Articles by: Jerry Krase

  • Facts & Stories

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

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


                                       2001                                                                        2011

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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



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

    Subj: Is Everyone Safe????

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

    From: (Liz)

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

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

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

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


                                                               F-Train Window 2002

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

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

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

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


    2001                                                              2011

  • Op-Eds

    From Bensonhurst to Oslo and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Op-Eds

    The "Right" to Marry

    I haven't been blogging for the past few months because I have been writing a book Seeing Cities Change for Ashgate that should be out by December. It seems, however, that no one has missed me and my missives. Then today I got a Facebook message from Otto Capelli asking:

    What's your take on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill the New York State Senate just passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law?

    Everyone seems to be talking now about the new New York State law that gives non-heterosexual couples the right to get married, but to me it is really about belatedly and bregrudgingly recognizing homosexuals as what they are --- ordinary people. Unfortunately the equal rights of my friends, neighbors, and relatives seemed to be dependent upon wealthy Republicans with Libertarian points of view who also support the idea that those who have shouldn't pay taxes to help those that don't. So I am very happy for my friends, neighbors, and relatives but at the same time regret that our Governor Andrew Cuomo has an easier time asking rich people for help to give homosexuals their due than asking rich people to pay their fair share of New York State's expenses. It is these same rich people who have done so well during the fiscal crisis, even though they caused it by disregarding the rest of us, straight and not. The "victory" has also stimulated more buzzing about Andy as a Presidential candidate, but I wonder which party he will best fit into. If truth be told, and it seldom is, if I were a registered Republican, I would vote for him in the Republican Presidential Primary over Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney but as a Democrat he would be hard sell, even to what's left of liberal Italian Americans.

    As to the gay rights to riches story, my first search yielded this one by Ujala Sehgal who in

    Rich Repubilicans Given the Credit for Legalizing Gay Marriage, wrote about Michael Barbaro's "blockbuster" article in The New York Times

    "... on the behind-the-scene story of how the gay marriage law was passed in New York. He suggests that on the surface, the story of gay marriage may be about about 'shifting public sentiment' and 'emotional appeals from gay couples.' But behind this optimistic picture, it was really about 'top Republican moneymen helping a Democratic rival with one of his biggest legislative goals.'

    But the donors in the room — the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Daniel Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure. And they were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.

    Within days, the wealthy Republicans sent back word: They were on board. Each of them cut six-figure checks to the lobbying campaign that eventually totaled more than $1 million."

               Now if only Andy could prevail upon his rich buddies to pay their fair share of taxes so the children of LBTG couples and singles could look forward to the opportunity for affordable decent education, housing, and medical care. How about the elderly LBTG who rely on Medicaid? How about the jobless and homeless LBTG? After reading Mureen Dowd's Op-Ed "Utopia on the Hudson" in the Times this morning in which Himself described himself as "an aggressive progressive" who thinks straight, or not, liberals have to reorient themselves toward a government with goals and effective service, rather than big government, I say "Lots of luck."; especially after his gubernatorial coming out, which Dowd noted, was as a socially liberal fiscal conservative pushing through an "austerity" budget that capped property taxes, and saved everyone from the poor to the zillionaires from paying more State income tax (he said facetiously). 


  • Op-Eds

    Anti-Italian Bias: Surreal or Not Surreal, That is the Question

    Recently I spoke at the Calandra Italian American Institute about my essay “Shark Tale—“Puzza da Cap’” in Bill Connell and Fred Gardaphe's Anti-Italianism Essays on a Prejudice. And, almost every time I speak about the besmirched reputation of the ethnic group to which I accidentally belong, I reflect on how little things have changed since, at least according to Connell, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately,  blaming The Bard for anti-Italian bias is like blaming God for snowstorms. Curse Him/Her if you wish but you still have to shovel your way out, and if you die in the process you'll go to where you'll wish it was still snowing.

    Apropos of painful thoughts, much of the bad opinion people have of Italians and Italian Americans emanates from the antics of a few members of the groups in question. The fact is that WE (NOI) do lots of stupid and, occasionally, even really bad stuff. However, there is a real issue of discrimination, which is that just about the only news we get to read about US (NOI), outside of the Italian American ethnic press such as OGGI, seems to be bad news, and despite aphorisms to the contrary, all publicity is not good publicity. For example, Italians and Italian Americans are hardly ever front-page news in the American media, which usually have more important things to squawk about in the first six pages such as The Oscars and Afghanistan. So when last week I was greeted by two mega-stories that concerned my Italian roots in the “all the news that’s fit to print“ paper  I was, to say the least, nonplused. (Sconcertato). The first story was the round-up of 125 of my alleged friends and relatives by “de Feds” (as we say). Lucky for me most of the guys from the seven families are being detained in Brooklyn so I don’t have to travel very far to visit. 
    Charges include murder, as well as “the more run-of-the-mill" stuff like racketeering, extortion, loan-sharking, money laundering, gambling, etc. according to William K. Rashbaum. “Names from mob lore" included former Patriarca boss Luigi Manocchio, 83, who it was said "dressed in women’s clothing to avoid capture decades ago.” "Baby Shacks" was arrested in Florida for shaking down strip clubs back home in Providence, R.I. The sweep employed almost a thousand federal, state and local agents who targeted small-time bookmakers, shakedown artists, mob middle managers, and 34 "made members" of New York’s  Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luchese along with a few from other families in New Jersey and New England.
    U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that the mob is weakened, and probably not national in scope but was still a major threat “to the economic well-being of this country.”
    Closer to home the alleged crimes include defrauding New York City in connection with La Festa di Santa Rosalia in Bensonhurst. In Manhattan, 26 Gambinos were charged with racketeering, extortion, assault, arson and (for 30 years) marijuana and cocaine trafficking. These mob roundups are a kind of decennial ritual for law enforcement; like the annual roundup of bookies here in the Big Apple a week or so before the Super Bowl that forces the cops, judges and prosecutors to make their bets on-line. It is not surprising that so many of these mob guys are aging members of the least successful groups. One seldom hears about all the moguls of Italian descent in the finance industry. Then again, given the recent economic crisis perhaps we don't want to talk about that either.
    The other big story was about the randy role model Italian politician "Surreal - A Soap Opera Starring Berlusconi" by Rachel Donadio  


    "KARIMA EL-MAHROUG, the beautiful 18-year-old nightclub dancer nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heart-Stealer) at the center of a sex scandal involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, went on television last week to explain herself. As her gripping testimony, décolletage and muted leopard-print top drove up ratings on a channel owned by Mr. Berlusconi, Ms. Mahroug said she had never had sex with him — “He never even laid a finger on me” — and never asked for 5 million euros ($6.7 million) to keep quiet. “I’m capable of exaggerating, but not that,” she said. Nor, she said, had she ever worked as a prostitute, although she did say Mr. Berlusconi gave her 7,000 euros in cash after the first party she attended at his house (when they were introduced, she said, “Hi, I’m Ruby, and I’m 24,” she recalled)." Ruby was not perturbed by her voice on wiretaps saying she had been going to Silvio's  parties since she was 16.

