Discover more from Eric Zorn: The Picayune Sentinel
Brandon Johnson's floor leader defends the firing of Dr. Alison Arwady
& letters on women in chess
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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. Paid subscribers receive each Picayune Plus in their email inbox each Tuesday, are part of our civil and productive commenting community and enjoy the sublime satisfaction of supporting this enterprise.
Mayor’s floor leader jokes about TupacGate and explains the firing of Dr. Alison Arwady
Mayor Brandon Johnson got a lot of ink, much of it unfavorable, for quipping, “Real eyes realize real lies” in response to a question about whether he was doing the bidding of the Chicago Teachers Union when he fired his former health commissioner Dr. Alison Arwady.
He attributed the quote to slain rapper Tupac Shakur, but the internet quickly offered a correction.
The quote seems to have originated in a 1994 song by Machine Head, a West Coast heavy metal band, and though there are plenty of online allusions on the order of “As Tupac said...” I can find no first-hand sources — videos or published lyrics — that support the idea that Shakur, who was shot to death in 1996, ever said it.
Reader columnist and podcast host Ben Joravsky similarly has come up empty in trying to link Shakur to that quote, and he challenged the mayor’s floor leader, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, during a conversation Thursday on “The Ben Joravsky Show.”
“This might be the scandal of his entire political career,” Ramirez-Rosa quipped. “TupacGate is real. You know, I honestly feel like there needs to be a deep dive and investigation.”
What remains weird about this is not the misattribution, but the mayor’s insinuation that someone is lying about him, followed by his strange refusal to discuss the whys and hows of Arwady’s controversial dismissal.
Many times Johnson has said it goes against his moral values to discuss the reasons for the termination of an employee — as though Arwady had been some low-level functionary dismissed over suspicions that she was swiping office supplies.
No. She was a prominent and popular public official, and the public had a right to know. Ramirez-Rosa, who speaks for the mayor in many ways, filled that gap in his conversation with Joravsky, and I give you here an edited transcript of his lengthy explanation:
When you are a department commissioner, you serve at the pleasure of the mayor. You are either in with the mayor or you're out with the mayor. It is wholly inappropriate for a mayoral appointee — who has to be in sync with the mayor— to engage in a public campaign to force the mayor to keep them, when the mayor already said on the campaign trail, “Hey, I'm going to replace her when I come in.”
He told the department heads they had 90 days and at the end of those 90 days the administration would reassess and figure out where to go from there. All the other commissioners went and found other jobs for themselves. But Alison Arwady decided, “No, I'll be dead before you take me out of here.”
And then she starts lobbying, engaging in all of this inappropriate behavior. She got her handpicked health board to send a letter supporting her, which was really just a press release. And that was the final nail in the coffin. Right?
She's not aligned with our values. The mayor said from the get-go he was going to replace her. Any other normal person would have said, "You know what? My time here is done. Let me reach out. Let me figure out what my next move is. I know I've got 90 days to do that. "
No, instead, she was going to keep that job, no matter what. And that's just highly inappropriate.
The mayor has to have department heads who align with him, who are going to work in lockstep with him. Her campaign to keep her job was highly inappropriate. It was bonkers. It was totally bananas. A lot of the coverage of it was totally unhinged.
The mayor said on the campaign trail that he was going to get rid of her. And by the way, he had really good reasons as to why he was going to get rid of her. She is a neoliberal through and through. She does not believe that the city of Chicago should be in the business of providing direct services to the people. She believes that the Department of Health is there to pass through funds to private entities.
At the height of the pandemic, I reached out to her when COVID-19 was tearing through some of the poorest communities that I represent.
I said, “Commissioner, what is the city doing to address the spread of COVID? What are the reasons why this is happening in my community, my working class, poor, Latino community, and what is the city doing about it?”
And you know what she told me at that point in time? She said, “Your residents should reach out to their primary care physician for testing and for treatment, if they believe they've been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms.”
