Race, Racism, and Italian-American Crimefighters – Part 4:

The Punisher, Immigrants, and the Middle-Class Squeeze

This article appeared originally in the anthology Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs, and Gentlemen (2009), edited by Elwood Watson. I’m reprinting it here because I believe it has things to say about Italian-Americans, law enforcement, and race relations in the New York tri-state area that may shed some light on the cultural context of the killing of Eric Garner. Please keep in mind that the length of this essay requires that it be serialized. Try not to judge its contents too quickly but wait for the entire piece to be published online.

The Punisher comic books belong to the same disturbing pop culture family as 1970s and 1980s slasher movies, exploitation crime films, and rape revenge narratives like I Spit on Your Grave. Film historians have argued that these exploitation films were a natural outgrowth of the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as a backlash against the “Love Generation,” and all endorsed a conservative worldview. Unsurprisingly, in the contemporary political environment created by the Iraq War, the Punisher is back and Quentin Tarantino is gleefully trying to resurrect the 1970s exploitation film in Grindhouse. And everything old is new again.

And what of the Italian-Americans of the Iraq war generation?

Who are they and what is their relationship to this grotesque character?

In recent years, the growth of the discipline of Italian-American studies in academia has inspired the writing of several excellent books about the Italian-American experience by members of the “baby-boom” generation. These works, which include Robert Viscusi’s Buried Casears (2006) and Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo (2004), have used autobiographical anecdotes, historical research, and sociological data to chronicle the journey of enculturation that many Italian-American families made over a period of several generations. Such works invariably begin with a discussion of the arrival of the main wave of immigrants at Ellis Island and follow the displaced Italians to urban centers such as Rochester or Brooklyn, where they survived in an alien land by clustering together in “Little Italy” neighborhoods and toiling in jobs involving hard physical labor and unjustly low pay. From such humble beginnings, these working-class Italians saved enough to send their children to college, or to enable their progeny to begin their own small businesses. Within the span of two or three generations, many Italian-Americans felt that they had finally achieved the much-vaunted American Dream when the descendents of immigrants began trading in their one-bedroom city apartments for (semi-attached) homes in the suburbs of places like New Jersey and Staten Island.

Both Viscusi and Lubrano speak of the present-day Italian American as a middle-class figure, often a college professor in the humanities, or an executive with one home in Park Avenue and another in Tuscany, who is weary of the immigrant stereotype of the Mafia don that haunts the Italian-American public image and who has a love-hate relationship with films like The Godfather. For these authors, the greatest problem facing their contemporaries are identity issues tied up with the fact that, as financially and socially successful as Italian-Americans are, they do not feel “at home” anywhere. For Lubrano, the feeling of “Limbo” is one of class. Italians who were the first members of their family to graduate college never felt at home in the Protestant, middle-class communities they moved into (or the “WASPy” occupations they entered), nor could they ever feel at home again in the working-class communities they left behind. According to Viscusi, national identity remains the most contested problem as Italian-Americans are still not truly accepted either by the Italy they left behind or the America they came to. As he writes:

…consider the difficulties immigrant Italians needed to face in developing a discourse of their own entitlement in the millennial European project called America [after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci].  These new arrivals in no way could identify themselves directly with the ruling peoples.  The Anglo-Americans had resisted the entry of the Irish Catholics.  But now these groups began to cooperate in the definitive marginalizing of the Italians, who found themselves forming, and still do, a part of the vivid and highly decorated frame of American society, along with the blacks, the Latinos, and the Eastern European Jews.  Naturally, a society as mobile as that of the United States always has room to absorb some members of these border peoples into the operating centers, but much larger proportions remain, as before, to a greater or lesser degree visibly tattooed with their tribal or racial otherness.  For Italians this exclusion has been less rigid than for blacks or Latinos, but more rigid than for Jews and Irish Catholics.  In short, to the regional and class divisions of Italy has been added in the United States the machinery of ethnic boundary markers.  The borders are such that Italians who cross them must do so at the risk of losing their own possibilities of historical self-awareness.

