The primacy of culture

Italians making music together during the pandemic. (Photo by Nicolò Campo)

America is in a season of rage, seemingly boundless and beyond control. Its leaders could learn from those among its citizens who are the children of an older culture, one with some experience in managing diverse ethnic communities and conflict: The Italian Americans.  

In both Italy and again in the United States, we Italians have confronted uniquely complex cultural situations among ourselves. In Italy, the idea of a unified country at the turn of the last century was a dim notion, with the city-state model much more consistent with the various cultures and ethnicities of the peninsula. In America, these same groups, especially from the South, found themselves packed together in close quarters and had to figure out ways to overcome their natural suspicions of and hostility toward one another. 

These themes each deserve their own article, and it is not the purpose of this one to get into the complexities of Italian social life except to note that they exist. What has allowed us to transcend them in both places is the unifying elements of our culture. The adults may have bickered among themselves all spring during my childhood in Boston, but come summer, you would see all of us on Hanover Street and our impossibly small side streets during the Feasts, loud talking in the riot of dialects and our distinctive Boston-accented English, eating our street food, and listening to the old crooners on the makeshift stage in the center of the street.

At the Feasts, we buried the hatchet and lived life joyfully together. (

It was culture that was able to keep us together, a shared sense of who we were as a people. This operates most powerfully on the simplest level, through elemental urges being met by food and music and gathering together. The more abstract a cultural phenomenon becomes, the less power it has in this way. Opera was born as a part of the streets. When it was elevated to a kind of cultural signifier for the elites, it lost much of its power, although the source remains fecund, as was in evidence during the quarantine in Italy.

We are a diverse people, but our ability to learn to get together is rooted in our commonalities. America has yet to learn this lesson. These days, we see the very real consequences of the shape of the learning curve of our nation in this respect. What is needed is an openness to the complexity of our country, not a rejection and a watering down of it. 

The cultural practice of tolerance, learned through necessity, is a powerful weapon against hate. And America does have lessons, for those who would see. Integrated neighborhoods like the old stomping grounds Barack Obama and I shared in Hyde Park in Chicago serve as good examples of this. To be clear, these are no utopias; they are not filled with enlightened people per se; instead, ordinary people are forced to get along in a space where the skill of adaptation is rewarded, and so everyone adapts. We become clever by default (and truly we are not very clever at all, but the children raised in such places are a great treasure indeed). Where we can come together around shared practices, the getting along gets a little easier.

America needs to learn tolerance, and we can begin by seeing the complexity of the cultures that are here instead of reducing them to punch lines and stereotypes. Italian Americans have a rich history to witness from. We can be a voice for tolerance and diversity in an era when the lack of both is literally burning our country down. 

If we will, it will be through efforts like this one, what we are doing right here as a group. We have to cultivate our history and share it with one another – and then with others. We have to face the ugliness of our past and not be afraid to shift the popular identity of our culture by asserting what we do believe in, what our vision for the future is, and who our heroes and role models are. Above all, we have to be committed to a joy offensive, filling the world with our music and food and laughter and togetherness. That is our great cultural legacy, and the world needs it now more than ever.


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