Articles by: George De stefano

  • Facts & Stories

    It’s all "Too Much"

    Our society would be considerably more democratic, prosperous and caring if we narrowed the vast gap between the very wealthy and everyone else."

    Sam Pizzigati promotes this vision of a more equitable
    America through his (free) online weekly journal, Too Much. The journal, which Pizzigati launched in 1995 as a print publication, highlights the gap between the rich and poor in
    , exposing the outrageous excesses of the super-rich while advocating for public policies that reduce inequality. Too Much is a great source of information and clear, accessible analysis, a valuable resource at a time of economic collapse and billion-dollar bailouts of the financial industry.  


    Pizzigati is a veteran labor journalist and activist who credits his Italian immigrant grandfather, a socialist, with influencing his progressive politics. In the late 1970s, he and several other Italian American leftists organized the Committee for a Democratic Policy toward Italy. The group, which had several chapters across the country, advocated a non-interventionist U.S. policy toward the proposed “historic compromise” between
    ’s Communists and Christian Democrats. (The rapprochement, which
    opposed, ultimately failed.)  In 1992, Sam was a signatory to the founding statement of Italian Americans for a Multicultural United States (IAMUS), an advocacy group organized by New York-area Italian Americans, including myself.


    A Long Island native, Sam Pizzigati lives in
    Maryland. He currently is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in
    Washington, D.C.  I interviewed Sam by e-mail this week. 


    Why did you create Too Much, and who is its audience?

    Too Much came about for a simple reason. We have too much inequality in the
    United States
    , too much wealth concentrated in the pockets of a few — and too little debate about what this concentration means for us as a people.  A century ago, in a period of deep inequality really similar to ours today, we had journalists and politicians debating the distribution of wealth and income all the time. We need to restart that debate. That’s what Too Much is trying to do.


    Too Much has a fairly broad audience, everyone from social justice activists and academics to media types and business people angry about the greed they see distorting our economy. They all find facts and stats in Too Much, but lots more, too. We work to go beyond the inequality numbers. We look at how grand concentrations of private wealth are corroding every aspect of our lives, from sports and art to our health and environment.


    What are the worst instances of income inequality, and what are their effects on the American working and middle classes?

    I think we can look at disparities in two ways. We can look, for starters, at the incomes specific individuals are taking home. Last year, five hedge fund managers in the
    United States
    each cleared over a billion dollars in income. The average person in the
    United States
    would have to work 25,000 years to make a billion dollars. But I think we also need to step back and look at the bigger picture. I grew up in the 1950s. Back then, average working families — what economists like to call the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution — took home two-thirds of
    ’s income. And today? Right now, the bottom 90 percent of us are only taking in half the nation’s income.  The top 1 percent, meanwhile, have seen their share of the nation’s income nearly triple, from around 8 percent of the total to over 22 percent. You can’t understand our current economic meltdown without understanding how much we’ve let wealth get redistributed to the top. More dollars at the top mean more dollars for speculation. Fewer dollars in the pockets of average folks mean higher levels of household debt. Add the two and you have the perfect recipe for a bursting bubble economy.


    We have a minimum wage in the
    You are suggesting that we also need a maximum wage. How would that work, and for whom would the maximum be set?

    Franklin D. Roosevelt once actually proposed what amounted to a “maximum wage.” In 1942, FDR called for a 100 percent tax on all individual income over $25,000, about $315,000 in today’s dollars. Congress didn't buy FDR's 100 percent rate. But lawmakers did set the top tax rate at 94 percent on income over $200,000, and that rate would hover around 90 percent for the next two decades, years that would see the greatest period of middle class prosperity in U.S. history. I’d like to build on FDR’s spirit, with a maximum wage set as a multiple of the minimum wage, say 10 or 25 times. How would this work? Any income over ten times the minimum wage would face a 100 percent tax. The higher the minimum, the higher the maximum. Just imagine the social dynamic that this approach to a maximum wage would create. Our nation’s richest and most powerful, if this ten times rule were in effect, would have a vested self-interest in enhancing the well-being of our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable.


    Do you think the Obama victory means that Americans might finally be getting fed up with corporate greed and malfeasance?

    Yes, I really do. The McCain campaign tried to make “spreading the wealth” a string of dirty words. The American people weren’t buying. Barack Obama now has about as clear a mandate he could possibly have to get the
    United States
    back on track toward greater equality.


    During the presidential campaign Obama used the “R” word – redistribution – leading right-wingers to call him a socialist. Do you think that the Obama administration is likely to enact policies to reduce economic inequality?

    Obama’s tax proposals, if enacted, would indeed reduce inequality. Obama has proposed, for instance, raising the tax rate on income in the top tax bracket from 35 to 39.6 percent, the rate in effect the year before George W. Bush became President. But we can’t afford to stop there, at 39.6 percent. Getting back to the Clinton-era top tax rate on the rich would only reduce the growth in income inequality since the late 1970s, as the Brookings Institution has noted, by one-sixth. We need to do better than that. How much better could we politically do? The tax rate on top-bracket income in the Eisenhower years stood at exactly 91 percent. If Americans speak out loudly enough, I believe the Obama administration will move, as time goes on, in an Eisenhower tax-the-rich direction.


    We’ve seen much demoralization under Bush and the GOP, but now there’s much talk of an energized citizenry. What can Americans do to keep Obama and the Democrats from capitulating to corporate interests?

    The single most important thing that I think Americans can do right now: help pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a pending piece of legislation that aims to make it easier for workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Obama has already endorsed this legislation, but Corporate America is mobilizing a huge campaign to kill it. The high levels of economic equality — and middle class prosperity — that Americans enjoyed in the mid 20th century had two institutional pillars: a steeply graduated progressive income tax and a strong, vital trade union presence. If we can restore that vital union presence, we’d have the political clout to restore a truly progressive tax structure.


