By: Matt Rosenberg for WIREPOINTS
April 8, 2023
After the disastrous one-term tenure of outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago has landed hard at an urgent turning point. The city is wracked by disarray and dysfunction of epic scope. It’s moral decay that’s driving corrosive crime and failing schools – from which black and brown Chicagoans suffer worst. Moral decay drives revolving door courts and Chicagoland’s sanctioned kleptocracy. We don’t know right from wrong any more.
Policy isn’t the go-to move here. Instead, from top to bottom Chicago has to first embrace traditional values. The Golden Rule. Thrift. Ethics. Personal responsibility. Institutional accountability. Freedom to choose. Competition. Everything gone wrong in Chicago stems from abandoning the basic rules of living, doing business, and governing. We can’t continue to dance around evil and explain it away with critical race theory suffused in white guilt. Rather, Chicago must fight the destructive and amoral impulses coursing through the city. Chicago must demand better. Evil has had the upper hand here for several years. If Chicago can’t muster the courage to torpedo its underlying moral decay, the city’s troubling predicament will worsen even further.
This is my last piece for Wirepoints. I wrote it before Brandon Johnson beat Paul Vallas for Chicago Mayor with 51.5 percent of the 36 percent of registered voters who cast ballots April 4 – or 18.5 percent of the electorate. This column would have been my advice to Vallas had he won and it constitutes my advice to Mayor-elect Johnson. I hope he proves skeptics wrong and turns around Chicago’s ship, now so badly off course. I’m leaving Wirepoints entirely of my own will, with a full heart and infinitely grateful for my wise and true colleagues; plus my new friends in and from Chicagoland, and across the U.S. I lived in Chicago for 30 years and I’ve been back for most of the last 30 months. But I’m about to become a senior citizen – and it’s time to hike more summits with my wife, tend the garden in our Seattle home where we raised our two children, and plan the next big steps in our life. I want to express great appreciation to my outstanding colleagues Mark Glennon, Ted Dabrowski, and John Klingner – and the entire Wirepoints team. Warm thanks to all who’ve enriched, read, and widely spread my work.
Today’s troubles were crystal clear in 1982 to Chicago novelist Saul Bellow
Drawing in part from my 2021 book What Next, Chicago? Notes of a Pissed-Off Native Son, I want to share some parting thoughts. They’re tied in part to a great work of contemporary Chicago fiction by the late Saul Bellow.
Bellow’s 1982 novel The Dean’s December foretells today’s troubles in Chicago. He asks, what does not turn to sausage here? Governance reforms, anti-corruption drives, anti-crime initiatives, and certainly the apologia-studded language of Chicago’s popular social science all are finely milled filler, thinks Bellow’s protagonist Albert Corde.
Corde is a former journalist and now teacher and dean at a prestigious but unnamed Chicago university on the South Side and has dared to lay bare the city in a series of national magazine articles. Consequently he’s suffering blowback in extremis. He has told tales out of school.
About despicable conditions for prisoners in the county jail. About the flaying by authorities and the media of a black reformer warden. About a former hit man turned heroin addict – later an inspiring rehab counselor – who’s turned away when seeking emergency drug treatment from a University of Chicago hospital. He was too large and black and scary. About insufferable self-impressed Chicago political insiders, and the devastation of violent crime in the city’s bleak precincts.
The “sealing off” of free thought and critical inquiry
In exposing Chicago’s moral crippling of itself, Corde necessarily side-steps all the usual progressive nostrums about cause and effect. Tensions with his superiors at the university result. As is still true in the 2020s in Chicago and Illinois there are things you just can’t say. It comes further to a head when Corde advocates for an aggressive police investigation into the murder of a white student in a risky neighborhood near campus. When two black suspects are arraigned and set to face trial he is labeled a racist by angry student protestors including his own nephew. The media amplifies this racial grievance.
His provost is still urbane to him – but almost too much so. Corde can see he has overspent the university’s political capital and that his days there may be numbered. Then suddenly he must contemplate all this from Bucharest, Romania, where he accompanies his brilliant astronomer wife for the deathwatch and funeral of her mother.
From behind the early ’80s Iron Curtain, Corde notes that for Bucharest locals, “All conversations with foreigners had to be reported. Few people were bold enough to visit the American library. Those who sat in the reading room were probably secret agents. It was one of the greatest achievements of Communism to seal off so many millions of people.”
Corde sees a no less purposeful sealing off of thought around Chicago’s troubles although the constraints on dialog are slightly more oblique.
“Words that get us nowhere”
After a woman is kidnapped, stashed in a car trunk, repeatedly raped and then killed by a recently released ex-convict, Corde in researching his magazine articles comes to talk to a public defender. “We sat there explaining evils to each other, to pass them off somehow, redistribute the various monstrous elements, and compose something the well-disposed liberal democratic temperament could live with.”
