With all the furor and rage being expended over the past comments of Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright—especially his phrase that God Bless America really should be God Damn America—a person would think that such blasphemy had never before been heard in the history of the world. The truth is, I used to hear it almost every day. And it came from the mouth of my father, an Italian immigrant, and it came in his native language: Mannaggia l’America. And the truth is that it was rather a commonplace among Italian immigrants of that pre- and post-WWII era.
Now I can’t speak for others, but I do know what was behind my father’s use of the phrase, and it was something similar to what was behind Wright’s. That is, my father was railing at the fact that in his view as an Italian, America lacked respect for both quality and equality alike. As a hairdresser, he knew this firsthand. He invested his entire life in quality work. And what constantly drove him to distraction was the fact that peers of his were making fortunes by running strings of beauty shop devoted to quantity. “Get’ em in, get ‘em out, give ‘em dye jobs, frizzy hair, whatever they want.” My father refused to do this. Refused to ever touch hair dye because he knew, from his chemistry work, that it was poisonous. Just as he knew that the cold-wave solutions being initially marketed in those days, were even more toxic to human skin. He also considered his judgment as an‘artist of hair’ so inarguable that he refused to cater to his customers’ whims of the moment: “If they didn’t like what I wanted to do, I’d throw them out.” All this led to declining popularity and success. All of which, in his eyes, was due to a total lack of respect for quality work in Mannaggia l’America.
He ran up against the same problem in every business he ever tried. After a heart attack made it impossible for him to continue as a hairdresser, he tried building houses. He went broke on his commitment to building quality dwellings rather than hastily-raised shacks that he could sell on the cheap. And in the final movement of his life—wherein he tried desperately to market his formula for a permanent wave solution that curled hair without heat and without toxicity—he was unceremoniously rebuffed by the large corporations then making millions: they told him they didn’t care about burnt scalps and lawsuits because they had lawyers sufficient to minimize the few settlements they had to pay.
It was his constant lament. For the America he encountered was even less interested in equality. As an Italian immigrant he was considered, when he arrived, one of the great unwashed, the detritus being vomited up by Europe to occupy the slums of American cities and pollute the American dream. And though he made Herculean strides in learning the language (in spite of being expelled from 6th grade), and the codes of the polite society he catered to in his beauty shop, he knew how white America assessed him—as a “dago,” as a “wop,” as a creature only nominally less degraded than the African Americans it had enslaved and dehumanized even in its founding document. The only equality that perhaps meant something was the equality of money. If one made enough money, then one might get to be equal. Otherwise, forget it. America—its creed, its commerce, its holidays, its fundamental attitude about life—was nothing, he insisted, but a “money-making proposition.” Those who made it in such a place were for the most part “thieves within the law.” Mannaggia l’America.
The interesting thing to me today is that though he clearly understood the fundamental larceny of American business, he probably didn’t know the whole truth of it. He didn’t know, as we now do, that the real truth behind Pastor Wright’s prediction that God will sooner or later “damn America” stems from an understanding of American history: its theft of the land from its original inhabitants starting with its ‘discovery’; its continuing theft of the West and Southwest from Mexico and any other people or entity that threatened its “manifest destiny”; the theft of those who run the government and the corporations for their profit and control; the theft that continues by corporations driving the economic conquest that now covers the entire globe, placing whole countries and their people in thrall; and of course the theft Pastor Wright was talking about—the continuing theft of the lives of the millions of Africans brought here in chains, and kept in the chains of poverty and injustice even into our own time. He didn’t know about that, my father, though he intuited it from what he knew—that those who control the money control the government and controlling the government means controlling the laws, which in turn means being free to be “thieves within the law.” This is the freedom that flag-waving Americans are really talking about: the freedom to plunder all those who have what we want. And, as John Perkins makes clear in his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, the freedom to sanction or starve out or bring down or invade or eliminate any leader or country that refuses to accommodate that theft. As a partial list, just think Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, not to mention the places like Pakistan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan where we prop up our dictators of choice.
So, as far as my father would have been concerned, the Reverend Wright was right. If there is any justice in this world—and that is not at all a foregone conclusion—the forces that operate the universe (call it God if you like; karma if you like; history if you like) will eventually damn America as they eventually damned Rome. For though the packing of the courts with Neanderthals guarantees that the law in its conventional sense cannot provide real justice, the higher law which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (some might call it “blowback”) perhaps can. We have already seen something like it working in Iraq, in Afghanistan, on 9/11, and in the money markets; and we will, I am afraid, continue to hear mannaggias upon l’america for some time to come.