    Donadio seemed surprised that Italians are rather blase about Berlusconi's 17 year-long performance. If she really understood Italy, she would have known that the term "surreal' is inappropriate for Italian politics as Berlusconi’s conduct is hardly: bizarre, fantastic, dreamlike, unreal, odd, weird, strange (surreale, bizzarro, fantastico, dreamlike, irreale, dispari, bizzarro, sconosciuto)

    What IS (E) surreal was that while Ruby's sexy interview and cleavage captured headlines in the US and Italy, Berlusconi’s straight-laced political opponents were hosting Gary Hart at a meeting during the ‘crisis’: ROME - The Lingotto. L'obiettivo dell'appuntamento convocato oggi a Torino da Walter Veltroni sembra molto lontano dalla semplice riunione di area. Vuole essere una convention, una kermesse dove tutto il Partito democratico possa ritrovarsi. Dopo Veltroni parleranno Gentiloni, Chiamparino, Civati, Salvati e Soru. Prenderanno la parola anche Gary Hart e Anthony Giddens. (The purpose of the meeting convened today in Turin by Walter Veltroni was more than a simple assembly. He wants it to be a convention, a festival where all those in the DP might reunite. After Veltroni will speak Gentolini, Chiamparino, Salvati e Soru. Also, saying some words will be Gary Hart and Anthnoy Giddens.)

    Even more surreal is the fact that Silvio and his minions have based much of their popular appeal in Italy on anti-immigrant, anti-african, anti-Moslem rhetoric, therefore "Sleeping with the Enemy" might have been a more appropriate title for Donadio's missive about the Morrocan-born teenager who stole his heart.

    Finally, the connection between bad news about Italians in America and Italy could not be made any stronger than by the most recent installment of the saga of “Jersey Shore” which is a kind of Shark Tale for immature adults of all ethnic persuasions. Three perfectly timed parallel stories about this no class, low-class show caught my attention as they well served the public relations firm looking to attract more brainless viewers.

    The First was "Jersey Shore" cast to embarrass Italian Americans" by Linda Stasi in the Post which, given the Post's generally anti-cerebral readership, even though Stasi's piece is superbly anti-Jersey Shore, is a perfect fit for the "any publicity is good publicity" bit.

    Just when the Italians were finally getting over the barbarian sacking of Rome 1,600 years ago, a bunch of invaders so savage they make Visigoths look like a marauding army of Helen Mirrens are headed their way.

    The Guidos are coming! The Guidos are coming! Hide your children! Hide your spouses! Hide your hair gel. The second fall of the Roman Empire is upon us.
    Yes, in the latest, ever-expanding racist portrayal of Italian-Americans on TV as brain-damaged house pets, the half-wits of "Jersey Shore" are being sent "back" to the old country to strut their stuff and embarrass all us normal Italian-Americans who are tarred with their tanning brushes....

    But to TV suits, stereotyping Italian-Americans as ill-mannered pigs has proven to be a very profitable win-win. After all, what do they have to worry about -- the Mafia?
    Weren't they all arrested last week.

    The second reaction to the same press release was "Jersey Shore" season four move to Italy is a "freak show" enrages Italian American group UNICO" by Joyce Chen in the Daily News
    Italian-American group UNICO National calls the 'Jersey Shore' cast move to Italy a 'freak show.'
    Not everyone is thrilled that the rowdy residents of Seaside Heights are invading European shores.
    UNICO National, an Italian-American watchdog group, is up in arms over MTV's recent announcement that the "Jersey Shore" guidos and guidettes are taking on Italy for the fourth season of the show.

    "It will not only hurt Italians but all Americans," a rep from the interest group told TMZ. "Their outrageous, reprehensible behavior will make us look like buffoons and bimbos."
    Added the group: "People used to go to the circus to see the freak show - that is what this will be."

    MTV announced Tuesday that the hit reality show will be shooting its next bout of GTL in Europe this spring, with the show airing later this year.
    The network insists that the continent-hopping is necessary for the successful show to evolve... Members of the "Jersey Shore" clan are nervous about their trek to Italy as well."I'm excited to see my roots," Pauly D told MTV News "I have family in Italy, but I don't speak with them since I don't know the language. My mother still talks to them, though. [And] I know Vinny has family there. But none of us have ever been. It's gonna be fun."....

    Finally (finalmente)  "Jersey Shore arriva in Italia, con uno strascio do polemiche," needs no translation because you already read it in English. "Sara girata in Italia la quarta edizione di "Jersey Shore", il discusso reality trasmesso da Mtv sui giovani (coatti) italo-americani.... etcetera, etcetera  (blah, blah) " Come ho detto prima, quanto agli italiani ed agli Americani italiani, tutta la pubblicità non è buona pubblicità.

  • Op-Eds

    Andrew Cuomo: Coffee, Tea, or Cappuccino?

              With all the national attention on whether the Tea Partyniks have surpassed the Coffee Partyniks in the House of Representatives and elsewhere in the U.S. political landscape, few seemed to have noticed that the Executive Branch of New York State's government has just been almost taken over by Italian Americans in the corporeal form of Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo and State Comptroller-elect Thomas DiNapoli. This turn of events is something that I am very happy about, but for very different reasons than most voters. The best thing about Cuomo and DiNapoli is that they both also ran on the Working Families Party line. Cuomo put the Working Families Party in row “D,” or fourth favored placement, for the next general election. Also good news for those Italian Americans concerned about the natural, as opposed to political, climate in New York State was the “victory of Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins who garnered more than the 50,000 votes needed to give the Green Party a guaranteed line on state ballots during the next four years. Howie Hawkins is, I think, not Italian however.


