Monday, December 26, 2016

An Italian-American Response To Carl Paladino: Che cazzo!

I had hoped to wake up to news that Carl Paladino had been denied Communion, excommunicated and censured by the Church and every leading Italian-American organization and newspaper in the United States. And I have been disappointed. Che cazzo! Che disgrazia!

Paladino made especially racist remarks last Thursday, directed at the President and Michelle Obama in the first place but really directed at every person of color. When gently pressed by the media about these remarks, Paladino went out of his way to attack and offend once more and took to the media to make his case. I'm not going to quote from him or refer readers to a site to read his terrible words. I am going to remind readers that this is a guy who won the 2010 Republican primary for governor in New York State, served as honorary co-chair of Trump's New York campaign and now sits on the Buffalo school board. It's not like this guy is a gavone from nowhere who doesn't have backers. It does not comfort me that he is being attacked on social media and getting circus-like treatment. Why, I ask myself, does he even get to walk the streets and sit on a school board and get media attention at all? Why was he even interviewed in the first place?

This is a complicated matter for me. I have written many times on this blog and elsewhere as an outraged Italian-American, furious that people in our community have so forgotten our past that they sometimes take the side of the racists and neo-fascists and that the Italian-American "leadership" fits more into the mold of the discredited followers of Mussolini and Berlusconi than, say, our Vito Marcantonio or Carlo Tresca or---my favorite---Pete Cacchione. The Italian-Americans who back Trump and who take places in his administration have crossed some lines to get there---a line of commonsense and decency, to be sure, but also a political line and, in a sense, a racial line as well. Who is responsible for this backward movement that has cast Italian-Americans in the white-light image of the fascist publisher Generoso Pope and the prominenti who so disgraced Italian-Americans in the past?

The Italian Tribune newspaper is one of my least favorite publications, full of ads and silliness and the conservative voice of publisher Buddy Fortunato. It may be, as it claims to be, the most influential voice of Italian-Americans, but that testifies to our poverty as a community. Fortunato supported Trump and made a point of attacking the left and anti-racists with stereotyped and racist images, loudly supporting the regressive Columbus Day celebrations and backing all of this up with complaints about discrimination against Italian-Americans. This discrimination is real enough, but it's also beside the point. Do we move forward by insulting and taking away from others, as if there is not enough opportunity and good will to go around, or do we listen, learn and unite and work to move everyone forward? Fortunato and the Italian-American establishment---and Paladino included---will take the former path and I'll take the latter path, and if that means that I'm not considered Italian-American then so be it. The community loses when progressive people are isolated or shunned, which explains why the average age at most of the Italian-American organization's gatherings hovers somewhere in the 70s. This turn to the right alienates people.

What person with decency wants to be associated with Paladino and people like him? The answer is that the standard Italian-American organizations which have defined Italianita since the 1970s are good with people like Paladino. But we don't need the establishment to define who we are, and with Paladino and The Italian Tribune so out front they have become liabilities.

This trash talk from Paladino is what the Trump supporters meant when they said that they weren't free to talk before the election; this is what they want to say. It's the conversation Buddy Fortunato and The Italian Tribune want to have when they criticize "political correctness"---this is their alternative to zipping the lips a little and learning something. Censorship of these views didn't come from liberals first. Many Italian-American parents would stick a bar of soap in a kid's mouth if they heard him saying these things when I was a kid. It has been awhile since I went to Confession, but the last time I went the Church was giving out a card that said that racism is a sin that you have to confess and do penance for and gave practical examples of the obvious and subtle ways people can be racist. So where does that put Paladino and his supporters? What tradition can they appeal to and claim?

I'll predict that the next issue of The Italian Tribune, or the one following it, will have a wimpy defense of Paladino and will seek to take the attention away from his racist and hateful remarks by citing some discrimination against Italian-Americans, an unfair and biased media and some alleged acts or out-of-context comments made by people of color and their allies against Paladino. Some liberal Italian-American politicians will distance themselves from Paladino's worst remarks, as some already have, but the fight won't go into, say, the Sons of Italy or the Church or any of the Italian-American organizations. The liberals will be outcasts and will be portrayed as caving under pressure from people outside of the Italian-American community, which may be true and may again show our internal weaknesses. The liberal politicians don't always have a base in the community, and don't think that they need it, ceding ground to the reactionaries, and this weakens us. The Trump backers will step into the empty political space and try to use us, and people like Paladino and Fortunato will be glad for the opportunity so long as they occasionally get to tell how hard our grandparents had it and make a little money for themselves on the side as well. I want to be wrong about this prediction, of course.

Here's another prediction: a certain number of our people-of-color allies are going to say that Paladino's comments only reflect what we think and say privately, and that it's better when people speak frankly, and the myth of "European-Americans" is going to be strengthened. Who can blame people for believing that Paladino speaks for us and for resenting our apparent hypocrisy? But it's also true that many, or most, of us don't think and talk like Paladino, even among ourselves, and that silencing the overt racists gives us an opportunity to take on the subtle forms of racism. We have the opportunity to prove it by denouncing Paladino. People of color are being very patient with us, but time is running out and everyone's patience eventually dissipates. "European-American" identity isn't real, and doesn't include Italian-Americans when it is given some living form, but the reactionaries are working hard to make it real. Let's turn this around. Again, I want this prediction to be wrong.

The immediate temptation is to swear and curse Paladino and wish him the worst of luck. That's the circus mentality which feeds him and people like Buddy Fortunato. The solution here is to organize, take the fight into the community and the Church, leave the Italian-American establishment to its own shrinking fortunes and find new ways to be real human beings and real Italian-Americans.


Paladino has offered a half-hearted apology along with a threat to media workers. He hit the wrong button, this was intended to be just between friends, he's a strong friend of African Americans, he didn't mean to hurt anyone, etc. etc.

It's not up to me to accept or reject his apology, but the apology either changes nothing or does additional damage. "Chi ha l'amaro in bocca non puo sputare dolce," my family would say---Those with sour mouths cannot spit sweetness!


Alternet picked up a version of the story and ran this article on December 30. The Huffington Post took a more nuanced view.

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