Showing posts with label Italians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Italians. Show all posts

13 September 2018

Politically Profitable Predators

by Eve Fisher
“We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we're stopping a lot of them, but we're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are.  These aren't people. These are animals." President Trump, May 16, 2018 (USA Today)
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." Candidate Trump, June 16, 2015
"Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population." Candidate Trump, written statement, December 7, 2015. (Source)
And no, I'm not using this as a segue way into criticism of our current President.  What I want to talk about is how various peoples have been made into politically profitable predators in American history.  From Native Americans to Blacks to Mexicans to Irish to Italians to Asians to Blacks to Native Americans and back to Mexicans to...  fill in the blank.  And the question always is, Who's next?

Native Americans, of course, have always considered a problem.  Back in 1702, Cotton Mather wrote of the Native Americans:
Cotton Mather.jpg"The Natives of the Country now Possessed by the New-Englanders, had been forlorn and wretched Heathen ever since their first herding there; and tho' we know not When or How those Indians first became Inhabitants of this mighty Continent, yet we may guess that probably the Devil decoy'd those miserable Salvages [sic] hither, in hopes that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb his Absolute Empire over them." (The New English History), Book III, p. 190 (1702)
Ignoring, of course, the fact that the Native Americans actually fed the original settlers from England and taught them how to plant maize, squash, and other New World foodstuffs... Without their help, the original settlers would not have survived.  Ingratitude, thy name is Mather.

Then there's this 1803 painting by American painter John Vanderlyn - Death of Jane McCrae - well, it's obvious what this tells us about the horrors of Native Americans in early America.  The story behind this is classic propaganda, classic use of the death of a beautiful white woman to justify whatever comes next.  There were two versions of the story:

(1) Jane (who was a Loyalist in the American Revolution) was on her way to meet with her fiance at the British camp at Ticonderoga, escorted by two Native American warriors.  (Remember that at this time the British were hiring Native Americans to fight on their side.)  The two got into a fight over how much they'd be paid for delivering her safely. So one of them killed and scalped her.

(2) Jane McCrea was killed by a bullet fired by pursuing Americans.  19th century historian James Phinney Baxter supported this version of events in his 1887 history of Burgoyne's campaign, saying that there was an exhumation of her body which showed she died of bullet wounds, and had no tomahawk wounds.

Guess which one got the most press?  The first version, of course.  It got spread around in newspapers, pamphlets, and letters.  British General Burgoyne wrote a letter to American general Horatio Gates, complaining about ill-treatment of British POWs. Gates' response was widely reprinted:
"That the savages of America should in their warfare mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners who fall into their hands is neither new nor extraordinary; but that the famous Lieutenant General Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar, should hire the savages of America to scalp europeans and the descendants of europeans, nay more, that he should pay a price for each scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will be believed in England. [...] Miss McCrae, a young lady lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition, engaged to be married to an officer of your army, was [...] carried into the woods, and there scalped and mangled in the most shocking manner..."  (Wikipedia)
It also entered American legend thanks to James Fennimore Cooper, who used it in 1826's The Last of the Mohicans.  

And let's talk about Andrew Jackson, who launched the Indian Removals of the 1830s:  
"Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country and philanthropy has long been busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.… But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.… Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?"
In other words, we want the land, so they've got to go.  And then, to justify it, consider the American Westerns, both in penny dreadfuls, novels, and movies:  until 1970's Little Big Man, most of them are all about chasing down and killing all the "savages" John Wayne and his buddies could find.  

Meanwhile, there have been constant waves of immigration, and constant opposition to each and every wave:
WW1 propaganda
anti-Hun poster

In 1775, before the United States had gained its independence, Benjamin Franklin warned against the destructive forces of German immigration: 
“A Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion." (Source)  
Who knew that Germans were so alien?  Before WW1?  

There were the Irish, presented as drunk gorillas who should be banned
from immigrating to the US and once here, should certainly never be employed:  

             

Do you notice a theme here?  Comparing various groups / people to apes?  Or other animals?

Meanwhile, there were also the Italians, who were also seen as subhuman, either importers of anarchism or - of course - the Mafia.  Did you know that the largest lynching in the United States was in New Orleans, and the victims were Italians?  A popular police chief named Hennessey (Irish) was shot on his way home, and when he was asked, dying, who did it, he gasped, "Dagoes".  So they rounded up the usual suspects, 11 Italians, and tried them - and there was a mistrial!  So the mob went wild, and started killing people...  No one was ever tried.  And, in language that is tragically familiar, a NYT editorial called the victims “desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins…are to us a pest without mitigations.” Read the rest at the History Channel.  

