As I was standing at Marconi Plaza last Saturday, waiting to hear whether the city would honor a judge’s order that the wooden box hiding the Columbus statue be removed (spoiler alert, it didn’t and it wasn’t,) I had a few moments to ponder why Mayor Jim Kenney was so intent on letting the Italian Americans of Philadelphia know just how undeserving of respect he thought we were. It took a few moments, but I ultimately realized why this former son of South Philadelphia is leading this legal, cultural and administrative juggernaut against us.
And with this realization came a troubling corollary revelation: Kenney doesn’t just hate Italian Americans. Kenney is opposed to all of the white, working-class ethnic populations that built this city, the Irish like himself, the Poles, the Germans, the Jews, the Slavs and all the other nationalities that defined their geography and history by what parish they belonged to, what school they attended, what union their grandparents paid dues in, or where they bought their kielbasa, their baccala or their chopped liver.
If you’ve ever been at a meeting of progressive Democrats, or even of the country club sort of Republicans who like to “get along” with them, such as the ones who define as “Never Trumpers,” you will detect an obvious disdain for working-class white ethnic groups. I have “passed” in those circles, being an attorney who practices in the so-called liberal field of immigration. Those who have not read my columns or heard me on the radio or TV assume I am one of them. It’s “Imitation of Life,” just substituting mindset for race. I’m not one of them, but I look like one of them and so the guard is down. Like that fly on the proverbial wall, I have access to what they say when they think no one is listening beyond the sterile bubble of elite wisdom.
When you get someone like Jim Kenney, Helen Gym, Chris Rabb, Larry Krasner, the Commissioners on the Board of Elections, Senate candidate Val Arkoosh, AG Josh Shapiro or any other number of progressives together, they talk about working-class white folk as “leftovers” (to use a phrase from Jim Kenney himself.) The fact that Kenney actually called Italians “guidos” in public was a rare aberration. Usually, the progressives are much better at hiding their disdain until they are safely grouped together, outside of earshot of their targets.
Progressives tend to presume that most people who don’t have degrees and work for a living (or who descend from people like that and still share those values even after making it through college) have, at most, high school diplomas. They presume they don’t recycle, or believe in climate change. They think a majority are unvaccinated, and that they listen to conservative talk radio for their news. They roll their eyes about how naive the ethnics are, and how they don’t even understand the difference between sex and gender (there is no difference beyond the fictions they’ve created, but this is the type of thinking that reinforces their beliefs that these folks are not only stupid, they are bigots.)
I have been at social functions where they make fun of people like my grandparents who never made it past the third grade, and then turn around and talk about how important it is to respect indigenous folks with names they can’t spell (including indigenous.) They push for a holiday to honor the “indigenous,” but do so to perpetuate the sense of victimization that has become a hallmark for progressives (as in, you have been oppressed, let us remind you of how oppressed you still are.) I have seen Jim Kenney talk about a “big tent” in Philadelphia. The liberals nodded appreciatively, knowing that the tent excluded the people who actually pay mortgages on homes they scrimped and saved for in the South Philadelphia parishes of Stella Maris, Annunciation, Tollentine, Aquinas and St. Monica.
I have sat in on editorial meetings at a notable paper where certain journalists deliberately made fun of the white ethnic folk who, in their words “probably voted for Trump so we don’t need to reach out to them.” I saw the knowing looks, the snark and complicity.
So all of this has led me to understand why Jim Kenney feels free to say “Fuck you” to the people he grew up around. He left them a long time ago, and was taught to despise them by his new friends, people who are embarrassed by the guy who thinks the plural of you is “youse” (it is) and the woman who doesn’t need her ego to be stroked because she already knows how strong she is (five kids, maybe a job outside the home, paid tuition for years of Catholic school and never once marched in a parade with a crocheted vagina on her head).
I have traveled among the people Jim Kenney now calls “friend.” They are not kind, or tolerant, or particularly smart. They may have degrees. They might have distinct pronouns. They may have won elections by exploiting race and class divisions. But they despise authenticity, and have a warped view of intrinsic human worth. And they wear masks, everywhere.
Knowing this makes Jim Kenney’s actions understandable. It makes the thinly-veiled revulsion of his supporters for the Italian, Irish, Pole or German explicable. But it doesn’t make it any less tragic, particularly when they are concerned with statues as opposed to the babies being killed in city streets.
And it doesn’t eliminate the metallic taste of bile in my mouth when I think of them.