure could be repeated when the next troupe of cousins tumbled in through the kitchen door. Each of these shows was an ordeal of competitive feelings and cognitive skills, as one would assess the value in dollars and cents of every gift, add up the prices, comparing the totals per person and per family. The champion was always my father’s brother’s daughter, an only child with a German mother and a very well-paid father who doted on her. One Christmas morning she found a brand-new piano with a big shiny red bow on it, which pretty much flattened every other price list for the rest of the day.

    My mother’s Abruzzese clan

    Christmas afternoon turned towards Italy. Here we managed to even the score. The German part of the family was small, but my mother’s Abruzzese clan had twenty people in it, and we were always together on Sundays anyway. On Christmas, we would have a big turkey or ham or roast beef, with many vegetables and sauces, just like the people on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, but all this was really in the nature of an afterthought. The real action was the appetizers and the pasta. Gnocchi. Ravioli. Ragù with meatballs and pork braciole. Plenty of red wine on the table for the men. Plenty of bright colored soda water for us. Mission Orange or Grape or Sarsaparilla. In later years, we turned to soup with chicken and acini di pepe. But we were by then getting a little refined. When I was a child it was all heavy pasta, handmade the day before by my mother’s mother, a magnificent cook whose powerful arms made it clear that the kitchen was a place of actual work.

    The Holy Mass

    There was also church. We’d squeeze that in someplace. Usually at 9 in the morning, sometimes at midnight mass. Only the children. In my family, grownups did not go to church because it was not meant for serious persons.

    Being G. I. Joe

    Our Christmases always had the same theme. Plenty. Plenty of plenty. And more than plenty of plenty more. We knew dimly that our cousins in Italy were scratching to survive. We ignored our own sacrifices. We were so happy to be in America it was as if we had erected our skinny Christmas tree inside a B-52. After dinner, we’d take out toy planes and bazookas and fight the battle of Iwo Jima all over again, struggling to plant a flag between the back cushions of the couch or, if the weather was mild, on the top of the huge woodpile out back. We would flip a coin to decide who would have to be the Japanese, because the G.I.s always won.

     

    Robert J. Viscusi. Professor and Executive Officer for the Wolfe Institute for Humanities English. 

  • Op-Eds

    Saviano’s Eyes

     Watching the video of his public lecture at NYU last December 8, one sees those eyes scanning the room as he speaks. More to the point, the video itself scans the room. One camera at least was devoted just to that work. These are not crowd shots. These are faces, individual, totally legible. You can almost see the Facial Recognition Algorithms snagging them as the camera slowly, very slowly, pans.  Anyone in the room might be the feared assassin.

    I wasn’t there. I don’t know whether the assassin showed up either. At one point Saviano made a pleasantry about how nice it was to be in New York teaching and not to be living with his bodyguards for the first time in five years. I call it a pleasantry because it was very hard to believe that those guards were not among the faces in that crowd.  Serious faces, all of them. Among them well-known persons: the Baronessa Zerill-Marimo, foundress of the Casa Italiana at NYU, the director Stefano Albertini, the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat. But plenty of others. And anyone in the room might have been feeling the danger. It was implicit in the detailed and continuous surveillance of the audience, from the beginning to the end of the evening.

    Universal surveillance, the latest curse of our time, mingled harmoniously with the theme of Saviano’s talk. It was about the mafia as a universal curse, a world-historical condition. Yes, Saviano did speak about the provincial squeamishness of Italian Americans who jump out of their seats, as if they had seen a mouse, whenever someone begins to speak about the Sopranos.   And yes, he did pay homage to the transatlantic heroes of justice, from Joe Petrosino to Giovanni Falcone, who gave their lives in the struggle against the malavita.

    All the time, he stood there talking, a young man who dare not present a bride or a lover or a child of his own, because he could not protect any one who belonged to him.  Thanks to the mafia, he lives like a hermit saint, on top of a column in the desert, where he can see everything but touch almost nothing.

    And, prophet that he is, he can witness. Universal corruption. A banking system in the hands of international tricksters and thieves, who sail the high seas of illicit payments, profits made of the arms and legs of soldiers and prostitutes, the lungs and brains of drug addicts, drones, automatic weapons,  radioactive cores, blood diamonds – the cosmos of lucrative trash. Many mafias, many countries, many occult systems of knowledge. Saviano speaks eloquently of how much Italy has learned about fighting the mafias he has learned to see everywhere.  This new vision of the world is Italy’s latest gift to everyone else, it would seem.  Mafias are everywhere, let us show you what to do with them.

