The alarmed response of older academics to multicultural intrusions into their curriculum would seem odd if it were not founded on a sound self-interest. The great books of the West are holy writ in literature departments not just for their inarguable merit but for having already been well enough learned to be taught without further struggle for something new to say. One has needed maybe five years of sweating over Henry James to equip oneself for a lecture series that will last for fifty, with only occasional bother for a dim monograph.
This tranquillity, so easily bought, has now been crashed upon with rude demands for equal attention to, say, the literature of the Orient. One can concede that The Tale of Genji is distinctly finer stuff than “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and still find it onerous to be put to reading Genji with the toil-some concentration needed for a respectable show of teaching it. One is entitled, after all, to think that one has done one’s work and cannot fitly be asked for more.
The inescapable marks of wither upon La Cosa Nostra present the same troubling challenge to us journalists, who are no less lazy and disinclined to new areas of research than academics. Make no mistake: once the federal prosecutors contrive to encase John Gotti, we shall have lost the last of the grand personages who had been our dependence for supporting the myth of the Mafia as a force in current history.
Organized crime will no longer be a crude euphemism for fascinatingly disreputable Italo-Americans. We shall have to flog ourselves studying the gangs of Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Russo-Americans, Albanian Americans, Dominican Americans, etc., etc. We too must engulf ourselves in a tide of multicultural criminality.
Journalists find their audience, if seldom their code of personal conduct, among good citizens. And good citizens have always insisted upon being assured that crime is an un-American activity confined to alien sects. The Mafia was enormously serviceable to that illusion; and peddling its recondite lore required no more than airs of familiarity with scungilli, the Sicilian Vespers, the governments of Palermo suburbs, and the organizational table of the Roman legions.
Such were the raw materials of an industry once as busy and now as threatened with obsolescence as Detroit’s assembly lines. There are Italo-American cops who have been paid to lounge and gossip through decades thanks to a childhood’s marination in the Sicilian dialect. Hollywood has engorged itself on the Mafia, from Little Caesar to GoodFellas. Jimmy Breslin has lately reminded us that Frank Costello lives on in literature as Damon Runyon’s Dave the Dude. Now the ore has been mined, leaving naught but dross; and Bugsy suggests a terminally desperate turn to the Jewish mob, which was too assimilatedly like ourselves for a properly exotic touch of evil alien-borne.
The Brooklyn US attorney is doing his best to replenish our stock with simultaneous murder and conspiracy trials of the Green Dragons (Chinese) and Born to Kill (Vietnamese, and already hard-schooled enough in our culture to have adopted their name from the T-shirts worn by rear echelon Marines).
The young persons in the dock appear to have been interrupted in the primitive stage of development that identified the Mafia when it was still the Black Hand and lived off its leechings from an immigrant community. Born to Kill robs stores on Canal Street and then wangles a protection fee through infinities of withholding future aggressions. That is how the old mobsters began; and the worms will have eaten me long before the Green Dragons reach the corporate stature now tottering with John Gotti.
The great canon of Western Sicilian Civilization is sinking toward twilight. And, like the academics, we are all too old to be up to the multiculturism that is tomorrow’s sun.
April 9, 1992