My working poor, undocumented residents are going to go to their nonexistent primary care physicians that they can't afford? She had to be brought kicking and screaming to a place where the Chicago Department of Public Health was actually leading on COVID and delivering vaccinations and delivering treatment.
It was really Governor Pritzker and his head of the health department that were setting the tone. And I think Alison Arwady got credit for a lot of things that she was not in favor of early on.
Remember when she closed the beaches and opened up the bars when all the research showed that it was inside events that were really leading to the spread of COVID?
I'm glad to see her go. The coverage was ridiculous.
She, I think, really believed in the neoliberal approach to public health, right? She believed that the point of the city's public health campaign is to put up posters that tell people what they should and should not do, and then we give money to private entities.
She didn't see a role for the public sector in creating a social safety net. And I truly believe that she believed that in her heart and soul, because I've had many conversations with her over many years. And this goes back to when she was a deputy commissioner at the department when she defended Rahm Emanuel’s closure of the public mental health clinics. And she continued to defend that. She was repeating the neoliberal talking points about how people just need to rely on this privatized medical system and how everyone just needs to go get a primary care physician — and absolutely, everyone should go get a primary care physician — but I need you to understand the barriers that people face to getting a primary care physician, and why that will not always be the best solution at a given point in time to provide people with the healthcare that they need.
So she was totally opposed to creating a public safety network. It was very clear that she really did believe this at her core. And it was going to be a constant struggle and a constant fight, to get her to implement the types of progressive policies that would get the Department of Public Health back into the business of being a social safety net for the people of the city of Chicago and catching people that, you know, might not otherwise be receiving the care that they need and other places
Then she engaged in an inappropriate lobbying campaign to keep her job, which is nuts. I'm sorry. It's insane. I'm sorry, the moment she went and got her handpicked health board to send a letter — and sure we call it a letter but we all know that's a frickin press release — and they send that to the frickin press and they say, “Alison Arwady must be kept because she is the best person in the world.” That's the moment she's got to go.
And she knew that she was gonna go. So this is just madness. It’s lunacy.
I would be very interested in the response of Arwady and her supporters to this characterization of her public health philosophy and of her supposed “lobbying campaign.” Arwady did tell journalists she wanted to stay on the job but she was not in the news much during the first three months of the Johnson administration and indeed she said City Hall muzzled her during the air-quality crisis caused by wildfire smoke drifting down from Canada. I know of no evidence that she orchestrated or even approved of the health board’s letter.
I do know, however, that though Johnson initially said he wanted to fire Arwardy because of a “rub” in their philosophies, he later backtracked and said he’d sit down with her. That turned out to be a lie, and I wish Joravsky had followed up on that.
Johnson never had that conversation with Arwardy, not even to dismiss her. And he did so in the most chickenshit manner possible — sending a member of his staff to dispatch her late on a Friday afternoon (he was on his way to a Bruce Springsteen concert and evidently couldn’t be bothered), then instantly cutting off her email access so she couldn’t say goodbye and thanks to her staff.
I’ll tell you what’s madness, lunacy, bonkers and bananas — the mayor’s refusal to explain what he did or apologize for how he did it.
Notes and comments from readers —lightly edited —- along with my responses
Thursday’s commentary “The bigots’ gambit: Trans women barred from women’s chess tournaments” drew considerable response.
David A . — If you want to persuade others of the correctness of your views it’s not helpful to attack those who disagree as “bigots.” It’s offensive and demeaning. And it suggests that the name-callers have no rational arguments in support of their views. Therefore it has zero chance of persuading those whose ideas you are attacking.
If any reasons exist — and that may be a big if — why biological men and women should compete in separate chess divisions due to genetic (inherited) or sociological (expectations, nurturing, education, etc.) reasons, then those same reasons likely apply to trans-women, who have a male genetic code and —up to at least some point in their lives — were raised as males.
That might be true because different environments appear to select for different traits, both mental and physical.
For example, people of East African origin or heritage tend to dominate sprinting while people of West African origin or heritage tend to excel at distance running, while people of India-European origin tend to outperform others in events requiring upper body strength. Those are all motor skills of a sort, which may have been survivability traits in the environments in which their ancestors evolved.