    Robert Viscusi

    The Wolfe Institute for the Humanities

    Brooklyn College

  • Op-Eds

    The Situation


    Jersey Shore is an MTV reality show that follows eight housemates, aged 22 through 29, spending their summer living together in a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Young adults simultaneously trying and refusing to grow up, they live a life characterized by self-contradiction and cross purposes. As is so often the case in reality television, the mating rituals of consumerist society, brutal and even grotesque, are placed on view, as are the prepackaged sensitivity rituals among the participants, who try to sympathize with one another’s wounds even as they conspire to objectify, sexualize, and humiliate one another and themselves as well, pretty much all day and all night, sometimes even when sleeping.
     
    All of this is predictable enough. Reality TV, with its mingling of the minstrel show and the slave market, has been the most popular form of TV in the United States for the past 10 years – Survivor, American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, to use only the most obvious examples, have been steady favorites, continually generating conversation at water coolers and on talk shows. 
    Jersey Shore belongsto that world of conversation. Why do people talk about it?
     
    First and foremost, the characters are notable for the rituals of self-care that define them.
     
    Snooki, a 21-year-old from Marlboro, New York, has her own tanning bed. Wears her hair in a pouf reminiscent of the hairdresser styles of the late fifties and early sixties.
     
    DJ Pauly D also owns a tanning bed. He spends 25 minutes a day applying gel to his hair to produce an effect that girls will want to touch.
     
    JWoww is a 23-year-old club promoter whose 21st birthday present to herself was a breast augmentation, whose effects she dresses to emphasize.
     
    Mike calls himself “The Stituation.” The assistant manager of a fitness center in Staten Island, he boasts remarkably emphatic “abs.” He calls them “The Situation” because they produce strong interest. He works in a t-shirt shop where he sells thongs that bear, across the crotch, the legend “I Love the Situation.”
     
    The four other characters, Angelina, Sammi “Sweetheart,” Ronnie, and Vinny are all similarly devoted to degrees of physical culture and self advertisement, but not quite so dramatically as the first four.
     
     Jersey Shore's 'Guido' Outrage (CBS)
    Determined, even obsessive, rituals of self-presentation belong to the slave-market aspect of the show, a feature it shares with many other popular forms of spectacle – modeling contests, talent competitions, beauty pageants – where the performers burnish their secondary sexual characteristics, hoping to attract prizes or at least buyers. Snooki, for example, dresses like a showgirl, and JWoww displays the perfect domes of her enhanced bosoms, but both occasionally profess their desires to make careers, not as hookers or showgirls, but as wives of Guidos. As Snooki puts it, “My ultimate dream is to move to Jersey, find a nice juiced hot tanned guy and live my life.”[1]
     
    There is something incredibly old-fashioned about the ambitions of these souped-up young bodies. And that brings us to the other, more controversial aspect of the series, its minstrel-show representation of Italian Americans. Here is the most provocative statement of the theme, uttered by DJ Pauly D:
     
    I was born and raised a Guido. It's just a lifestyle. It's about being Italian. It's representing family, friends, tanning, gel, everything. Dude I got a fucking tanning bed in my place, that's how serious I am about being a Guido and living up to that lifestyle. My tagline is 'I'm Your Girl's Favorite DJ.' I want the Guidettes to come in their pants when they hear my music.[2]
     
    There are viewers whose response to this kind of statement has the eyeblink speed of a conditioned reflex. There have been two levels of protest.
     
    O&A with "Jersey Shore" star "The Situation"
    Snook the Night
    The first is very general, and very familiar in nature. Many Italian American organizations have joined this protest. Andrè DiMino, president of UNICO National, says the show “sends the wrong message.” “This type of programming represents a direct affront and attack by MTV on the character of Italian Americans, the fourth-largest ethnic group in America.”[3] The Order Sons of Italy in America and the National Italian American Foundation have taken similar positions, calling on MTV to take the show off the air. This response is hardly surprising; nor, in the general marketplace of ethnic stereotypes, is it out of place. Italian American civic organizations, devoted to supporting the social advance of Italian Americans, must respond this way when anyone presents the identity Italian American in a way that causes it to lose what they perceive as social value and/or prestige. In the days of The Godfather and The Sopranos, these organizations took similar positions. 
     
