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Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above. Become a paid subscriber to receive each Picayune Plus in your email inbox each Tuesday and join our civil and productive commenting community.
Notes and comments from readers —lightly edited —- along with my responses
Colleen F. — You wrote critically of the Tribune’s decision to give former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson a regular op-ed column. Why do you have such a negative and sometimes racist opinion of Wilson? I refer to your mocking his speech, always mentioning that he didn't finish elementary school, etc. His first op-ed in the Tribune was spot-on and very thoughtful. I have heard you say similar things during your Mincing Rascals podcast. Wilson is a self-made millionaire, compassionate, committed to Chicago, and someone who has a greater sense of what impoverished south and west side communities need that you and I will ever have.
Zorn: I have never mocked his speech, only the things he has said. And he himself plainly considers his humble origins and minimal formal education to be inspirational parts of his personal narrative, though I find it rich that he wants people to call him "Doctor" because some institutions of higher learning have bestowed honorary doctorates upon him, “degrees” meant to thank him for his generous donations to those institutions.
I’ve listened to him in debates and interviews through several election cycles now and I consider his ideas shopworn and simplistic. As simplistic, I might add, as branding any criticism of a Black politician as racist.
As for the first op-ed under his byline, I’ll note first that it sounds nothing like the Wilson we came to know on the campaign trail in tone, sentence structure or vocabulary. Prominent people commonly offer ghost-written or committee-edited op-eds and other works — for example, John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 for “Profiles in Courage,” a book largely written by speechwriter Ted Sorensen.
Kennedy did “little of the research and writing“ wrote Reader columnist Ed Zotti (under the pen name Cecil Adams). “If you or I were discovered doing the same for a sophomore term paper in sociology, we’d get an F.”
And though Chicagoan Newton Minow — who died Saturday at 97 — was best remembered for referring to television as “a vast wasteland” in a 1961 speech to broadcasters when he was the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the line was actually the coinage of his friend, writer John Bartlow Martin.
Writing about this in 2011, the Atlantic’s James Fallows noted that “the ultimate blame — or credit — for a political speech always belongs to the public figure who gave it, not the staff speechwriter who may have cranked it out. It's the public figure who chooses the writers, instructs them directly or indirectly, and finally decides what to use. So Minow rightly deserves lasting association with this speech and its turns of phrase.”
So let’s set aside, at least for the moment, the question of whether the plainspoken candidate Wilson actually wrote such sentences as “Herein lies the rub” and “A fiduciary has a legal and moral obligation to avoid conflicts of interest.”
His first column first argued that Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson should recuse himself from upcoming contract negotiations between the city — which he will soon head — and the Chicago Teachers Union, which employed him until recently and donated huge sums to his campaign.
It’s an interesting suggestion, but one that doesn’t deal with the complex truth that, until Chicago has a fully elected school board, the mayor will own responsibility for the schools and the impact of the contract. And, in fact, the trust he enjoys from the CTU might allow him to negotiate some concessions that, say, a Paul Vallas would not have been able to.
Wilson then went on to propose that “teachers should be measured based on our children’s competency in basic reading, math, science and writing” and given pay raises accordingly. The obvious drawback is that such compensation metrics would turbo-charge educators’ incentives to laser focus on standardized tests. It further implies that the problem with CPS is that teachers just aren’t trying hard enough.
“Additionally,” Wilson suggested, “our young people should be required to learn a trade while in grade school.”
Required? In grade school? How many tens of millions of dollars in equipment and special trade instructors would that cost to implement?
And how would that additional expense square with Wilson’s anti-tax rhetoric? “Fiscal frugality and transparency are the order of the day,” said the column. “Taxpayers deserve an advocate who will negotiate on their behalf and protect their wallets.”
He wrote,“The new (school) contract must include additional safeguards to protect children from sexual predators.”
You can’t argue with that, largely because he didn’t even hint at those “additional safeguards” should be.
Spot-on commentary? No. Not yet. Perhaps future columns will expand on these ideas.
Rich Warren, former host of “The Midnight Special” folk music program on WFMT-FM: Regarding your post-mortem tribute to Gordon Lightfoot: My favorite Gordon Lightfoot song "Affair on Eighth Avenue” was from "Back Here on Earth," one of his earliest albums. Melodically it was the precursor to "If You Could Read My Mind." If you've read Lightfoot's bio, he was a severe alcoholic, which led to his health issues and downfall. In his last years he barely could carry a tune. I liked his music, but he's certainly not a role model.
