On Watching “The Sopranos”

 

Well, I finally watched The Sopranos; all seven seasons beginning to end.

Those who know me know I never watched the show.  Not once.  I had the gut feeling that it was stereotypical of the television and Hollywood treatment of Italian-Americans.  Demeaning, but we were all supposed to laugh.  I was not disappointed.

Imagine, if you will, an updated television version of the old radio show “The Goldbergs,” in which the normal, middle-class Jewish patriarch pulls off some financial scams on the sly. How about a show called “The Tongs,” where the normal, middle-class Asian American dad operates a heroin ring out of the back of his popular Chinese restaurant?  Or a show about Mexican drug gangs or black on black violence between east coast – west coast rappers?

Would such shows be considered preposterous and racist? Absolutely, and with good reason: They promote gross, one-dimensional stereotypes of individual American groups.

“The Sopranos,” not only reveled in negative, cartoonish images of a specific community–Italian Americans–but was congratulated for doing so.  Even many Italian-Americans thought the show was the best thing since sliced bread.  Being of Italian descent I personally don’t care much for sliced bread.

“In the end, “The Sopranos” turned out to be just another gangster show, a seven-year, blood-and-guts “Goodfellas” soap opera.

Psychologically dark and complex, yes, but nothing we didn’t see in “One, or Two,” (which is how Tony’s crew labeled, with reverence, “The Godfather.”)

Funny, too, in a Joe Pesci kind of way.

But also predictable.

Because it constantly fell back on, rather than challenged, stereotypes, as TV almost always does. Let us count the ways: Italian men mostly as angry, semi-educated, gabagool-shoveling slobs. New Jersey mostly as an ugly, industrial, tree-barren urban wasteland populated by angry, semi-educated gabagool-shoveling slobs. Italian wives as either fat or slender naggers, or beaten-down abuse victims, all happy to be bought off by cars, jewelry or Italianate living room sets. Italian Rutgers students as bullies and drunken frat boys.  And of course every Italian husband has a “goomah” whom he keeps and showers with gifts while his accepting wife suffers in silence; after all boys will be boys.  Yeah, right.

In “The Sopranos,” the Scorsese-variety lowbrow mobsters like Paulie Walnuts were not much more than cartoon characters, unless they were the old-school Coppola-brand stand-up guys like Phil Leotardo, another stereotype.

Vito was gay, so he had to be shown dancing in Brando-biker leathers, like one of the Village People.

This passed for groundbreaking genius.”

The early promise of the show was that it would be a metaphor for third- and fourth-generation assimilation into modern suburban life. The Great Wave Immigrants at 100.

The kids, once the silent junior partners in a family, are now overindulged and the center of all family life. The father, once unquestioned, no longer gets respect for free, if at all. The mother, once a head-down homemaker, wants more, but of what? American consumerism and pop culture have crushed traditional values. The old ways are a wistful memory, replaced by a mishmashed family structure and the disappointment of failing to achieve a Hallmark-card home life.

Life in America was supposed to be easier. Instead, this lifestyle has somehow led to incredibly corrosive stress.

“The Sopranos” seemed poised to tackle the themes of our Prozac nation.

That David Chase, the writer who grew up DeCesare, chose a gangster and his family as the vehicle was unfortunate, but predictable. Stereotypes always are more palatable to entertainment executives  than complex characters. From Amos ‘n’ Andy to Archie Bunker to Tony Soprano, stereotyping remains the staple of our pop culture, especially television.

The ambitious assimilation themes all but dissipated by mid-run. The scenes of Tony S. squirming as he tried to schmooze with neighbor-golfers at a backyard barbecue or rushing into his daughter’s choral recital still sweating from “work” were gone, replaced by more conventional mob stuff.

“The Sopranos” sold out.

This is not written lightly. This is written with some degree of pain. Because unlike the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and early ethnic and racial stereotypes, the chief purveyors of these negative and in some cases destructive images come from within. In Italian-American circles, it has been done by the most talented directors, writers and actors. Coppola, Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino. Pesci.  Now DeCesare and Gandolfini.

Sacrilege? No, truth.