    The protest has the character of a class defense. Italian Americans are rising in the world. Doctors, lawyers, writers, professors, Supreme Court Justices, the Speaker of the House, corporation presidents and CEOs—pillars of respectability abound. Jersey Shore, though it does not feature gangsters, ignores all this move in the direction of quiet refinement. Rather, it brings the meaning of the expression Italian American back to the world of the working-class, where beauty is all on the surface, and long-range consequences, so beloved of the upwardly-mobile, have nothing to do with it. The stars of Jersey Shore are not interested in delayed gratification. Their position is made firmly clear by Snooki, speaking on the Wendy Williams Show:
     
    The Italian, whatever, national, whatever their organization is, they don’t understand that 'guidos' and 'guidettes' are good-looking people that, you know, like to make a scene and be center of attention and just take care of themselves…. [These national organizations] are old-fashioned. They don't know that; they think it's offensive, because maybe in their time it was offensive, but now it's kind of a compliment. So they don't understand that and that is what we are trying to say. They are way overreacting to the show. We're 22 to 29 just having fun at the shore. They are just taking it way out of proportion.[4]
     
    I felt like eating ham and drinking water. Ham.
     "Hair 101" (The Daily News)
    To which the leaders of Italian American organizations might reply, “Fine. Enjoy yourselves. Just understand that you are defaming a brand-name that we share with you.” And of course they are right. The entry of Italian Americans into elite social groups has not kept pace with their academic and economic achievements. For example, 4.6 percent of college professors are Italian American, a portion close to the Italian American presence (5.6 percent) in the general population. But the Italian American presence in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the leading elite intellectual group in the nation, is 1.3 percent, a figure suggestive of the unspoken barriers and diminished value that still attaches to their shared identification.[5]
     
    What shall we make of problems like this? The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of the City University of New York, whose mission and goals include “heightening awareness, fostering higher education, and conducting research to deepen understanding of Italian Americans’ culture and heritage,” announced a lecture and discussion on “Guido: An Italian-American Youth Style” for Thursday, January 21, 2010, to be led by Donald Tricarico, a sociologist and author who has studied this subculture, and by Johnny DeCarlo, a self-identified Guido.  It would seem appropriate to have a serious discussion of something that many Italian Americans see as a serious threat to their social advance.
     
    But no.
     
    Instead, this event brings us to the second level of protest. A wide variety of persons has protested the presentation of this colloquium. Arthur Piccolo, writing on i-italy.org, takes the line that the very term Guido is so offensive that it ought never to be uttered, much less studied and discussed, by an Italian American, not even a scholar trained to analyze social facts. Piccolo gets so angry about this that he writes, “Meet Dr. Donald Tricarico who regardless of his ancestry does not deserve to be called an Italian American.” [6] Piccolo, like many others, attributes a peculiar negative power to the word.
     
    Meet the Cast
    'Jersey Shore' Cast Reacts to Snooki Getting Punched in the Face (ET)
    It is not easy to disagree with him, but it is also necessary to do so. For the word Guido has a complex meaning, and to read it as having a simple valence, negative or positive, is to miss the eloquence of the phenomenon it represents. Guido is a word in process of transvaluation, according to Donald Tricarico. "Guido is a slur, but Italian kids have embraced it just as black kids have embraced the N word. In the same way that radical gays call themselves queer."[7] 
     
    In fact, the entire ensemble of Guido behaviors presents Italian American culture in a funhouse mirror, with meanings distorted and turned upside down. The emphasis on virginity and female virtue in the traditional Italian American family recurs here in the caricature of maternal abundance in the florid display of copious mammaries and child-bearing hips. Angelina says, "I have real boobs.  I have a nice, fat ass." [8] Given her name, it is not difficult to see her as advertising herself as a candidate for Italian American wedlock and motherhood.
     
    Is it too far-fetched to see in this working-class culture a powerful force of nostalgic (i.e, home-seeking) behavior, Southern Italians who seek out their ancestral and stereotypical darkness with tanning beds in their rooms, into which they lay themselves down like Orpheus descending into the Underworld, farmers’ grandchildren who exaggerate their fertility with their grotesque miming of sexuality, twenty-first century breeding partners still looking for simple fidelity to an ethnic identity that, in practice, they often do not know how to achieve. Two of the most feverish mate-hunters among them, Snooki and Pauly D, spend much of their time pursuing partners who are, respectively, Irish and Israeli. Guido, with its double value, positive and negative, is a term flexible enough to represent an Italian American identity that both is and isn’t something in particular.
     
    The level of linguistic inventiveness and of cultural improvisation present here is evident not only in the words but in the stunning remarks that emerge from the characters’ mouths.
     
    JWoww: “I am like a praying mantis, after I have sex with a guy I will rip their heads off.[9] 
     
    Sammi Sweeetheart: “Go home. You don’t belong here. You don’t even look Italian!”[10]  
     
    Mike “The Situation”: “G.T.L. baby. Gym, Tanning, Laundry.”[11] 
     
    Vinny:   “These kids are robots... Gym, Tanning, Laundry... that's how they make the guidos. I don’t follow those rules at all… I can see if it was Basketball, Pool, Beach.” [12]
     
    It is the wit of people living in a borderland, negotiating the need to seem certain even when nothing can be ascertained.
     