    You are an Italian American. Has ethnicity, perhaps combined with your experience of class, had any influence on your political views?

    Definitely. My grandfather Tranquillo arrived at
    Ellis Island at the height of the first great immigration wave, in 1905. He ended up on Long Island, where he worked as a chauffeur and gardener on one of the grand estates that dominated
    Long Island back then. Later, in the 1930s, my grandfather became a Socialist Party organizer. He ran for sheriff of
    Nassau County, on the Socialist ticket, in 1937, and collected more votes, our family story goes, than the Democrat. My grandfather never won any office, but the battles he and his fellow activists fought — for high taxes on the rich, for unemployment insurance and old-age security, for a minimum wage — eventually became law and set the stage for the middle class prosperity his children enjoyed. I like to think that if he were around today, he’d be reading Too Much and smiling.


    Much has been said about the extreme economic and political corruption in
    , and on the symbiotic relationships between organized crime and economic and political elites. But in America don’t our corporate chieftains behave like mafiosi?

    Well, let’s look at a corporate chieftain who happens to have a name that ends in a vowel, Robert Nardelli, the current CEO at Chrysler. Nardelli first made national headlines early last year when he walked away from his chief executive suite at Home Depot with over $200 million in severance. The Home Depot board had brought Nardelli in, from General Electric, because the directors wanted to see higher corporate earnings and they figured they needed an executive superstar to get them. And Nardelli did produce higher earnings — by running Home Depot into the ground.


    Home Depot had built customer confidence by filling store aisles with expert employees who knew their fixer-upper stuff. Nardelli replaced thousands of these dedicated full-timers with cheaper — and much less knowledgeable — part-timers. Local store managers didn’t much like that. Nardelli’s reaction? He snatched away local store manager authority and filled Home Depot with ex-G.E. executives with no retailing experience. Home Depot has never recovered from all these changes. Nardelli himself may have actually pocketed more money from his half-dozen years at Home Depot than
    ’s Italian-American Mafia bosses made, all together, over the entire 20th century. He didn’t have to bust any heads. He just broke hearts.


    For a free subscription to Too Much:







  • Art & Culture

    Roy Paci's Sicilian Bestiary

    Leave it to Roy Paci not to call a collection of his best-known recordings his “Greatest Hits.”


    That’d be too predictable, too boring for the ebullient Sicilian trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader.  Paci instead has titled his new career respective BESTiario Siciliano. It’s a typical bit of wordplay for Paci, who named his last album SuoNo Global, to play up the fact that the genre-blending music was his (“suo”) and that he embraced the “No Global” movement against corporate-driven globalization. 


    A bestiary literally is a compendium of beasts. Bestiaries became popular in the Middle Ages as illustrated tomes that described various animals. Each illustration was accompanied by a moral lesson explaining the animal’s unique role in the divinely-ordered natural world.


    Roy Paci’s Sicilian bestiary comprises 19 songs, on two CDs, that span the ten years since he formed his band, Aretuska. (The name combines Aretusa, a figure from Greek mythology, with “ska,” the up-tempo Jamaican dance music that predated reggae.) Paci’s an entertainer, not a moralist like those medieval bestiarians. But his music embodies a unique sensibility and attitude that’s remained consistent over the past decade. These “beasts” could have been created only by him.


    And what fine creatures they are. They include early numbers like “Yettaboom,” with its linguistic mash-up of French, Spanish, and Italian, his idiosyncratic and often irreverent interpretations of canzone siciliane (“Ciuri ciuri,” Che vitti 'na crozza,” “Sicilia bedda,”  “Malarazza”), ska (“Nesci lu suli”), rap (“Mezzogiorno di fuoco”) and several of  the hybrid Spanish-Italian numbers from 2007’s SuoNo Global: “Italiano a Barcelona,” “Giramundo,” and “Toda Joia Toda Beleza.”


    That last track is Paci’s biggest hit, an irresistible samba that fully lives up to its title. During the summer of 2007, the song, with its maddeningly catchy chorus, was inescapable in Italy. I heard it on the radio, and in department stores, restaurants, cafes, and clubs. A Neapolitan comedian even recorded a parody, “Toda Munnezza” i.e., “all garbage,” to comment on Napoli’s trash emergency.  


    (The version on BESTiario Siciliano, however, is not the hit version, which featured the Spanish-French rocker Manu Chao on vocals. It’s the alternate “Italian” take, also included on SuoNo Global.)


    I’m glad that when Paci combed through his back pages to select the Bestiario tracks he grabbed “Cantu siciliano,” the real “Mambo Italiano,” except that in Paci’s version the “crazy Siciliano” dances to a ska beat.


    There also are three previously unreleased tracks – the recent single “Defendemos la alegria,” “Slum Shock,” and “Cambierò.”


    Rosario “Roy” Paci, born in 1969 in Augusta, Sicily, started out as a jazz trumpeter, playing in local bands when he was barely in his teens. These days the jazz element survives mainly in his trumpet solos and the swing of his band’s rhythm section. But the sound he’s crafted with Aretuska, a multinational aggregation comprising Sicilians, mainland Italians, and Africans, is definitely a suono globale, both in the polyglot lyrics and mix of musical genres.


    Paci’s affinity for Latin music and the Spanish language was born during his stint in the Italian navy. He was vice-director of a military band, and got to travel and perform throughout South America for nearly three years. He’s modest about his mastery of Spanish, but he can write catchy colloquial lyrics and rhymes en español.


    On his early recordings Paci sang mainly in Sicilian and Italian. His recent lyrics are in a lingo he calls “italoño,” a blend of Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, French, and English. In the notes for SuoNo Global, Paci states the sociopolitics of this hybrid tongue: “With our Sicilian language, one of the most ancient in the world, rich with Greek, Roman, Arab, French and Spanish influences, we are…creating l’italoño, an idiom that brings us closer to all peoples…”


    In “Italiano a
    Barcelona,” from SuoNo Global, Paci, switching between Spanish and Italian, celebrates a “global cultural mix in the same music,” a pan-Latin identity that includes southern Italians, as part of a “raza mestiza.”


