Hello again, Columbus! Lightfoot plans to pick open a civic wound that has scabbed over
plus Kass/Soros revisited and revised
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3-31-2022 (issue No. 29)
The city has — or had — moved on from the controversy over public honors to controversial Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot removed and mothballed Columbus statues in Grant Park, Arrigo Park and a Southeast Side traffic island “until further notice” in mid-2020 after a violent clash in Grant Park between protesters and police over the public celebration of a brave, resourceful adventurer who played a huge role in linking Europe to North America yet was also a brutal, racist tyrant.
Italian Americans were wroth, but the fuss died down among all but a few Columbus diehards who for some reason consider him — above all the other worthy men and women who share their heritage — to be the best expression of their ethnic pride.
Then in a surprise and somewhat offhand announcement at an unrelated news conference Monday, Lightfoot said she “fully expects” a reinstallation of at least the Grant Park statue.
Her remarks were in stark contrast to a tirade attributed to her in a recent lawsuit alleging that she showered Chicago Park District officials with profanities in an Oct. 11, 2021, Zoom call after she learned of a plan to allow Italian Americans to display one of the Columbus statues for 20 minutes at the conclusion of the Columbus Day parade:
You dicks, what the fuck were you thinking? You make some kind of secret agreement with Italians, what you are doing, you are out there measuring your dicks with the Italians seeing who’s got the biggest dick, you are out there stroking your dicks over the Columbus statue. I am trying to keep Chicago Police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot. My dick is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest dick in Chicago. Where did you go to law school? Did you even go to law school? Do you even have a law license? You have to submit any pleadings to John Hendricks for approval before filing. John told you not to do a fucking thing with that statue without my approval. Get that fucking statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired.
Lee Elia himself couldn’t have said it better.
So Lightfoot wants to restore the Grant Park statute? Even though, as she acknowledged, it will require police resources to guard it and prevent a recurrence of the violent protests that prompted its removal? She’s not juggling enough issues, enough problems, enough controversies, that she wants to add this chainsaw to the array?
Even Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian\ Americans, was surprised by the announcement, according to the Sun-Times.
Slowly, this country is relegating its most problematic statues and honors to museums and private spaces as we wrestle with the thorny issue of how best to remember our past. Putting those statues back on public land in Chicago will be a step backwards, an invitation for more anger, more protests, even more violence at a time when police have more important things to do than guard monuments.
And for what cause, exactly? In 2020 I wrote this:
It would be an insult bordering on an ethnic slur to equate the character of the avaricious, genocidal Columbus with the character of today’s Italian Americans. It’s beyond strange that a group so understandably touchy and offended at Hollywood’s linkage of Italians to organized crime would rush to the rhetorical ramparts to defend a man who oversaw the torture, enslavement and mass eradication of the native peoples he encountered.
There are numerous examples of the depravity of Columbus, but one that stands out was the practice of the occupiers to cut the hands off those natives over age 14 who didn’t discover and turn over quarterly rations of gold dust that was nearly impossible to find.
“Whoever thought up this ghastly system, Columbus was responsible for it," wrote Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison in “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” his generally favorable, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942 biography. “Those who fled to the mountains were hunted with hounds, and of those who escaped, starvation and disease took toll, whilst thousands of the poor creatures in desperation took cassava poison to end their miseries. So the policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola.”
It’s not political correctness or historical revisionism to catalog and renounce the slaughter, rape and disease Columbus brought to the American shores while paving the way for the spread of Western civilization that we here today enjoy. It’s to face reality. And it’s to suggest that, while no one is perfect and the past can be an ugly place, there are more worthy Italian Americans to be the source of their pride.
The debate over Columbus — truly important only to zealots on both sides — was fading, the way most such debates do when they start to feel settled. Columbus isn’t at risk of being “cancelled.” He’ll still have a downtown street, a city park, a city elementary school and an annual parade on a day in his honor named for him, just not the excessive veneration implied by three public statues.
Also on the Lightfoot-own-goal beat
The Sun-Times reported Wednesday that prospective mayoral challenger Willie Wilson remains peeved that he “continues to be frozen out” by the mayor who won’t return his phone calls even though he endorsed her over Toni Preckwinkle in the runoff election in 2019.