    This is a phenomenon that demands attention. If Italian American social advance were as real, as secure, and as substantial as many Italian Americans believe it to be (I am among these believers), then it would seem not only not harmful, but indeed positively beneficial and necessary, to examine, to discuss, and to reflect upon the power of such a new word. Are we mature enough, sensible enough, secure enough in our sense of our own inheritance, to engage in such reflection? I want merely to point out that the achievement of high social and intellectual status in the United States requires that we look firmly at the things we most instinctively dislike and fear about our selves, both internally and externally.
     
    Internally, we need to ask, have we really distanced ourselves from our working-class roots so little that the very signs of these roots, appearing on a television show, must enrage and disgust us? And if so, why?
     
    Externally, we need to ask, do we need to be responsive and responsible to every person that tries to define our relationship with our inherited identities? If I am Italian American, is it not within my power to write about that in my own way, in terms that no one else needs to use or accept?
     
    As to the youths of Jersey Shore, they are playing grotesques, like all minstrel-show caricatures. They are amusing—indeed, more so than most clowns with sad eyes. They have clearly found their moment and clearly touched a nerve.  To the term Italian American, which has carried so many strings of dollar bills and ropes of sausage, they have added a new chain of fetishes – a tanning bed, a tube of gel, an old summer thong bearing the legend “I Love the Situation.”
     
     
    References


    [5] Richard Alba and Dalia Abdel-Hardy, “Galileo’s Children: Italian Americans’ Difficult Entry into the Intellectual Elite,” The Sociological Quarterly 46 (2005) 3-18.





    * Broeklundian Professor
    Executive Officer, The Wolfe Institute for the Humanities
    Brooklyn College, City University of New York






  • The Situation


    Jersey Shore is an MTV reality show that follows eight housemates, aged 22 through 29, spending their summer living together in a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Young adults simultaneously trying and refusing to grow up, they live a life characterized by self-contradiction and cross purposes. As is so often the case in reality television, the mating rituals of consumerist society, brutal and even grotesque, are placed on view, as are the prepackaged sensitivity rituals among the participants, who try to sympathize with one another’s wounds even as they conspire to objectify, sexualize, and humiliate one another and themselves as well, pretty much all day and all night, sometimes even when sleeping.
     
    All of this is predictable enough. Reality TV, with its mingling of the minstrel show and the slave market, has been the most popular form of TV in the United States for the past 10 years – Survivor, American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, to use only the most obvious examples, have been steady favorites, continually generating conversation at water coolers and on talk shows. 
    Jersey Shore belongsto that world of conversation. Why do people talk about it?
     
    First and foremost, the characters are notable for the rituals of self-care that define them.
     
    Snooki, a 21-year-old from Marlboro, New York, has her own tanning bed. Wears her hair in a pouf reminiscent of the hairdresser styles of the late fifties and early sixties.
     
    DJ Pauly D also owns a tanning bed. He spends 25 minutes a day applying gel to his hair to produce an effect that girls will want to touch.
     
    JWoww is a 23-year-old club promoter whose 21st birthday present to herself was a breast augmentation, whose effects she dresses to emphasize.
     
    Mike calls himself “The Stituation.” The assistant manager of a fitness center in Staten Island, he boasts remarkably emphatic “abs.” He calls them “The Situation” because they produce strong interest. He works in a t-shirt shop where he sells thongs that bear, across the crotch, the legend “I Love the Situation.”
     
    The four other characters, Angelina, Sammi “Sweetheart,” Ronnie, and Vinny are all similarly devoted to degrees of physical culture and self advertisement, but not quite so dramatically as the first four.
     
     Jersey Shore's 'Guido' Outrage (CBS)
    Determined, even obsessive, rituals of self-presentation belong to the slave-market aspect of the show, a feature it shares with many other popular forms of spectacle – modeling contests, talent competitions, beauty pageants – where the performers burnish their secondary sexual characteristics, hoping to attract prizes or at least buyers. Snooki, for example, dresses like a showgirl, and JWoww displays the perfect domes of her enhanced bosoms, but both occasionally profess their desires to make careers, not as hookers or showgirls, but as wives of Guidos. As Snooki puts it, “My ultimate dream is to move to Jersey, find a nice juiced hot tanned guy and live my life.”[1]
     
    There is something incredibly old-fashioned about the ambitions of these souped-up young bodies. And that brings us to the other, more controversial aspect of the series, its minstrel-show representation of Italian Americans. Here is the most provocative statement of the theme, uttered by DJ Pauly D:
     
    I was born and raised a Guido. It's just a lifestyle. It's about being Italian. It's representing family, friends, tanning, gel, everything. Dude I got a fucking tanning bed in my place, that's how serious I am about being a Guido and living up to that lifestyle. My tagline is 'I'm Your Girl's Favorite DJ.' I want the Guidettes to come in their pants when they hear my music.[2]
     
    There are viewers whose response to this kind of statement has the eyeblink speed of a conditioned reflex. There have been two levels of protest.
     
