Every time I mention politics on my blog, I receive howls of protest that it’s inappropriate to talk about how bad ideas about history relate to current events, as though history doesn’t inform how we live today. At the same time, no one seems to complain when the purveyors of these bad ideas about history use the platforms their popularity affords them to advocate for political positions. We have seen, for example, Jim Marrs use the popularity of his ancient astronaut and anti-government conspiracy theories to advocate for rightwing political positions, alongside transparently ridiculous anti-Obama propaganda, such as his claim that Obama was conspiring liberal elites to commit mass genocide against conservative Americans. We have similarly seen Steve Quayle use his quack claims about Nephilim and the coming reign of Satan to openly accuse Democratic politicians of being in league with Lucifer and of being actual demons. (This is ironic because last week Steve Bannon, the chief strategist for the candidate Quayle supported, Donald Trump, cited Satan as a role model.) But it’s not just that; specific claims about history serve to underline and underscore the way we think about current events, as when pro-Trump political action committee spokesman Carl Higbie cited Japanese internment as precedent for creating a national religious registry for Muslims.
Like it or not, bad ideas from history and about history cannot be separated from the political moment, and never more so than when they are used to justify injustice. It is on this point that I want to call to your attention the rant that Nephilim theorist and Christian proselytizer L. A. Marzulli delivered on his blog last week demanding that he not be exposed to people and ideas that disagree with him. His list of reasons was very long, so forgive me for condensing somewhat to make the point:
I’m a white guy. To be more precise, I’m an Italian White-guy and I’m tired of being called a racist just because I agree with president-elect Trump that we should build a wall. I’m tired of hearing that I’m privileged or “I didn’t make that” when all my life I’ve worked hard and no one gave me anything. […] I’m tired of hearing about the plight of men who think they’re women trapped in a mans body and then want to use the woman’s bathroom. […] I’m tired of hearing that it’s a woman’s right to choose, which, in my opinion, is the most fallacious argument of the 20th and 21st century. […] I’m tired of being told that Evolution is a fact when the fact is Evolution is the biggest bunch of hooey ever foisted on the public. […] What I’m not tired about is knowing that Jesus is the Messiah and He will return to set up His literal millennial kingdom.
Yes, L. A. Marzulli is a precious little snowflake who needs his safe space to get away from all the hate. I won’t even complain today that his plea to be left to his ideology came only days after he ranted that “snowflake” Millennials like Miley Cyrus need to be confronted with truth so they can “wake up.”
No, I have a different point to make today.
Did you catch what he said in his second sentence? This is of such importance that I’m going to put aside the conservative boilerplate that fills his unoriginal screed to explain in detail to L. A. Marzulli how his ignorance of history has led him down the road to hypocrisy.
L. A. Marzulli says he is white and Italian: “I’m an Italian White-guy,” he writes. Now as it happens, I, too, am an Italian-American (on my father’s side) and know the century of struggle for acceptance than Marzulli blithely dismisses as a false accusation of “privilege.” The fact of the matter is that L. A. Marzulli can claim to be both Italian and white precisely because Italian-Americans were able to join into the privilege of whiteness. This was not always the case, even in the lifetimes of Italian-Americans still living. To pretend otherwise is a lie and offensive to all those who lived and died unable to enjoy the same privileges as Marzulli and I do.
I know I bring this up a lot, but it’s important to repeat: When the fringe historian Thomas Sinclair ranted about how “the threatened Spanish or Latin domination,” by which he meant Italians and other southern Europeans, was destroying the moral fabric of white America in 1893 and called for an end to immigration from Italy and the other southern European countries, he was not speaking in isolation. His was the opinion of perhaps a majority of those who identified as “white” in the nineteenth century—Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welshmen, Germans, and Scandinavians, essentially the so-called Aryans, Anglo-Saxons, and those politically aligned with them. Sinclair contrasted Aryan ingenuity against Latin laziness, and Protestantism against Catholicism in what he viewed as a race war between whites and Latins (then the word for southern Europeans, not Latinos), or what he called “a gigantic Armageddon contest of blood and belief.”
When he wrote, this wasn’t just the idle bluster of wealthy conservatives engaging in the prejudice of comfortable privilege. Two years earlier, on March 14, 1891, the largest mass lynching in American history took place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Several Italian immigrants were found not guilty of murdering the police chief of New Orleans, and white Louisianans dragged eleven of them into the streets and lynched them all, setting off a wave of anti-Italian hate crimes across the United States. Teddy Roosevelt declared the hate crimes to be “rather a good thing,” while the New York Times thundered that the Italian immigrants were “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions … of their native country.” Calling Italians “a pest without mitigation,” the paper compared them to rattlesnakes and declared that the criminal justice system should not apply to Italians, and that “every good citizen” (read: white man) would be happy to see Italians lynched.
