Of all the bad things the stimulus package contains, one being overlooked is the insult to Italians. Thanks to the stereotype Italians receive from pop culture, it’s not surprising the insult goes unnoticed.
Tucked in the 1,100-page Stimulus bill President Obama will sign today is Senator Harry Reid’s plan to funnel $50 million of your tax dollars to construct what is billed as a “Mob Museum” in his home state of Nevada.
This won’t be an historic learning experience. It will be a Las Vegas show for kitschy tourists glorifying violence with false images of Italian Americans as the lone perpetrators of mayhem, not by real examples, but using fictional characters of Hollywood.
For years Hollywood has projected the worst images of killing, thievery and unholy greed onto Italians through “Mob” movies. That’s a pretty bad rap against people who brought us telescopes, electric batteries and radio communication.
These fictional movies are why the Italian aesthetic in the public consciousness has gone from real people like Da Vinci and Botticelli to fake people like Corleone and Soprano.
It started with the movie The Godfather. Before that, real-life organized crime had many ethnicities: Dutch Shultz, Bugsy Segal and Meyer Lansky were Jews. Dion O’Bannion and Bugs Moran were Irish. Of the Midwest Crime wave including John Dillanger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, “Ma” Barker, Bonnie & Clyde and “Machine Gun” Kelly, none were Italian. Yet because the Godfather was so acclaimed, since then more than 400 feature films have been made showing mobsters as JUST Italian, despite the historical inaccuracy.
Add to that video games for kids, television shows about Italian mobsters and an endless stream of commercials with caricatures of Italians in bad suits mangling the English language and Italian becomes synonymous with crime instead of creativity.
The problem for Italians is this stereotype is “OK” in pop culture. Other stereotypes exist, but no other ethnicity suffers theirs being politically correct. Imagine an HBO series today about a fictional Step ‘n Fetchit Black family, a drunken Irish family, cheap Jews or dumb Poles. Those wrong stereotypes haven’t been wiped out, but they are universally reviled and controlled by making a pariah of anyone who uses them. See as examples Don Imus, Mel Gibson, Isaiah Washington and Michael Richards.
Yet portraying Italians as murderous, awful, immoral criminals will get you showered with Emmy awards. James Gandolfini is the Step n Fetchit of the 21st Century.
Why is the US Government paying to continue a stereotype? One would think a Democrat like Harry Reid whose party claims diversity and multiculturalism would renounce racism, not give it $50 million of tax money to flourish.
This “Mob Museum” will be complete with opportunities to view Tony Soprano’s tee- shits and have your picture taken with paper cutouts of him and Vito Corleone. I wonder how Senator Reid would feel about spending tax dollars on a museum where one can pose, thumbs up and smiling, next to paper cutouts of Sambo.
Worse yet, the Mob Museum is already admitting they are going to fabricate stories. Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada is researching exhibits for the museum. In admitting the museum will tout fake stories as real, he said, “…you have to do a lot of reconstructing, inferring and implying. There's a lot of winking we're going to have to do."
A history professor making up history. Scratch College of Southern Nevada off my list of schools to send my kids.
Glorifying a character like Soprano indoctrinates young Italians into the idea that a life of crime is sexy, causing them to embrace the stereotype. Italians who perpetuate this lie for romanticism don’t realize they hurt the rest of us.
The worst of it is when people claim, “I knew guys just like Tony Soprano back in the old neighborhood.” No you didn’t. That’s a lie. You don’t know anyone who kills once a week, including his cousin and nephew. People claiming fiction as fact is how stereotypes are born and grow.
The City of Chicago rejected such a museum a few years back. They knew it would insult Italian Americans. Dorothy Coyle, director of the Chicago Office of Tourism said, “Anything that glorifies violence we are not interested in"
The harm caused by saturation of false images isn’t going to affect Italian-American stars like Scalia, Giuliani or Cuomo, nor the Italian American community as a whole. I worry about the individual.
Twenty years ago when I was in law school, three students were in the next booth at a campus restaurant. One said, “In criminal law we’re studying a case were all the defendants had these long Italian names…they were sooooo guilty!” See the math? Italian name = guilty, not Mayor, Governor or Supreme Court Justice. I often wonder where that law student is today – a judge? A prosecutor maybe? Worse yet – a juror?
Wouldn’t America be better served with a museum highlighting Italians such as Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, the only enlisted marine in World War II to win the Medal of Honor, The Navy Cross and a Purple Heart for holding off 3000 Japanese troops at Guadalcanal after all but 3 of his unit was wiped out? He was killed at Iwo Jima.
I’d rather support a museum about Enrico Fermi, Galileo, John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci. Our country was named after that last fellow.
What support will I give Harry Reid’s Mob Museum should it open in 2010? “Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing.”