An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America

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9780865479623: An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America

"Invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the very notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century." ―Allen Barra, The New York Sun

"A detailed, textured meditation. Whether De Stefano is summarizing causes of 19th-century Italian immigration, sketching the Mafia's origin in Sicily, or dissecting the appeal of Hollywood mobster characters, he catches links to evolving capitalism, discomfort with modern society, psychological urges for strong father figures, and other complex topics not usually addressed by opponents of Mafia pop culture. [De Stefano] provokes hard thought about why the Mafia, to the exclusion of almost every other dimension of Italian American life, stays lodged in ‘the Mind of America.'" ―Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Fascinating." ―James F. Sweeney, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Not a history of organized crime but a study of how we think about organized crime, more precisely about Italians and crime. . . Valuable and interesting." ―Elliott J. Gorn, Chicago Tribune

"A thoughtful, thorough analysis." ―Renee Graham, The Boston Globe

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About the Author:

George De Stefano is a journalist and critic who has written extensively on culture for numerous publications, including The Nation, Film Comment, and Newsday.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

An Offer We Can't Refuse
1Italians to Italian Americans: Escaping the "Southern Problem"O Mafiosi, Bad uncles of the barren Cliffs of Sicily--was it only you That they transported in barrels Like pure olive oil Across the Atlantic?--Sandra Mortola Gilbert1 
 