Bellow’s fictional protagonist continues, “Nobody actually said, ‘an evil has been done.’ A tender liberal society has to find soft ways to institutionalize harshness and smooth it over compatibly with progress, buoyancy. So that with us, when people are merciless, when they kill, we explain that…(the) causes lie in certain human and social failures.’”
Corde is unsurprised this same tendency to shift responsibility for grave wrongdoing makes its way into the news. “Nothing true – really true – could be said in the papers.” He reflects, “These times we live in give us foolish thoughts to think, dead categories of intellect and words that get us nowhere. It was just these words and categories that made the setting of a real depth level so important.”
Corde postulates that a fundamental decoupling urge, a lack of attachment to life and its meaningful othernesses, is what lies at the root of the brutal, deeply inhumane violence that wracks Chicago.
He is describing what some would call nihilism.
Webster defines nihilism as “a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.”
As killings mounted last summer, St. Louis’ Third Ward Committeewoman Lucinda Frazier expressed the evil presence of nihilism in her own way.
She said, “I am so sick of this violence. I don’t think it’s drug dealers. I don’t think it’s gang bangers. I think a lot of these crimes are being committed by young people who feel like they’re going to be dead at a certain age, so they might as well do what they want. It’s unconscionable.”
U.S. homicide hubs including Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore live with this affliction. They also live with an illiberal apparatus of elected officials and NGOs mostly dedicated to excusing it. By playing the race card, ceaselessly. As when politicians and activists use class- and race-driven rhetoric to excuse looting and violence against property.
The erasure of common standards, of merit: it cannot hold
Liberalism in Chicago and other Cities On The Edge has warped to champion the fiercely-held belief that because of past victimizations blacks cannot now in the 2020s be expected to adhere to basic community standards. That’s not only racist, but ignores relentless competition – as black South Side native, economist, author and commentator Glenn Loury recently said.
“We’re in the twenty-first century. The year is 2023. The country is changing and changing and changing. Tens of millions of non-European immigrants are making lives here. The politics of this country, the Hispanics are a more significant ethnicity than the blacks in the long term when you think about ethnic pluralism in the country. The Chinese are coming, the world is changing. Globalization. Nobody’s got time for a person who can’t read and who can’t count….I think this is shtick. ‘We were enslaved. We are black. We are owed something’ is a house of cards.The idea that, perpetually, you would warp American institutions to favor people who were not excelling on the merits because of these kinds of second and third-order claims about exclusion and racism? It shouldn’t happen and it won’t happen.”
Loury is rightly targeting the cultural and political refusal to hold blacks to expectations based on “traditional values and beliefs” (see definition of “nihilism,” above).
Saul Bellow understood the fatal tendency of nihilism 41 years ago. His fictional character Corde justifies the dark tone of his recent Chicago writings for the popular press and argues for an ecumenical cleaning of slates. A fresh start across the board, with a new outlook no longer wedded to the cult of excuse-making.
Bellow writes, “…there was a heavy death traffic which called perhaps for a revision of views. ‘Can’t go through it on the old iambic pentameter,’ was how Corde formulated it.” For that is the rhythm and reasoning of a sinking city.
A way out of the downward spiral?
A turning point evident to many in the Chicago diaspora came in 2020 when officialdom surrendered the city to rioters and looters and then raised the bridges over the Chicago River in a half-hearted attempt to stanch the bleeding downtown. The imagery of the raised bridges was a sharp prod. I came back to Chicago, determined to see if there was a way out of the downward spiral, and the timid, shoddy thinking at the root of the surrender. I went back to the South Side, where I grew up.
Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side is still hurting. But I would look deeper and see real hope. At 63rd and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, under the El tracks, is a fast-food dive fronted by men sharing joints on the sidewalk. Periodically they step up to drivers or passengers on 63rd and in a fluid one-handed motion collect cash and slip little packets into their hands. Walking south on MLK, I pass a woman with a thousand-yard glassy-eyed stare in the grip of a powerful high. Other pedestrians are loping around in tight little circles, looking lost.
Investment is a wager and no one likes long odds. So in Woodlawn, Pastor Corey Brooks is all up in everyone’s business. Brooks heads New Beginnings Church and its nonprofit arm, Project H.O.O.D. It stands for Helping Others Obtain Destiny.
Brooks’ operation – powered by parishioners, philanthropy, and his energetic presence – has its fingers everywhere. Surrender-a-gun days. Grocery and “Free Produce Saturday” giveaways. Parenting classes. During covid, there were on-site learning co-ops with meals, laptops, and assistants to ensure kids could connect to their online classes and get extra help. Streamed lessons on financial education. A popular construction industry training program. Instruction for black women training as electricians, with eighteen certified graduates who marched in July 2021.
