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?