Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010
Let's say, tired of all the old prejudices, you tried to popularize some new ones. Imagine you attempted to get the hurt stirring by spreading the memes that Asians are all drunks, but also great storytellers; Jews have a tendency to commit street crimes, but are fantastic dancers; and the Irish, while talented in math, lack social skills.
These wouldn't catch on, for reasons nobody much likes to talk about in public. What gives stereotypes much of their potency is their basis in truth. Stereotyopes that don't correspond to commonly observed behaviors would have no power. What also gives stereotypes potency is the way some members of the groups celebrate their assigned roles.
Here on Long Island, it's the depictions of pasta-eating paisans and Prada-wearing princesses getting the attention.
In the Democratic primary for Nassau County executive, favorite Tom Suozzi, who held the post from 2002-2009, faces Adam Haber, a retired businessman willing to put millions of his own money into the race.
Haber is airing an ad in which large, ethnic-looking men drink red wine, eat pasta, and toast the return of Suozzi. The attack ad lauds him for hiring cronies and doling out raises to himself and his buddies while hiking property taxes sharply.
The spot, with its "Sopranos" feel, has sparked the ire of both Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs and the Italian fraternal organization Order Sons of Italy. And you have to wonder what Haber was thinking: Trying to win an election in Nassau County by insulting Italians is kind of like trying to win an election in Tel Aviv by ragging on Jews. Either Haber didn't think this through or he's realized what a terrible job Nassau County executive is and is taking a dive.
But why does the "Connected Italians toasting the re-ascension of their capo" stereotype wound? Partly because what it plays on, Italian organized crime families, exists. But also because some Italian-Americans, rather than fighting and defying the common stereotypes of Italianness -- of the food and wine-centric culture, and the clothes and hair and jewelry, and yes, of "being connected" -- embrace them.
And then there is "Princesses: Long Island," a program about six rich 'n' scary Jewish gals that has Rep. Steve Israel's blood boiling. It's a reality show about spoiled, unmarried women, around the age of 30, who live off their parents, spend money like mad and have shallow, shrieky, drunken catfights while waiting for Jewish princes to come sweep them off their Jimmy Choos.
Israel (D-Huntington), who has written a piece for Huffington Post and been interviewed widely on his disdain for the show, represents the district where several of the women live. He says "Princesses" is entirely fictional and resembles nothing he's really seen in Jewish culture. Which I can't believe is true. In fact, to the extent that the show resonates, it's because Jewish gals like this do exist, and because some Jews embrace the stereotype.
Even my sister, 700 miles from the nearest Bloomingdale's in her South Carolina youth, got a copy of "The Jewish American Princess Handbook" for her bat mitzvah.
You can walk into most Walmarts in Georgia and cast "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" in 15 minutes. You can walk into the Americana Manhasset and do the same with "Princesses: Long Island." And if Adam Haber wants to film another commercial, he can find new stars any evening in Italian eateries across Long Island. And you can find young black men depicting "thug life" in their clothes and manner, and Irish guys opening bars and naming them "Limerick's."
I understand why people get upset at the way their groups are stereotyped. It's hurtful, and limiting, and attributes to huge numbers of people traits they don't embody. But I also think it would often be worthwhile for these folks to put more energy toward counseling their brethren about behaviors, and less toward fuming about the depiction.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.