    O&A with "Jersey Shore" star "The Situation"
    Snook the Night
    The first is very general, and very familiar in nature. Many Italian American organizations have joined this protest. Angelo DiMino, president of UNICO National, says the show “sends the wrong message.” “This type of programming represents a direct affront and attack by MTV on the character of Italian Americans, the fourth-largest ethnic group in America.”[3] The Order Sons of Italy in America and the National Italian American Foundation have taken similar positions, calling on MTV to take the show off the air. This response is hardly surprising; nor, in the general marketplace of ethnic stereotypes, is it out of place. Italian American civic organizations, devoted to supporting the social advance of Italian Americans, must respond this way when anyone presents the identity Italian American in a way that causes it to lose what they perceive as social value and/or prestige. In the days of The Godfather and The Sopranos, these organizations took similar positions. 
     
    The protest has the character of a class defense. Italian Americans are rising in the world. Doctors, lawyers, writers, professors, Supreme Court Justices, the Speaker of the House, corporation presidents and CEOs—pillars of respectability abound. Jersey Shore, though it does not feature gangsters, ignores all this move in the direction of quiet refinement. Rather, it brings the meaning of the expression Italian American back to the world of the working-class, where beauty is all on the surface, and long-range consequences, so beloved of the upwardly-mobile, have nothing to do with it. The stars of Jersey Shore are not interested in delayed gratification. Their position is made firmly clear by Snooki, speaking on the Wendy Williams Show:
     
    The Italian, whatever, national, whatever their organization is, they don’t understand that 'guidos' and 'guidettes' are good-looking people that, you know, like to make a scene and be center of attention and just take care of themselves…. [These national organizations] are old-fashioned. They don't know that; they think it's offensive, because maybe in their time it was offensive, but now it's kind of a compliment. So they don't understand that and that is what we are trying to say. They are way overreacting to the show. We're 22 to 29 just having fun at the shore. They are just taking it way out of proportion.[4]
     
    I felt like eating ham and drinking water. Ham.
     "Hair 101" (The Daily News)
    To which the leaders of Italian American organizations might reply, “Fine. Enjoy yourselves. Just understand that you are defaming a brand-name that we share with you.” And of course they are right. The entry of Italian Americans into elite social groups has not kept pace with their academic and economic achievements. For example, 4.6 percent of college professors are Italian American, a portion close to the Italian American presence (5.6 percent) in the general population. But the Italian American presence in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the leading elite intellectual group in the nation, is 1.3 percent, a figure suggestive of the unspoken barriers and diminished value that still attaches to their shared identification.[5]
     
    What shall we make of problems like this? The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of the City University of New York, whose mission and goals include “heightening awareness, fostering higher education, and conducting research to deepen understanding of Italian Americans’ culture and heritage,” announced a lecture and discussion on “Guido: An Italian-American Youth Style” for Thursday, January 21, 2010, to be led by Donald Tricarico, a sociologist and author who has studied this subculture, and by Johnny DeCarlo, a self-identified Guido.  It would seem appropriate to have a serious discussion of something that many Italian Americans see as a serious threat to their social advance.
     
    But no.
     
    Instead, this event brings us to the second level of protest. A wide variety of persons has protested the presentation of this colloquium. Arthur Piccolo, writing on i-italy.org, takes the line that the very term Guido is so offensive that it ought never to be uttered, much less studied and discussed, by an Italian American, not even a scholar trained to analyze social facts. Piccolo gets so angry about this that he writes, “Meet Dr. Donald Tricarico who regardless of his ancestry does not deserve to be called an Italian American.” [6] Piccolo, like many others, attributes a peculiar negative power to the word.
     
    Meet the Cast
    'Jersey Shore' Cast Reacts to Snooki Getting Punched in the Face (ET)
    It is not easy to disagree with him, but it is also necessary to do so. For the word Guido has a complex meaning, and to read it as having a simple valence, negative or positive, is to miss the eloquence of the phenomenon it represents. Guido is a word in process of transvaluation, according to Donald Tricarico. "Guido is a slur, but Italian kids have embraced it just as black kids have embraced the N word. In the same way that radical gays call themselves queer."[7] 
     
    In fact, the entire ensemble of Guido behaviors presents Italian American culture in a funhouse mirror, with meanings distorted and turned upside down. The emphasis on virginity and female virtue in the traditional Italian American family recurs here in the caricature of maternal abundance in the florid display of copious mammaries and child-bearing hips. Angelina says, "I have real boobs.  I have a nice, fat ass." [8] Given her name, it is not difficult to see her as advertising herself as a candidate for Italian American wedlock and motherhood.
     