But at least they weren't Chinese:

For a long time China was known as the Yellow Peril.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting all immigration of  Chinese laborers, was followed up by massacres (Rock Springs, 1885, Hells Canyon 1887), and a general stereotyping of Chinese (and other Orientals) as apes, lesser men, primitives, children, madmen, and beings who possessed special powers, and who commonly kidnapped white women into white slavery, opium addiction, and eventually murdered them.  (Wikipedia)

Besides propaganda posters like the one to the left, white slavery was presented as a hideously common peril for white women in stories by Frank Norris (author of McTeague), Sax Rohmer (whose Chinese villain Fu Manchu threatened the world and its white women from 1913-1959) and True Confessions.  All of this propaganda was the basis for a series of American Immigration Acts that barred almost any Asian immigration of any kind to America until the 1960s.  Women had to be protected from the evil Orientals, and the only way to do that was to ban them entirely.
NOTE:  This is why both the 1960s movie and musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, and an impossibly bad movie from the 1980s, Angel III:  The Final Chapter, could STILL use white slavery by opium-smoking Asians as a major menace to the heroine(s).  
Birth of a Nation theatrical poster.jpgOf course, even the Chinese didn't / don't make such fearsome villains as blacks, going back to D. W. Griffiths' 1915 Birth of a Nation, (first titled The Klansman, BTW).  In that movie, Elsie (played by Lillian Gish) is saved by the KKK from the lustful mulatto Lynch (who came up with that name?), while the virginal white young Flora is forced to leap to her death to avoid being raped by a "freedman".  (Sounds like a rip-off of Last of the Mohicans to me, but then again, if it works with one ethnic group it'll work with any, I suppose.  Apes and other animals, you know.)  "There is no doubt that Birth of a Nation played no small part in winning wide public acceptance" for the KKK, and that throughout the film "African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate, and dangerous." (History.com)  It was the perfect movie to reinforce the need for Jim Crow laws everywhere across the South, not to mention the holocaust of lynching.  And, as late as the 1970s, David Duke used the film to recruit members to the KKK.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Willie Horton.  Horton was released on a weekend furlough in June, 1986, and didn't come back.  In April, 1987, he raped a white woman.  In October, 1987 he was arrested and sentenced to 2 life sentences.  In 1988, Republican Presidential candidate George H. W. Bush's campaign put out the "Willie Horton" ad against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis (who had been Governor of Massachusetts at the time, but was not the founder of the furlough program) to prove that Dukakis was weak on crime, i.e., would not protect [white] women.  It played into the stereotype that black men were big, ugly, dumb, violent, and dangerous, so let's stay super tough on crime.  It worked.  But I, for one, don't believe that anyone in the Bush campaign believed they were protecting women:  they were winning an election.

     HortonWillie.jpg

Sounds familiar to me.



P.S.  In case you're wondering about antisemitism, the long, long, long history of antisemitism in America begins with Peter Stuvaysant, the last Director-General of New Amsterdam.  During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11 expelling Jews from areas under his control in western Tennessee, "as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled …within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order."  Lincoln rescinded the order ASAP, but.  Discrimination against Jews was standard and the cartoons and jokes horrific.  Watch Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement some time, which was extremely controversial when it came out in 1947, because it exposed the standard discrimination against Jews in employment, education, housing, travel, restaurants, clubs, etc. 

A short list of famous antisemites includes:  Charles Coughlin, Louis Farrakhan, Henry Ford, FDR (never forget he turned away the ship carrying 907 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany), Joe Kennedy, Sr. (read his correspondence with Viscountess Astor), General Patton ("lower than animals"), Richard Nixon, Billy Graham (he's on the Nixon tapes saying things like "This [Jewish] stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain", and when Nixon mentioned that Graham was a friend of the Jews, Graham replied "But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country."[72]), and, of course, almost every troll on Breitbart and every white supremacist site you can stomach.  Some of them showed up for the Charlottesville, VA, August 11, 2017, "Unite the Right" rally, where they carried tiki torches while chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including "White lives matter" and "Jews will not replace us."   

The depressing thing about humanity is that you have to educate each and every generation to be moral, compassionate, tolerant, kind, decent...  And obviously, we have a lot of work to do.   

24 August 2018

Pachinko Breaks the Rules, and Don't Be a Citrullo

by Thomas Pluck

I love when a book breaks "cardinal rules" (many of which are worth as much as what a cardinal might deposit on your car's freshly washed paint) and becomes a smashing success. The latest is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires--a great title--and resident of my current hometown in New Jersey. I haven't met her, but she was at our literary festival, and I missed her panel because I was volunteering. How did I learn about her book, despite her living in my town, signing at my local bookstore, her getting her own panel at the festival, and a big promo push from her publisher?

