When Joseph Giordano talks about the importance of being ethnic, and staying ethnic, he isn't just putting forth fuzzy theories. Giordano, a third-generation Italian-American married to an Irish-American, is a Roman Catholic on the payroll of the American Jewish Committee.
Giordano, 49, a family therapist in New York City and former assistant commissioner of that city's Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services, is director of the American Jewish Committee's Center on Ethnicity, Behavior and Communications. And, as an ethnic, he's here to say: "Thomas Wolfe was not correct. You must to home again, to kind of put your house in order."
In other words, Giordano said, being ethnic is good for your mental health--as long as you can recognize, and discard, values and traditions that don't work and cling to those that "still make sense to you."
The problem, he noted, is that the larger society's attitudes toward ethnic and racial minorities create in them an "ambivalence" that is neither healthy nor constructive and too frequently leads to denial, cover-up and a frustrating pursuit of every societal whim.
And, to a large degree, Giordano blames the media, especially television with its flick-on access and its force as a 30-hour-a-week diversion for children, for contributing to ethnics' bad feelings about themselves: "The media do send back messages."
Giordano, who serves as co-chair of the Italian American Institute on the Media, has analyzed films such as "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" and concluded that one message is that Italian-American men deal with the world in a primitive way, expressing their frustrations through aggressive physical and sexual behavior. (Italian-American women, he noted, most often are filmed "in the kitchen, very heavy, and serving food.")
In an effort to make those messages more positive, the American Jewish Committee has been spearheading formation of a coalition of 20 ethnic organizations calling for creation of an office within the Federal Communications Commission to monitor and act on complaints about how the media portray, and give representation to, ethnic, racial and religious minorities.
Next Tuesday Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) will reintroduce in the Congress a bill similar to the Ethnic Affairs Broadcasting Clearinghouse Act that died in committee in 1983. Citing an increasing number of public complaints, the bill's backers want a separate federal office to deal only with complaints of this nature.
"In no way are we saying there should be censorship," Giordano said. "What we're asking is, for every two lousy programs, give us one good one" that presents "more authentic views of ethnic life in American society."
His own checklist of "good" television includes "Hill Street Blues," singled out for its Capt. Furillo character--"He's good looking and he's in charge of the precinct."
But, if he might say so, Giordano said, even Furillo could stand some improvement. he asked, "What Italian man would go a whole year without calling his mother once?"
At a luncheon at American Jewish Committee offices here to discuss formation of the media-monitoring coalition, Giordano reminded minority participants that they were part of a much bigger whole--those 100 million people in the United States who identify with an ethnic background.
Most of those people, he noted, carry some "cultural baggage" through life, "some elements of hurt," some fear that "because (discrimination) is out there in the larger community, it's going to happen to me."
Then, looking at the faces--black faces, Asian faces, Polish faces--around the table, he said, "I'm amazed at how many people in the name of fighting bigotry...will turn around and say something about some other group."
From time to time, he added, ethnics have been guilty of ethnic distortion. During the presidential campaign, when Jesse Jackson irked Jews with his overtures to Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization--overtures referred to by New York Mayor Edward Koch as "embracing the murderer"--Giordano said black and Jewish media "distorted the news in favor of a perception that would be favorable to their own groups."
(Giordano said in an interview that Koch "says some outrageous things" and has "almost exacerbated" the black-Jewish conflict.)
Perhaps, someone suggested, minority groups had never worked together on media issues because those of color were fighting the battle of affirmative action while others were concerned primarily with their image.
"We don't know what the other group's fights are," Giordano said. He pointed out that, when "Scarface" was being filmed in Miami, with Cubans as the heavies instead of Italians in this updated version, an Italian leader, asked how he felt about the film, said: "What do I care? It's not my business."
Giordano added, "Next time it will be."