Last week, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo got into an argument with a man who called him “Fredo,” a weak-minded, childlike, cocktail-sucking loser who was Don Vito Corleone’s eldest son in the movie The Godfather.
The sad-eyed chump would declare: “I’m smart and I want respect!”
No one would want to be called Fredo.
I know this because, being the grandson of Alfredo Levantini of Pescara, Italy, I have been called Fredo by more than a few folks in this lifetime.
The problem is, Cuomo overreacted with a profanity-soaked diatribe that concluded with him saying that, for Italian Americans, Fredo is “like the N-word.”
No. No, it’s not.
Maybe up at the Albany Academy, the private university preparatory day school where Cuomo (the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo) got educated, the local bumknuckles used Fredo as the final, edgy, “Go to hell” riposte.
But no one ever uttered it at my giant Brooklyn public high school, whose football team was dubbed “the Italian Army.” Riven with too many problems, the place was ultimately deemed “incorrigible” and shuttered like a meth lab.
“I’ve never heard the term Fredo used as an ethnic slur,” Joseph Sciorra, a director at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in New York, told me. "It’s not something on the ground, in the streets of New York.
“It’s a highly personalized opinion of Cuomo’s. Even if he was called a ‘wop’ or a ‘guinea’ [common Italian American slurs], it doesn’t come close to the N-word in any kind of power or hurtfulness.”
Calling someone Fredo is a slap in the face. Using the N-word is firing a bazooka.
But here’s the thing:
Cuomo tapped into something I’ve noticed before. People are quick to find false equivalencies between their suffering and larger, more catastrophic events or circumstances.
For example, I’ll hear acquaintances denigrate bad bosses or political leaders they don’t agree with as “Hitlers” or “Nazis.”
People invoke Hitler when discussing someone in authority they abhor because he’s linked to “the most available historical event illustrating right versus wrong,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
But these folks are prone to making “misplaced comparison[s] that trivialize this unique tragedy in human history," according to the organization.
President Donald Trump, who himself has been likened to Hitler, compared U.S. intelligence agencies to “Nazi Germany.” As a matter of record, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton, have also been decried as Hitler-like.
The over-the-top insult isn’t limited to leaders.
According to Godwin’s Law, a widely held precept named after a First Amendment lawyer, the longer an online discussion progresses, the more likely it is that someone will eventually be compared to Hitler.
What Cuomo tried to do by paralleling the N-word with Fredo is equate Italian immigrant ordeals with the spectrum of torment experienced by black Americans — a wrongheaded notion that a lot of people I grew up with espoused.
“We had it just as bad as black people," Italian American residents in my old neighborhood would say.
There’s no doubt my people lived through real difficulties. When my family came to this country (at least one of them illegally), they huddled impoverished in steerage on crowded ships. My grandfather Alfredo was held in a cage for days at Ellis Island. My relatives endured prejudice, worked hard at dangerous jobs, lived in the same projects many immigrant Latinos inhabit today.
But as tough as things were for them, they never faced the cycle of misery produced by skin prejudice. They benefited from a war economy, before jobs left the cities. Their children started out with better educational opportunities, better housing stock, more intact communities. They never were segregated into isolated neighborhoods, or unfairly incarcerated.
And their coming to America was a dream that took them to a better life, not a systematic kidnapping that denied their humanity and made them property.
Their boat rides were facilitated by choice, not chains.
Also, I have told anyone who’d listen, 3,446 black people were lynched in this country between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP.
As poor as we were — my family spent half-a-dozen years below the federal poverty line — we still enjoyed white privilege. Store owners didn’t automatically think we were criminals; my cousins and I didn’t have to be warned not to mouth off to cops for fear of getting tortured or shot.
Cuomo’s careless comment is a reminder of how little we’ve learned in this life, and how limited some people’s thinking can be.
Fredo is frivolous; the N-word, however, is symbol, cudgel, scythe.
In a tweet invoking Oprah Winfrey, journalist Yashar Ali wrote that the N-word “is the last thing black men heard before they were strung up from a tree or when black women were raped."
“Nothing is comparable.”