    Paci has cultivated a look and persona that, like his sound, is both familiar and unique. He’s a live wire of a performer who evokes another extroverted horn player, bandleader and vocalist -- the Sicilian-American Louis Prima. With his brilliantine black quiff and pencil mustache, Paci also recalls 1950s star Fred Buscaglione, one of the first singers to bring Latin music to Italian pop. But the overall effect is of a hipster doing an ironic turn on the gangster image, Paci the mafioso of music who wears an AIDS red ribbon on his suit jacket lapel and plays benefit concerts for the radical leftist political party Rifondazione comunista.


    Politically and aesthetically Paci is close to the left-wing rocker Manu Chao. He has toured with Chao and played on several of his albums, including La Radiolina, his latest, and on Dimanche à Bamako, the Chao-produced hit album by the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. Chao, returning the favor, sings on Paci’s SuoNo Global.


    In addition to his work with Aretuska and Manu Chao, Paci organized one of the most exciting “world music” projects in recent years. In the summer of 2006, he, klezmer musician Frank London, and Serbian bandleader Boban Markovic began touring as “Il Terrone, l’Ebreo, and Lo Zingaro.”  (The “terrone” of course is Paci, “l‘ebreo,” the Jew, is
    London, and “lo zingaro,” the gypsy, is Markovic.) The multiethnic trio’s wild but totally right mix of traditional Sicilian music, klezmer, and Serbian dance tunes, has rocked concert halls all over


    Paci records for his own label Etnagigante but his albums are distributed by V2 Music, the company founded by Richard Branson and now owned by Universal. Bestiario Siciliano was released by Universal in Italy on November 14. It can be ordered from online Italian music stores ( if you’re willing to pay the unfavorable exchange rate and shipping costs. Check and I-Tunes for its availability.  


    Roy Paci and Aretuska Official Website:


    Paci & Aretuska myspace:



  • Facts & Stories

    Addio, Mama Africa

    The ineffable strangeness of life -- and death – really hit home when I learned of the passing of Miriam Makeba, the world-famous South African singer and anti-apartheid activist known to her admirers as “Mama Africa.” I’m sure that if you had asked Makeba where she expected to end her days she never would’ve imagined a small clinic in Castel Volturno, a town outside Naples in the province of Caserta.  

    But that is where she died Sunday, November 9, at age 76, after having given a concert at Baia Verde. She had just left the stage when she collapsed from a heart attack. She had not been in good health for some time, but she insisted on performing anyway, in a concert to support Roberto Saviano, the young Neapolitan journalist threatened with death by the gangsters he had exposed in his book Gomorra.

    But the concert’s organizers also targeted racism against African immigrants living in Castel Volturno and its environs.  
    In September, camorristi shot seven Africans in a tailor shop, killing six of them. Italian media gave scant coverage to the killings, and the few accounts that did appear dismissed the incident as part of a turf war connected to the drug trade.

    A headline from the Rome daily Il Messagero was typical: “Camorra massacre, five pushers killed.

    Police investigators initially favored this explanation, most likely because Nigerians are involved in the area's drug trafficking. But it later emerged that the victims did not have any connection to drugs, as other African immigrants insisted.

    In late September, police arrested one suspect in the killings and identified two others thanks to the one surviving victim, a Ghanaian man who feigned death as the assailants sprayed the African-owned tailor shop with bullets from a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.

    The Ghanaian rejected the local tradition of silence (omertà) and identified photographs of the attackers.

    For Roberto Saviano, the message the camorra had sent Africans couldn’t be clearer: “This is an area where you are not authorized to live.

    When Africans waged an angry protest in Castel Volturno, Saviano praised them for rebelling against the camorra’s reign of terror. “In contrast, when there have been massacres in other areas controlled by the camorra no one dared to protest or showed the same courage as the Africans,” he said.

    The government responded to the killings by sending 400 police officers to the Castel Volturno area, later announcing that it would augment that force with 500 soldiers. Even Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, from the anti-immigrant Northern League, described the slaughter as an authentic act of civil war on the part of the camorra.”

    So when Miriam Makeba took to the stage at Baia Verde, she was not only expressing solidarity with one brave journalist, or with African immigrants. Her presence was a recognition that the struggle against organized crime in Campania is also an anti-racist struggle.  

    The organization Doctors Without Borders recently issued a report that documented the terrible conditions endured by immigrants living in the orbit of the camorra. Malnourishment, crowded and unsanitary housing, and fear of violent attacks from local residents were reported by the “extracomunitari” interviewed by the nongovernmental medical organization. Many told the interviewers that they did not go out after dark for fear of being attacked. The report stated that in the camorra stronghold of Casal di Principe, also in the province of Caserta, “there is an authentic curfew in force: all foreigners refuse to go out after 10 p.m. because they are afraid.

    (When I read this, I couldn’t help but think of Yusuf Hawkins, the black teenager murdered in 1989 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Gangsters, both here and in Italy, act as self-appointed neighborhood border guards who target unwanted “outsiders.” Hawkins’ killing, it was learned years later, was instigated by a young mobster named Joey D'Angelo, a protégé of Salvatore Sammy the Bull Gravano.)

    An African identified only as “Kwame,” in an interview with La Repubblica conducted in the wake of the Castel Volturno killings, wondered, “Where is the state in this country? Why doesn't it do its job? Why does it take two years to renew a residency permit? Why do I have no rights at the building site where I work? Why do I have to pay for a hovel the same price that one of you [native-born Italians] would pay for a real apartment?”