Zorn: So many of our artistic heroes do have feet of clay, and it may be that true creative genius is a form of madness that leads to self-medication with alcohol or drugs that in turn can lead to anti-social behavior.
Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine wrote “Touched With Fire,” a study of the link between artistic creation and mental illness.
In it, she cites numerous studies suggesting such a link: Artists commit suicide from 5 to 18 times more often than general population control groups, they are involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions 20 times more often.
Those interested in the general subject of creativity might be interested in “The Genius in Me,” a magazine article of mine from 2000.
As for "Affair on Eighth Avenue,” that’s one I hadn’t thought of in a long time. And yes, the lyrics are extremely poetic, though the melody doesn’t grab me. Other readers suggested “Beautiful,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Christian Island” “Rainy Day People",” “For Lovin’ Me” and “Song for a Winter’s Night” to go with the dozen or so other best-of songs I recommended.
Hank S. — In “Tribune editorial headline reads, ‘Enough with fake newspapers where propaganda masquerades as news’” you wrote that Democrats are also behind some of these “imposter rags.” But I have never seen one. There is too much false equivalency between the two parties in the mainstream media. Please try to refrain from adding to the problem.
Zorn: I agree that my “to be fair…” aside suggested a false equivalency. Republicans are behind most of these propaganda sites and publications. But see “Democratic operatives running ‘pink slime’ network of fake local news sites” and “Democrats Fire Up ‘Fake News’ Websites to Sway Battleground State Voters” as evidence that the Dems do also play that game.
Jo A. — Regarding the question of why suburban schools often don’t need to spend as much per pupil as inner city schools: It’s because of the expensive needs of children in poverty combined with the fact that more experienced teachers are often willing to work for less to be in a pleasant suburban environment and the ability of suburban parents to supplement the educational offerings through volunteerism and the donation of other resources.
At my kids suburban school there was heavy volunteerism, and it was very common for families to donate books to the school libraries on birthdays and for sale at book fairs. Our school thus obtained hundreds of new books at no cost to taxpayers every year.
Ken B. — I enjoyed Mary Schmich’s take on the demolition of the building next to hers. The fact that someone paid $2.6 million for a four flat only to demolish it to build a single-family home worth up to $8 million is a good argument for progressive income taxes.
Zorn: True. The success of that disingenuous campaign against progressive state income taxes in 2020 remains baffling to me.
Michael M. — One can legitimately debate the extent to which transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in their chosen gender’s sport. In 2023, however, one cannot legitimately debate the need to treat gender dysphoria as we do any other medical condition. The politicians who are either as fearful or repulsed today as I first was when exposed to this idea many years ago or, worse, motivated by opportunism, should remember that none of us chooses the combination of genes that determine everything from hair color to sexual identity to a propensity for good or ill health. Knowing at a fundamental level that you were born “in the wrong body” is a terrible burden. Those suffering from it deserve compassion and help, not condemnation.
How white men fight
In an overtly racist text, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson wrote that ganging up on an adversary is “not how white men fight.” Speculation is that this line in particular contributed to his recent ouster from the network.
I immediately thought of this classic scene of white men fighting from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
But Jarvis DeBerry, MSNBC opinion editor, had a more substantive take:
Overwhelming opponents by outnumbering them has been exactly how untold numbers of white men in this country have fought. … (Carlson was) expressing the awful — and easily disproved — thought that white men, by their nature, fight fair. One wonders where on Earth he’s been or what history books he’s read to draw such a conclusion.
If white men fought fair, then Ida B. Wells wouldn’t have been able to write “A Red Record,” which called out the horrible practice of lynching, and Mark Twain wouldn’t have ruefully called this country “The United States of Lyncherdom.”
If white men fought fair, then in 1900 in New Orleans, thousands of them wouldn’t have set out to attack one Robert Charles, a Black man who fought back against and then shot a police officer who had wrongly set upon him. Tulsa, Oklahoma; Rosewood, Florida; Colfax, Louisiana; Elaine, Arkansas; and East St. Louis, Illinois, are all places where mobs of white men slaughtered outnumbered Black people. And in Rosewood, a white mob wiped out the town. … Suffice it to say that there are plenty of examples from long ago and from the present day of white men fighting the way Carlson says that white men don’t.
C’mon out, man!
