November 2, 2005

The Brief Rise and Sudden Fall of the Italian-American Civil Rights League

The Brief Rise and Sudden Fall of the Italian-American Civil Rights League: From Wikipedia:

The Italian-American Civil Rights League was a short-lived grass-roots political organization which existed in and around New York City in the early 1970s. Its stated goal was to combat pejorative stereotypes about Italian-Americans, specifically their association with the Mafia.

A precise, fixed date can be assigned to denote the group's founding: April 30, 1970, when approximately 30 Italian-Americans, led by reputed mobster Joseph Colombo, picketed the Manhattan headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They were there to protest the recent arrest of Colombo's son... Prior to this, the senior Colombo had complained of unfair harassment of him and his family by various federal law-enforcement authorities, who alleged that Colombo was the boss of one of New York City's five Mafia families — a charge he repeatedly denied.

The 30 demonstrators who appeared at the FBI building were joined by others in successive days, and ultimately their number grew to more than 5,000. The group then adopted the name "Italian-American Civil Rights League" after Colombo's attorney, Barry Slotnick, had suggested it...

Within two months, the organization claimed 45,000 dues-paying members, and held a large rally in Columbus Circle on June 28, 1970. The league gained further momentum when Frank Sinatra held a benefit concert in its honor at Madison Square Garden in November of that year.

The group then turned its attention to what it perceived as cultural slights against Italian-Americans, using boycott threats to force Alka-Seltzer and General Motors to withdraw television commercials the league objected to, and also got United States Attorney General John Mitchell to order the United States Justice Department to stop using the word "Mafia" in official documents and press releases. The league also secured an agreement from Al Ruddy, the producer of The Godfather, to omit the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the film's dialogue, and succeeded in having Macy's stop selling a board game called The Godfather Game....

On June 28, 1971, the league held another rally in Columbus Circle — but this time tragedy would result, as Colombo was shot three times in the head by an African-American named Jerome Johnson (who was then immediately shot and killed himself); the blast left Colombo in a coma from which he would never recover (he died on May 22, 1978). Theories abounded as to the motive for the shooting; the most commonly-held belief was that other Mafia bosses in New York ordered the hit because they did not like the media attention Colombo and the group were receiving. The organization, at that time believed to number more than 100,000, had effectively disappeared within a year after the shooting.

Honest Italian-Americans ended up greatly benefiting from the collapse of the Italian American Civil Rights League. With the danger of being accused of racism removed, the federal government during the Reagan Administration hammered the Mafia and left it a shell of what it once was. Since the Mafia preyed most of all on their co-ethnics, that was a huge win for Italian-Americans.

This issue is not whether or not one group is more prone to organized nefariousness than any other. The issue is that if any group is exempted from criticism, as Mr. Colombo attempted to get Italian-Americans exempted, so that anyone who publicly notes anything bad about its behavior is excoriated as a racist or worse, the temptation for members of the group to do bat things increases. We all have urges that are worthy of criticism, but if we can arrange matters so nobody is allowed to criticize us, then the temptation to give in to those urges can be overpowering.

A reader writes:

It is interesting how crushing the Mafia removed all the hypersensitivity about naming it. Rudolph Giuliani, the Italian son of a father who reportedly had early and minor Mafia ties and the prosecutor who did so much to break the organization's power in the 1980s, now does a very funny Mafia skit as part of his corporate speech act. I saw him at a conference in Atlanta, and Rudy begins by talking about how mind-numbingly boring it was to listen to tapes of idiotic Mafiosi conversations, then launches into imitations of the dialogue, complete with the heavy garlic accents.

In contrast, Mario Cuomo could never joke about the mob.

The collapse of the Italian-American Civil Rights League was a huge boost for the careers of Italian-American actors like De Niro, Pacino, and Gandolfini who were freed to play mafioso. In contrast, although Hollywood has made dozens of movies over the last decade and a half with "Russian mafia" bad guys, they have typically employed Slavic-looking actors rather than the co-ethnics of the actual higher-ups among the most successful organized criminals in Russia.

Yet, Hollywood has been better about bringing us at least a distorted picture of one of the vast stories of the last 15 years, the looting of Russia, than has the "serious media."

By refusing to view Russian politics from a realist (i.e., conspiratorial) perspective during the 1990s, the respectable press largely failed to accurately report what was happening in Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. For years, the establishment media insisted on portraying Russian politicians as ideologically motivated public servants clashing over whether to emphasize the free market or the social safety net.

Instead, these idealistic-sounding labels were mostly masks for the conspiracies of various criminal gangs struggling over who got the biggest share of the loot. In contrast to the serious press, Hollywood, which quickly added the Russian Mafia to its inventory of stock bad guys, may well have provided a more realistic sense of what power in Boris Yeltsin's Russia was really all about.

A major reason why the press refused to tell you about what was really happening in Russia was because of the ethnic identity of the initial winners (since Putin's advent, ethnic Russian big shots have been clawing back assets, such as by imprisoning the Yukos Oil company leadership). Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua, author of World on Fire on the rise of "market dominant minorities," explained the sensitivity of the facts to an interviewer:

Q. One case that intrigued me was the case of the oligarchs in post-communist Russia. In that case, six of the seven oligarchs turn out to be Jewish [to be precise, five and a half of seven]. But in a way, it's a product of their having been excluded before, under the communist system.