    Miriam Makeba’s death in Castel Volturno, according to Repubblica correspondent Dario del Porto, has inspired “an extraordinary coming-together of two worlds that often are too far apart, the non-European Union immigrants and the local population.” Bishop Bruno Schettino said Makeba had come to Campania "to speak, with songs of justice, to all those who want integration [of immigrants] and who want to fight the camorra."  Castel Volturno’s mayor, Francesco Nuzzo, declared that his city would honor Makeba, who “since yesterday belongs to our community, like everyone committed to the struggle against the camorra."

    The manager of the clinic where Miriam Makeba died said that she "had come here to sing for our land, for all of us."

    Nice words, lovely sentiments. But if Campania – and Italy itself – really wants to pay tribute to Mama Africa, it needs to come up with good answers to the damning questions posed by Kwame, and many others like him.  






  • Facts & Stories

    "Siamo Tutti Abbronzati"

    My friend Giovanni in Catania e-mailed me today with a pithy comment about our President-elect and Italy's premier, in which he both quoted and dissed the latter:

    "Qui siamo tutti felici per Obama: giovane, bello ed abbronzato. Noi invece abbiamo un leader vecchio, brutto e nano."

    (We're all happy here about Obama -- young, handsome, and tanned. We instead have a leader who is old, ugly and a dwarf.)

    It's good to see that Italians are outraged and embarrased by the "psiconano." I totally get their longing for a leader who doesn't disgrace them before the world, one who instead inspires hope and idealism. 

    But it's probably not a good idea to express disgust with Berlusconi by demonstrating in blackface, as some in Rome have done. The protestors clearly were well-intentioned. No doubt they felt they were expressing solidarity with our new President by blacking up. But their lack of awareness of the history of blackface in America, as part of racist minstrelsy, is almost as embarrassing as Berlusconi's dumb remarks. Maybe more so.   

    Check out the photos of the protest at La Repubblica:

    Do you think this was ill-advised or not?

  • Op-Eds

    Obamamania: A Dissent

    Tutti pazzi per Obama.

    It does seem like everyone is crazy for Barack Obama – Americans, Italians and other Europeans, Africans, Middle Easterners, you name it. The New York Times reported that Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand, feel inspired by our President Elect. Though he hasn’t yet assumed the presidency, Obama already has achieved iconic status. He’s the avatar of a new politics, a healer of racial division, a rock star. Even some Republicans – the less rabidly reactionary ones, of course – are singing his praises.

    Watching the election returns on TV Tuesday night, I felt that euphoria when, at 11 p.m., his Electoral College votes put him over the top. It was a stunning moment. My partner Rob and I popped open the bottle of champagne we’d chilled and toasted Obama’s victory and the imminent end of eight years of Republican misrule. For the first time since Bush stole the presidency in 2000, we went to bed elated after an election instead of horribly depressed.

    For us, though, the euphoria was short-lived indeed. On Wednesday, we learned that four states – California, Arizona, Arkansas and Florida -- had passed anti-gay referenda. The worst news came from California, where voters approved, by 52%, Proposition 8, which amends the California state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. What was particularly galling was the fact that Obama supporters, and especially African Americans, were responsible for the proposition’s victory. Whites and Asians opposed the measure, Hispanics favored it by a small margin, but 70% of blacks voted in favor.

    The proposition’s success made it evident that you could love Obama but still be homophobic. As a headline at the Village Voice’s website said on Wednesday morning, “Cheer up GOP. America still hates gays.” And make no doubt about it -- the anti-gay propaganda was hateful, full of outrageous lies and distortions about the supposed evils of allowing people of the same sex to enjoy the rights and privileges that every heterosexual takes for granted.

    Gays and lesbians were out-organized and outspent by the anti-gay forces, with millions poured into the campaign by the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. But the proposition’s backers hardly concentrated on the magic underwear crowd. Winning the support of the African American religious community was central to their strategy, and it worked. It’s no secret that most black churches are homophobic. (This bigotry is often euphemistically termed “cultural conservatism.”) Not long ago I heard a gay Jamaican argue against the government giving black churches AIDS funding because those churches were absolutely the worst places for black gays. From their pulpits ministers attack homosexuality and denigrate the very humanity of gay people, even though many of these churches couldn’t function without their gay deacons, organists, choir leaders, etc.

    What’s this got to do with Obama? He did say that he was opposed to Proposition 8. But he paved the way for the measure’s success months ago when he declared that he couldn’t support same-sex marriage because of “my Christian faith.”  Proposition Eight organizers made “robocalls” to black voters using recordings of Obama’s statement, and the tactic was effective.

    Obama’s faith-based bullshit was one reason why I never caught the prevalent Obamamania. I’m sick of politicians injecting their religious beliefs into political discourse, a noxious practice which, by the way, began not with a Republican but with Jimmy “Born Again” Carter, a Democrat. Obama, I wanted to say to him, I don’t give a damn about your beliefs and I resent your using them as a reason to oppose fairness and equal treatment.  

    Lest you think I’m some kind of “identity politics” fanatic, let me add that Obama’s stance on gay marriage wasn’t the only position of his I found objectionable. He angered me when he pandered to the America-Israel Political Affairs Committee, AIPAC, going so far as to say Jerusalem was indisputably Israel’s “indivisible” capital. So what if there happens to be another people, the Palestinians, who have a claim to it, and that most feel the city’s ultimate status should be negotiated.   

    The enthusiastic ass-kissing of hardline Zionists wasn’t the only instance of Obama’s opportunism. Earlier this year he voted in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, George Bush’s sweeping intelligence surveillance law, a bill denounced by many of the same liberal Democrats who backed Obama’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. His vote for this bad bill was a slap in the face of the Democratic base and a sop to the Bush-McCain right.  Democratic senators Christopher Dodd, Russ Feingold, and Patrick Leahy, all liberal stalwarts, opposed FISA; even the Bush-enabling Hillary Clinton voted against it. But for Obama, not appearing “soft on terrorism” was more important than civil liberties.

