Riccardo Giacconi died this month at 87. He was one of five Italic space scientists we honored at our first gala in 1988. Giacconi was the pioneer behind space telescopes leading to the now-famous Hubble Space Telescope, which his group first operated.
Since our Institute’s founding and our first gala, themed “Explorers’ Day” in tribute to space pioneers like Riccardo Giacconi and held on June 24th (the day navigator Giovanni Cabot claimed North America for England), we have challenged the thinking of Italian Americans. Not always to their liking.
I am somewhat obsessed with the dead – those amazing people who propelled our success as Italic people and uplifted humanity in the process. Our now-defunct Italic Way Magazine always contained a page for the recently deceased who impacted our nation and the world. Our famous dead are a joy to behold – men and women in every field of endeavor who made us proud and changed the course of history. They stand in stark contrast to the woe-begotten images that have framed our heritage for the past half century. Sadly, the negative always overwhelms the positive.
I recently viewed a episode about the history of American gangsters on the Smithsonian Channel (America in Color/Organized Crime). It managed to condense organized crime into this statement “legendary gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello build vast empires.” All other ethnic groups were off the hook. Myer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Murder Inc., the Purple Gang, Whitey Bulger, and the rest of our precious “rainbow” of murderers failed to receive even passing mention. The Smithsonian Channel is part of the Smithsonian Museum – supported by taxpayers.
By our estimate, some 99% of Italian Americans – passively or actively – support stereotypes and our negative images. These paesani have managed to derive a perverse pride from negative portrayals in the media or mentally isolate themselves from those clearly ethnic images. The problem, as they see it, is with anyone who complains about negative images. Essentially, complaining is unbecoming to Italians and confuses otherwise enjoyable entertainment.
While it may seem like a survival skill – the ability to ignore or wallow in stereotypes – it is mostly a sign of laziness. The logic is: why address a problem that you have no time or inclination to solve? It presupposes that there is absolutely no connection in the real world between stereotype media images and your Italian culture. After all, in their minds, despite a century of disparaging images Italian Americans worked through them to success.
But success has many definitions. Achieving success can be an easy road or a hard one. It can be measured by your material wealth, by the respect society holds for you, or by the power your community wields. By our Institute’s observations, which are far and away more comprehensive than the average Italian American’s, our ethnic success is mostly material and certainly earned – albeit with the aid of some White privilege. Nevertheless, we have cooked, dug, and managed our way to success. Anglos didn’t give us a free ride.
In a multi-ethnic society, where you are easily distinguishable by appearance or surname, common sense tells you that not all things are equal. There is a reason for “political correctness.” Not every group wants its dirty laundry on display – except Italians, that is. If we spent as much energy demanding a better media image as we do debating each other on the subject perhaps things would change. However, college educated, business-savvy Italian Americans will defend to the death the right of Italian defamation. The absurdity of their position boggles the mind.
In his new book, American Dialogue, Joseph Ellis quotes George Washington lamenting the image of Native Americans, “…it is well known that when one side only of a story is heard, and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it, insensibly.” Ole George would be laughed out of our community.
Clueless and lazy Italian Americans should wake up and smell the defamation. Like our criminal reputation, it is organized. –JLM