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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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I'll be the first to admit that I've got a lot to learn about Chicago politics and Chicago history. But I'm pretty sure that Dan Conley's article about Chicago politics plays roughshod with recent Chicago political history. Its intent is to put some flesh on the ethereal and soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama's new politics. If anything, Conley's Orwellian reading of Chicago politics makes me more nervous about the politics of hope that Obama represents.

According to Conley, politics pre-Daley were rife with unproductive and even destructive conflict. With a slight nod to Mayor Washington, he then describes how the Daley administration reached out across neighborhoods and race and engaged community groups to create real world solutions for the city's intractable problems. Conley puts forward a vision of "community values in politics, promis(ing) an America where politics is a good thing, where arguments on the merits are encouraged, where a seat is always open for anyone eager to sit at the table and contribute what they can." There's so much wrong with Conley's description of Chicago political history and the supposed participatory nature of Chicago politics that I'm baffled as to where even to begin.

The idea that community groups somehow have an added voice in political decisions in Chicago is ludicrous. Ask the staff of Little Village Community Development Corporation who have to rely on state and foundation funds for programming because of the presence of non-HDO staff in the organization. I'm sure the residents of the Lathrop Homes who are facing displacement because of the Mayor's vision of "mixed income development" means that the last bastion of affordable housing in Lakeview must disappear. Or the LSCs and parental advisory boards shut of the Renaissance 2010 process. The multiple community and tenant organizations and neighborhood leaders in Woodlawn, Washington Park and Kenwood shut out of community planning and development efforts would likely object as well.

If Obama's new politics are anything like Daley's, then it is a politics of tokenism, of ideological pay to play rules, and the divisive politics of authentic representation. Anyone can participate in the decision-making process in Chicago, as long as they toe the line and are willing to be background color for mayoral photo-ops and be willing to turn out in force to enable the Mayor to play the race and class card to bludgeon opposition. I've personally sat with at least two supervisors in non-profit organizations as they agonized over whether they wanted to keep their jobs or continue to play ball with the city administration. Is this the politics of hope, or a softer, gentler machine politics, a kind of managed democracy that only lets communities participate just so far? Will Obama be nothing but a beautiful, multicultural veneer on the usual politics and economics that benefit the glossy skyscrapers over the rough surface bungalow and two-flat?

I've not been immune to being swept up in Obama-mania. There are times, such as when he told the world that he believes that immigrants and low-skill African-Americans are not competing, but are rather both being slammed by economic restructuring, that I find myself mentally chanting "yes we can." But then I remember he comes from Chicago, from this faux "community politics" run by and from city hall. I remember his closest associates in Chicago include Hermene Hartman of N'Digo magazine and Valerie Jarrett and I wonder if he's nothing but a stalking horse for the black bourgeoisie of Kenwood and South Shore, who oppose living wages by shutting off conversations through appealing to race. Maybe it's just familiarity breeding contempt, but the idea of Valerie Jarrett or some other "authentic Chicago community voice" knee deep in the ambiguous CHA Plan for Transformation becoming HUD secretary in an Obama administration fills me with dread. I fear the becoming hooked on Obama is a little like getting hooked on Coke Zero: glossy, pretty, hi-tech, but in the end pretty much the same bad aftertaste and stomach rumblings.

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Pedro / May 28, 2008 10:38 AM

Congrats to have the courage to question what Obama really stands for.

Too often, he talks of believing in one principle, and then his actions defy that very principle.

Item 1) He says that he will restore our standing with our allies. He then makes a policy statement that he will immediately renogotiate trade agreements with those same allies. Business interests tie nations together more than foreign policy, so by unilaterally altering commercial relationships, he believes that our allies are going to "like" us better.

Item 2) He stumps about changing the way politics work; no special interests, no cronyism, etc... He then throws his support behind Todd Stroger! Any Chicagoan can tell you how corrupt that man is and what his administration represents.

Brian / May 28, 2008 12:02 PM

Obviously, I think the Daley bashing is silly, but you are on to something.