Just as Donald Trump has called on Muslims to report fellow Muslims for jihadi activity, a New Orleans mayoral committee of fifty white citizens told Italians to report their family and friends for terrorist activity or face “harsh and stringent methods outside of the law.” They meant that white people would simply kill Italians at will, with the sanction of the government. The man who signed his name to those words, white supremacist Edgar H. Farrar, would become the president of the American Bar Association.
Oh, and the guy who started the wave of hate crimes by leading the lynch mob? He got elected governor of Louisiana, saying while in office that Italians were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in habits, lawless, and treacherous.” In fact, Parker told Italian-Americans, in a letter to a leading Italian-American newspaper, that Italians had to be careful because their crimes and general unsavoriness created a “stigma” which all white people will ascribe to the whole Italian race.
Compare the strikingly similar rhetoric about Mexicans today: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
And here’s the rub: Like Donald Trump today, that governor, John M. Parker, considered himself a champion of the people and a radical reformer. He was even progressive, fighting for women’s suffrage and the end of the KKK. (OK, so he wasn’t that much like Donald Trump.) His hatred and his politics were somewhat at odds, but it was par for the course at the time, and again today.
Such hate did not end there but continued for decades. H. P. Lovecraft, that bottomless font of racism, gave voice to the worst instincts of the anti-Italians, writing in a letter of October 12, 1928 that politicians were going too soft on immigrants, saying that Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Al “Smith, to my mind, is a direct exponent of the newer-immigration element—the decadent & unassimilable hordes from Southern Europe & the East whose presence in large numbers is a direct & profound menace to the continued growth of the Nordic-American nation we know.” Lovecraft wanted to make America great again by making America white again, and white was synonymous with Nordic.
I think you get the point.
This is why I find L. A. Marzulli’s rant not just the pious fraud of a holy hypocrite, but offensive to all those, like my own family, who suffered under the burden of not being white enough to please the self-appointed Aryan elite, whether they called themselves WASPs, Nordic, Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, or just American. When my great-grandfather immigrated to this country, he had to live in the Italian ghetto because “white” Americans wouldn’t rent rooms to him anywhere else in town. His son, my grandfather, fought for the United States in World War II at a time when “white” Americans questioned whether an Italian could fight for the United States without secretly trying to aid Italy. The U.S. government declared Italian immigrants to be “enemy aliens,” though the worst government actions fell on those who had not yet gained U.S. citizenship. Even in my father’s lifetime, “white” Americans still hurled anti-Italian slurs (“dago,” “wop,” and the ever-present “garlic-breath”) openly on the street.
Nor was this confined to Italians, even among the groups today considered “white.” We all remember “No Irish Need Apply,” which some modern scholars have tried to whitewash from history. Even Finns—lily white as anyone!—were discriminated against and accused of being secretly Asian. My mother’s side of my family is Polish, immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the city directory of Auburn, New York, deep into the twentieth century, their names and addresses were listed separately from “real” citizens, in a section in the back of the book reserved for all the scum of Eastern Europe, lumped together as “Austrians.” Their names couldn’t appear alongside the “real” Americans.
This changed over time. L. A. Marzulli and I can identify ourselves as white only because the self-proclaimed “real” whites promoted Italians (and Poles) to what social scientists often call “provisional whites,” people who could be counted as white when convenient but who retain the taint of ethnic identity. The people who were “real” whites at midcentury—WASPs, Scots-Irish of the heartland, Nordics and the Teutonic—let Italians and Poles into the club because of fear of a greater enemy: Blacks and Latinos. Worried that “white” Americans would no longer be a racial majority in the United States, they expanded the definition of whiteness to preserve a somewhat diminished hegemony. Within a few decades, this was forgotten, and the label of “white” now fits more securely, thanks to the shrinking pool of “white” Americans, down now to just 63% of the population, or 77% if Hispanic whites are allowed “provisional” status in the counting.
When Marzulli crows about his white privilege, he either ignorantly or offensively omits the fact that the privilege he resents being told he possesses isn’t the natural birthright of all free men but a specific set of political, economic, and social privileges created by the consent and consensus of “mainstream” society. Marzulli might want to forget this, but I have not, and it makes me angry to hear someone who emerged from the same history of discrimination and oppression wield those same cudgels against others, as though to say “I’ve got mine. Go away.”
None of this is to say that one can’t be Italian and against immigration or for conservative politics (God knows my uncle is all of these) but rather that it is the height of hypocrisy to openly advocate specific arguments against new immigrants that were used against your own ancestors, within living memory, while pretending they did not and should not apply to you, as Marzulli has done at many points over the course of the long election cycle. Any privilege that comes to us by the acquiescence of the self-described “real” Americans can be taken away just as easily when the definition of a real American changes, and we should not forget that. There is a reason there are a dozen or more ethnic insults for Italians and Poles and almost none for rich WASPS. More importantly, there is a reason that Americans of British ancestry call themselves only American while Marzulli felt compelled, even in his denial, to qualify his whiteness with the adjective Italian.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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