Over at Medium, writer Lauren Martinchek makes a good point about President Joe Biden:
In the midst of the early campaign process, I happened to notice an interesting CNN screenshot shared by Aaron Rupar on Twitter pointing out the number of press conferences given between the last four Presidents at this point in their tenure.
Joe Biden was dead last by a wide, wide margin.
Barack Obama (had) held 54, George Bush 44, Donald Trump 41, and Joe Biden has held 24.
I don’t want to pretend as though it’s a bigger deal than it is, but at the very least it’s something to take note of if Biden wants to get reelected. It certainly makes me roll my eyes, and wonder why the Democratic Party is trusting him to take part in another grueling campaign in his 80s while they don’t even seem to like to put him in front of a camera. You would think that they would be putting him in front of the camera more often if they were confident it would help him…
The animating idea seemed to be that as long as Trump looked like the Republican nominee, Biden would barely need to say anything to win reelection. But that assumption was upended by the release over the weekend of a Washington Post-ABC News poll showing Trump with a 44% to 38% lead over Biden in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup in the November, 2024 general election.
And then there’s this in The Washington Post writeup on the poll:
Today, 63 % say (Biden) does not have the mental sharpness to serve effectively as president, up from 43% in 2020 and 54% a year ago. A similar 62% say Biden is not in good enough physical health to be effective.
Trump, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination, is no youngster. He would be 78 in January 2025 at the time of the next inauguration. But in contrast to Biden, most Americans (54%) say he is sufficiently sharp mentally to serve as president and 64% say he is physically fit enough to serve.
Whatever these impressions are based on — literal or metaphorical stumbles — Democratic operatives either need to turn them around or gently talk Biden out of running again. Twenty-one percent of Democrats and a whopping 69% of independent voters do not think he has the mental sharpness to be an effective president.
Among independent voters, just 30% said they think Biden is physically healthy enough to be president, while 66% of independent said they think Trump is physically healthy enough to be president.
My money would be on Biden in any endurance contest against Trump — a race up several flights of stairs, a 10k bike ride, a 100 meter swim — or in a basic test of knowledge of history and civics. So maybe some of you independent voters can persuade me I’m wrong.
Ya gotta see these tweets!
I often run across tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the Tweet of the Week contest (the template I use for that poll does not allow me to include images). Here are a few good ones I’ve come across recently:
Vote for your favorite. I will disqualify any tweets I later find out used digitally altered photos. I’ll share the winner in Thursday’s main edition.
@MelvinOfYork asked his Twitter followers, “In five words, give me the least erotic way someone can agree to having sex.” Here are my favorites from the scores of responses he received, along with his own entry:
Sign here, here and here. — @AdonMadeon
If that’s what you want. — @DickeyBlueEyes
Quick, while there's a commercial. — @UncleDuke1969
Affirmative. Human coitus it is. — @heiditron3000
Fine. Let me pause this. — @Achen_The_Bachs
If you must, you must. — @theandygriscom
Fine. But clothes stay on. — @zi6qa
Ok. Hand me my phone. — @Dashkiin1
Let's get this over with. — @MelvinofYork
There’s still time to vote in the conventional Tweet of the Week poll!
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Once again, the most popular tweet leaves me wondering about my own perceptions and experiences. Why couldn’t everyone see that the “dumb dog” was not dumb but instead looking at the yogurt on the table? Are that many people really in relationships where BOTH members of the couple care about paint colors? My personal experience and that of most of my friends is that one person cares and the other is like “there are different shades of white, who knew and who could possibly care”. And the “got your nose” tweet while clever itself leads me to an Emperors New Clothes existential crisis about the joke behind it which I’ve never ever understood. Do people really think a thumb between fingers looks even sorta, kinda, maybe like a nose? Really? ?
Having read Eric for a while now, it seems to me that he is an ally of the races, based uniformly on his background in speaking and writing. It hurts all of us when private and/or public false-accusations of racism are thrown around for brutal political and/or social gain, manipulatively and maliciously attacking the man often wrongly denigrated socially through mob justice -- hiding behind a cloak of false-dignity, false-nobility, and false-righteousness is the wrongdoing in this instance. I think readers of Eric’s columns and newsletters would have to agree on its face that strategically subjective, maligning political slander and/or libel against Eric are the harmful elements in these cases: I appeal to reasonable readers and listeners to his work to condemn such invidious speech.