So why should we be surprised — or take offense -- at the idea that the ability to perform at the highest levels certain activities requiring different kinds of thinking or strategies may vary based on genetic differentiation? Those are in effect “motor skills” as well.
Human males and human females have evolved differently, just as have males and females of other members of the animal kingdom.
Some animals hunt in packs; others do not. In some species the females do the hunting (lions) and in some the males do the nesting/hatching (penguins). Evolving in different environments likely explains the difference.
Would it be surprising to learn that human males and females — again, only in general and taken as a group, not evaluated individually — think fundamentally differently? I’d guess not.
Based strictly on over five decades of personal driving experience, for example, it appears to me likely that males in general have better depth perception than females. Men (again, in my experience) tend to drive more aggressively, but women tend to tailgate more closely. Could this be because evolution selected for survival early male hunters who needed good depth perception to avoid predators and to attack prey, while female gatherers’ survival depended less on those skills? I don’t know, but it seems plausible, and raising that question shouldn’t make me — or anyone else — get called a “bigot” in my opinion.
Similar theories or supporting evidence may help explain why males might have an inherent advantage in a game that requires a certain amount of three-dimensional thinking and forward-looking strategy.
There must be some reason why, after all, that historically the greatest chess players in world history have had a common general geographic origin, just like the world’s greatest sprinters and long-distance runners.
But as I said, this is speculation on my part, and each speculation is a general proposition that does not exclude individual variations.
I certainly have no definitive answers and I have no insight into the chess federation’s thinking, but as I also said above, I don’t think asking such questions makes anyone a bigot.
Pete P. — Separate sex classes for elite chess is reasonable.
It is currently understood that there are cognitive differences between the sexes, and spatial cognition is the most well-recognized instance. (See: “Prenatal testosterone does not explain sex differences in spatial ability”)
Chess is a highly spatial mental game— unlike poker or bridge, which require memory and mind-reading. Small differences in the population means naturally distributed traits produce dramatic differences at high thresholds.
Competitive chess, even at the club level, is at a high threshold; high enough to expect multiple men for each woman.
Zorn — It seems to me that any time we segregate or differentiate between people for the purposes of competition we need a reason rooted not just in observed results but in biology.
The separation of the sexes in nearly all sports makes biological sense. The women’s world record for the 400-meter run is 1.36 seconds slower than the Illinois boys’ high school record for that event, just for one example.
The separation of combat sports participants — boxers, wrestlers, etc. — by weight class makes similar sense, as does the separation of youth sports by age. Biology confers obvious advantages.
In other areas of competition we don’t make distinctions that could be justified. For instance, since height confers certain advantages in basketball and weight confers certain advantages in football and race/national origin confers certain advantages in running events, sporting bodies could create separate classes of athletes. They don’t because other attributes have proven to be at least as important in these sports and the idea of creating a “no-Kenyans marathon” for example, would be offensive, at the very least.
My sense is that male dominance in chess is based largely on cultural factors, not biological factors significant enough to separate the sexes. And asking questions about when such separation should occur — including questions about trans women competitors — is not bigoted or even inappropriate.
My understanding is that the purpose of the separation has been to encourage girls and women to enter the world of competitive chess, not to signal their inherent inferiority. I do consider the assumption of inherent inferiority without significant biological evidence to be bigoted, and therefore the barring of trans women from women’s chess tournaments to be bigoted.
I would counter Pete P.’s 2018 article with a 2020 article in the same publication that undercuts this alleged difference and a 2020 Neuroscience News article headlined simply, “Men and women have equal spatial cognition skills.”
Jo A. — It makes sense to bar genetic males from female sports, but only at highly competitive levels. Otherwise there’s not enough at stake to cause harm to trans women and girls by banning them. Grade-school sports and intramurals should permit trans girls/women to play on female teams.
