No doubt this country's greatest glory is its ethnic, racial, religious and cultural mix, but from time to time that mix can be a considerable pain in the keister. The trouble with throwing so many people of so many different ancestries into a melting pot that resolutely refuses to melt is that their capacity to take umbrage at imagined insults is refined to a fare-thee-well. As a case in point, consider the foolishness in Maryland last week about Al Capone and tax amnesty.
Like a number of other states, Maryland has decided that one way to get a quick revenue fix is to offer tax delinquents the opportunity to pay their obligations without penalty. For two months, beginning Sept. 1, persons owing back taxes to Maryland will be able to settle their debts without the prospect of legal action. If they decline to seize this opportunity, they will then be liable for severe punitive action after the amnesty period closes at the end of October.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with Al Capone, not to mention bruised minority group feelings? The answer is that a public relations firm hired by Maryland to promote the amnesty program had the amusing if not unduly original idea of using Capone, himself a notorious tax evader, to draw attention to it. But the only attention the firm drew was that of several self-appointed "leaders" of Baltimore's Italian American community, who took offense at the advertising campaign and persuaded the state to cancel it.
To put it as mildly as possible, the advertisements were not exactly anti-Italian. Next to a photograph of Capone, who went to jail in 1931 on tax-evasion charges, they carried this message: "The break Al Capone never had. How to come clean during Maryland's Tax Amnesty." That was it. Nothing about "Al Capone, scurrilous Mafioso," or "Al Capone, spaghetti prince of darkness." The copy was clean as a whistle, with not even a hint of insult or slur.
But it doesn't always take a hint in order to ruffle sensibilities in a country where people's ancestries are as diverse as they are in this one. Thus it was that a state senator from Baltimore named John A. Pica Jr., at the vanguard of a small but well-placed delegation from the city's Italian community, claimed that the ad was in "poor taste." "It's offensive and quite trashy," Pica told the Baltimore Sun. "There seems to be a continuing reference to organized crime and Italian Americans in the entertainment industry. The state of Maryland doesn't have to invoke the Mafia."
Of course the state of Maryland did not invoke the Mafia, but simple truth is quite irrelevant when the game of ethnic politics is being played. Although the state had awarded the public relations contract largely on the basis of a specific proposal to feature Capone in advertisements, and though it had spent a considerable sum of money on printing and air time for the promotion, it caved in just as prettily as you please to the complaint from Little Italy. Proclaiming with all due piety that "I would never do anything to offend any ethnic group," Louis L. Goldstein, the state comptroller, canceled the advertisements.
So now it's back to Square One for the tax-amnesty campaign. Nearly half a million new forms promoting the program, but without benefit of Capone's brooding presence, must be printed; this means that distribution of them will be delayed beyond the original schedule, and as a result, the effort to bring the program to the attention of Maryland taxpayers -- or, more accurately, Maryland tax evaders -- will get off to a limping start. But who cares, so long as ethnic politics is played according to the rules of the game?
While they savor their triumph, though, Pica and his allies could do worse than to contemplate the cost at which it has been won. To begin with, it drew the public's attention to Capone's Italian ancestry to a degree that the advertisement never could have; the advertisement, after all, was about Capone the tax evader, not Capone the Italian American. Beyond that, it can only have given new life to old stereotypes: How many Marylanders immediately conjured up the image of a bunch of guys in fedoras and black pin-stripe suits strolling into Goldstein's office and saying, "Louie, we're gonna make you an offer you can't refuse"?
Had a real insult existed, the distress of Pica and company would have been understandable and justifiable, but the insult was wholly in the minds of the beholders. Had the advertisement referred to Al Capone, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Sam Giancana and the Pizza Connection, then, just possibly, a whiff of anti-Italian prejudice might have wafted through the air. But that is not how the ad read; it never came within sniffing distance of anything approximating ethnic slur or bias.
Yet for reasons probably having as much to do with politics in Little Italy as with the actual facts of the case, these "leaders" of the Italian American community chose to make a stir about it. In so doing they merely switched the light of publicity back onto the Italian connection in American organized crime. Perhaps in the past public self-righteousness has produced more counterproductive results, but no example comes leaping to mind.
Not merely did these gentlemen manage to make much ado about nothing, but they ignored a central reality of American life: In a country populated by people of discrete ethnic backgrounds, the pluses and minuses of ethnic identity are central facts of daily life. I, for example, am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which means that my ancestors gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, of which I am proud, but they also gave us the slave trade and Manifest Destiny and a number of other things of which I am not. But does this mean that criticism of one slave-trader or one Yankee imperialist is criticism of all WASPs? Of course not, and to take it as such a slur is preposterous on its face.
All of us, thanks to our ancestors, come equipped with a fair amount of baggage we'd just as soon not have to carry. But it's not our fault that we do so, and when other people of the same ancestry are criticized or ridiculed for whatever reason, it is no reflection on us. This is what the gentlemen from Baltimore seem not to understand: That when a single Italian American is ridiculed, or criticized, or lampooned, all Italian Americans are not required to take the lumps with him.
Yes, it certainly is true that there is more than enough ethnic prejudice to go around in this country, and that Italian Americans from time to time have been victims of it. Where such prejudice exists, we owe it to ourselves as a nation with egalitarian aspirations to do all we can to expunge it; on the whole our record in that regard is not bad, especially in the postwar era. But it does no one any good to fantasize prejudice or insult where none exists; when our real problems are serious enough, why compound them with imagined ones