They have solidified the image of Italian-Americans as goons. Over-emotional, anti-intellectual, hot-headed, stupid goons.  Worse, it gives some impressionable Italian-American young men  a role model for acting like wannabe goons. Don’t believe it? Cruise the bars at the Jersey shore this summer and watch the “guidos” from Staten Island, North Jersey and South Philly act it out, especially near closing time.

The real story of American immigrant assimilation — Jewish, Italian, Hungarian, Indian, Mexican — is much more interesting and nuanced and complicated and deserves better than being illuminated in gangster shows.

The turning point came in 1969 with the phenomenal financial success of the late Mario Puzo’s fictional pulp novel, “The Godfather.” Before that, Italian gangster images, like images of other groups, were considered antiquated and offensive, something you wouldn’t bring up in polite company. Yet Puzo’s book, along with Francis Ford Coppola’s lush, romantic treatment of it three years later, literally enshrined Italian stereotypes and made them respectable. It has been a nonstop orgy oever since; Growing up Gotti; Jersey Shore; Mob Wives. Hey, there’s money to be made!

The real life story of assimilation is not very interesting.  A young boy, growing up with two parents in Brooklyn, though poor, growing up in a safe neighborhood.  A stay at home mom.  Attending good safe schools.  Finding a Summer job each year from age 13 on to high school graduation at 16 skipping the 8th grade entirely.  Graduating on a Thursday and going to a full time job on Monday in the mailroom of a major New York bank.

No money for college so he attended at night after work earning his B.A in economics.  Served in the Army for four years during Vietnam.  Married his high school sweetheart from the same background as he.  Had four children; buried two and raised two fine, successful daughters.  Never once in forty years of marriage were his wife or children ever struck.  His daughters graduated from Rutgers and Monmouth University with no debt to speak of.  No drugs.  No drinking excessively.  No unwanted pregnancies.  No drama.  They both married fine men.

He always owned a home from the time he left the service.  He never got rich but he made a living – honorably.  It’s all he ever wanted.  A decent life, a home and a future for his children.

That is the story in a nut shell of this Italian-American.  Too boring for Hollywood.

“But criminal stereotypes pay in American pop culture.

And there is no shortage of writers and actors who will exploit that no matter how it hurts the overall image of their people or sets them back in the greater public’s mind. Even if it means kids might beat each other or shoot each other in the streets to mimic glorified criminal behavior.

Ralphie from “The Sopranos” had a word for it.

“Whoo-ores”

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Steve Bannon Out.

It is being generally reported in the media that Steve Bannon has been booted from his role as the Trumpster’s chief strategist.   Too bad.    🙂

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Plain Girl – A Re-Post

A plain girl dressed by Walmart
holds her books against her breasts
looking down at the floor through unfashionable glasses
while walking down the hall to English lit.

No one sees her running the gauntlet
‘cept of course the mean girls, laughing among themselves
‘bout how she’s really only good for a quick suck
which ain’t sex anyway.

She will eat her lunch alone, return to a silent apartment
fix dinner for her cashier mom, go to the bathroom,
slit her torso with a razor shedding the blood of a lamb
in a two inch bright red line.

She will smile all the while
through the exquisite pain
soothed by the flow
of blood sacrifice.

And when she graduates and no one ‘cept her mother
will think to send her a card or deign to sign her yearbook
the shedding of her blood in the two inch bright red line
reassures her she is still alive.

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The Gallant South and Confederate Memorials

 

Until Dylann Roof murdered 9 African-Americans at a Charleston church because they were black the Great State of South Carolina still proudly flew the battle flag of the Confederate States of America – part of the “heritage” ya know. And here in my adopted city of Tampa we too have those with the “heritage’.  A 50’X30′ foot Confederate flag flies in Tampa, Florida, the metro area where I now live. It flies on private property at the intersection of I-75 and I-4.  The property was purchased specifically to fly the battle flag of the Slave State by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Application was made to the City Counsel for a zoning variance for an extra high flag pole to “fly a flag”.  The pole is 139 feet high.  Illumination at night ensures the flag is seen for miles.  No one apparently told the City Counsel which flag.  Then again maybe they did.  When the Republican Convention was here in 2011 some enterprising young men thought of running tours so the delegates could go out and take pictures. Of course the flag is there because of “our heritage”.

