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Op-Ed Tue Apr 07 2015

Rahm and the Madness Gene

By Michael Zapata

In Elizabeth Kolbert's great and tragic book The Sixth Extinction, Svante Pääbo, a Swedish biologist and one of the founders of paleogenetics, muses on what drove modern humans as opposed to archaic humans like Homo Erectus and the Neanderthals to journey to Madagascar:

It's only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don't see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island. I mean, it's ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.

Kolbert goes on to explain that Pääbo thinks it should be possible to identify a freak mutation in our DNA that makes this type of strange, even beautiful, human insanity possible. I think he is onto something here. I can think of far too many people I know who would be among the first to go to Mars if they could.

I have been thinking quite a lot about Pääbo's musings as the run-off election in Chicago comes to a close. In true Shakespearian fashion, I believe our madness gene, or one quite like it, may also be in part responsible for another type of madness that allows some of us to lie, cheat, and steal from the powerless and less-than-powerful, in order to accumulate and consolidate immeasurable amounts of wealth and power. The usual culprit is greed, but greed without any limits is a form of madness. And in Chicago, we have a mad, mad mayor who refuses to see any limits at all.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Rahm has nickel and dimed the city's poorest residents through constant surveillance of traffic.
  • He is responsible for the historic closing of fifty schools in predominately African-American communities, all while tripling CPS business with school board members' companies.
  • While supposedly embracing the Affordable Health Care Act and health for all citizens, he has closed mental health care clinics in Chicago, leading to threefold increase of mentally ill detainees in the Cook County Jail, and, in some reported cases, the deaths of former clinic patients.
  • He has mismanaged the police force, leading directly to more un-cleared homicides and a higher rate of stop and frisk than New York City. His police force even allegedly operates a CIA-Pinochet-esque black site.
  • He is involved in shady deals with city pension managers, investment bankers, and wealthy donors who extend far beyond Chicago's borders.

The effects of Rahm's power-hungry policies are what Timothy Mortin -- ecological philosopher, and author of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World -- might call the visceral and uncanny effects of a hyperobject, which are "things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans." A black hole is a hyperobject; as is global warming and capitalism. The effects of hyperobjects are everywhere and nowhere. Like the distant shores of Madagascar for our ancestors, they are real, whether or not you think about them or believe in them. It is hard to fully grasp or experience global capitalism because it's vast and nonlocal, and yet: There are cameras photographing my car, my college loans are insurmountable, and there are empty and neglected schools all throughout Chicago, in the eerie likeness of schools we see in dystopian films like Children of Men. We can all sense, to some degree, the manifestations of global capitalism, but the powerless and less-than-powerful sense it catastrophically.

Herein lies the conundrum for citizens and voters alike in Chicago. Hyperobjects, like global capitalism, are pervasive and, for the time being, cannot be entirely analyzed or resolved, even as they currently, methodically, ruin your life. This is why charges of Rahm's incompetence or corruption often fall flat. They assume an understanding not currently available to any citizen or voter, though organizers and activists often think otherwise. This is why Rahm once said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." He is essentially saying, "I got this crisis. Don't worry your pretty little fucking head about a thing." But he can no less get it than anybody else who benefits directly from crises that are just shadows of Capital without limits. (Even TIF funds, after all, are called the "shadow budget.") In the current fight to unseat Rahm, we can analyze and collect all the damning local evidence we want (and, yes, we should do so because it is still a civilizing act), but what we are doing in the end is casting about in a vast unknowable thing that is transforming our lives into one of perpetual servitude...and our planet into a vast, toxic desert.

Yet, viewing Rahm in this ecological light can also challenge our assumptions of his mastery over our fair city. To a greater degree, he does allow us to sense that global capitalism can be a visceral entity in uncanny ways; after all, that possibly jimmied red light ticket still costs $100. As a teacher, I am all too familiar with just how much his billionaire friends loathe my pension, which is my future. An unsolved murder means real and long-term suffering for the victim's family; Rahm is a harbinger of a global madness without limits.

I believe the health and stability of any civilization may reside in its ability to set limits on its most powerful and insane members. They won't pick up and go away in the same way global warming won't just pick up and go away. In fact, many of the former are directly responsible for the later. We have a rare opportunity in Chicago right now to do just that. And, regardless of the election today, I think we have little other options before us. After all, we have done stranger, madder things. We have ventured out into seemingly endless oceans in search of something else...something better.

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