                 On the other hand Italian Americans, who are receiving a State pension, should rejoice in DiNapoli's victory as the sole trustee for the $129 billion State pension fund that is one of the world's largest. Not only was his Republican opponent a non-Italian, he also offered his Wall Street experience as a positive qualification for investment advice. Finally, DiNapoli is the only state-wide candidate who listed his membership in the Sons of Italy as part of his biography (Member, Sons of Italy, 1983-present) at Project vote Smart. 


    Given the unfortunate hot breakfast drink metaphors brewed to simplify the already simple-minded partisan political debate in American politics, I use the Cappuccino logo to ask: “What does this all mean for New York State’s Italian Americans?" My guess is that, like his father Mario, Andy Cuomo knows he owes little to the Italian American voter. Since there are few exit pollsters who thought to ask Italian American voters for whom they voted, it would be necessary to do our own poll or to look at the county or assembly district data. Even before looking I would have bet that Italian Americans (especially the men) voted for Carl Paladino and that this would be indicated by Italian American districts having margins much lower than the 2-1 for Cuomo's Statewide average. State-wide elections are won and lost in the New York City Metropolitan area.  Since we know from exit polls that 90% of blacks and 85% of Latinos voted for Andy, we can pretty confidently surmise that the Cuomo vote was shared among the racial and ethnic “rest of the electorate.” The final nail in the "Italian American vote for Andy" effort can be teased out of the returns for New York City and its Suburban Counties which clearly show that the more Italian Americans there are the less the vote went for Cuomo. The Richmond County (Staten Island) vote is most informative. Staten Island was only place in the Big Apple where the Republican Party won a congressional seat. There Michael Grimm got 51% of the vote and the Democrat Michael McMahon got 48%; despite moving so far to the right that you would think he was Silvio Berlusconi or even Roberto Maroni.



         % Italian-American Population                    % Vote for Cuomo    % Vote for Paladino

                 37.7     Richmond  (Staten Island)                     57                              40

                 28.8     Suffolk                                                   57                              38

                 23.9     Nassau                                                   60                              36

                 20.8     Westchester                                            64                              31

                   8.4     Queens                                                  76                               19

                   7.5      Kings   (Brooklyn)                               78                               16

                   5.5      New York  (Manhattan)                        83                              10

                   5.2      Bronx  (The Bronx)                              86                                9



    In the New York City press, Cuomo and Paladino were contrasts. For simplicity, I’ll limit this piece to the Times where, for example, it seemed that Paladino was forged in Italy and Cuomo in Italian America. Obviously ethnic terms like “Italy” or “Italian” or “immigrant” were not frequently used, but many stories had emotional references such as "passion." One particular article was crammed with the ethnic crap, evidently to make up the difference. This despite the fact that, as I had shown in a previous I-Italy article, neither was especially active in Italian or Italian American causes.


    In New York Governor Race, Two Italian Identities by MICHAEL BARBARO told prospective voters that:


    “Strategy sessions have been held at a restaurant called Sinatra’s. “Sopranos”-style gold chains have shown up in campaign advertisements. Ethnic-tinged terms, like “goumada,” and wisecracks about Sicilian grudges have been bandied about. And television news crews from Italy have descended on the candidates.


    In the raucous race for governor of New York this year between Andrew M. Cuomo and Carl P. Paladino, an unexpected debate is mesmerizing the Italian-American community and increasingly spilling out into public view: Is the contest shattering long-held ethnic stereotypes or reinforcing them?”


    More nuanced contrasts come from two other articles. The New York Times Magazine article “The Making of Andrew Cuomo” by Jonathan Mahler starts with:


    “LAST MONTH, ANDREW Cuomo took some time off from his job as New York’s attorney general, rented a recreational vehicle and drove upstate with his three daughters on an 11-day campaign swing with a little family vacation mixed in: “Camp Campaign” is how Cuomo joked about it with me. The trip infelicitously coincided with what turned out to be a historic heat wave across New York, and he couldn’t get the R.V.’s air-conditioning to work. At his first stop, a community college in Rockland County, Cuomo emerged from the Gulf Stream, his blazer slung uncharacteristically over his shoulder and a bead or two of sweat on his forehead, calling his new vehicle “a toaster oven on wheels.”


    And ends with:


    “Spitzer, ever the prosecutor, relished the role of combative crusader. Cuomo is casting himself as a very different sort of character. During our conversations about the Legislature, he repeatedly quoted a homespun homily — “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar” — from his grandfather Andrea, a grocer who came to America by boat from Southern Italy. “Everybody is bracing for a confrontation,” Cuomo told me. “I don’t believe there’s going to be a confrontation. The Legislature doesn’t want trouble. They want good news from a P.R. point of view. They need redemption. They need a friend. Eliot could have been their best friend. I think I can be their best friend.”’



    On the other hand, Gaia Pianigini’s “A Village in Italy Embraces Paladino” article starts with:


    “SANTA CROCE DI MAGLIANO, Italy — To many in this hilltop village in southern Italy, Carl P. Paladino is simply known as “O’Mericano,” or the American.

    Most of the town’s 4,876 residents do not spend much time on the Internet and know little about United States politics. But word of mouth travels fast, and when the news hit that Mr. Paladino, whose family left here in 1926, was running to be governor of New York, residents were excited."


    And ends with:


    "Mr. Paladino’s Democratic opponent, Andrew M. Cuomo, also has roots in Italy, in a town not far from Naples. But in rural areas of Italy, the connection to the local soil is more important than bonds of nationality.

    As Teodoro Colombo, 75, a retired construction worker from Santa Croce, put it, “We always like our paesani better.”


                Although Andy’s victory may create a political dynasty by being the first son of a New York governor to be elected to that office (his dad appointed me to the New York State Council for the Humanities), what I especially don’t like about the younger Cuomo’s campaign was his ineloquent, use of Tea Party rhetoric, especially since most of his life has been subsidized in one way or another by taxpayers of one sort or another. To rail against government workers and unions makes me, a pensioner, shudder. In the past, New York State has made good use of our pension funds to borrow from as a last resort. My pension funded the state out of its last near bankruptcy and will probably be called upon again to do the same, involuntarily. The State is in financial trouble not because it gave out too much but because, in its wisdom, it collected too little and gave out rebates and reductions like a drunken sailor. New York City also mimicked President Bushes reckless tax cuts and over the years gave up potential sources of revenue such as the Stock Transfer Tax, carelessly abated Real Estate taxes, and lent public money to private groups to buy up public assets as a way to assuage individuals and corporations who threatened to move to places like New Jersey.