Let us look at that heritage for a moment. Over 5,000 lynchings occurred in the United States between the end of the Civil War and the mid 1960s. Eighty five percent of lynchings occurred in the Gallant South.  Florida (not Alabama; not Mississippi) had the highest number of lynchings per capita of it’s black population – between 1880 – 1940 over 200.  Alachua and Marion Counties led the way. The year 1892 was a peak year when 161 African Americans were lynched in America.  That’s one lynching every other day.

The creation of the Jim Crow laws, beginning in the 1890s, completed the revival of white supremacy in the South.

The Presidential election of 1876 resulted in a narrow popular vote victory for Samuel Tilden, Governor of New York, the Democrat over the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. While Tilden had an electoral college plurality of 184-165 he did not have a majority as required by the U.S. Constitution. He needed 185 votes,  South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana sent two sets of electors, one pledged to each. There were deals to be made.

The election went to the House which formed a 15 man Commission (5 from the House, 5 from the Senate and 5 Justices) to decide the disputed electoral votes.

The commission via the Southern Electors eventually awarded the Presidency to Hayes in return for a commitment to the Southern electors to remove Federal troops from Southern states.  The vote was 185-184 in favor of Hayes. The election of Hayes and the withdrawal of Federal troops from the south signaled the imposition of Jim Crow and the beginning of another hundred years of black oppression

Terror and lynching were used to enforce both these formal laws and a variety of unwritten rules of conduct meant to assert white domination.   In most years from 1889 to 1923, there were 50–100 lynchings annually across the South.

And it was not just “lynching”.  It was torturing, castrating, burning alive.  ISIS has nothing on us.

The Klan in Tampa – 1923

The ideology behind lynching, directly connected with denial of political and social equality, was stated forthrightly by Benjamin Tillman, Governor of South Carolina later a United States Senator: “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

Yes there were some lynchings outside the Confederate States – Arizona, Montana, Minnesota even New York but the vast majority occurred in the Gallant South. Yes people other than black people were lynched – Sicilians in New Orleans, whites in Montana – but the vast majority were black citizens.

Americans made postcards of lynchings. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, lynching was photographic sport. People sent picture postcards of lynchings they had witnessed. The practice was so base, a writer for Time noted in 2000, “Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz but lynching scenes became a burgeoning sub-department of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U. S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails.”  Still the cards were made as souvenirs.  Just under a hundred of the cards can be seen at: http://withoutsanctuary.org/main.html

With so many lynchings to choose from let us just pick one.  Rubin Stacy was lynched in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in July 1935. Yes, that Ft. Lauderdale where the kids come for Spring break and where my eldest daughter, her husband and my grandson now live.  Yes, 1935 during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Rubin Stacy was born in Georgia sometime between 1899 and 1907. No one knows for sure. No sense keeping records of negro births. He left Georgia and came to Florida where he heard there would be more opportunity for work which was hard to come by in 1935 for white folks let alone a black man.

He found no work. He was starving. He knocked on the door of a white woman, Marion Jones, begging for food.  She screamed at the sight of a black man at her door. Six Sheriff’s Deputies took Rubin Stacy to jail for having the audacity to knock on the door of a local good white woman begging for food. A mob broke into the jail (how convenient – ever try breaking into a jail?), took Rubin Stacy back to the Marion Jones’ house and hanged him from a tree on the property. And then they took pictures:

In the picture, Rubin Stacy is dead, hanging from the tree. In the background a group of fine citizens hanging around looking on with satisfaction.  And then there are the children.

Take a good look at the cute, little white girl, hands crossed in front of her.  She may still be alive.   She is smiling and wearing her Sunday best.  What is she thinking while surveying this hideously grotesque scene?  She is not the Klan. She is the daughter of ordinary law abiding Southern folk.  Probably a nice church going family.  How is she capable of a smile at the torture and murder of a black man?