Wilson won 13 of 18 majority-Black wards in the general election while finishing fourth with 11% of the vote, but Lightfoot’s 74% to 26% victory in the runoff election evidently led her to conclude that she hadn’t needed Wilson’s imprimatur and therefore owed him nothing.
It was shortsighted of her not to try to continue and nurture the alliance with Wilson and instead to blow him off. If Wilson runs again next year — and he says he’ll announce either way on April 11, a week from this coming Monday — that 11% slice of the electorate is likely to loom awfully large.
But credit where credit is due
Lightfoot is reportedly poised to nominate Deborah Witzburg to succeed Joe Ferguson as Chicago inspector general. Ferguson stepped down in October after 12 years in the side of successive mayors, and Witzburg was his highly regarded deputy for public safety.
Lightfoot and Ferguson often clashed, and she refused to reappoint him to another term, saying she wanted an IG who “understands the importance of staying in their lane.”
But Witzburg, championed by the Sun-Times, has shown a strong independent streak and Lightfoot deserves praise if, as expected, she nominates her.
Last week’s winning tweet
Scroll down to read this week’s nominees or click here to vote in the new poll.
Tweet Madness, like March Madness, is down to the Final Four. We started with a 64-tweet bracket consisting of winners of the last 64 weekly polls (there was a gap of several months between polls after I left the Tribune and was pondering my next move). Go here to vote. I will post the final pairing this weekend after the final pairing in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament has been decided, and I will announce the winner Tuesday morning at EricZorn.com and in the patron-only issue of this newsletter. It will be one shining moment.
News & Views
News: The Tribune reports that “in what may be one of the most intriguing chapters of the federal indictment filed earlier this month against ex-Speaker (of the Illinois House Michael)Madigan, prosecutors alleged he greenlighted efforts to kill his own daughter’s legislation as he pressed ComEd to give jobs to two political allies, including a coveted position on the utility’s board of directors.
View: On one hand, it’s good to know that Speaker Madigan wasn’t rubber-stamping initiatives of Attorney General Lisa Madigan with the same brazen exhibition of nepotism that helped her get elected in 2002. On the other it’s close to horrifying that the story suggests the Speaker sold out his daughter for a couple of lousy jobs for some cronies.
The consumer-friendly bill aimed at easing the burden on low-income people trying to reconnect to electric service was seen as “Lisa Madigan’s ‘last hurrah,’” according to the story, “a chance for the four-term attorney general to burnish her legacy in her final year in office.”
Lisa Madigan declined to comment for the story, but if she ever should choose to sputter in outrage and flabbergast over this alleged betrayal, I will gladly nod along in agreement.
News: Gov. J.B. Pritzker this week pointedly referred to the Republican Party as the “GQP” to remind us that the GOP is now dominated by QAnon conspiracy kooks.
Republican state Sen. Jason Plummer of Vandalia issued a statement saying, “When one’s opponents resort to low grade personal attacks, it shows that they have no legitimate political arguments left.”
But as I hear the sad song playing on Plummer’s tiny violin I can’t help thinking of the rafts of snarky Republicans who, over the years, have repeatedly referred to “the Democrat party,” because, they sniff, it doesn’t support “democratic ideals.”
My efforts to get people to refer to the MOP — the mediocre old party — because, I sniff, it’s far from “grand,” have failed. But GQP has a chance, given how deranged the Republican cult has become in the last few years.
News: The Associated Press reports that Nebraska state Sen. Bruce Bostelman, a conservative Republican, apologized on Monday after citing during a public, televised debate “the persistent but debunked rumor alleging that schools are placing litter boxes in school bathrooms to accommodate children who self-identify as cats.”
View: Thank you, The Onion, for many years of satirical amusements. Your services are no longer required.
Land of Linkin’
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Substack essay “Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing — Slapping Chris Rock was also a blow to men, women, the entertainment industry, and the Black community” is all over my social media feeds. I suspect many readers are learning for the first time that the former NBA great is a terrifically insightful writer.
Australian comics Will Gibb and Lachlan Fairbairn have a YouTube skit on showing a meme to your dad that’s totally unfair to dads!
