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Column Wed Jan 07 2009

Chicago's Loose Tooth Love

Your cuspid, or canine, before your adult teeth come in, just inside your cheek — so hidden from view — it was the perfect loose tooth. It wouldn't leave a noticeable gap when it fell out, and while you waited for it to do so, you could clandestinely rock it back and forth with your tongue. Even though it hurt — and felt a little gross, the roots sliding against your soft gums — you couldn't stop. The pain — unique, more or less under your control, not enough to paralyze — became mildly addictive. You almost couldn't stop yourself from playing with it, more and more roughly.

That impulse, to enjoy something painful or disgusting or annoying — it's "loose tooth love."

Where does it come from, loose tooth love? Who knows. But it comes in many forms.

I had a roommate who would go crazy whenever this certain breakfast cereal commercial would come on — "Got your fiber?" It was the way the actor said "fiber." He couldn't stand it; it drove him absolutely nuts. Whenever he'd hear it, he'd convulse. But he also wouldn't change the channel. In fact, when it came on, he wouldn't let anybody change it. He had to sit through it, in visible pain. Why?

It's loose tooth love.

Not to be confused, of course, with "loving to hate" something. Loose tooth love is self-inflicted.

Which brings us naturally back to Governor Rod Blagojevich.

It's commonly said that Chicagoans, Illinoisans, take a sort of (perverse, ironic, civic) pride in the feudal nature of their politics and revel in the flamboyant personalities and sordid details of scandal. The evidence is that afforded regularly scheduled opportunities, called elections, to replace the "bums", we choose to keep them.

But if Chicagoans love our "wild west" politics, it is only loose tooth love.

When we find out that bribed judges are letting felons back out on the streets, or that aldermen are selling our neighborhoods to the highest bidder, or that tax money is being used to create imaginary jobs for political mercenaries — we're just rocking that tooth back and forth, feeling the sting but too attached to it to end the pain.

Let's do the list. Since the late 1980s, Chicago and Illinois have hosted more operations than a hospital: Operation Lantern, Operation Phocus, Operation Haunted Hall, Operation Greylord, Operation Gambat, Operation Safe Bet, Operation Silver Shovel, Operation Incubator, Operation Safe Roads, Operation Board Games. These investigations have resulted in the arrest and conviction of literally hundreds of politicians and their associated bureaucratic operators. Arguments that big government naturally leads to such corruption would be burdened by having to explain the legendary corruption of the pre-New Deal, pre-Machine Chicago, when the city was run by a network of boosters, industrialists and financiers.

Why can't Chicago (really, Cook County) quit these habits? What is the source of this loose tooth love of a system that is so obviously abusive?

Part of it may be that to some degree, the corruption is "populist" — the political organizations that abuse the system get built on the neighborhood level, where they involve the natural local leadership (shop owners, small employers, religious leaders, neighborhood busybodies and jobsworths). These organizations can bring resources home.

Next is the illusion of efficiency. Chicago, given its history, demographics and geographic challenges, is remarkably well-run. That doesn't mean, of course, that it couldn't run better — or for a greater number. But, of course, it isn't efficient. UIC professor and former opposition alderman Dick Simpson uses the figure of $300 million as the "corruption tax" that we all pay for.

Perhaps the most important reason is apathy. So long as crises and scandals don't penetrate the bungalows on the Northwest, West, Southwest and Far South Sides, or the high-rises and mansions on the near north and south lakefront, the waste and fraud will continue to be merely the price of doing business. At least the system has internal logic and identifiable players; if you have the resources, or the access, the system has attraction as a shortcut.

Tribune reporters Dan Mihalopolous and Robert Becker put together a magnificent investigative series on the corrupt land use regime in the city, Neighborhoods for Sale. The series detailed in particulars what Chicagoans knew in general: that our government is highly politicized and that only by "building relationships" (to put it mildly) with decision makers can citizens be assured that bureaucratic operations can run smoothly and in their favor. We can't help but dig into the stories of vanity castles built on residential streets, and "condo canyons," and we cluck our tongues — and then what?

With each scandal, and with each humiliation, the tooth rocks back and forth. How decayed does it have to get before we just reach in and yank it out?

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Chuck / January 7, 2009 11:20 AM

As someone not originally from Chicago, I can tell you, there is something disturbingly appealing about the "wild west" politics. Especially when, as you said, they work for some and you happen to be the some.

Therefore, I agree we aren't going to vote the bums out until something hits those who are currently making it. The old version of the Machine didn't die, after all, until the rich got their cars snowed in during '79.

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