Below is my column in USA Today on the profane and shocking statements by the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. The staements were later defended as “an Italian thing.” The suggestion was that this was just a form of Italian venting. It was not. First, as someone raised in a Sicilian family, I would not have been able to sit for a month if I ever spoke like that to anyone. Indeed, we just celebrated the 90th birthday of my mother, Angela Piazza Turley, in Chicago. If she read such statements by me in the press, I would have been met with a cane at the door. Second, this was not venting. It was raving and seriously undermined both Scaramucci and the Administration.
Here is the column:
After the new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci went on a profanity laced tiradein a conversation with New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, Scaramucci explained that he sometimes uses “colorful language,” and many noted that this was part of his Italian heritage. Indeed, Italians are known for their passionate speech, but there are a couple of useful lessons in this scandal. Consider it my own Rosetta Stone language program for those who want to understand casual Italian.
Like Scaramucci, I come from a large Italian family. Both of our grandfathers came to this country around the same time. My grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side were from the same village in Sicily (my name is from the Irish side of my father). There is indeed a “problem of translation” that occurs when outsiders come into an Italian family. When I first took my wife Leslie to meet my family in Chicago, she witnessed a fight between my mother and one of my sisters in which my sister told her kids to “say goodbye to your grandmother,” since they would never see her again. Leslie was almost in tears and asked me to “do something.”
At first I was confused and realized she was referring to the argument. I explained that by evening they would be at the kitchen table having coffee. They were.
The point is that Italians do speak to each other in ways that can shock people. When my Irish family says that you are dead to them, they mean it. They will next see you at your funeral. When Italians say it, it could last until … dinner.
That does not mean that there are not red lines. When one of my sisters was going out with a guy that my Mom opposed, the two had a full cathartic scream session. However, when my other sister moved toward the door, my mother met her with a broom and said “I gave you life and I can take it away.” My sister knew better than to argue the legal point of premeditated homicide. She turned around and went upstairs. My mother then collapsed on the couch. As my father and I comforted her, I turned to my Dad and said that we had witnessed perhaps the greatest moment of maternal Italian history: my mother had succeeded in actually hyperventilating in arguing with one of her daughters. It was the equivalent of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reaching the top of Everest or Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. It was perfection — pure passion driving an athlete past her physical abilities.
The point is that these comments reflect both a depth of love and vulnerability among Italian family members. The problem is that the same comment can make you look like an unchained lunatic if you say the same thing in a subway … or to a reporter.
Scaramucci, however, forgot a few unwritten rules for Italian venting.
First, we actually do not speak this way to non-Italians. Even relatives like Leslie in my family are viewed as non-combatants. Years of conditioning prepare us for understanding that being told as a kid that your Mom will cut off your hand if you take another cookie means simply that you have had enough. So when Scaramucci said he wanted to “kill” staffers, it sent staffers to the media saying that they felt unsafe. Of course it did. Telling someone you will cut off their hand if they take another roll at a restaurant is taken not as maternal but homicidal.
Second, we never do this in public, except in controlled and entertaining environments like weddings, where there are contextual warnings of the cultural content, like Italian bunting or a majority of guys named Dominick and Tony. Telling a stranger that your co-worker likes to engage in self-fellatio tends to confuse non-Italians who try to determine if that is physically possible and legally permissible. They don’t get it.
Third, Italian venting is a matter of focus even when it seems indiscriminate. While most people who have witnessed an Italian tirade can be shocked or even fearful, they are actually controlled explosions by experts bred for such displays. This is why the best firework companies are Italians like Zambellis, Gruccis, Parentes, Fazzonis, Rozzis, Cartianos, de Sousas and others. They were raised in environments of controlled explosions and know how to use them safely. Now Scaramucci may have thought he was talking to a fellow paisan, but there is a difference. Lizza is not paisan, he is press. His job is to report. Scaramucci said “I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again.” Well, that should not have taken a scandal to learn. In Italian tirades, the difference between a beautiful high-altitude firework and an indiscriminate street explosion is control.
Scaramucci showed the cost of an uncontrolled Italian explosion. In so doing, he did not just harm himself but his administration. At a time when the White House had to convey strength and strategy to jittery GOP members on the Hill, he conveyed not passion but panic. He should have known that. This is why NFL players do not randomly tackle people on the street. They are professionals and know when a sack is appropriate and when it is a felony.
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Scaramucci is right when he said, “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the f____ing strength of the president. I’m here to serve the country.” He can serve it better than this. What he said was outrageous and amateurish. And do not blame it on us. To paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, I know Italian venting. Italian venting is a friend of mine. This is not Italian venting.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.