A future-facing view
Brooks even has plans – and most of the required $35 million has now been raised – for a state-of-the-art community and jobs training center including restaurants for food and beverage industry entrants, and a series of other trades education facilities. It’s to be built on the lot where Brooks earned the name “The Rooftop Pastor.” In 2011 he camped out for three months atop a Woodlawn hotel widely known for prostitution and drug dealing. He was aiming to raise almost half a million dollars to buy it and tear it down. With the help of parishioners spreading the word, he succeeded.
I first met Brooks on Halloween 2020. The church has organized a Harvest Party for parents and children. We’re at the very spot on MLK where the new community and career tech center would go.
Behind his SUV at the back of the lot Brooks counsels an agitated young man. I learn later that he’s in the Project H.O.O.D. construction training program and working at a job site. But he’s chafed. A Latino supervisor has confronted him about being late to work and not filling out daily time cards.
It looks heated. Brooks holds his ground, telling him that to keep a good job in construction you’ve got to be on time, fill out your time cards, and take orders from the boss. And he’d better get used to Mexicans in Chicagoland. They’re skilled in the building trades, and they’re here to play.
It’s a future-facing view. Not mired in the past, nor in grievance. Shaped instead by the idea of personal agency. Chicago needs more of that.
Digging deeper, in Chicago’s iconic Bridgeport
As I dug in deeper on my return to Chicago I would also see from parishioners of a vandalized church that you can let ignorance roll off your back like rainwater. Don’t get sidetracked.
On Sunday, November 8th in Bridgeport – just one day after Joe Biden is declared victorious against incumbent President Donald Trump – I’m walking to Mariano’s on Archer Avenue for groceries. I’m a block north from my place when something stops me dead in my tracks. It’s at Saint Mary Of Perpetual Help. An 1885-vintage Polish Cathedral that’s a Bridgeport landmark. A real beauty with rich stained glass windows, multiple cross-topped towers, and a finely wrought copper dome weathered to bright green.
Spray painted in large letters on the church’s south wall along 32nd Place are the words “God Is Dead. No Gods, No Masters.” Also anarchist symbols. And someone has sprayed Biden’s name in pink paint. An alabaster white statue of Saint Mary has also been defaced. The face spray-painted black on one side and pink on another.
I see a Chicago Police SUV parked on an angle as if guarding the church’s rear. I greet the officer and say, “This is new, isn’t it?” He replies, “Yep.” Shaking his head slowly up and down. “Damn,” I mutter. Shaking my own head now. Slowly, side to side. He hops out to commiserate. His name tag reads Campbell. He says, “I was baptized in this church. After all it’s done for the community….this?”
When I walk by again fifty minutes later with my shopping bag and backpack full of groceries, all the graffiti is gone. It’s deserted except for a young parishioner with his wife and their toddler in a stroller. “That was fast,” I say. He nods. “No TV trucks. We just took care of it.”
That’s how to handle an affront. With a cool head. Chicago is full of hot heads. Way too manyfatal and nonfatal shootings result. We’re told again and again it’s the guns themselves that are the scourge, but it’s temperament.
Three-quarters of murders in Chicago result from arguments. The problem is the operating system, not the hardware. You can remain level-headed – yet at the same time legally carry a concealed weapon and use it only if utterly necessary for self-defense. More and more do exactly that now, in Chicago. It can be a lifesaver.
Then there are the convicted felons still illegally using guns. They’re a danger to the community. But too often they catch a break in court when facing new weapons charges. Judges won’t properly detain them before trial or properly sentence them after trial – not until their second, or third, or fourth go-round. Judicial and prosecutorial laxity aids and abets the armed robberies, carjackings, shootings, and killings charged to felony defendants or convicts who should have never been on the street to begin with.
It’s a reminder that officialdom has surrendered to evil under the guise of compassion.
Toting up the score: we’re losing
After the church desecration in Bridgeport I’m toting up the score. Forty-three shootings in Chicago over just that weekend, with six fatalities. Seventy-seven shootings and eighteen of them fatal over that full week’s course. Nobody blinks.
People have always left big cities for suburbs but there’s a new breadth and urgency to out-migration from failing centers of the North. Growing metroplexes like Greater Phoenix, Dallas, and Jacksonville may be reviled by Northern progressive elites, but the sneers mask a contest we’re losing. Competitors like these have better schools, lower taxes, safer streets, and eschew Chicago’s reflexive reviling of moderates and conservatives.