Democratic state Rep. Kam Buckner, whose name keeps coming up in speculative talk about who might challenge Mayor Lori Lightfoot next year, “will serve a year on conditional discharge, because he pleaded guilty this month to driving under the influence,” reports WTAX radio in Springfield (via Capitol Fax). “In March 2019, police found him asleep at the wheel near the Capitol. He refused a Breathalyzer test and failed field sobriety tests.” Sorry dude, drunk driving is a deal-breaker for this voter.
The Picayune Sentinel on the air: On Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., WCPT-AM 820 host Joan Esposito and I chat about ideas raised in the new issue. The listen-live link is here.
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Mondays at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
Setting the record straight on John Kass, George Soros and the Chicago Tribune Guild
At the online site where he now posts columns, my former colleague John Kass recently offered up this bit of revisionist history:
The woke newspaper guild—which I had politely and repeatedly declined to join—used the (financier George) Soros-(Cook County State’s Attorney Kim) Foxx column to falsely defame me for reporting the truth. A defamatory public letter was leaked and media gossips feasted.
But what I’d written was fact. And these facts that had been reported by other prominent news organizations across the country: Soros had indeed backed Foxx and a cadre of other prosecutors. A weak editor, fearful of the wrath of the woke news guild, moved me off my home of two decades on Page 2, to far back in the paper, a move that signaled management’s tacit approval of the union’s defamation of me.
This isn’t the first time that Kass has claimed that he “politely and repeatedly” declined to join the Tribune newsroom’s union. In fact, yes, he declined — I have no idea how politely or repeatedly — to sign a union authorization card, which is the preliminary stage in labor organizing in which employees signal their wish to be represented by a union.
The effort at the Trib to gather signatures to form a union came about in 2018 because many front-line journalists were alarmed by the cost-cutting measures and lack of job security under Tribune Publishing. I signed the authorization card along with 85% of the newsroom not because I thought it would benefit me — any raises I might have gotten during that penny-pinching era would likely have been more than offset by union dues — but because I believed and still believe that the future of journalism depends on it being an attractive long-term career path for talented young writers and reporters, and that strong local journalism is a key component in civic health.
I like to think that the support of veteran columnists and critics gave the union movement credibility and courage. I don’t know why Kass “politely and repeatedly” refused to stand in solidarity with the vast majority of his colleagues, though that was certainly his right.
It was not, however, Kass’ right to decline to “join” the union once the company recognized it. Illinois is not one of those “right to freeload” states where employees in unionized shops can refuse to join the union while still enjoying the protections and benefits afforded by collective bargaining. Once the Tribune recognized the union, all of us were in.
Kass, however, found a workaround.
Tribune executives had successfully insisted during early negotiations that members of the Editorial Board be deemed part of management and therefore ineligible for union membership, even though several members of the board were enthusiastic backers of the union and in no way served in managerial roles.
I know this in part because I reported to the head of the Editorial Board, had a desk in the Editorial Board pod and participated in nearly all board meetings (with the exception of endorsement sessions) for the last dozen years of my career at the Tribune, though I was not a voting member of the board and did not write editorials.
Anyway, one day in the fall of 2018, one of my colleagues on the Editorial Board was looking for information on an internal company directory and noticed that Kass was listed as a member of the board. This was news to just about everyone in the department because
Kass hadn’t attended a single board meeting in recent memory.
His new job title hadn’t been announced in the newsroom or to the board.
He wasn’t being edited by anyone on the Board (as board member/columnists Steve Chapman and Clarence Page were and as I was).
His column wasn’t running on pages managed by the Editorial Board.
His column didn’t mention in the italic shirt-tail that he was a member of the Board.
His bio didn’t appear in the online feature “Meet the Editorial Board.”
It all had the whiff of “fuckery,” to use the colorful, apt term one of our union leaders employed when made aware of the stealth move. Whose idea it was — Kass’ or the bosses’ — doesn’t matter now, but since Kass keeps smugly distorting what actually happened I thought I’d bury his misrepresentation with a shovelful of truth.
Shortly after his move was discovered he began attending Editorial Board meetings, and the way he had given his middle finger — or should we say the moutza? — to the union was ancient history by July, 2020 when his column headlined “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: An overwhelming sense of lawlessness” appeared.