    I certainly don’t regret my vote for Obama; the alternative was infinitely worse. As a lifelong leftist who got my first lessons in radical politics from my Sicilian grandfather, I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life. But the Democrats too often have been a pro-war, pro-corporate party, notwithstanding their populist rhetoric.

    I don’t see Obama’s victory as a harbinger of a new millennium of peace, social justice and all things good and noble. Before the election Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s popular and openly lesbian commentator, observed that though most progressives will vote for Obama, they don’t regard him as one of them. He’s an extraordinarily talented politician, and in many ways a highly appealing figure. His broad-based support signaled that America may at last be rising above its hideous history of institutionalized and de facto racism.

    But Obama’s not a savior, though you’d hardly know it from some of the overheated reactions to his victory. Obama himself has acknowledged that he’ll inevitably disappoint his supporters. Watch his appointments. I was dismayed that he picked Clinton attack dog Rahm Emanuel for his chief of staff. I’ll be more than dismayed if he selects his economic advisers from the pro-corporate wing of the Democratic Party – people like Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, for example – rather than from the populist ranks. But it already looks like that's what he has in mind.

    So I anticipate the Obama Administration with cautious optimism, but also with a large dose of what I consider healthy skepticism. 



  • Facts & Stories

    Nobel Winners Come Out for Saviano


    In my I-Italy op-ed, “Rushdie on Saviano: Camorra’s fatwa worse than Khomeini’s,” I quoted Italian journalist Giuseppe D’Avanzo’s claim that anti-camorra author Roberto Saviano was “a man alone.” But no more. Since the news broke that gangsters from Casal di Principe had marked him for death, there has been a heartening outpouring of support for the embattled author of Gomorra.

    This week six Nobel Prize winners issued a joint statement deploring the threats against Saviano’s life and demanding that the Italian government protect the journalist and crack down on those who threaten him.

    “The [Italian] State must do all in its power to protect him and to defeat the camorra,” the signatories declared. “But the case of Saviano is not only a police problem. It is a problem of democracy. The secure liberty of Saviano matters to all of us, as citizens…we call on the State to assume its responsibility, because it is intolerable that this can happen in Europe in 2008.”

    The appeal was signed by two Italian winners of the Nobel prize, playwright-actor Dario Fo and medical researcher Rita Levi Montalcini, as well as former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, German author Gunter Grass, the South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

    La Repubblica posted the statement at its website and invited its readers to sign it. As of today (Tuesday, October 21), there were more than 140,000 signatures, from Italy and abroad. The signatories include such well-known authors as Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen, Ian McEwan, Jose Saramago and Chuck Palahniuk.

    Other newspapers, including Spain’s El Paìs and France’s Nouvel Observateur, have published the appeal since it appeared in Repubblica.

    La Repubblica had closed the online petition but will re-open it. Check the homepage of the paper’s website and add your name.


    Roberto Saviano is under death threats for denouncing the criminal deeds of the Camorra in his book Gomorra, translated and read all over the world. His freedom is under threat as well as his autonomy as a writer, his chances to meet his family, to enjoy a social life, to have part in the public life, to travel in his own country.

    A young writer, guilty to have investigated the organized crime revealing its methods and its structure is forced to live an hidden, underground life, while the Camorra bosses send him death threats from their jails ordering him to stop writing for La Repubblica, his newspaper, and to keep silent. The State must do every effort to protect Saviano and to defeat the Camorra. But this is not a mere police case. It's a problem of democracy. Saviano's safe freedom concerns everyone of us as citizens.

    Signing this appeal we intend to take charge of it, as a personal commitment, urging the State at the same time to take on its responsibility, because it's intolerable that something like this could happen in Europe in 2008.




  • Op-Eds

    “Italians Are Better Than This”

    “I think maybe you Americans should come and liberate us again,” Giovanni wrote in an e-mail exchange the other day.

    Giovanni, a Sicilian university professor and a longtime friend of mine and my partner Rob’s, is thoroughly disgusted with his nation’s leader, Silvio Berlusconi, and the premier’s right-wing government, an unappetizing mélange of neo-Fascists, Vatican groupies, and racists.

    It’s the racists and xenophobes Giovanni was particularly angry about during an online chat. Some of them, he told us, now are proposing separate school classrooms for the children of immigrants.

    “But of course these would be equal,” he sarcastically remarked, deliberately referencing the “separate but equal” ideology of old-line American segregationists.

    Giovanni, like many decent Italians, looks at the United States, which appears ready to elect a black president, and is ashamed of his country. That’s why he joked about American troops liberating Italy once again, as they did during World War II.  

    It’s no secret that racist and anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in Italy. Italian, European, and international media have been reporting a rising tide of intolerance since Berlusconi and company came to power earlier this year.

    It increasingly takes the form of physical attacks on people of color, even murder. Last month in Milan, a nineteen year old African immigrant named Abdul William Guibre was beaten to death by the owner of a bar and his son, who accused the youth of stealing some biscotti. The father and son called Guibre a “filthy black” and attacked him with a metal pole.

    Also in Milan, a Senegalese handbag vendor was beaten with a baseball bat after other merchants accused him of taking work away from native Italians. In camorra-infested Casal di Principe, outside Naples, gangsters shot to death six African immigrants. In Rome, Italian youths, mainly minors, beat up a Chinese immigrant.

    A Somalian woman claimed that she was strip-searched and verbally abused while going through customs at Rome's Ciampino airport. In this case the government responded quickly – Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said he would personally sue the woman for lying. Right-wing Senator Maurizio Gasparri chimed in, saying, “Between her version and that of the police I would have no doubt about believing the police.”  

    This week Italy’s only black parliamentarian denounced the increasing intolerance.  “Immigrants are becoming the enemy,” said Jean-Léonard Touadi, in an interview with The Guardian.  