    Public unions also allowed the State and City to defer payments into the fund while the stock market was rising (the value of the variable funds rose with the market so the argument was there was less need to make payments) with the promise of making it up in the future when the market, and the value of fund, declined. Of course you can trust politicians to keep their promises…he said jokingly. Everyone knows that the unemployment rate is rising because governments are firing workers and I am sure that the fired workers are not the friends and relatives of those in office.  One needs to be reminded that Government is the only employer who takes back part of the wages it pays out and that our previous mischievous State Comptroller, Alan Hevesi’s plea deal allows him to keep his felonious pension while workers whose pensions were undermined by his actions may lose theirs. 

    Since I began this essay with a bad food analogy, I am obliged to do the same at the end. In celebration of the end of the election season, Michael Barbaro in The New York Times announced:“Out With the Lamb Chops and In With the Lasagna” November 3, 2010 and explained that the former Governor David A. Paterson’s  “Favorite Meal” was “Lamb chops” and the new guy, Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Favorite Meal” was “Lasagna” with the parenthetic remark  “(Just don’t ask whose is better: his mother’s or his girlfriend’s.)” Given our own ethnic hyper-sensitivities we should be glad that, for comparison's sake, David didn’t like fried chicken. One final note, this election must have been a boon for Italian and Italian American journalists. I have never seen so many such bylines in The Times.

  • Op-Eds

    Blame it on Columbus

    I often wonder whether there is a particular place in the Columbus Day Parade for half or other “not quite” Italians, like the space in Limbo where the un-baptized have to wait for the Second Coming of Christ. I know there are lots of non-Italians who participate but they must be specially invited guests. Since I know Italians are very status conscious, who gets to lead the parade has got to be very important. The prominenti of various professional and cultural fields are probably first to step off and then comes the rest (il resto di loro). As Italian region seems to make a big difference to many, I wonder whether Northern Italians are first or last in line --- and what about the Sicilians? This year I understand that in honor of "Meet the Breeds," a group of Italian canines also marched in the parade. They included Bergamasco, Bracco Italiano, Cane Corso, Cirneco dell’Etna, Lagotto Ramagnolo, Neapolitan Mastiff and Spinone Italiano. I would have hated to march behind this pack of Italians.

    Although, at the special invitation of a Turkish friend and colleague I have marched down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in the Turkish Day Parade with the "Turkish American Professionals" group, I have never been similarly invited, or even encouraged, to march in the Columbus Day Parade despite having been Director of the Center for Italian American Studies at Brooklyn College, President of the American Italian Historical Association, as well as Vice-President of the American Italian Coalition of Organizations Inc. To be honest (per essere onesto), even if I was given a very special invitation I probably wouldn’t have gone this year anyhow. I should note that I have never mentioned my Turkish Day parade credentials to my Armenian friends.

    Although I can be considered left-leaning, for me the controversy over the role that Christopher “C” played in despoiling the Western Hemisphere is not the only issue. I am sure that if Eric Kasum who wrote “Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery” in the Huffington Post was there, it was on the sidewalks shouting obscenities at the marchers. According to Kasum, the gentle, honest, and open native peoples impressed Cristoforo so much that he “seized their land enslaved them to work in his brutal gold mines, sold 9 year-old girls as sex slaves, cut off workers’ hands, ears and noses of resistant slaves, burned escapees alive, and most horrific of all “If the Spaniards ran short of meat to feed the dogs, Arawak babies were killed for dog food (ucciso per l'alimento di cane).”  A much more charitable view of Columbus Day is provided by Bill Connell who wrote in The American Scholar:

    "When thinking about the Columbus Day holiday it helps to remember the good intentions of the people who put together the first parade in New York. Columbus Day was first proclaimed a national holiday by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, 400 years after Columbus’s first voyage. The idea, lost on present-day critics of the holiday, was that this would be a national holiday that would be special for recognizing both Native Americans, who were here before Columbus, and the many immigrants–including Italians–who were just then coming to this country in astounding numbers." Or Fred Gardaphe here at I-Italy who said a few years ago: " However, Columbus, like many figures of history, has outlived his usefulness for all Americans, but for Italian Americans he continues to represent the struggle their immigrant forbearers overcame in becoming Americans. I am here to tell you that we do not need to depend on Columbus’ story if we 1) tell our stories, and 2) incorporate those stories into the history of the United States."

    For me going to the parade is more a problem of being associated with other more and less honorable, or despicable, Italian American characters who tend to show up at such events. I started thinking about this while watching RAI Television News (Telegiornale) on Channel 63 and heard someone singing the song “Maria” from Westside Story to this year’s Grand Marshall Maria Bartiromo. Obviously no Italians lost money in the stock market since she has been hosting CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” Her Sophia Lorenesque looks obviously make up for the bad investment advice, or perhaps they (the men at least) don't notice. I was also not very entertained by a troupe of what looked like little people tossing pizza dough (piccoli pizzaioli?). I understand that there was also an appearance of Pinocchio (Pinnochio) at the ethnofest; probably preceding politicians proudly pandering for the non-existent “Italian vote.”

    I must take the time here to apologize here for my recent blog entry; “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, Vote for the Guy whose Name Ends in ‘O,’” that was so far off the mark. It was only belatedly, and regrettably, that I discovered Carl Pasquale Paladino as a candidate in November for captaining the New York Empire ship of state. For me he was an afterthought, way behind Rick Lazio, for the Republican Party nomination. Like America was for Columbus, an unknown wild and dangerous continent (continente selvaggio e pericoloso) that lay between two known worlds, Carl emerged just at the point in the electoral season when we thought (hoped) it was almost over. As might be expected, both Paladino and Cuomo were an essential part of THE parade and both got more press coverage after the event then did Columbus after he got back from "The New World."

                I was going to entitle this essay “Vote for Cuomo not the Homophobe (Voto per Cuomo non il Omofobo)” in deference to the really nasty campaign that created a storm when Andy’s dad Mario was running (and losing) against his old nemesis Edward I. Koch for NYC Mayor in 1977. In that campaign rumors were spread about Cuomo and the mafia on one hand, and Koch’s sexual preferences on the other. Andy was, if I remember correctly, one of his dad’s campaign managers. Both warring camps denied their excesses and, as in the current campaign, the candidates personally apologized for things they said they had no knowledge of. The "Cuomo-Homo" bit was so important that The Gothamist reported that “Mario Cuomo Patched Things Up With Ed Koch For Andrew. ” In the story Koch, for his part, told Esquire "The signs said, VOTE FOR CUOMO, NOT THE HOMO. Andrew says he didn't do it, and I believe him. Mario says he thinks he now knows who did it. I was very angry at the time. Primary races always end in anger. They're different than the general election: They're like a civil war — it's brother against brother. But I've forgiven them. I'm eighty-five now, and grudges take your energy away. I've forgiven them all."