    Is it too far-fetched to see in this working-class culture a powerful force of nostalgic (i.e, home-seeking) behavior, Southern Italians who seek out their ancestral and stereotypical darkness with tanning beds in their rooms, into which they lay themselves down like Orpheus descending into the Underworld, farmers’ grandchildren who exaggerate their fertility with their grotesque miming of sexuality, twenty-first century breeding partners still looking for simple fidelity to an ethnic identity that, in practice, they often do not know how to achieve. Two of the most feverish mate-hunters among them, Snooki and Pauly D, spend much of their time pursuing partners who are, respectively, Irish and Israeli. Guido, with its double value, positive and negative, is a term flexible enough to represent an Italian American identity that both is and isn’t something in particular.
     
    The level of linguistic inventiveness and of cultural improvisation present here is evident not only in the words but in the stunning remarks that emerge from the characters’ mouths.
     
    JWoww: “I am like a praying mantis, after I have sex with a guy I will rip their heads off.[9] 
     
    Sammi Sweeetheart: “Go home. You don’t belong here. You don’t even look Italian!”[10]  
     
    Mike “The Situation”: “G.T.L. baby. Gym, Tanning, Laundry.”[11] 
     
    Vinny:   “These kids are robots... Gym, Tanning, Laundry... that's how they make the guidos. I don’t follow those rules at all… I can see if it was Basketball, Pool, Beach.” [12]
     
    It is the wit of people living in a borderland, negotiating the need to seem certain even when nothing can be ascertained.
     
    This is a phenomenon that demands attention. If Italian American social advance were as real, as secure, and as substantial as many Italian Americans believe it to be (I am among these believers), then it would seem not only not harmful, but indeed positively beneficial and necessary, to examine, to discuss, and to reflect upon the power of such a new word. Are we mature enough, sensible enough, secure enough in our sense of our own inheritance, to engage in such reflection? I want merely to point out that the achievement of high social and intellectual status in the United States requires that we look firmly at the things we most instinctively dislike and fear about our selves, both internally and externally.
     
    Internally, we need to ask, have we really distanced ourselves from our working-class roots so little that the very signs of these roots, appearing on a television show, must enrage and disgust us? And if so, why?
     
    Externally, we need to ask, do we need to be responsive and responsible to every person that tries to define our relationship with our inherited identities? If I am Italian American, is it not within my power to write about that in my own way, in terms that no one else needs to use or accept?
     
    As to the youths of Jersey Shore, they are playing grotesques, like all minstrel-show caricatures. They are amusing—indeed, more so than most clowns with sad eyes. They have clearly found their moment and clearly touched a nerve.  To the term Italian American, which has carried so many strings of dollar bills and ropes of sausage, they have added a new chain of fetishes – a tanning bed, a tube of gel, an old summer thong bearing the legend “I Love the Situation.”
     
     



    [5] Richard Alba and Dalia Abdel-Hardy, “Galileo’s Children: Italian Americans’ Difficult Entry into the Intellectual Elite,” The Sociological Quarterly 46 (2005) 3-18.





    * Broeklundian Professor
    Executive Officer, The Wolfe Institute for the Humanities
    Brooklyn College, City University of New York






  • Op-Eds

    The Corleone Day Parade



    “Why are the Italian Americans so touchy?” – Giuseppe Prezzolini

    “Italian Americans suffer from an irony deficiency.” -- Fred Gardaphe


    Denver, Colorado. November 2, 2007, All Souls Day – in Italy, the Feast of the Dead.

    In this city fifteen years ago, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western hemisphere, Native American activists forced the cancellation of the Columbus Day Parade.  Today, the American Italian Historical Association has  opened its 40th conference here in Denver.


    I attended the session called “Columbus Day in Denver,” which recounted the recent struggles over Columbus Day in this city, which staged its first Columbus Day Parade a century ago.  Native Americans now protest and obstruct the celebration.  Many Italian Americans insist on their right to keep staging it. One Italian American activist said, “I believe in Columbus.” But another prominent Denver Italian American suggested that maybe it was time to change the name of the day to something less provocative. There are many suggestions on offer, among them “Italian Heritage Day” and “Indigenous Peoples Day.”


    Wondering whether either of these solutions might work, I went on to the next session.


    This was a colloquium on Mario Puzo’s work. Professors from University of Illinois, Duke University, New York University, Stony Brook University, and City University of New York all took part in praising the subtlety and depth of Puzo’s early novels The Dark Arena, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and The Godfather.  I recalled that a generation ago, at AIHA meetings, discussions of The Godfather were greeted with cries of “sellout” and suggestions that serious people did not give serious attention to cheap stereotype-mongers like Puzo. Important things have changed. Now professors treat Puzo’s works as classics.