Zorn — I get that, but it’s important to remember that, though it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot at stake in the lower levels of competition, these venues are where stars and winners are recognized, selected and, ultimately, advanced to higher levels where scholarships and even contracts are at stake. One of the lawsuits in this area involved born-female high school runners who were edged off the podium by trans girls, thus arguably denying them the prominence they might have earned that would have resulted in scholarships.
Joanie W. — If you live 24/7 as a man, our society and culture should accept you as a man, and if you live 24/7 as a woman our society and culture should accept you as a woman. It’s as simple as that. While that might create situations where a person has a genetic advantage over others in a particular sport or activity, our society and culture routinely accept as fair the genetic advantages that certain people have in sports or other activities.
Zorn — Joanie is a trans woman and I find her frequent contributions to these boards quite valuable. I disagree with her for the most part regarding the genetic-advantage issue, but she and I discussed this issue and other matters quite respectfully and at some length in our online dialogue early last year.
Marc. M — The property transfer tax proposal likely to go before the voters next March is a bad idea that might pass because it will be sold as a “screw the rich” tax. If it passes, I expect that it will distort the market by creating an incentive to subdivide buildings. Rather than sell a building for more than $1 million, the seller can sell it in parts. For example, a $1.5 million three flat could be sold as three $500,000 condos or more likely $750,000 a piece. As we saw in the 1980's, an apartment building typically sells for a multiple of its price as condos. Similarly, office buildings have been subdivided and condoized.
I would also like more clarity on the homelessness problem that needs to be addressed. Is it the roughly 4,000 counted by the city? Or is it the 68,000+ claimed by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless? The city currently spends about $214 million annually on the problem but it is far from clear how well spent and how well coordinated this spending is.
Zorn— It is fairly nebulous at this point where this extra $100 million will go, and I have my doubts about the $100 million projection given how clever people are about avoiding taxes. The difference in estimated numbers of people experiencing homelessness is partially if not significantly the result of methodology — what time frame are you looking at, what counts as being homeless, etc., but there’s no doubt that it’s an urgent and growing problem.
Michael M. — Bring back the Idea Oven! Here are a few of my ideas:
1) Every TV needs a button that will send a signal to a lost remote controller.
2) Every TV should come with a built-in camera so we can use it for Zoom/Teams/FaceTime calls.
3) Our streaming services must stop asking who's watching or prompt us to pick a profile? just use the last one and let us change it if we need to.
Zorn — The Idea Oven was a feature in my column when I was at the Tribune in which I asked people for ideas for improving the world — products, mostly — that were half-baked in that they didn’t have funding, manufacturers, business plans or necessarily constituents behind them, but seemed like good ideas nevertheless.
The last time I solicited suggestions in my column , back in 2015, I received next to nothing from readers and so gave up. But I’d fire up the oven again if readers are game.
Dances With Dogs — Regarding Mayor Brandon Johnson’s firing of Dr. Alison Arwady, people need only watch the documentary “Local 1: The Rise of America’s Most Powerful Teachers Union.”
Zorn — Several of those who responded to this comment noted that it was a production of the libertarian/conservative Illinois Policy Institute think tank and therefore not to be trusted. And that is certainly a fair caution. Tendentious documentaries are common and “viewer beware” is always a good idea, particularly when the point of view being advanced is one you share. Filmmaker advocates rarely set out to give both sides of an issue fair and equal weight.
That said, I have yet to see a point-by-point rebuttal to this documentary, which my fellow Mincing Rascal Austin Berg at the Illinois Policy Institute had a hand in. It's not enough to huff that it's an IPI production and the IPI hates public sector unions and therefore their critiques aren't valid. That's lazy. There is certainly some good history in the documentary, which has been viewed nearly 650,000 times, and I’d be more than happy to post a link to a direct rebuttal if anyone knows of one.
Ya gotta see these tweets!
Here are some funny visual images I've come across recently on social media. Enjoy, then evaluate:
Vote for your favorite. I will disqualify any tweets I later find out used digitally altered photos to make the joke. I’ll share the winner in Thursday’s main edition.
There’s still time to vote in the conventional Tweet of the Week poll!
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