    Sadly, the name-calling wasn’t the worst part of the 1977 election… it was Koch winning it. Koch ran as a clean reformer but during his tenure in City Hall we got more scandals than one could shake a stick at (più scandali che uno potrebbe agitare un bastone a). According to Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett's City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York (Harper & Row): “When he was elected mayor in 1977 Koch's reputation rested on his anti-machine credentials. But by 1982, he was kicking off an ill-fated gubernatorial campaign with a press conference flanked by Democratic party bosses-Bronx boss Stanley Friedman …” who was convicted in 1987 for bribery and racketeering, Queens boss Donald Manes who committed suicide in 1986 while under investigation, and Meade Esposito who was convicted in 1988 for bribing Congressman Mario Biaggi.

    Accusations have also flown back and forth about Paladino’s and Cuomo’s real and imagined scandalous moral lapses in business and politics. Naturally it is sex that gets the most attention. From the prurient interest angle we have on the one hand Carl trumpeting Andy’s alleged infidelity, and loudly condemning same sex sex as well as same sex marriage. On the other hand we have the Cuomo campaign pretending not to notice Paladino’s own extramarital sexual exploits of the “normal” kind. Unlike Fox News, The New York Post, and The World Street Journal I don’t pretend to be fair and balanced (giusto ed equilibrato) when it comes to the world in which I live. There are lots of people, Italian American and otherwise who are telling me that they have some difficulty voting for Andrew Cuomo in this New York State Gubernatorial election. As I have often said, if you can’t find something to like about Mario and Andy, then do it for Matilda.

  • Op-Eds

    Ground Zero Mosque: Ramadan Mobarak!

    I wrote this blog a few weeks ago but the intolerance is growing so I thought I'd add a new note about "Park51," "Cordoba House," "the Islamic cultural, community center," and, of course "place of worship," (mosque) that its proposers and supporters (like myself) believed (hoped) would promote peace and understanding.

    The most venomous blabber so far has been the Newt's equating of Moslems to NAZIs and 9/11 to the Shoah. Given his recently reported conversion to Roman Catholicism, I assume the next Newt revision is the Inquisition and the Crusades and then, I assume, there is more to come. In Europe such Newtish hate mongering gets quickly labeled neo- or not-so-neo-Fascism. Here in the USA it simply gets iterated to the point of Foxy "fair and balanced" "facts". Research showing that almost half of the population thinks Obama is both a terrestrial alien as well as a crypto-Moslem is to be expected given the pointed stupidity that passes for "media" commentary.

    Nationwide, the media is carrying stories of objections to anything that reminds even reasonable people of Islam. Having many Moslem friends and having benefited if not been blessed by their courtesy and hospitality, I would be remiss if I didn't comment on what is becoming an incredible embarrassment for people like me who try to proudly represent America to foreigners here and abroad.

    Now that "THE" Mosque has cleared another hurdle when the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee decided not to landmark the structure to be torn down to make way for "THE" Mosque in Lower Manhattan I thought I might cut and paste and edit here some brief remarks I wrote in response to an excellent New York Times essay "A Mosque Maligned" By ROBERT WRIGHT.

    He started his piece with: "Just to show you how naïve I am: When I first heard about the plan to build a mosque and community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks, I didn’t envision any real opposition to it."

    My comment is as follows:

    A far more serious threat to the usually 'tolerant' climate of New York City is the real, but mostly imaginary, insults used by intolerance mongers to sell one or another politically partisan product such as a plethora of pandering candidates for local or statewide office. The disingenuous mongers, such as those found at The Weekly Standard, can also be found in local weeklies where they are enraged at Moslems wanting a place to worship that might challenge the hegemony of a newly minted 'Judeo-Christian New York.'

    I note this in re: the oldies but goodies in NYC and elsewhere as to outrages over Christian bells disturbing non-Christian ears, and eruvs enclosing non-Jews. I guess we should be grateful for the pseudo-Judeo-Christian coalition as perhaps, had it occurred some decades earlier, there would not have been a need for the Holocaust Museum near to the WTC that should shame the intolerant into respectful silence.

    Perhaps we need 'father' Charles Coughlin or 'rabbi' Meir Kahane to revisit the Big Apple to remind us of how far we thought we had come baby. Other than requiring a trip to Mecca before we die and accepting Mohammed as 'The' Prophet, almost all of us are supported (more or less) by the other pillars of Islam... belief in one god for all, charity, fasting, and prayers. Like Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and myriad other believers and nonbelievers alike, Moslems do not need a big building in which to worship; anyplace, anywhere. But NYC and New Yorkers do need to demonstrate the tolerance for which we are noted and which is the real threat to al qaeda and all the others in this world who can't tolerate tolerance.

    I hope that by August 11 (the start of Ramadan) I'll see in The Times a report on the schedule for building the mosque and a photo of the ecumenical collection of leaders (with shovels in their hands). I won't read what The Standard (or the Foxers) will have to say about it, as it has long been far below my own standards of intelligent 'commentary.'

    ps: I can't wait to see how Sarah Palin and Dan "Kwail's" son spell Ramadan mobarak.

  • Op-Eds

    Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, Vote for the Guy Whose Name Ends in “O.”

    I hope one is not offended by my poetic title "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, vote for the guy whose name ends in 'O.'"

    I assumed that since Andy Cuomo and Rick Lazio have thrown their relatively large hats into the ring in an effort to replace one of the most inept unelected governors in the history of New York State, David Paterson, that I might be called upon to comment on this Italian American embarrassment of riches. So I did Boolean searches on Google to determine who deserves half of my ethnic vote.  Boolean searches allow you to combine words and phrases using the words AND, OR, NOT and NEAR to limit, widen, or define your search. They are statements that mimic Venn diagrams that show all hypothetically possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets. (Pardon the pedantry but it's what I do for a living.)

