Monday, September 17, 2007

Family Secrets -- Whose Family?

by Barbara D'Amato

A few weeks ago, The Chicago Tribune asked me to write a short piece on the Mob for the Perspectives section, because the Family Secrets gangsters trial was looming large in the news. In the piece, I mentioned the puzzling fact that people seem to love gangsters.

I live about four blocks from Holy Name Cathedral, where Hymie Weiss and four other men were gunned down in a mob hit in 1928. Visitors hearing that Holy Name is nearby, want to be walked over to see whether they can find the bullet holes in the cornerstone.

We have gangster bus tours in Chicago, and gangster-themed restaurants.

And this blog is called The Outfit, isn’t it?

In the Tribune piece I was interested in why we find these mobsters interesting and frequently funny, when they are really horrible people, killing pitilessly and often in gratuitously cruel ways. I asked for opinions.
Surprisingly, most of the emails I received did not respond to that question. Most were from people deeply troubled by what they saw as an enduring prejudice against Italians. Why make such a fuss about the Family Secrets trial, they asked. Why is The Sopranos so popular?

It’s certainly true that Italian gangsters are the mob characters of choice in movies and television. Even such non-Italian mobsters as Bugs Moran, Bugsy Siegel, and Hymie Weiss himself are seen as sort of honorary Italians. A lot of people don’t even realize that there were Irish mobs every bit as brutal and powerful as the Italians.

One man, a dentist, emailed me that he frequently tells patients that he is Sicilian, because he wants people to realize that there are hard-working, honest Sicilians who are not mobsters. This is sad.

My emailers tell me that jokes are constantly made in their presence about Italian gangsters, Sicilians especially. And to a certain extent, I believe it’s true that ethnic slurs against these people are seen as okay in the way that slurs against the Irish, blacks, Hispanics, or Jews are not.

Yes, there are movies, and I suppose some TV shows, about Irish, Jewish, black, or Hispanic gangsters. But they don’t seem to be part of the nudge-nudge, chuckle-chuckle culture in the way the Italians are. And the characters mostly are not intended to be funny—or made fun of, either.

I don’t really have much of a personal problem with this, having married my Italian last name. In fact, I grew up in a town so WASPy that I had never met an Italian until I went to college.

But I am curious.

So, I have two questions:

What is the reason people are so fascinated by the Mafia and appear to find it so cute?

Second, is it true, as these emailers say, that prejudice against Italians is okay, in a way that jokes and slurs about other ethnic groups are not? Does PC not apply to Sicilians? Are Italians the last ethnic group people can laugh at without fear of being non-PC?

27 comments:

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, when I was growing up, I wanted to be Italian. My stereotype, gleaned from my next door neighbor, who was an art historian and frequently had Italian visitors, was that Italians were artistic, expressive and warm, in contrast to the cold, sullen eastern and northern Europeans who made up my family background. It's why I made V I Warshawski's mother Italian, and why I studied Italian for a number of years. I don't know why people focus on Capone and Calabrese instead of Fermi and Puccini, but I think part of the appeal of the Mafia is the secret society aspect of it. The El Rukns just seemed like thugs, but the Mob has been turned into a very undeserved romance by Hollywood--and by their own PR. I think anyone in Italy, who's experienced the fear generated by assassinations of prosecutors and others trying to take on Mob rule, would be quick to deny the romance.

We're having some structural work done on our house. The crew chief is Italian (from a small hill country town in Umbria) and whenever he makes a self-denigrating "joke" about being part of a hitman family, I want to cry. Italians, Jews, African-Americans--we've all learned to turn the public stereotypes against ourselves. Enough, already!!!

Barbara D'Amato said...

Yes, Sara. I'm glad you wrote. It may well be the secret society thing. Secrets always ask to be looked into. I've wondered, too, if there isn't something about the Italian contrast. The Italians have given so much to world culture--painting, music, architecture--that the fact they include a subset of ugly, ignorant thugs is fascinating. Maybe it's the apparent unlikliness of that. Of course, we always want things simple--either this or that, not both.

Maryann Mercer said...

Once upon a time someone made a gangster movie and decided that Italians were inherently more colorful (and less inclined to 'the creature') than the Irish or any other culture in existance.Prohibition brought out all kinds of bad guys, but the one who organized them all was (so we're told) Italian. Growing up in the suburbs, we kids heard a lot about the Mafia from the Italians on the block, maybe because they thought it sounded cool. And,yes, mysterious, kind of like mass in Latin. Passion, and therefore violence, is perceived as a way of life in the country shaped like a boot, and both sell papers, movies, and television. Finally, the Mafia seems to have defied law and government and managed to stay intact despite infighting among families; maybe we all envy that.

Where I live, the in joke seems to involve old people, no specific ethnicity, just old. I did get one in an e-mail about a cajun named Boudreaux, but that's as ethnic as it gets here. I suppose we're so mired in Political Correctness that jokes are the last resort.

Pete said...

Remember that what we now know as the Mafia arose during Prohibition. Maybe the idolization of the Mafia originated with society back then seeing mob bootleggers as heroes (rebels) who defied and even profited from the misguided 18th Amendment (establishment). Just a thought.

The Home Office said...

Before the Bloods and the Crips, what we loosely define as The Mafia (Cosa Nostra, The Syndicate) was the one nationwide crime organization. That bought them street cred in a nation that loves to believe in conspiracies. Their self-proclaimed status as "men of honor" with their codes, ceremonies, etc. wiped away some of the grime that came with their workaday activities.

The Mafia (or Chicago Outfit) has also had a flair for marketing. Not the Colombo Italian American Defamation League things; I mean Capone's soup kitchens and support of musicians. Occasional acts of kindness to people they barely knew, which circulated through the grapevine. And, mixing their two worlds, sometimes enforcing no crime zones in their neighborhoods. I grew up near Pittsburgh, and the Mannerino family was said to enforce a no crime zone around the town of Arnold by dropping the random stiff on the steps of the Bachelor's Club to remind others not to rob in Arnold. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. What was important was that crime was low in Arnold then, and people believed it.

I grew up in a heavily ethnic area. Eastern Eurpoeans and Italians were well represented. (I used to be kidded as the only non-Italian member of our musicians union local.) Everyone took their share of the jokes. I played in a band that used to rehearse at the Italian-American club, and enjoyed watching the old guys playing bocce in the back yard, and the game (the name of which i can't remember) where two guys point fingers at each other and try to guess what the total will be at the top of their lungs.

I can see where the mob overtones could get tiring. I'm working on a book now where a minor character is an FBI agent of Italian descent, who is dogged in his determination to bring down the Mob because of the taunts his father used to get in their little restaurant in Jersey. It may be that many of the Italians who make little jokes at themselves are comfortable enough in their knowledge of their honesty to indulge in a little self-deprecatory humor. If so, good on them.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Maryann, Pete and home office--thank you all for the good comments. I have to say, I was quite surprised at the intensity of feeling of some of the Trib article's respondents about anti-Italian prejudice. Several said the Family Secrets trial should not have been so heavily covered by the press, and wouldn't have been if it had not been Da Mob. They may be right.

Tony D'Amato said...

To The Home Office:

I think the name of the finger-totaling game you're looking for is Morra.

-- Tony D'Amato

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