What Fresh Hell Is This?

January 27, 2010

And Now I Respond...

I am glad the OPJ did most of the heavy lifting in her response to Dr Cyril Wecht's piece in today's P-G. All I can say about what Maria wrote is, "Yea, what she said."

It also frees me up to do a more detailed deconstruction of Cyril's ethnic slur.

To put things in their proper context, let's go back to the original reporting. Here's the set-up:
A simmering personal feud erupted again Tuesday on KQV Radio when Dr. Cyril H. Wecht accused Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. of prosecuting his family's political enemies.

The famous forensic pathologist lashed out at Zappala's grand jury investigation of state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, for campaign irregularities. Wecht said it closely resembles the investigation launched against him in 2005 by then-U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, which he said was done at Zappala's behest.
And then:
During the interview, Wecht referred to FBI Agent Bradley Orsini, a lead investigator in the Wecht case, as Zappala's "goombah" and a "disgraced FBI agent." Orsini developed the search warrants used to seize records from Wecht's offices.
So in an interview where there was a complaint about the abuse of power of two Italian-American men, someone who isn't Italian used the term "goombah" to describe one of them. That's the context.

And yet, in his response, Cyril says:
I have made a serious effort to speak to many Italian-Americans over the past three weeks regarding the meaning of the word "goombah," which I recently used in a radio interview. In fact, a few friends asked their grandmothers, who were born in Italy, what their definition and societal understanding of this word is. Every one of these people -- professional, business, labor, academic -- responded the same way. They all utilize and accept goombah as an expression of close friendship, a warm greeting and sometimes even use it to greet a relative like a cousin.
And then:
Anyone can state (whether candidly or disingenuously) what they believe a particular word or phrase means. Many words may strike different chords among various individuals, most often derived from some event or recollection from the past. Obviously, this is what Mr. DeAngelo has done in recalling a childhood experience with his father. While he has a perfect right to draw a semantic inference based upon such a personal incident, he has no right to publicly imply that I used the word goombah to suggest some kind of Mafia relationship between Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala and FBI Agent Bradley Orsini.
I have to ask, first off, why he felt the need to check in the three weeks since the interview with his Italian American friends over the meaning of the word? Was the issue raised then?

In any event, this part is interesting as all the Italian-Americans I spoke to regarding the term, once I put it in context, agreed that it was a slur. Internally among Italians, it may be an expression of warm friendship etc, but when someone who isn't Italian uses the term looking to discredit someone who is, it's a slur.

Cyril goes on:
If I believed Messrs. Zappala and Orsini were Mafioso, I would have stated so. I used goombah to characterize exactly what I (and a respected dictionary) believe it to mean -- a warm friendship, some kind of personal relationship. That is exactly the kind of unholy alliance that developed between Mr. Zappala and Mr. Orsini, which was the original, major factor that resulted in an egregious, unjust 84-count federal indictment against me -- a five-year dramatic saga that extracted a very heavy toll from me, my wife and my children in many ways.
No one who's been in the Pittsburgh area for any length of time can possibly question either Cyril's intellect or his command of the English language. And so I am surprised that he goes literal here. Any slur or insult is, once you look at it closely, a metaphor. If I were to call someone an asshole (insignificant or otherwise) I am not literally saying they are the opening at the lower end of the digestive tract through which solid waste is excreted, I am using a metaphor to show how disagreeable I find that person.

Cyril was not merely pointing out the warm friendly relationship between Zappala and Orsini. He was using a mafia reference to describe how two Italian American men "extracted a heavy toll" on him and his family.

And for the record, I am on Cyril's side regarding his complaint about USAttorney Buchanan's prosecution of him. It was an abuse of power, no doubt about that (so that'sat least two things we agree on, Cyril - Mary Beth Buchanan and Southern Connecticut Pizza. I am sure there are many more). I don't question his anger at Buchanan and by extension DA Zappala. From what I've read in the news, his anger is completely justified.

But that's not the point. The point is his use (and now his justification) of the term goombah.