    Born in the Congo, Touadi, 49, was raised in France and immigrated to Italy in 1979. He rose to prominence as a television journalist, and later served as a deputy mayor in the administration of Rome’s ex-mayor Walter Veltroni. In 2008, he was elected to the Italian Parliament from Lazio as second on the list of Antonio Di Pietro's Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party. He is Italy's third black MP and the first MP from sub-Saharan Africa.

     “With an economic crisis under way, Italy has found a scapegoat to blame its woes on,” Touadi said.

    He accuses the Northern League, the party of Interior Minister Maroni, of stoking the fires of bigotry.

    “The League is pushing discrimination, separation and xenophobia and dragging the government, and with it Italy, towards the systematic violation of human rights,” he said.  The League has called for the expulsion of legal immigrants who commit offenses, restrictions on mixed marriages, and a requirement that doctors report patients who are undocumented immigrants.

    “For the League, the real problem is not illegal immigration, it’s immigration,” Touadi observed. “They need to stop while there is still time.”  

    “We've seen Rome taxi drivers chanting ‘Duce, Duce’ at the town hall when the new right-wing mayor [Gianni Alemanno] was elected this year and now fans with swastikas are following the national football team,” Touadi said. “Italy will need millions of immigrants to maintain its workforce if birth rates continue to be low and entire sectors of the economy, like hotels and agriculture, would go under now without them, but the government prefers demagoguery.”

    Touadi argues that Italians, by succumbing to their leaders’ fear-mongering, are betraying their own best qualities. “Italians are better than this,” he said, “starting from the Catholic tradition of giving support, to the constitution, which emerged from fascism to focus on individual rights, to Italy's own history of emigration.”

    Though Touadi says the government has been cynically exploiting fears of immigrants as job-stealers and criminals, he does not deny that some immigrants do commit crimes. “There has been an increase in crime by immigrants - to ignore that would be false political correctness,” he noted. “But how can the government focus only on them when four regions in southern Italy are controlled by the mafia?”

    Touadi saw signs of hope in the recent protests in Milan over the killing of Guibre. Italian-born sons and daughters of immigrants, of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, came together to express their outrage.

    “They will now look for a political role,” Touadi said. “Their voice enriches Italian culture.”






  • Op-Eds

    Rushdie on Saviano: Camorra’s fatwa worse than Khomeini’s

    Roberto Saviano, the 28 year-old author of Gomorra, the now world-famous exposé of Naples’ criminal syndicates, faces greater danger than Salman Rushdie did when
    ’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the Indian writer nearly 20 years ago.



    Rushdie himself said so this week from Paris in response to reports that camorristi from Casal di Principe, on the outskirts of
    , had decided to kill the author before Christmas. Gomorra exposes and denounces the Casalesi, and the clan’s imprisoned leader, Francesco “Sandokan” Schiavone is, not surprisingly, extremely unhappy with the book’s author.


    According to newspaper reports, Saviano was to be killed by explosives planted on the highway between Rome and
    . It appeared that the Casalesi intended to teach the young author the same lesson Sicilian mafiosi delivered to mob-busting magistrate Giovanni Falcone when they assassinated him in 1992 with a roadside bomb.


    Rushdie said that Saviano “is in terrible danger.” “Without doubt he will have to leave
    , but he needs to choose his destination very prudently. The mafia poses a much greater threat than the one I myself had to face.”


    That’s really saying something, since Rushdie, with his novel The Satanic Verses, had incurred the wrath of Islamist fanatics not only in
    Iran but throughout the Muslim world. For years Rushdie was forced to live like a fugitive, albeit one with heavy police protection.  But Rushdie evidently believes Neapolitan gangsters to be more proficient killers, and more capable of striking far from their home turf.    


    Saviano is guarded by seven heavily-armed carabinieri who live with him and accompany him everywhere. He remains alive only because of this 24/7 protection.


    The Italian government gave him a bodyguard in 2006, after the first credible threats were made against his life. That year he made what was to be his last public appearance in the
    Naples area, when he told a crowd in the piazza of Casal di Principe, “Don't let [the clans] destroy your right to happiness.”


    This month, after the reports that the Casalesi had marked him for death, Saviano told La Repubblica that he was going to leave
    , at least for a while.


    “I want a life. I want a home,” he said. “I want to fall in love. I want to drink a beer in public, go to a bookstore and choose a book after checking out the back cover. I want to go for a walk, take the sun, walk in the rain and see my mother without fear and without frightening her. I want to have my friends around and be able to laugh and not to have to talk about me, always about me, as if I had a terminal disease and they had to put up with a boring but unavoidable visit. Fuck, I'm only 28 years old!”


    The British newspaper The Guardian, in an October 15 editorial titled “In Praise of Roberto Saviano,” noted why Saviano’s fears are justified. “His hatred of the Camorra…is personal,” the editorial observed. “He grew up in Casal di Principe…and lived alongside the Casalesi clan whose savagery he captures. He hates them and does not mind them knowing it.”  But Saviano’s loathing of the Casalesi would matter little if Gomorra, both the best-selling book and the acclaimed Matteo Garrone film made from it, hadn’t “trained an unwelcome spotlight on his home town.”


    “Many authors have taken the mafia on and lived to tell the tale,” the editorial observed. “But few have rubbed them up the wrong way quite as badly as Roberto Saviano.”


    There is no doubt that Saviano is a marked man. But Italian media reports this past week confused rather than clarified the threats he faces. Carmine Schiavone, the cousin of the imprisoned Casalesi boss “Sandokan” and the reported source of the information about the plan to kill Saviano by Christmas, denied having tipped off the authorities about such a plot. Schiavone is an ex-mobster who became a “pentito” (government informer) in 1993. 


    Saviano is doubtful about Schiavone’s denial. “It’s difficult for a ‘pentito’ to admit to still having contacts with the clans,” he said. With Italian authorities continuing to investigate the highway murder scheme, his skepticism seems entirely justified.