    First I combined the name “Rick Lazio” AND “Italian.” This combination produced “About 3,730 results (0.24 seconds).”  When I discovered that “Rick” was really “Enrico,” I did “Enrico Anthony Lazio”  AND “Italian” and got “About 24 results (0.57 seconds).”  I then gave “Andy Cuomo” the same Boolean treatment and got “About 535 results (0.34 seconds)” and “Andrew Cuomo” for “About 42,700 results (0.29 seconds).” As a control variable I did “Jerry Krase” as well as “Jerome Krase” which gave me about 12,200 results (0.35 seconds) and About 6,400 results (0.37 seconds) respectively. I am sure that "Andrew"’s results were skewed by his ethnically notable papa (Mario) and especially his mama (Matilda).

    Since I know that there is a big difference between being “Italian” and “Italian American” (because my Italian friends are constantly saying so), I repeated the process with the hyphenated version of Italianita with similar result. If I take out the "Cuomo" family name factor from "Andy/Andrew," it is clear that I did better than both of them put together. This makes me more of an Italian and/or Italian American kind of person than either of them, and therefore more deserving of the non-existent Italian American block vote. Unfortunately, I am not running.

    It’s not unusual for Italian American politicians seeking higher (as opposed to local) office to keep their Italianita under the bushel; that is unless they are playing an especially local ethnic role on a larger stage such as did United States Senator “Pot Hole” Al (Alphonse Marcello) D’Amato, or showing operatic oratory passion as did Mario C.. Italianita doesn’t play well on the national political stage despite the numerous Italian Americans one can find thereupon from Alito to Pelosi and back again; although it is fun to watch them trying to act Italian while meeting with the various Italian (in)dignitaries who visit our shores upon occasion.

    Both deracinated Rick and Andy are presenting themselves not as Italo-ethnics but as tough-minded, prosecutorial, level-headed budget cutters. They seem to be emulating the campaign of British-born immigrant Abraham David Beame whose ethnically provocative campaign slogan  “he knows the buck”  got him elected Mayor in 1973 so he could use his lack of business acumen to lead The Big Apple into near-bankruptcy. After showing that he actually didn't know the buck he came in third to Edward I. Koch, and Mario Cuomo  (“not the homo”) respectively in the 1977 Democratic Party primary.

    Part of the fiscal tough guy stance of both Rick and Andy is their public animus toward those on government payrolls. Although it is laudable, it is also laughable since both of them spent most of their adult life at that same trough in one way or another. Rick’s first job after law school was as a prosecutor in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office and proceeded onward and upward from there to the U.S. Congress. He only left the cushy House after his failed try for the even cushier Senate against Hillary Clinton. Even more ironic as to calling for fiscal austerity and responsibility, when Enrico got off the dole he enlisted with J.P. Morgan Chase, which knew the buck as well as Abe, and had to be bailed out by 25 billion taxpayer TARP dollars. Andy’s dependence on public generosity is two generations long as he served in his father’s campaign and then on dad’s Governor staff in 1983. He went on from there to other public service work such as with David Dinkins' New York City Homeless Commission, Assistant Secretary of HUD in 1993, and now as New York State Attorney General. 

    I should also note that both candidates have had what each of them recognize as some ‘minor’ ethical/legal issues raised about them. However, when they talk about each other the 'minor' issues become 'major" ones. In my opinion, their ethical challenges are more likely political smoke and vindictiveness than real fire. In fact, if someone is in office and hasn't been accused of something it means they haven't done anything while in office. Despite the fact that they are, for elected officials, pretty clean, they are certain to sling as much mud at each other as they can.

    As to disclosure, I must admit that the only one of the two candidates with whom I have been in reasonable proximity is Andy whose company I did not have the pleasure of when I was active in Brooklyn electoral politics in the campaigns of Major Owens for Congress and Mario Cuomo for Governor in 1982 doing a kind of liaison job between the two campaigns. Andy had a reputation as a “take no prisoners” campaigner, a personality trait that has served him well as Attorney General (unfortunately as it also did for Elliot Spitzer). My friend Azi Paybarah reminded me recently in the New York Observer that Cuomo and Lazio weren't always opponents. Azi playfully wrote:


    "On August 12, 2004, a caller to a Westchester radio show was speaking at length about politics with the two guest hosts, when the caller wondered aloud: When will America have an Italian-American president?

    'Soon as Rick runs,' said one of the hosts, referring to the other host, Rick Lazio.

    The other host? Andrew Cuomo."


    The idea of Italian Americans rooting for other Italian Americans because they are Italian American is a foreign notion in America. Not so, it seems, for Italians rooting for Italians because they are Italians. I watched in jealous amazement as Francesca Schiavone beat Samantha Stosur in the French Open to win her (and Italy's) first Grand Slam women's championship. What impressed me most was the Italians in the stands who moaned and cheered with every lost and won point. When it was over, Francesca kissed the clay and climbed into the stands for the kind of touching and kissing fest that I dreaded as a child while visiting the Sicilian relatives. As heart-warming as the scene was, such ethnocentricism is terrible for electoral politics, but not of course for supporting Italian and Italian American  educational and cultural efforts. In this regard Cuomo is tops, Matilda that is.

    Allow me to digress. A few evenings ago, the phone rang while my wife was working in the study and I was lying on my back on the floor watching Blade Runner for the umpteenth time. Since she was less indisposed then I, she picked up and called out that it was “Jim.” Unable to make out what she was saying because I was so engrossed with Joanna Cassidy’s lack of costume, she brought the phone to me. "Jim" is a friend who is also a leading, “progressive,” Democrat member of the New York State Assembly with whom I have worked on several projects. After exchange of pleasantries, he asked if I would carry nominating petitions for him. He knew the answer. People in politics seldom ask questions for which they don’t already know the answer. My wife and my children are all active in one way or another in politics. My wife’s family, about which I have often written, was much more political than mine. They were “Regular” Democrats. My politics were anti-Regular Democrats. It wasn’t a marriage made in political heaven but over time we learned to "get along." The point is, neither Andy or Rick is going to call me and ask me to do something because I am more active in Italian and Italian American affairs than are they. If they call me at all, it will because I can do something for them and if I do something for them, I expect them to do something for me and mine. That's my advice to Italians, Italian Americans, and everyone else. Support the candidate who will make the world better for you and your children, even if they don't speak Italian and have no idea who Carlo Tresca, or Carlo Levi, was.

