Since societal outrage seems to be the only way anyone responds to anything in our current environment, it is inevitable that it would at times also involve our Italian-American community. The newest firestorm emerges from a scion of one of the more prominent political dynasties of New York politics, Governor Mario Cuomo. We see that his son Chris has been thrust into the spotlight after a video of his interaction with some ostensible autograph seekers took a tense turn. Cuomo took grave offense from being called “Fredo” by the other gentleman in the video and then turned the offense into a maelstrom that has been seen as both laughable and debatable, and the incident has been parsed in every direction. I land on the side of laughable, but let’s look at this as objectively as possible anyway.
For those of you who may not know, “Fredo” refers to a character from The Godfather, Fredo Corleone, who is the second son of the titular character. The many film clips that have been aired in connection of this ‘Fredo’ incident make this amply clear.
Fredo is characterized most succinctly by his brother Michael, when he is described as “weak…and…stupid.” Of the Godfather’s three sons, Fredo is the least impressive of the three–being feeble-minded, meek, and guided by lust; all measures that fly in the face of la figura that the patriarch of the family values as the way one should comport himself. To be called Fredo, then, is to be equated with being stupid and a big disappointment to your father. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that Chris’ decision to become a journalist gravely disappointed his father, who, according to Chris himself, admonished him with: “Why do you just cover these things? Why don’t you go out and do them?”
In view of these publicly-known facts, I can see how being equated to a paternal disappointment would strike a nerve. On this, his reaction could be justified. Additionally, the Cuomo family (and frankly most Italian-Americans) have been plagued by the rumor of mob ties and it is widely suspected that these rumors are the reason that Mario Cuomo did not run for President.
As Cuozzo has pointed out in The Post, the ‘thought police’ that he calls the ‘woke mob’, are always on the alert for discrimination. They “erupt[s] over every perceived instance of ‘ethnic slander’ or ‘cultural appropriation’ against other minority groups. The colonialist implications of Chinese fortune cookies! The thinly disguised racism of Mexican sombreros at a Bowdoin College tequila party!”, he writes. Yet there seems to be no such outrage about the “pervasive bias” that seems to exist in American culture against Italian-Americans, and no protest when every person whose name that ends in a vowel is implicitly suspected of being a mafioso. Thus, comparing one to a prominent character in the most famous Hollywood mob saga can be read as an ugly stereotype, and as such there can be some justification in his anger.
All this may be true. However, Chris Cuomo lost me the minute he described being called “Fredo” as an ethnic slur and claimed that it was the linguistic equivalent of the N-word. To say that being called a rather innocuous name is the equivalent of the nuclear bomb of racist words stretches the realm of rhetoric to its breaking point and is logically impossible. N—- is the last word slaves heard when they were killed or raped; it was the last word heard prior to being lynched. No one ever killed an Italian-American and uttered “Fredo” as they did the deed.
What makes the whole thing worse is that Cuomo then threatened the offender with bodily harm. How ironic that the rage of being ethnically insulted, according to him, results in displaying the very stereotypes that the insult is allegedly supposed to invoke. To his credit, however, Cuomo did recognize this irony, apologized for his response and acknowledged that he “should be better than the guys baiting me.”
I’ve been Italian American my whole life. I’ve felt insulted when called a guinea, when called a wop, and when called a dago, but I’ve never been called Fredo, nor would I be terribly irked if someone called me that. I may have called my brother Fredo on occasion, but only to express my superiority to him in the family hierarchy, and on a baser level, to basically call him an idiot as brothers will do.
If “Fredo” is an insult, it signifies that you are the dumb brother, and maybe that you are a great disappointment to your father. Perhaps Cuomo reacted as vehemently as he did because the idea hit him a little too close to the mark; sort of a “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” kind of situation. Let’s take a look at what the character said about himself in his most poignant scene:
Michael Corleone: I’ve always taken care of you, Fredo.
Fredo Corleone: Taken care of me? You’re my kid brother, and you take care of me? Did you ever think about that? Huh? Did you ever once think about that? “Send Fredo off to do this. Send Fredo off to do that! Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere! Send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport!” I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!
Michael: That’s the way Pop wanted it.
Fredo: It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says, like dumb! I’m smart, and I want respect!
And while I don’t really want to belabor the point that this is all a big nothing, there is one pearl of wisdom in the same film. When discussing life choices, we see Fredo and Michael have this exchange:
Fredo: Sometimes I think I should have married a woman like you did. Like Kay. Have kids. Have a family. For once in my life, be more like Pop.
Michael: It’s not easy to be his son, Fredo. It’s not easy.
For Chris Cuomo, perhaps it’s not easy to be Mario’s son, particularly when your brother Andrew is currently the Governor of New York as your father was. But to say that Fredo is an ethnic slur borders on the impossible. We have other things to worry about.