Why is it that Chicagoans are bad mouth and denigrate their city while outsiders praise it?

Is it that the badmouthers are all under 25 and still desperate to rebel against "The Man" in this case, Richie?

Or is it because they don't remember what a mess Chicago was in the 1980s can't remember when it had serious problems?

mike / May 28, 2008 3:32 PM

I'm 35. I'm a Demovcrat but I've learned that means nothing in Cook County. Party at the local level has become irrelevant for me. I badmouth Daley because I didn't grow up here. Native Chicagoans have extremely low standards. They think the rest of the country is the same but they're wrong. In 1968 when people were having their heads kicked in by the CPD, the rest of the country watched in horror. My dad told me that the predominant attitude in Chicago was, "good, serves them outside agitators right." I've only lived in Chicago for ten years. I'm disheartened by our useless City Council, most of them career politicians who were appointed by Daley and have never run for their office in any other capacity than incumbent. They have way too much power over development decisions in their Ward. I've lived in places where there's things called term limits. I've lived in places where having gone to Lane Tech and lived overbydere is not seen as any special sort of trait. They can't really do anything about guns or the trains and buses since they need to make nice with Little Big Man so they can feed at the TIF trough.

Unlike a native, I don't give Daley credit for gentrification and I don't think clearing snow and picking up the trash are the sole qualifiers for his holding office as long as he wants. Guess what? New York, DC and Baltimore gentrified in the 90s too. I was in Philly last month and couldn't believe how much it's changed in ten years. Lots of Chicago natives act as if Chicago is the only great city in America ... maybe that's due to our proximity to Detroit and St. Louis. I see arrogance. I see a power-hungry bully who cares a lot about squeezing as much money as he can out of a law-abiding and tax-paying citizenry that gets crappy schools, crumbling infrastructure and gang terrorism in return. In Chicago, the police aren't very good at catching hit and run drivers but they're pros at ticketing cars the first of the month when stickers expire. In Chicago, the trains jump the tracks and the transit system prints out late passes to hand commuters. Daley has very little to do with Chicago's vibrant music and theatre scene -- if anything he's been a detriment to it at times. My guess is that none of the members of the fingerpuppet Plan Commission (who recently gave the Children's Museum the thumbs up) even know who Jane Jacobs was.

On another note: I agree with Pedro regarding Obama's (and Durbin's) support of Stroger. It was a condescending and disappointing letter and it permanently brought me back down to reality regarding Obama.

It started off saying they hoped we, the voters of Cook County, would exercise our right to be heard -- because people had fought and marched and died for that sacred right. It elevated Todd to a savior of the people, cast Peraica ad a demon whose time in office would be spent eliminating abortions at Cook County Hospital and arming gangbangers with AK47s. The close of the letter is a classic:

"On Tuesday, Todd Stroger is the only choice. You can make the difference. You can raise your voice. You can choose Todd Stroger and let him lead us into a new era in Cook County government."

Jacob / May 28, 2008 7:28 PM

Brian, Brian, it's good to hear from you. I think what'd I'd like to clarify is that you can be agnostic on the policy effects of Mr. Daley or even supportive of the results his policies have had in the city, but to somehow claim his politics represent a new, participatory, post-ideology politics that the whole nation should follow, is a whole nother ball of wax. I think that's the essential problem: the ideas (like Plan for Transformation, like Renassiance 2010) but because there is so little accountability in the system, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Brian / May 28, 2008 7:57 PM

Who claimed horseshit like that? Some starry eyed Obama compound dweller maybe, but not me.

My claim is that the endless whining and Daley bashing from the teenage rebels who write these columns is tedious.

Whoa! How evil, the mayor gets along with middle class black people! What a jerk!

Thank goodness nobody listens to ivory tower social planners.

Ramsin / May 28, 2008 10:00 PM

First we were all "under 25" and now we're teenagers.