Word of mouth. Well, word of write. Roxane Gay named Pachinko one of her favorites of 2017, and I follow Roxane on Twitter. We've met, I anthologized her story "Things I Learned From Fairy Tales" in Protectors, and I haven't seen her since a Sackett Street Writers reading in a biergarten basement in Brooklyn, but she wrote a list of her favorite books for a magazine, and I read it because she has exquisite taste. And there was Pachinko, one of the few new books on the list, and she didn't bother with blurb-talk or using her usual literary critic voice, she gushed. So I picked it up, even though a Korean family drama spanning generations, 600 pages thick, isn't my go-to read.

But I could not put the book down. Lee writes with the urgent prose of a thriller, and dances from character to character, using the third person omniscient point of view.

GASP!

I have heard many writers, agents, and self-professed writing advisers state that this is death. (Okay, one writer shared a set of rules that said it was "death" and I immediately knew I could ignore the rest.) Some of the great novels have been written in this POV, but it lost favor, and it takes chops to do it right and keep clarity in the narrative. But that doesn't mean it is "death." The second person POV is much harder to do properly, it turns many readers off--including myself--but every year there's one or two that amaze people and do well. For example, this year's Hugo winner for best short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a stunning read and makes great use of the POV, forcing you to empathize with the protagonist and setting up the reversal that makes it so powerful, opening a window of understanding. I don't want to spoil it, it's 5800 words that fly by. Read it today.

I would say the third person omniscient is much easier to pull off. It is used in other genres more often. Science fiction, historical narratives, and so on. Crime leans toward narrower perspectives. First person, limited third, with "thriller-jumps" that mimic cuts in movies, where we follow many characters in a race against time.



In a mystery, you might think using the omniscient would deflate all tension from a story. After all, the narrator knows who dun it! And yet, we read many thrillers and stories where the point of view comes from the killer. Sometimes they hide their identity, other times they don't. Omniscient isn't the best choice for all crime stories, but it has a place, especially when you are dealing with many characters and their motivations are important. You can spend a lot of time trying to come up with a scene where the narrator can spy on someone to see their secret agenda, which can be a lot of fun, or you can reveal the sinister agenda openly, and let the tension flow from the reader knowing that one character is waiting to poison the other's jelly donut or shove them out a window.

But back to Pachinko. This is a crime novel. It gets its title from a pinball-like game of chance that is very popular in Japan, their version of slot machines, but are much more fun to watch:


And the parlors have been associated with organized crime, the Yakuza, much like casinos here in the States are with the Mafia. So in a way, this is The Godfather for Koreans living in Japan, an origin story that shows how colonization and wars drove many Koreans to Japan, where they are still lower than second class citizens, even if born there. They needed Korean passports to travel and could be expelled at any time, were refused "normal" jobs and found ways to survive. (This is why any politician in the USA who talks about eradicating Birth Citizenship should terrify you). Some survived by going into the distasteful career of running Pachinko parlors, and the stain of crime is on them even if they are legitimate. The story takes a long time to get to the guts of the business, but one of the major characters is a gangster who wants a poor young girl as his mistress, and she wields her power over him to help her family. Not without tragic consequences for some.

The book isn't sold as a crime story, but it will appeal to fans of the genre, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. I wasn't a fan of that either until I read Holly West's Mistress of Fortune and David Liss's The Whiskey Rebels, but the best of the bunch manage to write compelling tales even when you know the outcome of history. And you get to learn tidbits they don't teach you in school, which is always a joy.

Another great novel I missed was Gravesend by William Boyle, which is getting republished now that his novel The Lonely Witness is out in hardback. His first novel was with Broken River, with a lowing blurb from Megan Abbott, but didn't get much reach. Set in that neighborhood of Brooklyn, it weaves a story of three Italian-Americans: Conway, whose brother Duncan was gay-bashed by a local thug sixteen years ago, arming himself to deal with the killer as he is released from prison; Alessandra, who left for Hollywood and has come crawling back as her star fizzled, and Eugene, the killer's nephew, who worships him. The story doesn't go where you think, and for a short book it is as broad and thrilling as a season of The Wire.




