Articles by: Stanislao Pugliese

  • Op-Eds

    The Italian American Community’s War on Negative Stereotypes: a Failure

    Some random thoughts:

    In charging Italians and Italian Americans with confronting the “unbearable prejudice” of association with organized crime, Saviano has actually reminded us of our collective responsibilities. Like Paul Ginsborg, Maurizio Viroli, Alexander Stille and others who, in examining the phenomenon of “Berlusconismo” have charged Italians with the responsibility of such a deplorable political development, Saviano grants agency to Italians and Italian Americans. We are not just the passive victims of the reality and the representations of Mafia and Camorra, but are (or should be) the writers of our own history.

    At a recent conference on Naples at Hofstra University, I was stunned and outraged when several people in the audience (not academics or scholars) criticized us for having organized a panel on the neo-melodica musical tradition in Naples and its relationship with the Camorra. How dare we criticize Naples and defame the Neapolitans? I asked: “Are we supposed to only talk about pizza and ‘O sole mio’”?

    As much as I admire Tom Verso’s writing, I think he overstates his criticism of Saviano.  One of the more interesting aspects of Saviano’s journalism and his talk at NYU is the insistence on the inter-connected relationship between capitalism and organized crime; between crisis capitalism and criminal capitalism, or, what I have called in my course on Naples last semester as students and I were discussing Saviano’s book, “capitalism on crack cocaine.” Included here is Saviano’s explicit condemnation of the “legitimate” economy. What does it mean when Citibank openly launders $200 from Raul Salinas (brother of former Mexico president Carlos Salinas) who had an “official” salary of $190,000?  To paraphrase Mario Puzo: “you can steal more money with the point of a pen [or the click of a mouse] than with the point of a gun.” How are we to interpret that just three weeks after the fall of Berlusconi, Michele Zagaria, infamous Camorra boss, is arrested in Naples after being sought by the police for nearly two decades?

    There is currently in vogue a tendency to criticize Saviano as a lightweight, a media-hound, a celebrity in love with his persona. I was in Pescara in July 2010 when he received the Premio Flaiano and moved when he thanked the people and police of that city for putting him up at a seaside hotel where he could hear the ocean at night instead of the usual police barracks he was used to.  The death threats against him are real and he should be credited with showing us a more sophisticated understanding of organized crime.
    Also, note how Saviano speaks about the reporting of organized crime: it is much easier to speak about the depravities of bosses, of their ostentatious villas and Hollywood-inspired dress, clothing and mannerisms, of rendering the AK-47 into a fetish object. (Gomorra – both book and film – are guilty of this to some degree.)  It is much more difficult, as Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino did, as Saviano does, to understand the incredibly complex web of legality and illegality, commerce and cocaine, consumerism and violence, banking and bullets. This is what truly renders him a dangerous man in the eyes of others.

    I would suggest that, like the “war on poverty”, the “war on drugs” and the “war on terrorism,” the Italian American community’s war on negative stereotypes to date has been a failure.  Protesting negative media representations is all well and good, but what we are lacking is a sense of the ironic and tragic nature of history.  

    “Italy is a country that’s forgotten how its emigrants were treated in the United States, how the discrimination they suffered was precisely what allowed the Mafia to take root there.” Saviano wrote in an op-ed essay for the New York Times on January 24, 2010, commenting on how recent African immigrants to Calabria were struggling against the ‘Ndrangheta. “It was extremely difficult for many Italian immigrants, who did not feel protected or represented by anyone else, to avoid the clutches of the mob. It’s enough to remember Joe Petrosino, the Italian-born New York City police officer who was murdered in 1909 for taking on the Mafia, to recognize the price honest Italians paid.”

    I recently learned that Saviano’s mother is from the tiny Jewish community in Naples. So perhaps it is fitting that we recall the saying of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret to redemption.”

    Stanislao Pugliese is professor of history and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University. He is the author, most recently, of “Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone.”

  • Life & People

    Una tragedia ridicola

    While the world-wide success of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra brought us directly into the dark heart of Naples’ Camorra, Francesco Durante’s Scuorno offers an enlightened and enlightening brief introduction into the cultural mindset of Neapolitan culture. 