You're not going to win this one, Cyril. You said it, it was an insult, and you should just apologize for your poor choice of words rather than trying to explain it away it with a roundabout discussion of how many trips you made to Italy and how many Italian friends you have and how none of them were offended by your use of the term.


Brant said...

Wecht certainly can be a horse's behind, but people should quit blowing his use of this word out of proportion. As usual, the PC police are winning.

Sherry said...

i actually like dr. wecht quite a bit and that is one of the reasons that i was disappointed and hurt by his using this word.

it's not the "pc" police. it's ordinary italian americans like me.

was my world shattered by this? no, just a bit sadder .

Clyde Wynant said...

Actually, if anyone had dared utter any Jewish slur in reference to Dr. Wecht, the entire world would be thrashing them and the Mossad would have them on their radar. It seems to me that some of you are semi-OK with goombah, but would blanch at kike. Am I right? I don't see this as a matter of political correctness gone wild, I see it as a simple matter of intelligent discourse and respect for one's fellow citizens.

Cyril deserves every bit of grief he gets over this. And while the MBB thing was a witch hunt, Cyril DID most of the stuff he was accused of. Too many liberals stuck by his side just because he was "their guy."

At the end of the day, Cyril has stayed way too long at the party and has a massive ego -- the exact reason he let his tongue slip in this case. He's got a bad case of the "entitled white male" syndrome.... In my book he's become an embarrassment to Pittsburgh.

Joy said...

The "K" word, unlike the "N" word, or any of many other ethnic terms used as slurs by outsiders, is not also used affectionately inside the group (unless it's a new or regional thing that I don't know about). So that's mostly going to muddy the water. I'm having trouble coming up with a true parallel--something that means "close, respected friend" within the community, and "inappropriately nepotistic friend with a shared ethnic and societal background" (as Wecht implies he intended to use it) or as "mafia thugs."

Frankly, I buy that he may have intended to focus on Pittsburgh "business as usual, cultural nepotism."

I can see that he didn't wish to dissect the different hereditary alliances in Pittsburgh. After all, it's not like we have a single set of "old boys"--we've got several, they don't always play well together, and from what I can suss out, historically, some of them were originally distinguished by ethnicity. (I know, that's not a news flash.)

I didn't think of the guys in Mafia suits on TV when I read "goombah" in context. I did think of the somewhat Italianate guys in suits who hang around the City-County building, and show up in political entourages, and speak to no-one except each other, and that, only in whispers.

"Buds" "amigos" or "homeboys" doesn't in any way capture the particular flavor of their focused insularity. (And besides, insulting some other ethnic group to avoid insulting Italians is also not fair.) "Bosom companions" is shockingly Shakespearean, "comrades" has the wrong political connotation, and just about anything else I can think of to sounds like homoerotic nudge nudge wink winkery. "Thick as thieves" again hints at impropriety and illegality.

What word would you use to say that two people's interaction was colored by a deep, maybe too deep, shared history, mutual regard and cultural understanding? "Frat brothers" or "club members," I suppose--but that only works if they were actually, y'know, frat brothers, or members of the same club. Bro, sidekick...nah.

My feeling, on reconsideration? Yes, Wecht highlighted the Italian-ness of the guys, at the same time that he highlighted their inappropriate behavior. That sure seems racist.

But if the closeness cultural ties of Italians, bleeding over into public life, has led to a dual meaning for "goombah," what then? Pretend they're not close? Or not Italian? Or make up a new word?

I'm starting to feel that Wecht used an unfortunate word because there was no better word that connoted the actual, unfortunate situation (letting your regard for your "homie" influence your job).

If you have a better word or phrase--one that doesn't instead cast aspersions by implication on some other ethnic group--go ahead and slap my argument down.

Finally, I have to say that for all the truly blue and personally insulting language Wecht has used over the years, this phrase an odd thing to focus on just as he's considering a run for Governor. I don't think he has the temperament for the job, or for the campaign trail, unfortunately. Too bad, because I often think he has more brains, honesty and regard for human rights than Corbett and Onorato combined (and not less than Hoeffel, either).