Did she take a closer look at his body?  Did she collect a souvenir? Keep it in her room? Did she poke the body with a stick?

Look at the little girl closely and see the faces of America not that long ago.  Staring with glee.  Staring with victory in the eyes.  Just an ordinary Summer afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale.

In these photos and in the faces of a little girl is the “heritage” of the Slave State. And that is the great shame a battle flag of the Slave State brings to the South, to South Carolina and to my city.

Perhaps it will help others to  understand the feelings of millions of our fellow citizens when they pass those battle flags and confederate monuments on state property; monuments supported by their tax dollars.

For too long our nation has mythologized the “old South” and the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson which might have been necessary after the Civil War but is certainly not necessary today.  We have made it into something it never was – a nostalgic version of Gone with the Wind; a would-be nation in rebellion against the Union.  It wanted above all to remain a slave state with ambitions of expanding into Latin America bringing its slave plantation, feudal economy along with it.  And its “heroes” supported that goal.  The so-called “freedom” they were fighting for was not for all and never was meant to be. That is why the Confederate battle flag now proudly marches with swastikas.

All Confederate monuments should be removed from state property.  If the “Sons of the Confederacy” wants to buy a piece of private property to display their heroes, they are free to do so.

P.S. – Baltimore quietly took down 4 Confederate memorials during the middle of last night.

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Help Wanted – Prison Camp Guards

 

Charlottesville – Three dead

The young man in the center with a black shield ran his car into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters killing a young thirty one year old woman.  Additionally, two police officers surveying the demonstration from a helicopter were killed when the helicopter crashed.

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In Paris, Brussels

Lublin and Krakow

Auschwitz Birkenau

and yes, Berlin

be aware the evil lurks among us

We have seen him

staring from old posters

singing to our children

come to life again

Evil with the handsome face.

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On VJ Day

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School Yard Bullies With Nukes

Well this week in America we beheld two school yard bullies, two man-babies with nuclear weapons leveling threats at each other.

“What are you looking at!?”  “Talk to me like that again and I’m gonna kick your ass!”   “You’re gonna be sorry pal!”  As I mentioned in passing, these two have nukes and could incinerate millions as they hurl bombast and invective at each other.

Our carrot top “deal maker” President threatens to incinerate North Korea while young Kim, who idolizes Dennis Rodman responds by threatening to nuke Guam.  Meanwhile, thirty million inhabitants of Seoul, 35 miles from the border shake their heads and wait with bated breath.

Once we had sensible, level headed men leading this nation in crisis.  Once upon a time we had thousands of atomic and hydrogen bombs pointed at us, mounted on ICBMs we KNEW could obliterate every major American city.  The Soviet Union was not North Korea.  I vividly remember crawling under my desk at school.

And yet no bombs fell.    General war with the USSR never broke out, not through the Berlin air lift, Korean War, the Hungarian revolt,  the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, Afghanistan.   Calm, steady leadership and the policies of containment and MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction got us through 50 years of nuclear terror.

Unfortunately we have elected a President with a narcissistic personality disorder and seriously arrested development.   We  no longer have a serious leadership and our impotence is plain for all to see as the Trumpster practically begs China to rein in N.K.

“Is North Korea different from the Soviet Union? Of course. Is anyone comfortable with the fact that North Korea is building nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit the United States? Of course not. But the point is: We’ve lived with such threats before, and there is simply no reason to believe that the deterrent capabilities we’ve had in place to prevent North Korea from attacking South Korea and American forces there since the end of the Korean War will not continue to work. North Korea’s ruling Kim family is homicidal, but it has not survived for three generations in power by being suicidal. And firing a nuclear missile at us would be suicide.”

What disturbs Washington no end is that North Korea has acquired the means to strike back at us or our allies which now makes aggressive military action against the regime mch more dangerous.  It takes a preemptive first strike off of the table.  A serious President would not desperately seek negotiations on terms sure to fail and threaten a war that would be catastrophic politically, militarily and morally.

“A serious president would seize the diplomatic initiative with a strategy that serves our interests, protects our stakes in the Asia-Pacific theater, solidifies and keeps faith with our allies, doesn’t harm American-Chinese relations but also doesn’t discard 70 years of post-World War II American leadership in that region waiting for China to rescue us.”