    PS: I should note that another person with an Italian sounding name, Carl Paladino, it seems, is also a candidate for governor, and may go the petition route to get the G.O.P. line. FYI: I also beat him in both the Boolean searches.  Andy,  Rick (and Carl) may also appear on a long list of other lines on the ballot such as the Conservative, Right to Life, Tea, Working Families, Independence, and Green among many other parties.



  • Op-Eds

    Obama and Political Color Blindness – Not!

    Someone asked me the other day if I really thought that the Republican Party’s lockstep opposition to virtually anything proposed by Obama has anything to do with race so I decided to use 14th century English logician, theologian, and Franciscan friar William of Occam's razor to make my case in the affirmative. Occam’s razor is a meta-theoretical principle that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem) and thereof the simplest solution is usually the correct one. In other words, does Charlie Daniels play a mean fiddle? Is Too Tall Jones too tall? Do bears relieve themselves in the woods? Does Sarah Palin look great in leather even when standing next to an oh so pathetically pandering one time maverick John McCain before a crowd of Tea Partyniks? Occam would agree that if from coast to coast the words “race” and “Obama” seem inseparable, then they are so.


    Occam would need only a dull blade for David Paul Kuhn in the Los Angeles Times who noted that Democrats are losing White men. And an even duller one for New York GOP governor hopeful Carl Paladino who is under fire for sending out racist, trashy e-mails. According to Celeste Katz and Kenneth Lovett at the Daily News the renegade sent a string of racist and smutty e-mails to pals and associates ranging from screeds against Barack to videos of naked ladies, as well as racist rants, hard-core porn and a video clip involving bestiality. In one, an African tribal dance is labeled an "Obama inauguration rehearsal."

    Paladino has also offended recently elected New York State Senator Diane Savino who didn't find "Guido" offensive re: "Jersey Shore" but she drew the line with "dago." Evidently Carl used the term in a 2008 interview with The Buffalo News. To Savino the fact that Paladino (along with un/announced gubernatorial candidates Rick Lazio and Andrew Cuomo) is Italian-American is especially galling. "If I wanted to watch Italian Americans act like buffoons, I'd watch 'Jersey Shore,'" Savino said. "I don't want to see it in the governor's mansion...I was appalled when I saw that. And you know what's even more appalling? Nobody else seems appalled. Where's the outrage?"


    Let’s be real. Even the more and less rabid of the right-wing media know it when there is an 800 pound gorilla in the room and have no problem calling a spade a spade when the kettle is black. Take for example, syndicated right-leaning Pilipino-American pundit of color Michele Malkin, who Wikipedia claims went home crying to her mother when children called her a racist name. Mom, allegedly, comforted her saying “everyone has prejudice” for which she has been “eternally grateful.” No doubt because it informs her columns that claim, among other things reactionary, that the Left faked the racism, harassment, and violence against them by Tea Party activists such as shouting “nigger” at Black House Democrats.


    Of course not everyone who is against Barack Hussein is so because of his brownness.  I may be a racist, or not, but have been livid about many of his in/actions since taking office. From my point of view, the best thing about him so far is that he is, at least, half Black, which to me is a major step in the correct direction despite his putting down that he is all-Black  (but not ‘Negro’) on the 2010 Census form.  His action by the way, also greatly disturbed the non-racist right, which prefers his racial ambiguity.


    Even rabid rightist are worried about the “appearance” of racism and have been increasing the visibility of a few persons of color in their generally colorless midst. In “A Mighty Pale Tea” Charles M. Blow (assumedly a person of some color) tells of his visit to a Dallas Tea Party rally where he first thought “Wow! This is much more diverse than the rallies I’ve seen on television.” Then realized that he was looking at stadium workers…” when he “approached the gate and was asked, “Are you working tonight?” He went because it was supposed to be especially diverse. “The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God. It felt like a bizarre spoof of a 1980s Benetton ad.” The audience scene was a dffrent stroke: “with the exception of a few minorities like the young black man who carried a sign that read ‘Quit calling me a racist.’”


    Not to be outdone, Tommy Christopher, wrote “O’Reilly Proves Tea Party Is Not All White With ‘Paid’ Black Tea Party Activist” It seems that on his Factor program Bill examined charges of monochromic Tea Parties by interviewing black conservative author of The Big Black Lie, Kevin Jackson, who speaks and promotes his book at Tea Party events all around the country admitted getting paid to show up in his naturally Blackface at the rallies, where he sees no evidence of racism. When O’Reilly asked where all the black Tea Partiers were, Jackson said Blacks are “not really politically charged,” just after saying that Black congressmen were slaves to Nancy Pelosi’s ‘Massuh.’

    In the same vein of man biting dog story, Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times remarked that Obama’s election has had the unanticipated consequence of “at least 32 African-Americans running for Congress this year as Republicans, the biggest surge since Reconstruction.” This despite the Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s honest answer to “Why should an African-American vote Republican?” The GOP’s highest-ranking African American told 200 DePaul University students "You really don't have a reason to, to be honest -- we haven't done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True." (9)


    Studies clearly show that racism is a product of ignorance. I teach that racism is simply stupidity. One might ask therefore what fuels the ignorance (stupidity) so much in evidence at Tea Party rallies. Brian Stelter provides some clues. Fox is their favorite news source according to a New York Times-CBS News poll.  63% of Tea Party supporters get most of their TV news from Fox vs only 23% of other misinformed Americans.  (The survey did not include readers of The New York Post or the Wall Street Journal.) Stelter also reported that “Fox Canceled Hannity’s Attendance at Tea Party’s Tax Day Rally in Cincinnati.” Fox News executives said they canceled it because they didn’t know Tea Party organizers were raising money based on his coming to the rally. “But Mr. Hannity’s producers at Fox were aware for months that tickets were being sold, said Chris Littleton, the president of the Cincinnati Tea Party, a nonprofit group. And Mr. Hannity mentioned the sales on his TV show a week ago.” Fox is a unit of the News Corporation, whose chief executive is Rupert Murdoch.


    Even Republican Party controlled public education is getting back into the racism act since Obama moved into the once pristine “White” House.  As to “Southern Discomfort,” Jon Meacham in a New York Times op ed noted that Virginia governor Robert McDonnell issued a proclamation declaring April as “Confederate History Month” to celebrate those “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth” and to foster understanding of “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.” The Republican governor at first did not mention slavery because he “focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”  Meacham concluded that “Whitewashing the war is one way for the right — alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary — to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage.” I should note that Virginia is hardly the only Republican state attempting to put more right-wing conservative stamps on public education. The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum reported that historians criticized proposed revisions to the Texas social studies curriculum, because many of the changes are inaccurate.  The changes define what textbooks must include and what teachers must cover. “The curriculum plays down the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers, questions the separation of church and state, and claims that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Communists during the Cold War.”