…Not surprisingly, many Italians have refused to pay this price (146-147).

Despite the obvious anxiety in evidence here, the general narrative arc presented by both books suggests that, despite the presence of many obstacles – such as anti-Catholic bigotry, first-generation immigrant poverty – the Italians have succeeded in improving their lot in America with each successive generation.

As Viscusi observes,

Italians now come to New York, not to organize garbage trucks and cocaine dealers, but to represent major manufacturers, traders, and banks.  They have offices along Park Avenue.  They win lucrative contracts to build bridges and pipelines all over the world… From Greenwich, Connecticut, to Palo Alto, California, Italian American professionals have the financial and educational capital to appreciate the finer – that is, the more socially dominant – meanings of the word Italian…. These graduates of Stanford and Harvard do not resemble the candy store bookies and Brooklyn torpedoes who populate American Mafia films.  As Italian Americans move toward the notion that Italian means something central and authoritative, their impatience with the immigrant stigma grows.  Some spend huge amounts of money protesting the Mafia mythology.  Others simply buy themselves villas in Tuscany (31).

However, despite the fact that previous generations of Italian-Americans have seen their quality of life improve, and have seen the creation of a class of Italian-Americans who can afford to buy a house in Tuscany, this is the first generation in which Italians appear to be losing ground in their quests to finally achieve, and retain, their status as full-fledged Americans while holding on to their Italian heritage. Lubrano and Viscusi both effectively end their discussion with the “baby-boom” generation, and do not consider how members of Generation X, or the Millennial Generation, have fared in the face of additional problems such as the dissolution of the American family, the political polarization of the Culture Wars and the War on Terror, and the slowdown of the American economy. Naturally, all of these issues plague the baby boomers as well, but they are having a particularly disastrous effect on young Americans in general, who have not yet made their careers or begun their families.

Even as the media posits the possibility that Rudolph Giuliani might one day become the first Italian (and the second Roman Catholic) president, middle-class suburban Italian families seem to be fighting to keep up with their mortgages, health care and utility bills, and debt from college loans and credit cards used to help keep the family up with inflation. The financial strain has caused many Italian-Americans in their twenties and thirties to wonder why they bothered going to college when all that is open to them is a middle management job that involves sitting in a cubicle in an understaffed office entering data into a computer for more than forty hours a week with no health benefits and no chance of promotion. Truly, they are members of the Generation Debt described by Anya Kamenetz in her 2006 book of that title. As such, many Italian-Americans wonder whether they will ever earn enough money that they can marry, buy a house of their own, or have children, and some males lament the possibility of ever meeting a woman who has not been so scarred by her parent’s divorce that she is even willing to consider marriage. Also, while Italians have traditionally not been big drinkers, reserving their alcohol intake for a glass or two of wine at dinner, the younger generations of Italian-Americans have taken, in recent years, to succumbing to the youth party culture and, on Staten Island, are now part of a demographic of “Northeast … white, middle-class, teenage” Catholics who are “one of the highest demographics of underage drinkers” who “drink, and drink savagely” (Zailckas xv).

It is also interesting to try to trace the migratory patterns of Italian-Americans, many of whom cannot afford to be home owners, but do not feel at home returning to the apartment buildings their families owned in the past, since new ethnic groups have moved in and the neighborhoods are less “Italian.” However, the richer Italians are part of an intriguing white-flight pattern. Some have moved off of Staten Island over the years, searching for greener pastures in New Jersey, joining other former Brooklyn residents who bypassed New York’s least famous borough.  Other Italians moved to Florida, but later grew tired of Florida and decided to take a home in North Carolina.  (Local lingo dubs these North Carolina transplants from Florida “half-backs” because they moved half-way back to Brooklyn.)  Despite these maneuvers, there is a general sense among Staten Islanders that there’s no place to move to.  Partly due to economic factors, partly due to a lack of imagination or a general sense of fear, they feel fundamentally trapped on Staten Island, as if it were some kind of black hole.  They are not very interested in Italy, or most of the rest of the country, or even Manhattan, which is expensive and a pain to commute to given the lack of subway access, affordable parking, and the erratic bus schedule.  If they do move, they want it to be to another “Little Italy,” for fear that, should they try moving to a town without a sizable Italian populace, they will be greeted with disdain by the non-Italian neighbors.

