The theory was that the children of our immigrant ancestors would flower as they assimilated and reached the lofty perch of academia. There, they would become the leaders and the voice of our classical heritage. It hasn’t panned out that way.
Our first (immigrant) generation managed to build the impressive monument to Columbus in Manhattan in 1892 – something we could never accomplish today. Our second generation, the Americanized children of those immigrants, also did us proud. They built on that foundation of pride – documenting 400 years of our story in America (Giovanni Schiavo), creating the first and greatest cultural center in the nation in La Casa Italiana at Columbia University (the Paterno family), establishing Faireigh Dickinson University in NJ (Peter Sammartino), raising explorer Giovanni Verrazzano to public status in 1964 (John LaCorte), and contesting the forged Vinland/Viking Map in 1965 (Judge Michael Musmanno). I could go on, but our trouble began with the third and fourth generations that now hold the academic reins of our heritage.
The escalating Columbus Day controversy has exposed our dashed hopes – education didn’t produce a dynamic corps of Italic scholars. Rather, it produced a mediocre band of academics who conform to the expectations of the universities that host them and to the temper of the times. We not only have few scholars defending the man who successfully pierced the veil of global ignorance in 1492, there are more scholars denouncing him. You would expect that a professor occupying a Chair or Center for Italian Studies would be our first line in confronting revisionists and jingoists. Not so.
Only one academic, our own Prof. Rosario Iaconis, has accessed the mass media to defend Columbus. As for the other academics I suppose we can excuse them for many reasons: fear of bucking the multi-cultural tide, fear of risking the wrath of university officials, fear of defending a lost cause. There is also a fear of work because defending Columbus means reading more than Wikipedia. It means applying yourself and committing some time to it – why bother when surrender makes less waves? Besides, it’s a good way to show how independent you are from the traditional Italian Americans. Instead of our first line, they have become the opposition’s fifth column among us.
One collaborator is Professor Fred Gardaphe of the Calandra Institute of the City University of New York, who said publicly on cable that Italian Americans “got stuck with Columbus” and that the holiday should have rotating honorees from the American mosaic like W.E.B. Dubois, an African American civil rights activist. (You can see Gardaphe’s pitiful collapse on YouTube.) As for “getting stuck with Columbus,” why has it been the goal of Jews, Catalans, Greeks, Poles, and others to get stuck with him? I can only imagine Gardaphe giving Manhattan away instead of negotiating the $24 sale. He wouldn’t even make a good Indigenous person.
Like many of these self-professed Italian American intellectuals, these scholars are inspired by a strong leftist, almost anarchist, tradition. It is also the case that their paychecks are tied to public universities or Italian American endowments. They couldn’t afford to be in this debate otherwise. I would guess that there are at least a dozen Chairs or centers dedicated to our grand heritage. Most of them wallow in immigrant studies or the ever popular Italian cinema. The more sensational scholars enjoy exposing our dark side with themes like “honor killing in Sicily,” or highlighting books on how the Mafia whacked JFK, or inviting authors who reminisce about thieves and murderers in their families, or how guidos and goombas are assets to our community. In this vein, a group of scholars, authors, and artists of Italian and Italian American culture and history, circulated a petition this year “to stop opposing the replacement of Columbus Day by Indigenous Peoples Day anywhere in the United States.” Total surrender by our intellectual guardians!
On October 7th, the NY Times had an op-ed piece by Gail Collins, a non-Italic liberal, in which she wrote: “The point of Christopher Columbus was exploration….I’d say leave Columbus alone…” Now why can’t our scholars find the essence of Columbus Day like Ms. Collins does so easily?
If we truly want to save Columbus Day maybe we should start confronting our errant scholars now. -JLM