    Scientists tell us that it is hard to control our emotions from showing up on our faces. So seeing anti-Obamaism might be as easy as looking at the face of John Boehner who leads the Republican minority in the House of Representatives when he stands near the man or perhaps the loose lips of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr. when the same man said at his 2010 State of the Union address:


    With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections.  (Applause.)  I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.  (Applause.)  They should be decided by the American people.  And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.



    Finally, on the Black side of the equation we have to consider whether Obama also suffers from expectations of being the ultimate Race Man. According to Mark Anthony Neal (re: Denzel Washington), “’Race Man’ is a term that describes black men of stature and integrity who represented the best that African Americans had to offer in the face of Jim Crow segregation. It has lost some of its resonance in a post-civil rights world, but it remains an unspoken measure of commitment to uplifting the race. Race men inspire pride; their work, their actions and their speech represent excellence instead of evoking shame and embarrassment.” With black and/or white, ying and/or yang, left and/or right and everyone in between looking at the current President of the United States of America though colored glasses, it is hardly necessary to invoke philosophical metaphors for answering simple questions about race in American society today, or even the late great state of Arizona for that matter.

  • Op-Eds

    Explaining American Politics Again: The Health of Democracy

    Not everything is easily translated from English to Italian and vice versa.  In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origins and Italian cognates give me agita. Case in point; when Italians demonstrate (dimostrano) or protest (protestano) against something they don't go to demonstrations (dimostrazioni) they go to manifestazioni (demonstrations) instead.

    Similarly difficult to understand are the sad sights of people protesting against their own best interests (contro i loro propri interessi) as in the photo above taken while I was (hands free - a mani libere) driving out of a shopping mall where half of the stores are shuttered and wannabee drug pushers walk their mixed breed pit bulls because they aren't making enough money to buy a real one.

    Anyhow, not far on Main Street in the proud but semi-depressed Connecticut downtown one can find a public health center, social service offices, a Salvation Army store, and lots of unhealthy unemployed men and women aimlessly cruising the streets or hangin' in the park. When Italians demonstrate at manifestazioni they go in piazza. In America they go where the traffic is, like this intersection where a number of ill-dressed men and women held up signs I am sure they didn't understand. In fact some probably were folks in need of employment being paid to hold up signs they didn't understand such as one about "Cap N Trade"' which even oil company executives haven't a clue but they're against it anyhow because it sounds "green." 

    Anyhow, Sunday night my wife and I were watching a bit of TV (TiVù) as preparation for sleep (soporifero). All day long CNN and other droning 24/7/52 cable news stations were drooling with inane equivocative conversations about the United States House of un-Representatives' pseudo-debate on the latest version of President Barack Hussein Obama's campaign-promised "Health Care Reform." I went to bed early, preferring not to waste my sleep time with fuzz-faced Oscar-the-Grouch clone Wolf Blitzer and the next morning when I looked at the front pages of The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Newsday, and The World Street Journal after a not very brisk two mile quasi-run with my friend Michael-the-Lawyer, almost all of the headlines announced something "Historic" had happened during my Dreamtime (Altjira).

    When I got back to the house and opened my e-mail while eating breakfast, I saw this message from my good friends Ottorino and Letizia:

    "Dear friends and colleagues,

    A few minutes ago the House passed the Health Care Reform Bill.

    It shouldn't escape notice that this historic event takes place in large part thanks to the joint effort of the first African-American President and the first Italian-American Woman Speaker of the House.

    We would like to collect your feelings for i-Italy: anything from 3 to 10 lines would do.

    Would you take your time and send us a short email message?"

    Which I did, but now feel the need to expand on said few lines which went as follows:

    "When I asked my wife Suzanne for comment on Nancy Pelosi's 'victory' over a recalcitrant House of un-Representatives she said 'Go girl!.' Having been surrounded virtually all my adult life by Italian American women I was certain that only someone like Nancy Pelosi could get the job done in our dysfunctional legislative family dominated by males with government funded very expensive health care. For example, in my wife's all Italian American family, as well as my own half-Sicilian one, the women were the "generals" whose untiring efforts and constant strategizing led the family through thick and thin. My wife and daughters have been pushing for health care reform for ages (preferring a single payer system but willing to take almost anything at this point). As I wrote some time ago in i-italy 'Nancy for President and Other Proposals

    'Which brings me back to Nancy Pelosi; Italian American, bright, beautiful, articulately liberal Democrat who has the courage to go head to head with both enemies and friends to do the best for her country...If I weren't already married to a similarly endowed woman, I'd be chasing her all over the place. Since I can't propose marriage, I will simply propose Nancy Pelosi for President.'"

    says that “What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) is a book written by American journalist and historian Thomas Frank, which explores the rise of conservative populism in the United States through the lens of his native state of Kansas. Once a hotbed of the left-wing Populist movement of the late nineteenth century, it has become overwhelmingly conservative in recent decades. The book was published in the United Kingdom and Australia as What's the Matter with America?

    Two things for me to note here. One, I read the book and it is great, and scary as it iterates and reiterates redundantly how easy it seems to be for people to vote for other people who constantly sc(r)ew(er) them. And, two, Frank writes one of the only reliable columns that remain in The Wall Street Journal and, to prove the point, sometimes shares the same page with liable nemesises Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh.

    Finally as to convincing people that they shouldn’t be protesting against their own interests, it isn’t an easy task. One must remember that 50% of the human population is below average intelligence and, in my estimation; half of what's left is clearly uninformed. The right wing in America has done a very effective job in dis- and mis-informing people. Those who get their information from Fox News, The New York Post or Tea Party forums where savants (scienziati) like Sarah Palin keep their store of knowledge on the palm of their hand (and I believe it was on only one of them) are hardly educable and now that our once esteemed Supreme Court, on which ‘loose lips’ Sam Alito sits and childishly fidgets like a naughty boy in a grade school classroom, has lifted the remaining restrictions on corporate politicking, I think it will only get more difficult to convince people that human evolution (sviluppo umano)  and corporate greed (ingordigia corporativa) are facts of life. This, mental, health care crisis is one we need to quickly address as it threatens the health of all Americans, with and without brains.