From the late nineteenth century to the mid-1920s, southern peninsular Italy and Sicily lost so many of its sons and daughters to emigration that their departure has been likened to a hemorrhage. Among the millions of impoverished, landless, often illiterate emigrants were my grandparents, the De Stefanos from Avellino, near Naples, and the Di Pietros from eastern Sicily. They left--no, escaped --a world where they had been politically disenfranchised, oppressed by the latifondisti (big landowners), the central government in faraway Rome, and the Church, whose priests counseled humble acceptance of their plight, in the hopes of better times in paradiso. The lot of my forebears and of so many other Italian Americans was unemployment, famine, disease, and natural disasters like the earthquakes that could devastate entire towns of the Mezzogiorno, as the regions south of Rome are collectively called.This mass migration was unparalleled in European history, and to this day no other nation, barring outright religious persecution or ethnicpogroms, has lost so many of its inhabitants to emigration as Italy.2Mario Puzo, whose Godfather is perhaps the best-known fictional account of the southern Italian immigration experience, observed, "The main reason for this enormous flood of human beings from a country often called the cradle of Western civilization was a ruling class that for centuries had abused and exploited its southern citizens in the most incredible fashion. And so they fled from sunny Italy, these peasants, as children in fairy tales flee into the dark forest from cruel stepparents."3The exodus of southern Italians began barely twenty years after the unification of Italy in 1861. Before the Risorgimento, Italy had been a patchwork of states ruled by the Vatican and by foreign powers. Southerners were hopeful at first that the new Italian state would end the political tyranny and economic exploitation that had been their lot for centuries. But it quickly became apparent that the new central government, dominated by men from the northern region of Piemonte (Piedmont), would be no more benevolent toward the impoverished peasants, artisans, and urban working poor of the southern regions than had been their foreign rulers.The newborn Italian state, in fact, turned out to be even tougher on the southern poor than the Spanish and French Bourbons and the other foreigners who had ruled the Mezzogiorno. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the insurrection against the Bourbons, won the trust and support of southern Italians eager to throw off Bourbon rule. But Garibaldi was a military figure; he was not adept in either politics or constitutional law. Sicilian landowners pressured him to abandon the promises of land reform that had secured the support of southerners for his revolt. And once the Bourbon army was no longer a threat, Garibaldi's troops fired on peasant rebels, thereby sending the landowning class the clear message that his forces "were defenders of order, not of social revolution."4Before the Risorgimento, southern Italy had low taxes, negligible debt, and inexpensive food. When the South lost its autonomy after 1861, taxes rose steeply. The new national government not only imposed a heavy tax burden on the South but also conscripted its sons into the Italian army. Landowners controlled local elections, since peasants were not allowed to vote. Even the appropriation of the Church's vast land holdings and its wealth by the government worsenedthe situation of the southern poor, as the new tenancy terms were more onerous and it became increasingly difficult to obtain credit. In the 1880s, when the government imposed new tariffs on imported goods, Italy's trading partners retaliated. The loss of export markets hit the Mezzogiorno particularly hard, as capital was diverted from southern agriculture and invested in northern industry.5Southern Italians quickly discovered the falseness of the Risorgimento's promises of liberal democracy and respect for the human rights of the citizens of the entire Italian nation. The new government's attentions were focused on the interests of the North at the expense of the southern regions. (For example, the Italian government concentrated nearly all of its water control and irrigation projects in the North, even though such assistance was desperately needed in the South.)6 And in the South, social relations remained oppressive, with landowners exerting near-total power over the landless, in what can only be likened to a master-slave relationship.The callous injustice of the new order was compounded by the central government's practice of attributing the ills of the Mezzogiorno to a "southern problem." The Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, a Sardinian, described the Italian stereotypes of the North versus the South:... the South is the ball and chain that prevents a more rapid progress in the civil development of Italy; Southerners are biologically inferior beings, either semi-barbarians or out and out barbarians by natural destiny; if the South is underdeveloped it is not the fault of the capitalist system, or any other historical cause, but of the nature that has made Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric.7The antipathy between northern and southern Italy had deep historical roots. The Northwas proud of the glorious culture it had produced during the Renaissance. It had entered the industrial age and was dreaming the nineteenth century's dreams of Progress. The South had remained unchanged and clung to its family system and its medievalcodes of Byzantines, Normans, and Arabs. These were the cultures that had influenced the Mezzogiorno ... and not the French and German cultures that had influenced the North.8Social scientists elaborated the doctrine of innate southern Italian inferiority in tracts such as Alfredo Niceforo's Contemporary Barbarian Italy (1898), which portrayed the peoples of Sardinia, Sicily, and the southern mainland as primitive, much less evolved than the peoples of central and northern Italy. Niceforo and other "sociologists of positivism," as Gramsci called them,9 reduced southerners to "alleged facts of positivist sociology (rates of crime, education, birth rate, mortality, suicide rate, and economy)," and grounded their putative scholarship in racist biology--citing, for example, the allegedly different cranial sizes of northerners and southerners.10Given the failures of the new Italian constitutionalism to guarantee the rights of southerners, and the northern racism toward the people of the Mezzogiorno, it is hardly surprising that the main effect of the Risorgimento on the South was to "mangle the life of the people of Southern Italy, who at the time of national unification constituted at least two-fifths of the population of Italy."11There was armed resistance by southerners to the oppressive new order. These rebellions were put down, often with horrific violence, and their adherents invariably were described in the Italian press as bandits and brigands. But, as legal historian David A. J. Richards observes, under the newly created national government,one aspect of the promises of Italian liberal nationalism was met, the extension to the people of the South of a right they had not enjoyed under previous governments, namely, the basic right of movement (including the right to emigrate). Respect for at least that basic human right enabled the people of the South reasonably to address and make a choice (namely, of political allegiance) that they had not previously been able to make.12That choice was to leave an inhospitable homeland, where they had been abused and denigrated, and told it was their innate inferiority thatcaused their suffering. Towns and villages were depopulated, as southern Italians fled the grinding poverty, hunger, and political oppression they called la miseria, to seek pane e lavoro--bread and work--in Lamerica. Throughout southern Italy, "Wherever people were leaving for America, there was the cacophony of families separating, crying, entreating, promising, and the din of children shouting and laughing, too young to comprehend the poignancy of the farewells."13 The emigrants left in overcrowded ships where conditions were hardly fit for cattle, much less humans. Most could only afford to travel in steerage, the section of the ship far below decks and near the rudder. Passengers were packed into compartments holding at least three hundred people. "Women traveled without husbands, men traveled alone, and families were installed in small cubicles, each passenger allotted a berth that served both as bed and storage place."14 There was only saltwater for washing, and the smell of human waste often permeated the area.After having endured the hardships of their voyage across the Atlantic, the emigrants found themselves in New York, where they faced an uncertain reception. Being largely unskilled and of rural origin, they were poorly equipped to succeed in the industrializing American economy. Nearly half of those who arrived between 1900 and 1914 were illiterate, the highest rate of the eleven largest ethnic groups arriving at Ellis Island.15 In addition, many suffered from contagious diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis; these unfortunates were sent back to Europe. The southern Italian immigrant, then, had only one advantage upon arrival in the strano paese (strange land) of America: a fierce determination to work hard for his family.Unscrup...

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