    The Columbus Day session and the Puzo session had something in common: Changing heroes is never quick or easy.   


    And from there, it was a ready jump to the theme of this essay:  We have a new hero. We need a new parade.


    Columbus the Hero


    Columbus has served us well and for a long time. He has had a long career, having been a U.S. American hero since 1787. In the hands of Mr. Jefferson and his friends, Christopher Columbus became a standard-bearer for the American Empire, as he had been a standard-bearer for the Spanish Empire before it.  The Americans named their capitol The District of Columbia.  Several state capitols and institutions of higher learning also used his name.  It was only natural that when Irish immigrants wanted to show that, even though they were Catholics, they too could be model Americans, they would point out that the mythic founder of this Protestant nation had himself been a Roman Catholic. They made this point by forming the Knights of Columbus in 1881. Italian immigrants who were pouring into the United States at that time thought that they had an even greater right to claim Columbus. After all, he was not only a Catholic but an Italian Catholic, just like themselves.  By the 1890s, everyone wanted a piece of Columbus.


    Italian Americans, with their gift for spectacle, gradually came to dominate many public rituals in honor of this hero.  They organized parades, they built monuments in his name. The Columbus story cemented their claim to a slice of the American pie. After all, Columbus was an Italian and he planted the imperial flag on American soil.   Italians were Americans by right of inheritance. Their place in America, like that of the Irish and the Spanish before them, belonged to the Kingdom of Christ, the Roman Catholic empire of grace and light that had brought both the gospel and the gifts of European high civilization to the benighted indigenes of the plains and the pampas.  No wonder they were proud of Columbus.


    Corleone the Hero


    But Columbus changed when American empire changed. This happened in the nineteen-sixties, when the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, occurring simultaneously, showed America to itself as something less than the beacon of hope and freedom that it had long claimed to be. Its virtues had been the justification for its crimes. Now those virtues were called into question.  


    People stopped celebrating America’s victories and started concentrating upon their own grievances. The African Americans, the Chicano and other Latino Americans, the Native Americans, women, gays, the handicapped, and many Vietnam veterans all began to object to the imperial agenda.  It was inevitable that Italian Americans, whose real history was that of exploited immigrants rather than that of conquistadores, would begin to speak of their grievances, and would begin to join the resistance.


    The form that this resistance took was original and powerful. Mario Puzo in The Godfather (1969) invented a resistance hero in Don Vito Corleone, who spoke for the right of Italian Americans not to join the American empire in its expeditions.   “We are not responsible,” he said, to the American big shots “who declare wars they wish us to fight in to protect what they own.”  We will take care of our own interests, he said, because that is our thing, cosa nostra.   This was a resonant speech.  On the one hand, it hailed back to the true history of the immigration: many men left Italy because they did not wish to fight in the colonial wars of the late 19th century, and others because they did not want to join the imperial wars in 1914.  On the other, it looked forward to the future of resistance movements in the United States.


    Don Corleone became the model for many leaders. First was Joe Colombo, head of one of New York’s “Five Families.” On June 29, 1971, Colombo led an Italian American Civil Rights League demonstration in front of the Columbus monument in New York City and was shot in the head by an assassin who was himself gunned down immediately. This event effectively contaminated Cristoforo Colombo with Joe Colombo, and it became part of the history of the ethnic rights movement of the 70s.  Each group followed the agenda of “managing our own world” for ourselves because it was “our thing.”  And Colombo’s fate left an indelible mark. When 1992 came, it was easy for protestors to question the virtue of the great imperial icon Christopher Columbus. On Saturday Night Live, a comedian used Marlon Brando’s Corleone voice to play Christopher Columbus.  Not only was the Denver parade cancelled, but in California, the Berkeley Resistance 500, endorsed by the Berkeley City Council, brought about the end of the Columbus Day in that city, replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.



    The Denver parade was revived in 2000, but it had been sadly reduced and is now a ghost of its former self. Every year protesters interrupt. The parade needs to be protected by phalanxes of motorcycle police. One organizer said that his family is afraid to be seen cheering on the sidewalk when he marches. Meanwhile, the poets of resistance have taken up the myth that Puzo invented, another hybrid masterpiece. Al Pacino has brought the Corleone magic to Cuban and Puerto Rican criminals (Scarface and Carlito’s Way). There are dozens of “gangsta” rappers who have taken up styles first codified by Puzo, Coppola, & Co. in the Corleone saga.  Indeed, Italian American “Hip-Whop” rappers these days protest that African Americans have appropriated the Italian gangster myth (see Joseph Sciorra’s page at myspace.com/capuzzell.) The Corleones have become underground heroes, admired for their family values, their loyalty, their power, and their refusal to bow to the big shots of American empire.

