Chris Cuomo’s ‘Fredo’ rant is about more than race or ‘The Godfather’

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s profanity-laced verbal altercation with a reactionary, baiting bigot is entertaining in a high school sort of way, but the episode underscores the toxic masculinity in both the radical right and Italian American culture.

When the boorish fascist taunted Cuomo with the “Fredo” label, he knew he would touch a raw nerve. What appears to be a secretly filmed video — a la right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe — concludes with one of the antagonists ominously warning “You’re in for it,” an indication of a set-up.

But the recorded confrontation between Cuomo and his antagonists seems laughable, similar to males of a species butting heads over who will get to impregnate the females of the flock or pride. And Cuomo failed to follow the advice of the Godfather himself: Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking.

For Italian Americans, Fredo Corleone was not simply the weak son of Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather; his moral and physical weakness also posed an existential threat to the family “business.” Ever since John Cazale’s extraordinary performance in the first two “Godfather” films (1972 and 1974) Fredo has been synonymous with a weak man whose virility is in question — hence the character’s constant bedding of cocktail waitresses in an attempt to refute his perceived femininity, “prove” his manhood and propel him to power.

But Fredo fails on all counts, and his failures are interrelated. He can’t control himself or “his” women, and he betrays the family by siding with Hyman Roth in an assassination attempt against his brother. The pathos leads to a tragedy worthy of Sophocles: Michael is forced to commit fratricide to protect the family.

The essential point is to recognize the dichotomy in Italian (and Italian American) culture between “fesso” and “furbo.” The fesso is the cretin: foolish, stupid and ignorant, yes, but his most damning trait is that he permits others to abuse him, and thereby question his virtù, a Renaissance ideal that doesn’t mean “virtue” in the Anglo-Saxon sense, but virility, manliness or power.

Furbo, on the other hand, means shrewd, cunning, manipulative and masculine. As Machiavelli insisted, the Prince, the embodiment of virtù, must be able to seize — with violence if necessary — Fortuna (always feminine). Fredo, whose constant womanizing, despite the disapproval of his father, Don Vito, is an attempt to compensate for his perceived weakness (partially acquired from a childhood bout with pneumonia) is a fesso; Michael is furbo.

Still, the “Fredo” jibe, while highly insulting, is in no way equivalent to the N-word for African Americans, despite Cuomo’s assertion. Aggrieved Italian Americans have, on the other hand, made a cottage industry of taking umbrage any time a reference is made to the Mafia, organized crime in general or “The Godfather” in particular. They often can’t make a distinction between the high art of Coppola or Scorsese films and schlock imitations, and assume others can’t either.

But the “Godfather” has become so mythic in our collective cultural consciousness that attempts to obliterate him will simply have to wait for the inevitable passage of time. (Mentioning the film 30 years ago when I first started teaching, students nodded their heads in recognition; today not so much and, in another generation, young people — for better or worse — won’t get the cultural reference at all.)

More provocatively, Cuomo made an unpardonable mistake: he responded as the volcanic Sonny Corleone would have, not the more cerebral Michael — or, to cast a more literary parallel, more like Achilles than Ulysses. In doing so, Cuomo inadvertently — if understandably — actually reinforced the negative stereotypes associated with Italian Americans: impetuous, sentimental, vulgar, violent, loud, easily provoked when their masculinity is questioned.

Other Americans viewed (and perhaps some still view many) Italian Americans as being unable to control or suppress their emotions, and all-to-eager to resolve disputes with their fists. In the 1940s, the cool and composed Joe DiMaggio challenged this stereotype; at the same time Frank Sinatra also challenged the stereotype in his professionalism and artistic craftsmanship on the stage and in the studio, but reverted to the Hoboken hoodlum stereotype at the bar after a few drinks.

Growing up in the 1970s, there were no roles models for Italian Americans who were not of the Fonz type. Big-hearted and ferociously loyal, they would give you the shirts off their backs and were very successful with the “ladies.” But Italians intellectuals were almost invisible: Other than the detective Columbo and then Capt. Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues,” I never saw an Italian American in the culture — as opposed to my family and real life — solve a problem with his head rather than his heart.

This supposedly benign stereotype is one I find more pernicious than the gangster and mafioso. The critical point, as Italian American scholar Fred Gardaphé has pointed out, is to move from being a “wise guy” to a “wise man.”

Cuomo, whose father, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, was as close as we have come to a philosopher-king in contemporary America, betrayed his father’s legacy with his profane, macho posturing no less than Fredo betrayed his brother.