Chua: Absolutely.

Q. Talk a little about that.

Chua: Well, that's one of the more controversial cases to write about. There are so many invidious ethnic stereotypes, and so much anti-Semitism, so it's a hard topic to discuss. You hear things like "Jews controlling the United States economy." I actually researched that and documented that that's false. The U.S. economy is not controlled by any ethnic minority, whether it's the Koreans or the Jews. It's just not true, if you look at the ten wealthiest Americans. Not so in the former Soviet Union. In the anarchic shift to capitalism in the early nineties, which, by the way, I think was ill-advised -- it was just a fast transition to cowboy capitalism; there were no anti-monopoly laws, no anti-insider trading laws -- but the result of that was that seven men, known as the oligarchs, came to control roughly 60 percent of Russia's incredible natural resource wealth: oil, nickel, the minerals.

I wasn't the first to document this. It came out in The New York Times magazine and a book called Sale of the Century, by Chrystia Freeland. But it was well known in the former Soviet Union. Six out of these seven men were Jewish, or at least of Jewish background. I did have a lot of research assistants who delved into this question of why; they were all students from Russia, many of them Jewish. The explanations are partly a result of exclusion. Many of these men, the oligarchs, wanted to go into the Soviet Academy of Sciences, but were excluded because of anti-Semitic reasons and ended up doing other things. Lots of them ended up being very active in the black markets during the Soviet era. Now, black market sounds negative, but, in fact, everybody loved the black markets during the communist era. It was the only place that officials and others could get shoes and consumer products. There were shortages everywhere. The black market during the Soviet era was essentially the only capitalism there was.

In fact, all of the oligarchs had practice in a private economy, in markets. Many of them translated those skills very successfully when suddenly, with perestroika, there was market liberalization. Before everybody even knew it was going on, they were privatizing, and it was a complicated process. But for whatever reasons, these men came to the fore, bought up a lot of the things that were for sale, got in touch with the foreign investors, and came to control a disproportionate amount of the economy.

That case fits sadly, very neatly into my thesis because you have this enormous transfer to markets -- not the kind of markets I think we should be promoting -- leading to these seven men controlling 60 percent of the natural resources.

But what does democracy do? Sadly, [democracy] and free speech led to the emergence of anti-Semitic political parties, politicians that were openly campaigning on, "Let's expel the Jews. Let's take back their property. The Jews are milking us dry." And that's a pattern that we saw in Indonesia around the same time; it's very interesting. Free market policies in the 1980s and 90s in Indonesia led to a situation where the country's tiny 3 percent Chinese minority controlled an astounding 70 percent of the private economy.

Democratization in 1998 [in Indonesia], which was hailed with euphoria in the United States -- I still remember everybody was so excited about democracy in Indonesia -- well, tragically, democracy produced a violent backlash against both the Chinese and against markets. Politicians in Indonesia fell over themselves campaigning on anti-Chinese platforms. You know, "Let's take back the economy." And right now, the Indonesian government has nationalized about $58 billion worth of ethnic Chinese assets. That's part of the reason that country is in such an economic crises.

Q. Before this democratization occurs in many places, what you get is an alliance between the economically dominant minority and the ruling autocrat. You used the common term "crony capitalism."

Right. It's an interesting challenge: if you think of the worst cases of crony capitalism, you'll be surprised to find that almost every one involved a market-dominant ethnic minority. It's a very typical pattern for an indigenous dictator, say, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Ferdinand and Imelda were Filipinos, they were supposed to represent the majority, but instead, they went into a crony capitalist situation with their country's best entrepreneurs, who are Chinese. It was this little symbiotic relationship. The Marcoses said, "We'll let you make money as long as you kick back bribes and profit to us, and we won't have majority rule." That's what Suharto did in Indonesia. He had a tiny handful of Chinese cronies, who made a huge amount of money, and then kicked it back to him. That's what President Daniel Arap Moi did in Kenya. He had a very authoritarian little regime propped by a very small handful of Lebanese businessmen.

Now, it's crucial to note that there isn't a closely organized Russia-Israel-U.S. Jewish Mafia-with-a-capital-M. There are merely a number of opportunists who tend -- for reasons of family ties, educational connections, personal style, ethnic solidarity (we all hang together or we all hang separately), and personal comfort level -- to do illegal business with each other rather than with people from other ethnic groups.

These crooks have often proved more successful than rival crooks on a per capita basis, for a variety of reasons -- brains, experience, the existence of Israel as a refuge from arrest, and ties to the business, media and think tank worlds in America generating financial and political capital.

But one huge advantage they've enjoyed is that they've possessed what the Italian-American Civil Rights League attempted and failed at: freedom from collective criticism. The mere existence of Jewish crime organizations with operations in Russia, Israel, and the U.S. has been treated by the serious media as one of those taboo topics that you can't talk about. And it's not just a social faux pas, but a taboo enforced by ostracism and career-wrecking.

Thus, we finally arrive at the answer to how Scooter Libby could move from being the mob lawyer for international racketeer Marc Rich to being chief of staff to the Vice President of the United States without raising eyebrows: because the very concept of international Jewish organized crime is off-limits.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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