North Korea has one strength and many profound weaknesses which can eventually prove fatal.  Time is on our side as it was with the USSR.  A containment strategy with constant pressure and deterence is our least bad option.  While some situations are unacceptable they do not lend themselves to short term fixes.  The NK challenge is one of them.

Kim wants to survive.  He will not lob a nuke anywhere unless he is attacked.   He is simply showing us that he can lob a nuke or two making a first strike military option untenable on our part.  Certainly both of our allies, South Korea and Japan, which would be easy targets, as well as China would oppose such action.

So put a deal on the table; a  formal peace proposal so the world — especially South Korea and China — see that America is serious about solving the problem. The more the whole world sees us as the solution and not as a country led by someone just as crazy, irrational and unstable as North Korea, the more leverage we will have.

“What should the American proposal say? It should tell the North Koreans that in return for their complete denuclearization and dismantling of their missile program, we would establish full diplomatic relations; end the economic embargo and sanctions; and provide economic assistance, investment and a peace treaty to replace the 64-year-old armistice agreement. “Each side could commit to those objectives at the outset, with the timeline and key implementing framework to be negotiated,” he added. “There would be nothing in such an agreement that would be contrary to U.S. national security interests, and it would provide to North Korea the security that it claims justifies its nuclear weapons programs.”

It’s called the art of the deal.”

Kim, who is obsessed with possessing nuclear weapons to defend his regime will most likely reject it.   Putting a deal on the table however will go a long way toward convincing South Korea, Japan as well as China and Russia that we are prepared to put an attractive deal forward as well as blunt Kim’s position that he needs nukes for his defense.  Rejection by NK will go a long way in convincing South Korea to support a serious strategy of deterrence, containment and pressure.

“We didn’t get into this North Korea problem the short way, and we are not going to get out of it the short way. But the least bad option now is to gear up for a long game that contains, deters and isolates a nuclear-armed North Korea — by getting China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to see that America is ready to make peace with North Korea’s regime if it will abandon its nuclear weapons — and to keep that game going until the North either relents or cracks.”

The more we freak out about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the more leverage it has. Instead we should be telling Kim Jong-Un: “Hey, pal, not impressed with your nuclear toys, been there, done that with the Soviet Union. Time is on our side — and now the whole world is asking why you won’t accept our credible peace proposal.”  Kim already knows that starting a conflict will be the end of the regime.  The attack submarine Kentucky alone carries enough weaponry to obliterate North Korea.

Such a long term strategy of containment, deterrence and economic pressure worked against the USSR; it can certainly work against NK.

Unfortunately we do not have a President capable of implementing  a long term strategy.  He would rather blather in language no different than Kim’s, filled with the bluster of a 12 year old school yard bully.

“Trump was on permanent public display, raging over mere slights, seeing plots in every ill turn of events and, as always, stunningly self-absorbed. He was called a racist, a sexist and a bully. But his mental health issues were euphemized as problems of “temperament.” He lied ceaselessly, reflexively and clumsily, but his lies were called merely “unproven” or, later, “false.” The New York Times called the birther story a lie only after Trump grudgingly retracted it. Not till he was safe in office claiming that millions of phantom immigrants cast votes for Clinton did the paper of record use the word “lie” in reference to a tale Trump was still telling.”

The danger is, of course, that the administration will start a war to deflect attention from the on-going investigations of the Russian connection.  And, in this brave new world, he can do it all by himself, Congress having abrogated its power to decide when war is to be waged decades ago.

Two days ago the Trumpster publically attacked Venezuela, declaring we are looking at all options, including military solutions to the civil strife in that country.

This week the world watched two men of obvious, serious emotional impairment in control of ungodly nuclear weapons trade puerile taunts while threatening to incinerate millions of innocent human beings.

You don’t need to be a botanist to tell a rose from a dandelion.  You needn’t be an amateur diagnostician to see that Donald Trump is mentally ill.

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Look at me!!

I’m so tall!  And I have my own chair!!

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