The Columbus Day Thing

advocacy, culture, Italian, Italian Americans, politics

Remember when Kay lambasts Michael about “this Sicilian thing?”

My Southern Italian roots are Campanian, but you get the point.

I hate the nickname of the Washington, DC football team.  I think it’s a slur and shouldn’t be used.

I hate the Columbian Exchange.  I hate how Columbus himself thought of and treated indigenous people.  I hate how many of the actual founders of this country felt about the indigenous people of this continent and the indigenous people of Africa.

I want a progressive, literary Italian-American to tell me how to feel about October as Italian Heritage Month.

But I also want progressive WASPS, Italian-Americans, and everyone else to be honest about the degree to which Anti-Italian and Anti-Italian-American tropes are widespread and acceptable in everything from journalism to children’s television.

I get it.  We’re white. But we’re not named Smith or Jones or Rogers or some other thing from the Shire.  We are without a doubt privileged because of our whiteness, even if our whiteness has only been wholly accepted in the third or fourth generation. We’re not hated the way other non-WASP people are, but we’re still gangsters and clowns and cartoon plumbers.  As originally olive-skinned, non-Anglo whites, we benefit from the disassociation of “American” from white.  Columbus Day was meant to cast us in proud contrast to other whites, Anglo whites, the same ones casting us as idiots, wop-shaming us as a matter of practice and policy.  Columbus Day is full of these kinds of ethnically, racially charged ironies.  As human beings, Italian-Americans ought to despise the evils inherent to the Colombian Exchange. I’m sure most of us do.  We struggled as Other for over a century, a situation mitigated and frustrated by our fringe position within canonical whiteness. Here we share much with Irish-Americans, even if they had an easier time WASP-passing sooner because of language and hue.

How should we celebrate our historical struggle without becoming the locus of marginalizing power ourselves?  Should we get a pass on Columbus, or should we lead the charge in finding an alternative icon for ourselves, for the spirit that brought our ancestors here, and our shared belief in what American can be regardless of what it sometimes is?


My Intellectual School Yard Crush on Camille Paglia Continues


It’s not just because she’s an Italian-American from a rusted-out industrial town and happens to live an hour down the road in Philadelphia.  It’s always been because her missives are so full of things I agree with, things I don’t, and things I’ve never really thought of before.

Matt Drudge linked to Paglia’s new WSJ piece today with a pull-quote about the iPhone’s dearth of spiritual import.  But the ever-awesome first lady of Libertarian Democrats was also talking about a million other things.  She nails the intellectual-political orthodoxy of the upper-middle class liberal establishment.  She doesn’t go this far, but that’s the stuff that allows people who called George Bush a war criminal to gloss over Barack Obama’s illegal, indiscriminate drone campaigns abroad.   She’s too easy on capitalism (it has more than “weaknesses”), but she’s right about some of the social goods it has helped produce, and she’s right that we artists need to continue developing ways to move or supplement our work.  If I’d learned the skill of book-binding in college, I’d handcraft a story collection myself instead of outsourcing.  Everyone my age and social-ethnic caste (we Clinton teens*) was made to believe being smart + working hard in college = everything.  We should have spent more time doing art.  Yes, they taught us how to silk screen in junior high, but none of us were old or poor enough to see the revolutionary potential in things like that.  I wish we had.

Paglia is the best kind of contrarian: supremely intelligent, obsessively thoughtful, naturally eloquent.  When I get a little smarter, I’d sure love to meet her.

* (white, lower-middle class, benefiting, at least for a while, from the economic upswing of the 90s.)