    Durante, born on the island of Capri, has made a living as a musician, translator,editor and professor of literature, and is known in Naples as a journalist and the editor of the works of Domenico Rea while in the United States he is perhaps better known as the author of the monumental, two-volume project Italoamericana: Storia e letteratura degli italiani negli Stati Uniti.  

    The catalyst for this book, and Durante’s point of departure, is the recent crisi dell’immondizia oppure, per i napoletani “a munnezza.” Italians around the world were embarrassed to see images of mountains of garbage fermenting in the streets of Naples with the obligatory panoramic images of Vesuvius or the Bay of Naples in the background.  No less than the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, took it upon himself to “solve” the crisis, promising to move the government to Naples until the emergency was resolved. As Durante points out, thinking of deep-rooted structural problems as “emergencies” has been a particular feature of the Neapolitan consciousness.

    Durante begins his book with a lament: “Siamo stati la città dell’ultima epidemia di colera in Europa (1973). Quella  del terremoto (1980). Quella delle ricorrenti faide di camorra . . . . Ora, dell’immondizia.” This led him to reflect on Naples, Neapolitans and Neapolitan history using sociology, anthropology, architecture, engineering, geography and politics. Naples and the Neapolitans have always occupied a unique place in the mental topography of Italians and other Europeans. For every Goethe who delighted in the aesthetics of the city (“non sarà mai del tutto infelice chi può ritornare col pensiero a Napoli”), there was someone such as Auguste Creuzé De Lesser who in 1806 wrote, in his Voyage en Italie et en Sicile “L’Euope finit à Naples et meme elle y finit très mal.” (Which Durante uses as the epigraph for this book.) Napoli, wrote Walter Benajamin, è veramente bellissima – vista da lontano. Insomma, Napoli è “il paradiso abitato dai diavoli.” To its credit, Naples is a living, breathing metropolis, not a theme park like Venice. È una città poliglotta e proteiforme.  

     Naples drowning in garbage is, for Durante, similar to the image of New Orleans literally drowning in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But as in Saviano’s Gomorra, we discover that the Neapolitan are only partially responsible for the tragedy: much of the garbage that finds its way to Campagna comes from the north, from Lombardia and the Veneto, regions that pride themselves on their cleanliness and their lawfulness but which take advantage of another culture in the Mezzogiorno. Durante recognizes that the “disastro” as he calls it, “è lento, silenzioso, strisciante, diffuso. Come molte cose napoletane, non ha né capo nè coda, ed è perciò più difficile da governare.”

    As with the Camorra, as with the corruption that followed the 1980 earthquake, aswith the cholera epidemic, the crisis works to confirm the worst stereotypes and deep-rooted prejudices about Naples including the supposed ability of Neapolitans to live in chaos, but all this “induce all’ironia, al sarcasmo, e anche al riso. Una tragedia ridicola insomma, e quanto tale tipicamente nostrana.” 

    The Greek humus of Naples is never far from the surface. Chaos is the reigning deity and for Durante, the sympathetic figure of Antonio Bassolino, the center-left mayor of the city in the mid 1990s, was a figure in a Greek tragedy, a victim of hubris. The good citizens of Naples know full well that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The writer Valeria Parrella comments that “prima magari ti accoltellavano per fame, ora lo fanno per prenderti il cellulare.” And yet they remain; or, if they leave, as did Durante (twice) they return. “Lontano a Napule, non si po’ sta” says the song. 

    Here there are thoughts on the Neapolitan dialect, the popularity of the presepe, women, transvestites, sex and religion: besides San Gennaro the city has 51 patron saints, leading Durante to conclude that it was not the Angiovins, the Bourbons, the French or the Spanish who molded the Neapolitans, but the priests.  

    A great delight is Durante’s meditation on the miracles (or failures) of San Gennaro (“ineffabilmente incomprensibile”), the Socratic dialogues with friends about the city, the mania for the lotto and dream interpretation, and the reminders of the works of Raffaele La Capria, Domenico Rea, Erri De Luca, Anna Maria Ortense, Giambattista Basile and even Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.  

    The book ends with the enduring and delightful image of a small statue of Pulcinella, that indomitable Neapolitan, on a spaceship orbiting the earth. To find out how he got there and his fate, the reader should read this book. 

    Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of “Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone”        

    Francesco Durante, Scuorno (Vergogna) Milan: Mondadori, 2008. 211 pp, € 17.50.