Herbie Brandt grew up in New Brighton in the Fifties, a time when ‘nationality’ was the social marker of choice. People were either Wops, Polacks, Micks, or Yids, and this ethnic identity, far more than profession, family history, or social standing was all that was necessary to fix a person in time and place.
New Brighton was a typical New England town with an Anglo-Saxon elite clustered around the country club and living in old colonial homes on Madison Street; recent Polish immigrants who worked the factories owned by the old-line captains of industry; Italians who cut hair, and owned construction companies; and Jews who owned all the jewelry stores, pharmacies, furriers, and movie theatres.
All children went to public elementary school where the ethnic communities mixed, played dodge ball, and studied together; but everyone was still tagged and sorted by their last names. Ethnic stereotypes were quick and easy signifiers of likely behavior. In those days only one generation at most removed from The Old Country, there was a lot to stereotypes.
Guido (Jerry) Carlucci was a successful doctor whose father had been a laborer and a mother who took in laundry. Despite his Cornell degree, internship at Bellevue, and association with the descendants of New Brighton’s wealthiest industrialists, Jerry was still a testa dura, a Calabrese whose parents had come from a village as far down the boot of Italy as possible before the short boat ride to Africa. His big Cadillac, sconce-and-marble parlor, bella figura silk suits and two-toned shoes screamed guinea; and no matter how he and his wife tried, they knew too little of the upper crust families on Madison Street to know what to get rid of to become real Americans.
The same was true of Abe Bernstein, Stash Mikulski, and Brendan O’Dea.
New Brighton was still very feudal in its social configuration. The Madison Street-Martha’s Vineyard families owned the means of production – the big factories which had made New Brighton an important industrial capital in the 19th century, the purveyor of arms and equipment to the Union forces during the Civil War, and the leader in fine tools and hardware. The Poles worked the dyes, metal presses, cutters, finishers, and polishers; the Irish owned the bars and the politics; and the Jews managed retail and trade. Slovaks, Swedes, Germans, and Scots filled in the blanks. Everyone while subscribing to the American dream still knew his place. New Brighton was as predictable, orderly, and peaceful as any town in New England.
Separate but equal is how one would have described the different ethnic communities in those days. While there was some bleed, few Poles became barbers and even fewer Italians ran clothing stores. The Madison Street privileged rested on their laurels, their inherited wealth, and their centuries-old position in the community.
There was an easy peace in New Brighton because although there would always be suspicion and slights between ethnic groups, there was never hostility or repression. As in a feudal system, everyone carried out their own ordained tasks and fulfilled their roles. Ambition was expressed within communities not between them. The enterprising Pole who worked the industrial power drill aspired to move up to floor manager. The Jewish owner of the pawn shop on Arch Street could save enough money to buy the Embassy Theatre. The Italian laborer might some day own a dump truck, a cement mixer, and then the quarry.
There was tolerance within intolerance. While every group felt that they were better than every other because of religion, culture, or level of assimilation; and while slurs and insults were common, the communities all did well enough without mixing.
New Brighton began to change in the early 60s when Puerto Rican immigrants flooded the town, displaced the Poles, and formed an underclass. Now New Brighton showed its long-sublimated prejudice. These newcomers were black, Latin, Caribbean, and poor; and New Brighton did not know what to do with them. They fit in nowhere. Every job category from machine operator to beautician, to garbage collector, to barber had been assigned. Excluded, locked out, marginalized, and with few hopes of assimilation, the Puerto Ricans’ foreignness and incompatibility became more and more evident. When the first Southern blacks – even more strange, threatening, and suspect than the Puerto Ricans - moved in, the town finally and once-and-for-all became as divided and intolerant as any in America.
Intolerance is an ingrained, innate, hardwired human trait; and even a cursory look at history will confirm this supposition. Whether family jealousy, tribal divisions and competition for land and labor, religious arrogance and sanctimony, or regional wars and civil conflict, the story is the same. Human beings are genetically programmed to be self-interested, self-protective, territorial, and expansionist. Enemies are not just those who storm the castle but those who might. Every social grouping from the smallest family to the largest empire acts in the same ways – defense of the perimeter, acquisition of land and resources, consolidation of power, and elimination of external threats.
Suspicion, then, is an understandable, necessary expression of such defiant self-interest; and intolerance is an equally logical and predictable outcome.
To condemn intolerance and to preach racial, ethnic, and social harmony is just whistlin’ Dixie. Unless societies reform along the feudal lines of New Brighton; or until economic equality levels the playing field, intolerance will continue.
Since it is unlikely that we will ever return to the simpler configurations of the past; and since actual or perceived inequalities and injustices are more and more common up and down the social phylogenetic scale, we are in for it. We are not less tolerant than before. We simply have more to be intolerant of.
Human society is and always has been about survival, supremacy, power, and reign. Battles to defeat the infidel, to spread faith and culture, and to establish political and economic hegemony have resulted in the spread of civilization, the acquisition of wealth, and the financing of art, architecture, and public works.
Competition among siblings, families, and ethnic groups is necessary and positive. Ambition, desire, and will have always been social filters. The talented, intelligent, and single-minded pass through while the rest get caught in the mesh.
Tolerance and intolerance are not discrete entities but describe a spectrum. For how long should one be tolerant of social dysfunction and criminal excess in communities which have a history of subjugation? How tolerant should we be of a religion which has spawned violent extremism even though it is as grounded in the same principles of devotion, obedience, and salvation as all others?
Intolerance – i.e. suspicion and fear of those who threaten traditional values, principles, morals, and ethics – is a natural reaction. Unfortunately the prejudicial net which is cast is a large one; and those undeserving of intolerance are caught along with everyone else.
The issue is ignorant intolerance, not intolerance itself. I have every right to be finally fed up with minority communities which after decades of public assistance and entitlement refuse to accept responsibility for their continued dysfunctionality even though I understand their legacy of slavery. I have an equal right to be concerned about the rise of Islamic militancy and to be intolerant of it while retaining my respect for the religion from which it has sprung. I am not wrong in my criticism of Christian fundamentalists who insist on the Bible and nothing else; but can still understand and tolerate their expression of faith.
If there is any hope for tolerance, it will be be a function of ‘rational intolerance’ – a careful vetting of the intruder and The Other to determine whether or not he deserves my circumspection.
“Love they neighbor” is perhaps the one tenet of Christianity which has had no traction whatsoever in 2000 years, and yet it is the most often cited. We are simply not equipped to love our neighbor, but to be suspicious and wary of him until he passes through the sieve, meets our standards and expectations, and proves to be just like us. We don’t, then, love him. We tolerate him, and then once he has proved his worth, employ him as a militant member of our group.
Misplaced tolerance, compassion, and understanding are the worst possible expressions of a democracy, for they lead to an even more fractious and unworkable society. Tolerance based on self-interest, understanding one’s enemies and one’s friends within the context of survival, and compassion based on evaluating the needs of the truly deserving are the best expressions possible.