In that column, Kass repeatedly invoked “left-wing billionaire George Soros” and wrote that he “has spent millions of dollars to help elect liberal social justice warriors as prosecutors.” Kass referred to “Soros-funded prosecutors,” suggested President Donald Trump “call the mayors and ask them about the prosecutors backed by Soros,” noted that “Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx ... reportedly received at least $2 million from a Soros backed political action committee” and wrote that releasing “violent offenders back into poor neighborhoods to commit other violent acts on poor people (is) what Soros paid for.”
The obsession with Soros runs deep on the right, where he is every bit the boogeyman as Charles Koch (the surviving member of the dreaded Koch brothers) is to those on the left — shorthand for the extremely wealthy ideologues who use their vast resources to influence public policy in unaccountable ways.
Bleat loudly enough about Soros and you don’t have to deal with such facts as that there was a “statistically negligible difference” in murder rates in 2020 between cities run by Democratic mayors and cities run by Republican mayors, and you don’t have to think seriously about the root causes of urban crime and strategies to combat it.
“Soros” also reads as “Jew puppet master” to some on the right. See “The Antisemitism Lurking Behind George Soros Conspiracy Theories” from the Anti-Defamation League, “The alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter thought George Soros was controlling the world economy. Here’s the anti-Semitic history of that far-right narrative” in Vox and “The Troubling Truth About The Obsession With George Soros” in Forbes, just for example.
From the Forbes column:
A cursory read of conservative and far-right media would have you believe that Soros and his funding is behind Antifa, Black Lives Matter, violent protests, illegal immigration, fraudulent voting schemes and a myriad of other radical conspiracy theories. … (But) if it isn’t facts that are driving the animosity towards Soros, what is it?
Anti-Semitism, plain and simple.
Soros’s critics barely hide their anti-Semitism anymore, frequently posting images of him with grossly distorted anti-Semitic features. The attacks also frequently reference, directly and indirectly, longstanding anti-Semitic theories from texts such as the Elders of Zion that claim Jews are running an international cabal. The most perverse attacks on Soros relate to fraudulent claims that he was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. In fact, Soros’s family escaped persecution from the Nazis, who killed over 500,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II. … By giving oxygen to anti-Soros theories, … pundits not only do a disservice to the truth, but they fuel anti-Semitic hate and violence that is beginning to reach worrisome levels of pervasiveness in America.
I don’t think Kass knew this.
Many of my liberal friends scoff when I say it, but I don’t believe for a second that Kass was deliberately trying to wink at religious or cultural bigots or that he is one himself.
But it was far from just the “woke” newsroom union that objected to his Soros-a-rama.
A letter to the Tribune from David Goldenberg, the midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, decried the column’s perpetuation of “conspiracy theories against Jews that have been the gateway to anti-Semitism for centuries. … Casting a well-known Jewish individual as a puppet master who manipulates high-profile events for malign purposes has the effect of mainstreaming anti-Semitic tropes and giving support, however unwitting, to bona fide anti-Semites and extremists who disseminate these ideas knowingly and with malice,” Goldenberg wrote.
Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, jumped in to write, “The narrative that George Soros is behind these protests is just the latest manifestation of an old trope that Jews foment civil unrest and that (people of color) don’t have the agency to organize ourselves. It’s racist and anti-Semitic, and it should never have been published in the Tribune.”
A letter to Tribune management from the newsroom union’s executive committee quoted these and other criticisms, adding:
The odious, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros is a puppet master controlling America’s big cities does not deserve a mainstream voice, especially at a time when hate crimes are rising.
And let’s be clear: This column from the Tribune’s lead columnist does a disservice to our entire institution, not just the editorial board, for which he nominally works. It undermines the efforts of our newsroom to provide fair and diligent reporting to readers who, we all know, don’t always grasp the distinction between “opinion” and “news.”
We ask that the paper, and Kass separately, apologize for his indefensible invocation of the Soros tropes.
Kass called this letter “defamatory” and insisted that what he’d “written was fact.”
But the union letter was factual as well. Unwittingly, I contend, but undeniably, Kass had blown an anti-Semitic dog whistle. Rather than saying he didn’t mean any offense, he referred to the charge in a follow-up column as “something I didn’t do.”
I’ve covered a number of stories of misinterpretations and misunderstandings that result in explosions of umbrage. I’ve been at the center of a few myself. And my tendency to take the side of those who feel unfairly treated by the indignati doesn’t change here because of my overall political differences with Kass.