Not many writers get Italian-Americans right, but everyone thinks they can write them because they watched Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Boyle--like me, a paisan with an Irish surname--knows the life personally, and writes the best Italian-American crime story I've read since ever. There's no glorification, he can slam us because he loves us, he is us. Too many crime novels use the Italian Goon Named Bruno as the go-to dumb thug who the P.I. can disarm with ease. I personally find these as offensive as the inarticulate thug of color that was used as the racist bugaboo in an earlier era, but I'm not going to say it's the same. Italians are considered white now, and we have the privilege that comes with it.
A bar that features in Gravesend

I worked with people involved with organized crime when I was at the port, and I knew Little Sammy Corsaro, who was accused of many things--including a plot to firebomb the offices of an organized crime taskforce--and they are nothing like the loud, brutish cartoons. They are usually quiet and polite. They do not want attention. I love Scorsese as much as the next guido, but he focuses on outliers who are taken down by their hubris, not the everyday mob guy. The loud ones are usually wannabes. Boyle of course involves a local mob boss, and he is perfect. He has the confidence of an emperor in the Colosseum, but no bluster. You don't need bluster when you have power. (See also Frank Lucas, the Harlem kingpin from American Gangster, who can shoot a man in the street and walk away, knowing no one will rat).

The reissue comes out in September, and is worth your time. And if you want to write Italian mobsters, use it as a reference instead of the Dapper Don and Joe Pesci.



19 March 2014

Paddy v. Puzo, et.al.



by Robert Lopresti

I was watching the local Saint Patrick's Day parade (lots of horses, bicyclists, and bagpipers, all drenched in green), and suddenly an old memory popped into my head.  So I thought I would share this anecdote discussing the profound influence crime fiction has had on popular culture.  Or possibly it's just a silly story.  But to the best of my knowledge and memory, it's true.

I went to high school in New Jersey.  Every March 17 people at my school celebrated Saint Patrick's Day in the usual way.  Wear green or get pinched.  KISS ME I'M IRISH buttons.  Shamrock jewelry.  Nothing unusual there.

But there were some people of Italian ancestry who got irritated. Why did the Irish get all the attention?  And so they announced, completely inaccurately, that the day after Saint Patrick's Day was Saint Luigi's Day, a celebration of Italian-American heritage.  And they came in, dressed appropriately.

Now, this was just after Mario Puzo's classic novel The Godfather was published, so that was how they chose to dress.  Like 1940s gangsters.

Do I need to say I'm not making this up?  I should probably say that while I am half-Italian and one-eighth Irish, I was not part of this group.

Every year it got more and more elaborate.  By the time I was a senior some of the celebrants were arriving on March 18th in  a rented limousine with violin cases containing toy machine guns.

(And let's ponder that for a moment.  What would happen nowadays to a high school kid who even suggested bringing a toy machine gun to school?  He'd be on a plane to Guantanamo before gym class.)

So at long last we graduated and went off to jobs or academe.  One friend of mine, Tim, went to college in Baltimore where he shared a house with several other students.  One day a housemate was strolling through an alley (and what he was doing in a Baltimore alley alone is probably a good story in itself, but I don't know it.)  There, lying on top of a trash can, was a dry cleaner's bag. 

He peeked inside and saw a suit.  Not just any suit, but the kind of suit you would expect to see in the movie version of The Godfather.  Apparently someone had taken this gangster-style outfit to the dry cleaners, picked it up, and then threw it out.  Why?  Who knows?

Tim's friend took it home, check it for bloodstains and bullet holes, and tried it on.  Alas, it was too slim for him.  (Maybe that was the original owner's problem too, come to think of it.)  It turned out to be a perfect fit for Tim, so he graciously passed it on.  Now all Tim needed was an occasion to wear it to.

Now it happened that Tim's university. like many others, had an event called Casino Night, where students could gamble with tokens.  Perfect!  And Tim had a friend who made his pocket money betting on this or the other, and sometimes wore an outfit Tim referred to as "racetrack tout."  So picture the two of them strolling around Casino Night, catching the eye of more conventionally dressed college students.

The friend was sitting at the poker table while Tim stood behind him, standing somberly in his
gangster outfit, both of them looking like they had just strolled out of a noir picture.

And then a female college student,  unknown to Tim, marched up and demanded to know:  "Why are you dressed like that?"

Tim replied with his best Brooklyn accent (which is how people think those from the Garden State talk).  "I'm from New Joisey.  Everyone in New Joisey dresses like this."

"No!  They only dress like that on Saint Luigi's Day!"

And Tim said "WHAT?"

Turns out she had gone to our high school, a couple of years behind us.  They had never met. 

I hope you had a pleasant holiday, and if you didn't wear green, I hope you didn't get pinched.  And kids, if you bring a toy machine gun to school, you will definitely  get pinched.