Thursday, August 25, 2011

TWIOT: Joey Vento and Learning to Accept Humanity

Vento: Xenophobe or philanthropist? How 'bout both?
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Joey Vento, the founder and owner of Geno's Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, died Tuesday night of a massive heart attack. Over the past two days, I've seen two types of obituary for him. One eulogized him, focusing on his impact in the development of the cheesesteak as a cultural icon of Philly or his generous donations to charity. The other denigrated his contributions to the cheesesteak, calling his product mediocre and fast food and gravitating towards his overt xenophobia, building the straw man of people going to his stand and trying to order in another language other than English to hide his obvious disdain towards Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants taking over the Italian Market. In death, much like in life, Vento polarizes.

That being said, which extreme the valid one? Thing is, they're both valid. The cheesesteak, like any other thing that is created for people to consume for their enjoyment or sustenance, is a highly subjective thing to judge. Even taking that out of the equation, it's a stone cold fact that he donated millions of dollars to several charities over the years. It's also a fact that he made people feel uncomfortable based solely on their ethnic background, whether they were native citizens of this country or whether they had come here from a different country, looking to make a start for themselves, much like Vento's ancestors did when they came over here from Italy. So, to reiterate, which extreme is the valid one? Was Vento a humanitarian or a racist? The answer is neither.

Joey Vento, like you, or I, or anyone else for the most part, was a human being.

Our vast array of imperfections make us all varying pastiches of virtues and foibles, scant few among us complete saints and maybe a few more but still not a whole lot among us as vile bastards. Some of our shortcomings can be unforgivable. I mean, you don't pump up Father O'Malley's priest work when the reason he ostensibly joined the cloth was to fuck little boys with near-impunity. That begs the question though, how much of his ignorance is wiped out by his charity? Or conversely, how much of his charity is wiped away by his ignorance?

To wit, Vento's act never really manifested itself in refusing anyone service on the basis of their linguistic skills. Again, it was more a straw man reaction to the "denigration" of his old neighborhood (which of course was built upon "denigration" of old WASP neighborhoods when the Italians settled there). Also, among the charities he donated to was Elton John's organization to help out AIDS victims in Africa, so it's not like he acted on any racism he may have held.

Then again, what's the price to buy out your conscience when you're so blatantly polarizing to a group of human beings who just want to make better lives for themselves? I mean, let's ignore the fact that it's bad business to turn people away because their English isn't as good as yours (and let's face it, if Vento was like the stereotypical South Philly Italian, his English isn't exactly up to the same standards as the Queen's either). It's hard enough to learn a new language in a new country if you're an adult to begin with. To have the extra social stigma attached to it by people who don't know where they came from makes the situation even worse. To exclude someone that you don't even know because they're different from you is pretty fucked up if you ask me.

The thing is though, neither of the questions above can be answered quantitatively and objectively. Everyone is going to have their own answers. Everyone is going to come to their own conclusions. This isn't Adolf Hitler who just died, nor was it Mahatma Gandhi. It was a flawed guy who did some good things, and hey, he made cheesesteaks too. (Mediocre-to-bad ones in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there)

I guess I mean to say that I don't agree with the sniping back and forth, but I do understand it. I mean, people have a nature to be combative, I think. Vento personified that with his "This is America, speak English" signs he posted all over his steak shop. Both reactions are valid. He's a guy who did some shitty things, but he did some really good things too. Maybe the best way to mourn him would be to accept that we're all fucked up in our own ways, and the best we can do is try harder to be better people. Accept that humanity, because really, it's what we really are, not paradigms of good or evil, but human beings.

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