    Then, on October 15, the television show Matrix reported that Sandokan himself sent a fax to one of his attorneys that, though ambiguous, did seem to threaten Saviano. Sarcastically referring to Saviano as “that great novelist,” the imprisoned camorrista said that the author “must stop spreading false and calumnious allegations against me.”


    But Neapolitan prosecutors subsequently said that Sandokan did not send such a fax. The boss, however, apparently did make threats against the author in one of the letters he recently sent to his attorneys.


    Saviano, according to press reports, now is unsure whether to leave
    . His supporters, who include such illustrious figures as
    ’s Rita Borsellino, are urging him to remain, as a symbol of the fight against organized crime.


    But Saviano is paying an exorbitantly high price for his prominence.  And he suffers not only because he cannot live a normal life.     


    “The truth, the single obscene truth, that in these times is tragically evident, is that Roberto Saviano is a man alone,” wrote Repubblica columnist Giuseppe D' Avanzo.


    Besides having provoked the murderous rage of the camorristi, he endures the rancor of the fearful and passive in Italy, as well as the envy of those who resent his success. Saviano, in an anguished interview with the journalist, expressed incredulity over accusations that he had only written Gomorra to become rich and successful. 


    “Saviano’s destiny,” D’Avanzo observed, “…is more than ever a matter of Italian democracy. His unarmed life, or rather his life armed only with words, has fallen into a gray area where the traditional difference between war and peace seems not to exist, if the mafia can declare war on the State and the State for too long hasn’t known how to end that violence against people and property nor how to protect essential rights -- beginning with the most fundamental of democratic rights: the right to free speech. If Saviano loses, all of us will lose.”


    Visit Roberto Saviano at MySpace and leave him a message of support and solidarity:

  • Art & Culture

    Montalbano at the CUNY Graduate Center. "Salve, Salvo"

    For the past ten years, American fans of the Inspector Montalbano novels by Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri have been deprived of the pleasures of the films made from the best-selling books for the RAI television network.


    The films – fourteen to date – are enormously popular in Italy, each attracting some six million viewers, according to RAI. Directed by Alberto Sironi, they star Roman actor Luca Zingaretti as the Sicilian police detective Salvo Montalbano and are filmed in Sicily, mainly in the province of Ragusa.


    But our long wait for a glimpse of the series that Italian viewers have enjoyed since 1998 ended this week (October 10) with the New York premiere of the latest installment, La Luna di Carta (The Paper Moon). The film, shown at the CUNY Graduate Center as part of a week-long RAI Italian Fiction series, is so new it hasn’t even been broadcast in Italy yet.


    Adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name, La Luna di Carta has detective Montalbano investigating the murder of Angelo Pardo, a pharmaceutical sales representative found shot to death. The unusual state of Pardo’s corpse – seated, with his penis exposed – seems to indicate a crime of passion.  Or perhaps he was about to “pleasure” himself when he was killed. Or maybe his killer, or killers, just wanted to make the cops think sex somehow was involved.


    Just as Salvo Montalbano begins to investigate the homicide, two drug-related deaths occur in the town of Vigata. One of the deceased is a conservative legislator, and this particular onorevole is well-known as an outspoken guardian of public morality. (Camilleri, a former Communist who remains a man of the Left, often insinuates his political views into the Montalbano novels, with the detective himself usually voicing them.) Montalbano uncovers the connections between Pardo’s murder and the deaths from tainted cocaine. But to do so, he must, as so many movie gumshoes before him, cherchez la femme.


    There actually are two women in question: Pardo’s sister Michela and his lover Elena Sclafani. The witchy and dramatic Michela and the seductive Elena, both having embarrassing secrets to hide, try to mislead Montalbano. But the detective, relying on his formidable deductive powers and the computer code-cracking skills of his otherwise dizzy underling Catarella, solves the case.


    The screenplay, by Andrea Camilleri and several collaborators, captures the novel’s essence, hitting all the major plot points. It does leave out some things, particularly the aging Montalbano’s increasingly dark musings about his own mortality. That’s just as well, since Luca Zingaretti’s Salvo is too vigorous and virile a presence for death-haunted brooding.


    The actor, surrounded by a bevy of RAI eminences, attended the New York screening and spoke afterwards. The voluble and charming Zingaretti, when asked by an audience member whether he identified with the character he plays, replied that the only thing he has in common with Montalbano is the detective’s appetite for good food. (Montalbano’s passion for cucina siciliana provides some of the novels’ most entertaining, and appetizing moments.) He praised the literary qualities of Camilleri’s books, adding that he was certain such great postwar Italian auteurs as Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi would have adapted them for the screen.


    Another spectator observed that the actors fully incarnated Camilleri’s memorable characters. Zingaretti was pleased to agree, noting that over the years that the cast has worked together they have become a close-knit ensemble. Zingaretti expertly conveys Montalbano’s intelligence and irony, his irascibility and his unwavering moral sense. He also gives the character considerable sex appeal, as a RAI spokeswoman remarked while introducing the film. But the other cast members also are quite good. Angelo Russo, as the idiot savant Catarella, is perfection.


    Zingaretti said that his relationship with Andrea Camilleri preceded the Montalbano movies. The actor, who made his film debut in 1987, studied theatre under the author in Rome. He said that after he auditioned for and won the part of Salvo Montalbano, he was wracked by self-doubt. It didn’t help that a friend who loves the novels told Zingaretti that he would kill him if he “ruined” the character. Before shooting began for the first film (Il Ladro di Merendine), Zingaretti called the author to confide his fears that he would not be up to the job. Despite Camilleri’s reassurances, the actor’s worries only worsened. Finally, exasperated by Zingaretti’s increasingly anxious phone calls, Camilleri exploded, “Stop breaking my balls!”