The fact is, you are just another of an endless stream of perfectly identical libertarian-light contrarians whose experience of the city is so extraordinarily limited that he doesn't understand that, for example, schools are purposefully left to rot, Chicagoans of the less convenient kind are deprived of their civil rights, affordable housing has completely disappeared, and participatory democracy has become a joke.

Our safety in our own homes is compromised by a city regime that tolerates bribery; communities are dissolved by a legal regime that favors developers over residents.

I have praised Daley to the skies when I felt he merited it--in fact, all the early criticism of my columns was that they were too "pro-Daley"--and I remember the dangerous Chicago of the late 80s and 90s.

The hallmark of a weak thinker like yourself is the comparative justification, also called conservatism, that says if it is even at all better than at some point in the past, criticism is unnecessary or "naive."

The mark of a disciplined thinker is one who uses non-comparative justifications, to look at systems, institutions, and organizations, seek standards outside of past experience and judge them by those standards. These standards are typically based on some principle or set of principles that can be logically and materially defended.

That is how we as society, and as a human race, make progress.

The way we stagnate and move backward is by succumbing to limp, contrarian thinking that uses feeble and facile analogies and broad generalizations (such as "It was so much worse before Daley" Was that due to Daley? How long before Daley? Was it worse under Byrne? Was it worse under Bilandic? Daley I? Was it worse under Anton Cermak? What about under Carter Harrison? Has the only good period been under Daley? Was Daley, and more specifically his policy book, necessary and sufficient for the good times? Did other cities not experience good times? Oh, the ways to humiliate you!) such as the "arguments" you constantly waste everybody's time with.

Unfortunately for you, that kind of thinking is on its way out--that is the kind of thinking that has justified inherited, institutionalized privilege over meritocracy and elitism over democracy.

Enjoy it while you can impress your buddies on the RonPaul listservs, nerd.

Brian / May 29, 2008 9:32 AM

Ron Paul?...whatever.

And that's why there's no point in talking to Ramsin Canon: he just asserts his superior intellect, builds a straw man to his liking, and ignores anything he can't handle .

mike / May 29, 2008 10:00 AM

In 2003 one of my friends got randomly shot and killed in Ravenswood. At that month's CAPS meeting, a ton of people showed up. They were understandably upset ... random slaying at woefully underpoliced Damen and Leland, killers never caught, etc. One of the beat cops at one point sarcastically said, "ey, dis neighborhood's way better dan it was in da 80s." Whenever people like Brian say inane things like, "they don't remember what a mess Chicago was in the 1980s," I think of that.

New York was also a mess in the 80s. The crime rate there is so low in comparison to Chicago's, it's an embarassment. Chicago is not the city that works. People that think it does amaze me.

mike / May 29, 2008 10:16 AM

One more thing: Schulter (30 year alderman, Daley lackey, et al) couldn't be bothered about the whole random murder thing. His office blew us off, did not respond to requests for a reward, publicity, etc. Fundraiser posters in the neighborhood were quickly removed (while other flyers stayed up) so that people could experience an Oktoberfest free of real life encumbrances. Schulter's the same alderman famous for going on TV and offering a $5,000 reward to catch the extremely dangerous teenage "NO YUPPIES" grafitto bandit who terrorized the condos of Lincoln Square a couple years previous. For me, Chicago is a city of Schulters: local rock stars in lockstep with Daddy Daley who periodically deign to grace us with their presence, vote themselves pay-raises and see the citizenry as a means to generate revenue.

Ramsin / May 31, 2008 11:02 AM

What exactly couldn't I handle, Brian? Your ad hominem ("25 year olds"; "teenagers") or your straw man ("Daley gets along with middle class black people! What a jerk!")

I didn't say anything about any superior intellect. I was talking about how to think about human problems. You can justify anything by pointing to some point in the past where things were better (or worse) and let yourself be satisfied; or you can stand on principle that things can always be better, and push that.

You choose to be a contrarian, you use ad hominem attacks (everybody who agrees with you is unreasonable, or a teenager, or a "compound dweller" or whatever) and set up straw men, and then you accuse me of doing it.

Let's get back to Jacob's piece.


About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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