     

     

     

     


    The Corleone Day Parade


    The revolution has already taken place.  Ask your nearest teenager what year Columbus sailed.  Then ask that same teenager who first said, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  You are more likely to get a correct answer to the second question. In the minds of many Americans, Don Cristoforo is a dim shadow on the Feast of the Dead, but Don Corleone is still vivid, indeed more alive than ever. If Italian Americans want a parade with an Italian hero, they might want to consider something more inclusive: A Corleone Day Parade.


    I can hear people saying, “A Corleone Day Parade? Are you kidding?”


    Yes, I’m kidding. But seriously, kidding is the whole point.  This is a chance for Italian Americans to step down off the pedestal of triumphalist boasting, and to join the ironic shadows where most of the peoples of the world (Italian Americans included) actually live.  In a Corleone Day Parade, we would not march in honor of an imperial conquest. Instead, we would celebrate our differences and our feelings. We might parade in costumes. We might mark our claims.  Many groups, not just Italians, have claims on America.   Every group has resentments and triumphs. Everyone has secret desires.


    Corleone Day could be a sort of civic Mardi Gras
    .   It would become what Carnevale has always been in Italy:  a theatre of human complexity, an underworld of sarcasm and fantasy.  We would not have the Corleone Day Parade at the end of the winter, when Mardi Gras takes place: most American cities are not as mild in February as Venice or New Orleans.  No, we would have it on the day the Corleone Era began: June 29, the day they shot Joe Colombo.  It would be a real Carnevale, though, the world turned upside down. In the Corleone Day Parade, we would all be able, not only to state our cases, but also to display our own least admirable lusts and ambitions.  It would place the whole American enterprise (not just the Italian American enterprise) within the brackets of mass self-expression.  We need to know one another, our sorrows and triumphs.  We need to take account of what we have done.  Everyone’s a gangster sometime.


    Italian Americans have had enough of boasting. It is time we took up the honesty of Carnevale.  New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. But most of our cities   have nothing of the kind. Carnevale is the one great Italian custom that we have not yet succeeded in establishing in the United States. We are strong enough now to make fun of ourselves. It will be healthy for everyone who takes part. People who tell the hidden truth don’t need to eat as much as people who struggle to keep everything inside.  Marchers will get to open up, to loosen up, to play their own favorite heroes and villains from American history and from old world heritage.  


    Columbus Day need not die. It could continue to find its own level in October, a celebration of Italian pride, Italian cars, and extra-virgin olive oil, a chance for politicians to court the Italian vote.


    But Corleone Day would show the true drama of our history. Among the Italians in the parade, I see people dressed as Luca Brasi swimming with the fishes.   Under the brilliant sun of late June, a float comes rolling down the avenue presenting Joe Colombo getting shot under the statue in Columbus Circle.  A little later,  you see Saint Francis of Assisi marching in rags.  And behind him, barefoot, saying a rosary, that eternal penitent, Don Cristoforo Colombo.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Making Italians All Over Again


    ...  People concerned about the new country knew what he meant.  Subjects of the new kingdom often could not understand one another’s way of speaking. They ate different foods, wore different clothes. They feared each other’s differences.  The new Queen, going from Turin to Naples for the first time, was surprised to find that Neapolitans were people, as she said to her husband, “just like us.”



    During their history as subjects of a single king and, later, as citizens of a single republic, Italians have often exhibited a degree of doubt about who really counted as one of them. 



    We know of many efforts  to overcome this doubt.  The national language has been a political project since the 1870s. In the 1890s, the prime minister Francesco Crispi conducted a doomed program of “wars and empire” as a way of getting the inhabitants of Italy’s intensely local localities to see themselves as members of a collective enterprise.  In the 1920s and 30s, Fascism conducted many energetic campaigns in almost every avenue of daily social reproduction in its effort to mould Italians into a single political culture.  

    This was uphill work. After the 50s, television made it easy. Today, even in the poorest and most remote villages, local languages and customs have long since begun to acquire the paradoxical luster belonging to spectacles produced for the delight of tourists. For several decades now, young people have been learning the national language and its prefabricated culture from many sources: children’s programs, evening newscasts, annual song competitions at San Remo. 



    Now, however, even national Italian culture is beginning to seem provincial and outmoded. The European Union, new patterns of migration, and the Internet are rocking Italy’s world. Many forces have suddenly conspired to propose the question again: who is an Italian now?



    i-Italy is a site where anyone may present an answer to this question.  Who will want to? There are people who think of themselves as Italians in Perth, Bogota, Vancouver, Irkutsk, Queens.  What music do they like?  What languages do they speak?  What will their videos show us?  What do they want to tell us? Is it a time to make Italians all over again?

     



    Writer.  Executive Director,

    Ethyl R. Wolfe Institute, Brooklyn College, CUNY