Letter to the Editor,
The New York Sun,
October 27, 2006
When it comes to Italian-Americans, old stereotypes never die. Nor do they fade away. Instead, the calumnies have metastasized into society's most enduring prejudice.
Joe Viterelli and Robet DeNiro, both of whom have acted as Italian-Americans many times, in a scene from 'Analyze That.' When it comes to Italian-Americans, old stereotypes never die, writes Rosario Iaconis.
Whether it's Tony Soprano, Don Vito Corleone, or Don Lino (the piscine cartoon capo in the kiddy mob comedy "Shark Tale"), this particular devil has the power to assume a most displeasing shape.
And now Italian-American women are being depicted as promiscuous dolts of questionable character on ABC-TV's "Ugly Betty." Gina Gambino is the "neighborhood slut" with a history of petty crime who torments the unattractive but noble Betty Suarez.
Despite a patrimony second to none and an unmatched level of achievement in every field of human endeavor — from the arts and sciences to scholarship and entrepreneurship — the scions of Italy remain popular culture's perennial punching bags.
Even Geico's cavemen are accorded more respect.
In the season premiere of ABC-TV's "20/20," a segment titled "Hollywood Stereotypes" underscored how Hollywood continues to vilify Italian-Americans as the spawn of Tony Soprano. "Most Italian-Americans have nothing to do with organized crime," says host John Stossel, "but you wouldn't know that watching TV." In a telephone conversation with Frank Mastropolo, the producer of this segment, I buttressed Mr. Stossel's premise with some sobering statistics. Though the vast majority of Italian-Americans are utterly law abiding (according to the FBI, only .00782% have any ties to criminal organizations), a Zogby poll reveals that 74% of Americans believe an Italian surname is indicative of mob connections.
Though Russian, Colombian, Asian, Irish, Albanian, and Israeli gangsters control much of the illicit (ecstasy) drug trade, prostitution rings, and money laundering in America, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act perpetuates the myth that organized crime is strictly the province of the ethnicity that comedian Bill Maher contemptuously calls a bunch of "My-Cousin-Vinny guineas." The RICO acronym for that act reportedly refers to Rico Bandello, the fictional Italian mobster played by Edward Robinson in the 1931 movie "Little Caesar."
A case in point is Martin Scorsese's new flick, "The Departed," a study in grisly violence and corruption that revolves around the Irish mob. It is based on the depredations of James "Whitey" Bulger, the murderous Boston gangster who is still ranked number one on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsese could not resist inserting the obligatory anti-Italian slur in Jack Nicholson's dialogue: "Let's not cry over spilled guineas." Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" featured yet another spin on this epithet: "All the guineas are buying it," said an American soldier, reading the dog tags of those recently killed in action. And Chris Rock's anthropomorphic hamster in "Dr. Dolittle" delighted in saying, "Why do they call me a guinea pig, anyway? I'm not Italian."
The net effect of such incessant denigration is to institutionalize anti-Italian intolerance. According to sociologists Richard Alba and Dalia Abdel-Hady, there exists the very real possibility of "ethnic exclusion by U.S. intellectual elites" of Italian-Americans — "a large, identifiable group that has assimilated into the mainstream during the last half century but is still the subject of demeaning stereotypes with wide currency."
In "An Offer Tehran Can't Refuse," a New York Times op-ed by Ted Koppel, the veteran journalist urged Iran's leaders to view a DVD of "The Godfather." Additionally, he hoped "we could induce Richard Armitage out of retirement to play the Don Corleone part." The Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation is raffling off a 2006 Harley-Davidson — festooned with the signatures of "The Sopranos" cast members — to benefit the HUMC Cancer Center. Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Tom Hartman, aka, the "God Squad," believe "The Sopranos" has "redeeming artistic and social value," particularly as a "teaching tool" for kids.
And Rachael Ray recently introduced a "Sopranos Sauce-Off" contest between mob stars Steven Schirripa and Vince Curatola. Grinning from ear to ear, the so-called culinary cutie hoped nobody would get "whacked" in the process. Sadly, she has joined Giada De Laurentiis and Mario Batali in genuflecting before such Italian-American Stepin Fetchits.
A pox on all their kitchens.
Instead of debasing her heritage on national television, Ms. Ray could have celebrated italianità by welcoming the likes of: General Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader (who may become the nation's first female speaker of the House of Representatives); Dr. Carolyn Porco, space scientist extraordinaire; Samuel Alito, the newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court; physicist Riccardo Giacconi, who won a Nobel Prize in 2002, or even fellow gourmet chef Michael Chiarello.
For these individuals — not popular culture's cretinous con artists-cum-thespians — are the true scions of Italy.
The Italic Institute of America
Floral Park, N.Y.