Cave Man Mentality | Bleader

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cave Man Mentality

Posted By on 02.21.11 at 08:30 AM

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Plato, the cave dweller
  • Plato, the cave dweller
Circling various points without actually making any of them is something I'm pretty good at, so I'm quick to spot it in others. The headline on John Kass's Tribune column Sunday was "A win for Chicago bossism will be loss for democracy," which isn't exactly what Kass was saying, but when a headline writer is playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey he's got to stick his pin in somewhere.

We're about to have a mayoral election. There are four major candidates, and Kass made fun of all of them. Possibly in Kass's ancient Greece the candidates were perfect, but in more recent times it's generally held that if our leaders were perfect we wouldn't need democracy as much as we do.

In Chicago, the boss is dead so it's time to elect the new boss. That is Kass's concern, that we're "yearning for a strongman," in a way that's "almost Russian," rather than for someone to head the sort of local "boss-free inefficient government" championed by the Founding Fathers. If it's wrong to so yearn, Kass doesn't come right out and say so, but he thinks it's a darned shame.

But the boss isn't dead, he's stepping down — which is so remarkably democratic by Chicago lights that Kass could at least give it a nod. "Though in the geographic center of America, Chicago politics isn't really that American, is it?" Kass wonders. I guess not, though a Jew, two Latinos, and an African-American probably wouldn't be found running for mayor against each other in another country. If Kass's point is that you wouldn't have found an election like this one in ancient Greece, he gets no quarrel from me; but then, Kass's point is what he never quite comes to. He's vexed, that's what he is, and he's wondering.

He's wondering about the ancient Greek idea of "people locked up in a cave and how they viewed reality." He goes on, "For the sake of argument, let's say they've lived down there since, oh, how about April 22, 1989, for about 22 years. [Note to C students, that would be since Richie Daley became mayor.]

"In the cave, their eyes get used to torchlight, to those shadows on the wall. Then one day, without explanation, they're allowed to walk out into the sun. They feel the wind on their arms. Their eyes hurt from the light. There are no shadows. So what do they do? Do they take advantage of this freedom, or do they scamper back to the cave?"

Kass seems to think Chicago is heading back into the cave lickety-split. Back "to the idea that the city needs another strong man, a new boss same as the old boss." If that isn't what the city needs, Kass doesn't tell us what it does need. If some candidates would be less bosslike than others, he doesn't tell us who they are. Well, yes he does. Carol Moseley Braun is "charming but absolutely undisiciplined." Miguel del Valle's "vow of political poverty suits him best as the plaster saint near your backyard birdbath, but not as the boss in a city of tribes."

They both sound unbossy and inefficient, but Kass isn't saying to vote for either. He's the yearner — he's yearning for something better than we've got though he's not sure what. Kass's unassuageable discontent often makes his column a tonic. Sometimes, though, it's hard to make out what his problem is.

A different view of the state of the city was offered Sunday by James Warren in the Chicago News Cooperative pages of the New York Times. Warren attended Mayor Daley's recent farewell speech to the Economic Club of Chicago. Kass had his cave, and Daley had something similar. He began — Warren noted — by reading from a 1981 Tribune series on Chicago, "City on the Brink." He read R.C. Longworth's introduction to the series:

"The City of Chicago has become an economic invalid. The condition may be permanent — unless the people responsible for its economic future can reverse the long, steady and seemingly endless slide. Chicago is losing the industry that was its original reason for existing and has found nothing to replace it. Often, cities stricken in this way become irrelevant. Business moves away. So do the best young people. The population ages. The city becomes a backwater."

Said Daley to the Economic Club, "That's not what happened."

And Warren noted, "As Mr. Daley exits, Chicago is, by some ratings, the fifth or sixth most important city globally."

The changes in Chicago are something those people locked in a cave since 1981 or 1989 possibly would notice as they tried to adjust to the light. I'm more hopeful than Kass that they would appreciate the changes and decide to stay out in the light and see what more they could make.

As we go to the polls to choose among a Jew, two Latinos, and an African-American, are we really no different from the voters of the 1950s and the 1920s, yearning for a strongman?

That's the view from a cave.

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