Given that they are facing this situation, Italian-Americans of today might consider the possibility that American society, and the American Dream, is in need of serious reform. As they face this reality, it might behoove them to remember that, as bad as their problems are, there are other groups suffering far more serious calamities in the United States, who never succeeded in making the class jump that they did in the first place, and who might reasonably feel that worrying about a “middle class squeeze” constitutes living a charmed life. Italian-Americans might finally embrace a life of progressivism and activism in a way they haven’t done in decades. On the other hand, Italians caught in such a squeeze may buy into racist propaganda that only outsourcing of jobs to India or illegal immigration from Mexico is to blame for their woes, and feel their inclination towards prejudice magnify into full-blown racism. And they may becomes still more conservative and reactionary as a culture.

Italian-Americans are at a cross-roads. Since there aren’t any media representations of Italians as we are today, that speak to our current situation, we need to come up with a new vision of who were are in the 21st century, what we stand for, how we want to relate to members of other cultures and other races, what kind of Italians we want to be, and what kind of Americans we want to be. Since so many of the Italian-Americans shown on film and television are not Italian-Americans as we actually are, but Italian-Americans as the rest of the country needs us to be to satisfy their own fantasies – larger-than-life gangsters as mythic symbols of “the modern urban cowboy” who act on the needs of the id in ways that mainstream American, with its overdeveloped superego, cannot – there are few popular culture role models for who we are and what we really represent. However, in some ways, even the most sensationalistic figures of Italians presented in the mass media offer us possible models of our current situation, and no Italian figure is more interesting to me, and more apropos of our situation at the moment, than the figure of the Italian-American member of law enforcement. As an image of Italian-Americans from a previous generation who has endured in this one, Columbo continues to serve as the best example of an Italian-American in popular culture that is currently available to us – if one were inclined to look to fictional characters for inspiration, of course.

Columbo is a creature of intellect who understands how society works. He spends his time fighting the corrupt, white-color criminals who undermine our democratic system and exploit the poor instead of wasting his time scapegoating the disenfranchised and the desperate. He treats other police officers with warmth and respect, whether they are Italian, African-American, or any other race or ethnicity. He is also comfortably American, comfortably Italian, and does not hate himself or anyone else. He is a great male role model for young Italian men.

The Punisher, on the other hand, represents Italian-Americans at their worst: anti-feminist, homophobic, racist, self-loathing, Catholic zealots who are caught up in the pro-Mafia/anti-Mafia polemic and unwilling to see themselves, and the world, in a broader, more enlightened context. The Punisher represents a retreat into a fantasy patriarchy in which he is the Caesar in the “Old Italian” tradition and wants to exert his will to make a new “Little Italy” in America where all other races need not apply for residence, and only Italians who have never been in the Mafia are allowed entrance.

If anything, the Punisher may still serve us well as an example of what not to do as a next step for the Italian American community, and the individual Italian-American male… The Punisher represents a warning to us not to make any of the choices Frank Castle made. He is an illiterate moron who thinks that all of society’s problems can be solved with the barrel of a gun. As appealing as the Punisher’s anti-Mafia stance might be to some of us, the Punisher is, ultimately, wrong about crime, wrong about women, wrong about race, and wrong about Italians.

The last thing that Italian-Americans should be interested is in imitating a dead-end character like him. In the end, despite their flaws, Italian-American men are better than that, and should act accordingly.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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