A simple “I’m sorry, I didn’t know” would have gone a long way to smoothing all the ruffled plumage.
But it wouldn’t have stopped the editors from moving his column off Page 2 and onto the then-new “Tribune Voices” pages just in front of the editorials and op-eds. Putting all opinion content into one area of the main section was a plan that had been in the works since that March, and had nothing to do with anyone’s fear “of the wrath of the woke news guild” as Kass still tells his readers.
Colin McMahon, then the executive editor, even offered something of a defense of Kass to Daily Herald media blogger Robert Feder:
“The Chicago Tribune, like other quality U.S. newspapers, has long prided itself on being home to a robust marketplace of ideas. Readers engage deeply with the Tribune’s editorials, columns, op-eds and letters to the editor, and the Tribune has long accepted that people taking issue with or even offense at the opinions expressed goes with the territory.”
Kass’ grievance, to put it short, was that his columns began appearing on the same pages as staff-written columns by Heidi Stevens, Rex Huppke, Dahleen Glanton and Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Schmich, though almost always at the top of the page and four times a week when other writers got only three. Staff columns by me, Steve Chapman and Clarence Page appeared even further “back in the paper.” (Only Page is still on staff).
I just thought you might like to know the real story.
This week Ray Long of the Tribune joined “The Mincing Rascals” for a guest segment to talk about “Michael Madigan’s indictment: How he pushed for allies to get ComEd jobs and his own daughter’s legislation was killed,” a story in last Sunday’s paper, and about his new book, “The House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois' Velvet Hammer.”
The panel also talked about “the slap,” “the gap” and many other stories in the headlines.
A bit of Rascal-related news: Lisa Donovan, a news editor at the Tribune who has been a regular panelist since the fall of 2019, has decided to step away from the podcast and devote her energies to other projects. We’re grateful for her time and her insights and look forward to seeing what she does next.
Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page. If you’re not a podcast listener, you can now hear an edited version of the show at 8 p.m. most Saturday evenings on WGN-AM 720.
This week’s nominees for Tweet of the Week:
“It’s fine with me if Mom says OK.” The original two-step verification — @RobertManchild
I don't care about Will Smith hitting Chris Rock or Amy Schumer being mean to Kristen Dunst. I think they should have gone further. The Oscars should be a charnel house, a pit of misery where the country's most privileged dopes savage each other for hours upon hours. — @bobo_circus
I disconnect the smoke alarm when I cook. Who needs that kind of negativity? — @BrickMahoney
When someone says they’ve had enough of my nonsense I give them a little more, in case they were just being polite. — @UnFitz
If the kids can’t find something I say “I think it’s in the car” then I sit in the car for 10 minutes on my own pretending to look for it. Parent level: Expert.—@MumInBits
During the film I did my classic heavy sigh and whispered to her about how Spiderman's weight would just rip the paint and paper facing off the ceiling drywall. I think she was impressed. — @IamJackBoot
Wow, a Home Depot gift card! I was just saying to myself the other day “You know what I’d like for my birthday? An errand.” — @MelvinofYork
“I had the gift of being able to speak to animals. I just didn’t want to. … Dr. Donothing — @Bedlam_Beersie
Dabbing a little 91 Octane behind each ear so the ladies at the office will think I’m rich. — @RickAaron
Has anyone offered Putin a Snickers bar? — @GianDoh
Final Four pairings:
The party of open carry wants you to know your mask is making them uncomfortable — @longwall26
Do you remember, before the internet, it was thought that the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? Well, it wasn’t that. — @JebTheJarhead
What haunts me is that I am just not smart enough for so many people to be this much stupider than I am. — @KateHarding
Me: What's wrong? Wife: you're not supposed to say you have a favorite child. Me: Everyone does, secretly. Wife: Well it should at least be one of ours — @thedad
I particularly admire my son Ben’s fiddling on this front-porch version of the classic old-time dance number, “Cindy.”
I’m posting it today because I’ll be backing him up this Saturday at the Bluegrass Brunch at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago (11 a.m. - 2 p.m., no cover charge). Music lovers and Sentinel readers warmly invited to drop by. Food’s good!
The Bluegrass Bunch is an all-ages show presented each week by Old Lazarus' Harp, a collective of the best young traditional folk musicians in Chicago.
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