    Let me say the same to RAI. Giving Camilleri’s New York fans only a taste of the Montalbano series will not suffice. Now that some of us have seen La Luna di Carta (one of four new installments), our appetite has been whetted. It will not be sated until we see them all, whether on the big screen (which really shows off the magnificent Sicilian locations) or on DVD. Madunnuzza biniditta, how long must we wait?




    For more information about the Commissario Montalbano series on RAI TV




  • Art & Culture

    "Gomorrah" by Matteo Garrone. A Modern Circle of Hell

    Italian film director Paolo Sorrentino, in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, criticized Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese for having “mythologized organized crime.”  The two American auteurs “fell in love with mafiosi,” Sorrentino declared.

    No one can say that about Matteo Garrone and his film Gomorra. Adapted from the acclaimed book of the same name by the courageous investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, Gomorra depicts Neapolitan organized crime as an all-enveloping and monstrous system of corruption and pitiless violence, a modern circle of Hell.

    There are no larger than life Sicilian patriarchs in Gomorra, no “I make you laugh?” killer clowns, no Prozac-popping suburbanites. There are, in fact, none of the character types familiar from decades of Hollywood mob movies, and no psychology whatsoever. Garrone’s film, sociological in its emphasis and made in a quasi-documentary style that evokes neorealism, presents a devastating portrait of a city where organized crime gangs, known collectively as the camorra, operate with total impunity.

    From its opening sequence of a massacre in a tanning salon to its final image of human lives literally reduced to garbage, Gomorra offers no solace or hope. No heroic reformers stand up to the mob, and the police always arrive too late, when the corpses already lie on the pavement oozing blood. Within this hellish universe there are decent and honorable individuals, but they are trapped by the system run by the violent and corrupt.  

    In the world of the camorristi, the cash nexus is everything; it determines and defines all human relationships. Family, friendship, faith, love – all are irrelevant to the making of money. The single-minded pursuit of profit makes lethal enemies of life-long friends, turns children into murderers, and contaminates the physical environment. The spirits of Marx and Brecht, not Coppola, Scorsese, or Chase, hover over Gomorra.

    The film focuses on several of the camorra’s key profit centers – drugs, toxic waste disposal, and the fashion industry. These by no means constitute the entirety of camorra business. The clans also have their hands in tourism, arms dealing, the building trades, textiles, transport, food distribution, supermarkets, restaurants, banks, and cinemas. To depict all this activity, which is described in Saviano’s book, would have required a mini-series, like HBO’s recently departed The Wire. But highlighting drugs, toxic waste and fashion is sufficient to show the long reach of the camorra, how it operates on local, national, and international levels, from the squalid housing projects of Scampia to corporate offices in Venice to Milanese haute couture salons.

    Five storylines, linked only by the fact that they all unfold within the camorra’s orbit, limn the terrain of this urban inferno. The characters are portrayed by a mix of established actors, including the fine Toni Servillo, star of Paolo Sorrentino’s un-romanticized 2005 Mafia movie The Consequences of Love, and non-professionals, with many of the latter recruited from working class neighborhoods dominated by the camorra.

    Marco and Ciro, two gun-happy teenagers, think they’re living in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, as they quote lines of dialogue (“the world is ours!”) and act out scenes from the movie. Fearless but extremely foolhardy, they antagonize a local mob boss, first by stealing cocaine from his dealers and later by poaching a cache of high-tech weapons.  

    Totò, a quiet 13 year-old living in the Scampia projects, graduates from delivering groceries to a neighbor to delivering drugs. His involvement with the drug gang forces him to make a terrible and irrevocable choice that ensures his (temporary) survival and another’s death.

    Don Ciro, middle-aged and nondescript, delivers cash to the families of imprisoned camorristi. The family members insult and berate him because the payments are never enough, but he remains impassive – until a war between rival clans shatters his composure and forces him to fight for his own survival.

    Roberto, an unemployed thirty-year-old, gets a job working for Franco (Toni Servillo), a corporate camorrista who has gotten rich by dumping the toxic waste of Northern Italian firms in the once-pristine Campania countryside.

    Pasquale is a talented tailor working for, or rather, exploited by, the mobbed-up owner of a black market sweatshop. A Chinese factory owner offers to pay him handsomely to teach his trade to the Chinese’s workers. For the first time in his working life Pasquale is well-compensated and treated respectfully – the Chinese call him “maestro” – but the camorra intervenes to put an end to his moonlighting.

    Garrone’s multi-strand tale never descends to hokey contrivance or sentimentality, unlike Crash, the inexplicably acclaimed 2005 Paul Haggis film. In Gomorra the disparate characters live in the same world, but there are no epiphanies of mutual understanding, no affirmations of shared humanity. There is only the war of all against all.

    Gomorra is set in Naples and its environs, but the film doesn’t condemn only that ancient and long-suffering city. By making explicit the symbiotic relationships between Campanian criminals and “legitimate” businesses in the north and center, Gomorra indicts not only Naples but Italy itself. How, one wonders, could a modern, purportedly democratic state and such a sophisticated civilization permit this to happen?

    The film’s closing credits provide additional particulars for the indictment. Organized crime, which generates 150 billion euros per year, is Italy’s biggest business and a pillar of the European economy. In the past thirty years, the camorra has killed more people than any other organized crime group or terrorist organization. Scampia, on Naples’ periphery, is the world’s biggest open-air drug market. The carcinogenic toxic waste dumped by the camorra in southern Italy during the past three decades, if piled up, would reach a height almost twice that of Mount Everest.

    Gomorra is a powerful and disturbing film that deserves the universal acclaim it has received. The Grand Prix winner at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, it is Italy’s official entry for the 2009 Academy Awards. Gomorra also has been hailed as proof of the renewed vitality of Italian cinema. How ironic that a film that does Italy’s movie industry proud shames Italy as a nation.