It’s true that after a dramatic hollowing-out of black neighborhoods, Chicago’s population was holding relatively steady because of a slow-rolling Latino and Asian influx.
Wilder than before, when violent crime was mainly confined to gangs and their neighborhoods. It’s more predatory, more random and widespread. More terrifying to more people.
The Summer of 2021 news became a steady drumbeat of Terror Dome bulletins. Shootings, mass shootings. Bands of marauding armed robbers, carjackers, or organized theft rings popping out of stolen vehicles to seize upon pedestrians and drivers.
The man with a hammer going at a passenger on the CTA train. The two victims spontaneously attacked downtown on State Street as passers-by then relieved them of valuables including shoes, while onlookers twerked and shot video. The culinary arts student who had to have part of his leg amputated after a violent attack last summer.
The sausage-making of progressive apologetics, versus “crux moves”
After George Floyd, the sausage-making of progressive apologetics intensified. The Great Unraveling gained steam in 2021, then rolled on. Major crimes in 2022 were up one-third from 2019 and 41 percent from 2021. The city’s murder rate last year climbed 39 percent from 2019 to land at 2nd-highest among the nation’s 20 biggest cities. It was 5 times New York’s rate. Chicago was still engulfed in rising crime as the first quarter of 2023 drew to a close, days before the mayoral run-off. You can get away with just about anything, just about anytime. Arrest ratescontinue to bear that out.
The excuse for murder, shootings, carjacking, auto thefts, retail theft, and armed robbery – other than the canard of “gun violence” – is “inequity.” It goes like this: until outcomes can be equalized, chaos will reign. Expect it. Get used to it.
Inequities today are clear – in income, education, and criminal justice system exposure. But contrary to popular claims they don’t stem from racism. Instead they follow from poor choices and sub-par efforts. By individuals. By parents. By the Chicago Teachers Union, which captains the sinking ship that is Chicago Public Schools.
We don’t talk much about parents. We should. They’re either on-point, focused, fierce, demanding and loving – or sadly neglectful. We’re always ready to cover for the latter. But who covers for Chicago’s crime victims, mostly black? Nobody.
Here’s a way to know if Chicago’s new mayor is on track: by the end of 2023, will combined major crimes be down to at least 2019’s level? By 2024’s end, will they be even lower still? If so, then real progress is underway. If not, yet another painful reckoning will be required.
The city’s worth saving.
The skyline still grows but never confuse construction cranes with real progress. That lies first in our hearts and homes.
The vast majority of Chicagoans have never starred in a mugshot nor had any reason to do so. On the whole they’re warm, welcoming, honest, hard-working, and often brilliant, creative, and accomplished. The human resources of this place are still vast. Chicago should be able to do better. To conquer the tyranny of the minority.
From my years exploring the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and inland western United States, I’ve learned that experienced hikers have to be ready to make what’s called a “crux move.”
The going is often quite steep, and narrow. There are no guard rails. You’d better be sure of your footing and your route. When your path comes to what could be a dangerous fall, you pause. You consider where you are, and examine the terrain closely. Then you decide how to best get around or over the hazard, and onward. Then you do it. That’s your crux move.
It might be tricky. But you figure it out. And you certainly don’t turn back. Because you’ve already come too far. Your destination is ahead of you. Not behind you. Chicago’s next decade will have to be filled with crux moves.
Looking at ongoing shootings and attacks on police in Chicago, the esteemed black scholar and community activist Robert Woodson said recently the city is in “a crisis of values.” That’s exactly right.
So stop the bleeding right away, some say. Except that would require more than policy shifts. It would demand powerful, united agents of change the city hasn’t seen in years.
Perhaps all this gets easier if you have the toughest conversation first.
About living with moral authority.
About everybody owning their lives, their actions, their choices. From judges in dark robes to troubled young men on the streets and their parents.
Picture a city fearlessly unified around this common purpose.
That would be a Chicago with a bright future.
Parts of this essay are adapted from the author’s book, “What Next, Chicago? Notes of a Pissed-Off Native Son” (Bombardier Books, September 2021). Matt Rosenberg’s experience in public policy, journalism and advocacy spans 45 years. He worked on the Mirage Tavern undercover investigation of Chicago civic corruption in 1977, and ran seven precincts in the 48th Ward for Marion Volini when she won a Chicago City Council seat in a 1978 special election. He was a reporter, columnist, and editorialist for Lerner Voice Newspapers covering northeast DuPage County; and the director of the O’Hare Citizens Coalition. After moving to Seattle in 1994 he held a series of other positions. He grew up in South Shore, and Hyde Park – and later lived in Rogers Park, Edgewater, and Lakeview. Upon returning to Chicago to write and report, he determined the best Italian Beef is actually at Nottoli & Son on West Belmont.