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Italian Americans everywhere: The White House isn’t ‘Jersey Shore’

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As an American of Italian origin, I’m glad Anthony Scaramucci won’t be bringing his special style to the White House any longer. He was undoubtedly a loose cannon, or whatever equivalent cliché one might choose, but what bothered me in particular was the way he leveraged stereotypes of Italian Americans.

The tough-guy talk, the profanity, the thuggish stance while glaring at Reince Priebus. It was ridiculous. He didn’t grow up on the mean streets as an aspiring “made man,” and I can’t imagine that such role-playing would have gotten him far with his professors at Tufts or at Harvard Law. Maybe that’s how he behaved at his investment firm.  If that’s the case, I’m glad I never worked for him.

No racial, ethnic, or religious group is devoid of members who can be loud, crass, and obnoxious. But why present these as distinguishing features of a group you belong to? Interviewed on CNN, Scaramucci characterized his truly outrageous comments to Ryan Lizza as “one Italian to another.”

Guess what. Not all Americans of Italian origin talk like that. I suppose I have more of a claim to the “Italian” label than Scaramucci does. Both my parents emigrated from Italy as adults. And Italian, which I still speak fluently, was actually my first language. But I can say honestly that describing someone, even someone I really don’t like, to a journalist as a “f—ing paranoid schizophrenic” never crosses my mind.

Scaramucci should not have tried to excuse or explain his bad behavior by wrapping himself in an Italian flag. He owned this as an individual person, not as a representative of a group to which I also happen to belong. It wasn’t my role to provide him, even implicitly, with cover. And, by the way, it’s not appropriate for a senior White House official to describe himself as simply an “Italian.” I personally don’t even particularly like the term “Italian American,” which to my ear still suggests a divided identity. I don’t doubt that, like me, Scaramucci actually identifies 100 percent as an American. He shouldn’t have muddied the waters.

While I’m not even Catholic, I still resented Scaramucci’s attempt to draw legitimacy from his Catholic upbringing. He told reporters that their scoop regarding the firing of a White House assistant press secretary upset him “as a Roman Catholic.”  Did he really expect anyone to believe that the Church cares about that? On the other hand, one could argue that the Trump administration seems hostile to some fundamental Catholic teachings.

When the president met Pope Francis in May, the Vatican discreetly reported that the topics “included a discussion of health care, education and assistance for immigrants, as well as the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue” and the Pope gave the president a copy of his encyclical on climate change.  I can’t imagine there was a meeting of the minds on any of those topics.

I understand that the boss sets the tone for an organization and that Scaramucci was playing to a boss at the White House who regularly employs stereotypes. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day,” is one example that comes to mind. There were numerous other cringe-worthy remarks about Jews while he was on the campaign trail. On a more Italy-related angle, I also wish candidate Trump had spared us his Tweets echoing Mussolini.

Negative stereotyping of Italian Americans has by no means disappeared. White House Chief of Staff Kelly’s reported characterization of Scaramucci as a “hothead” was notable. Poor emotional control is often part of the Italian-American stereotype. The mobster cliché also persists, with “The Godfather” movies retaining a prominent role in popular culture. TV series, whether outstanding like “The Sopranos or problematic like “Jersey Shore,” also reinforce negative stereotypes. And there is evidence that, even among academic elites, Americans of Italian origin may be under-represented when it comes to the highest forms of professional recognition.

As the son of a scientist who left Italy to work in the United States, I can’t help but remark that, while Albert Einstein recently was the subject of a very good series on the National Geographic Channel, Enrico Fermi, whose story also is very compelling, does not seem destined for the same treatment. Poor Fermi, who worked on the Manhattan Project, did not even figure in the recent TV series “Manhattan.”  The same was true for another Nobel laureate from Italy, Emilio Segrè, who made decisive contributions to the Manhattan Project.

Of course, by any reasonable measure, the U.S. community of Italian origin has done very well, as my own story, as well as Scaramucci’s, can attest. As the child of immigrants, I felt I needed to be extra good, in my schoolwork and in my behavior generally.  It could be frustrating at times. But I still today don’t think that success brings with it a license to express the wilder or darker sides of our nature.

Rather than presenting his Italian side as a justification for behaving crudely or unkindly, Scaramucci should have remembered his responsibility to represent his Italian grandfather, who had the courage to come here, and his father, a construction worker who, I trust, was very proud to see his son go to America’s great universities. A man of success and of wealth, Scaramucci had the chance to serve the country that had given both his family and mine so much.

Government service isn’t about serving one person. It’s about preserving and protecting the Constitution of the United States. That is an honor and a privilege. Not only did Scaramucci blow it, but by trying to leverage stereotypes of Italian Americans, he made the rest of us look bad.

Eric Terzuolo’s parents came to the U.S. from the Piemonte region in northwestern Italy. He was an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, and since 2010 has taught at the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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